The year 1901 marked the end of Queen Victoria’s life and the monarch’s long reign over Britain and its Empire. Over her 60 years as head of state (out-reigned only by the recently departed Queen Elizabeth II), Britain acquired an immense level of power and wealth. Through innovation in transport, political stability, communication and cultural achievements, the Victorian era was a period of progress with a profound influence on modern-day society.

When Victoria ascended to the throne in 1837, at the age of 18, she inherited a life-long appointment of monumental power and pressure. Whilst revolutions were sweeping across Europe, the British Empire was in a position of strength with a Royal Navy that had an unchallengeable superiority, playing a vital role in safeguarding trade networks and exerting the power of the Empire and its far reaches around the globe.

A painting of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes, sitting on a throne with a red curtain and a coat of arms behind her. She holds a scepter in her right hand. She wears a crown on her head.
Portrait of Queen Victoria in her coronation robes by George Hayter, 1838-40, Wikimedia Commons

In Britain the first Industrial Revolution (1760 – 1840) was well underway with the world’s first modern railroad having opened in 1825. Incredible advancements in steam engines, machine powered manufacturing and large scale textile factories, made Britain a dominant force in the production of coal, iron, steel and textiles with huge economic and social consequences.

However, during this period many people were living in poverty and squalor, whilst working in horrendous conditions rife with disease, dangers and short life expectancies. The rich ruled and the poor scraped by. The social classes were very clearly defined.

A colorized photo of a busy street in London, England in the late 1800s. The street is lined with buildings on both sides and is filled with horse-drawn carriages and people. The buildings are tall and ornate, with many windows. The street is cobblestone and there are street lamps along the sides. The sky is clear and the photo is taken from a high angle, looking down on the street.
Colorized late 19th-century view of traffic on The Strand in Westminster, Victorian London, Wikimedia Commons

The Spread of New Ideas

Not to gloss over the period of the British Empire – a global industrial superpower that to this day was unpopular to many, especially those on the other end of the conquering, oppression and looting – but as many other empires had before, the spread of its reaches made the world a seemingly smaller place. Through travel and the trade of both goods and knowledge, this period inspired some of the world’s greatest minds and influencers of the time to radically change the world.

A map of the world from 1886 showing the extent of the British Empire in pink. The map is bordered by illustrations of people and animals from different regions of the world, such as Africa, Asia, Australia, and America.
Imperial Federation Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886, Boston Public Library

This era was not just impacted by the physical improvements to infrastructure with new industries, railways and factories. New ideas were spreading which changed the moral, political and social landscape. Electoral reform, public health, education and women’s rights via the Suffragettes movement were topics at the forefront of reform.

There were many breakthroughs, but to set the scene, here are some of the standout achievements.

Science and Technology in the Victorian Era

Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace shook Victorians to their core by directly contradicting the creation story put forth in the Bible with their ideas and studies into the natural evolution of species. The publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859 fundamentally changed humankind’s understanding of how we came to be.

Improved communication methods revolutionized trade and international relations with Queen Victoria sending the first electronic message across the Atlantic to the American President James Buchanan in 1858. By the 1870s underwater cables had been laid between Europe, America, Africa, Asia and Australia, and ​​Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone invention also began to be installed and used towards the end of the decade.

A 19th century painting of a historical event where a transatlantic telegraph cable was connected between Europe and North America. The painting shows a crowded wooden pier with people holding a red flag, a boat carrying the cable, and a mountainous landscape in the background.
Landing of the Atlantic Cable of 1866, Heart’s Content, Newfoundland, by Robert Charles Dudley, 1866, Library and Archives Canada

Feats in engineering saw work begin on the transcontinental railroad installed across the United States in 1862. The year after, in 1863, the world’s first underground railway opened in London.

From 1879 – 82 Thomas Edison invented the incandescent lightbulb and lit up the United States, technology which was quickly adopted across Europe. Alongside Edison, Nikola Tesla was also harnessing the power of electricity, experimenting with power grids and a wild portfolio of other inventions.

An illustration of Professor Pepper demonstrating the Great Electric Induction Coil at the Polytechnic Institution in London in 1869. The coil is a large cylindrical device that produces sparks of electricity. A crowd of people in Victorian clothing watches the experiment with curiosity and awe.
Professor Pepper showcasing the Great Electric Induction Coil at London’s Polytechnic Institution in 1869, Illustrated London News Ltd

The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace

Many of these groundbreaking Victorian era scientists and inventors relied heavily upon elaborate shows and opportunities to entice investors and attract the interests of the wealthy elites, journalists, intellects and to make a name for themselves.

This is an illustration of the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, London, which hosted the Great Exhibition in 1851. The illustration shows the palace made out of glass and iron. It depicts a crowd of people in front of the palace, some on horseback and some on foot. The palace is surrounded by trees and there is a blue sky in the background.
The Crystal Palace, courtesy of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851

No show was more elaborate than the one held in 1851, when Crystal Palace was erected in London’s Hyde Park. The giant spectacle of glass and iron, had 92,000 square meters (approx. 990,000 square feet) of floor area to host The Great Exhibition. The idea of the event was conceived by Prince Albert, the husband of Queen Victoria and the president of the Royal Society of Arts. Their intention was to show-off Britain’s manufacturing boom on the international stage, whilst inviting exhibitors from other countries to participate in the greatest showcase of innovation and splendor the world had ever seen.

This is an illustration of the interior of the Crystal Palace during the Great Exhibition of 1851. The hall is filled with people and exhibits, including statues, fountains, and a large golden horse. The background shows the sky visible through the glass roof. The illustration is in a realistic style with detailed shading and coloring.
The Great Exhibition, Crystal Palace, 1851, British Library

Around 14,000 exhibitors participated, coming from all corners of the globe and more than six million visitors passed through the galleries to view the latest inventions, exotic animals, luxurious fabrics, furniture, instruments, technology, art and artifacts. Items on display included  false teeth, artificial legs, chewing tobacco, rubber goods, hydraulic presses, steam engines, pumps and cotton spinning machines. The exhibition was such a success that New York, Dublin, Munich and Paris quickly followed with their own grand exhibitions.

The palace was later moved to another location in London where remnants of Egyptian sphinxes are still visible today, adding to the legacy and wonder of the Victorian extravaganza.

Victorian Occult Revival

The spread of ideas during the Victorian era also included myths, legends, fables and out-right lies for financial spin and showmanship, blurring the lines between known history, the current reality and the enticement of what may be possible in the future.

Spiritualism and séances were taken seriously by some of Europe and America’s leading thinkers of the time. During the 1850s the craze took the Victorian public by storm with shows commanding large audiences and crowds drawn to darkened venues, filled with tables occupied by groups attempting to communicate with spirits. Even Queen Victoria was said to have participated in them. The phenomenon became a focus of scientific study and attracted the likes of British surgeon William Tolmie, biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle and French educator and author Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail (pen name Allan Kardec), who wrote a number of books on the subject, many of which were burnt by the church.

This is a black and white photo of four people sitting around a small table in a room with a fireplace and curtains. The people are dressed in formal Victorian clothing, with the two men wearing suits and the two women wearing dresses. The people are performing a séance led by Magician William Marriott.
Color-enhanced image of a séance led by Magician William Marriott in England

Amongst Britain’s most powerful traders was Frederick Horniman, a tea merchant who was also a collector of the weird and wonderful. His collection was first put on display for the general public in 1890 with a vision of giving people from all walks of life the opportunity to see and learn about global craftsmanship and creativity. He was also a prominent social reformer who campaigned for the creation of the British Welfare State, although at the same time it’s worth noting that his wealth was reliant on the exploitation of people living in the British Empire. His collection was filled with foreign instruments, African tribal masks and jewelry, artworks, fossils and exotic taxidermy creatures such as mermaids.

A mount of a mythical creature that resembles a monkey-fish hybrid. The creature has a monkey head with a skull-like face and sharp teeth, and a fish-like body with scales and fins. It lies on its stomach with its tail curled up, and its hands reaching forward. The background is a gradient of blue and gray, suggesting an underwater scene.
Japanese Monkey-Fish Mermaid, Horniman Museum & Gardens

The Birth of Science Fiction – A Future Imagined

During this period of radical change, imaginations ran wild about what the future may look like and the direction that humankind and civilizations might take.

William Heath’s Prints

Held within the collections of the British Library and the British Museum are satirical prints that display visions of the future from the Victorian era. A series of prints by William Heath, entitled March of Intellect, published in the 1820’s, feature skies full of airships and flying contraptions driven by horses raised by balloons, pedal power and steam-powered vehicles, buildings can be seen in the sky with their foundations in clouds and in one, a bridge connects England to France. Another print from 1829 shows the availability of international tube travel via the ‘Grand Vacuum Tube Company: Direct to Bengal’.

“March of Intellect” illustration celebrates the progress and innovation of humanity. The illustration is full of colorful and fantastical elements, such people flying using wings, and a giant grand vacuum tube transporting people. The sky is filled with clouds and flying creatures, some of whom are also carrying banners and signs. The note on top of the image reads “Look how the world improves as we grow older”, suggesting a positive and optimistic view of the future. The illustration is a creative and humorous representation of the human intellect and its achievements.
March of the Intellect by William Heath 1828, British Library

Jules Verne’s Novels

French author Jules Verne, born in ​​1828, laid much of the foundation of modern science fiction. His first book, published in 1863, set the stage for a career as a prolific author of Voyages Extraordinaires. His books: Journey to the Centre of the Earth (1863), From the Earth to the Moon (1865), Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) and Around the World in Eighty Days (1873), are considered masterpieces that left no stone unturned in the pursuit of adventure and discovery.

Man emerging from a space capsule, holding a hat and stretching out his arms, with onlookers surrounding the vessel equipped with a ladder and door.
Jules Verne’s “Voyage to the Moon” depicting Maston’s return from the moon, drawn by Henri de Montaut

Albert Robida’s Predictions

Another French novelist and illustrator of this era, Albert Robida, predicted electricity would take on a more prominent role in the future rather than steam. In his book The Twentieth Century, published in 1882, he foresaw the use of food factories, skylines strewn with cables, airships, submarine homes and food piped directly into people’s houses.

Futuristic lithograph of air travel over Paris, depicting various aircrafts including buses, limousines, and personal vehicles. Women pilot their own crafts while police monitor from above. Hand-colored print.
The Exit from the Opera in the Year 2000 by Albert Robida, 1902, Wikimedia Commons

H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine

H.G. Wells took the theme of looking to the future to the extreme in his novel The Time Machine in 1895. As a British socialist and scientist he was keen to highlight concerns he had about the direction of progress, technological advances and the evolution of humankind.

An illustration by Frank R. Paul for the book “The Time Machine” by H.G. Wells. It depicts a man in a suit and standing in front of a time machine with a seat, levers, and gears. He is surrounded by curious onlookers in a park-like setting.
Illustration by Frank R. Paul from “The Time Machine” book H.G. Wells

En L’An 2000: “In the Year 2000” Postcards Series

Following in Robida’s footsteps, other French artists, including Jean-Marc Côté, produced a series of postcards for the 1900 World Exhibition in Paris, that envisaged the year 2000 which continued the vision of pedal powered flying contraptions and undersea colonies, along with domestic sweeping machines, and a lever-operated, mechanical barber shop that allowed one man to shave and cut multiple customers at the same time. These prints were later published in 1986 by science fiction author Isaac Asimov in the book Futuredays: A Nineteenth Century Vision of the Year 2000.

A collage of four postcards from In the Year 2000 series. The first postcard shows a rural postman delivering mail on a flying bicycle. He is wearing a blue uniform and a helmet. He is handing a letter to a man on a balcony. The background shows a countryside landscape with fields, hills, and houses. The second postcard shows a woman using an electric scrubbing device to clean the floor of a living room. She is wearing a maid uniform. The device has a large brush that rotates and scrubs the floor. The background shows a cozy interior with furniture, paintings, and plants. The third postcard shows two men getting their hair cut by a new-fangled barber machine. The machine has various attachments that trim, comb, and style their hair. The background shows a barber shop with mirrors, shelves, and tools and a barber operating the machine. The last postcard shows two men having a video telephone conversation with a woman projected on a screen. The collage is an interesting example of retrofuturism, which is the imagination of the future based on the past.
En L’An 2000 – In the Year 2000 postcards series showing “The Rural Postman”, “Electric Scrubbing”, “The New-Fangled Barber” and “Video Telephone”

How Far Did We Actually Get?

Landing back down to Earth in the 21st Century, the world has had 100 years to realize these Victorian science fiction fantasies.

One certainty is that animal rights activists are relieved that horses are not flailing around in the upper atmosphere with helium balloons attached to their hooves.

In 1903, soon after the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the first powered and controlled airplane flight. Only a few decades later, the 1937 Hindenburg disaster, finally killed off the idea of Zeppelins, so balloon travel never really took off in the way it was envisaged by the Victorians, instead, investors favored the development of airplanes.

A collage of two photographs. Top image: A historic black and white photo of the Wright Brothers' about to perform their first flight in 1903. Bottom image: Picture of the LZ-129 Hindenburg zeppelin engulfed in flames on May 6, 1937, at the Lakehurst Naval Air Station.
Top: Seconds into the first airplane flight, near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on December 17, 1903. Bottom: Photograph of the Hindenburg descending in flames on May 6, 1937.

Jules Verne’s vision of space travel came to fruition when the Space Race ignited in the 1950s between the United States and the Soviet Union. Both nations were in pursuit of the domination of space flight technologies. Sputnik 1, became the first Earth-orbiting satellite in history and ​​in 1969, the US drew the ultimate ace card by landing Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon. This event was closely followed by the USSR launching the first space station in 1971. Since then, incredible telescopes have been erected on earth and sent into space, probes have been sent to the Moon, Venus, Mars and beyond, and humans are now in constant orbit around Earth. The achievements have allowed mankind to view far beyond our ancestors’ ability to observe and contemplate our position in the universe.

Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands next to the US flag on the moon during the Apollo 11 mission. The lunar module is to the left, with distinct astronaut footprints in the moon's soil. Photo taken by mission commander, Neil A. Armstrong, using a 70mm Hasselblad camera.
Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stands next to the US flag on the moon’s surface during a lunar walk on 20 July 1969, NASA

As with the Victorian era, the wealthiest of the population often drive progress. Our modern day billionaires such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Robert Bigelow are reigniting the space race with new rocket inventions, space tourism, inflatable space hotels and moon landers – blueprints that could have been pulled straight out of Verne’s stories. There are also attempts to explore the deep oceans and other realms on the precipice of our current limits of technology, engineering and understanding. As with the great entrepreneurs and inventors from 100 years ago, progress in the name of discovery, expansion and innovation has many misses before there are success stories.

Numerous other technologies have been developed that would have blown the minds of many victorians: laser beams, the internet, wireless technologies such as mobile phones, microchips, nuclear bombs and the discovery of DNA, to name a few. On a domestic level, robotic cleaners were invented and flying drones have been known to make doorstep deliveries, however, barber shops for now still rely upon one-to-one human service. 

If we turn to current trends in science fiction to predict what the next century may bring, the theories don’t seem too different from some of the ideas of the Victorian science fiction visionaries: robots and AI will replace the human workforce and power every form of industry, intergalactic space travel will be available through wormholes, man will colonize planets and moons, we will have free unlimited sources of energy, microchips in our brains, time travel and total transcendence. However, the visions of our science fiction writers seem more pessimistic and dystopian than even the Victorians were.

A Tesla Roadster car with a dummy driver wearing a space suit floats in space with the Earth in the background.
Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in space, 2018, SpaceX