The nineteenth century brought the world telephones, telegraphs, steamboats, electric lights, movies, sewing machines, cars, electric motors, the railroad, Ferris wheels, and aspirin. It was the age of invention, ending with the famous pronouncement in 1899 that "Everything that can be invented has been invented" (Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents). There are many candidates for the century's greatest invention, but the winner may be the future itself. While history has seen individuals, such as Francis Bacon, who imagined a world different from that of their parents, most people throughout history did not. They have expected their professions, tools, and entertainments to be essentially the same as those of their parents and grandparents. In the nineteenth century this changed, as inventors and their inventions captured the public imagination.
It is no coincidence that two important literary genres were born in the 1800s: the mystery story and science fiction. Edgar Allan Poe's Auguste Dupin was arguably the first detective in fiction, the precursor of Sherlock Holmes. Both characters used reason and deduction to understand the world. The popular audiences for their stories accepted this; they were confident that a deliberate and systematic approach would reveal the truth. Meanwhile, the heroes of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells used inventions to fly to the moon, explore the depths of the ocean, and travel through time. The public welcomed these stories, and many saw them as more than diversions. They experienced so many changes in their lives that, often, these fictions looked like predictions.
Looking Back to the Eighteenth Century
Of course, many changes came in the eighteenth century, but these were chiefly political. When Americans rebelled and created a new political philosophy, Thomas Jefferson could imagine freedom and equality. But even though he was an inventor, he believed America would remain a simple agrarian society. The French Revolution executed a king and founded a republic, but it also beheaded Antoine Lavoisier (1743-1794), known as "the Newton of chemistry." Isaac Newton (1642-1727) may have stood on the shoulders of giants to achieve a revolution in physics, but in 1800 most of his successors were still standing in his shadow. In fact, physics and mathematics stagnated, particularly in England, as Newton's accomplishments came to be seen as the final word.
In the new century, however, perhaps because revolutions had loosened conventions and shaken the social order, it became acceptable to challenge established dogmas. The emerging sciences of biology, chemistry, and archeology extended Newton's methods into new realms. Engineers and physicians carried the resulting technologies into everyday life. And, in Newton's own disciplines—physics and mathematics—people of courage broke free of his mechanical, clockwork universe to discover radiation, probability, imaginary numbers, and other original concepts that would shape the next century. The eighteenth century transformed our view of humans. It put the power of change into our hands, then built, and eventually shattered, a confidence in certainty and truth.
The Nineteenth Century: Building Blocks
Nineteenth-century scientists strove to rationalize the universe. Physics and astronomy led the way, but much of chemistry was still inured in alchemy. "Vitalism" and other mystical points of view dominated biology, and archeology had little standing in the Western world, where most educated people believed that the world was only 6,000 years old and humans were a separate creation from animals.
Chemistry provided many of the early triumphs of the rationalization process. In 1803 John Dalton (1766-1844) postulated the existence of atoms and began working on the proof. This added force to discovery of the elements, and by 1869 63 elements were known. Later in the century Dmitri Mendeleyev (1834-1907) saw a pattern to the elements when he looked at their masses and chemical characteristics. He organized them in an original way that made sense of chemicals and their reactions. This organization, the periodic table of the elements, allowed Mendeleyev and later scientists to predict the existence of such elements as gallium, neon, krypton, and radon—all of which were discovered later. By the end of the century chemistry, particularly synthetic chemistry, had become an essential and profitable part of society. Dyes made the world more colorful; patent medicines and synthetic fertilizers provided for human health; explosives moved mountains, made great engineering projects possible, and caused mass annihilation in war. Chemistry had created a vital role and a new identity for itself, with the periodic table as its icon.
Biology took a different path, perhaps because it touched more directly on humanity's view of itself. Classification and cell descriptions were at the leading edge of activity at the beginning of the century. These helped to provide a sense of order without making a strong challenge to accepted beliefs that viewed the world in a static way. Since the core of biology is process—e.g., growth, differentiation, competition, synergy, reproduction—its progress had to await a new insight.
In 1831 22-year-old Charles Darwin (1809-1882) undertook a voyage as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. His findings shattered ideas about the age of the universe, the origin of humans, and the nature of biology. The heart of his thesis, evolution, was so disturbing that he did not publish his findings for 27 years. Variation and natural selection, or "survival of the fittest," were explained in Darwin's landmark 1859 work On the Origin of Species. Evolution required a much older world. Species were no longer fixed, in fact they were related. Darwin's next book went further. The Descent of Man (1871) joined humans to the rest of the biological world and challenged their special place. This upset many deeply held religious beliefs and demystified all of nature. While it liberated science, it also spawned social darwinism, which was used to justify colonialism, racism, and the abuse of workers.
Archeology and paleontology took advantage of the doors opened by Darwin. Dinosaurs captured the fancy of the public, and digging fossils became a popular endeavor. Pierre Broca (1824-1880) determined that Neanderthal man was part of a prehuman species, setting off the search for the "missing link" connecting human and apes. What might have been a basis for understanding the common nature of humans and their shared relationship with animals was sometimes turned to demonstrate "scientifically" the inferiority of certain races. Phrenology and other pseudo-sciences made claims about white superiority, and the idea of eugenics was popularized.
A deeper understanding of genetics, the work of a humble Austrian monk, was unrecognized in its own time. Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) methodically investigated genetic inheritance by growing peas. His work provided a foundation for the twentieth century's icon for biology, DNA.
Inventing the Future
At the same time that people were coming to appreciate change in the natural world, they found themselves with unprecedented power to create change. The railroad may have been the first popular example. For the first time in history, people could travel faster than a galloping horse could carry them. The railroad extended cities, connected communities, fueled the Industrial Revolution, and changed concepts of time and space.
The sewing machine brought another kind of change. It freed time, since prior to its invention people spent fully one-third of their working hours creating and mending clothes (not to mention sails, curtains, and shoes). Sewing machines also increased productivity. Since tailors, who were generally men, resisted their introduction, manufacturers marketed them to women, allowing them to participate in the economy, and giving them independence that helped them secure their political and legal rights.
The most famous inventions of the nineteenth century are associated with equally famous inventors. Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922) invented the telephone. Robert Fulton (1765-1815) invented the steamship. Thomas Edison (1847-1931) invented the electric light, the phonograph, and the motion picture. All of these inventions, thanks to the emerging methods of mass production and distribution, had a profound effect upon the daily lives of ordinary people. But this only partially explains their inventors' fame. When beset by patent battles and competing technologies, inventors found that they could brand their inventions, secure their wealth, and become celebrities with self-promotion. There was an economic value to Edison providing quotable quotes like "Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration." Edison used public demonstrations of technology to his advantage, and even ran a negative campaign against Nikola Tesla's (1856-1943) alternating current (AC) that included the electrocution of animals. (The advantages of AC for transmitting electricity over long distances were significant enough, however, that Edison's direct current technology lost out.) Thus, myth and reality were interwoven to create an age of invention.
Unexpected Truths and Consequences
Electricity was the darling of nineteenth-century physicists. It made them close collaborators with the inventors of the era and pushed the bounds of experimental science. Understanding electrical theory was essential to James Maxwell's (1831-1879) work, which helped unify concepts of electricity and magnetism. Such syntheses were aimed not just at explaining and taming nature, but at revealing its absolute truth. Mathematicians were engaged in the same pursuit, developing new tools and methods, and finding underlying consistencies that made their discipline more rigorous. From the early days of the century, however, there were indications that the precise truth they sought was unattainable. Even as public confidence in science reached its height, its limits were becoming apparent. People used scientific discourse to deceive themselves and each other and to confirm prejudices. One such "proof," for example, showed that education was unhealthy for women. Just as importantly, probability emerged as a discipline in the 1800s. First used for error checking, it developed later into an expression of the statistical, intrinsically uncertain nature of the universe.
The Legacy of Nineteenth-Century Science
Society has come to rely on chemistry for plastics, fuels, fertilizers, and medicines. The houses we live in, the clothes we wear, and the food we eat are often, if not usually, the product of a deep understanding of chemistry that began with the periodic table. By the beginning of the twentieth century the understanding of bacteria and, by extension, sanitation, that came from nineteenth-century advances in biology, helped fuel tremendous population growth. Biology also increased understanding of fertility and led to artificial means of birth control. This essentially stopped the rise in population for developed countries by the end of the twentieth century.
In the twentieth century the flow of new inventions continued, reinforcing popular expectations of change. Many nineteenth-century inventions evolved into improved, but still-recognizable, forms. The car and the electric light, two of the most notable nineteenth-century inventions, created essential change in human cultures.
Pathological use of science, both to facilitate and to excuse brutality, left an indelible mark on the twentieth century and reduced confidence in science as a source of truth and progress. Kurt Gödel (1906-1987) and Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) demonstrated how incomplete and uncertain scientific truths are. Even so, science remains the touchstone for rational discussion.
PETER J. ANDREWS