Mastering Mother Nature

February 25, 2018


Perhaps the height of Victorian hubris was their belief that they were the masters of nature.  They felt their science had unlocked the secrets of nature and their technology had overcome all barriers of nature.  Given what they had accomplished in science and technology, this Victorian view was not as unreasonable as it first seems.


Consider how Victorian technology had shrunken their world with improvements in transportation.  The railroad and steamboat were perfected in the early 1800s as the era began.  By the 1870s, the safety bicycle had advanced to a form much like our modern ones with gears and brakes, further increasing personal mobility.  By the 1880s, the electric street trolley, again essentially like our modern ones, was having a similar effect on people’s mobility.  By the early 1900s, the automobile and airplane were making their first appearances, promising ever faster travel over ever greater distances.  Victorians were traveling farther in less time than at any previous period in history.  Imagine the impact of the airplane, for example.  Humans could now fly … Were they not truly the masters of nature?


Similar dramatic advances had occurred in communications during the era.  Information, like the people who carried it, traveled as fast and as far as the wind could blow you at sea or as human or animal legs could move on land as the era began.  In addition to the previously cited transportation improvements which sped information while carrying people greater distances, now information technology moved messages even more efficiently.  The telegraph (Samuel Morse, 1844) the telephone (Alexander Graham Bell, 1876) and the phonograph (Thomas Edison, 1877) had helped to do this.  The most amazing advance was the wireless telegraph (Guglielmo Marconi, late 1890s) which had an almost mystic way of invisibly communicating information.  Had not time and space been mastered?


Equally and mystically invisible was the new power source of electricity harnessed by George Westinghouse and Thomas Edison (1880s).  It provided power, heat and light.  Had night’s darkness not been mastered by the electrical illumination of the famed and awesome White City at the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893?  So, too, had time and space by steam-powered railroads and boats during the era.


The building of seemingly incredible canals such as the Erie Canal (1825), Suez Canal (1869), and Panama Canal (1914) and equally incredible bridges across the Mississippi River at St. Louis (James Eads, 1874) East River at Brooklyn (John Roebling, 1883) added to the Victorian hubris that they had mastered nature.  The new steel skyscraper buildings like the Home Insurance Building (1885) and Tacoma (1889) in Chicago, and the Flatiron (1902) and Woolworth in New York (1913) were symbolic exclamation points to their mastery of height, as was Elisha Otis’ elevator (1852) which serviced them.


In the field of medicine, the Victorians made huge advances over the crude theory and practice of previous eras.  Medicine became a science during the era with trained and disciplined doctors, nurses and researchers.  In the 1860s, Louis Pasteur’s Germ Theory unlocked the riddle of the cause of infection and of many diseases.  Building on Pasteur’s work, Joseph Lister developed antisepsis techniques for surgery later that decade.  From the 1870s through 1890s, Robert Koch’s work in bacteriology created treatments for anthrax, diphtheria, cholera and tuberculosis.  In the early 1900s, Walter Reed discovered that mosquitoes caused yellow fever.  Thus, even the invisible (to the naked eye) world of disease and infection was being mastered by the Victorians.


Equally astounding to Victorians was the newly perfected processes of anesthesia in which people were seemingly placed in a death-like state and then revived.  No longer did a patient have to prove his courage and moral fiber by how much pain one could endure.  Patients no longer had to literally “bite the bullet” or become addicted to any partially-effective opiates or alcohol as sedatives.  Dr. Crawford Long and Dr. William Morton pioneered the use of ether during the 1840s.  Scottish doctor Sir James Simpson used chloroform to assist Queen Victorian during childbirth in 1853, establishing the prestige and popularity of that form of anesthesia.


In the Victorian view they, through their science, technology, and engineering, had conquered time and space and mastered nature to do their bidding.  Indeed, there was nothing in nature they could not master.  Theirs was truly the best of civilizations in the best of time, the apex of evolution.  This was truly Victorian hubris.


A retired history teacher, school administrator and university professor, Dr. R.E. Heinly writes a weekly column on the Victorian Era in the Cape May Star & Wave.  He is MAC’s Director of Museum Education and portrays our own Dr. Emlen Physick.