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11 Victorian Era Technology and Inventions That Were Ahead Of Their Time

[Estimated read time: 9 minutes]

Things that we use today didn’t fall out of the blue sky or get invented over night. Inventions takes hardship, dedication and most important of all failures. It is fact that behind every successful invention, there are hundreds of failures and countless number of ideas that did not work, or that nobody found it worthy of their time. But there are also many inventions that succeeded many years after they first appeared. Inventions that were ahead of their time.

Today, we bring you some of those inventions from the Victorian era. The Victorian era is a period in the United Kingdom between 1837 to 1907, under the reign of Queen Victoria. The era is marked by long peace and prosperity with many inventions and findings, many of which we still use today.

11. Thomas Edison’s Speaking Doll

Speaking dolls have been a part of our society for a fairly long time. Today, it is normal to buy these dolls and they have a fairly large market. But there were times, when these talking machines freaks the hell out of the customers. In 1877, Thomas Edison invented the phonograph, and then it all started by 1890, when he started to implement a smaller version of phonographs inside the dolls.

The appeal of a talking doll seemed evident. And it was certain that it will be a commercial success. Soon, a New Jersey based factory began the production of the dolls that could recite a 20-second-long nursery rhyme. They were big (22 inches tall), and heavy (4 lb) resulting in $10 (over $200 now) per unit.

But soon, they were forced to withdraw sale in May 1890 following a flood of complaints and returns. It eventually turned out to be a commercial disaster. The fitted phonograph was not robust enough to cope with rough handling by children, the sound quality was awful and many more defects. Edison was left with 7,500 unsold dolls and a storeroom full of parts.

10. Indoor Ice Rink by John Gamgee

Are you a big ice hockey fan? Curious how those ice pitches were made and stays solid ice even during the summers? Well, the first ever construction of artificial ice rinks was done in 1841. Where a mixture of pig’s fat and various salts were used as a substitute for ice. But, soon it fell out of fashion, because of the unpleasant smell of the ice substitute.

Nearly thirty years later, a British inventor John Gamgee created the world’s first mechanically frozen ice rink, the Glaciarium. The rink was based on a concrete surface and measuring 40 by 24 feet, small, but it worked much the same way as today’s rinks. Alongside, there was a refrigerating machine to inject cooling fluid through a network of pipes across the floor of the rink. The surface was then flooded with a thin layer of water, which the cold pipes froze, creating a solid sheet of hard and smooth ice.

Few more rinks were built using Gamgee’s patent, including the one on the River Thames. They all failed commercially. They were just too expensive to build and run. It was not until the end of the century, that technology had caught up with the idea and it started to assimilate into various public activities like sports and operate at a profit, worldwide.

9. Vacuum Cleaner by Hubert Booth

Hubert Cecil Booth was a British engineer known for inventing the world’s first powered vacuum cleaner. Before he introduced his version of the vacuum cleaner, cleaning machines worked by blowing dust away, instead of sucking it up. But, he had different ideas in his mind. He was quite sure that instead blowing, sucking up the dust was a better idea.

Booth’s device was large. It was so huge that it has to be carried out by horses. London householders booked his services, and Booth’s vacuum cleaner came to their street. His business was a success, though, not for too long. In 1907, on the other side of the Atlantic, a janitor named James Spangler invented his own version of household vacuum by putting together an electric motor, a fan to make a small portable cleaning machine. He later sold his product to the famous Hoover Company and the rest is history.

8. Atmospheric Railway by I.K Brunel

Isambard Kingdom Brunel was a genius engineer. He was one of the most important figures of the Industrial Revolution, who transformed the 19th century Britain with his radical designs and ingenious constructions. Brunel, during his whole career, constructed dockyards, a series of steamships including the first ever propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, bridges and tunnels, and of course the Great Western Railway.

He spent much of the 1840s building the Great Western Railway. During the mid 1844, the railway reached Exeter in southwest England and was soon expected to reach the Plymouth in further west. But there was a problem. The terrain. The proposed route went through some rough and hilly terrains causing locomotive failure as they were not technologically advanced.

So instead of locomotives, Brunel decided to move trains with a system of atmospheric traction, by which stationary pumps sucked air from a pipe placed in the center of the track. But there was a fatal flaw. The pipes required were flexible leather flaps to seal the vacuum pipes. And the only way of keeping those leathers flexible was regularly coating it in animal fat.

It all came down to rats eating those coatings of fat and leather and intimately bringing the trains to a halt. After less than a year, Brunel had to admit defeat and revert to conventional locomotives. The atmospheric railways may didn’t work out back then, but today it is a reality. Known as Aeromovel, there are three systems operational throughout the world. Two in Brazilian and one in Jakarta, Indonesia.

7. Great Eastern By I.K Brunel

Isambard Brunel had already designed two great steamships by 1853, the SS Great Western and SS Great Britain. And now he was focused on longer voyages with huge ships that could travel from UK to Australia without the need of refueling. He was also motivated by the fact that such a large vessel would be benefited from economies of scale.

The SS Great Eastern was finally launched in 1858. In terms of volume, she was eight times bigger than any other ship during that time. The huge ship also came with a mountain of  technical problems. As a result, the ship never made a great profit carrying passengers. The ship was actually designed to carry up to 4,000 passengers, actually never carried anywhere near that number. It was a disaster.

Then in 1864, the vessel was sold for mere £25,000. The new owners heavily modified the ship to lay the first telegraph cable across the Atlantic in 1866. This provided instant communication between North America and Europe for the first time. Over the next 14 years, she went on to lay over 30,000 miles of cable on the seabed around the globe. Brunel’s huge ship had finally showed its worth.

6. Antiperspirant by John Gamgee

Today, millions of people use antiperspirants to prevent their body odor. It uses a chemical solution to actually prevent us from sweating. Today there are many big companies that are making a handsome profit by using the formula in their products. But, it was the British inventor John Gamgee, the man who invented the ice rink, came up with a substance he called “Chloralum”, and he claimed it worked as a “very powerful and effective antiseptic, disinfectant or deodorizer.”

Gamgee performed many tests and observations to use this substance as a product. Though he succeeded, the only buyers were breweries using it as a disinfectant. Eventually the company was dissolved in 1885, and John Gamgee almost certainly considered Chloralum to be a failed project. If only he lived a much later time, when body odor was more of a concern, John Gamgee may well have become a very rich man.

5. Ferdinand De Lesseps’s Panama Canal

Ferdinand de Lesseps’s Suez canal was a great success. And inspired by his own work, he promoted the idea of a canal between the Atlantic and the Pacific ocean at Panama in central America. By 1880, he began his mega project. However, due to some fundamental differences between the two locations, which De Lesseps surely ignored, the project turned out to be a disaster. He was a diplomat and promoter, not an engineer.

In 1888, De Lesseps did a second attempt on Panama canal and this he hired the famous French engineer Gustave Eiffel to design the necessary lock- feature. But, rather to his dismay, this time the money ran out, and all work came to a halt. Worse, having raised millions from the market without any end product, de Lesseps and Co. were charged with serious fraud. It was nearly 24 years after De Lesseps work when Panama canal was opened in 1914, after the United States took over the project, using much more advanced technology.

4. Telephone Recording Machine by Edison

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. A few years later in 1881, a Philadelphia Telegraph Company incorporated one of their telephone prototypes with Edison’s phonographs. The motto was to create a machine that can record telephonic conversations. It was not like a typical voicemail, but a system that can be specifically used in the event of a dispute about a business call. The concept of “Calls may be recorded for monitoring purposes” even though is not new.

Read: 12 Mega Machines that are Extremely Powerful

It was a mechanical success, well at least for Edison. He felt that his work was done. In an interview with a local newspaper he quoted “There’s the invention, and it’s only a mechanic’s job to make it marketable.” But, to his dismay, the machine turned into something too much mechanical that people would want to buy. The whole world had to wait until the 1940s for voicemail to become a reality.

3. Pneumatic tyre by Robert William Thomson

Robert William Thomson was only 23 years old when he patented his first ever pneumatic tire in 1846. His model of tire consisted of a hollow belt made of natural rubber inflated with air so that the wheels presented “a cushion of air to the ground”. This elastic belt of rubberized canvas was trapped within a solid outer ring of leather which was fastened to the wheel.

In 1847, Thomson’s “Aerial Wheels” were demonstrated in London’s Regent’s Park. They were fitted with horse-drawn carriages. The results were satisfying, greatly improving the comfort of travel and reducing noise. Even though it was a radical invention, it never went into production. The first commercialized pneumatic tire was made in 1888 in Belfast, by Scots-born John Boyd Dunlop.

2. Jules Henri Giffard’s Airship

Credit: 2001 National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution

During the 1850s, both hot-air and hydrogen balloons were on the rise. It was gaining popularity among various sections of the society. But there was a little problem. Actually, there was no practical way to control the direction and speed of flight. You have to go where the wind takes you to.

It was only in 1852, when a Frenchman named Jules Henri Giffard managed to produce a lightweight airborne steam engine. The term ‘Lightweight’ can be misleading here as the engine was nearly 250 pounds. The fuel and water added another 150 pounds. However, this could still be carried by a powerful hydrogen balloon.

Read: 14 Unique Early Experimental Flying Planes

On September 24, 1852, he took off from Paris with his steam powered balloon and flew for nearly 17 miles. During the flight, he managed maneuver the airship to do some basic stunts. However, Giffard’s small steam engine was not powerful enough to control the winds, which proved to be a blockage during his flight route.

1. Charles Babbage’s Mechanical Computer

There is no argument to the fact that Charles Babbage is indeed the “father of computer”. It was his first mechanical computer that eventually led to more complex and successful electronic designs. His idea of making a machine that can calculate complex equations lured the British government to provide him with financial support for several years. The finished Difference Engine had 25,000 parts and weighs 4 tons. But due to a disagreement in 1833, Babbage fell out with his toolmaker, and construction stopped.

Read: 25 Biggest Inventions in Computer Science

In spite of setbacks, Babbage didn’t stop here and soon began work on a second machine, Difference Engine II. It was even bigger and would weigh 5 tons. This new machine could eliminate the errors more adequately and had all the elements of a modern computer, such as a memory and the ability to run programs. It was not until the late 1800s that another similar machine was built.