Victorian Discoveries & Inventions

Updated November 21, 2016

The long period of prosperity enjoyed by Great Britain during the Victorian era (1837-1901) was marked by many great strides in discovery and invention. Affluence and greater access to education facilitated inventive thought and its practical application, producing some of the most important and far-reaching inventions of the past 200 years.

Edison's Electric Lamp

One of the most widely known inventions of the Victorian era is the electric light bulb. Although prototypes had existed since 1802 when Humphry Davy presented his model at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, Thomas Edison is credited with producing the first effective electric light bulb, according to Stephen Dulken in his book "Inventing the 19th Century: 100 Inventions that Shaped the Victorian Age, From Aspirin to the Zeppelin." What made Edison's model stand out was a combination of three factors: a higher vacuum within the glass sphere, a longer-lasting and brighter filament and a greater resistance to power surge and draw, making its ability to draw electricity from a centralised source more effective. It was from Edison's workable model and subsequent improvements on it that the modern electric light bulb was born.

Communication Inventions

As worldwide exploration grew during the Victorian era, so did the need to communicate over long distances. Among the most important and far-reaching inventions in the fields of communications during the era are the telegraph and the telephone. The first commercial electrical telegraph was patented in the United Kingdom in 1837 by Sir William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, but concurrently in the Unites States Samuel Morse patented his own electrical telegraph the same year. It eventually replaced the Pony Express for trans-coastal communication during the great westward expansion of the 19th century. The telephone, patented by Alexander Graham Bell, was an inevitable improvement on the telegraph, allowing people to transmit their own voices to convey information rather than relying on telegraph operators to decipher transmitted tones. Although the telegraph is now considered obsolete, the telephone remains one of the most influential and important inventions of the last 200 years.

Industrial Inventions

The Victorian age coincided with the Industrial Revolution, giving rise to inventions that fuelled mass production of goods and the ability to effectively transport them. The internal combustion engine and sewing machine are two industrial inventions that greatly impacted how people lived and worked in the 19th century. In 1832, the internal combustion engine was first patented for industrial use by Samuel Brown and quickly replaced human or draft animal power on many manufacturing machines. Isaac Merritt Singer patented his improvement on the rotary sewing machine in 1851. The sewing machine changed the way that people both bought and created clothing. Labor costs for store-bought clothing dropped,and at the same time people were able to sew their own clothing at home with greater ease.

Medical Inventions and Discoveries

The quality of life during the Victorian age was greatly improved due to advancements in the field of medicine. Perhaps the most important discovery during the era was germ theory. Although it was long considered a viable hypothesis concerning the origin of disease, germ theory was not fully recognised until Joseph Lister's development of practical antiseptic in 1865. Another important Victorian invention is responsible for making potentially life-saving surgery painless: anaesthesia. Although many early attempts to anaesthetise patients were moderately successful, it was not until 1846 that William Thomas Green Morton patented an effective anaesthesia, called Letheon.

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