I had an immense advantage over many others,” wrote the Victorian inventor and steelmaker Henry Bessemer in his autobiography, “inasmuch as I had no fixed ideas derived from long-established practice to control and bias my mind, and did not suffer from the general belief that whatever is, is right.” Thousands of British tinkerers, hobbyists, designers and amateur engineers who arose in the latter half of the 19th century could have made similar claims, but while Bessemer’s converter revolutionised the production of steel across the world, fortifying the military might of the Empire and building the American railroads, other inventors and speculators watched sadly as their cherished gadgets and “apparatuses” struggled for a footnote in history. A list of transformative Victorian inventions would cover everything from telephones, flush lavatories, photographs and the cinema to bicycles, cars, tarmac and reinforced concrete; but who now, alas, has heard of the ‘Volunteer Reversible Trowser’ or the ‘New and Useful Design for an Instrument to be attached to Lawn Tennis Rackets for picking up balls from the ground’?
For these, and other curiosities, one must turn to Inventions that Didn’t Change the World, a showcase of designs culled from the National Archive that demonstrates the range, vigour and, often, lunacy of 19th-century creativity. The rise of mass production, combined with the emergence of an affluent middle class and a popular obsession with technology, led to a climate in which anyone who could find room for a workshop or a sketch pad possessed, in theory, a means to strike it rich. In back rooms and at breakfast tables across the British Isles, prospective inventors sketched out devices to fill the crucial gaps they had spotted in the market. Some aimed to scotch personal vexations, devising hollow walking sticks full of cigars “to obviate the inconvenience of carrying in the pocket the cumbrous cigar-boxes now in use” or top hats with vents to “effectually carry off the perspiration from the interior”. Others, such as the inventors of the horse-drawn ‘Chest, Dwelling or Cart for Emigrants and Others’ or the ‘Flying or Aerial Machine adapted for the Artic [sic] regions’, sought to resolve problems associated with the expanse of empire.
Then, as now, the first problem facing the innovator was making sure that no one else copied his (and, less frequently, her) ideas. By the mid-19th century, the British patents system was foundering under the number of applicants and the weight of bureaucracy. Writing in 1850 in his popular weekly Household Words, Charles Dickens presented the story of an honest inventor who had “been twenty year, off and on, completing an invention and perfecting it”. On bringing his beloved ‘Model’ to London, he finds himself criss-crossing the capital, paying fee after fee at office after office until his budget and patience are nearly exhausted. “Is it reasonable,” he ultimately complains, “to make a man feel as if, in inventing an ingenious improvement meant to do good, he had done something wrong?”
Another option was available. Established in 1839, the Designs Registry at Somerset House was founded to protect the intellectual copyright on so-called ornamental designs. It offered just three years of protection rather than the 14 years promised by the Patent Office, but became a popular means of recourse for small inventors who despaired of the labyrinthine patents system. Inventors submitted two identical drawings to the registry, paying a relatively steep £10 to insure themselves against having their ‘oblique penholder’, ‘improved bread knife’ or ‘design for a corset with expansible busts’ cloned and sold without them.
The resulting inventions, collected in book form by the National Archives’s designs specialist Julie Halls, run the gamut of Victorian personal and social obsessions. The fashion section resembles a steampunk version of those gadget-free sheets that used to flutter from the pages of newspapers in the eighties and nineties, full of collapsible hats, shoes with revolving heels, and a fearsome thing called the ‘Anti-Garotting Cravat’, designed amid panic about robberies involving strangulation. The new wave of middle-class home owners is targeted by a bewildering array of labour-saving devices that range from the splendid — a hand-operated chainsaw that looks years ahead of its time — to the insanely dangerous, such as the ‘bed-warmer’ that consists of a spirit lamp veiled with a metal chimney, or the oilcan that incorporates a burning lamp in its design.
Other devices approach the Victorian notion of a clean mind in a healthy body with perhaps excessive zeal. The ‘Hydro Vapour Bath’, an iron maiden with a water tank poised overhead, promises that “the patient may be submitted to an instantaneous ablution of cold or tepid water, whilst immersed in the steam or vapour bath, without any exposure of the body to the atmosphere”; and, if that sounds chilling in more than the literal sense, spare a thought for the unfortunate woman prepared to risk her scalp to the ‘Portable Rotary Hair-Brushing Machine’, a whirling apparatus driven by a belt large enough for an industrial sander. Medical inventions range from the hopeful — a bit of red rag billed as a ‘Chemical Sanitary Belt and Cholera Repellent’ — to the frightening, whose names (‘Artificial Leech’, ‘Improved Scarificator’) speak for themselves.
And then, of course, there are the mad. The ‘Hand Hard Labour Machine’, designed as a penal corrective, is a geared wheel attached to a crank, which prisoners sentenced to hard labour can turn, pointlessly. The ‘Design for a Fire-Escape’, meanwhile, is an instrument of farcical nightmare — a square of fabric secured at the corners with folding legs like those of an umbrella, designed to snap up plummeting suicides and escapees from burning buildings. Many of these inventions may never have been built, and others would not have worked if they had. But all of them offer a glimpse into a world of optimism, and a touching faith in the promise of better living through technology.
The Sunday Telegraph