Book Review: “How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon”

The story of the 19th century innovators whose golden age of engineering helped shape the future.

Just at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, as the 19th century turned into the 20th, a serialized novel appeared in the Strand magazine called “The First Men in the Moon”.

Published 35 years after Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” HG Wells’ new assumptions about concepts we now know – largely thanks to the Apollo missions of the 1960s – to be accurate. Leaving aside the English novelist’s prediction of “great beasts” and “monsters of mere fat”, there are more recognizable references to the desolation of the Moon – think Buzz Aldrin’s “magnificent desolation” – and the ‘weightlessness. The inescapable fact is that the moon landings loomed large in Victorian consciousness.

More importantly, says Iwan Rhys Morus in his excellent “How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon: The Story of the Nineteenth-Century Innovators Who Forged the Future” (Icon Books, £25, ISBN 9781785789281), during this phase of the ‘Industrial Revolution, there was an intellectual climate cultivating the idea that out-of-this-world adventures became reality. After all, the engineers of the day had changed the world with railways and the telephone, electric lights and photography. In a world of progress and technology, going to the Moon would be routine.

As Morus wisely reminds us, the Victorians didn’t actually take us to the Moon (although his counterfactual prologue describing how that might have happened is oddly plausible). But, he argues, they pointed us in the right direction with the kind of ambition that will not be seen again until President John F. Kennedy’s 1962 speech at Rice University in which he announced, “We choose to ‘Go on the moon “.

The Victorians were people of action, with the resources of a global empire to turn innovation into a world of mechanized mechanics and large, efficient, organized cities. As Morus puts it, “They shared a common cause in making their expertise matter so they could actively engage in the future.”

This idea of ​​Victorian engineers building the future is at the heart of Morus’ narrative; a much more dominant theme than the title of his book suggests. If you examine the cover, you’ll see that the main graphic is of Robert Stephenson’s Rocket Locomotive, which not only puts its feet firmly on solid ground with real (rather than speculative) engineering, but is also a wink clever eye to the idea that the Victorians were already building rockets, albeit steam powered ones.

The real subject of the book, as its subtitle makes clear, is the story of the 19th century innovators who shaped the future. As such, it is not very surprising to find that alongside Stephenson there are bulky names that appear in the form of Marc and Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Charles Babbage, John Herschel, Charles Wheatstone and Nikola Tesla (by the way, Morus’ 2019 Tesla biography is superb).

A terrific insight into why the Victorian era was a golden age of engineering.

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