It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way . . .
Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, first published 1859.
ISBN 174196279X or 9781741962796, written by Peter Macinnis, to be published October 1, 2008 in Australia by Pier 9 and November 17, 2008 in Britain by Murdoch Books and now a Korean translation, ISBN 9788960510609
This book is written for general readers with an interest in history, science and technology. The
sesquicentenary of Darwin's The Origin of Species is at the end of 2009, and many will
acclaim that publishing event as something that changed the world forever. I argue that Darwin's
book was amazing, but it was a symptom rather than a cause. Evolution was just one of many fresh
ideas emerging around then to keep the ferment of science bubbling along.
It was a time when seahorse teeth, gutta percha and dog droppings ceased to be important industrial
raw materials. It was the time when competent, trained, professional scientists began to dominate
in science — and the time when two leading scientists might find that they could no longer
understand each other's work. 1859 was the year scientists in several disciplines began to
accept ideas that were, to lay people, counter-intuitive. Notions of energy, chemistry,
evolution on a time-scale too long for us to observe, invisible agents (germs) were being
blamed for disease, and Mendel began his careful study that teased out the laws of genetics.
The pattern isn't perfect, of course, because there was no cabal of scientists single-mindedly
plotting to make 1859 a special year, but 1859 seems to be a watershed year, the centre of
change in an era that was very different from anything before or after.
Most of the changes of 1859 helped bring the world closer together. Steam trains and ships provided
more reliable long-distance travel, tunnels, bridges and canals shortened journeys, telegraphs allowed
the faster spread of news, taxes on paper were being dropped, and steam presses printed the papers
faster. Steam presses needed to keep going, and so the railway novel came into its own. The railway
also imposed timetables on people who had never considered the need for such things before.
In large cities, faster transport allowed the rich to live further away from the Dark Satanic Mills,
and commute each day, so suburbia came into its own. Parks and gardens were seen as important, but
so was tourism. Where once travel from Britain to Australia or America was seen as a one-way trip,
now writers and gold seekers might venture there, and return home, enriched with ideas or metal.
The gold of Australia, California and other parts of the USA provided the riches to drive a society
where technology and science were valued because they brought profits.
In Sydney, just down the hill from the brand-new Great Hall of the infant University of Sydney,
milk vendors could be seen dipping water into their milk cans from the noisome swamp that is now
Victoria Park's Lake Northam. In Woolloomooloo, less than one house in a hundred had a drain or a
sink, and water was fetched from the outlet of Busby's Bore in Hyde Park. In November, 75 children
under the age of five died in Sydney.
1859 saw the centenary of the birth of Robbie Burns, and if his Brotherhood of Man had not come to
pass, there was a sense of it in the air. There was greater religious freedom in Britain and its
dominions, unions were organising, and the prelude to the US Civil War was being played out.
Italy was working to unification, and the German states were taking note. Many ideas were looking
for homes, though some took a little longer: the serfs of Russia were emancipated in 1861, but the
ideals were there in 1859.
The book features
tunnels through the Sahara,
gluttony by Handel fans,
battles over concert pitch.
an almost-war between Britain and the US over a dead pig,
coal gas balloons,
canals and giant coaches,
the varied uses of seahorse teeth and
how a goldfields surgeon used an old bucket to fill cavities in teeth.
However you look at it, the world was different after 1859. Even in an era of rapid change, it was a year of wonders.
Here are some of the changes of 1859. Many of them contributed to joining the world together. The details of how will be found in the book, but these are some of the key events that I use in developing my argument.
In Britain, the last piece of major canal construction was completed;
Other canals were planned in central America, France and Spain;
Digging work began on the Suez Canal;
A railway linked Suez and Alexandria, speeding the transfer of steamer passengers from Europe and 'the East';
All over the world, rail lines and bridges were extending: in Canada, one line ran for 1000 miles;
In Europe, rail lines were becoming rail networks, and people contemplated a train service from England to India;
An American inventor planned cheap railways, suspended from hydrogen balloons, to keep them high and safe from buffaloes and Indians;
The era of rail tourism was just beginning, thanks in large part to Mr. Thomas Cook;
Steam trams become more common in many cities, horse trams grew ever larger, underground railways were planned;
Camels were being tested in California, and being recruited for Australia, to be used by Burke and Wills;
The first Atlantic balloon crossing was planned, but failed;
The first contract steam mail service between Britain and Australia began;
Planning began on a telegraph cable link from Britain to Australia and some sections were in place;
Telegraph cables were beginning to link the world: the Atlantic cable had failed, but others were emerging;
Telegraph operators were able to send 2000 words an hour;
Queen Victoria heard by telegram when her grandson, the future Kaiser Wilhelm the second was born in Berlin;
Scientists began to understand the nature of energy;
The science of spectroscopy was developed, opening the way to the chemical analysis of stars;
Weather forecasting began to be used widely;
New sewers were being laid in London in the belief that bad smells caused disease;
The key evidence for the germ theory was assembled by Semmelweis and Pasteur;
Influenza was killing people in the Pacific, while malaria was a killer in England;
Smoking was identified as a cause of cancers;
Most major cities of the world had gas lights;
A successful internal combustion engine was developed in Paris, using coal gas as its fuel;
The first electric lighting was used in a house, the first electric arc lighthouse shone out;
The lead-acid storage battery was invented;
Aluminium became cheaper than gold, and people predicted that we would soon have fine aluminium cutlery;
There was a sudden burgeoning of music halls in Britain;
Lawn tennis was invented, along with polo and Australian Rules football;
The first international cricket tour saw England play in Canada and the USA;
In the USA, Abraham Lincoln may have attended a cricket match, but baseball was more popular;
The first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens — well before the officially recognised games of 1896;
Tight rope artist Blondin walked, many times, across the Niagara Falls;
The world's first dog show took place at Newcastle-Upon-Tyne;
Steam presses were being exported from the US to Australia;
New magazines and newspapers were emerging all over the world;
Charles Dickens published A Tale of Two Cities;
Mrs Beeton was publishing her household management hints for women too poor to have a housekeeper, but literate;
No miniaturists exhibited in 1859 — photography had put them out of work;
The last professional cow painter died;
The first golf professional died;
Abraham Lincoln started his run around the time John Brown was hanged;
The battle of Solferino was the last time three emperors were allowed to lead their troops into battle.
The savagery of the Solferino shocked people into the first Geneva Convention and forming the International Red Cross;
Solferino was also a key ingredient in the unification of Italy;
The future Field-Marshall Lord Roberts was awarded the VC;
Universal male suffrage was available in several Australian colonies;
In Ireland, the Irish Republican Brotherhood ('The Fenians') was formed;
In England, the Chartists were disbanded;
Japan opened its ports to European trade;
The world's human population passed one billion;
Migration from Britain to the USA, the Cape Colony, Australia and New Zealand was running high;
Mocha Dick, the origin of the fictional 'Moby Dick', was harpooned off the Brazilian banks;
It became apparent that the world's whale stocks were dwindling fast;
The first oil well was drilled, though crude oil had been prepared for some years from coal;
In a number of places around the world, oyster stocks were fast running down;
In Australia, rabbits were released into the wild;
In many cities, major parks, gardens and zoos opened, including Central Park in New York;
Gothic Revival buildings were popular, from parliaments in Britain and Canada to universities in Australia — and more;
Tabasco Sauce and Pimm's No. 1 Cup were first sold to the public.
In so many ways, the, 1859 was a year in which thinking changed forever, thinking about science, but also thinking about the ways society worked, learned and shared information and ideas. Humanity was beginning to become unified, and that is the story I have told.
This file is http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/1859.htm
It was created on February 29, 2008 and last revised on October 15 2021.
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