Many great inventions came out of the Victorian era, from the photograph to the electric lightbulb. The elastic opera hat and the anti-cholera belt, however, are not among their illustrious numbers. Nevertheless, even the most bizarre of 19th-century inventions has some fear or hope embedded in it, some contemporary woe it wanted to improve.
Inventions that Didn’t Change the World by Julie Halls, published this month by Thames & Hudson, examines these obscure ideas, many not seen since they were imagined. Halls is a 19th-century design specialist at the National Archives in London, where she cracked open gigantic leather-bound volumes of invention proposals to find the most curious ideas that reflected the age’s collective consciousness. “The inventions in this book tell a story of nineteenth-century enterprise, enthusiasm and, above all, optimism,” Halls writes in the book.
The book has 240 illustrations reproduced in full-page color, with some of their original descriptions transcribed, as well as extensive essays by Halls that give context. It would have been easy to just make this a book on the zany gadgets of Victorians, but Halls is successful in showing why they are more than a spectacle as forgotten reminders of the daily concerns of the time. The 19th century was a period of rapid industrialization, massive economic class separation, a self-sufficient ethos, and a fascination with science. It was also shadowed by constant personal danger, as shown by inventions for fire escapes where you could jump into a sort of gondola suspended on a wire, and an “anti-garroting cravat” to thwart strangulation by street gangs.
With class severely defined by fashion, many of the inventions tackle its accoutrements, in particular the top hat — an incredibly cumbersome object: One invention allows for ventilation to avoid overheating, another is made of elastic to be easily stored and reshaped, while yet another is designed to be suspended on a church pew without getting dusty. Women, meanwhile, were expected to perfect the hourglass shape; with one corset invention including inflatable India rubber breasts.
“It is sometimes hard to tell from this distance which were real and which were imagined, but nineteenth-century inventors, both the spectacularly successful and the spectacularly hopeful, were quick to come up with ways to help make life feel safer,” Halls concludes. Even if the rotary hair brush or glass dome peach protector for the greenhouse didn’t catch on, the inventions are a personal perspective from an individual on how the world could be a better designed place, from the vantage of an era we have long left.
Inventions that Didn’t Change the World by Julie Halls is available this month from Thames & Hudson.