Back To The Victorian Future

The Victorians established a powerful paradigm that continues to haunt us: the idea that inventors and entrepreneurs hold the keys to the utopian future.

Jordan Schiffer for Noema Magazine

Iwan Rhys Morus is professor in the Department of History and Welsh History at Aberystwyth University in Wales.

Tech titans like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos present themselves as men who could single-handedly shape the future. For their supporters, their ruthless drive toward success is their key virtue. And their showmanship — Musk sending a Tesla Roadster into space on a Falcon Heavy rocket, or Bezos sending Captain Kirk into orbit with Blue Origin — is a way of demonstrating that virtue and asserting they are in control.

We owe to the Victorians the idea that there is a firm link between virtue and technological agency. They established a powerful paradigm that continues to haunt us: that the future is (or can be) a utopia, and inventors and entrepreneurs are the ones who know how to get there.  

While our notions of virtue have shifted today, we still assume that future-making is the prerogative of very specific sorts of innovators — even as their imagined identities have fractured and transformed. The assumption that innovation is the property of charismatic individuals still underlies the way we think about technology.

During the Victorian era, the values of discipline and self-restraint, which dominated middle-class Anglo-American culture, were widely regarded as the key drivers of transformational advances in industrial and communication technology. These themes were on display in a book with a striking title that American writer Louis Gratacap published in 1903, toward the end of the Victorian era: “The Certainty of Future Life In Mars.”

Gratacap’s tale, about a father and son experimenting with wireless telegraphy — invented only a few years prior by Guglielmo Marconi — combined virtuous individualism, technology and utopianism, along with the additional thrill of spiritualism. The son receives wireless telegraphs from his dead father, now alive on Mars — the place where the spirits of Earth’s virtuous dead are resurrected to embark upon the next stage of their spiritual journey. In Gratacap’s story, wireless telegraphy effectively paved the way to heaven.

“The assumption that innovation is the property of charismatic individuals still underlies the way we think about technology.”

Gratacap’s Mars made for a strange kind of utopia, populated by spirits moved on to the next plane of their existence and made accessible to the living through the latest technology. Woven into the fabric of the story were assumptions about the relationship between personal virtue, technology and the road to a better future that were deeply ingrained in Victorian culture. For the Victorians, the future was — or could be — utopia, and individual personal virtue was instrumental in producing a collective virtuous future.

Earlier authors had also explored the relationship between virtue and technological progress. In his hugely influential “Self-Help,” published in 1859, the same year as Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species,” Samuel Smiles wrote: “Biographies of great, but especially of good men, are nevertheless most instructive and useful, as helps, guides, and incentives to others. Some of the best are almost equivalent to gospels — teaching high living, high thinking, and energetic action for their own and the world’s good.”

It was an astonishing thing to say in mid-Victorian Britain, effectively comparing the likes of James Watt — whose steam engine drove the Industrial Revolution — to Christ, in a culture that remained deeply Christian. But Smiles was adamant that biographies of great men offered “illustrious examples of the power of self-help, of patient purpose, resolute working and steadfast integrity, issuing in the formation of truly noble and manly character.” Getting to utopia required a specific kind of personal virtue, and just as in Gratacap’s future, it was a kind of virtue intimately bound up with technological progress: The heroes would be masters of technology.

Smiles devoted much of “Self-Help” to heroes of invention. He lauded the disciplined perseverance of men such as Watt and George Stephenson, the “Father of Railways.” It was their personal virtue that made them into such powerful inventors, just as it was their success as inventors that made them such excellent role models for public life. They demonstrated “that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigor and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his powers with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill — the skill that comes by labor, application and experience.”

This was a view that had its roots in the radical politics of the 19th century’s early decades, with its insistence on preserving “manly independence.”  “Men had better be without education … than be educated by their rulers,” Thomas Hodgskin wrote in Mechanics’ Magazine in 1823, “for then education is but the mere breaking in of the steer to the yoke; the mere discipline of a hunting dog.”

“Tomorrow belonged only to the right kind of people.”

The electrical experimenter Michael Faraday was frequently cited as a key example of the virtuous self-helper. As John Tyndall, Faraday’s successor at the Royal Institution and one of his early biographers, noted, he “was a man of excitable and fiery nature; but through high self-discipline he had converted the fire into a central glow and motive power of life, instead of permitting it to waste itself in useless passion.” For Tyndall and others like him, it was that kind of discipline that was essential both to the business of discovery and to being a proper model of Victorian masculinity — indeed, they amounted to more or less the same thing.

It is that emphasis on discipline that makes Faraday such a significant example of how Victorian commentators made character a key element in the persona of the inventor. His biography showed how personal virtue and self-discipline were the stuff of future-making. His drive to self-improvement and his experimental research were portrayed as different sides of the same coin. Men who shared these values — like Stephenson and Watt, or Isambard Kingdom Brunel, a brilliant engineer — were going to make the future.

They — and only they, for tomorrow belonged only to the right kind of people — embodied what it took to build a technological future. Futures — arrived at through technology, and electrical technology in particular for most of the 19th century — could only be made by people of drive and character.

Thomas Edison, dubbed “The Wizard of Menlo Park” by the New York Daily Graphic in 1879, knew perfectly well that he needed to cultivate a persona that matched the public’s expectations of what a man of invention should be: rugged, self-made, self-assured, self-reliant — a powerful and politically resonant image in late nineteenth-century America. This was the practical engineer, distrustful of intellectual elites, ploughing his own furrow and laying down the foundations of an American future in the process. Invention in the Edison style was meant to be about pioneering know-how and a dogged determination to make things work. Edison’s virtues were the virtues of the frontiersman, except that the frontier he was trekking toward was the frontier with the future.

Nikola Tesla was just as adept as Edison at self-promotion. But he offered a different kind of model of what the inventor of the future should look like. Stories in the press about Tesla and his experiments emphasized his otherworldliness. This was the inventor as an outsider who had no interest in the mundane world around him, a dreamer “who thinks too much” and wanted “more than anything else to be left alone.”

This powerful image — the sage in solitude — also has a long history. It was how men of science started talking about themselves right at the beginning of the modern era, and Tesla and his promoters in the press deliberately molded him to fit that persona. He was virtuous because he was disconnected. He could be trusted to build a better tomorrow precisely because of his disinterest in the world of today.

The international exhibitions organized regularly across Europe and North America throughout the second half of the 19th century offered glimpses of the future utopia heroic inventors strove to build. Candace Wheeler called it “a shining vision serenely awaiting the admiration of the word.” The “beauty of the Dream City” was “beyond even the unearthly glamor of a dream.” Another commentator in Harper’s Weekly called the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago “a work of surpassing grandeur which should not be permitted to pass away without having exerted to the widest extent its enlightening and elevating influences upon the living generation.” It was “a gorgeous dream of human genius” that would “long be spoken of by this and coming generations as one of the greatest marvels of the closing 19th century.”

“When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future.”

Much of the language used to celebrate World’s Fairs like this was distinctly utopian — and placed utopia firmly in the future. It was separated from us by time, not space. Older utopian writing, like Thomas More’sUtopia” (1516) or Francis Bacon’s “New Atlantis” (1627), located ideal states somewhere distant, but definitely in existence. Even satires of utopia, like Jonathan Swift’s description of Laputa in “Gulliver’s Travels” grounded them in geography. By the end of the 19th century, novels such as William Henry Hudson’sA Crystal Age”, William Morris’sNews from Nowhere” or H. G. Wells’s “A Modern Utopia” were looking to the future as the place of utopia. And technologies of the kinds displayed and celebrated at World’s Fairs, generated by particular kinds of extraordinary people, were the way to get there.

The seductive power of Victorian thinking about the relationship between character, technology and the future remains pervasive, even if views about just what the proper character of the inventor should be have shifted. Edison today is celebrated as the hard-nosed business inventor, generating patents like a one-man factory of invention, while Tesla is seen as an iconoclastic, rule-breaking outsider who refused to conform to the dictates of the market. Tesla himself assiduously promoted that image, presenting himself as the man who could single-handedly make a future in which men would be as gods. It’s no coincidence that Elon Musk chose to name his company after him.

Particularly telling is the way in which Tesla has been reinvented as the author of a kind of alternative future history that disconnects a technological utopia from its roots in Victorian economic and political culture. In these stories (that have been featured as plot lines in the American sitcom “The Big Bang Theory,” among other places) a villainous Edison, in hock to big business and only interested in lining his own pockets, is contrasted with the otherworldly and unworldly Tesla, whose dreams of free energy were shattered by tycoons anxious to protect their profits. Tesla’s otherworldliness is presented as if it were a necessary precondition for a utopian technological future that could never be. He is celebrated both as the real inventor of the world we live in now and as the fantasy inventor who might have invented a technological future untainted by the realities of 20th-century industrial capitalism.

Contemporary inventor-entrepreneurs like Musk and Bezos elicit a similar kind of love/hate response now as does Edison — paradoxically perhaps, since it seems clear that Musk, at least, sees Tesla as one of his heroes. For their detractors, of course, their same drive is their key vice. Running through these narratives is the assumption that individual character (and character of a particular sort) is what drives change.

Elizabeth Holmes offers a good example of the potential pitfalls of our persisting adherence to this Victorian vision of the future and its makers. In her case, it turned out that there was nothing behind the mask — the former Theranos CEO was just performing the role of disrupter and iconoclast rather than inhabiting it. But even in the case of those who have achievements to show, the relentless focus on these larger-than-life individuals easily distracts from what their achievements really amount to.

With its focus on individual virtue, the Victorian vision of the future is an exclusive one. When we subscribe to this paradigm about how — and by whom — the future is made, we’re also relinquishing control over that future. We’re acknowledging that tomorrow belongs to them, not to us.