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1871: Familiar problems of a bygone age

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Having looked at today's challenges faced by the IET, its members and society, what were the seven key social and technology issues vexing the founding fathers of the IET 150 years ago? There is a familiar ring to the answers.

1. Telecoms | Connect the world’s economies

By the mid-19th century, what we now know as the London Stock Exchange was expanding rapidly and was a key driver of London’s booming economic growth. As it became more reliant on foreign transactions, the exchange needed faster international communications (living in our post-scarcity digital telecoms age it’s hard to imagine that for most of recorded history message speed was limited to the fastest sailing ship or horse). But with the arrival of Cooke and Wheatstone’s needle technology in 1837, London had its first commercial telegraph, while in 1850 the first international subsea telegraph connected England and France.

The technology gave its name to the Daily Telegraph newspaper in 1855, followed in 1871 by the Society of Telegraph Engineers (now the IET). By 1874, Thomas Edison had produced the Quadruplex telegraph that sent two simultaneous signals in each direction, while Alexander Graham Bell was experimenting with a ‘harmonic telegraph’. By the late 1800s, the telephone, ticker tape and telegraph were widespread ‘fintech’ options.

2. Electricity | Cheaper lighting solutions

Although we’ve known about electricity since the Ancient Egyptians first noticed that they got a nasty shock from fish they called ‘thunder of the Nile’, millennia would pass before the phenomenon could address the social challenge of providing cheap lighting. While the 19th century saw great advances in the science, in the 1870s domestic lighting was still fuelled by the hugely expensive burning of oil and candles – (in 1880 an hour of light equivalent to a 100W bulb would cost three hours’ wages).

Despite this, Britain, with its tradition of steam power and gas, wasn’t an obvious client for electric lighting. But the United States showed more potential, as Thomas Edison applied his genius to developing the carbon-filament lamp and demonstrating how this form of energy could rival gas for domestic lighting. To make his point, on New Year’s Eve 1879, Edison lit up his laboratory at Menlo Park, while predicting that electric light would become “so cheap that only the rich will burn candles”.

3. Industrial pollution | Improve urban air quality

When London’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) arrived in 2008 it seemed like another symptom of 21st-century life. And yet foul air has a long history stretching back for millennia. In Victorian London, while the Industrial Revolution was boosting Britain’s prosperity, this increased wealth depended almost entirely on one source of energy. Coal supplied domestic hearths and powered the steam engines that turned the wheels of industry. Unregulated coal burning in the 19th-century metropolis meant that air quality could have been as much as 50 times worse than we have today.

Aware of the problem, the government introduced policies to disperse industry from the metropolis, while the uptake of the cleaner-burning domestic gas-fuelled cookers improved matters during the late 1800s. The Gas Light & Coke Company noted that in 1892 only 2 per cent of residents had a gas cooker. By 1911, this had increased to 69 per cent. Such improvements paved the way for the Clean Air Act of 1956.

4. Poverty | Address the industrial poverty divide

Serving twice as the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister between 1868 and 1880, Benjamin Disraeli described the country as being inhabited by “two nations... dwelling in different zones or inhabitants of different planets”. Fed by different food and governed by different laws, they were ‘THE RICH AND THE POOR’ (his capitals). It was a controversial subject dominated by the question of whether this social polarisation had been created by the industrialisation of the economy.

By 1851 there were more people living in the city than the country, which meant that more people worked in factories than on farms. Every member of this workforce, skilled or unskilled, male or female, struggled with low and irregular income, while the British Empire generated untold wealth for the elite. Education and labour reforms introduced in the 1870s made little impact as the bulk of urban society lived in dread of sinking into the ‘residuum’ of Charles Dickens’ criminal underclass.

5. Transport | Workers need access to their place of work

Mass migration to the city meant the industrial labour force required a means of commuting that was faster, cheaper, and more reliable than the horse (which was starting to become obsolete during the Industrial Revolution). This need is reflected in the fact that the term ‘horsepower’ (coined by James Watt in the 18th century) became the unit of measurement of power associated with motors and engines.

Progress on a mechanical replacement started early in the 19th century with Richard Trevithick’s ‘road locomotive’ in 1801, which was followed by a stream of innovations that included George Stephenson’s steam locomotives. Electric boats and steam railcars put in their first appearances, while the 1870s saw the introduction of a technology still with us today. The ‘safety bicycle’ (so-called because it dispensed with the penny-farthing in favour of equal-sized wheels) became the blueprint for the modern bike that has environmental sustainability baked in.

6. Environment | Get the sewage out of London

Expansion of densely populated urban areas was an inevitable side effect of the increased labour demand of the Industrial Revolution. As workers abandoned their ploughshares, human pressure on cities created new problems. Rapid increases in urban populations meant that London especially was exposed to the issue of what to do with human waste. The metropolis suffered most during the long hot summers of the mid-19th century, while three major outbreaks of cholera during the ‘Great Stink’ presented one of the biggest public health-related environmental problems of the age. The solution came under the banner of civil engineer Sir Joseph Bazelgette, whose pioneering and innovative network of interconnecting sewers moved the effluent out of the city.

7. Women’s employment | Create industrial jobs for women

Although census data for women’s employment in the 1870s are erratic, research from the University of Warwick Department of History suggests that falling employment in the agricultural sector and social changes brought about by urban manufacturing meant that, in theory, there was a shift towards increased employment for women in skilled industrial jobs.

The advent of steam and electric-powered machinery also meant that the male monopolies that had been justified by an assumed superior strength might make way for a female labour force.

This opportunity was hampered by the gendered nature of the family in the 19th century, which meant that men dominated the machine sectors, while women’s work concentrated on the household. This was reinforced by the belief that women in the industrial sector had the effect of suppressing men’s wages, as employers preferred using cheaper female labour over investing in technology.

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