An Overview of Scientific Advancements in Maturin’s Day

Science flowed freely in spite of the war: indeed, earlier in the year Stephen had been invited to address the learned of Paris at the Institut, a journey that he might have made, with the consent of both governments… Desolation Island

Early 19th-century Europe is in the midst of a scientific revolution that will eventually be every bit as far-reaching as the philosophical, political and artistic changes arising from the French Revolution. In France and Britain, in particular, the pace of scientific discovery and innovation is quickening, fuelling the Industrial Revolution that began in the 18th century and will come to dominate the 19th.

Napoleon’s educational reforms, and the spur provided on all sides by war, are supplying a new impetus to the quest for human knowledge. And the philosophy of the Enlightenment, with its emphasis on the power of human reason, is ushering in a world in which superstition and religious tradition can no longer stand in the way of rational argument, discovery and progress.

Electricity and Fossils

In 1800, the Italian Alessandro Volta builds one of the first electric batteries, which he demonstrates to Napoleon. André Marie Ampère, who becomes inspector-general of the university system in Paris in 1808, lays the foundations for the science of electrodynamics with his discovery of the properties of magnetic fields produced by electric current. In England, John Dalton introduces atomic theory into chemistry and, in 1808, publishes a list of atomic weights and a new system of chemical symbols. The Austrian, Johann Ritter, discovers ultraviolet radiation.

Marie François Bichat emerges as one of the founders of modern anatomy, while his fellow Frenchman, Jean Baptiste Lamarck, the founder of invertebrate zoology, develops the first theory of evolution. He believes that giraffes have developed long necks as a result of stretching to reach the higher branches of trees, and that this characteristic is passed on from generation to generation. Georges Cuvier, meanwhile, establishes the science of palaeontology, becoming the first to classify fossils in the same way as living animals.

In Britain, the amateur surveyor and fossil collector William Smith plays his part in demolishing the religious orthodoxy that God created the earth and all upon it in a single week in October 4004 BC. Based on observations of how rock is laid down in layers, which correspond to successive periods of geological time, he creates the foundations for modern geology. Working alone, his geological map of southern Britain, from Wales to the Thames, takes him 20 years to produce.

Locomotives, Looms and Luddites

The Industrial Revolution, gathering pace alongside the new scientific discoveries, is by now well under way in Britain and spreading throughout Europe. In 1808, Richard Trevithick, inventor of the steam engine, exhibits his ‘catch-me-who-can’ steam locomotive in a ‘steam circus’ in London. The public queue up to ride on the engine at one shilling a time. Trevithick had built his first locomotive, the ‘puffing devil’, at his home in Cornwall in 1801. But it is not until the development of railway track, and George Stephenson’s construction of his first smooth-wheeled steam locomotive in 1814, that locomotive trains begin to usher in a new age of steam transport. John McAdam, meanwhile, constructs the first roads made from cambered, crushed stone in 1810.

In France, Joseph Marie Jacquard invents the Jacquard loom, whereby a system of punched cards is employed to weave patterned cloth. It is the first, basic step towards computer technology. In 1810, the Krupp Iron Works opens in Essen in Germany’s Ruhr valley. In 1807, London’s Pall Mall becomes the first street in the world to enjoy gas lighting, first developed by William Murdock in the mid-1790s. Humphry Davy designs his miners’ safety lamp in 1815.

New industrial methods have their price, not least in rising unemployment among traditional craftworkers. In England, ‘Luddites’ smash new machinery in the textile industry. Led by the probably legendary ‘Ned Ludd’, whose base is supposed to be in Sherwood Forest (leading to inevitable comparisons with Robin Hood), they are active throughout the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire, reaching their peak in 1811.

The Spoils of War

As always, war is a spur to technological innovation. Henry Shrapnel’s invention, the exploding shell, is adopted by the British army. In 1804, rockets developed by the British army are fired to a height of 1,830 metres (6,004 feet). In 1810, with a grant of 12,000 francs from Napoleon, Nicolas Appert publishes details of a new method for preserving food – heating it to kill any micro-organisms and then sealing it in cans. However, it comes too late for Napoleon’s armies, for which it might have changed the course of their invasion of Russia.

Meanwhile, the US inventor Robert Fulton, who would build the first commercial steamship in 1807, gets financial backing from Napoleon to develop the Nautilus, a submersible warship or submarine. Powered by a mechanical crank, it is intended to be used to attach explosive devices to the hulls of enemy ships. Although Fulton’s submarine succeeds in tests in 1801, it can’t keep up with normal ships. When Napoleon decides the French navy cannot make any practical use of the Nautilus, Fulton tries the British, who also reject it despite another successful test demonstration.

Smallpox and Social Science

In medicine, Edward Jenner’s experimental vaccine against smallpox, first developed in 1796, promises to revolutionise the approach to this killer disease. Observing that people who have been exposed to the milder cowpox do not contract the more deadly smallpox, he has devised the new procedure of vaccination (the word comes from the Latin vacca, ‘cow’), Louis Pasteur will later adopt the same principle for other diseases.

Philippe Pinel, working in Paris, is building a reputation for himself as the founder of modern psychiatry. This is not only for his advocacy of more humane treatment for the mentally ill, then called ‘lunatics’ or ‘the insane’, but also for his more empirical approach to the study of mental illness. In London, meanwhile, the first modern plastic surgery operation is carried out in 1814.

Scientific method is also being applied in the new ‘social’ sciences, although here results cannot be predicted with same degree of accuracy. And the general spirit of optimism that characterises science at this time does not necessarily apply. One of the ‘doomsters’ of the social sciences, for example, is Thomas Malthus, whose Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) argues that, since the population is growing faster than food production, starvation must soon follow. The 1801 census in Britain is carried out partly in response to the concern – sometimes bordering on panic – that Malthus’s theory has caused. The census finds that Britain (excluding Ireland) has a population of 10,501,000, which is thought to have doubled in 50 years.

Courtesy of Channel 4.
Image: The Cow-Pock, or, The Wonderful Effects of the New Inoculation! by John Gillray. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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1 Comment on An Overview of Scientific Advancements in Maturin’s Day

  1. subrookie // October 3, 2010 at 9:20 am //

    I’ve actually read some of William Smith’s (the amateur geologist) work. I believe he looked at coastal rock formations and how they had uplifted over millennia to argue that the creation date of 4004 BC was impossible.

    Anyway, our book series does allude to scientific advancement often. You could argue that with the exception of his telescopes, Aubrey is quite content to live in an earlier age. He wears the dress of Nelson, doesn’t believe in using flintlocks for the cannon. Preferring to use slowmatch instead. But, Steven is always reading and furthering scientific advancement. Writing papers on medicine and botonizing.

    Wasn’t the Polycrest supposed to be some kind of sliding keel ship that was a scientific advancement over all other ships? I never really could understand what that ship was supposed to look like.

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