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Victorian England: An Overview of the engineering and technological achievements

The Victorian Era in English history begins with the ascendance of Princess Alexandrina Victoria to the English throne in the year 1837 AD. Born in 1819 she was crowned Queen of England after the death of her uncle King William IV and after a long reign of 64 years, she died in 1901 from a cerebral haemorrhage.

This period is sometimes referred to as the golden period of the English Empire. It is marked by some very unique and historical achievements in the field of engineering and technology due to the efforts of some of the greatest pioneers. This period also coincides with the industrial revolution that ushered in the Modern age. Here is an overview of some of these very singular achievements.

Any compilation of the engineering and technological achievements in the Victorian Era would be incomplete without the mention of Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Brunel can be considered an engineer, a pioneer and a thinker all rolled into one, for his long list of achievements including the creation of the Great Western Railway, famous bridges, steam ships, the famous Thames tunnel amongst numerous others. Let us recount some of them.

In the first half of the 19th century, the industrial revolution had already set in and attained a foothold in England. But still it was evident that without an efficient transport system all efforts would come to nought. So the British set about building the world's greatest and most efficient rail and road network. Prior to the advent of cars, railways were the fastest and surest mode of transporting men and materials. And foremost amongst those British builders was Isambard Brunel.

Brunel started his career by assisting his father during the making of the famous Thames tunnel. Despite numerous setbacks and delays the tunnel was completed in the 4th decade of the 19th century and it was only due to the steadfastness of young Brunel. The tunnel was a first of its kind, built under a navigable river still in use.

Brunel later designed the famous Maidenhead Railway Bridge over the river Thames in Berkshire, which was opened in 1838. At its time it was the flattest, widest, "brick arch" bridge in the world. In 1855 Brunel designed the Royal Albert Bridge, which was inaugurated in 1859 by Prince Albert himself, husband of Queen Victoria. Brunel is also attributed with the designing of the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol over the river Avon, which was the world's longest suspension bridge at the time of conception. The work on this bridge began in 1862 and was completed in 1864.


One of the greatest achievements of Brunel is the creation of the Great Western Railway which extended from London to Bristol and was later extended to Exeter. Here Brunel advocated for the first time the use of Broad Gauge Tracks measuring 7 feet ¼ inch for increased carrying capacity and increased passenger comfort. At the time of creation, the Great Western Railway was one of the most efficient networks and set numerous benchmarks, setting Great Britain firmly on the track in the industrial revolution.

In the meanwhile Brunel set about solving the problem of transport across the globe. Steam power was the order of the day and steam ships were fast replacing the slower sailing ships. Brunel first designed the Great Western - a 236 feet wooden ship powered by sails and a paddle wheel - which set sail in 1837. Buoyed by his success Brunel, in 1843, created the famous ship Great Britain - a 322 feet behemoth. The Great Britain was the world's first iron hulled propeller driven ship to cross the Atlantic. Another great ship attributed to Brunel is the Great Eastern. Conceived in 1852, Great Eastern was the largest ship of its time and a precursor to the world's great ocean liners. Capable of carrying up to 4000 passengers, it was complete with the most advanced technology of the time. In 1860, it sailed non-stop from London to Sydney and back - a remarkable feat even today. Since global passenger transport had not yet caught up on a large scale, the Great Eastern was seldom used and was looked upon as a failure even though it was far ahead of its time. The massive ships greatest achievement came when it was used for laying down the Transatlantic Telegraph cable.

Another great contribution from Brunel was to the field of healthcare. With the onset of the Crimean War, the appalling conditions in which the wounded soldiers were treated was brought to the attention of the world by Florence Nightingale. She appealed to the British Government to help her find solutions to reduce the sufferings of the wounded. Isambard Brunel was amongst the first Englishmen who took the cause. In 1855, he designed the world's first prefabricated hospital made of wood and canvas which was setup in Scutari. It was a novel effort and saved the lives of thousands of wounded soldiers who would have otherwise surely died.

Along with health care facilities another interesting landmark was the building of the Sewer system in London, which was one of the greatest achievements of the Victorian England. The country and particularly the city of London that the Queen Victoria inherited, was plagued by numerous diseases in the absence of a proper system for sewage disposal. To control this Joseph Bazelgatte proposed the creation of the London Sewer System. He envisaged the creation of the 82 miles of sewage super highways over 1000 miles of street sewers and designed the London embankment which housed sewer, water pipes and underground rail systems. The sewer systems which opened in 1858 set the benchmark for sewage disposal the world over and led to the rise of other great modern cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Bombay, etc.

Technology in the iron and steel industry also kept pace as the demand increased tremendously. The Bessemer's process discovered by Henry Bessemer was one such achievement which helped to generate industrial steel from pig iron on a large scale for the first time. It was this steel that made possible the creation of the world's greatest and biggest buildings and machines that accelerated the industrial revolution.

Telecommunications followed suit and received another boost during the Victorian period, with telegraph cables being laid all through Great Britain and her colonies which facilitated instant communication - a remarkable achievement in itself. The summit of this process was reached with the laying down of the Transatlantic Cable from London to New York, which was put in operation from August 5, 1858 by Queen Victoria herself.

Another asset of the Victorian Era is the publishing of the "Origin of Species" by Charles Darwin in 1859, which laid the foundation of modern Natural history and led to a deeper understanding of the nature.

In 1882, the first incandescent lights were put on the streets of London, heralding the onset of the Modern Age of electricity being put to widespread use. With the development in the roadways and street lighting the Englishmen now found the Car as an efficient alternative to public transport. Though the invention was quite old but the pavement for its use had been laid in this era. This gave a further impetus to the evolution of the modern transport system and the British Automobile industry.

At the turn of the century the Victorian Era ended with the death of the famous Queen in 1901, but not before the firm establishment of the Modern Scientific and Engineering Principles. And it is only by standing on the shoulders of the great thinkers and engineers of the Victorian Era that the Modern world was able to look beyond the horizon of time.

Original Authors: Bishal Chakma
Edit Update Authors: M.A.Harris
Updated On: 23/07/2008

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