Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


ALVIN TOFFLER wrote Future Shock in 1970, but certainly Sherlock Holmes experienced the late-Victorian/Edwardian equivalent of this disruption caused by accelerated change. Here are several examples.

The Telephone. During much of Sherlock Holmes’ career, 1874–1914, as the world’s first and greatest consulting detective, he relied on written or telegraphic communications and, indirectly, upon the agony columns of London’s newspapers.

In 1877, though, Sir William Thompson (later Lord Kelvin) exhibited Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. A year later, Britain’s Telephone Company Ltd was formed, with eight subscribers.

An early British telephone. Image from Owlcation.

With “The Adventure of the Retired Colourman,” 1898, the telephone makes its first appearance in Dr. John H. Watson’s chronicles: “Thanks to the telephone and the help of the Yard,” Holmes says, “I can usually get my essentials without leaving this room.”

Talk about his brother Mycroft’s notorious sloth!

By 1902, the telephone at 221B Baker Street is used routinely. In “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Holmes says, “We must now find out if our other correspondent is a fraud also. Just ring him up, Watson. “

Holmes says on the telephone, “Well, we shall be round about six.” Illustration by Howard K. Elcock for “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs,” Watson’s chronicle appearing in the Strand Magazine, January 1925.

Also in 1902, in “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client,” Holmes is told “The Carleton Club will find me. But in case of emergency, there is a private telephone call, ‘XX.31.’ ” Later in the same adventure, Holmes says, “… the General ‘phoned that all was ready….”

Unlisted numbers? “ ‘phoned”? Future shock moved quickly.

Electric Light. Gaslight had illuminated Britain since the early 1800s. By the 1880s, electricity arrived, first in street lighting, then for indoor use.

Yet candlelight persisted, with candle wax occasionally proving useful to Holmesian logic: In “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle,” 1887, Holmes deduces, “One tallow stain, or even two, might come by chance; but when I see no less than five…. … he never got tallow stains from a gas jet.”

Indeed, though, 221B Baker Street wasn’t an early adopter of electric lighting: In “The Case of the Dying Detective,” 1887, Holmes says, “You will now light the gas, Watson, but you will be very careful that not for one instant shall it be more than half on.”

221B Baker Street, as recreated at the Sherlock Holmes Museum, London. Image from Smithsonian magazine.

What’s more, I can conjecture that if ever electricity were installed at 221B, its wiring would have been external to the walls in rectangular conduits, just as it appears today in older English residences.

The Automobile. In his early career, Holmes was familiar with horse-drawn transportation: “The ordinary London growler [slang for a four-wheel cab] is considerably less wide than a gentleman’s brougham,” he noted in A Study in Scarlet. Indeed, I’ve offered my own modest monograph on late-Victorian transportation in ”Holmes’ Wheels”.

Then, around the turn of the century, along came the motor car. By 1914, Holmes saw the automobile play several roles in “His Last Bow.” See SimanaitisSays “Motor Holmes”.

The culprit, Von Bork, who drove a “huge 100-horse-power Benz,” was finally “hoisted, still bound hand and foot, into the spare seat of the little car” (which could well have been a Ford Model T Coupelet).

The Aeroplane. Samuel F. Cody made Britain’s first aeroplane flight in 1908. There’s no Canonical reference of Holmes ever witnessing flight, though I’d conjecture he had splendid opportunity in the 1911 Circuit of Britain Air Race.

Recreational Drugs. In the 1860s, “Dark England” had its opium dens. In 1868, Britain’s Pharmacy Act was its first regulation of dangerous substances. The act’s impact: Victorians then had to buy their cocaine, heroin, laudanum, morphine, and opium from what the Brits call chemists (we call them drugstores).

Cocaine originated in South American Erythroxylon coca leaves. By the mid-1800s, it was used for everything from dandruff cures to toe cramps. Sigmund Freud was one of the leading medical advocates of coke.

And, as is well-documented in the Sherlockian Canon, Holmes occasionally shot up: “It is cocaine. A seven-percent solution,” he said to Watson in The Sign of the Four, 1888. There was no particular future shock in this, just mitigation of boredom between adventures. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

One comment on “HOLMES’ FUTURE SHOCK

  1. Mike B
    January 15, 2018

    >What’s more, I can conjecture that if ever electricity were installed at 221B, its
    >wiring would have been external to the walls in rectangular conduits, just as it
    >appears today in older English residences.

    I can see the use of external conduit in buildings with masonry walls that would be difficult to tunnel through. But in San Francisco (and probably other places, including undoubtedly a few in England) the wiring was sometimes installed through the gas pipes, especially where a light was to be installed in the ceiling where a gaslit chandelier was originally hung, or in a wall sconce. That was the way electric lights were added to my grandmother’s place, which survived the 1906 quake. I could easily see Holmes adding lights that way, though the external conduit (rather than knob & tube in the walls) would probably be the way to install plugs and the like.

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