Simanaitis Says

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HOW THE VICTORIANS TOOK US To The Moon is Iwan Rhys Morus’s new book reviewed in Science, January 20, 2023. Both the book and its review by Bernard Lightman are thought-provoking.

How The Victorians Took Us To The Moon, by Iwan Rhys Morus, Pegasus Books, 2022.

Science reviewer Lightman writes, “Each of the book’s chapters introduces the reader to a different group of scientists and engineers who were central to 19th-century discoveries in the physical sciences, including the transatlantic cable, the railways, the telegraph and telephone, calculating machines, and flying machines.” Here are tidbits on the Science review, together with my usual Internet sleuthing and personal thoughts.

A Male Virtue, But Classless. Lightman cites Morus’s view that “Victorians considered self-discipline to be a masculine virtue, and their approach to science—then considered an exclusively male pursuit—reflected this.”

“Even a man who came from a humble working-class background, like the natural philosopher Michael Faraday, could become an exemplary man of science, they believed, because men knew how to discipline themselves (unlike women, who were ever ‘at the mercy of their uncontrollable bodies’).”


The image of engineering giant Isambard Kingdom (great name) Brunel comes immediately to mind.

Brunel with the launching chains of the SS Great Eastern steamship in 1857. Image by Robert Howlett

Heroic Figures. Lightman says, “Men of invention, such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel, John Henry Pepper, and Thomas Edison, were held up as powerful, charismatic, and heroic figures during this era. As Morus points out, however, this image of the scientific loner was an illusion. Scientific discovery and invention were often the product of the efforts of a multitude of expert workers.”

Heroic Women Too. For example, consider Ada Lovelace and her fundamental work with Charles Babbage and his Difference Engine and Analytical Engine calculating machines.

Augusta Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace, née Byron, 1815–1852, English mathematician and writer. Image of Ada Byron, c. 1835, from the London Review of Books, June 21 2018.

An Imperial World View. Lightman also cites imperialism: “Another strand of Morus’s argument brings in the imperial dimensions of 19th-century science. ‘All the technological innovations—actual and imagined—described in this book had imperial entanglements,’ he declares. By this, he means that they were dependent on the resources of an imperial power and that they themselves provided ways of maintaining and expanding the reach of empire.”

I’m reminded of an imperialist of note, Cecil Rhodes, telling a subaltern, “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life.”

Cecil John Rhodes, 1853–1902, British mining magnate and Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896. Portrait, c. 1900.

A Sobering Thought. “Morus ends with a sobering thought,” Lightman says. “Unreflectingly following the Victorian recipe for future-making sets limitations on how we might remake our own futures. There is no escape from the fact that the science that governs our lives is the product of an imperial, masculine culture. If, Morus insists, we want ‘to change science and its culture for the better, we need to start by remembering this history.’ ”

Indeed, it’s more faceted than imperialism and misogyny: I’m also reminded of another cultural aspect recently discussed in Science: the naming of the James Webb Space Telescope.

All the more reason to remember history. ds 

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2023

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