Today's Tech Bro and the Victorian Genius Both Reflect a False Narrative of ProgressRoundup
tags: history of science, technology, invention
IWAN RHYS MORUS is professor of history at Aberystwyth University in Wales and the author of several books on Victorian science. His most recent book is How the Victorians Took Us to the Moon.
Are tech bros the new Victorians? I’m sure they wouldn’t think so. In fact, I’m sure they’d be deeply insulted by the notion. The Victorians of our imagination are staid fuddy-duddies—and the captains of Silicon Valley are the cutting edge of the future.
But the Victorians, too, thought of themselves as masters of invention, just as tech bros do now. As we contemplate the role of new technology, and the men who dominate it, in everything from financial markets to climate change, the Victorians offer a cautionary tale and a glimpse of how we got to the place we’re in. By creating and perpetuating the myth that futures are built on the backs of heroic, self-made individuals, Victorians shaped today’s misbegotten sense that it’s lone genius mavericks—and not collaborative efforts—that shape our tomorrows.
Victorian innovators, like their contemporary counterparts, saw themselves surfing a wave of invention into a new technological century. Invention after invention transformed the Victorian world—steam locomotion, the electromagnetic telegraph, the telephone, wireless telegraphy, animated photographs, and of course, electricity: The list could go on.
So, who was responsible for this Victorian future? Who made it, and owned it?
In fact, progress was usually collaborative. The effort to lay a telegraph cable across the Atlantic, linking two continents in practically instantaneous communication, for example, required the collective labor of hundreds. But Victorian popular culture celebrated men of science and inventors as the future’s authors: Individuals who had the discipline, determination, and sheer grit needed to remake the world in their own image.
Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, a popular inspirational book published in 1859, treated readers to glowing biographies of men like these, including Sir Richard Arkwright, inventor of the spinning frame, and steam entrepreneur James Watt. Smiles urged readers to regard the biographies of determined men as gospel—a truly shocking thing to say at the time.
“Watt was one of the most industrious of men,” wrote Smiles, “and the story of his life proves, what all experience confirms, that it is not the man of the greatest natural vigour and capacity who achieves the highest results, but he who employs his power with the greatest industry and the most carefully disciplined skill.” Inventors were special men, the thinking went (and it goes without saying that, just like tech bros, they were men).