Scientific Discoveries in Victorian Times

Scientific Discoveries in Victorian Times

Queen Victoria was the British monarch from 1837 to 1901. This period, referred to as the Victorian era, was a time of rapid scientific progress both in Britain and elsewhere. For the first time, science was seen as a profession in its own right; the very term "scientist" was a Victorian invention, originally proposed by William Whewell in 1840. Major discoveries were made during Victorian times in all branches of science, including physics, astronomy, natural history and medicine.

1 Electromagnetic Waves

In the 1860s, the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell produced a set of equations that consolidated everything that was known at the time about electricity and magnetism. He went on to discover a theoretical solution of the equations that took the form of a wave traveling at the speed of light. This suggested that light itself was an electromagnetic wave, and that other such waves might be created using electromagnetic equipment. This was confirmed experimentally when the German Heinrich Hertz produced the first artificial radio waves in 1887.

2 The Planet Neptune

In much the same way that electromagnetic waves were "discovered" on paper before they were observed in the laboratory, the planet Neptune was the first astronomical body to be predicted by theoretical calculations before it was seen through a telescope. The calculations, based on anomalies in the orbit of Uranus, were first carried out in 1843 by a young Englishman, John Couch Adams, and independently duplicated by the French astronomer Urbain-Jean-Joseph Leverrier soon afterward. The calculations pinpointed the new planet's location with high precision, and Neptune was duly discovered by astronomers at the Berlin Observatory in 1846.

3 Dinosaurs

Paleontology, or the study of fossils, was still a young science at the start of Victorian times, and the idea that fossils were the remains of species extinct for millions of years was only gradually taking hold. The term "dinosaur," meaning "terrible lizard," was coined in 1842 by the British paleontologist Richard Owen, who went on to produce the first life-size reconstructions of dinosaurs based on the evidence of their skeletons. The Victorian era saw the rise of the first great dinosaur hunters, including the legendary American rivals Othniel Charles Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope.

4 Germ Theory of Disease

One of the most far-reaching scientific discoveries of Victorian times is something we now take for granted: that certain diseases are caused by microorganisms invading the body. A major breakthrough was made in the 1850s by a physician named John Snow, who carefully tracked a cholera outbreak in London to a contaminated water supply. A few years later the germ theory of disease, as it became known, was put on a firmer footing by the French chemist Louis Pasteur. Based on Pasteur's ideas, the British surgeon Joseph Lister pioneered the use of antiseptics, leading to a vast improvement in hospital hygiene.

Andrew May has more than 25 years of experience in academia, government and the private sector. A full-time author since 2011, he wrote "Bloody British History: Somerset" and "Pocket Giants: Isaac Newton" (to be published in 2015). He is a regular contributor to "Fortean Times" magazine, and also contributed to "30-Second Quantum Theory." May holds a Master of Arts in natural sciences from Cambridge University and a Ph.D. in astrophysics.