Feb. 26, 2024

Science Fiction - Nineteenth-Century Technology and Society

Science Fiction - Nineteenth-Century Technology and Society

The nineteenth century was a time of great change and upheaval. It was also a period of great adventure and opportunity. Advances in science and technology induced much of this change and had widespread effects on society.

In our generation, we've become accustomed to the rapid development and introduction of new products and have become addicts to the speed of change. We eat fast food, have instant access to information and communication, and take for granted the benefits that technology has wrought. Many feel that while we've gained much, we've lost our appreciation of tradition and have become impatient and spoiled.

Our retrospective to the nineteenth century is more than mere nostalgia, however. In order to understand the scope and impact of technology on society, we have to first recognize how truly remarkable and earth shattering the changes of this period were. While we've become accustomed to rapid change, such rapid alterations to the world was unprecedented back then.

Back then many of the practices and techniques of manufacturing were based upon generations of tradition and craftsmanship. Many skills were carefully guarded and were only passed down to family members or apprentices who spent decades earning their mater’s trust. Many of these traditions had been a major stabilizing aspect of society for generations and had been responsible for secretly preserving much knowledge during the Dark Ages. They were not easily ignored.

Thus, when new manufacturing techniques were developed and many trade skills were made obsolete, traditions were abandoned and the effects were immediate, widespread and traumatic. The advent of science in industry truly was an Industrial Revolution. People were displaced. Centuries of practices and conventions were forsaken. Generations of unquestioned wisdom became suspect and the much of what was accepted, familiar and true was suddenly wrong. The magnitude of the social changes that followed were unprecedented. Wars were fought. Empires collapsed. New organizations and institutions appeared in their place.


Consider the effect of industry and manufacturing on the work ethic. Where work had been based for centuries on the tradition of guilds and trades in which skills were carefully safeguarded, the factories of the Industrial Revolution opened up jobs to unskilled laborers. The age of guilds and apprenticeships passed away and new economic institutions appeared.

Industrialized cities experienced phenomenal growth as people, for the first time, left their homes and villages and took up jobs to work with strangers. Flocking to crowded cities, people worked longs hours for low pay. (Modern management techniques were yet to be developed). The competition of these more efficient factories caused the collapse of many family owned cottage industries and displaced still more people who, in turn, fled to the ever growing cities to earn their bread.

Some of the immediate results included growing slums, increased population densities and increased crime. Many families, now deprived of their livelihoods, decided to start anew and a migration of immigrants began to the New World, a land of opportunity. This exodus of people from Europe fueled the birth and growth of the United States but, in turn, displaced and destroyed the remaining Native American cultures.

As new manufacturing techniques and advances in science continued, economic change tore the United States apart. A once balanced national economy suddenly became divided between an industrial North and an agrarian South. To compete with the new efficient production of the Northern States, the Southern States became increasingly dependent upon sources of cheap labor. Where slave labor had been tolerated before, it now became an economic necessity. Failure to compete in the marketplace meant economic collapse. The South was literally fighting for its life. The Civil War was fought more over economics than ideology. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation was meant to break the economic back of the South more than it was intended to promote racial equality.

Consider some of the technological changes that occurred during the 19th century. With the development of new large-scale metal working techniques, steam power become possible and popular. Railroads appeared and spawned the mass migration of entire populations. Towns and cities sprang up where they would never have appeared before. Commerce boomed. Fortunes were made and a new class of rich appeared.

Advances in science included the codification of laws of electromagnetism by Clerk Maxwell, and the further refinement of electricity, which had been a mere curiosity before. The telegraph, electric lights, and eventually radio followed. Each of these inventions changed the world in turn.

And the advent of such new technologies drove changes not only across thw rold but into the realm of literature and writing as well.

(continued next week in part 2 of Science Fiction - Nineteenth-Century Technology and Society)