This list is just my choice of prominent Victorians from all the many possibilities. The Victorian age was such a time of innovation and change, and spanning 64 years, provided a great number of people to select from. I have included those born before the Victorian era, and those who died afterwards: the main selection criteria being that they lived part of their life between 1837 and 1901. The list is far from complete and will be added to as time goes on, but if you have any burning nominations, then drop an email.
Scientists and Inventors, Engineers and Explorers
Elizabeth Garrett Anderson
Dr Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836-1917) was born in Whitechapel, London. She was educated at home and private school and formed the intention of becoming a doctor, something that was unheard of for a woman at the time. She tried unsuccessfully to obtain admission to various medical schools, but eventually resorted to private tuition. She tried to gain a qualifying diploma allowing her to practise medicine, but was refused by several examining bodies, but eventually the Society of Apothecaries allowed her to sit for her qualification, which she obtained in 1865, only the second woman in Britain qualified to practise as a doctor. In 1866 she began work at St Mary's Dispensary, which served the poor of London, and continued working there for 20 years during which time it became the New Hospital for Women. She obtained further medical qualifications including becoming a member of the British Medical Association, who subsequently banned the admission of further female applicants for a number of years. She founded the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. In 1908 she was elected mayor of Aldeburgh, the first female mayor in England.
Joseph William Bazalgette
Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891) is most renowned for his work on improving the sanitation systems of London. He was an English Civil Engineer, and as the chief enginner of London's Metropolitan Board of Works, he had to respond to the Big Stink of 1858. This was accomplished by the creation of a sewer network for London which helped to stem the spread cholera, and by the cleansing of the river Thames, which had been little more than an open sewer. Sewage had been flowing openly through the streets of the Capital, and Bazalgette designed a system involved thousands of miles of sewers which were dumped untreated into the Thames, downstream of London. Sewage treatment centres were not built until much later, but several new pumping stations were established. His system is still in use today. He was knighted in 1875.
Alexander Graham Bell
March 3, 1847 – August 2, 1922. Bell was a Scottish inventor, scientist and engineer who is best known for his invention of the telephone. He is also credited with inventing the metal detector as well as having other successes in the field of aeronautics and hydrofoils.
Isambard Kingdom Brunel
Isambard Kingdom Brunel, FRS (1806 – 1859) was a great British engineer. He was born in Portsmouth to a French Civil Engineer and his wife. In 1808 the family moved to London and for a while Brunel was taught by his father. At the age of eight he was sent to boarding school in Hove. When he was 14 he was enrolled at the College of Caen in Normandy, then at Lycée Henri-Quatre in Paris. Unfortunately when Brunel was 15 his father was sent to debtors prison because of debts he had accumulated, however, recognising that they could lose a good engineer the government made an offer to clear his debts if he remained in Britain. Brunel completed his studies and became apprenticed to Abraham-Louis Breguet, a famous clockmaker.
In 1822 Brunel returned to England to work alongside his father who was the chief engineer on a tunnel under the Thames being built at Rotherhithe. He was badly injured in 1828 in an accident when the tunnel caved in killing several workers. He spent 6 months recuperating.
Brunel took part in designing a bridge accross the River Avon. He submitted four designs to a committee headed by Thomas Telford, but Telford rejected all the designs in favour of one of his own. This prompted public opposition, and a new competition was held, which Brunel won. Work began on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in 1831, but was suspended almost immediately because of local political unrest and riots. Brunel did not see the completion of the bridge which, at the time, was the longest in the world. Brunel also designed many bridges for the Great Western Railway, many of which are still in use.
In 1833 Brunel was appointed chief engineer of the Great Western Railway. He hoped that eventually the railway would link up with his ship, the Great Western, at a port in Wales, so that passengers could be conveyed to America. He made the controversial decision to use a broad guage for the track, even though it was different to the standrad introduced by Stephenson. He showed that the broad guage allowed for higher speeds, was more comfortable to passengers, and could carry a greater capacity of freight. The railway contained some impressive engineering, including viaducts, stations, signal boxes, and the longest tunnel in the world at that time, the Box Tunnel, nearly 2 miles long. Sometime later the railway was converted to standard guage to maintain consistency.
Brunel designed something called an Atmospheric Railway, which ran from Exeter towards Plymouth. Instead of using locomotives, trains were moved by a patented system of vacuum traction designed by Clegg and Samuda. Trains ran at almost 70mph. The idea was abandoned fairly quickly when it became apparent that the maintenance costs were very high compared to steam locomotives.
In 1835 Brunel offered his services free of charge to the newly formed Great Western Steamship Company with the proposition of building a steamship to go to New York. Many people thought it could not be done. The Great Western, when completed,, was the longest ship in the world. The ship was built mainly from wood and in a race against another ship the Great Western arrived only a day after the other ship even though it had started four days late because of an accidental fire a few days before launch. The Great Western made many commercial crossings to New York, and won the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing. His second ship, the Great Britain, was made of metal, and was propellor driven with an engine, similar to modern ships. She was launched in 1845 and made several crossings to New York before running aground of Ireland in 1846. She was salvaged and then used to take passengers to Australia. She is now open to the public in Bristol.
A third ship. the Great Eastern, was designed by Brunel. She was the largest ship ever built until the start of the twentieth century. Perhaps the project was ahead of its years, being too large for the travelling numbers of the time. She was instead used for the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable.
In 1854, during the Crimean War, Florence Nightingale sent a request for temporary hospital, and Brunel designed a prefabricated structure that would house 1000 patients. The dsign took Brunel only six days, and incorporated sanitation and drainage requirements. 16 ships took the structures to the Crimean and they were deemed a great success.
Brunel had married Mary Horsley in 1836 and they made their home in London. He had been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1830. Brunel and his wife had three children, one of whom also became a successful civil engineer. He later bought an estate near Torquay and built Brunel Manor which was to become his retirement home. Sadly he never got to see it completed, because in 1859 he had a stroke and died. His early death at the age of 53 was probably exacerbated by his heavy smoking habit. Today his name is still held in high honour as probably Britain's finest engineer.
Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821 - 1890) was best known as an explorer, but he had many other accomplishments. After University, where he showed a proficiency in langiages, he joined the army of the East India Company where, because of his grasp of languages, he was selected for undercover work, and adopted a disguise so that he could work as a spy on the Indians. He also participated in an undercover investigation of a brothel that was offering young boys to visiting soldiers. Sent home on sick leave in 1850 he wrote a travel book of the Goa region.
In 1851 he obtained leave and got approval from the Royal Geographical Society for an expedition to Mecca an a Hajj (pilgrimage). He went in disguise posing as a Moslem, and although almost discovered, returned safely. In 1854 and 1855 he went on exploring expeditions meeting John Hanning Speke who was to accompany him on his most famous trip. This began in 1856 in Zanzibar and was intended to explore the tribes of the areas with the hope of future trade. They made it to Lake Tanganyika, which took them several months, and by which time both men were ill. They then went on to Lake Victoria which they were thought might be the source of the Nile, but having lost their surveying equipment and being in very poor health they were unable to confirm this. The two men returned to London separately, leaving behind a number of debts, and having fallen out with each other. Speke arrived first and immediately staked a claim as the discoverer of the true source of Nile. Burton, Livingstone and others were not convinced that Lake Victoria was the true source. To help settle the matter, a debate was scheduled between Burton and Speke, but on the day before Speke was found laying dead from a gunshot wound. It was speculated that it might be suicide, but the coroner ruled that it was accidental.
In the latter part of his life Burton served in the Diplomatic Service, although he still found some time for exploring. He also co-founded the Anthropological Society of London as well as translating erotic books including the Kama Sutra. He wrote and translated a number of other books.
12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882. Darwin was an English naturalist most famed for his theory of natural selection, which led to the theory of Evolution. Darwin thought that eventually various missing links would be found. He spent 5 years travelling on scientific exploration and in 1859 published On The Origin of the Species.
John Boyd Dunlop
5 February 1840 – 23 October 1921. Another Scottish inventor, who initially pursued a career as a veterinary surgeon. His pneumatic tyre was invented for his son's tricycle in 1887. The invention came at the time of the development of the motor car, but because of a problem with the patent Dunlop never became rich from the invention, and continued to earn his living as a vet.
Thomas Alva Edison, 11 February 1847 – 18 October 1931, was an American inventor, scientist, and businessman who invented many things including the phonograph, the motion picture camera and with Swan, the electric light bulb. He also had many inventions in the field of telecommunications. He also originated the concept of electrical power distribution and established a power station on Manhattan Island. He founded 14 companies including General Electric, one of the largest public traded companies in the world.
Michael Faraday, FRS (1791 – 1867) was born in Newington Butts, London. His family were poor and could not afford to educate him, so he did his best to educate himself. He became apprenticed (for 7 years) to a bookseller and was able to read many books to further his learning. He became interested in science and electricity. At the end of his apprenticeship he attented a series of lectures given by Humphry Davy. At the end of the lectures he sent Davy 300 pages of notes he had taken at the lectures. This so impressed Davy that, following a laboratory accident which damaged his eyesight, he took on the young man as his secretary. Subsequently, when one of the Royal Institution assistants lost his position Faraday was appointed as Chemical Assistant.
Because of his social class, Faraday was not treated as an equal, and he thought about giving up chemistry, but fortunately decided to persist. He married Sarah Barnard in 1821 and they had a long marriage, but produced no children. Faraday had a strong Christian faith which inspired him in his work.
Even as an assistant to Humphry Davy he clocked up an impressive list of discoveries including benzene, compounds of chlorine, and the liquefication of gases. He also descovered electrolysis. However he is best known for his work in electricity and magnetism. He devised an early form of motor. He discovered the principle of megnetic inductance, wherein a current in one coil is induced into an adjacent coil. He also found that a magnet moved through a loop of wire induced a current into the wire, and this was plotted mathematically and is now known as Faraday's Law. He also demonstrated that contrary to the opinion of the time, there were not various types of electricity, but one type of electricity which possessed changing values of quantity and intensity (current and voltage). He went on to discover diamagnetism, properties of polarised light, and what is now known as the Faraday Cage.
Faraday held a number of positions at the Royal Institution including a professorship and from 1825, Director of the Laboratory. He also assisted in numerous government projects ranging from investigating explosions in coal mines through to the construction and operation of lighthouses. In 1827 he instituted the Christmas Lectures, which still continue to this day.
Faraday died at his house at Hampton Court in 1867 aged 75 years
10 March 1800 - 14 December 1871. Known as The Railway King, he was a financier of railways. Starting his working life as an apprentice draper, Hudson went on to become a partner in a York draper firm that soon became the largest business in the city. In 1827, following the death of his uncle, he inherited £30,000, then a large fortune. He went on to assist in establishing a bank in York.
In 1833 a group of businessmen were looking at establishing a railway line to Leeds and Hudson became Treasurer and the largest shareholder, but the plans ran into difficulties and were shelved. In 1837, while serving as Lord Mayor, Hudson met Stephenson and learned of his ambitious plan of a train service to London which ran over a number of railway lines, each run by separate companies. This meant that at each change, a passenger would be required to change to a new carriage, and buy another ticket. Hudson worked to establish the Railway Clearing House in 1842, which managed and allocated fare and freight revenue, dividing it between the various railway companies. By 1844 several lines had merged to form the Midland Railway. He later became an MP.
In 1859 he was suddenly ruined by the disclosure of fraud in the Eastern Railway, and it was also found that he bribed some MPs. He lived his later life dependent on the support of a number of his friends.
William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin OM, GCVO, PC, PRS, PRSE, (1824 – 1907) was born in Belfast. His mother died when he was aged six and he and his brother were tutored at home by their father. In 1832, his father was appointed professor of mathematics at Glasgow and the family relocated in 1833. He had heart problems and very nearly died at age 9. He began studying at Glasgow University at the age of 10, the University providing a school from promising young pupils. He went on to study at Peterhouse, Cambridge. Hee produced much promising work which was noticed by the scientific minds of the day. He went on to be appointed to the chair of natural philosophy in the University of Glasgow at the age of merely 22. He went on to work on heat and produced several hundred scientific papers.
Kelvin married childhood sweetheart Margaret Crum in 1852 but her health broke down on their honeymoon and, for the next seventeen years, Thomson was distracted by her suffering. He was re-engaged with scientific work when he became involved with the laying of the first transatlantic cable. Kelvin contributed many ideas and invetions, some of them in opposition to Wildman Whitehouse the Chief Engineer. After Whitehouse fatally damaged the cable by applying too much voltage, Kelvin led a committee that redesigned a second cable. That failed when, after 1200 miles, the cable was lost. A third cable was successful, however, and Kelvin received much accolade. He took part in further cable laying expeditions and developed nautical tastes, buying a 126 ton schooner of his own. Following the death of his first wife in 1870 he met his second wife through his seafaring, and married in 1874.
Other work included the establishment of electrical standards and the improvement of the ship's compass.
Throughout his life Kelvin was a staunch Christian and his views as a Creationist brought him into conflict with followers of Darwin. He discovered that the sun could not have existed long enough to allow for the slow development of evolution. He died in 1907 and his body is interred in Westminster Abbey.
5 April 1827 – 10 February 1912. Lister was a surgeon and a professor of surgery when he became aware of the need to observe antiseptic conditions in hospitals. Up to this time it was thought that bad air, called miasma, led to infections. His findings were published in the British Medical Journal in 1867 and led to introduction in the UK and the world. In particular surgeons washed their hands between treating patients.
David Livingstone (1813 – 1873) is perhaps best known for the popular quotation, "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" following a meeting with HM Stanley. He was a Scottish explorer who became famous for his obsession with finding the source of the Nile. He was a popular hero in Victorian times, a medical missionary who served with the London Missionary Society. After missionary work in Africa from 1840, he made several exploratory trips into the African interior from 1852. In 1857 he resigned from the LMS and was then appointed as Her Majesty's Consul for the East Coast of Africa. After various expolorations which met with limited success he went to Zanzibar in 1866 to seek out the source of the Nile. Unfortunately as a result of confusion with another river he failed to find the object of hiis quest, but he did make many other interesting discoveries which added to the maps of the region.After contact with Livingstone was lost a newspaper sent Henry Morton Stanley to find him, which he did, finding that he was now a sick man. He survived a few more years before dying in Africa, with his body being brought back to be interred in Westminster Abbey.
Edmund Alexander Parkes, 29 December 1813 - 29 June 1890. Although perhaps a lesser-known Victorian inventor, the discovery of Parkes is to be found in every household. Although he was a metallurgist and involved in electroplating, it is for the discovery of Parkesine in 1855 that he is best known. Parkesine, by the way, was the first form of plastic.
James Starley, 21 April 1830 - 17 June 1881, was styled Father of the Bicycle Industry Starley was an English inventor who began his working life as a gardener, but he repaired clocks and devised gadgets in his spare time.
In his early twenties, Starley became involved in repairing sewing machines which were, at the time, rare and expensive. He later formed a sewing machine company in Coventry in 1861 with a business partner.
In 1868 the company started making bicycles, first velocipedes (bicycles with equal sized wheels), then penny farthings. Later developments included tricycles and tandems. Starley's sons continued to make bicycles after the death of their father, but Starley's nephew, John Kemp Starley made the most lasting improvement to biciyle design with the Rover safety cycle, which incorporated 26" wheels, a diamond shaped frame and a chain drive, very similar to the modern bicycle.
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9 June 1781 – 12 August 1848. An inventor and engineer who built the first public railway line in the world to use steam locomotives. He is styled "Father of Railways" and the Victorians considered him an example of diligent application to work coupled with a thirst for knowledge. He was born in a village near Newcastle and started his working life operating pumping engines. He invented a safety lamp for miners a short time before Sir Humphry Davy, but was eclipsed by the more eminent scientist, and Stephenson's lamp was only used in the North West, while Davy's was used elsewhere. He designed his first locomotive in 1814. He later went on to build other railways around the North of England including the Stockton and Darlington (renowned as the site of the first railway accident) and the Liverpool and Manchester railway.
Joseph Wilson Swan, 31 October 1828 – 27 May 1914 was a British physicist and chemist best known for the invention of the incandescent light bulb. Born in Sunderland, he served an apprenticeship as a pharmacist and became a partner in a firm of manufacturing chemists. In 1850 he began working on a light bulb which used carbonised paper filaments in an evacuated glass bulb. Although it worked, it had short life. He took a patent on it in 1860, but later improved the vacuum and filament with a further patent in 1878, a year before Edison. His house Underhill on Kells Lane in Low Fell, Gateshead was the first in the world to have working light bulbs installed.
In America Thomas Edison had been working on improvements to Swan's patent and came out with his own design which was marketed in America. Swan meanwhile had made further advances in the design and 1883 Swan and Edison founded the Edison & Swan United Electric Light Company. Swan was knighted for his work.
A lesser known invention of Swan was in the field of photography in which nitro-cellulose plastic was used to replace glass plates for negatives. He also patented bromide paper for producing black and white prints.
William Henry Fox Talbot
William Fox Talbot (1800-1877) invented a photographic process called calotype, a process on which most modern photography is based. He was also a noted photographer. He is considered the inventor of photography, having begun photographic experiments in 1834, five years before Louis Daguerre showed his pictures taken by the sun.
6 February 1802 – 19 October 1875. Wheatstone was born in Gloucester and became a prominent scientist of the Victorian era. As with many of his kind, Wheatstone invented a lot of things in addition to the one for which he is generally known. His credits include a concertina, stereoscope and an encryption device, but the Wheatstone Bridge, with which he is most associated, was not actually his own invention (being that of Samuel Hunter Christie), but Wheatstone demonstrated many uses for the device in measuring resistance in an electrical circuit, and demonstrated the formulae by which the calculation could be made.