By Dr. Jeffrey A. Robinson
published in ezine July-Sept 2000
reprinted in Green Tentacles, Feb 2002

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.

Mass production techniques also changed the nature of war. Instead of guns being made one at a time by artisans, they were now mass-produced with interchangeable parts. They became cheaper and more plentiful. They were more reliable and, unlike flintlocks, could even continue to function in heavy rain. They were lighter. They could be loaded and fired faster. War became far more terrible. (Note than more Americans were killed in the Civil War than have been killed in all of the wars fought since, including WWI, WWII, the Korean War, and Vietnam.)

Advances in natural science led Darwin to publish his theories of evolution in The Origin of Species. These ideas again violated centuries of tradition and sparked another kind of civil war between evolutionists and creationists that still rages today.

During this same period, advances in chemistry spawned dozens of new disciplines. Photography was developed and was used to capture the new horror of war for the general populace for the first time. Gunpowder gave way to nitroglycerin and eventually to dynamite. Construction projects began on scales that would have been impossible before. Developments in chemistry also hastened advances in the medical sciences

Engineering became a science and construction standards that had been debated for centuries finally became accepted and persist today. In the latter part of the century, experiments in controlled flight laid the groundwork for additional advances in transportation (and war again). The science of aviation was born.

Advances in the production of glass allowed the manufacture of the first large telescopes and Lowell turned his new instruments to the heavens. He claimed to see canals on Mars and Man became enamored of new realms of possibility and imagination.

While one can easily argue that far more advances and changes have occurred during the twentieth century, more truly fundamental technological changes occurred in the nineteenth century. Many of our technologies are merely the consequences of the changes that began back then.

Perhaps it was this combination of social upheaval and disorder combined with these new advances in science that sparked the birth of science fiction. With all of the changes occurring around them, the people of those times could not help but ask what would happen next.

While magazines like Would That It Were focus on the science fiction of that era, the period between the revolutionary war and World War II still remains popular with many contemporary science fiction writers. Indeed, many of SF’s most popular authors are drawn again and again these remarkable years.

Harry Turtledove recently wrote a series about the Civil War in which he speculates what might have happened if the South had won the war. (The Guns of the South, How Few Remain and The Second War of the South).

A few years ago, Bruce Sterling wrote about a world that might have come about if Charles Babbage had finished the construction of his mechanical calculating machine, The Difference Engine. Can you imagine the Information Age hitting Victorian England’

Richard Dreyfuss and Harry Turtledove wrote an alternative history of the America’s, called The Two Georges, in which King George of England did not go mad, but rather remained sane and managed the New World Colonies so well that the Revolutionary War never occurred.

John Barnes has expanded such alternative Histories of still other eras into his Timeline series with the books Caesar’s Bicycle, George Washington’s Dirigible and Patton’s Spaceship.

With the massive number of changes that occurred in the 1800’s, it’s almost impossible not to ask, 'What would have happened if’' These types of questions, however, inevitably lead to speculations about worlds that never were but might have been. Whether on Earth in the past, in the far future or on a distant star, this is the essence of science fiction. 'What If’'

So popular is this era to modern science fiction writers, that Alternate History stories have almost genre of their own. This type of fiction is attractive because it combines science fiction with familiar, albeit historical, settings. Famous people suddenly reappear and have experiences that never happened. This combination of old and new is unique to this style of fiction.

Part of the attraction to this period is due to the remarkable number of changes that occurred on the world back then. Oddly, a century after these event, we are still pondering the scope and impact of the changes that occurred.

More than a hundred years later, this period of history remains an era of unprecedented opportunities... at least to imaginative science fiction writers.