BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE INGENIOUS VICTORIANS: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL IDEAS FROM THE AGE OF INNOVATION’

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Reviewer: NZ Crown Mines

Title: The Ingenious Victorians: Weird and Wonderful Ideas from the Age of Innovation

Author: John Wade

Total Number of Printed Pages: 288

Total Number of Illustrations: 139

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 8

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Many years ago, when discussing Victorian ‘inventiveness’ this reviewer was told that ‘The Victorians didn’t know something couldn’t be done, so went ahead  and did it anyway’. That, in essence, summarises this volume; the things that Victorians did because they didn’t know they couldn’t.

The author defines the ‘Victorian era’ as being the period 1837-1891 when Queen Victoria was Monarch  of both Great Britain and the lager British Empire,  this work  naturally tending to concentrate on the eccentricities, successes and failures of ‘inventive’ residents of Great Britain during this time.  As a result, the reader is introduced to such worthies as the builder of the Crystal Palace, the many inventors of the phonograph, and those involved in the design and construction of both Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament in London.  Many other individuals, some perhaps eccentric, who did feats of daring do during this period, also make their appearance  In addition, the subjects covered include such wonders as the world’s biggest camera, electric submarines and London’s well-known Cleopatra’s Needle. Although largely Anglo-centric in its focus, inventors and creations from Germany, France and the United States of America also make their appearance, their relevance to the topic under discussion being explained clearly and objectively.

This book is well written in a clear, easily-read and informative style. It consists of an Introduction, followed by 28 Chapters, each focusing on a specific subject. Within the individual chapter, photographs and engraved images provide visual reference to the subject under discussion. A Bibliography and Index are also provided, while the sources of the images used within the work are noted in a separate Picture Credits section.

Within this volume’s covers, and on the basis of its title, this reviewer expected to find examples of ‘Victorian Inventiveness and Ingenuity’ from both the United Kingdom itself, and from within the larger British Empire. The Victorian ‘Age of Innovation’ was, after all, a time where, as already noted, ‘The Victorians didn’t know something couldn’t be done, so went ahead and did it anyway’. In this expectation he was disappointed, finding instead that the work had a very definite United Kingdom, European and North American focus.

In addition (and despite the title) the work ignores Victorian inventiveness in the field of international commerce. In this reviewer’s opinion, the absence of such items (of which there were many) reduces its appeal and potential audience. Rather than being an authoritative discourse celebrating the inventiveness that saw Victorian Ingenuity accomplish the impossible in many parts of the world, the volume is inclined toward the ‘quirky’ rather than the practical. What results is essentially a narrative of curiousities and oddities.

There will undoubtedly be those who will purchase this work on the basis of the ‘oddities’ that it contains. Such buyers will be seeking a detailed recitation of the more eccentric aspects of the Victorian era, and for them this volume will serve that purpose well. Despite the emphasis on the ‘unusual’, purchasers seeking examples of commercial ‘Victorian Ingenuity’ could also find some of the information of use. Ultimately and despite the promise inherent within the title, for this reviewer, the eccentric has triumphed over the innovative and while the result is an interesting treatise, it could have been so very, very much more.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I would give it an 8.

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nzcrownmines is also available for book reviewing: Contact nzcrownmines@gmail.com

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘THE INGENIOUS VICTORIANS: WEIRD AND WONDERFUL IDEAS FROM THE AGE OF INNOVATION’

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