Dr Hannah Fry will explore the technology of the last years of Queen Victoria’s reign in Victorian Sensations, a new three-part series for BBC Four.
In the first episode of the series, Hannah investigates how innovations in science and technology — including the X-ray, safety bicycle and proto-aeroplane — transformed Britain in the 1890s.
The end of the 19th century marked the beginning of a new ‘Electric Age’ and Hannah discovers how electrical energy dominated the zeitgeist, with medical quacks marketing battery-powered miracle cures, and America’s new electric chair inspiring stage magicians to electrify their illusions. Electrical light was redefining the way Victorians saw themselves and the first houses were built specifically with electricity in mind.
With the arrival of the X-ray in Britain, Hannah delves into what astonished Victorians considered almost a superhuman power. This cutting-edge technology was a hit with the public, who found the ghoulish ability to peer under flesh endlessly entertaining. It was in the medical profession that X-rays caused a revolution and Hannah follows the story of unsung pioneer, Birmingham GP Dr John Hall-Edwards, as his work took him from everyday accidents to the Boer War.
While the unlimited possibilities of electricity ruled the imagination, it was a simple mechanical device that brought the greatest challenge to the social order: the Safety Bicycle. Bicycles offered freedom on a new scale for those that could afford them. For women they introduced a new independence.
But the Victorians still looked to the skies, and one technological landmark was seemingly in reach of engineers— the Flying Machine. Percy Pilcher led the way for British hopes of achieving powered flight. Hannah looks at how, after several successful flights, Pilcher designed a triplane with an engine he intended to fly… and then disaster struck.
The first episode of Victorian Sensations will be broadcast on 22 May at 9pm. You can watch the trailer here.