The Victorians Were Really Smarter After All

Saint-Venant-TorsionI was pleasantly surprised to read in that some researchers are coming to the conclusion that Victorian era people were more intelligent than those of us who have come after.  With all the self-congratulating blather about the Flynn curve and just reflexive over-confidence, a corrective is in order.  (It’s probably too much to ask people these days to put on a little humility about anything, but I digress…)

Right: torsional analysis of tubing, from the work of Saint-Venant.  Keep in mind that both the math and engineering behind the analysis and the graphical production were done without the aid of a computer.

I’ve spent a great deal of time–especially in the last decade or so–documenting things and people from the Victorian era and immediately beyond.  Much of this concerns my family both at work and at play, but I’ve gone further afield as well.  I’m frankly inclined to agree with this assessment.  Here are some observations:

Victorians were, on the whole, more literate.  Since almost all their books are in the public domain and many have been scanned, it doesn’t take much of a search to realise that, for us, they are hard reading.  Much of that is due to the fact that Victorians were classically educated and often conversant in Greek and Latin.  (Just try to plough through any work on the Greco-Roman world and find the endless citations in both.)  And that’s even true on both sides of the Atlantic.  The United States in the nineteenth century was a literate nation but not a literary one, but the prose is still of good quality.

It’s easy today to blame the Internet on the poor standards of reading and writing we tolerate these days, but the downhill run since World War I has been driven in this country by at least two factors: the takeover of the public school system by the teachers’ trade union, and the corrosive effects of television.

The Explosion of Science, Without Massive Funding:  My geriatric foray into my PhD program has impelled me into look into a good deal of scientific history.  Although it’s easy to forget about it now, it’s really amazing how much the sciences advanced during the nineteenth century, and that without the computational tools we have today.  This is especially true in mathematics.  For example, learning about mathematical cubic splines (essential for programs like Adobe Photoshop) in numerical analysis got me to thinking: I wonder how much use my great-grandfather got out of real cubic splines in designing the yachts and other craft he did around the turn of the last century.

The yacht Thistle, which for twenty years plied the Great Lakes.

It’s also interesting to note that much of this advance was done without the massive government funding that is de rigeur today.  That is largely a legacy of the Cold War, but we act like it’s always been done that way.

A 1905 pile driver still at work in 2008.

Victorians had a better sense of the relationship between the theoretical and the real:  That speaks more to the industrial and civil works that were put out during the era.  Our tendency to specialise in either design or manufacturing or use have deprived us of the “big picture” in the design of manufactured products, buildings and other structures.  In those times most of those associated with theoretical advancements also had deeper involvement in practical problems, which often inspired the theory.

Many analyses of Victorian engineering achievements show limited opportunity for optimisation, given the building materials and construction techniques of the time.  Now we use computer aided design to compensate for that, but that leaves a decided dip in the quality of things between then and now.

These are just a few examples–most drawn from the scientific end of things–that should give pause for thought on our own self-designated superiority.


One thought on “The Victorians Were Really Smarter After All”

  1. I tend to agree with you, but I would qualify your statement about Victorian literacy. I think (without numbers to cite) that there were fewer literate members of society then than we enjoy today.

    Unfortunately we have increased the literacy rate while watering down the quality. Personally, I lay it all at the feet of the teachers unions. Truly literate members of society would not be as easily swayed by nor would television have as corrosive an effect.

    As for the dense prose of the Victorian era, I’m somewhat of the persuasion that not all of it was due to better education but more to less practice writing. I recall a story about an older pastor who got himself confused while preaching through Revelation and left his congregation more in the dark than when he began — members commented afterwards that the sermon was really deep that morning. He wasn’t deep, he was confused – and confusing!

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