Friday Five… Victorian inventions we can’t live without

Crapper toilet
It seems the Victorian era wasn’t all rats, rotting teeth and emptying your chamber pot onto the street. They gave us some pretty significant inventions as well.

Here are five of the best…

1. The Telephone

Well it’s no iPhone that’s for sure. It’s become as indispensable as a limb, but ask a child what a ‘Land Line’ is and they’ll stare at you dumbfounded. We’ve all had that momentary panic attack when we think we’ve accidently left ours at home, let’s be glad we don’t have to lug one this size around with us. Although many experiments were carried out by various scientists, the first commercially practical telephones were patented by Alexander Graham Bell in 1876. The first words spoken by Bell to his assistant were “Mr Watson – Come here – I want to see you.” Not exactly ‘One small step for man…’

2The Postage Stamp

With all the regulations now in place on the postage of letters (it will fit through the small letter slot, you just have to wiggle it a bit), it’s no surprise we sometimes get that annoying little postage card telling us the sender underpaid. Well this was standard practice once upon a time when charges were the concern of the receiver rather than sender (and we hate junk mail now… imagine back then!). Inspired by a poor young village girl who couldn’t accept letters from her fiancé because she couldn’t afford the fee, Rowland Hill invented the sticky postage stamp so the sender could pay as he sent the letter. The fee for postage was the fixed rate of a penny, thus the first stamp was christened the Penny Black.

3.     Coca-Cola

OK… so perhaps we can live without this one, especially dentists. Coca-Cola owes its beginnings to a vile tasting cough medicine, sounds appealing right? So vile was this medicine that in 1886 Dr John Pemberton thought up a concoction to disguise its taste. He invented sweet syrup, consisting of caffeine, coca leaves and the kola nut for flavour. He mixed this with fizzy water and Coca-Cola was born. Amazingly the recipe was never patented though some of its ingredients were kept secret. Three years after Coca-Cola appeared in shops another company made a very close copy of the recipe and named their product ‘Pepsi Cola’ – Looks like the Victorians also invented the Pepsi Challenge!

4The Vacuum Cleaner

Teens of today who complain about doing the vacuuming don’t know how easy they’ve got it. When the vacuum cleaner was first invented by Hubert Booth in 1901, Henry the Hoover would’ve looked like a smiley visitor from another planet. Early vacuum cleaners were so large they had to be transported from house to house by horse-drawn vans. The British Vacuum Company, established by Booth, was in charge of this operation. The actual vacuum machine would be left running on the street while the hose was thread through people’s windows. No wonder a spring clean only happened once a year!

5Flushing Toilets

The first flushing toilets were ridiculed in society, after all why would anyone want to do their business inside the house?! Anyone who has ever experienced the joy of a festival long drop may have something to say about that. The invention of the flushing toilet cannot be attributed to one person as it was the outcome of a process of evolution including various inventive brains. Two well know names are Thomas Crapper who popularised the siphon system for emptying the tank in the 1880s, and Thomas Twyford who built the first one-piece ceramic toilet in 1885. To be honest we’re not that bothered who invented the toilet, we’re just glad somebody did!

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Written by Aisling Serrant

An all round museum educator and enthusiast, Aisling's the Family Festival Coordinator at the Museum of London Docklands.

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