Some very weird and wonderful things were created during the Industrial Revolution (c. 1750-1900) and the 1850s in particular – the same decade that Ballarat’s gold rush got underway – saw some fascinating inventions and innovations.
SS Great Eastern (ship) – Isambard Kingdom Brunel was an incredible engineer and designer during the early 1800s. He was a pioneer of steam-powered travel, and the SS Great Eastern was his third iron-hulled, steam-powered sailing ship (it had sails to use the wind and a steam engine when it was calm). This “Great Babe” as he called it, was specifically designed to bring travellers from the UK to Australia – 4,000 at a time to be exact – without needing to stop and refuel anywhere along the way. This was the largest ship in the world when it was launched in 1858, but sadly it suffered damage on its first journey south. Find out more about this amazing man and his remarkable feats of engineering here.
Submarine Exploring Armour – Lots of submarine designs had been tested out since as early as 1580, but even in the 1850s they weren’t being taken too seriously. An American shoemaker named Lodner D. Phillips, patented (a design that is licensed for production and sale by one person or company) a submarine propeller design in 1852 which allowed his home-made subs to go down to 30 metres. Phillips also patented something much more interesting in 1856: submarine exploring armour. Little is known about the success of this invention; no one appears to have actually worn one to explore the deep.
Electric Whaling Apparatus – Hunting whales was big business during the 1800s; while the majority of Australian whaling was concentrated in Tasmania and New South Wales during the 1850s, Portland in southern Victoria produced tonnes of whale oil, meat and bone. Whale products were used to fuel street lamps, light train carriages, make corsets and beauty products, and provide protein in people’s diets. Even a type of whale pooh was prized – for perfume manufacture would you believe! In 1852 two German men decided to improve whale hunting technology by electrifying the whale harpoon (spear); once the harpoon pierced the skin of the whale, the animal would receive 8 electric shocks, which were guaranteed to kill it… Find out more about this invention here.
Dishwasher – The first dishwasher was patented in the US in 1850 by Joel Houghton. It was a wooden machine with a hand-powered wheel that splashed water on dishes. It barely cleaned anything but it was a starting point for the design of the electric dishwasher.Sewing Machine – Many people had tried to design a machine that could sew clothing, shoes etc. but none of the designs before the 1850s were particularly popular, practical or affordable. That was until Isaac Merritt Singer came along, combined earlier designs and lodged a patent for his foot-powered machine in 1851. “Singer did not invent any notable sewing-machine advances, but he did pioneer the hire-purchase system and aggressive sales tactics” (International Sewing Machine Collectors Society website). This eventually quite radically changed how people made their own clothes. Clothes that had traditionally been made (mostly by women) by hand, could now be completed in a fraction of the time, and this brought down the price of clothes and allowed the average person to own a greater variety of outfits and keep up with fashion trends. Apparently, “a sewing machine could produce a man’s shirt in about one hour, compared to 14 ½ hours by hand” (Draznin, Victorian London’s Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day, pp. 66–68). Singer had some legal trouble with previous sewing machine designers, but as he streamlined earlier designs, he is often credited with designing the machine that people still use in homes and factories today.
The Zip – Sick of dealing with slow and annoying buttons, cords and ribbons to do up your clothes? Elias Howe Jr. was, so he invented the first zipper-style clothing and boot fasteners. Patented in 1851, his “Fastening for Garments”, was described as an “automatic, continuous clothing closure”, but it didn’t really work very well. Howe got distracted by sewing machine designs, and another attempt at making a zipper wasn’t made until 42 years later.
Washing Machine – While the wash board had been invented in 1797, 1851 was the year the first drum (big bucket) washing machine was patented. An American by the name of James King set out the design groundwork for the modern washing machine; however his 1851 version was hand-powered. There were a few steam-powered washing machines being used in the UK and US during the 1850s, but they were huge and only affordable to big clothing factories and hotels. The invention of the electric washing machine changed the world.
Charcoal Iron – Before the electric iron was invented in 1882 by Henry W. Seeley, people relied on fires to heat up their irons to then press their clothes. The charcoal iron was patented in 1852, and unlike the simple flatirons (which you placed on your stove to heat up) in common usage before its creation, its base is a container to hold hot charcoal. Interestingly, at this time some irons were fuelled with whale oil or kerosene! The charcoal iron was considered a better option than most on the market as it stayed hot for a long time (and wasn’t fuelled by a flammable substance!).
Scarificator – This odd blood-letting device used by doctors to cure all kinds of illnesses, was already in existence in the early 1800s, but it was refined and improved by Frederick Leypoldt in 1851. Interestingly, Leypoldt was not a doctor, but thought that making a scarificator smaller was worth patenting. Find out more about this curious medical practice here.
Sometimes small, local inventions save lives
Ballarat Hook – Many of the miners who came to the Ballarat goldfields were middle-class, well-educated men. When they realised that having a heavy bucket of rocks and mud (and hopefully gold) swinging above your head on a flimsy “S” hook while you stand at the bottom of a mineshaft was a little scary, they developed a solution to this potential disaster. The Ballarat Hook keeps you safe below while still allowing you to easily release the bucket at the end of the day to take it home for safekeeping.
Links and References
The Industrial Revolution and the history of human energy use – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EM1IyIyr-Zc&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtNjasccl-WajpONGX3zoY4M
The history of sewing machines: http://ismacs.net/sewing_machine_history.html
The history of washing machines – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Washing_machine
Everyone wants a washing machine because they are magical – http://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_and_the_magic_washing_machine
The history of irons – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clothes_iron
Strange medicine – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bloodletting
Draznin, Yaffa Claire. Victorian London’s Middle-Class Housewife: What She Did All Day (#179), Contributions in Women’s Studies Journal, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2001, pp. 66–68.