Heyday: Britain and the Birth of the Modern World

Posted on 10th March 2016 by Ben Wilson
Historian Ben Wilson sets the scene for his new piece of historical writing, Heyday: it is 1850, a tumultuous decade of change, ships are built, distant shores reached, and utopias were dreamt up...

It was just a blurry photograph, inconsequential out of context. But when I first came across it I realised immediately it was what I was looking for: an image that summed up the spirit of the tumultuous decade I was researching. The photograph, taken from a rooftop high above Broadway in New York City, captures part of an immense crowd of 500,000 people who gathered on September 1 1858. They were there to celebrate what they believed to be the crowning glory of their age, the laying of the transatlantic telegraph cable. New Yorkers celebrated long and hard; the photograph is a tantalising glimpse at the party.

The world seemed to have palpably shifted gear in the 1850s. I called my book Heyday because the word summed up a state of mind that pervaded that exhilarating decade. The barriers, both physical and manmade, that separated mankind were being blasted away by new technologies. State-of-the-art clippers – the sleek greyhounds of the ocean – set speed records that would not be broken until the end of the 20th century; hundreds of thousands of railway track scythed through what Victorians regarded as the wilderness and climbed precipitous mountain ranges; millions were on the move to settle new lands; and hitherto closed societies were being drawn into the global trading system. This was a time of boisterous boom towns that erupted out of the ground almost overnight, of astounding discoveries and turbo-charged economic growth.

But nothing symbolised the supposedly regenerative effects of modernity more than the international telegraph, which cut the transmission of news from weeks or months to seconds. ‘We have proved we can annihilate space and time,’ rhapsodised The Times. An American journalist prophesied that soon ‘the whole earth will be belted with electrical current, palpitating with human thoughts and emotions ... It shows that nothing is impossible to man.

The British did not celebrate as hard as the Americans. For one thing they stood at the centre of a web of global communications. News from the ends of the earth was brought at unprecedented speed by a baton race of steam ships, railways and telegraphs. The topsy-turvy 1850s saw gold rushes and rebellions, bloody wars and engineering breakthroughs. No less significant was the news revolution. Julius Reuter earned power and wealth by becoming the ‘master of time’, harnessing new techniques to supply a hungry public with piping hot news. Many of the epochal events of the time could be read almost in real time    .

The party in New York marked the highpoint of the utopianism that gripped the decade. It did not last long. The Atlantic Cable broke down within a matter of days. But like many failures, it proved to be a vital experiment. Engineers gleaned valuable lessons from the enterprise; within a few years the world really was girdled with cable. Few could escape the blizzard of news and exchange of information sent down the wires. Welcome to the modern world.

But despite these achievements, the outrageous self-confidence and utopianism of the 1850s quickly soured. Just as in our own time technologies that promised freedom and prosperity fell into the hands of the state, used for war and to suppress weaker peoples. The heyday of the Victorian age was a short-lived frenzy of accelerated change that shaped modernity and left victims in its wake. It is a chapter of history we are well placed to appreciate now.


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