Ordination in the Church of England required a university degree, but most ministers read classics and didn’t study divinity at all, and so had no training in how to preach, provide inspiration or solace, or otherwise offer meaningful Christian support. Many didn’t even bother composing sermons but just bought a big book of prepared sermons and read one out once a week. Though no one intended it, the effect was to create a class of well-educated, wealthy people who had immense amounts of time on their hands. In consequence many of them began, quite spontaneously, to do remarkable things. Never...
In Devon, the Reverend Jack Russell bred the terrier that shares his name, while in Oxford the Reverend William Buckland wrote the first scientific description of dinosaurs and, not incidentally, became the world’s leading authority on coprolites—fossilized feces. Thomas Robert Malthus, in Surrey, wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population (which, as you will recall from your schooldays, suggested that increases in food supply could never keep up with population growth for mathematical reasons), and so started the discipline of political economy. The Reverend William Greenwell of Durham...
Nearly all the American machines did things that the world earnestly wished machines to do—stamp out nails, cut stone, mold candles—but with a neatness, dispatch, and tireless reliability that left other nations blinking. Elias Howe’s sewing machine dazzled the ladies and held out the impossible promise that one of the great drudge pastimes of domestic life could actually be made exciting and fun. Cyrus McCormick displayed a reaper that could do the work of forty men—a claim so improbably bold that almost no one believed it until the reaper was taken out to a farm in the Home Counties...
The Great Exhibition offered a social breakthrough as well as a sanitary one, for it was the first time that people of all classes were brought together and allowed to mingle in intimate proximity. Many feared that the common people—“the Great Unwashed,” as William Makepeace Thackeray had dismissively dubbed them the previous year in his novel The History of Pendennis—would prove unworthy of this trust and spoil things for their superiors. There might even be sabotage. This was, after all, just three years after the popular uprisings of 1848, which had convulsed Europe and brought down...