The earlier years of Queen Victoria's reign saw the introduction of a number of scientific and industrial improvements in the world's social condition such as the whole history of the old world had not known. A new era, for which England and America may claim to divide the honours, came upon civilisation with a burst. The use of steam as the propelling power for ships and for carriages, became part of the real business of life about the time when English and American scientific men started the idea of sending messages by means of electric currents transmitted through metallic circuit. It is not necessary now to go into the question whether the priority of this idea belongs to Professor Wheatstone and Mr. Cooke on this side of the Atlantic, or to Professor Morse, the American electrician, on the other side. It is enough for us to know that the thought was put into words and into action on both sides of the ocean almost at the same time. England was beginning, and only just beginning, to be intersected by long railways. The London and Birmingham Railway was not opened through its whole length until 1838. The line between Liverpool and Birmingham had been opened in the year before; the Liverpool and Preston line and the line between London and Croydon were opened shortly afterwards. The railway experiment had been tried over very limited lengths of line before that time, both in England and in the United States; but the real development and popularising of the railway system began in these countries with the first or second year of the Queen's reign. The Act of Parliament ordering the transmission of the mails by railway was passed in 1838. In the early part of the same year three steamers, the Sirius, the Great Western, and the Royal William, actually made voyages between this country and New York. The Great Western started from Bristol and arrived in New York after a voyage of fifteen days. The Sirius left Cork and got to New York in seventeen days. Now these were not by any means the first experiments in the application of steam to the propulsion of ships.
The attempt had been made successfully, although of course within a limited range, in the United States for years before the Great Western crossed the ocean. For seven years the mail service from England to the Mediterranean had been conducted by means of steamers; but then there are steamers and steamers, and the first voyage of the Great Western settled once for all the question, which had been an open question up to that time. That question was whether a vessel could carry a quantity of fuel large enough to enable her to accomplish a voyage across the ocean, where there could obviously be no possibility of taking in a new supply if the original supply were to fail in mid-Atlantic. It was proved by the example of the Great Western and the steamers which followed her, that a vessel could carry stowed away a supply of fuel amply sufficient to propel her from Liverpool or Bristol to New York. Then again it has to be said that the Sirius and the Great Western were not the first vessels which attempted to cross the Atlantic by means of steam. But they were the first vessels which attempted to cross the Atlantic by means of steam alone. A vessel called the Savannah, which was built at New York, had crossed the ocean to Liverpool nearly twenty years before; and an English built vessel made by the help of steam several voyages between Holland and her Dutch West Indian Colonies. But then in these instances the voyage was made merely by the assistance of steam - that is, the vessel got all the help she could out of her steam and the machinery for its propulsion; but she made good use of her sailing power also; and had now and then for long intervals to rely upon her sailing power alone. It will be seen, therefore, that these voyages belong to a totally different class of enterprise from that which was represented by the successful achievements of the Sirius and the Great Western. It would be impossible, where steam was used only as an auxiliary, to reckon either on the speed or the comparative certainty of arrival within a given time, which was aimed at by the projectors of the great steamship enterprise.
The voyages of the Sirius and the Great Western closed the whole controversy, which was never reopened; and within two years after the first voyage of the Great Western the Cunard steamers were established and afloat, and steam communication between Liverpool and New York became as regular a part of the business of travel and commerce as the railway communication between London and Edinburgh. All this has since become so familiar to our minds and so completely a part of our social system, that we have long ceased to feel any manner of wonder at it, or even to take any account of it. In order to appreciate not merely the greatness, but the suddenness, of the change which revolutionised the world's travel, we have to bring up to our minds a recognition of the fact that living men saw the beginning of the one great change in the means of travel which the world has yet known. An Englishman in the days of Doctor Johnson travelled in just the same way as the Crusaders might have done. We do not mean to say that there were well-appointed mail coaches in the days of the Crusaders; but what we do mean to say is that in the days of the Crusaders men travelled just as fast as horses and sails could speed them, and no faster; and that in the first quarter of the present century the earliest signal was given that the whole system of travel was to be revolutionised. An Englishman of the present day would find himself much more awkwardly situated as regards travel and all means of intercommunication, if he were put back to the days of Doctor Johnson, than a man of Doctor Johnson's time would have felt if he could possibly have been put back to the days when the Romans began to make roads throughout Britain.
Many other scientific improvements in our social condition sprang into existence about the same time. The streets and houses of London in Johnson's day were lighted just as they might have been in the days of the Tudors, or for that matter in the days of the Romans. All that oil and tallow could do in the way of illumination was at the service of humanity at both periods alike. So far as drainage and ventilation were concerned, England had probably, on the whole, fallen off rather than made progress in the period between the time of Constantine and the period of Doctor Johnson.