Domestic Science: Victorian Naturalists at Home

Portrait of Charles DarwinPortrait of Charles Darwin

Science was a popular hobby in the nineteenth century. Even people without much formal education were able to take part - this included many women. Amateur scientists were most likely to study the natural world, and particularly enjoyed botany, butterfly-collecting and geology. Many books were published which explained how to identify plants and insects in local fields and gardens. People could collect different specimens, and study them at home.

Important scientists, such as Charles Darwin, conducted experiments and made observations in their own homes rather than in large laboratories. Darwin spent so much time in his study investigating barnacles that his son assumed all fathers behaved the same way: when visiting a friend he asked, 'Where does your father do his barnacles?'

This display reminds us that science is something everyone can do. Scientists don't always need expensive laboratories or complicated instruments: sometimes all they need is patience and good observation skills.

Worm life

Darwin was fascinated by common earthworms. He kept them in pots in his study and observed them over many years. Previously farmers had thought worms were agricultural pests, but Darwin showed they play an important part in keeping soil fertile. In 1881 he published the results of his experiments, stating that he 'doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world' than lowly worms.

Do worms have ears?

Darwin wanted to know whether his worms could hear. He made a series of simple experiments: his son Francis played loud notes on the bassoon; his wife played high notes on the piano; and Darwin himself shouted at the worms. He discovered that the worms did not respond to these noises except when they were placed right near the piano. Darwin realised that the worms were very sensitive to vibrations rather than sound - they could feel, but not hear.

Of ants and men

John Lubbock, Darwin's neighbour, was fascinated by the social behaviour of ants and wasps. Were these tiny creatures communicating with each other? They certainly seemed to be co-operating in building their nests, finding food and raising their young. Lubbock kept several ant nests in his study. With the help of his daughters and their governess he observed his ants constantly for over seven years. After watching their behaviour he concluded that ants might be next to humans in the scale of intelligence.

Events and exhibitions

We run a programme of regular events, conferences and exhibitions on the history of science for researchers and members of the public.

Audio recordings and video recordings are available for many of our events.

An archive of some of our past exhibitions is also available.