Exploring new horizons

Laboratory aboard the HMS Challenger 1873-1876 Laboratory aboard the HMS Challenger 1873-1876

The continents of America, Africa, Asia and Australia were still mysterious for European explorers in the nineteenth century. Vast expanses remained unexplored and unmapped. The Victorians were eager to explore new territories in search of knowledge and wealth for Britain.

Voyages of exploration carried British scientists to all parts of the globe. Charles Darwin FRS sailed to the Galapagos Islands; John Gould FRS discovered new animals in Australia; Joseph Hooker FRS catalogued plants in the Himalayas; and James Clark Ross FRS made the dangerous journeys to the Arctic and to Antarctica.

Exhibition contents

Travel necessities

These items were used by Francis Galton FRS during his visit to south-west Africa in 1850-52. His popular book The Art of Travel (published in 1855) describes every aspect of the Victorian explorer's kit and gives useful tips for those planning expeditions of their own.
All artefacts are on display courtesy of the Galton Collection, UCL.

1. Bag with instruments for dissecting natural history specimens.

2. Sextant and protractor. Used to measure the height of a celestial object above the horizon, the sextant could help explorers find their latitude by measuring the sun at noon.

3. Hand heliostat. Galton designed this instrument himself. It enabled travellers to signal across long distances, either on land or at sea, by use of the sun's reflection. The user sighted the sun through one tube (which has an opaque filter in it), and then moved the mirror to view the target (such as another person) and then flashed them by moving the mirror back and forth.

Travellers' tales: books and archives from the Royal Society Library.

4. The Zoology of the Voyage of HMS Erebus & Terror, under . . . Sir James Clark Ross . . . 1839 to 1843, edited by John Richardson and John Edward Gray (London, 1846).

5. John Gould FRS, The Mammals of Australia (London, 1863). After visiting Australia Gould published lavishly illustrated volumes depicting the continent's birds and mammals, introducing many to the British public for the first time. The volume is open at a page showing the 'Spectacled Vampire'. Now known as the Spectacled Flying Fox, Gould named this species of bat himself.

6. Charles Darwin, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs (London, 1842). The volume is open to show a fold-out map opposite the title page. Darwin's map shows the location and type of coral reefs encountered during his voyage on the Beagle with with Robert FitzRoy FRS.

7. Joseph Hooker, Himalayan Journals (London, 1855). Hooker, a botanist, had travelled to Antarctica on the voyage of HMS Erebus. In 1847 to 1849 he undertook a long Himalayan expedition, collecting over 7000 plant species of scientific and commercial interest. His journals tell the story of his adventures, including being imprisoned by the local authorities, who were suspicious because Hooker was mapping their territory.

8. 'Suggestions as to the appointment of a Botanist to Dr. Livingstone's Expedition' by Joseph Hooker (1858). This was Livingstone's Zambezi expedition, intended to explore the African interior by sailing up the Zambezi river.

9. Alfred Russel Wallace, The Malay Archipelago (London, 1869). Arriving in 1854, Alfred Russel Wallace FRS spent almost eight years in the Malay archipelago. During this time he collected an astonishing 126,500 natural history specimens. His scientific work led him to the idea of natural selection, independently of Darwin.

10. Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of HMS Challenger during the years 1873-76 (London, 1884). The Royal Society funded the expedition of the Challenger, which discovered over 4000 species of ocean life and began the science of oceanography. The Challenger, a Royal Navy ship, was modified for scientific purposes by the installation of a chemical laboratory. A vast amount of data was gathered on topics including the ocean's temperature and depth in different places, zoology, currents, and the composition of ocean water.