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In 1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, his groundbreaking work on evolution by natural selection. The idea has been controversial ever since, but it changed the way we see the world.

What other world-changing science took place in the 19th century? This exhibition investigates Victorian geology and palaeontology, exploration and expeditions, the invention of photography, and the beginnings of anthropology and psychology. See the Victorian discoveries and inventions that laid the foundations for the modern world.


Fossils and dinosaur-hunters

Pieces of stone that looked like bones had been found for centuries along Britain's crumbling shorelines. But in the nineteenth century fossil-hunters like the famous Mary Anning discovered complete sets of bones belonging to frightening creatures from the past. Richard Owen FRS, an expert anatomist, named these dragon-like creatures 'dinosaurs'.

Victorian geologists such as Gideon Mantell FRS were fascinated by fossils and their evidence of extinct species. For the first time, maps of the earth's crust were drawn showing how the land had changed over the ages, with sea-beds becoming part of cliffs. People began to realise that the Earth was much older than they had suspected. 

Exploring new horizons

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.

What makes people tick?

What determines who we are? Darwin's work on evolution discussed the way animals inherit physical characteristics (like blue eyes or long beaks) from their parents. What about more complicated characteristics like intelligence and talent?

In the nineteenth century scientists and others became very interested in the human mind and body. In his anthropometric laboratory' Francis Galton FRS measured volunteers' chest and head size, arm strength, height and weight to see whether family members showed similar characteristics. However Galton is better-known for his theory that the human race could be 'improved' by selective breeding, which Galton called eugenics.

At the same time the English botanist Richard Spruce documented the people of the Amazon river basin and the Andes, trying to understand their language and culture.


Photogenic drawing

In January 1839, the mathematician William Fox Talbot FRS announced his invention of 'photogenic drawing' at a Royal Society meeting. People were amazed by the finely detailed pictures he produced of everyday items like lace and flowers. The Victorian craze for photography had begun.

From the beginning, photography was used by scientists to record the world in a new way. Plants, animals and even facial expressions could be captured and studied. Now it is difficult to imagine a world without photographic images. 

See all exhibits from 2009