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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century
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Imperial designs: technology and empire in the 19th century

Advertisement page with image of the Horton Kirby paperworks, South Darenth, Kent set within various advertisements for goods and equipment.Horton Kirby Paper Works, South Darenth, Kent.This exhibition covers the period when Britain experienced the peak of her imperial and industrial power. In the years 1815 to 1870 she was undoubtedly the ‘workshop of the world’, and there was no rival posing both a military and an economic threat.

The Great Exhibition of 1851, coming as it did only three years after the 1848 revolutions had violently disturbed Europe, reminded visitors that Britain had already completed its first industrial revolution when most other European states had barely embarked on theirs, and was reaping the ostensible benefits of a markedly lesser degree of political and social unrest.

Many Victorians, however, viewed technological and economic progress as a harbinger of, not a barrier against, social instability; the railways are a case in point.

By the end of the 19th century Britain no longer enjoyed this pre-eminent status, even though the reach of both her formal and informal empire had extended. Some of the reasons for this change in fortunes are implicit in this exhibition.

In an internationalised economy Britain could not keep the benefits of steamships, railways and the electric telegraph to herself. British investment in American railways directly facilitated the emergence of an economic competitor after the American Civil War, and the British construction of railways in India assisted powerfully in the development of a nascent Indian national consciousness. The stupendous achievements of British engineering held a paradox: British financiers and engineers undermined Britain’s power, even while most Britons thought that these achievements buttressed this power.

Our choice of exhibition theme reflects the leading role which King’s has long played in the study of imperial and Commonwealth history and its more recent involvement in another academic discipline, that of the history of science and technology. King’s has a proud record of success in scientific research, exemplified in this exhibition by the work of Sir Charles Wheatstone, one of the inventors of the electric telegraph.

In curating this exhibition we have drawn on various holdings of the Foyle Special Collections Library: the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Historical Collection, the Early Science Collection and Wheatstone’s own personal library.        

Exhibition curators: Brandon High and Adam Ray

PLEASE NOTE: This exhibition originally ran from 10 October - 14 December 2013 in the Weston Room of the Maughan Library, King’s College London, and is now available to view as an online exhibition only.

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