“The Victorians Were Supermen”

That was Lex’s reaction to this photo:

Chapper Rift Baluchistan

Fred Bremner, Quetta/Karachi

Click the photo to see it at larger size with historical information.
More photos and information here.
UPDATE: Much more info about the bridge and railway line here (courtesy of Lex). Also, see the comments for some juicy book references.
UPDATE 2: Via Tim Worstall comes this fascinating story about railway construction across the Andes. (Check out the rest of the railway history site too.)

32 thoughts on ““The Victorians Were Supermen””

  1. There is a lot of good stuff about the engineering feats of the British in India in Daniel Headrick’s book The Tentacles of Progress: Technology Transfer in the Age of Imperialism, 1850-1940. Somewhat more tangential, I am on page 135 of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, which is excellent. Since this year, August 15, was the 60th anniversary of Indian independence, there were a lot of histories published. Guha’s sounded the best, from my reading of the reviews, and I have found it excellent so far.

  2. If you look at a world map I think you will see that outside of Europe, and with few exceptions, the places that were colonized are in better shape today than are the places that weren’t, and the places that are in the best shape were colonized by the English. Whatever achievements the ancient Egyptians had, the Egyptians, like many other now-dead civilizations, were largely unsuccessful in transmitting the information they acquired, and they certainly never did anything at a level of sophistication comparable to that required to build a steel railway bridge across a rift valley. We enjoy the fruits of English civilization today because the Victorians and their ancestors created remarkably successful legal, cultural and political institutions as well as technologies.

  3. Far be it from me to take anything away from the ancient Egyptians.

    Reading about the things the Victorians took on, the English and the Americans of the era and others, with technology which was pretty simple by our standards, is extremely impressive. There is a spirit of adventure and enterprise about the projects they took on which is very exciting to read about, e.g. in the Headrick book I cited above. They were constantly venturing beyond what anyone knew how to do yet, pushing the margins. Since their working materials were very “macroscopic” — iron, steel, stone, bricks, cables — the scale of what they were doing is still apparent to the untrained eye. Modern achievements in computers or biotech may be just as impressive in terms of effort and value, but they do not have the same eye appeal as massive works of civil engineering built in the era of steam power. Another angle into that era is the life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was the classic Victorian superman. And especially in Britain, the engineering works they built — such as railroad embankments and bridges — are still in daily use and visible all over the place. Lest you think I am being too Anglophilic, another example of breathtaking engineering from this era is the mighty and beautiful Brooklyn Bridge. And as a worthy non-English counterpart to Brunel, one of the greatest Victorian/Edwardian supermen was Jamsetji Tata, whose achievements are described in the Headrick book. Tata managed to become the Carnegie of India, despite discrimination and all kinds of opposition and hardships. A stirring tale indeed.

  4. “I am on page 135 of Ramachandra Guha’s India After Gandhi: The History of the World’s Largest Democracy, ”

    Is it your pic Lex, or are you quoted? I gotta get a copy!

  5. Seriously though, what year was this engineering feat accomplished?

    Zuk, think a minute. The Victorians could have built a pyramid, the ancient Egyptions couldn’t build a railroad.

  6. The Victorians of Anglosphere were giants. Will we see that individual intelligence, drive and daring again? Or has it all been done?

  7. “Or has it all been done?”

    We still see a lot of great things happening. We will see more in the future. We are on the verge on many breakthroughs in technology. These changes should be freedom-enhancing. We are coming up on a “time of troubles” in the Anglosphere and in the world, to be followed by a new configuration. Or so it seems to me.

    Bottom line: Great days lie ahead.

  8. With more distance, I suspect the twentieth century skyscrapers, vaccines, computers, genome-mapping, moon-visiting are going to remain pretty impressive achievements. Perhaps beside the point because it isn’t something we see, but a friend whose husband is a mathematician remarked in passing that we were in a golden age of math. I suspect people are seldom aware that they live in the midst of a golden age, they just know something exciting is going on – whether in the Elizabethan theater or Michelangelo’s Italy or immersed in building the pyramids. It took us a while to see how remarkably productive the Victorians were – they and we took it for granted.

  9. “… twentieth century skyscrapers, vaccines, computers, genome-mapping, moon-visiting …”

    The skyscrapers are cool, but they were not made on the cutting edge of technology, usually. People knew how to build them, and did it. It is not a pioneering exercise, and hence it is less impressive.

    “…vaccines, computers, genome-mapping…” Great stuff, but as I said, you can’t see it.

    The moon visit was a one-shot, so far.

  10. The Victorians certainly had more technology at their service than the ancients, but they still relied on a lot of workers with strong backs and simple tools. One thing that seems to be easily forgotten today is the tremendous human toll that was paid for those projects. A century ago, human life was simply much cheaper than we would even dare to think. How many laborers died building that bridge in the photo? Could the Panama Canal be built today, with the same casualties due to accident and disease that marked the original project? The sandhogs that excavated the foundations of the Brooklyn Bridge towers all suffered terribly from the bends. Many ended up permanently crippled. (Nobody knew what caused it at the time.)

  11. Such a thing could never be built today. The environmental impact statement would doom the project before the first spadeful of dirt could be turned.

  12. Ok, taking up the gauntlet of visible 20th century wow:

    Communications satellites
    Transcontinental flight
    Reverse osmosis filtering (the whole ‘greening the desert’ thing)
    Really long bridges
    carbon nanotubes

    I also disagree that skyscrapers were done with less than cutting edge technology. There often were technological innovations that let us get just a little higher. That’s why having the tallest building still gives national bragging rights.

  13. If you want to look for what is fundamentally wrong with this country, you really need to look outside our native criminal class in Washington and outside the simplistic statistics that get spun one way or the other.

    There was a time in this country when ‘steely eyed engineers with thewes of steel’ were celebrated as heroes.

    Whose names do our children know? Soldiers? Doctors? Scientists? Engineers? Inventors? Can we ourselves even name the great men and women of our age? Yet we all, even those who seldom watch TV or go to the movies, could probably rattle the names of 200 or so actors off the tops of our heads. Ditto atheletes. Something has gotten out of proportion.

    If you want to trace back why things are falling apart, you need to look beyond the bandaids and vagaries of politics and look at the changes in our core cultural values.

  14. Comparably great achievements are within our power too, but first we would have to take ten thousand politicians and a million lawyers out behind the woodshed and shoot them all dead.

  15. >Such a thing could never be built today. The environmental impact statement would doom the project before the first spadeful of dirt could be turned.

    I can’t shake from my head the notion that there comes a time in the lifecycle of a nation where some group of people have to step up and enforce some sort of loyalty/cultural-change regime onto the political system. Something like a non-religious Council of Guardians that Iran has.

    Or do we just let the culture decay into an unsalvagable wreck?

  16. “I suspect people are seldom aware that they live in the midst of a golden age”

    The poet Randall Jarrell said, “People in a golden age complain how yellow everything looks.”

  17. Yeah, pyramids. So hard to build. It’s not like stacking blocks you know.
    You should have gone with the sphinx. That looks more impressive. The techniques to build it would need to be more advanced then merely building huge ramps and hauling blocks to the top.

  18. Sir John Glubb (aka Glubb Pasha) in Fate of Empire argued that empires have a natural life cycle, as people go from tough tribesmen, to conquerors, to empire builders, to merchants, to wealthy heirs, to losing the empire. The UK has gone through that; the US is about the same as Britain was 100 years ago.
    That said, the Victorians were were impressive for their confidence and initiative. One feat that really impressed me was two young men in their early 20s who, in the 1890s, started off in South Africa and walked north, through eastern Africa, to Egypt. This was in an era when doing so was likely to get you killed by the locals, or animals, or disease–one of their porters apparently died from blood loss from a swarm of mosquitoes! One of these kids did it to impress his fiancee’s father, as I recall, and the other one went because it sounded like an adventure and he figured to go along with his buddy.

  19. “Or do we just let the culture decay into an unsalvagable wreck?”

    You can’t force men to be good. If you try, you only increase the evil.

    Christians generally believe that once this falling away begins, the only way to get out of it is wait until the culture decays into an unsalvagable wreck. Then and only then will the hubris of man change into an honest and humble quest for answers, and then and only then will the divine muse find ready vessels with which the voice of God may be amplified.

    So, pretty much the only thing you can do is store the salt away so that when things do fall apart, you’ll have something salty left to rebuild the culture with. Meanwhile, you pray that God will be merciful and shorten the days of our suffering.

    When the salt of the earth are all the remains and truly our as a voice crying out in the wilderness, then comes the promise of redemption. Meanwhile, try not to fret to much about things outside your control. We aren’t called to save the world, just our neighbor.

  20. I wasn’t working from a religious standpoint at all. I’m not sure I like your answer.. though I dont disagree that it has a certain validity to it.

    Our system of government requires a populace of a certain education and self-control. Self-control is out the window.. and education is rapidly denigrating.

    I attribute a lot of this to the Left (if I had to pick a quick and simple label) and their purposeful deconstruction of the foundations of the nation. (I really dont want to use the term Left but cant think of another)

    I see no way of countering this without the creation of structures that are specifically designed to guard against the deconstruction… such as restricting who can vote based on some sort of cognitive or meritorious qualification.

  21. “I wasn’t working from a religious standpoint at all. I’m not sure I like your answer…”

    Believe me, I don’t like my answer either.

    “…such as restricting who can vote based on some sort of cognitive or meritorious qualification.”

    Doesn’t work, because the corrupting deginerative forces quickly come to control the selection process and use it to disqualify the very groups you are trying to correct. Else, the group set to protect the society from the deginerative forces, gets all proudful and self-righteous and before long they aren’t just limiting who is enfranchised, but who has access to basic civil services, then basic civil rights, and not long after that they are loading some scapegoat group onto box cars and wheeling them into gas chambers.

    You don’t have to take my answer on religious terms. The important point isn’t whether or not my religion is the right one, though I would argue that it is, the important point is that you can never create the requisite culture through statist policies. Attempting to solve all the worlds ills through Statist means – as if man was primarily a political animal and his problems fundamentally political – is the great error of the 20th century. It’s visible in dramatic ways with the failure of Communism, and less dramatically but equally visible with the rise in America of Christianity as a political movement rather than a spiritual one. Christianity isn’t a political movement, and it will fail as a political movement. If terms like ‘spiritual’ make you uncomfortable, then Christianity is cultural technology which has evolved to create a literate, tolerant, progressive society with a high degree of personal integrity. The dream of the Left through the 20th century has been to replace Christianity with an irreligious social technology that accomplishes the same purposes, but so far from where I’m standing they seem to be failing pretty miserably.

  22. Celebrim: I understand.

    I have a feeling that He who is behind Christianity will be here Himself not before long to fix things directly.

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