“Would we have had the Industrial Revolution if human beings were the size of rats?” Bobby Seagull asks his rival-turned-friend Eric Monkman during their round-Britain journey. It’s perhaps not a classic ‘what if’ question, but who hasn’t chewed over a similarly quirky query with a friend to help pass a long car journey?
In new series Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Adventures (begins Monday 18 May, 9pm, BBC Two) the pair, who first found fame on opposing teams on University Challenge, set off around Britain to investigate the innovations of the Industrial Revolution and Victorian period. Though it’s not strictly a counter-factual show (the above ‘what if’ aside), many of their case studies nevertheless raise compelling questions about what the world would be like if these discoveries had been developed at a different time – or even not at all.
Explaining why this century and a half of history is so ripe for such a whistle-stop tour, Seagull says: “It was kind of like the world’s greatest makeover. Obviously, technology is advancing at such a phenomenal pace now, but today we might just see a phone that gets a bit smaller. Back in the 1750s, sending a message from London to Manchester would have taken about four days. But by the end of this 150-year period it takes about four hours. The developments in transportation shrunk the world.”
The chosen technological and scientific innovations are covered at an equally frenetic rate, over three episodes. There’s John Harrison’s marine chronometer, the steam condenser of James Watt, the Davy lamp, Charles Darwin’s theories, and plenty more.
While fascination with some of the show’s subjects – dinosaur skeletons, for example – remains undimmed in many quarters, the same does not hold quite true for something like the 1850s innovation of cement, I suggest. “But isn’t it nice that we can take something like cement for granted, when it’s literally the foundation of much of our modern world,” says Monkman. “Something we look at in the show is how the world became modern, and the many things we take for granted – whether it’s a building built from cement or the ability to purchase branded goods from far away, rather than just shopping locally.”
The legacies of some of the show’s subjects are perhaps more unexpected. In episode two, the pair visits a Victorian fern forest in Devon, partaking in the Victorian hobby of fern-hunting. “Have you ever had a Custard Cream?” Seagull asks. “Eric and I love biscuits, and I love a Custard Cream. Even Doctor Who has a Custard-Cream-dispensing machine.” The pattern on Custard Creams, Seagull points out, is an embossed fern.
“In the late 19th century, the development of the Wardian case [which allowed people to transport plants over long distances] meant that fern collecting became a phenomenon,” he explains. “It’s crazy; imagine the way kids collect Pokémon and are obsessed by One Direction today, multiply that by ten and that’s what happened with ferns. They were on gravestones, on mugs, on wallpaper designs and clothes. And our modern Custard Cream, even though it was designed a bit later in the early 1900s, still reminds us of this mania.”
As for the counter-factual questions the programme raises, Seagull speculates on one significant ‘what if’. “One of the places we went to was Royal Holloway to look at Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine [designed in 1822], essentially a steam-powered calculator. In the 1830-40s, he developed a design for the Analytical Engine, which would have been a general-purpose computer. It would have been very complicated to build, and never was built during his day. My A-Level history teacher always said that counter-factual history was ‘poor man’s history’ and we shouldn’t speculate. But, had someone rich given funding to Babbage to build his Analytical Engine, technology could have been brought forward 50, 60, 70 years.”
Of course, there were many other innovations that did make history and could not be included in the programme; “The introduction of cheap, high quality steel,” suggests Monkman, “or perhaps Jenner’s [smallpox] vaccine, for obvious reasons.” (“A missed opportunity there!” adds Seagull, nodding to the global situation as their programme is broadcast.)
But their enthusiasm for the inventions that made the cut – and there are many – is palpable. And if they had to pick their most significant? The theory of evolution is a scientific advancement that’s difficult to overlook, says Monkman. “It’s probably something that will always be ‘true’ when we discuss the contingent nature of knowledge, and will probably always be recognised as a huge advance in our understanding of the natural world.”
In terms of technology, it has to be the steam engine, he says. “In Britain in the period we’re looking at, it was a major general-purpose technology. You could use it to pump water out of a mine or in a canal, to power a spinning wheel or a loom; you could use it to power a locomotive. There were so many uses for this one invention that allowed for economic growth.”
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“My choice is a bit humbler than Eric’s!” says Seagull. “Before the bicycle turned up in the 1880–90s, in terms of their normal day-to-day lives people were very restricted in where they could go or who they could meet, who they could date. In terms of what it did for women, I think the bicycle is one of the unsung heroes of emancipation. People could hop on their bike and off they went; they didn’t need a chauffeur or a chaperone, they could do what they wanted. I think it liberated society. And as technology advanced, with the Ford motor car, automobiles became the next big driver. But today, with people becoming more environmentally concerned, we’re seeing the bicycle becoming almost as popular as it was in the late 19th century, showing how technology moves in cycles (sorry, an unintended pun!)”
And do Monkman and Seagull think that the Industrial Revolution would have happened if human beings were the size of rats? You’ll have to tune in…
Monkman and Seagull’s Genius Adventures begins on BBC Two on Monday 18 May at 9pm.
Elinor Evans is deputy digital editor of HistoryExtra.com