Pages Navigation Menu

Sherlock Holmes’ Victorian Era Science and Technology

The Telegraph and Morse Code

sherlock holmes exhibit
Long before anyone had ever heard of the term “texting,” Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries sent messages rapidly over long distances by means of coded messages sent through the telegraph. Mr. Samuel Morse, an American inventor, sent his first coded message—“What hath God wrought”—from the U.S. Capitol Building in 1844. Mr. Morse based his code on long and short pulses of electric current, which are relayed as simple dots and dashes that represent different letters of the alphabet. An operator at the receiving end could easily decode those “dits” and “dahs” to reveal the message sent by the operator at the point of origin.

Telephone
sherlock holmes exhibit
Mr. Alexander Graham Bell’s remarkable telephone instrument enabled users to speak to friends and loved ones across great distances. One could now carry on voice-tovoice communication over electrical wires, a scientific marvel that would one day replace the telegraph. Clicking the receiver connected callers to a local operator who would connect lines directly to any other telephone in the area.

Phonograph
sherlock holmes exhibit
A machine that “writes” sound as easily as one might write a letter! The Edison phonograph miraculously captured sound and scratched it into a tiny groove on a rotating cylinder covered with metal foil. With a crank of the phonograph’s handle, the captured sound would be released.

Photography
sherlock holmes exhibit
The “Pocket Kodak,” from the laboratories of Mr. George Eastman, promised a revolution in the art of portraiture. This remarkable “box” camera made use of rolls of film, rather than cumbersome glass plates, and allowed the photographer to reload his camera without retiring to a darkroom. With virtually no training, an amateur lensman could capture life’s passing parade, recording and preserving family celebrations and holidays for all time. For men and women of Sherlock’s era, it was like being able to fit the entirety of a professional photographer’s studio into one’s pocket.

This new type of camera even appealed to professional men and scientists: Mr. Eadweard Muybridge launched photographic inquiries into both human and animal locomotion, opening a new vista of “animated” photography; talented amateurs such as Mr. John Galt recorded powerful images in the heart of London, bringing the seldom seen faces of the city’s working class into the light of day; even the police began to add photographs to their arsenal of weapons in the fight against crime– Paris, Monsieur Gustave Macé required that photographs be taken of all law-breakers in the hope of providing officials with a ready catalogue of criminals.

Toxic Beauty

Many a young lady relied upon the beautifying effects of potions and creams, such as “Milk of Roses” and “Berry’s Freckle Ointment,” which could produce a pale and interesting effect upon the complexion. Though these preparations were considered “delightful and harmless” at the time, many contained certain poisons which, if used improperly, could produce fatigue, weight loss, nausea, headaches, and other symptoms of a serious nature. In fact, many chemicals we now know to be dangerous could be found in everyday use in many Victorian households: strychnine, which was used in judicious amounts as an energy booster; arsenic, which was used to whiten the complexion and could be extracted from flypaper or rat poison if a lady was on a budget; and nightshade, a common ingredient in belladonna eye drops which were used to dilate the pupils in order to achieve a pleasing, dewy-eyed appearance.A test devised by Mr. James Marsh could ferret out cases of arsenic poisoning and established a new science of “toxicology” as a vital element of medical jurisprudence. The test was conducted with a glass tube in the shape of a “U,” with one end open and the other formed into a pointed nozzle in which Zinc was suspended A sample of the fluid to be tested was mixed with acid and placed at the open end. When the liquid and zinc met, a particular gas would emerge from the nozzle if arsenic was present. The gas would then be ignited, and a cold porcelain plate would be held before the resulting flame. If the plate collected a black, shiny residue — known as an “arsenic mirror” — the findings might well point to an unfortunate accident . . . or murder.

Perilous Plants and Baffling Bugs!
sherlock holmes exhibit
Every day, explorers crossed the globe to previously uncharted lands and were discovering new—and sometimes dangerous—plants and insects. At times, scientists struggled to identify exotic types of insects that could cunningly mimic their surroundings. The Syrphidae, or common hover fly, was a prime example—it had the uncanny ability to assume the coloring of a more fearsome honeybee or wasp. Others, such as the Phasmatoptera, or “walking-stick,” could easily be mistaken for twigs or leaves. Stranger still was the Ophrys apifera, or bee orchid, which was not a bee at all but plant that presented the markings and scent of a bee, the better to lure pollinating insects.

Some of the newly discovered insects were brightly-colored to warn of their toxicity, such as the African Diamphidia, or Bushman arrow-poison beetle, which had been used to fashion poison darts. The same held true for certain types of flowers, such as the deceptively lovely wisteria, foxglove, and nightshade – all of which could be deadly if swallowed. Other plants, such as the Ricinus communis or castor oil plant, could be even more hazardous–its deadly seeds were easily mistaken for delicious beans. New discoveries about the value of insects to forensics have continued to be made into the modern era. Incredibly, scientists have discovered that some insects are able to help police and scientists solve crimes. The common maggot has a fixed life cycle, and when its eggs or larvae are found upon a dead body, scientists are able to work backwards to calculate the time of death. Other insects and plants can offer similar post-mortem clues, suggesting that one day they will become a vital part of a detective’s toolkit.

Optics and Lenses
sherlock holmes exhibit
A lens is a transparent piece of glass with at least one curved surface. There are two basic types of lenses. The convex, or converging, type is commonly used in telescopes and microscopes. The concave, or diverging, type is often found in eyeglasses to treat nearsightedness. Lenses allow us to see beyond the range of our normal vision, whether it’s the tiny, hidden worlds revealed by a microscope or the distant horizons glimpsed through a telescope. A lens works by refraction–it bends light rays as they pass through, changing their direction. In this way, the rays seem to come from a point that is closer or further away from where they actually originate. That’s what makes objects seen through a lens seem either bigger or smaller than they actually are.

Microscopes use lenses and light in combination to allow us to see objects that are too small for the naked eye. Although microscopes have been in use since the 16th century, innovations by Herr August Kohler ushered in a new era of illuminated microscopy. Previously, a microscope’s source of light, such as the filament of a bulb, would be visible in the final image. Kohler illumination employed advanced optics to collect and transmit light evenly, resulting in a vastly improved final image.

A spectroscope is a device that converts light into bands of color in much the same way that water droplets in clouds form a rainbow. Spectroscopes can break down the light emitted or absorbed by a chemical element, allowing scientists to identify it. Every chemical element has a specific “fingerprint” of colored lines.

In 1859, Robert Wilhelm von Bunsen and Gustav Robert Kirchoff, a pair of scientists in Heidelberg, attached a spectroscope to a microscope and developed a highly accurate method of detecting bloodstains. The test was so sensitive and could even distinguish old bloodstains from new ones, and arterial blood from venous.

Ballistics
sherlock holmes exhibit
The science of ballistics deals with the motion of projectiles, such as a bullet fired from a gun. The tiniest details concerning different types of weapons and bullets, and the ways in which they behave, can yield enormous clues to a trained observer.

A bullet’s trajectory is the path it takes from the moment it leaves the barrel of a gun to the point at which it stops moving. Determining the trajectory is an essential element of ballistic detective work. A bullet never travels in a straight line; it begins to fall to the earth the moment it leaves the gun’s barrel. At most crime scenes, the firing distance is so short as to make this drop imperceptible. If two or more points along a bullet’s path are known, usually in the form of bullet holes, scientists can “line up the holes” and accurately recreate the trajectory.

The dashing Eugene Francois Vidocq, a French criminal turned detective, pioneered a primitive form of ballistics as far back as 1822. Monsieur Vidocq ordered the removal of a bullet from a murdered woman’s body in order to compare it to her husband’s dueling pistol. Vidocq found that the bullet was too large to fit the husband’s weapon. Next, he turned his attention to the dead woman’s lover, who happened to own a pistol that matched the size of the bullet. A full confession soon followed.

Many a duel was fought on fields of honor all across Britain, but surprisingly few of the combatants were seriously injured. Why? Because even the most expensive dueling pistols were woefully inaccurate.

Early firearms had smooth barrels, firing shots that tended to drift off target. By contrast, the barrel of a rifled weapon contained spiral grooves that caused a bullet to spin as it was fired, greatly improving stability and accuracy. Rifling grooves also produced distinctive marks on a bullet as it passed through the gun barrel, creating another means of tracing an individual bullet back to the gun that fired it.

Accurate or not, a single-shot pistol or rifle must be reloaded between firings. Even in the hands of an expert, this results a slow rate of fire. Some enterprising gunsmiths responded with strange-looking firearms that feature multiple barrels. Are four barrels better than one?

Newspapers and Media
sherlock holmes exhibit
With more than 50 newspapers operating in the city of London alone and a hundred more in the suburbs, it was an age of fast, efficient, and widespread reporting of the latest news. Roll the presses!

A remarkable new invention called the Linotype machine revolutionized the newspaper business in the late nineteenth century. Gone were the slow and tedious days of setting type by hand, one letter at a time. Now, a Linotype machine could produce an entire line of metal type at once in a strip or “slug” of raised letters. Hence the name—a “lineo’- type.” Before the invention of the Linotype in 1884, no newspaper in the world ran to more than eight pages. Suddenly, typesetters could work faster and produce far more, spreading the news to the public as never before.

Specially-designed fonts helped newspapers achieve a distinctive look, with characteristics that could be traced back to specific printing presses and composing machines. One celebrated London detective claimed to have made a special hobby of identifying various types of print, from the “leaded bourgeois type” of one to the “slovenly print” of another. “The detection of types,” he said, “is one of the most elementary branches of knowledge to the special expert in crime.”

Sherlock Holmes Exhibit

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes was developed by Exhibits Development Group and Geoffrey M. Curley + Associates in collaboration with the Conan Doyle Estate Limited, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and the Museum of London.