Science and Technology: with the Royal Archives

In April we at Explore Your Archive spoke with the Royal Archives about the legacy and significance of scientific and technological innovation for the royal family. The following article charters royal encounters with science and technology at a time of great change and progression.

A time of innovation

Numerous technological and scientific advancements were made during the Victorian and Edwardian eras, many of which are still in use to today, albeit with the odd upgrade! Using material from the Royal Archives, discover links between the British Royal Family and some of the innovations of the mid-19th and early 20th centuries.

Queen Victoria’s first train journey

On 14 June 1842, Queen Victoria wrote to her Uncle (Leopold I, King of the Belgians) explaining that “…We arrived here yesterday mor[nin]g: having come by the rail-road, from Windsor, in half an hour free from dust & crowd, & heat, & I am quite charmed with it…”. The railway had not then reached Windsor, so the Queen did not in fact travel all the way by train but drove by carriage to Slough and went from there by train to Paddington.

Faraday’s Christmas lectures

As part of their studies, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales and his younger brother, Prince Alfred, attended several lectures given by Professor Michael Faraday at the Royal Institution in London from December 1856 to January 1857.  The Prince of Wales made detailed notes during the lectures, which he later wrote up with accompanying illustrations, presumably under the watchful eye of his tutor. In this particular experiment, Faraday demonstrated how zinc and copper could be used in a Voltaic Battery for the production of electricity. 

“calling Osborne”

On 14 January 1878, Professor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his invention of the telephone to Queen Victoria at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. The Queen records in her Journal that

…After dinner we went to the Council Room and saw the Telephone.  A Professor Bell explained the whole process, which is most extraordinary. It had been put in communication with Osborne Cottage, & we talked with Sir Thomas & Mary Biddulph, also heard some singing quite plainly.  But it is rather faint, & one must hold the tube close to one’s ear…”.

queen victoria

Two days later Sir Thomas Biddulph (Keeper of the Privy Purse) wrote to Professor Bell mentioning that the Queen, impressed with the demonstration, asks if she may buy the equipment that was still at Osborne House. On 18 January, Professor Bell replied that he would prefer to supply her with a special set of instruments.

Cinematography: lights, camera, action

In the 1890s, cinematography was still in its relative infancy, and on 23 November 1897 Queen Victoria recounts in her Journal watching one of these ‘moving pictures’ at Windsor Castle:

“…After tea went with the children to the Green Drawingroom, where the Ladies & Gentlemen were assembled, & where we saw Cinematograph representing parts of my Jubilee Procession, & various other things. They are very wonderful, but I thought them a little hazy & rather too rapid in their movements…”

queen victoria

An evening drive

In 1901, Queen Alexandra wrote to her son, Prince George, Duke of Cornwall (later King George V), mentioning that “…I did enjoy being driven about in the cool of the evening at 50 miles!! an hour! when nothing in the way – of course only! – & I must say I have the greatest confidence in our driver – I poke him violently in the back at every corner to go gently & whenever a dog, child or anything else comes in our way!…”

By tram to Tooting

On 15 May 1903, the Prince and Princess of Wales (later King George V and Queen Mary), accompanied by their two eldest sons, Prince Edward and Prince Albert (later King George VI), opened the first part of the London County Council’s electric tramway in London. Their Royal Highnesses’ travelled in the first car to Tooting and back, with the Prince of Wales recording in his diary that “there were thousands of people lining the streets the whole way, I stood on the top of the car, we got a tremendous reception”.

A little further back in time: did you know?

King George III had a great interest in the science of his day, and created a collection of scientific instruments, a number of which are now kept in the Science Museum. In 1768, he commissioned an observatory to be built on Royal land at Richmond (London), in time for the transit of Venus the following year. His fascination with astronomy led to his patronage of William Herschel in the 1780s, who in 1781 discovered ‘the Georgian planet’, which was subsequently named Uranus.

Written by the Royal Archives Team

Edited by Jake E. Doyle, Blog Coordinator, MLitt Archives and Records Management Student, and Archive Assistant at Suffolk Archives

Further information

The Royal Archives:

Royal Colllection Trust:

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