Edgar Allan Poe lived at the perfect time in history to be able to observe and to write about many of the most dramatic technological changes that had taken place in world history. Scientist Sir Alfred Russell Wallace called the nineteenth century “The Wonderful Century” because of its “marvelous inventions and discoveries,” which he regarded as immensely superior to anything which had been developed up until that time by “our comparatively ignorant forefathers”(1). Suddenly, within the span of a few decades, the introduction of new Industrial Age technologies such as electricity, telegraphic communications, cross-country railroads, photography, astronomy, and high- speed printing presses dramatically altered the culture and lifestyle of the American public in ways in which few people who lived at the time could ever have expected. In 1903, Sir Norman Lockyer, the then President of the British Association echoed Wallace’s remarks, stating that, “The nineteenth century will ever be known as the one which the influence of science was first fully realized in western countries; the scientific progress was so gigantic that it seems rash to predict that any of its successors can be more important in the life of a nation” (Nature). By the time that Poe started writing professionally (in the early 1830s), the literacy rate was higher than it had previously ever been in America, and the average person could read and understand most articles written in the newspaper. A person could travel to distant parts of the country by rail, and communicate almost instantly via the telegraph to almost anyone in the United States. Through the development of the daguerreotype (an early prototype of photography), people could obtain realistic and long lasting images of their family members to remember for generations. Many of those taken at that time may still be clearly visible today. The introduction of a new class of highly powerful telescopes and microscopes also demonstrated that the Universe of space and the unseen space within objects are much more expansive than anyone had previously imagined.
Peter Swirski argues that it is essential for our present understanding of nineteenth century culture to explore popular writers like Edgar Allan Poe because his “writing may be a suitable barometer of the role that science and philosophy had on nineteenth century society. Poe’s science narratives are perhaps most important because he was the first American authors who was able to distill the important information and ideas that were developed by professional scientists and publish them to a national and international audience in the form imaginative poems, non-fiction essays and journalistic stories, fiction, and science fiction stories.
The next entry of the “Poe and Science” blog will discuss how a studying the stories of the non-professional science writer helps us to have a better understanding of nineteenth-century society. Please send comments or questions to [email protected] or [email protected]
Lockyer, Sir Norman. “Inaugural Address as President of the British Association.” Nature. 10 September 1903: 439.
Swirski, Peter. Between Literature and Science: Poe, Lem, and Explorations in Aesthetics, Cognitive Science, and Literary Knowledge. Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2000.
Wallace, Alfred Russell. The Wonderful Century: Its Successes and Failures. Toronto: George N. Morang, 1898 (digital reproduction).