Victorian writers such as Thomas Macaulay, Charles Kingsley, and William Whewell celebrated the scientific and technological Utopia that they thought British scientists had created for the benefit of humanity. In the course of doing so they also explained the importance to them, as they perceived it, of the work of Francis Bacon (1561-1626) whom Macaulay described as both ‘a great philosopher who had made new discoveries in moral and political science’(Whyte, p. 79) and the ‘great apostle of experimental philosophy’ (p. 87). In examining relation between Victorian idea of inductive science and utopia, I shall address the way in which Victorian scientists, who adopted Baconian inductive scientific methodology, claimed they had triumphed over all previous scientific work and thereby improved the quality of life not only for the British people but also for people on a global scale. Others thought differently.

I also examine the natural scientists’ project of accumulating masses of facts and observations, for it was the latter activity that Bacon had promoted in his scientific writings. The gaining and classifying of specimens and observations to inform an ever-increasing database formed a crucial part of the development of nineteenth-century science. Leading Victorian scientists followed post-Baconian natural philosophers of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in pursuing Bacon’s program and seeking to base their scientific theories on the data and observations being collected at a seemingly exponential rate – theories many of which they applied to the practical business of industrializing society.

The first matter to consider is the importance of Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) whose work Thomas Macaulay, among others, acclaimed as a precursor of the Victorian need to expand their knowledge in order to better the human condition. For many, this philanthropic vision sat in an easy alliance with their grand scale acquisitiveness and the predominance of the profit motive, but it proved ultimately to be an unholy alliance resulting in the massive expansion of possessions and commodities that became a leading feature of the lives of those who could afford it. The original dream of bettering the human condition may have been inspired by Bacon, but the reality was a kind of progress that benefitted the few at the expense of the many.

Bacon and Victorian inductive science

At the start of the nineteenth century the leading lights of newly industrialising England developed the optimism that Walter Houghton attributes to the idea of Progress having been ‘well-established by the eighteenth century’. He also credits Bacon’s scientific program with making a major contribution to the idea of Progress by offering the prospect of ‘advancing knowledge, each new age possessing and profiting from a constantly increasing body of positive truth’.

Indeed, writing in the early seventeenth century, Bacon had produced the first fully articulated rationale for collecting evidence when constructing hypotheses and verifying positive truths in subsequent deductions and explanations: ‘general statements’, he argued, ‘depend on the accumulation of accurate observations and careful experiments’ and ‘come out, not notional, but well-defined, and such as nature may acknowledge to be really well known to her, and which shall cleave to the very marrow of things’ (Moffett, p. 119). Further, Houghton takes his interpretation of Bacon’s influence to the point where he reads a very special significance into what happens in Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), an early foray into science fiction upon which I would like to focus first since Bacon’s vision uncannily anticipates certain nineteenth-century developments.

2. New Atlantis: Bacon’s Hierarchical Republic

Bacon’s futuristic tale reflects what had been happening in British maritime history since Henry VII, inspired by a grand imperial maritime ambition, had granted letters patent in 1495 to the Cabot brothers authorising them to navigate to the far corners of the globe and ‘to ‘conquer, occupy and possess’ and acquire for the king ‘the dominion, title and jurisdiction of… towns, castles, cities, islands and main-lands so discovered’ (Ferguson, p. 6). The New Atlantis opens with a group of English maritime adventurers on a voyage that begins surprisingly in Peru. Their destinations are equally exotic — China and Japan. However, after five months the easterly winds that they have previously enjoyed give way to westerly winds and they become becalmed. With supplies exhausted , they resort to doing what the religious refugees do in Andrew Marvell’s ʽBermudas’ (circa. 1650): ‘we did lift up our hearts and voices to God above, who showeth his wonders in the deep, beseeching him of his mercy’ (Jones, p. 450). Their prayers are granted. They find a terra incognita in the South Sea — New Atlantis — where they disembark. The imperial significance of this, given the fact that English mariners were making similar journeys of exploration and conquest, would have been clear to Bacon’s contemporaries.

That Bacon, well read in classical literature, adapted Plato’s concept of the ideal Republic in creating the fictional New Atlantis might suggest that he was sailing close to the wind politically. James I, God’s anointed, had appointed him Attorney General in 1613 and Lord Chancellor in 1618, and he enjoyed a favourable position in a royal court ruled by a king who was already asserting the Stuart claim to the Divine Right of Kings. New Atlantis, however, is not a monarchy. It is a republic governed by a precisely organised meritocratic hierarchy (of which Macaulay clearly approves) who constitute the Fellowship of Salomon’s House. The Fellowship govern the island’s affairs, but they do so with all the trappings of monarchy. The position of their chief, the Tirsan, is in fact defined in a ‘King’s Charter’. Further, and intriguingly, although no one on Atlantis claims any divine right to rule, they do claim a certain divinely ordained privilege in their access to scientific knowledge (pp. 452, 471/3).

Macaulay, for whom a republic had little appeal, found the hierarchical, and therefore paternalistic, government of Atlantis very attractive, which is understandable when you consider the crucial distinction which he makes between Bacon and Plato. Macaulay argues that whereas Plato believes human beings are made for philosophy, Bacon believes philosophy, which is ‘a means to an end’ (Whyte, p. 105) is made for man. Whichever is right, both employ a top-down model in which those at the top of the hierarchy spread the social benefits to those below them. the GovernorIn Bacon’s luxurious science fiction world claims that Atlantis’ social welfare program promotes better vision and hearing without having to substantiate his claim, but Macaulay’s definition of the end of philosophy - ‘to increase the pleasures and to mitigate the pains of millions who are not and cannot be philosophers’ (p. 106) - was not realised in the real world of Victorian Britain. Macaulay here reveals how blinkered he could be. He seems to believe that these ideals were actually being achieved when he celebrates the way in Victorian science ‘has extended the range of the human vision’, ‘has multiplied the power of the human muscles’, ‘has lengthened life’, ‘has mitigated pain’, ‘has extinguished diseases’ and ‘has given new securities to the mariner’ (p. 111). He seems to be unaware that the idealised achievements he describes do not stand when tested against a grim social reality characterised by the very conditions they were supposed to ameliorate - ‘the pains of millions’ suffering harsh working conditions, poor housing, and inadequate sustenance, with little, if anything, to relieve their misery except cheap beer, gin and laudanum, exactly the opposite of the original Baconian dream.

A senior official from the Fellowship, the Governor, articulates that dream when he tells his English guests about the ambitious objectives of Salomon’s House: ‘The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes, and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible’ (Jones, p. 480). Houghton argues that this set of objectives became very important indeed when ‘under the influence of Comte’ it ‘came to be thought of as the historical end of the nineteenth century’ (Houghton, p. 33).

This may be so, but Victorian writers, politicians, engineers and medical people did themselves, without any necessary reference to Comte, the importance of the three key elements in Bacon’s thinking that the Governor articulates: (1) accumulating evidence to facilitate investigating the physical world; (2) the development of technology; and (3) the consequent betterment of the human condition. However, they did not operate in the systematic manner envisaged in Bacon’s Atlantis, and many did not fulfil the Baconian dream of creating the utmost benefit to human beings even though they deluded themselves that they had. But this, of course, is one of the differences between science fiction and historical reality. The former is circumscribed only by the imagination of its creator, but the latter is subject to circumstances that often go beyond human control. A variation on this difference will appear later in the article when I examine the difference between the necessarily limited explanations of the application of science offered by the Governor and the elaborate explanations given by the Victorian writers and producers when they celebrate the mechanical marvels at the heart of British industrial productivity.

The expansion in knowledge that Bacon promoted as an essential scientific objective was, to repeat the point, given a significant boost by what he himself called ‘the enlarging of the bounds of human empire’ (Jones, p. 480), a concept that his countrymen transformed from informed control over the physical world into the extension of their control over other peoples. And the expansion of the second British Empire so crucial to the work of the natural scientists and the seemingly exponential expansion in British manufacturing and international trading attendant on the British industrial revolution became a matter of pride for many Victorians. Their pride might well be viewed as the arrogance of men and women who thought that they had an almost divine mission to fulfil. Certainly for many Victorians, Britain was not the first among equals but the imperial state non-pareil. It is significant that some of the most energetic commentators on Victorian England’s growing imperial achievements were admirers of Francis Bacon, who was himself at work during the infancy of the first British Empire as the initial work of colonising the Irish was well under way and British mariners began their predatory incursions into the Americas.

Other parts of “Francis Bacon, Inductive Science, Empire, & the Great Exhibition”


Bacon, Francis: ʻEssays, Advancement of Learning, New Atlantis and Other Piecesʼ: ed. R. F. Jones. New York: Odyssey Press: 1937.

Bacon, Francis: ‘Distributio Operis’ (1620) in ʻSelections from the Works of Lord Bacon: e. Thomas W. Moffettʼ. Dublin University Press: 1847.

Macaulay: ‘Essay on Bacon’ edited by H. Whyte. Clarendon Press: Oxford: 1915.

Ray, John: ʻHistoria Plantarum Historia Plantarum.ʼ (1686-1704).

Whewell, William: ʻHistory of the inductive sciences, from the Earliest to the Present Times.ʼ (/span>) London 2nd, edition: 1847.

Gillispie, Charles: ʻThe Edge of Objectivity.ʼ Princeton: The Princeton University Press: 1960.

Gillispie, Charles: ʻGenesis and Geology.ʼ Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1969.

Houghton, Walter E: ʻThe Victorian Frame of Mind 1830-1870.ʼ New Haven and London: Yale University Press: 1963.

Wulf, Andrea: ‘A Generation of Gentlemen Naturalists and the Birth of an Obsession.ʼ London: Vintage Books: 2008.

Last modified 8 January 2018