As we pack ever more computing power onto pocket telephones and tool around town in our hybrid cars, we can be excused for thinking that modern technology is taking us to wild new places. But it’s nothing compared to what happened to people in the late 19th century. A coal-powered world began to hum with the strange new power of electricity. Distances that once took months to cross via covered wagon were suddenly a few days away by train—or a few moments by telegraph.
It was a time of excitement about technology, but also a time of anxiety. Rosalind Williams, a historian of technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has made a career of studying the relationship between science and the society around it. In her new book, “The Triumph of Human Empire,” she takes a close look at the works of three writers who lived through the changes of the 19th century—Jules Verne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and William Morris—to explore the worry that began to simmer below the surface of an age of unprecedented scientific discovery.