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The Victorian Eye

A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910

The Victorian Eye

A Political History of Light and Vision in Britain, 1800-1910

During the nineteenth century, Britain became the first gaslit society, with electric lighting arriving in 1878. At the same time, the British government significantly expanded its power to observe and monitor its subjects. How did such enormous changes in the way people saw and were seen affect Victorian culture?
To answer that question, Chris Otter mounts an ambitious history of illumination and vision in Britain, drawing on extensive research into everything from the science of perception and lighting technologies to urban design and government administration. He explores how light facilitated such practices as safe transportation and private reading, as well as institutional efforts to collect knowledge. And he contends that, contrary to presumptions that illumination helped create a society controlled by intrusive surveillance, the new radiance often led to greater personal freedom and was integral to the development of modern liberal society.

The Victorian Eye’s innovative interdisciplinary approach—and generous illustrations­—will captivate a range of readers interested in the history of modern Britain, visual culture, technology, and urbanization.

392 pages | 65 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2008

Culture Studies

History: British and Irish History, European History, History of Ideas

History of Science

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory

Political Science: Urban Politics

Psychology: General Psychology

Sociology: Urban and Rural Sociology


The Victorian Eye is a spectacular debut. Meticulously researched, theoretically imaginative, and elegantly written, it should be read by all those interested in the histories of vision, technology, the environment, and liberal government. A thoughtful, provocative, and often funny book, this is history as it should be written.”

James Vernon, author of Hunger: A Modern History

“This excellent volume offers an important new historicist interpretation of the interaction of technology, vision, and power in the late nineteenth century. Otter dexterously evinces the new socio-technical patterns of perception that emerged in the British liberal state as its urban environments were transformed by the arrival of gas and electric lighting. This work is essential reading, especially for those dissatisfied with twentieth-century clichés of the panopticon and the flâneur as modes of appreciating the nexus of materiality, mobility, and management in civic life.”

Graeme Gooday, University of Leeds

“Otter’s analysis is complex as he moves from one technology or institution to another, but it is always lucid and well informed. . . . The study ranges across a wide and eclectic array of British urban spaces, technologies and institutions, and every page is consistently readable and stimulating."

Times Higher Education

"A rich history full of previously understudied spaces, objects and connections. . . . In leaving the focus on surveillance and spectacle aside, the breadth of topics of historical interest increases dramatically. In this regard, The Victorian Eye should be commended for its originality and ambition."

Jimena Canales | British Journal for the History of Science

Table of Contents


Introduction: Light, Vision, and Power

1. The Victorian Eye: The Physiology, Sociology, and Spatiality of Vision, 1800-1900
2. Oligoptic Engineering: Light and the Victorian City
3. The Age of Inspectability: Vision, Space, and the Victorian City
4. The Government of Light: Gasworks, Gaslight, and Photometry
5. Technologies of Illumination, 1870-1910
6. Securing Perception: Assembling Electricity Networks

Conclusion: Patterns of Perception



American Historical Association: Morris D. Forkosch Prize

Northeast Victorian Studies Association: Sonya Rudikoff Award

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