Surprising Pre-Regency Era Inventions, a Guest Post from Sharon Lathan

This post originally appeared on the Austen Authors’ blog on 14 April 2020. Enjoy! 

As all historical novelists are aware, even though writing fiction with “creative license” as an important aspect of the story telling, we must be careful with facts. This begins with diligently researching the historical period in which our stories are set, but also researching all the previous eras. Accuracy in history is critical, not just for our own sense of precision and pride in writing a quality novel, but because there will always be at least one person who will gleefully point out an error! When it comes to language, the historical timeline of when a word or phrase originated and then came into common usage is often a bit gray. This can give authors some latitude if desiring to use a catchy phrase or specific word that best fits the scene or will be easily understood by modern readers. Essentially, I believe readers for the most part will be forgiving for a not-quite-period-correct word as long as the story is awesome and the inaccuracies rare. Truth is, most people are not that aware of etymology so will probably never know if a word origin is ten, twenty, or even fifty years off the mark.

The same cannot be said for things, the generalized category covering a whole host of topics from locations, buildings, clothing, and objects. Authors joke of the obvious tossing in a cellphone or some other blatantly 21st century device as a clear boo-boo, but the jest is typically made in reference to the difficulty in ensuring every last teeny item is historically accurate. Luckily, for those of us who write historical fiction, it is fairly easy to pinpoint when something was invented and the research is super fun! The trick is to not take anything for granted, as it is easy to do when the muse hits and we are writing like crazy. Always double check because inventions can be quite surprising.

Here are just a few of the now commonplace inventions that were occurred before or around the Regency period, and therefore might have been seen around Pemberley.

TYPEWRITER: There were several very early prototypes of incremental designs by numerous inventors of machines that would impress letters onto paper. The first patent was obtained in Britain by Henry Mill in 1714 for a “Machine for Transcribing Letters.” Very little is known of Hill’s machine as it was never fully developed or mass produced, but according to the patent it was:

“…an artificial machine or method for impressing or transcribing of letters, one after another, as in writing, whereby all writing whatsoever may be engrossed in paper or parchment so neat and exact as not to be distinguished from print.”

Multiple variations were invented, some also patented, over the subsequent decades, including an 1808 version by Pellegrino Turri who also invented carbon paper for the machine’s ink source. It is unknown how widely distributed were any of these very early typing machines before American William Austin Burt patented his “Typographer” in 1829, the noted first “typewriter” in invention timelines. True commercial production of typewriters did not occur until 1870, but considering the wealth of printing or typing machines patented and created in Europe and America during the intervening forty-some years, could one have sat on Mr. Darcy’s desk at Pemberley?


John Spilsbury’s “Europe divided into its kingdoms, etc.” (1766) *click for full view

JIGSAW PUZZLE: To be fair, as the “jigsaw” cutting tool was not invented until 1880, the term itself would be historically inaccurate. However, tiling puzzles requiring the assembly of interlocking, oddly shaped pieces to form a complete picture date to 1760. The creation of engraver and cartographer John Spilsbury of London using a marquetry saw to cut the pieces, original “dissection puzzles” were teaching tools. Spilsbury mounted paper maps onto hardwood boards, the cuts along the boundary lines to then be reassembled as the children learned geography. The example to the right is from 1766, the “dissected maps” so popular they were used to teach the royal children of King George III, including the future Prince Regent.


HOT AIR BALLOON:  Invented by the French brothers Josef and Etienne Montgolfier in 1783.

MICROSCOPE:  Another complicated evolution of inventions dating back to the 13th century, but perfected as we envision the modern microscope (more or less) in 1590 by Zacharis Janssen in the Netherlands.

SUBMARINE:  There were multiple variations of submerged vessels dating back as far as Alexander the Great studying fish! Credit for the first propelled submarine with the ability to submerge and rise, and specifically invented to be an attack vessel, goes to American David Bushnell in 1776 for use in the War for Independence. Bushnell’s submarine, named Turtle, failed in its attack, but was instrumental in the future of submarine technology as we know it.

MERCURY THERMOMETER:  In 1714 Dutch scientist and inventor Daniel Gabriel Fahrenheit invented the first reliable thermometer to use mercury instead of alcohol and water mixtures. In 1724 he created the temperature scale which now bears his name and is the standard (Celsius came along over 20 years later). These thermometers were large and not used for medical purposes. The first physician that put thermometer measurements to clinical practice was Herman Boerhaave (1668–1738), the device perfected and made smaller over the subsequent decades.

SEWING MACHINE:  A German-born inventor living in England named Charles Fredrick Wiesenthal obtained the first patent for a mechanical device consisting of a double pointed needle with an eye at each end to aid sewing. This was in 1755, and it is unknown what became of his invention or what it actually looked like. The idea was clearly out there, however, and in 1790 English inventor Thomas Saint is credited with the first working model. Unfortunately, Saint did not advertise or market his patented invention, and for nearly eighty years his design remained unknown. More on Saint’s sewing machine in a bit.

William Newton Wilson’s copy of Saint’s sewing machine.

Sewing machines were built, patented, and created for use by several inventors during the latter decade of the 18th century and first decade of the 19th century. Many working sewing machines were in use by professionals before French tailor Barthélemy Thimonnier invented the first practical sewing machine to be patented in 1830 and receive wide distribution. Additional advances in technology led to more efficient machines, the leaders in the industry being Elias Howe in 1845 and Isaac Merritt Singer in 1851.

As for Saint’s invention, in 1874 sewing machine manufacturer William Newton Wilson stumbled across Saint’s precise drawings and descriptions languishing in the UK Patent Office. The surprisingly advanced concepts of Saint’s sewing machine, as manufactured by Wilson, needed only a few adjustments to be a working machine of excellent quality. The image to the right is Wilson’s copy of Saint’s sewing machine, the device on display in the Science Museum of London.

BABY CARRIAGE/PERAMBULATOR:  The baby carriage was invented in 1733 by English architect William Kent, specifically for the 3rd Duke of Devonshire’s children. A shell-shaped basket for the child to sit inside was mounted atop a small, low-to-the-ground wheeled carriage designed to be pulled by a goat, dog, or pony. Later designs added handles for an adult human to push or pull the carriage, and the baskets/seats varied widely in shape, size, and direction the child faced. Numerous patents were granted as the baby carriage gained popularity, its zenith in the Victorian Era but definitely a common infant article for a long time prior. Called dozens of names, including buggy, stroller, pushchairs, and perambulator (or pram for short).

TIN CAN:  British merchant Peter Durand made an impact on food preservation with his 1810 patenting of the tin can. In 1813, John Hall and Bryan Dorkin opened the first commercial canning factory in England. These early tin cans were so thick they needed to be opened by pounding with a sharp knife and hammer! Clearly a problem to solve, Ezra Warner of Waterbury, Connecticut patented the first can opener in 1858, just in time for the U.S. military to use it during the Civil War.

BATTERY:  The first electric battery was invented in 1800 by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta. It consisted of copper and zinc plates stacked on top of each other and separated by paper disks soaked in brine. While Volta thought that his invention had inexhaustible energy, it actually could not provide energy for sustainable periods of time. Thirty-six years later, British chemist John Frederic Daniel improved the battery for practical use, although it still utilized liquid electrolytes and could be dangerous if handled incorrectly. The dry cell battery was not perfected until the end of the 19th century.

Henshall corkscrew

CORKSCREW:  It is unclear who actually invented the first corkscrew to open bottles and jugs of corked beer, wine, etc. In the 1676 publication Treatise on Cider by John Worlidge, there is a reference to a device with a “steel worm used for the drawing of Corks out of Bottles” but there are no drawings or surviving examples.

What is certain is that Reverend Samuell Henshall of England was the first to obtain a patent for the simple tool, in 1795. The clergyman’s design included a simple disk, now known as the Henshall Button, affixed between the steel worm and the shank. The disk prevents the worm from going too deep into the cork, forces the cork to turn with the turning of the crosspiece, and thus breaks the adhesion between the cork and the neck of the bottle. The added brush to the handle was for dusting off the cork top.

I could go on and on, but must leave some items for a later blog, right? I hope y’all enjoyed this informative post. Of course, those who have read my Darcy Saga sequel series to Pride and Prejudice know that my Fitzwilliam Darcy is fascinated by inventions and unusual devices. In fact, some of the above objects have shown up in my novels! I can easily imagine Elizabeth being given a sewing machine by her loving husband, can’t you? Comments are always welcome!

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About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
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2 Responses to Surprising Pre-Regency Era Inventions, a Guest Post from Sharon Lathan

  1. Jean says:

    This info was fascinating, especially the sewing machine. I started sewing while in high school. My grandmother has an old pedal style singer sewing machine. I thought this must have been of the first. Quite interesting to know there was one out there much earlier.

    • Growing up, I used a treadle-style machine before we finally got an electric one. I have a machine out in my garage that someone would probably pay a pretty dime for as an antique. LOL!

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