Misinforming a Nation/Chapter 09

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Misinforming a Nation by Willard Huntington Wright
Chapter IX: Inventions, Photography, Aesthetics

IX


INVENTIONS, PHOTOGRAPHY, AESTHETICS


In the matter of American inventions the Encyclopædia Britannica would appear to have said as little as possible, and to have minimized our importance in that field as much as it dared. And yet American inventors, to quote H. Addington Bruce, “have not simply astonished mankind; they have enhanced the prestige, power, and prosperity of their country.” The Britannica's editors apparently do not agree with this; and when we think of the wonderful romance of American inventions, and the possibilities in the subject for full and interesting writing, and then read the brief, and not infrequently disdainful, accounts that are presented, we are conscious at once not only of an inadequacy in the matter of facts, but of a niggardliness of spirit.

Let us regard the Encyclopædia's treatment of steam navigation. Under Steamboat we read: “The first practical steamboat was the tug ‘Charlotte Dundas,’ built by William Symington (Scotch), and tried in the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1802. . . . The trial was successful, but steam towing was abandoned for fear of injuring the banks of the canal. Ten years later Henry Bell built the ‘Comet,’ with side-paddle wheels, which ran as a passenger steamer on the Clyde; but an earlier inventor to follow up Symington's success was the American, Robert Fulton. . . ."

This practically sums up the history of that notable achievement. Note the method of presentation, with the mention of Fulton as a kind of afterthought. While the data may technically come within the truth, the impression given is a false one, or at least a British one. Even English authorities admit that Fulton established definitely the value of the steamboat as a medium for passenger and freight traffic; but here the credit, through implication, is given to Symington and Bell. And yet, if Symington is to be given so much credit for pioneer work, why are not William Henry, of Pennsylvania, John Stevens, of New Jersey, Nathan Read, of Massachusetts, and John Fitch, of Connecticut, mentioned also? Surely each of these other Americans was important in the development of the idea of steam as motive power in water.

Eli Whitney receives a biography of only two-thirds of a column; Morse, less than a column; and Elias Howe, only a little over half a column. Even Thomas Edison receives only thirty-three lines of biography — a mere statement of facts. Such a biography is an obvious injustice; and the American buyers of the Encyclopædia Britannica have just cause for complaining against such inadequacy. Edison admittedly is a towering figure in modern science, and an encyclopædia the size of the Britannica should have a full and interesting account of his life, especially since obscure English scientists are accorded far more liberal biographies.

Alexander Graham Bell, however, receives the scantiest biography of all. It runs to just fifteen lines! And the name of Daniel Drawbaugh is not mentioned. He and Bell filed their papers for a telephone on the same day; and it was only after eight years' litigation that the Supreme Court decided in Bell's favor four judges favoring him and three favoring Drawbaugh. No reference is made of this interesting fact. Would the omission have occurred had Drawbaugh been an Englishman instead of a Pennsylvanian, or had not Bell been a native Scotchman?

The name of Charles Tellier, the Frenchman, does not appear in the Britannica. Not even under Refrigerating and Ice Making is he mentioned. And yet back in 1868 he began experiments which culminated in the refrigerating plant as used on ocean vessels to-day. Tellier, more than any other man, can be called the inventor of cold storage, one of the most important of modern discoveries, for it has revolutionized the food question and had far-reaching effects on commerce. Again we are prompted to ask if his name would have been omitted from the Britannica had he been an Englishman.

Another unaccountable omission occurs in the case of Rudolph Diesel. Diesel, the inventor of the Diesel engine, is comparable only to Watts in the development of power; but he is not considered of sufficient importance by the editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica to be given a biography. And under Oil Engine we read: “Mr. Diesel has produced a very interesting engine which departs considerably from other types.” Then follows a brief technical description of it. This is the entire consideration given to Diesel, with his “interesting” engine, despite the fact that the British Government sent to Germany for him in order to investigate his invention!

Few names in the history of modern invention stand as high as Wilbur and Orville Wright. To them can be attributed the birth of the airplane. In 1908, to use the words of an eminent authority, “the Wrights brought out their biplanes and practically taught the world to fly.” The story of how these two brothers developed aviation is, according to the same critic, “one of the most inspiring chronicles of the age.” The Britannica's editors, if we are to judge their viewpoint by the treatment accorded the Wright brothers in this encyclopædia, held no such opinion. Not only is neither of these men given a biography, but under Flight and Flying — the only place in the whole twenty-nine volumes where their names appear — they are accorded much less consideration than they deserve. Sir Hiram S. Maxim's flying adventures receive more space.

A subject which unfortunately is too little known in this country and yet one in the development of which America has played a very important part, is pictorial photography. A double interest therefore attaches to the manner in which this subject is treated in the Britannica. Since the writer of the article was thoroughly familiar with the true conditions, an adequate record might have been looked for. But no such record was forthcoming. In the discussion of photography in this Encyclopædia the same bias is displayed as in other departments — the same petty insularity, the same discrimination against America, the same suppression of vital truth, and the same exaggerated glorification of England. In this instance, however, there is documentary proof showing deliberate misrepresentation, and therefore we need not attribute the shortcomings to chauvinistic stupidity, as we have so charitably done in similar causes.

In the article on Pictorial Photography in this aggressibly British reference work we find the following: “It is interesting to note that as a distinct movement pictorial photography is essentially of British origin, and this is shown by the manner in which organized photographic bodies in Vienna, Brussels, Paris, St. Petersburg, Florence, and other European cities, as well as in Philadelphia, Chicago, etc., following the example of London, held exhibitions on exactly similar lines to those of the London Photographic Salon, and invited known British exhibitors to contribute.” Then it is noted that the interchange of works between British and foreign exhibitors led, in the year 1900, “to a very remarkable cult calling itself ‘The New American School,’ which had a powerful influence on contemporaries in Great Britain.”

The foregoing brief and inadequate statements contain all the credit that is given America in this field. New York, where much of the foremost and important work was done, is not mentioned; and the name of Alfred Stieglitz, who is undeniably the towering figure in American photography as well as one of the foremost figures in the world's photography, is omitted entirely. Furthermore, slight indication is given of the “powerful influence” which America has had; and the significant part she has played in photography, together with the names of the American leaders, is completely ignored, although there is quite a lengthy discussion concerning English photographic history, including credit to those who participated in it.

For instance, the American, Steichen, a world figure in photography and, of a type, perhaps the greatest who ever lived, is not mentioned. Nor are Gertrude Käsebier and Frank Eugene, both of whom especially the former, has had an enormous international influence in pictorial photography. And although there is a history of the formation of the “Linked Ring” in London, no credit is given to Stieglitz whose work, during twenty-five years in Germany and Vienna, was one of the prime influences in the crystallization of this brotherhood. Nor is there so much as a passing reference to Camera Work (published in New York) which stands at the head of photographic publications.

As I have said, there exists documentary evidence which proves the deliberate unfairness of this article. It is therefore not necessary to accept my judgment on the importance of Stieglitz and the work done in America. A. Horsley Hinton, who is responsible for the prejudiced article in the Encyclopædia, was the editor of The Amateur Photographer, a London publication; and in that magazine, as long ago as 1904, we have, in Mr. Hinton's own words, a refutation of what he wrote for the Britannica. In the May 19 (1904) issue he writes: “We believe every one who is interested in the advance of photog- raphy generally, will learn with pleasure that Mr. Alfred Stieglitz, whose life-long and wholly disinterested devotion to pictorial photography should secure him a unique position, will be present at the opening of the next Exhibition of the Photographic Salon in London. Mr. Stieglitz was zealous in all good photographic causes long before the Salon, and indeed long before pictorial photography was discussed — with Dr. Vogel in Germany, for instance, twenty-five years ago.”

Elsewhere in this same magazine we read: “American photography is going to be the ruling note throughout the world unless others bestir themselves; indeed, the Photo-Secession (American) pictures have already captured the highest places in the esteem of the civilized world. Hardly an exhibition of first importance is anywhere held without a striking collection of American work, brought together and sent by Mr. Alfred Stieglitz. For the last two or three years in the European exhibitions these collections have secured the premier awards, or distinctions.” And again we find high praise of Steichen, “than whom America possesses no more brilliant genius among her sons who have taken up photography.”

These quotations — and many similar ones appeared over a decade ago in Mr. Hinton's magazine — give evidence that Mr. Hinton was not unaware of the extreme importance of American photographic work or of the eminent men who took part in it; and yet in writing his article for the Britannica he has apparently carefully forgotten what he himself had previously written.

But this is not the only evidence we have of deliberate injustice in the Encyclopædia's disgraceful neglect of our efforts in this line. In 1913, in the same English magazine, we find not only an indirect confession of the Britannica's bias, but also the personal reason for that bias. Speaking of Stieglitz's connection with that phase of photographic history to which Mr. Hinton was most intimately connected, this publication says: “At that era, and for long afterwards, Stieglitz was, in fact, a thorn in our sides. ‘Who's Boss of the Show?’ inquires a poster, now placarded in London. Had that question been asked of the (London) Salon, an irritated whisper of honesty would have replied ‘Stieglitz.’ And . . . we didn't like it. We couldn't do without him; but these torrential doctrines of his were, to be candid, a nuisance. . . . He is an influence; an influence for which, even if photography were not concerned, we should be grateful, but which, as it is, we photographers can never perhaps justly estimate.” After this frank admission the magazine adds: “Stieglitz — too big a man to need any ‘defense’ — has been considerably misunderstood and misrepresented, and, in so far as this is so, photographers and photography itself are the losers.”

What better direct evidence could one desire than this naïf confession? Yes, Stieglitz, who, according to Mr. Hinton's own former publication, was a thorn in that critic's side, has indeed been “misrepresented”; but nowhere has he been neglected with so little excuse as in Mr. Hinton's own article in the Britannica. And though — again according to this magazine — Stieglitz is “too big a man to need any ‘defense,’” I cannot resist defending him here; for the whole petty, personal and degrading affair is characteristic of the Encyclopædia Britannica's contemptible treatment of America and Americans.

Such flagrant political intriguing, such an obvious attempt to use the Encyclopædia to destroy America's high place in the world of modern achievement, can only arouse disgust in the unprejudiced reader. The great light-bearer in the photographic field, Camera Work, if generally known and appreciated, would have put Hr. Hinton's own inferior magazine out of existence as a power; and his omitting to mention it in his article and even in his bibliography, is a flagrant example of the Britannica's refusal to tell the whole truth whenever that truth would harm England or benefit America.

In view of the wide and growing interest in æsthetics and of the immense progress which has been made recently in æsthetic research, one would expect to find an adequate and comprehensive treatment of that subject in a work like the Britannica. But here again one will be disappointed. The article on æsthetics reveals a parti pris which illy becomes a work which should be, as it claims to be, objective and purely informative. The author of the article is critical and not seldom argumentative; and, as a result, full justice is not done the theories and research of many eminent modern æstheticians. Twenty-two lines are all that are occupied in setting forth the æsthetic writers in Germany since Goethe and Schiller, and in this brief paragraph, many of the most significant contributors to the subject are not even given passing mention. And, incredible as it may seem, that division of the article which deals with the German writers is shorter than the division dealing with English writers!

One might forgive scantiness of material in this general article if it were possible to find the leading modern æsthetic theories set forth in the biographies of the men who conceived them. But — what is even more astonishing in the Encyclopædia's treatment of æsthetics there are no biographies of many of the scientists whose names and discoveries are familiar to any one even superficially interested in the subject. Several of these men, whose contributions have marked a new epoch in psychological and æsthetic research, are not even mentioned in the text of the Encyclopædia; and the only indication we have that they lived and worked is in an occasional foot-note. Their names do not so much as appear in the Index!

Külpe, one of the foremost psychologists and æstheticians, has no biography, and he is merely mentioned in a foot-note as being an advocate of the principle of association. Lipps, who laid the foundation of the new philosophy of æsthetics and formulated the hypothesis of Einfühlung, has no biography. His name appears once — under Æsthetics — and his theory is actually disputed by the critic who wrote the article. Groos, another important esthetic leader, is also without a biography; and his name is not in the Britannica's Index. Nor is Hildebrand, whose solutions to the problem of form are of grave importance, thought worthy of mention.

There is no excuse for such inadequacy, especially as England possesses in Vernon Lee a most capable interpreter of æsthetics a writer thoroughly familiar with the subject, and one whose articles and books along this line of research have long been conspicuous for their brilliancy and thoroughness.

Furthermore, in this article we have another example of the Britannica's contempt for American achievement. This country has made important contributions to æsthetics; and only an Englishman could have written a modern exposition of the subject without referring to the researches of William James and Hugo Münsterberg. The Lange-James hypothesis has had an important influence on æsthetic theory; and Münsterberg's observations on æsthetic preference, form-perception and projection of feelings, play a vital rôle in the history of modern æsthetic science; but you will look in vain for any mention of these Americans' work. Münsterberg's Principles of Art Education is not even included in the bibliography.