The Atlantic Monthly/Volume 2/No. 1/What are We Going to Make?
|The Atlantic Monthly
What are We Going to Make?
It would be easy to collect a library of lamentations over the mechanical tendency of our age. There are, in fact, a good many people who profess a profound contempt for matter, though they do nevertheless patronize the butcher and the baker to the manifest detriment of the sexton. Matter and material interests, they would have us believe, are beneath the dignity of the soul; and the degree to which these "earthly things" now absorb the attention of mankind, they think, argues degeneracy from the good old times of abstract philosophy and spiritual dogmatism. But what do we better know of the Infinite Spirit than that he is an infinite mechanic? Whence do we get worthier or sublimer conceptions of him than from the machinery with which he works? Are we ourselves less godlike building mills than sitting in pews?--less in the image of our Maker, endeavoring to subdue matter than endeavoring to ignore its existence? Without questioning that the moral nature within us is superior to the mechanical, we think it quite susceptible of proof that the moral condition of the world depends on the mechanical, and that it has advanced and will advance at equal pace with the progress of machinery. To prove this, or anything else, however, is by no means the purpose of this article, but only to take the general reader around a little among mechanical people and ideas, to see what lies ahead.
"Papa, what are you going to make?" was doubtless the question of Tubal-Cain's little boy, when he saw his ingenious father hammering a red-hot iron, with a stone for a hammer, and another for an anvil. Little boys have often since asked the same question in blacksmiths' shops, and we now have shops in which the largest boys may well ask it. It might be answered in a general way, that the smiths or smiters, black and white, were and are going to make what our Maker left unmade in making the human race. The lower animals were all sent into the world in appropriate, finished, and well-fitting costume, provided with direct and effective means of subsistence and defence. The eagle had his imperial plumage, beak, and talons; the elephant his leathern roundabout and travelling trunk, with its convenient air-pump; and the beaver, at once a carpenter and a mason, had his month full of chisels and his tail a trowel. The _bipes implumis_, on the contrary, was hatched nude, without even the embryo of a pin-feather. There was nothing for him but the recondite capabilities of his two talented, but talonless hands, and a large brain almost without instinct. Nothing was ready-made, only the means of making. He was brought into the infinite world a finite deity, an infinitesimal creator,--the first being of that class, to our knowledge. His most urgent business as a creator was to make tools for himself, and especially for the purpose of supplying his own pitiful destitution of feathers. From the aprons of fig-leaves, stitched hardly so-so, to the last patent sewing-machine, he has made commendable progress. Without borrowing anything from other animals, he can now, if he chooses, rival in texture, tint, gloss, lightness, and expansiveness, the plumage of peacocks and birds-of-paradise; and it only remains that what can be done shall be done more extensively,--we do not mean for the individual, but for the masses. Man has created not only tools, but servants,-- animals all but alive. We may soon say that he has created great bodies politic and bodies corporate, with heads, hands, feet, claws, tails, lungs, digestive organs, and perhaps other viscera. What is remarkable, having at first failed to furnish them with nerves, he has lately supplied that deficiency,--a token that he will supply some others.
Let not the reader shrink from our page as irreverent. It shall not preach the possibility of inventing perpetual motion or a machine with a soul in it, as was lately and vainly attempted in our good city of Lynn,--where, however, it may be said, they do succeed in making soles to what resemble machines. It is not for us to be either so enthusiastic, impious, or uncharitable as to prophesy that human ingenuity will ever endow its creations with anything more than the rudest semblance of that self-directing vitality which characterizes the most servile of God-created machinery. The human mechanic must be content, if he can approach as near to the creation of life as the painter and sculptor have done. The soul of the man-made horse-power is primarily the horse, and secondarily the small boy who stands by to "cut him up" occasionally. Maelzel created excellent chess-players, with the exception of intelligence, which he was obliged to borrow of the original Creator and conceal in a closet under the table.
But let us not undervalue ourselves--which would, in fact, be to undervalue our Creator--for such shortcomings. Though into our iron horse's skull or cab we have to put one or two living men to supply its deficiency of understanding, it is nevertheless a recognizable animal, of a very grand and somewhat novel type. Its respiratory, digestive, and muscular systems are respectable; and in the nature and articulation of its organs of motion it is clearly original. The wheel, typical of eternity, is nowhere to be found among living organisms, unless we take the brilliant vision of Ezekiel in a literal sense. The idea of attributing life or spirit to wheels, organs by their nature detached or discontinuous from the living creatures of which they were parts, was worthy of a prophet or poet; but to no such prophetic vision were the first wheelwrights indebted for their conception of so great an improvement upon animal locomotion. For if they had not made chariots before Noah's flood, they certainly had done it before Pharaoh's smaller affair in the Red Sea. On that occasion, the chariot-wheels of the Egyptians were taken off; but this does not seem to have produced effects so decisive as would result from a similar disorganization in Broadway or Washington Street; for the charioteers still "drave them heavily." Hence we may infer that the wheels were of rude workmanship, making the chariots little less liable to the infirmity of friction than those Western vehicles called mud-boats, used to navigate semi-fluid regions which pass on the map for _terra firma_.
Yet, notwithstanding the rudeness of the primitive chariot, made of two or three sticks and two rings cut from a hollow tree, it was the germ of human inventions, and embosomed the world's destiny. It was the most original as well as the most godlike of human thoughts. The ship may have been copied from the nautilus, or from the embarked squirrel trimming his tail to the breeze; or it may have been blundered upon by the savage mounted on a drift-log, accidentally making a sail of his sheepskin cloak while extending his arms to keep his balance. But the cart cannot be regarded either as a plagiarism from Nature, or the fruit of accident. The inventor must have unlocked Nature's private closet with the key of mathematical principle, and carried off the wheel and axle, the only mechanical power she had not used in her physical creation, as patent to our senses. Of course, she meant it should be stolen. She had, it is true, made a show of punishing her little Prometheus for running off with her match-box and setting things on fire, but she must have felt proud of the theft. In well-regulated families children are not allowed to play with fire, though the passion to do it is looked on as a favorable mental indication. When the good dame saw that her infant _chef-d'oeuvre_ had got hold of her reserved mechanical element, the wheel, she foresaw his use of the stolen fire would be something more than child's play. The cart, whether two-wheeled, or, as our Hibernian friends will have it, one-wheeled, was an infinite success, an invention of unlimited capabilities. Yet the inventor obtained no record. Neither his name nor his model is to be found in any patent-office.
The tool-making animal, having obtained this marvellous means of multiplying, or rather treasuring and applying, mechanical force, went on at least some thousands of years before waking up to its grand significance. Among the nations that first obtained excellence in textile fabrics, very little use has ever been made of the wheel. The spinning-girl of Dacca, who twists, and for ages has twisted, a pound of cotton into a thread two hundred and fifty miles long, beating Manchester by ninety miles, has no wheel, unless you so call a ball of clay, of the size of a pea, stuck fast on one end of her spindle, by means of which she twists it between her thumb and finger. But this wonderful mechanical feat costs her many months of labor, to say nothing of previous training; while the Manchester factory-girl, aided by the multiplying power of the wheel, easily makes as much yarn, though not quite so fine, in a day. If it were an object to rival the tenuity of the finest India muslin, machinery could easily accomplish it. But that spider-web fabric is carried so nearly to transparency, that the Emperor Aurengzebe is said to have reproved his daughter for the indelicacy of her costume while she wore seven thicknesses of it. She might have worn twelve hundred yards without burdening herself with more than a pound weight; what she did wear did not, probably, weigh two ounces. The Chinese and Japanese have spinning-wheels hardly equal to those brought over by our pilgrim fathers in the Mayflower. But they have also, what Western civilization has not, praying-wheels. In Japan the praying-wheel is turned by hand; but in China, according to Hue, it is sometimes carried by water-power, and rises to the dignity of a mill. The Japanese, however, have mills for hulling rice, turned by very respectable water-wheels. The Egyptians and Greeks had water-wheels, and in fact understood all the mechanical powers. Archimedes, all the world knows, astounded the Romans by mechanical combinations which showered rocks on the besiegers of Syracuse, and boasted he could make a projectile of the world itself, if he could only find a standing-place outside of it.
The present civilization of Europe very properly began with the clock, a machine which a monk, afterwards Pope Sylvester II, was supposed to have borrowed from Satan, though he was probably indebted for it to the Saracens. For nearly nine hundred years after his day, the best ingenuity of Italian, German, Swiss, French, and English mechanics was devoted to perfecting this noble creation, and it became at last a part of the civilized man, a sort of additional or supplementary sense. The savage may well be excused for mistaking the watch for a living creature. It could not serve us better, if it were. True, it does not perform its function by its own force, but by a stock of extraneous force which is from time to time put into a little store-house called a spring. Neither does the living creature perform its functions by any other force than that which is developed by the chemical action within it, or the _quasi_ combustion of its food. Its will does but direct the application of its mechanical power. It creates none. You may weigh the animal and all the food it is to consume, and thence calculate the utmost ounce of work, of a given kind, which it can thereafter perform. It may do less, but cannot do more. Having consumed all of its food and part of itself, it dies. Its chemical organs have oxydated or burned up all the combustibles submitted to them, thus developing a definite amount of heat, a part of which, at the dictation of the will, by the mechanism of nerves and muscles, has been converted into mechanical motion. When the chemical function ceases, for the want of materials to act upon, the development of heat ceases. There is no more either to be converted into motion or to maintain the temperature of the body; and self-consumption having already taken the place of self-repair, there is no article left but the _articulus mortis_.
But of all the force or motion produced by, or rather passing through, a living animal, or any other organism, none is ever, so far as we know, annihilated. The motion which has apparently ceased or been destroyed has in reality passed into heat, light, electricity, magnetism, or other effect,--itself, perhaps, nothing but motion, to keep on, in one form or another, indefinitely. The fuel which we put into the stomach of the horse, of iron or of flesh, first by its oxydation raises heat, a part of which it is the function of the individual to convert into motion, to be expended on friction and resistance, or, in other words, to be reconverted into heat. What becomes of this heat, then? If the fuel were to be replaced or deoxydated, the heat that originally came from the oxydation would be precisely reabsorbed. But this heat of itself cannot overcome the stronger affinity which now chains the fuel to the oxygen. It must go forward, not backward, about its business, forever and ever. It may pass, but not cease. The sharp-eyed Faraday has been following far away this Proteus, with a strong suspicion that it changes at last into gravity, in which shape it returns straight to the sun, carrying down with it, probably, those flinty showers of meteors which, striking fire in the atmosphere of the prime luminary, replenish its overflowing fountain of life. But we are not aware that he has yet discovered the anastomosis of this conversion, or quite established the fact. We are therefore not yet quite ready to resolve the universe of physical forces into the similitude of the mythical mill-stream, which, flowing round a little hill, came back and fed its own pond. Nevertheless, we believe the physicists have pretty generally agreed to assume as a law of Nature what they call the conservation of force, the principle we have been endeavoring to explain.
Under the lead of this law, theory, or assumption, discoveries have been made that deeply and practically interest the most abject mortal who anywhere swings a hoe or shoulders a hod, as well as the lords of the land. For example, it has been ascertained that heat is converted into motion, or motion into heat, according to a fixed or constant ratio or equivalent. To be more particular, the heat which will raise the temperature of a pound of water one degree of Fahrenheit's scale, when converted into mechanical motion, is equivalent to the force which a weight of seven hundred and seventy-two pounds would exert by falling one foot. This is a wonderfully small quantity of heat to balance so heavy a blow, but the careful experiments of Mr. Joule of Manchester, the discoverer, confirmed by Regnault, Thomson, Rankine, Clausius, Mayer, Rennie, and others, have, we believe, satisfied scientific men that it is not far from the correct measure. Were the same, or a far less amount of heat, concentrated on a minute chip of steel struck off by collision with a flint, it would be visible to the eye as a spark, and show us how motion is converted into light as well as heat.
It is not our vocation to dive into the infinities, either upward or downward, in search, on the one hand, of the ultimate atoms of the rarest ether, by whose vibrations the luminous waves run through space at the rate of more than ten millions of miles a minute, or, on the other, of the nebulous systems, worlds in the gristle, so far off that the light just now arriving from them tells only how they looked two hundred thousand years ago. All we have to say is, that, if we do not now absolutely know, we do reasonably suspect, that heat and light are mere mechanical motions, alike in nature and interconvertible in fact. The luminiference seems to behave itself, not like infinitely small bullets projected from Sharpe's rifles of proportionately small bore, as was once supposed, but rather after the manner of the sound-waves, which we know travel through the air from the sonorous body to the ear. They have also a resemblance, not so close, to the waves which run in all directions along the surface of a pond of water from the point where a stone falls into it. These three classes of waves, differing so immensely in magnitude and velocity, all agree in this,--that it is the wave that travels, and not the fluid or medium. The rapidity of the luminous wave is about nine hundred million times that of the sound-wave; hence we may suppose that the ether in which it moves is about as many times rarer or lighter than air, and the retina of the eye which it impresses as many times more delicate and sensitive than the drum of the ear. It can hardly be unreasonable to suppose that a fluid so rare as this luminiferous ether will readily interflow the particles of all other matter, gaseous, liquid, or solid, and that in such abundance that its vibrations or agitations may be propagated through them. Yet even the rarest gases must considerably obstruct and modify the vibratory waves, while liquids and solids, according to their density and structural arrangement of atoms, must do it far more. The luminiferous ether, in which all systems are immersed, kept hereabout in an incessant quiver through its complete and perhaps three-fold gamut of vibrations by the sun, strikes the aërial ocean of the earth about an average of five hundred million millions of blows per second, for each of the seven colors, or luminous notes, not to speak of the achromatic vibrations, whose effects are other than vision or visionary. The aërial ocean is such open-work, that these infinitesimal billows are not much, though somewhat, broken by it; but when they reach the terraqueous globe itself, they dash into foam which goes whirling and eddying down into solids and liquids, among their wild caverns of ultra-microscopic littleness, and this foam or whirl-storm of ethereal substance is heat, if we are not much mistaken. According to its intensity, it expands by its own mere motion all grosser material.
The quantity of this ethereal foam, yeast, whirlwind, hubbub, or whatever else you please to call it, which is got up or given up by the combustion of three pounds of good bituminous coal, according to Mr. Joule's experiments, is more than equivalent to a day's labor of a powerful horse. With our best stationary steam-engines, at present, we get a day's horse-power from not less than twenty-four pounds of coal. At this rate, the whole supply of mineral coal in the world, as it may be roughly estimated, is equivalent only to the labor of one thousand millions of horses for fifteen hundred years. With the average performance of our present engines, it would support that amount of horse-power for only one thousand years. But could we obtain the full mechanical duty of the fuel by our engines, it would be equal to the work of a thousand millions of horses for sixteen thousand years, or of about fifteen times as many men for the same time. This would materially postpone the exhaustion of the coal, at which one so naturally shudders,--to say nothing of the saving of having to dig but one eighth as much of the mineral to produce the same effect. Hence some of the interest that attaches to this discovery of Mr. Joule, which has given a new impulse to the labor of inventors in pushing the steam-engine towards perfection.
But if the whole available mechanical power, laid in store in the coal mines, in addition to all the unimproved wind and water power, should seem to any one insufficient to work out this world's manifest destiny, the doctrine of the essential unity or conservation of force is not exhausted of consolation. All the coal of which we have spoken is but the result of the action of sun-light in past ages, decomposing carbonic acid in the vegetative process. The combustion of the carbon reproduces a force exactly equivalent to that of the sun-light which was absorbed or consumed in its vegetative separation. Supposing the whole estimated stock of coal in the world to be consumed at once, it would cover the entire globe with a stratum of carbonic acid about seventy-two feet deep. And if all the energy of sun-light which this globe receives or encounters in a year were to be devoted to its decomposition, according to Pouillet's estimate of the strength of sunshine,--and he probably knows, if any one does,-- deducting all that would be wasted on rock or water, there would be enough to complete the task in a year or two. A marvellous growth of forest, that would be! But the coal is not to be burned up at once. When we get our steam-engines in motion to the amount of two or three thousand millions of horse-power, and are running off the coal at the rate of one tenth of one per cent per annum, the simple and inevitable consequence will be that the wood will be growing enough faster to keep good the general stock of fuel. Doubtless the forests are now limited in their growth and stunted from their ante-Saurian stature, not so much for want of soil, moisture, or sunshine as for want of carbonic acid in the air, to be decomposed by the foliage, the great deposition of coal in the primitive periods having exhausted the supply. Our present havoc of wood only changes the locality of wood-lots, and our present consumption of coal, rapid enough to exhaust the entire supply in about seventy-seven thousand years, is sure to increase the aggregate cordage of the forests. By the time we have brought our locomotive steam-cultivators to such perfection as to plough up and pulverize the great central deserts, we may see trees flourish where it would have been useless to plant the seed before we had converted so much of the earth's entrails into smoke.
There was a time, before we had harnessed the powers of Nature to found, forge, spin, weave, print, and drudge for us generally, that in every civilized country the strong-headed men used their strong-handed brethren as machines. Only he could be very knowing who owned many scribes, or he very rich who owned many hewers of wood and drawers of water. With our prodigious development of mechanical inventions, iron and coal, our mighty steam-driven machinery for making machines, the time for chattelizing men, or depending mainly on animal power of any sort for the production of wealth, has passed by. Abrogate the golden rule, if you will, and establish the creed of caste,--let the strongest of human races have full license to enslave the weakest, and let it have the pick of soil and staples,-- still, if you do not abolish the ground rules of arithmetic, and the fact that a pound of carbon costs less than a pound of corn, and must cost less for at least a thousand years to come, chattelism of man will cease in another generation, and the next century will not dawn on a human slave. At present, a pound of carbon does not cost so much as a pound of corn in any part of the United States, and in no place visited by steam-transportation does it cost one fifth as much. We are already able to get as much work out of a pound of carbon as can be got from a pound of corn fed to the faithfullest slave in the world. Mr. Joule has shown us that there is really in a pound of carbon more than twice as much work as there is in a pound of corn. The human corn-consuming machine comes nearer getting the whole mechanical duty or equivalent out of his fuel than our present steam-engine does, but the former is all he ever will be, while the latter is an infant and growing.
We shall doubtless soon see engines that will get the work of two slaves out of the coal that just balances one slave's food in the scales. Our iron-boned, coal-eating slave, with the advantage of that peculiar and almost infinitely applicable mechanical element, the wheel, may be made to go anywhere and do any sort of work, and, as we have seen, he will do it for one tenth of the cost of any brute or human slave.
But will not our artificial slave be more liable to insurrection? Everybody admits that he already accomplishes incalculable drudgery in the huge mill, on the ocean, and on the iron highway. But almost everybody looks upon him as a sleeping volcano, which must sooner or later flare up into irresistible wrath and do frightful mischief. Underwriters shake their prudent heads at him. Coroners' inquests, sitting solemnly over his frequent desolations, find only that some of his ways are past finding out. Can such a creature be domesticated so as to serve profitably and comfortably on by-roads as well as high-roads, on farms, in gardens, in kitchens, in mines, in private workshops, in all sorts of places where steady, uncomplaining toil is wanted? Can we ever trust him as we trust ourselves, or our humble friends, the horse and the ox? The law of the conservation of force, now so nearly developed, will perhaps throw some light on this inquiry.
Boiler explosions have a sort of family resemblance to the freaks of lightning or the thunderbolt. Indeed, so striking is the similarity, that people have been prone to think, that, previously to an explosion, the steam in the boiler must have become in some inexplicable way charged with electricity like a thunder-cloud, and that the discharge must have occasioned the catastrophe. It is needless to say to those who understand a Leyden jar, that nothing of the sort takes place. The friction of the watery globules, carried along by the steam in blowing off, is found to disturb the electrical equilibrium, as any other friction does; but the circumstances in the case of a boiler are always so favorable to its restoration, that an electrical thunderbolt cannot possibly be raised there that would damage a gnat. Yet a boiler explosion may, after all, depend on the same immediate cause as the mechanical effect which is frequently noticed after an electrical discharge in a thunder-storm. Let us hypothetically analyze what takes place in a thunder-storm. For the sake of illustration, and nothing more, we will suppose the existence, throughout all otherwise void space, of three interflowing ethers, the atoms of each of which are, in regard to each other, repellant, negative, or the reverse of ponderable, and that these ethers differ in a series by vast intervals as to size and distance of atoms, that each neither repels nor attracts the other, that only the rarest is everywhere, and that the denser ones, while self-repellant, have affinities, more or less, which draw them from the interplanetary spaces towards the ponderable masses. Let the rarest of these ethers be that whose vibrations cause the phenomena of light,--the next denser that which, either by vibration or translatory motion, causes the electrical phenomena,-- and the most dense of the three that which by its motions, of whatever sort, causes the phenomena of heat. The solar impulse propagated through the luminiferous ether towards any mass encounters in its neighborhood the electrical and calorific ethers, and sets them into motions which may be communicated from one to the other, but which are communicated to ponderable matter, or result in mechanical action, only or chiefly by the impulse of the denser or calorific ether. When the sun shines on land and water, as we have already said, there is a violent ethereal commotion in the interstices of the superficial matter, which we will now suppose to be that of the calorific ether; and by virtue of this motion, together with whatever affinities this ether may be supposed to have for ponderable matter, we may account for evaporation, and the production of those vast aërial currents by which the evaporated water is diffused. In the production of aërial currents, heat is converted into force, and hence vapor is converted into watery globules mechanically suspended on clouds, which, by their friction, sweep the electrical ether into excessive condensation in the great Leyden-jar arrangement of the sky. Whatever it may be that gives relief to this condensation, the relief itself consists in motion, either translatory or vibratory, of the electrical ether or ethers. As this motion, if it be such, often takes place through gases, liquids, and solids, without any sensible mechanical effect, and at other times is contemporary with phenomena of intense heat, we may, till otherwise informed, suppose, that, whenever it produces a mechanical effect, it is by so impinging on the calorific ether as to produce the motion of heat, which is instantly thereafter converted into mechanical force. It is not so much the greatness of the amount of this mechanical force which gives it its peculiar destructiveness, as the inequality of its strain; not so much the quantity of matter projected, as the velocity of the blow. One may have his brains blown out by a bullet of air as well as one of lead, if the air only blows hard enough and to one point. Whatever its material, the edge of the thunder-axe is almost infinitely sharp, and its blow is as destructive as it is timeless. But it is always heat, not electrical discharge, which only sometimes causes heat, that strikes the blow.
Now in the case of a steam-boiler, when the water, having been reduced too low, is allowed suddenly to foam up on the overheated crown-sheet of the furnace, there must be just that sudden or instantaneous conversion of heat into force which may take place when the current of the electrical discharge passes through the gnarled fibres of an oak. The boiler and the oak are blown to shivers in equally quick time. The only difference seems to be, that in one case electricity stood immediately, in point of time, behind the heat, and in the other it stood away back beyond the crocodiles, playing its _rôle_ more genially in the growth of the monster forests whose remains we are now digging from the bowels of the earth as coal. In the normal action of a steam-boiler, the steam-generating surfaces being all under water, however unequally the fire may act in different localities, the water, by its rapid circulation, if not by its heat-absorbing power, diffuses the heat and constantly equalizes the strain resulting from its conversion into mechanical force. The increase of pressure takes place gradually and evenly, and may easily be kept far within safe limits. It is quite otherwise when the conductivity of the boiler-plate is not aided and controlled by the distributiveness of the water, as it is not whenever the plate is in contact with the fire on one side without being also in contact with the water on the other. Everybody knows that boilers explode under such circumstances, but everybody does not know why.
A cylinder of plate-iron will withstand a gradually applied, evenly distributed, and constant pressure, one thousandth part of which, acting at one spot, as a blow, would rend its way through, or establish a crack. This slight rent, giving partial relief to the sudden but comparatively small force that causes it, would be nothing very serious in itself,--no more so than a rent produced by the hydraulic press,--if the whole force, equal, perhaps, to that of a thousand wild horses imprisoned within, did not take instant advantage of it to enlarge the breach and blow the whole structure to fragments, or, in other words, if it did not permit nearly the whole of the accumulated heat in the boiler to be at once converted into mechanical motion. For example, a boiler whose ordinary working pressure is one hundred pounds to the square inch, which may give an aggregate on the whole surface of five millions of pounds, would not give way, perhaps, if that pressure were gradually and evenly increased to thirty millions. But if the water is allowed to get so low that some part of the plate exposed to the fire is no longer covered with it, that part will directly become far hotter than the water or the mass of the steam,--dry steam having no more power to carry away the excess of heat than so much air. After that, when the water rises again, the first wave or wallop that strikes the overheated plate absorbs the excess of heat, and its conversion into steam of higher pressure than that already existing is so sudden that it may be regarded as instantaneous. It is to be remembered that for every pound of water raised one degree, or heat to that amount absorbed in generating steam, a force of seven hundred and seventy-two pounds is created. In this case a new or additional force is created, which, acting in all directions from one point, first takes effect on the line which joins that point with the nearest opposite point in the wall of the boiler. If it is not like smiting with the edge of a ponderous battle-axe, it is at least as dangerous as a cannon ball shot along that line. If the local heat so suddenly absorbed be but enough to raise ten pounds of water ten degrees, it is equivalent to the force acquired by seventy-seven thousand two hundred pounds falling through a foot, or of a cannon-ball of one hundred pounds flying at the rate of more than a mile per second. If by any miracle the boiler should stand this shock or series of shocks, the pressure becomes equalized, and the overheated plate having parted with its excess of heat, safety is restored. But if cohesion is anywhere overcome by the sudden blow, the wild horses stampede in all directions. The boiler, minus the water and boiler-head perhaps, goes through ceiling, roof, and brick walls, as if they were cobwebs, and, surrounded with fragments of men and things, is seen descending like a comet through the neighboring air.
To get rid of this liability to have a Thor-hammer or thunderbolt generated in the stomach of a steam-engine, at any moment when the vigilance of the engineer happens to be at fault, something is going to be done. No safety-valve or fusible plug is adequate. The boiler cannot be all safety-valve. The trouble is, the hammer is not more likely to strike the first of its terrible series of blows on the valve than anywhere else. A safety-valve, in good order, is a sovereign precaution against the excess of an equally distributed strain, but it is not an adequate protection against a shock or unequal strain. The old-fashioned gaugecocks, which are by no means to be dispensed with, reveal the state of the water in the boiler to the watchful engineer about as surely as the stethoscope reveals to the doctor the condition of his patient's lungs. A surer and more convenient indication is the tubular glass gauge, on the fountain principle, which in its best form is both trustworthy and durable. No well-informed proprietor suffers his boiler to be without one; but it is not a cure for carelessness. It is only a window for the vigilant eye to look through, not the eye itself. Steam-boilers will have to be constructed so that when the subsidence of the water fails to check itself by enlarging the supply, it shall, before the point of danger is reached, infallibly check the combustion, let off the steam, and blow a whistle or ring a bell, which the proprietor may, if he pleases, regard as the official death-knell of the careless engineer. Human vigilance must not be superseded, but fortified,--as in the case of the watchman watched by the tell-tale clock. The steam-creature must be so constituted as to refuse to work itself down to the zone where alone unequal strains are possible; it must cry out in horror and strike work. Mechanically the solution of the problem is easy, and the enhancement in cost of construction will be nothing, compared to the risk of loss from these explosions. With this guard against the deficiency of water, steam-power will become the safest, as it is the most manageable, of all forces that have hitherto been subsidized by the civilized man.
But there is one more improvement worth mentioning. We do great injustice to our steam-slaves by the slovenly and unphilosophical way in which we feed them. We take no hints from animal economy or the laws of dietetics.
Our creature has no regular meals, especially if he is one of the fast kind; but a grimy nurse stands by, and, opening his mouth every few minutes, crams in a few spoonfuls of the black pudding. The natural consequence is more or less indigestion and inequality of strength. We have not yet taken full advantage of the laws of combustion, or adapted our apparatus to the peculiarities of the best and cheapest fuel. Nature manages more wisely in her machinery. Combustion, the union of fuel with oxygen, ceases for want of air as well as for want of fuel. In the case of fuels compounded of carbon and hydrogen, if the air be withheld when the mass is in rapid combustion, the heat will cause a portion of the fuel to pass off by distillation, unconsumed, and this portion will be lost. But from the best anthracite, which is nearly pure carbon concentrated, if oxygen be entirely excluded, not much can distil away with any degree of heat. The combustion of this fuel, therefore, admits of very easy and economical regulation, by simply regulating the supply of air. When the air is admitted at all, it should be admitted above as well as below the fuel, so that the carbonic oxyde that is generated in the mass may be burned, or converted into carbonic acid, over the top. Why, then, should not the iron horse, before leaving his stable, take a meal of anthracite sufficient to last him fifty or one hundred miles? Let him swallow a ton at once, if he need it. Before starting, let the temperature of the mass in the furnace be got up to the point where the combustion will go on with sufficient rapidity for the required speed by simply supplying air, which should also be fed as hot as possible. This done, the engineer throughout the trip will have perfect control of his force by means of the steam-blast and air-openings. There will be no smoke nuisance, the combustion being complete so far as it takes place at all. There will be no need of loading the furnace with firebrick to equalize the heat,--the mass of incandescent fuel serving that purpose; and no waste or inequality will occur from opening the door to throw in a cold collation.
What are we going to make? First, we are going to finish up, and carry out into all desirable species, our great idea of an iron slave, the illustrious Man Friday of our modern civilization. Whether we put water, air, or ether into his aorta, as the medium of converting heat into force, we shall at last have a safe subject, available for all sorts of drudgery, that will do the work of a man without eating more than half as much weight of coal as a man eats of bread and meat. Next, carrying into all departments of human industry, in its perfect development, this new creature, which has already, as a mere infant, made so stupendous a change in some of them, we shall make the human millions all masters, from being nearly all slaves. We shall make both idleness and poverty nearly impossible. Human labor, as a general thing, is a positive pleasure only when the hand and brain work in concert. Hence, the more you increase well-devised and efficient machinery, which requires and rewards intelligent oversight and skilful direction, the more you increase the love of labor. We have already manufacturing communities so well supplied with tasks for brains and hands, that everybody works, or would do so but for Circe and her seductive hollow-ware. We are beginning to push machinery into agriculture, where it will have still greater scope. With the means we now have, in the enormously increased production of iron, our almost omnipresent and omnipotent machine-shops, our railroads leading everywhere, another century, or perhaps half of it, will see every arable rood of the earth and every rood that can be made arable, ploughed, sowed, and the crops harvested by iron horses, iron oxen, or iron men, under the free and intelligent supervision of people who know how to feed, drive, doctor, and make the most of them.
One island, which would hardly be missed from the map of the world, so small that its rivers all fall into the sea mere brooks, with not more than one-thirteenth as much coal as we have in the United States, and perhaps not one-hundredth as much iron ore, by the use of steam-driven machinery produces as much iron and perhaps weaves as much cloth yearly as all the rest of the world. If it does not the latter, it would do it, if it could find enough of the raw material and paying customers. But agriculture, which supplies the raw material, though it is the first and most universal form of human labor, lags behind the world's present manufacturing power. One cause of the late, and perhaps of the previous commercial revulsion, was this disproportion. The more rapid enlargement of manufacturing industry, multiplied in power by its machinery, caused the raw material to rise in price and the manufactured article to fall, till the operations could not be supported from the profits at the same time that contracts were fulfilled with capitalists. Manufactures must pause till agriculture overtakes. Steam-machinery applied to agriculture is the only thing that can correct this disproportion, and this is what we are going to make. The world is not to be much longer dependent for its cotton on the compulsory labor of the Dark Ages, nor for its flax and corn on blistered free hands or overworked cattle. The laborer, in either section of our country, will be transformed into an ingenious gentleman or lady, comfortably mounted on a migratory steam-cultivator to direct its gigantic energies,--or, at least, occasionally so occupied. Under this system, it must be plain enough, to all persons prophetically inclined, that the Northern valleys will greatly multiply their products, while the Southern cotton-fields will whiten with heavier crops than human chattelism ever produced, and the mountains of both latitudes, now hardly notched with civilization, will roll down the wool of sheep in clouds.
Finally, with important and fruitful mechanical ideas which the world did not have twenty years ago, with machinery which no one could have believed possible one hundred years ago, and which has, since that time, quintupled the power of every free laborer in Christendom, we are going to make man what his Creator designed him to be,--always and everywhere a sub-creator. By the press we are making the knowledge of the past the knowledge of the present, the knowledge of one the knowledge of all. By the telegraph the senses of sight and hearing are to be extended around the globe. If we do not make ships to navigate the air, for ourselves, our wives, and our little ones, it will not be because we cannot, but because, being lords of land and sea, with power to traverse either with all desirable speed, we are too wise to waste force either in beating the air for buoyancy, battling with gravity like birds, on the one hand, or in paddling huge balloons against the wind, on the other. The steam-driven wheel leaves us no occasion to envy even that ubiquitous denizen of the universe, the flying-fish. We have in it the most economical means of self-transportation, as well as of mechanical production. It only remains to make the most of it. This, to be sure, will not be achieved without infinite labor and innumerable failures. The mechanical genius of the race is like the polypus anxiously stretching its tentacles in every direction, and though frustrated thousands of times, it grasps something at last.
One of the most significant structures in the world, by the way, is the United States Patent Office at Washington. No other building in that novel city means a hundredth part as much, or shows so clearly what the world's most cunning thoughts and hands are chiefly engaged with. Not that the Patent Office contains so many miracles of mechanical success; rather the contrary. Take a just appraisal of its treasures, and you will regard it rather as the chief tomb in the Père la Chaise of human hopes. What multitudes of long-nursed and dearly-cherished inventions there repose in a common grave, useful only as warnings to future inventors! One great moral of the survey is, that inventive talent is shamefully wasted among us, for want of proper scientific direction and suitable encouragement. The mind that comprehends general principles in all their relations, and sees what needs to be done and what is possible and profitable to be done, is of necessity not the one to arrange in detail the means of doing. The man of science and the mechanical inventor are distinct persons, speaking of either in his best estate; and the maximum success of machinery depends on their acting together with a better understanding than they have hitherto had. It were less difficult than invidious to point to living examples of the want of cooperation and co-appreciation between our knowing and our doing men; but, for the sake of illustrating our idea, we will run the risk of quoting a minute from the proceedings of one of our scientific societies, premising that we know nothing more of the parties than we learn from the minute itself,--to wit, that one is, or was, an ingenious mechanic, and the other a promoter of science.
"Dr. Patterson gave an account of an automaton speaking-machine which Mr. Franklin Peale and himself had recently inspected. The machine was made to resemble as nearly as possible, in every respect, the human vocal organs; and was susceptible of varied movements by means of keys. Dr. Patterson was much struck by the distinctness with which the figure could enunciate various letters and words. The difficult combination _three_ was well pronounced,--the _th_ less perfectly, but astonishingly well. It also enumerated diphthongs, and numerous difficult combinations of sounds. Sixteen keys were sufficient to produce all the sounds. In enunciating the simple sounds, the movements of the mouth could be seen. The parts were made of gum elastic. The figure was made to say, with a peculiar intonation, but surprising distinctness, 'Mr. Patterson, I am glad to see you.' It sang, 'God save Victoria,' and 'Hail Columbia,'--the words and air combined. Dr. Patterson had determined to visit the maker of the machine, Mr. Faber, in private, in order to obtain further interesting information; but, on the following day, Dr. P. was distressed to learn, that, in a fit of excitement, he had destroyed every particle of a figure which had taken him seventeen years to construct."
It is quite probable that the world lost very little by the destruction of this curious figure, whatever the nature or cause of the "excitement" that led to it. All we have to say is, that it does lose much, when the genius that can create such things is not set upon the right tasks, and encouraged to success by the "high consideration" of scientific men, who alone of all the world can appreciate the difficulties it has to contend with. It is by setting the right mechanical problems before the men who can make dumb matter talk, that we are to bring about the resurrection of the black Titan who has lain buried under the mountains for thousands of millenniums, and constitute him the efficient sub-gardener of the world's Paradise Regained.