Melbourne and Mars/Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII.


Bertrand's School of Mechanics.

"FOR four days, the working week in all our world, we have been going to Bertrand's school, not to take any lessons, but to see it all and get acquainted with its many wonders. There are about twenty classroom workshops, each adapted to the requirements of one hundred pupils. There are fifty working benches, one for each pair of co-workers. All the tools required for each kind of work are placed in racks within easy reach of the hands using them, and they are all the best of their kind. Wherever running machinery is used power is supplied from a great central engine driven by electricity. The first floor over the workshops contains thousands of models of the best machines in existence for the performance of the various kinds of work that have to be done. Each model is complete in all parts, and can actually do on a small scale the work for which it is intended. These models are not merely intended to stand in cases, but to be freely used by teachers and pupils in the prosecution of their studies. On the first floor there is also a lecture hall, where all the pupils are assembled once a week (four days) to receive instruction from one of the masters or from some travelling specialist. The second floor contains classrooms corresponding with the lower ones. These are used by the pupils for the prosecution of their theoretical studies, drawing of plans, mathematics, etc. On the great, flat roof there were models of all the kinds of machinery driven by wind, and instruments for meteorological purposes.

For four days the great school was open to all who chose to visit it, and the more advanced pupils explained the uses of instruments and machines, and worked hundreds of the models for the benefit of the new pupils and the instruction of people whose studies and labors had been, expended in other directions. At the end of the time there was not a machine out of place, not an article damaged or missing. There are no locks on the school doors; in fact, when I come to think of it, I cannot remember having seen a lock or bar anywhere.

On the following first day the school was opened for a new annual session, to consist of five hundred working days of five hours each.

The morning was spent in placing the new pupils and preliminary work, and for the last hour we were assembled in the main hall to hear the inaugural address of Headmaster Bertrand.

He chose for his subject electricity.

Nothing could have pleased me better, for Gaston had made the subject interesting, and father had taught me that to this power we were indebted for the motion of our air boat and sleigh, for our fire and light.

To give more than a brief account of Bertrand's address is impossible; to illustrate and explain his experiments alone would require a volume. He made his spoken words into raised signs on sheets of metal, so that a blind man knowing our electrical signs might have read them by touch. He caused us to hear laughter, speech and song that were produced a thousand miles away, and he let us hear the living voices of great men and women who had been dead to us for a thousand years. He concentrated heat so that he could melt steel in a few minutes; he caused his dynamos to give off a gentle warmth that would keep a room at a certain temperature, or that would just simmer some article of food without making it boil. He concentrated light and diffused it, threw heat rays to a distance, and lit inflamable substances. He put an electric wire round a log of wood eighteen inches in diameter, and cut through it in a few seconds. He allowed us surgical instruments that could be made to perform operations with incredible speed. He decomposed water and made water from the air around us. He performed feats in chemistry with the aid of what appeared to be a plaything in his hands. At a signal from the lecturer the room was instantly darkened, and now commenced a series of wonderful displays. The Aurora Borealis, the rainbow, the primary colors, the lines telling of what substances were being consumed or heated behind the lights given forth, the polarisation and depolarisation of light, photography. All these came and went with amazing swiftness. It took me many months to understand a tithe of what he did with electricity, and yet I found that he had not mentioned a tithe of the uses to which it is put upon our planet.

Bertrand claimed for electricity something more than a first place amongst the forces of nature. Said he:—'We have not to regard wind as one force, water as another, heat and light as two more forces. We have rather to regard electricity as the one great force, and all the rest of the so called forces of nature as various manifestations of and modifications of that one force.

The sun is the central dynamo of our system. All the positive forms of electricity come from him. The pull and the push of the positive and negative forms cause rotation and orbital movement in the planets. There is no such force as gravitation: the planets are held in their respective relationship to each other and to the central sun, the satellites to their planets, our sun to his neighbours, and the stellar systems to each other by a force that acts instantaneously and simultaneously in all parts: that force is electricity. From a distance great enough what we call the universe appears as a solid gem; electricity is the force that welds the ten billion suns into that solid.

Ever since human life began to be civilised men have been trying to harness the various forms of force. The winds, falling water, steam, have all in turn played their part, and are still used in some places and for some purpose. I have no need to show how each of these are merely protean forms of the same face.

For several thousands of years we used these as our motive powers, and our world grew civilised and populous during this period. For some hundreds of years in the latter part of this time we used electricity. First it was a plaything of scientists, and then it began to he used as a messenger over the lands and under the seas. It was not long before we found that it could be made to carry and record sounds, and he would let us hear the voices of the long since departed. At this time it came into use as an illuminator, and the world became brilliant with the electric light.

Invention succeeded invention until steam was superseded as a motive power, and electricity had taken its place on sea and on land. To provide electricity winds, tides, falling waters and melting snows were all laid under contribution, and force was often carried by wire and used hundreds of miles from where it was generated. On the great plains where water had but little fall, and where the winds could not be relied upon, steam was used to generate electric force in great dynamos. This tended to rapidly use up all our combustible minerals, all surface combustibles having been used up long before. Peat, brown coal, lignite, oil shale, hard coal, bitumen, and such soft limestone as would burn with other substances but not alone, got used up in turn, and our vast population of three thousand millions of people were brought face to face with one of the greatest problems that ever a mass of human beings were called upon to solve, viz., how to generate heat to cook their food and keep themselves alive on the surface of a cool planet without the aid of combustible materials.

A great inventor found out the method of releasing electrical force in slower vibrations, so that heat instead of light was produced; but at first there was little gain in this transaction, for the electricity itself had frequently to be produced by steam power. The gain was more apparent when wind and water were utilised. Millions of people felt relief when they could make their light into a fire hot enough to cook with, or into a nonradient warmth that made the winter temperature of their rooms something like pleasant.

There were still great districts in the north and south where neither fuel nor water-power were available, and the inhabitants were put to sore straits. Those who could left their homes and spent the winter in tropical regions, but the whole population could not migrate. In some instances a community would take possession of a dry cavern, store it with provisions, and spend the colder months of the winter out of the reach of frost and snow. Our planet as you are aware, is peculiarly rich in caverns, owing to shrinkage of its surface rocks.

In some regions, exposed to cold now and then, but not perpetually covered with snow nor exposed to frost, the milder portions of the temperate zones north and south free use was made of hand dynamos. When the housewife wanted a fire someone had to work vigorously in turning a wheel, the muscular force of a man being transformed into electrical force and released as fire. In these regions chemical electricity was used us a weak lighting power. Asses sometimes worked all day charging accumulators, and when a wind blew there were thousands of sails to catch it. In spite of all that could be done, however, human life could not be supported beyond the fiftieth parallels of latitude north and south. This caused an over crowding of the temperate and tropical regions, and made the struggle for existence very intense. The food-producing area became too small, and the means of sustaining life fully could only be gained by those of strong hand and superior brain. Millions of the weaker men and women had their lives shortened by semi-starvation, and millions more died of diseases caused by cold. The people lost, courage; the marriage rate decreased very much; the death rate increased continually; the birth rate decreased; and during a single century the population fell off to the extent of one-sixth, that is, at the end of the century we were fewer by five hundred millions than at the beginning. Going on at this rate we should soon have had a small population living in the equatorial regions, and no more. Although we have had a hundred happy and prosperous centuries since that doleful time, that century is still remembered as the 'Black Century.'

We now come to the greatest discovery ever made upon this planet.

It was made by accident.

Most of you know more or less of it, and we all benefit by it, and our posterity to the end of time will continue to do so.

You know that several of the caverns in the north go to a great depth, and that some of them extend scores of miles underground; that in some there are lakes and rivers and vast spaces in which the air is pure and never falls below a comfortable temperature.

In one of these somewhere about one hundred thousand people had prepared their winter abode. Bedding, warm clothing, food, and as many necessaries as could be transferred from the homes for a score of miles round had been carried into the silent depths of one of these great caves. The people, bound together by a common difficulty, made their burdens lighter by sharing them. The strong helped the weak; those who had plenty shared with the sick, the needy, and the aged. We had already reached a high stage of civilisation, and life generally had become altruistic. No one lived for self alone, or sought to profit by the loss of another.

From the entrance of this cavern to the bottom of it was a steep descent of about twelve miles. Ropes and stairways had been provided in the difficult parts, but it still remained a toilsome task to go to the surface and back again. Women and children generally remained down about one hundred to one hundred and thirty days, according to the length and severity of the winter. A deep, clear stream in the bottom of the cave supplied water. Great care was taken so that the water should not become polluted. The supply of air was perfect.

Scarcely had the community got settled when they began to notice that their water was turbid at times, that it was sometimes warmer than common, and that some days there was no water to be had except what could be caught from the roof of some caverns that were too damp to be habitable. It was soon decided by those in authority to follow the water by boring, and the requisite machinery was quickly got to work.

The floor of the cave is five miles in vertical depth from the surface, so the people thought they could not have to go far before getting to water. In this they were disappointed. The bore was tubed for nearly two miles, and it was finally decided to work one more day and give up. How little the workers thought that the destiny of a world hung upon that decision. What would our race life have been by this time if those men had not decided to work one day more?

Barely had the machine begun to work on the morning of this last day when the great cave became a blaze of light brighter far than the day on the surface above the cave. What had happened? A crowd of people rushed towards the light from all sides. They met several coming from it; some of these were carrying wounded men. Close by the light were two objects that could only be viewed with a shudder. They were a pair of blackened cinders shrivelled up into half their original size. The electric fire that had leaped up the rod and tubes of the bore had rushed through these two bodies, and not only killed but cremated them before they had time to fall to the ground.

What about the water? There was none where that fire came from, but by some strange connexion of the two events, or perhaps by some coincidence, the stream began to flow again, and the lake filled up to its old level.

Two men were killed, one died next day, the rest recovered. The people in the cave had water in abundance, and a great light that changed its colors now and then but never diminished. And now the questions arose, what is the light? Whence comes it? Is it likely to be permanent?

A great electrician was sent for, and with him came a geologist and some other specialists. After a series of experiments they came to the conclusion that the outer flow of electricity, that which goes back to the southern electric pole, following lines not far below the surface of the planet, had been tapped, and that the light was electric. The flow from that source would not be likely to cease unless it was a temporary current following some flaw in the rock and tending to produce volcanic action.

The next work was conducting the electricity in manageable quantities along wires to the surface. Before the following winter this was done, and as a result there was no need for the usual migration, for every home and every schoolhouse or other public building was adequately warmed and lighted.

Since then the source of electric power had been tapped in more than a thousand places, and as you know almost all the world's work is done by power drawn from beneath its surface rocks. You cannot go twenty miles in any direction without finding an electric fountain, free to the public, from which the accumulators of any travelling machine can be instantly recharged.

We cannot use up this force. The source of heat and light will remain until the sun himself grows cold and dark. Each planet is a great electrical machine. If you strip off its outer coverings as you would peel an orange, you come to where the ball is wrapped in currents running from north to south, and if you could live far beneath the surface at the south magnetic pole you would see those millions of currents pouring into one that returns through the core of the globe from pole to pole. If any planet could lose a share of its magnetic life it would be instantly resupplied from the sun. We, however, cannot consume any of this force. We only detain it and make it work for us on its way. It does not feel the work it does for us any more than the sun feels the effort by which it raises vapor into the air and piles snow upon the mountain top.

Monuments of those who perished that eventful day here been made in solid silver, and can be seen in the central museum. Let us hope that they know of the great boon that came into human life when they were so suddenly hurled out of it.'

For several days Bertrand's address formed a theme for conversation. Some said that he had received instructions from the Planetary Executive to direct as many youths as possible to prepare themselves for the work of making electrical machinery, the demand for such being greater than the supply. If that was the case he had certainly adopted the best measures possible, for quite one half of our pupils went into the workshops where such machinery is made and many more became designers and inventors.'

There is no need to follow our schoolboy diarist through his third educational course; Nothing very startling or sensational occurs. He has a few accidents, and sometimes takes an electric shock that makes him feel for a while as if his limbs were all dislocated. Any of these would have killed him in a real workshop, but sufficient power is not allowed to students, else few would get through their technical course.

He forms some valuable friendships, and at the end of the term goes into a great manufactory of electric motors. These are in great demand. They are let by the government to those who need them in the preparation of produce, in manufacture, or for pleasure. They are made by the government, and do not belong to private individuals. Those who use them, it appears, have the rent charge debited in their private account.

About the end of his five hundred-day term at the technical school our diarist writes:—"I have passed the final examinations with flying colors. As a student of the theoretical branches I was very eager. I desired to master the mathematical sides of the electrical problem as well as the mechanical ones. I plainly saw that very low rates of vibration would produce sound, that higher rates would give power in higher and still higher grades of intensity; that higher rates would give chemical action and still more rapid would give beat in a diffused gentle form; increase the rate of vibration still more and we reach the point where red heat gives off the first rays of red light. From this point to the extreme violet light is again only a series of changes in rate of vibration.

In these light vibrations I was not particularly interested, but I saw that even yet there was much to be discovered regarding the effects producible by electricity in the various states and rates of motion between the highest sound vibration and the lowest of the heat and light series. It appeared to me that if these rates could be utilised they might, by acting on the soil, the water and the air, increase productiveness, there being no need to hesitate in drawing upon an illimitable supply of force.

I had read a deal about the time following upon the 'Black Century,' and of the marvels wrought by the new source of power, and I had seen that the introduction of abundant heat, light and power had so stimulated industry and production that life had become easy and the means of sustaining it had become abundant, with the result that the population doubled in a little more than a century. In the 'Black Century' we lost five hundred millions, and before the conclusion of the second century from then our population had almost reached its present enormous number, for the size of our planet, of over five thousand millions.

My idea was, and is still, that further knowledge in chemical vibrations will double or treble the productiveness of the soil, and both reduce the labor of the agriculturist and increase indefinitely the amount of his productions. Why may we not have two harvests in place of one? Why may we not get chemically from air, water, and earth the foods that plants combine in their organised structures?

I left Bertrand's school full of new ideas and quite ready to commence learning my trade, but my father was fully determined that I should spend half a year at home and visit the Central Museum in his company for a week or two. To this I fully agreed, especially as another spring was already here, and I might make one or two preliminary experiments on a small scale.