Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 14.djvu/351

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AS we sit by our firesides and peer into the glowing coals, or watch the bright jets of flame spring into existence to throw their cheery light into the room, making weird, fantastic shadows on the wall, and bringing with them such comforting cheer to our senses of sight and feeling, we are often brought into very reflective moods, especially if we are sitting in the twilight, while the cold wind is whistling, and the sharp snow and hail of winter are clicking against the windows. But how very few think, or care to know, whence comes this black substance that adds so much to the comfort and ease and luxury of life! Yet an account of its uses and its history and the story of its formation are instructive in the extreme, and as interesting as those two great subjects of the day—the telephone and the phonograph. Why the former excites so little comment, and the latter so much, can be easily explained, for we were born and raised with the blessings and comforts of the one, and they are of such every-day occurrence as not to excite attention; while the others, though less beneficial to the race, are so new and startling in their wonders, that they at once claim our thoughts and make us eager to learn of them and their progress.

There is no one substance in all Nature that has done more to ameliorate the condition of mankind, to build up the pride and strength of nations, to convert the world from barbarity to civilization, or add more to our ease and luxury, than this black and uninviting-looking mineral. Through its agency in producing the motive power for machinery in the steam-engine, the wild places of the earth are penetrated, men have ready and quick transit thereto, all the benefits of civilization flow in, cities spring up, the husbandman has facilities for sending his surplus produce to the markets of the world, and waste places are made to blossom like the rose. Those nations that possess it in the greatest abundance and purity are those that rise the most rapidly to the highest and mightiest positions; for it is the mainspring of all manufactures, and it carries the products of such to the consumers in distant countries, across the trackless waste of waters, with a certainty and speed unattainable by any other means; it enables nations to stretch forth their armies and navies with such promptness that insults are followed by speedy retribution, and invasion met or guarded against. The light for our homes and cities, the most beautiful and delicate dyes for clothing fabrics, and the ink that prints our books and papers to scatter knowledge through the world, all come from the products of its distillation. In all the power exercised by it, it works greater wonders than the magician's wand in the "Arabian Nights;" in its