Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/May 1872/The Source of Labor

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SCIENCE has taught us that the processes going on around us are but changes, not annihilations and creations. With the eye of knowledge, we see the candle slowly turning into invisible gases, nor doubt for an instant that the matter of which the candle was composed is still existing, ready to reappear in other forms. But this fact is true not only of matter itself, but also of all the influences that work on matter. We wind up the spring of a clock, and, for a whole week, the labor thus stored up is slowly expended in keeping the clock going. Or, again, we spend five minutes of hard labor in raising the hammer of a pile driver, which, in its fall, exerts all that accumulated labor in a single instant. In these instances, we easily see that we store up labor. Now, if we put a dozen sovereigns in a purse, and none of them be lost, we can take a dozen sovereigns out again. So in labor, if no labor be lost, as science asserts—for the inertia of matter, its very deadness, so to speak, which renders it incapable of spontaneously producing work, also prevents its destroying work when involved in it—we should be able to obtain back without deduction all our invested labor when we please.

Imagine a mountain stream turning an overshot wheel. It thus falls from a higher to a lower level. A certain amount of labor would be required to raise the water from the lower level to the higher; just this amount of labor the water gives out in its fall, and invests, as it were, in the wheel If, however, when arrived at the lower level, the water were to demand of the wheel to be pumped up again, the Highest trial would show that it would ask more than it could obtain, though not more than it had given. The wheel, if questioned as to the cause of its inability, must reply as others have done, that it has shut up part of the labor in investments which it cannot realize. The reason, as commonly stated, is, that friction has destroyed part of the labor. The labor is not, however, destroyed. Science has shown that heat and labor are connected; labor may be turned into heat, and heat into labor. The labor absorbed by friction, is but turned into heat. If, however, we try to extract labor from the heat thus diffused through the different parts of the water wheel, and make it available, we find ourselves quite at a loss. The heat gradually diffuses itself through surrounding bodies, and, so far as we are concerned, the labor is wasted, though it still exist, like Cleopatra's pearl dissolved in the cup of vinegar.

If no labor is lost, so neither is any created. The labor we exert is but the expenditure of labor stored up in our frames, just as the labor invested in the wound up spring keeps the clock going. Whence, then, does all this labor originally come? We see the waste—how is compensation made? The answer is simple and easy to give. All the labor done under the sun is really done by it. The light and heat which the sun supplies are turned into labor by the organizations which exist upon the earth. These organizations may be roughly divided into two classes—the collectors and the expenders of the sun's labor. The first merely collect the sun's labor, so as to make it available for the other class; while, just as the steam engine is the medium by which the steam gives motion, so this second class is the medium by which the sun's heat is turned into actual labor.

Still, the sun does not work only through organized labor: his mere mechanical influence is very great. With the moon—the only second post he deigns to fill—he produces the tides by his attraction on the sea. But for the friction of the earth and sea, the tides, once set in motion, would rise and fall without any further effort; but the work done in overcoming the friction is, though due to the sun and moon, not extracted from them, but by them from the earth. For it would take a vast effort to cause the earth to cease rotating. All this effort is, as it were, stored up in the revolving earth. As the tidal waters, then, rub along the bed of the sea, or the waters on which they rest and the adjacent coasts, this friction tends to make the earth move faster or slower, according: to the direction in which the tidal flow is. The general effect is, however, that the friction of the tides makes the earth revolve more slowly; in other words, that part of the energy of rotation of the earth, so to speak, is consumed in rubbing against the tidal waters. All the work, therefore, that the tides do in undermining our cliffs, and washing away our beaches, is extracted by the sun and moon from the work stored up in the rotation of the earth. The diminution of rotation, indeed, is so small as scarcely to be perceived by the most refined observation, but the reality of it is now generally recognized; and this process, too, will apparently go on till the earth ceases to rotate on its axis, and presents one face constantly to the sun.

Thus we see that the destruction of the land by the sea, so interesting in a geological point of view, is partly due to the sun's action. Not only is he the source of the light and heat we enjoy, but he aids in forming the vast sedimentary beds that form so large a part of the crust of the earth, mixing the ingredients of our fields, and moulding our globe.

By heating the air, the sun produces winds, and some of the labor thus expended is made use of by man in turning his windmills, and carrying his wares across the sea. But there is another expenditure of the sun's heat more immediately useful to man. By evaporating the sea and other bodies of water, he loads the air with moisture, which, when in contact with cold mountain peaks or cold masses of air, loses its heat, and, being condensed, falls as rain or snow. Thus the rivers are replenished, which for a long time supplied the greater part of the labor employed in manufactures, though the invention of the steam engine is fast reducing relatively the value of this supply of labor.

But vast as the sun's power thus exerted is, and useful as it is to man, it is surpassed in importance by his labor exerted through organized beings. The above-named agents have one defect: on the whole, they are incapable of being stored up to any great degree; we must employ them as Nature gives them to us. Organized existence, however, possesses the power of storing up labor to a very high degree. The means it adopts are not mechanical, but chemical. The formation of chemical compounds is attended with the giving out of heat, which, as we have said before, is equivalent to labor, and, if of sufficient intensity, can by us be made available as labor, as in the steam engine. Now, we take iron ore, consisting of iron in combination with other substances. By means of great heat, the iron is set free in the smelting-furnace. The iron, then, in its change of form has, as it were, taken in all this heat. If, now, we take this iron, and, keeping it from the influence of the air, reduce it to very fine powder, and then suddenly expose it to the air, by the force of natural affinity, it will absorb the oxygen of the air, and in so doing give out the heat before required to set it free from the oxygen; and if the iron be in small enough portions, so that the process is sufficiently rapid, we may see the iron grow red-hot with the heat thus disengaged.

Now, plants and trees, by the aid of the solar light and heat, remove various substances, carbon especially, from what seem to be their more natural combinations, and in other combinations store them up in their structures. Take a young oak-tree with its first tender leaves; if deprived of the sun's light and heat, its growth would be stayed, and its life die out. But, with the aid of the sun's rays, it absorbs carbon from the gases in the air, each particle of carbon absorbed being absorbed by the power of the sun through the agency of the plant, and with each particle of carbon stored up is also, as it were, stored up the labor of the sun by which that particle was set free from its former fetters. The sap of the plant, thus enriched, returns in its course, and by some mysterious process is curdled into cells and hardened into wood. But the work by which all this was accomplished lies hid in the wood, and not only is it there, but it is there in a greatly condensed state. To form a little ring of wood round the tree, not an eighth of an inch across it, took the sunshine of a long summer, falling on the myriad leaves of the oak.

Lemuel Gulliver, at Laputa, was astonished by seeing a philosopher aiming at extracting sunbeams from cucumbers. Had he but rightly considered the thing, he would have wondered at any one's troubling to make a science of it. The thing has always been done. From Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden eating sweet fruits, through the onion eating builders of the pyramids, down to the flesh eating myriads of our land, this process has always been going on. The active life of reasoning man, and his limitless powers of invention, need for their full development a vast supply of labor. By means of the vegetable kingdom, the sun's work is stored up in a number of organic substances. Man takes these into his system, and in the vessels and fibres of his body they resume their original combinations, and the labor of the sun is given out as muscular action and animal heat. To allow a larger supply of labor for man's intellect to work with, Providence created the herbivorous races. Some of these further condense the work of the sun involved in plants, by taking these plants into their systems, and storing up the work in them, in their flesh and fat, which, after some preparation, are fit to be received into the frame of man, there, as the simpler vegetable substances, to simply heat and labor. Others, extracting work from the vegetable kingdom, just as man does, and mostly from parts of the vegetable kingdom that are not suited to the organs of man, are valuable to man as sources of labor, since they have no power to invent modes of employing this labor to their own advantage. Man might have been gifted with a vaster frame, and so with greater power of labor in himself, but such a plan had been destitute of elasticity, and, while the savage would have basked in the sun in a more extended idleness, the civilized man had still lacked means to execute his plans. So that Good Providence which formed man devised a further means for supplying his wants. Instead of placing him at once on a new formed planet, it first let the sun spend its labor for countless ages upon our world. Age by age, much of this labor was stored up in vast vegetable growths. Accumulated in the abysses of the sea, or sunk to a great depth by the collapse of supporting strata, the formation of a later age pressed and compacted this mass of organic matter. The beds thus formed were purified by water, and even by heat, and at last raised to within the reach of man by subterranean movements. From this reservoir of labor, man now draws rapidly, driving away the frost of today with the sunshine of a million years ago, and thrashing this year's harvest with the power that came to our earth before corn grew upon it.

Such are the processes by which the sun's power is collected and stored up by the vegetable kingdom in a form sufficiently condensed to be available for working the machinery of the bodies of men and beasts, and also to assist man in vaster expenditures of labor. It is most interesting to trace such processes, and not only interesting, but also instructive, for it shows us in what direction we are to look for our sources of labor, and will at once expose many common delusions. One hears, perhaps, that something will be found to supplant steam. Galvanism may be named; yet galvanism is generated by certain decompositions—of metal, for instance—and this metal had first to be prepared by the agency of coal, and in its decomposition can give out no more labor than the coal before invested in it. It is as if one should buy a steam engine to pump up water to keep his mill wheel going. The source of all labor is the sun. We cannot immediately make much use of his rays for the purposes of work; they are not intense enough; they must be condensed. The vegetable world alone at present seems capable of doing this; and its past results of coal, peat, petroleum, etc., and present results of wood and food, are ultimately all we have to look to.

To say that man will ever be dependent upon the vegetable world for all his work, may be considered bold, but there is certainly great reason to believe it. The sun's labor being supplied in such a diluted form, each small quantity continually supplied must be packed in a very small space. Now, man can only subject matter to influences in the mass. The little particle of carbon that the plant frees each instant is beyond his ken. The machinery he could make would not be fine enough: it would be like trying to tie an artery with the biggest cable on board the Great Eastern. Organized existence possesses machinery fine enough to effect these small results, and to avail itself of these little instalments of labor. At present, this machinery is beyond our comprehension, and possibly will ever remain so. Nature prefers that her children should keep out of the kitchen, and not pry into her pots and pans, but eat in thankfulness the meal she provides.

Some interesting results follow from what has been stated above One is, that we are consuming not only our present allowance of the sun's labor, but also a great deal more, unless the formation of coal in our age equals its consumption, which is not probable. Mother Earth will certainly, so far as we can see, some day be bankrupt. Such a consummation is pointed to, however, in other quarters. The sun's heat, unless miraculously replenished, must gradually be dissipated through space. There are reasons for thinking that the planets must ultimately fall into the sun. These things, however, possess to us no practical physical interest. Such countless ages must elapse ere they affect man's material condition upon earth, that we hardly can gravely consider them as impending. The chief interest they excite is moral. Like the man's hand that appeared to the revelling king, they write "Mene, Mene, Tekel, Upharsin" (Weighed, measured, limited, doomed) on our material world, and dimly point to some power that stands, as it were, hidden from our view behind the screen of matter, "that shall make all things new."—Chambers's Journal.