Popular Science Monthly/Volume 14/December 1878/Editor's Table

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NOTHING is more natural than that there should be great expectations in the non-scientific mind in regard to what electricity is destined to do for the world in future—expectations which, on the one hand, are grounded in reason, and, on the other, are liable to the most extravagant exaggeration. The marvelous things already accomplished by means of this mysterious agent, as made familiar in the electro-chemical industries, the telegraph, telephone, and electrical illumination, have a tendency, of course, to prepare the mind to look for further unusual and astonishing results. Just now a revolution in illumination is widely anticipated, by which the common illuminants will be superseded in the daily life of the people, through improvements in the electrical light. The probability of this important result is greatly increased, and is, indeed, supposed to have become a certainty, because electrical illumination is already an established fact on a large scale, it having been used in lighthouses for years, and successfully introduced into factories, depots, theatres, and other places where large spaces are to be illuminated. So much—the main thing, and apparently everything—being actually gained as a fact of experience, the carrying out of the invention into minor details is taken as a foregone conclusion. In this state of the public mind the announcement of Mr. Edison—the foremost inventive genius of the age—that he had actually solved the problem which would make electric illumination available for common household uses, was generally accepted as a matter of course, and sent a tremor through the gas-stocks of the world. Nevertheless, the desideratum has not yet been reached, and, for aught that actually appears, we are no nearer this important consummation than we were twenty years ago.

It may be well to remind the sanguine believers in this unquestionably most desirable improvement, of the analogous excitement there was, some thirty or forty years ago, in regard to electricity as a motive power. A new source of mechanical energy had been discovered in electro-magnetism, which was developed by appropriate machinery, so as to be capable of doing all kinds of work. There was the accomplished fact, and buzz-saws were driven through two-inch planks, before astonished audiences, merely by batteries in the cellar, connected with the working-machine by conducting wires. The steam-engine was threatened, and we seemed to be on the eve of a new epoch in the use of motive powers. When scientific men shook their heads and said it would not do—that there were limits in the case which forbade the expected progress, and that zinc burned in batteries could not compete with coal burned under the boiler—the replies were ready. First, did not Dr. Lardner say that steam-navigation across the Atlantic was impracticable? Second, was there any limit to that power of which the lightningflash was an example? Third, if the electro-magnetic engine was weak, was it not also new, and who would presume to put restrictions upon man's inventive genius, especially when the main thing was already achieved, and nothing remained but to work out the minor improvements? The new motor, however, could not be made to work, and so hopes were crushed, investments lost, and the excitement died away.

The difficulty with the electric light, which has hitherto defied resolution, notwithstanding the efforts of experimenters for a generation, is that it can only be realized under an intensity of action that becomes far too expensive for common use, where only a small amount of illumination is required. A brilliant light can be got from the electric current by the incandescence of carbon or metallic particles, which will flood great spaces with a vivid illumination much cheaper than can be done in any other way, but nobody has yet been able to divide and distribute this intense light so as to utilize it in small amounts wherever wanted, at a cost that can compete with the ordinary sources of illumination. A well-informed writer in a late issue of the New York Sun gives the following instructive presentation of the present aspect of the subject:

"I judge that the panic in gas-stocks, which has been produced in great part by the broad claims of Mr. Edison to the discovery of a practicable method of subdividing the electric light, is, to say the least, premature. Mr. Edison is now experimenting with his light, and at latest accounts had not solved all the problems involved. The field in which he is laboring is an entirely new one to him, as the science of magneto- or dynamo-electricity is far different from that of telegraphy or electro-magnetism. There are problems involved, especially in the subdivision of the light, which are far greater than any embodied in any previous invention or improvement of Mr. Edison. The scientific world has been laboring at it almost constantly since King's invention in 1848. In 1858 M. Jobart, of Paris, made some very startling claims, which were almost exactly the same as those made by Edison, but continued experiment exposed their fallacy.

"The principal difficulty to be overcome is the lack of economy in any method of producing light by electricity, except by the voltaic arc between carbon-points, and as Mr. Edison disclaims this method, and limits himself to the plan of incandescence, he will find his path beset with difficulties in this direction. This is shown by the well known fact that an electrical current of a given strength will yield about ten times as much light when used to produce the voltaic arc between carbon-points as it could by being passed through a piece of platinum, so as to raise it to a white heat and give the light. In some experiments recently made in Paris by M. Fontaine, it was found that a powerful battery of forty-eight elements would produce in one lamp a light by incandescence equal to forty burners; but that, when the same current was used in two lamps, the light in each was only three to five burners, and, when divided between three lamps, only one-quarter burner in each. Further subdivision resulted in a total extinction of the light. A similar result was reached whether the lamps were placed in series in the same circuit or in derived circuits. In using a dynamo-electric machine in place of a battery as the source of the electricity, the same difficulty would present itself, with this additional one, that whereas the electro-motive force of a battery remains constant under all changes of resistance, that of a machine does not, but decreases as the resistance increases.

"The writer has thoroughly investigated the subject of electric light as an economical subtitute for gas, and is entirely familiar with all that has been accomplished here or abroad in this direction. Abroad, by means of the Gramme machine and the Jablochkoff candle, sixteen lights of 700-candle power each are produced from one machine, absorbing sixteen-horse power. The candles cost sixteen cents each, and burn an hour and a half. Estimates of its cost vary from one-half to three times the cost of gas. In this country the field is occupied by several kinds of apparatus. At the American Institute Fair are a number of Wallace machines, furnishing in all nineteen lights, scattered through the main building. Inquiry from the engineer who cares for the engine driving these machines develops the fact that not less than sixty-horse power is consumed for these nineteen lights. In the machinery halls four lights are used, furnished by a Brush machine absorbing seven-horse power. These are much steadier and pleasanter to the eye than those in the main building. The makers of the Brush machine claim that, with a larger machine, absorbing twelve horse power, they can produce fifteen to twenty lights of 2,000-candle power each, thus considerably improving upon the French system.

"Unless Mr. Edison can substantiate his claims, and produce better results than are given above—and there is not the slightest evidence that he has actually done even as much—the conclusion clearly reached is this: that, for the lighting of dwellings and all places where twenty or thirty or perhaps forty gas-burners suffice, gas will hold its own and still be the most economical light."

Upon the reception of the news in England of what Mr. Edison had done and proposed to do, there was perturbation in gas-stocks, and the editor of Nature writes as follows about it:

"Although a student of science will have little difficulty in associating the results promised with the discovery of perpetual motion, it is quite probable that Mr. Edison has actually succeeded in doing what he states he has done in his telegram: 'I have just solved the problem of the subdivision of the electric light indefinitely.' What we wish to point out is, that it is one thing to do this and another thing to produce an electric light for ordinary house and street use. Once put the molecules of solid carbon in motion, and, just because a solid is in question, the light must be excessive and the expenditure of energy must be considerable.

"While it is easy to believe that the future may produce a means of illumination midway between the electric light and gas, it is equally easy to see that the thing is impossible without great waste, and therefore cost, with dynamo-electric machines and carbon-poles. So long as carbon is employed we shall have much light which, perhaps, can be increased and steadied if various gases and pressures are tried. But streets and rooms full of such suns as these would be unbearable unless we sacrifice much of the light after we have got it. Split up the current in the manner so cheerfully described by the New York paper, and the carbon will refuse to flow altogether, if an engine of 5,000,000 horse-power be employed instead of the modest one of 500 which is to light the south part of the island. If Mr. Edison has succeeded in replacing carbon he may have turned the flank of the difficulty to a certain extent.

"Gas companies may well begin to feel uneasy at the general attention which is being drawn to the electric light as a substitute for gas if they are prepared to let things alone. That in one form or another it is likely to be partially adopted in all large cities and at extensive public works seems most likely. It will be one of the lights of the future, but not to the excluding or superseding of gaslight.

"Our own columns have repeatedly borne testimony to the success which has attended its introduction into Paris, where it is to be met with at almost every corner, and at one or more of the railway-stations. The general testimony of those who are unprejudiced is, that at least for wide streets, squares, and open places, its lighting effect is all that could be desired. Every Londoner is familiar with the effect of the display which the enterprising Mr. Hollingshead has placed in front of the Gaiety Theatre, and the glowing contrast presented to the miserable yellow flames of the neighboring street-lamps; but this contrast exists because the gas is bad and dear. Mr. Hollingshead, in a letter to the Daily News, corrects the view of the gas companies, that the electric light must necessarily cost more to produce than gas. His own display, necessarily wasteful, costs four-fifths what gas would, and he is probably correct in saying that with proper management it need not cost more than one-half. Moreover, in yesterday's Times., Mr. E. J. Reed refers to the case of M. E. Manchon, a large manufacturer at Rouen, who had gone to considerable expense to alter his premises to suit the electric light, and who, even with hired engine power, finds that there is an annual saving of 22.6 per cent, over gas, with infinitely better light and a wholesome atmosphere. Mr. Reed is of opinion that, even if the electric light cost more than gas, its advantages are so great that, for the lighting of public places, museums, art-galleries, manufactories, etc., he would advocate its general introduction. Even Madrid, one of the most backward cities in Europe, has introduced the light, one great benefit of which, especially in theatres and other much-frequented places, is that the heat generated and the contamination of the air are greatly less than in the case of gas.

"Let the directors of gas companies do all they can to improve their gas. They may be certain that it will never cease to be required; a considerable splitting up of the electric current is impossible, while the brilliant light that we shall always get when electricity is employed will gradually so raise the pitch of illumination that more gas than ever will be used."


Commodore Vanderbilt built wiser than he knew in rearing a university at Nashville for the benefit of the Tennessee Methodists, as it is obvious they stand in sore need of education. The Tennessee Conference, meeting in Clarksville in the middle of October, went into the question of education through the report of a special committee, which may thus fairly be taken as indicating the high-water mark of the intelligence and liberality reached by that denomination, in that State, upon that subject. The result shows that the region is excellent missionary-ground for the schoolmaster. It is hardly to be supposed that the inferior schools will be in advance of the higher institutions; and this interests us in what they have to say regarding the character of their new university. The conference applauds it in unmeasured terms, and calls especial attention to the remarkable intellectual influence exerted upon the nascent Tennessee mind by Commodore Vanderbilt's building. They say, "There is an immense educating power in the surpassing beauty of the grounds, the finished elegance of the building, and all that pertains to it." Of this we do not complain. It is indeed ascribing more educational potency to stocks and stones than has been our wont, and leaves Buckle with his "Aspects of Nature," and Spencer with his "environments," far behind; but the conference might well indulge in a little exaggeration out of compliment to the sagacity of the learned and pious founder of the establishment, which could exert this "immense educating power" even before its doors were opened. And it becomes a serious question whether the authorities of the institution might not better have trusted entirely to this silent tuition of structure and surroundings, and not have undertaken to superadd any influences from within. The educational work of Commodore Vanderbilt's architects and landscape-gardeners, whether slight or "immense," is at all events real, honest, and unperverted, which is a good deal more than can be said of the backward and benighted inculcations that are dispensed by the living vocal teachers. We gave an illustration not long ago of the bigotry and intolerance exhibited by the authorities of Vanderbilt University in abruptly dismissing from his position an able professor of science because he taught the present state of knowledge upon the subject confided to his charge. He reported what Science has to say at the present time concerning the antiquity and history of the ancient races of men, and, as this was supposed to conflict with certain old theological dogmas held dear by the Tennessee Methodists, he was summarily ejected from his professorial chair. The proceeding was evidently in imitation of very obsolete precedents, but it proved highly gratifying to the Tennessee Conference. They say:

"The university has afforded us intense gratification by its recent action. This is the age in which scientific atheism, having divested itself of the habiliments that most adorn and dignify humanity, walks abroad in shameless denudation. The arrogant and impertinent claims of this science, falsely so called, have been so boisterous and persistent that the unthinking masses have been sadly deluded. But our university alone has had the courage to lay its young bat vigorous hand upon the mane of untamed speculation and say: 'We will have no more of this. Science we want, no crude, undigested theories for the sons of our patrons. Science we must have, science we intend to have, but we want only science clearly demonstrated, and we have great cause to rejoice in this step, for it deals a blow the force of which scientific atheism will find it exceedingly difficult to break.' "

If any one doubts that there is a crying need of the elementary schoolmaster in Tennessee, the literary quality of this official utterance in behalf of a great university will probably be sufficient to settle the matter. But the passage has a more serious aspect. In the announcement for 1878-'79, the first purpose of Vanderbilt University is stated to be the "protection of the morals" of youth during the period of their pupilage. We respectfully suggest that this protection is equally needed for the clergymen of the Tennessee Conference, who seem to have not even a rudimentary conception of the immorality of falsehood and slander. Dr. Winchell, an eminent geologist and scientific scholar, and also a man of known religious character, who had freely published his views and had been but recently chosen as a member of the faculty of the institution, was displaced from his position because the authorities did not agree with all his views; and the Methodist Conference of the State "rejoices" and expresses its "intense gratification" at this blow dealt at "scientific atheism." Dr. Winchell is thus branded with a false and libelous charge by a body of religious teachers which pretends to commend the university as a protector of morals! It is bad enough for the institution to have to stand the consequences of its bigotry and intolerance in this age of growing liberalization, but it might well have been spared this official defense of the denomination to which it belongs.


The unsettled state of copyright legislation and the progress of communistic ideas in relation to literary property give interest to all intelligent discussion of the nature and extent of literary rights. We last month gave the evidence of Prof. Tyndall before the English copyright commission on this subject, and we now follow it by that of Prof. Huxley to the same purpose. The commission had various practical things before it, but it gave thorough attention to the fundamental question of the basis of property in published works, and in this Americans are quite as much interested as the English.

The testimony furnished to our readers was elicited by a systematic attempt so to undermine the rights of authors to their books as substantially to break them down. Several able men connected with the copyright commission, either as members of it or as witnesses before it, took the ground that literary property is not like other property, and differs from it in such a manner that Government may interfere to regulate it in a way that amounts to the subversion of it. They say that, as long as an author keeps his book to himself, he owns it; but when he publishes it he parts with it, he surrenders it, and the public then become its owner, and Government may properly appoint an agent to take charge of it and do with it as the authorities please. Unwilling to push the doctrine to the logical extreme of barefaced, downright communism, by stripping the author clean of his property, these parties maintained that government should merely enter into its possession and manage it for him, allowing him such fraction of the profits as it pleased. In lieu of the existing copyright, by which an author makes such a bargain with the publisher as suits both parties, they proposed what is called a "royalty" system, by which anybody who pleases may print an author's work, by paying him a small percentage, to be determined by the politicians. That department of Government in England which is specially charged with the administration of copyrights is the Board of Trade, and its secretary, Mr. T. H. Farrer, was a member of the commission, and came forward as the chief champion of the royalty scheme. He took the ground that the existing copyright is a monopoly which it is for the interest of society to destroy, and that the royalty system is called for by the principles of free trade. His main coadjutors in managing the case were Sir Henry Drummond Wolff and Sir Louis Mallet, whose position on the subject of copyright was commented upon in the September Monthly. It is a credit to the authorities by whom the commission was constituted, that it was made so broad as to bring out the opponents of copyright in all their strength, and give them every chance to make the best case possible; and that their report embodied sound and conservative recommendations is no doubt largely owing to the ability of such testimony as that herewith published from Prof. Huxley. We shall next month give the interesting evidence of Herbert Spencer before the commission.