Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/February 1873/Useful Things

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UTILITY does not require to be defined. Nevertheless, an explanation of it may be profitable.

Many years have elapsed since man appeared on the earth. Geologists affirm that, before our appearance, this little globe moved round the sun for thousands and thousands of ages. During that period the soil, the sea, and the air, were of no benefit to anybody, because no one existed here below. A multitude of plants and animals was created before the germs of the first men were formed: these plants and animals, whatever properties and powers they might have had, were entirely useless, because utility, as we understand it, means the service which a thing might render to man; therefore, there was nothing useful prior to man's advent in the world.

Man is born, and all beings at once take rank in relation to him. The wild beast, rushing to devour him, enters into the first category of noxious things; the poisonous plant reveals to him its baneful properties; the thorns which prick his limbs, the insects which prey on his body, are noxious to him in degrees varying according to the amount of pain which he suffers or dreads.

The timid animals that flee before him, the plant which neither injures nor nourishes him, the hidden mineral lying in unseen veins under his feet, are all either unimportant or useless.

The useful is that which makes man's life more easy or more agreeable. But we have agreed, in the hypothesis of the shipwrecked sailor, that Nature by herself supplies us with very few useful things. Excepting the soil which sustains us, the air we breathe, the water we drink, there is nothing which, to my mind, is due to her.

Our first resources, or, more properly speaking, all the gifts of humanity, are the conquests of labor.

Man can neither create nor destroy an atom of matter, yet he can assimilate and identify himself with whatever suits him; he can turn aside whatever menaces him; above all, he can adapt for his use and employ for his profit, that which was originally valueless or even dangerous. By means of labor he impresses the stamp of utility upon all he touches, and thus little by little annexes, as it were, the entire earth.

Utility proceeds from and returns to man. If we do not create things themselves, we create their usefulness. But that costs something. Nothing is got for nothing. We are not Nature's spoiled children. After man was created, he appears to have been told: "I leave you to yourself. Whatever you produce is your own."

Do you wish to see by some examples how man does his part and becomes the producer of utility?

If, on leaving home an hour hence, you meet a lion at the bottom of the stair, should you hesitate for an instant in regarding it as a noxious animal? Is not this true?

However, thanks to the strenuous exertions of several generations, lions, driven from Europe, have now no abode save Africa. The distance which separates you from them enables you to think of them with indifference.

When an agile, a brave, and skilful man succeeds at the risk of his life in accomplishing the trifling task of lodging a ball between a lion's eyes, the animal is no longer noxious, nor even indifferent and useless. Its skin is worth 100 francs; it will make a rug.

Suppose that, instead of shooting the brute, a prudent hunter, by means of greater strategy, should entrap and imprison it in an iron cage and bring it to Marseilles! The lion disembarked at the dock would fetch many thousand francs.

If, by means of still more skilful and longer-continued labor, a lion-tamer, like Batty, subdues the dread monster, the lion would fetch thirty thousand francs at least. Nature creates a devouring animal: human skill converts it into a bread-winner.

The whole race of domesticated animals in man's service, yielding him eggs, milk, wool, and even flesh, was wild at first, that is to say, was so far separated from, as to be of no use to him. By his skill he not only tamed these animals, but, as it were, he has modified and re-modelled them after a pattern supplied by himself.

Man fashions at will draught-horses and racers, oxen for the plough and oxen for the table, sheep which furnish wool and sheep which furnish tallow, fowls which lay eggs and fowls which are fitted for the spit, fat pigs and lean pigs: from one breed of dogs, man has produced the greyhound and the bull-dog, the setter and the harrier, the pointer and the lapdog. When you go to an exhibition of any sort of live animals, remember that art has as great and Nature as little a share in it as in an exhibition of pictures.

Apply the same method of reasoning to all agricultural, arboricultural, and horticultural exhibitions. Neither our gardens, our fields, nor our woods, are masterpieces of Nature, as is ignorantly said; they are masterpieces of human industry.

All double flowers, without exception, are man's work. Pluck a wild rose from a hedge-row, and then go and see a collection of Verdier's roses: you will learn how much Nature has bestowed, and what man has made of it.

All the pulpy and juicy edible fruits are man's work. Man went as far as Asia, and even farther, in quest of the coarse products which resemble our peaches, our cherries, our pears, as much as the wild-rose resembles the "Palace of Crystal" or the "Remembrance of Malmaison" rose.

Each of our vegetables represents not only distant voyages, but also centuries of skilled labor and assiduous elaboration.

It was not Nature that gave the potato to the poor of our land. Human industry went in quest of it to America, and has cultivated, modified, ameliorated, varied, and brought it step by step to its present state, accomplishing the result in less than a century. Yet to this century of culture must be added the prior labor bestowed on the plant by the natives of America. When the products of a distant country are brought to us, we are prone to believe that Nature alone has done every thing. But, when the Spaniards discovered America, it had been cultivated from time immemorial. Hence man had turned Nature to his advantage there, as well as in Europe and elsewhere.

Wheat, such as we see it, is not a gift of Nature. It grows spontaneously in Upper Egypt, yet there it yields but a poor and miserable seed, unfitted for making bread. Many ages and a prodigious expenditure of labor were required in order to develop, swell, and perfect the seeds of this useful food for man. Have you ever been told that wheat is distinguished from other cereals by its containing a notable proportion, sometimes a quarter, of nitrogenous substances? This valuable gluten represents the blood and flesh of thousands of generations that perished in the culture of wheat.

While labor supplied the most precious of its useful properties to this grain, of which each of us consumes three hectolitres yearly, pharmacy altered the use of fifty vegetable poisons, and converted them to the profit of our species. Not merely does man add a portion of utility to that which possesses none naturally, but he turns bad into good.

During how many ages did the electric fluid hold a place among the number of curses! We knew it only by the dreaded effects of lightning.

Franklin discovered the lightning-conductor, and conferred on everybody the means of neutralizing this great curse. A force, eminently mischievous, becomes indifferent to the man who is prudent and wise. Security during a storm is henceforth the price of easy and inexpensive labor.

But does man halt in so fine a path? No. Hardly has he conquered this hostile power, than he undertakes to domesticate it. Lightning, snatched from old Jupiter's hands by Franklin, becomes an instrument of progress. We employ it to transmit our thoughts, to reproduce our works of art, to gild our utensils, and we shall soon make it perform a thousand other services. Before the lapse of half a century we shall see electricity rendered more and more docile, furnishing us with movement, light, and heat, at pleasure.

Will you now study with me how human labor, incessantly multiplied, infinitely increases the usefulness of all our things?

An invisible, disregarded iron-mine renders no service to the men who tread upon it.

On the day the geologist, by the travail of his mind, divines this source of useful things beneath our feet, the soil which conceals it gains to some extent an increased value.

When laborious boring has proved the existence of the mineral, expectation is converted into certainty, and the value of the land is farther increased.

The result of employing labor to work the mine is to bring to the surface some tons of reddish stones containing iron. This matter is not really more useful than the pebbles in the neighboring stream; yet it is more valuable, because it is known that things more profitable to man can be extracted from it by labor. The mineral is treated, and the crude metal, which is of greater value, is obtained. The crude metal is refined, and iron is got, which is better. The iron is treated, and, by cementation, it is converted into steel. The steel is wrought, and a thousand things directly useful to man are produced.

The utility of these last products increases in a direct ratio to the amount of labor which men have expended. An anvil weighing a thousand pounds is less useful than a thousand wrought files; it costs less labor. A thousand pounds' weight of files costs less labor than a thousand pounds' weight of watch-springs; they contain in themselves a smaller sum of utility. You can easily understand that if the anvil made in a day contained as much utility and was of as great value as a ton of watch-springs, which it took several months to make, everybody would prefer to forge anvils, and no one would weary himself in flattening watch-springs.

Neither a decree, nor a decision, nor a political law, has arranged matters in this wise; Nature herself has done it.

It is necessary, indispensable, inevitable, that labor should constantly augment the utility of things, and that men should buy them at the price of greater efforts on learning that they are more useful. Not only is the existence of utility merely relative to man, but it continually varies with our natural or artificial wants.

A stove is useless at Senegal; an ice-making machine is useless at Spitzbergen. In a locksmith's eyes, pincers are objects of first necessity; a duchess has no use for them. On the other hand, a little bonnet, which does not cover her head, is more useful to her than sixty pairs of pincers, for she requires it to drive in her carriage in the park, and she pays for it accordingly. The agreeable and the useful are perpetually confounded in an advanced state of civilization: I have explained why, in showing that our wants increase with our resources.

Time and distance augment or diminish the utility of our goods. A thing in your hand is of more use to you than if it were ten leagues off. At the distance of ten leagues it is more useful than if it were in America. The greater the distance, the greater is the labor required to enjoy it; you must either pay the cost of carriage or go for it yourself. This fatigue and this outlay are equivalent to the labor that must be expended, for instance, in order to convert iron into steel. A thousand francs in Paris are worth more to a Parisian than a thousand francs in Brussels; a thousand francs in Brussels are worth more than if they were in New York. In like manner a thousand francs which are given you to-day are evidently of greater use than a thousand francs which will be given to you ten years hence. A thousand francs obtainable in ten years are more useful and are worth more than a thousand francs of which the possession is postponed for fifty years. The return may indeed be safe and certainly guaranteed; the question is utility as regards yourself, and you are not sure of living long enough to enjoy a benefit so long deferred.

The utility clearest to all eyes is that residing in material things. Man understands without any effort that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, and that it is still more useful when leaving the spit. It is needless to tell you that first the sportsman and then the cook has added a surplus value to the bird. If I put before you a ton of pig-iron, worth fifty francs, and then a ton of fine needles, worth ninety thousand, you will instantly see the enormous supplement of utility which the work of men has added to the metal.

But there are other benefits of which the utility is not as directly visible to our eyes, though it be at least as great. An impalpable, invisible, imponderable idea is often more useful than a mountain of benefits clear to the naked eye. Man is a thinking body; his hands have done much to render the earth habitable, but his brain has done a hundred times more.

Suppose that a great manufacturer had converted a thousand million pounds of iron into steel. Would he have performed as much usefulness in his life as the discoverer of cementation, as he who has put it within the reach of all men to convert iron into steel? He who should transport a mountain ten miles would produce less utility than the discoverer of the lever. For, by teaching us a simple law of mechanics we have been put in a position to transport a hundred mountains, if we please, with less outlay and effort. An economy is thus rendered possible which will profit all men who have been and may be born.

If Pascal had said to the men of his day, "I am rich, I possess a hundred miles of pasturage around Montevideo, and a thousand vessels on the Atlantic; I have caused half a million of horses to be transported hither, which I present to you, and which will work for you till their deaths," Pascal would have been less useful to the human race than on the day when, in his study, he invented the wheel-barrow.

Studious men, by a series of discoveries, superinduced the one upon the other, have given to us all the machines which abridge and facilitate labor. England alone possesses a hundred millions of horse-power which work for the profit of thirty millions of men.

The history of civilization may be summarized in nine words: the more one knows, the more one can perform.

In proportion as science and reasoning simplify production, the quantity of benefits produced tends to increase without augmentation of expense; work done helps the work to be done. The tools of the human race are nothing else than a collection of ideas. All levers are worn out in the long-run, and all wheel-barrows also; steam-engines are not everlasting, but the idea remains, and enables us indefinitely to replace the material which perishes. It follows from this that the first of useful things for man, is man himself.

You are of the greater use to yourself the more you are instructed, rendered better, and, so to speak, more perfect. The development of your personal faculties also enables you to be more useful to others, and to obtain from them greater services through reciprocity.

  1. From advance-sheets of the "Hand-book of Social Economy." By Edmond About. D. Appleton & Co.