Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/November 1872/The Practical Man as an Obstructive

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IN prosperous times those engaged in manufactures are too busy earning and saving money to attend to a reorganization of their plant; in bad times they are too dispirited and too little inclined to spend the money, that in better times they have saved, in replacing old and wasteful appliances by new and economical ones, and one feels that there is a very considerable amount of seeming justification for their conduct in both instances, and that it requires a really comprehensive and large intelligence and a belief in the future, possessed by only a few out of the bulk of mankind, to cause the manufacturer to pursue that which would be the true policy, as well for his own interests as for those of the community. But there is a further and a perpetual bugbear in the way of such improvements, and that bugbear is the so-called "practical man," and he was in my mind when, in previous parts of this address, I have hinted at the existence of an obstacle to the adoption of improvement.

I do not wish the section for one moment to suppose that I, brought up as an apprentice in a workshop, and who all my life have practised my profession, intend to say one word against the truly practical man. On the contrary, he is the man of all others that I admire, and by whom I would wish persons to be guided, because the truly practical man is one who knows the reason of that which he practises, who can give an account of the faith that is in him, and who, while he possesses the readiness of mind and the dexterity which arise from long-continued and daily intercourse with the subject of his profession, possesses also that necessary amount of theoretical and scientific knowledge which would justify him in pursuing any process he adopts, which in many cases enable him to devise new processes, or which, at all events, if he be not of an inventive quality of mind, will enable him to appreciate and value the new processes devised by others. This is the truly practical man, about whom I have nothing to say except that which is most laudatory. But the practical man as commonly understood means a man who knows the practice of his trade, and knows nothing else concerning it; the man whose wisdom consists in standing by, seeing but not investigating the new discoveries which are taking place around him; in decrying those discoveries; in applying to those who invent improvements, even the very greatest, the epithet of "schemes;" and then, when he finds that beyond all dispute some new matter is good and has come into general practice, taking to it grumblingly, but still taking to it, because if he do not he could not compete with his co-manufacturers, the aim and object of such a man being to insure that he should never make a mistake by embarking his capital or his time in that which has not been proved by men of large hearts and large intelligence. It is such a practical man as this who delays all improvement. For years he delayed the development in England of the utilization of the waste gases of blast-furnaces, and he has done it so successfully that, as I have already had occasion to remark, this utilization is by no means universal in this kingdom. It was such men as these who kept back surface condensation for twenty years. It is such a man as this who, when semaphores were invented, would have said, "Don't suggest such a mode to me of transmitting messages; I am a practical man, sir, and I believe that the way to transmit a message is to write it on paper, deliver it to a messenger, and put him on horseback." In the next generation his successor would be a believer in semaphores, and when the electrical telegraphist came to him and said, "Do you know that I can transmit movement by invisible electrical power through a wire, however long, and it seems to me that if one were to make a code out of this movement I could speak to you at Portsmouth at one end of the wire while I was in London at the other," what would have been the answer of the practical man? "Sir, I don't believe in transmitting messages by an invisible agency; I am a practical man, and I believe in semaphores, which I can see working." In like manner when the Siemens' regenerative gas-furnace was introduced, what said the practical man? "Turn your coals into gas and burn the gas, and then talk of regeneration! I don't know what you mean by regeneration, except in a spiritual sense. I am a practical man, and if I want heat out of coals I put coals on to a fire and burn them;" and for fifteen years the practical man has been the bar to this most enormous improvement in metallurgical operations. The practical man is beginning slowly to yield with respect to these furnaces, because he finds, as I have already said, that men of greater intelligence have now in sufficiently large numbers adopted the invention to make a formidable competition with persons who stolidly refuse to be improved. The same practical man for years stood in the way of the development of Bessemer steel. Now he has been compelled to become a convert.

I will not weary you by citing more instances; but one knows, and one's experience teaches one that this is the conduct of the so-called practical man; and his conduct arises not only from the cause which I have given (his ignorance of the principles of his profession), but from another one which I have had occasion to allude to when speaking upon a different subject, and that is, you offend his pride when you come to him and say, "Adopt such a plan; it is an improvement on the process you carry on." His instinct revolts at the notion that you, a stranger, very likely his junior, and very probably, if the improvement be an original and radical one, a person not even connected with the trade to which that improvement relates, should dare to assert that you can inform him of something connected with his business that he did not know. It may be said that employers and the heads of manufactories are, as a rule, in these days, educated gentlemen, and that therefore it is wrong to impute to them the narrow-mindedness of the practical man. I agree that in numerous instances this would he wrong; but the fact is that, in many cases—I think I may say in most cases—the head of the establishment, the moneyed man, the man who, by his commercial ability (that most necessary element in all establishments), keeps the concern going by finding lucrative orders, is not intimately acquainted with the practice of the business carried on by his firm; he relies upon some manager or foreman, who, too commonly, is not the real, but the so-called practical man. It is such men as those who simply practise that which they have seen, without knowing why they practise it. To them the title of practical man has most improperly been attributed, and it is on the advice of such men that the true heads of the firm too commonly regulate their conduct as to the management of their business, and as to the necessary changes to be made in the way of improvement.

As I have said, the practical man derides those who bring forward new inventions, and calls them schemers. No doubt, whatever they do scheme-and well it is for the country that there are men who do so-it also may be true that the majority of schemes prove abortive; but it must be recollected that the whole progress of art and manufacture has depended and will depend upon successful discoveries which, in their inception, were and will be schemes just as much as were those discoveries that have been and will be unfruitful; but the successful discoveries, because they are successful, are taken out of the category of schemes when years of untiring application on the part of the inventors have, so to speak, thrust them down the throat of the unwilling practical man. Take the instance of Mr. Bessemer, who was beset for years by difficulties of detail in his great scheme of improvement in the manufacture of steel. As long as he was so beset the practical men chorused, "He is a schemer; he is one of the schemers; it is a scheme." Supposing that these practical difficulties had beaten Mr. Bessemer, and that they had not been overcome to this day? The practical man would have derided him still as a schemer, although the theory and groundwork of his invention would have been as true under these circumstances as it now is. Fortunately for the world, and happily for him, he was able to overcome these most vexatious hindrances and make his invention that which it is. No one now dares apply the term "schemer" to Mr. Bessemer, or "scheme" to his invention, but it is as true now that he is a "schemer" and his invention a "scheme" as it would have been had he failed up to the present to conquer the minor difficulties. It is a species of profanation to suggest, but I must suggest it, for it is true, that Watt, Stephenson, Faraday, and almost every other name among the honored dead to whose inventive genius we owe the development that has taken place within the last century in all the luxuries, the comforts, even the bare necessities of our daily existence, would, in their day, and while struggling for success, have been spoken of as schemers, even in respect of those very inventions of which we are now enjoying the fruits. But I feel I need not labor this point further at a meeting of the Mechanical Section of the British Association, an association established for the advancement of science. I know I shall be accused of decrying the practical man and of upholding the "schemers." I say most emphatically that I do not decry the practical man; I plead guilty to the charge of decrying the miscalled practical man, and I glory in my guilt, while I readily accept that which I consider the. praise of upholding "schemers," and I do so for this simple reason, that, if there were no schemers, there would be no improvement. I think it becomes a scientific body like the British Association to laud the generous effort of the unsuccessful inventor, rather than to encourage the cold selfishness of the man who stands by and sees others endeavor to raise the structure of improvement without lending a hand to help, and even sneers at the builders, but, when the structure is fully raised and solidly established, claims to come in to inhabit, and, being in, probably essays, cuckoo-like, to oust the builders and to take possession for his own benefit.

  1. Extract from the opening address of the chairman of the Mechanical Section of the British Association, at Brighton.