Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/February 1886/The Influence of Inventions Upon Civilization I

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IN Westminster Abbey, that place where England honors her great men with burial, and records their names and achievements, there stands a monument bearing this inscription from the pen of Lord Brougham, who esteemed it one of the greatest honors of his life that he was called upon to record the nation's appreciation of the man in whose honor the monument was erected:

"Not to perpetuate a name

Which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish,
But to show
That mankind have learned to honor those
Who best deserve their gratitude.
The King,
His Ministers, and many of the Nobles
And Commoners of the Realm,
Raised this monument to
James Watt,
Who, directing the force of an original Genius
Early exercised in Philosophic research,
To the improvement of
The steam-engine.
Enlarged the Resources of his Country,
Increased the Power of Man,
And rose to an eminent place
Among the most illustrious followers of Science

And the real Benefactors of the World."

The world has always paid homage to its distinguished warriors, statesmen, orators, poets, philanthropists, artists, historians, travelers, and to all who have left the impress of their works upon the history of mankind.

It is not until recently, however, that inventors have received a large share of these honors. As a class, they hardly had an existence till within a hundred years. Within that time they have risen to the highest place among those who, in the language of the eulogy I have just quoted, best deserve the gratitude of mankind, and by their works they have made greater changes in the face of society, and in the relations of civilized man to the physical world, than all the warriors and statesmen who have flourished since the commencement of the Christian era.

I am not unmindful, in making this statement, of the great changes that followed the introduction of the Christian religion, or the advent of Mohammed and the rise of his religion, of the consequences which followed the establishment of great empires like that of Charlemagne, or of the results of geographical discovery, as in the discovery of America or of the passage to India.

I am well aware of the difficulty of comparing the magnitude or importance of such things, for instance, as the art of printing, the steam-engine, or the railway or telegraph, with a new form of religion, or the establishment or overthrow of an empire, or the introduction of new forms of government. One man may attach much higher importance to some of these things than another would do, and a very much higher importance to them at one period of his life than at another.

It may seem absurd to some persons to make any comparison, for instance, between the benefits flowing from the introduction of Sabbath schools and those which have followed the invention of friction-matches; between the results due to the invention of spectacles and the consequences which followed the Reformation, And yet it is easy to see that each of these things must have had an important influence upon the physical, social, and moral condition of men, upon their habits of thought and of living, and upon their comfort and happiness. There is, therefore, some just relation between the value of these things to men, and it will not be unprofitable to spend a little time in considering how much we owe to inventors for what we have and what we are.

It is my purpose this evening to briefly bring into view, if I can, the service which inventors have rendered the world, and the part which inventions play in the moral and social condition of man. I shall point out in some cases the extreme simplicity of the inventions, in others the wonderful results which have flowed from them.

I shall refer not merely to what are called great inventions, but to some which seem to be very small. I shall very likely speak of nothing with which you are not all more or less familiar, but I may possibly suggest reflections which are interesting but which seldom come to our minds, for the very reason that we are so familiar with the things to which they relate; and I think that I may be able to show that there arc no other men to whom the world is so much indebted as to its inventors, no others who so well merit its honors and deserve its gratitude.

We do not often stop to think how little man has or enjoys that is not the fruit of invention. Things which man has long had we have ceased to think of as inventions, and we are apt to apply that terra only to modern things—to things the origin of which we know. Yet it will 1)0 hard for any of us to name anything which we use or enjoy which is not an invention, or the subject of an invention, in its adaptation to our use.

The air we breathe and the water we drink are provided by Nature. But we drink but very little water except from a cup or vessel of some kind, which is a human invention. Even if we drink from the shell of a gourd, we are using a thing which, in the shape we use it, is a human contrivance, and the contrivances which man has devised for obtaining water and distributing it have been among the most wonderful and ingenious of any which have occupied the human mind. Bountifully as Nature has provided water and placed it within the reach of man, yet we do in fact get or use but little of it except by the aid of inventions.

The air surrounds us at all times and we can not help using it if we would; but, if we want it either hotter or colder than we find it, we must resort to some invention to gratify our want. If we want it to blow upon us when it is still, we must set it in motion by some contrivance, and fans among other things have been invented for that purpose. A large amount of human ingenuity has been expended upon devices for moving air when we want it moved, upon fans, blowers, and ventilators.

How small a part of our food do we take as animals do, in the form provided by Nature, and how very large a share in some form contrived by man! We drink infusions of tea or coffee without thinking that the compounds are human inventions. How large a place the milk of the cow has in the food of man, but how little of it could he have but for a multitude of contrivances! We think of butter as we do of milk, that it is a production of Nature; and so it is, but its separation from milk is an invention which has been followed by a host of inventions to effect the separation easier or better.

Sugar is a production of Nature, but little known a few hundred years ago. Separated from the plants in which it is formed, it is an invention of man. The savage who first crushed some kernels of wheat between two stones, and separated the mealy interior from the outer skin, invented flour, and the human mind has not yet ceased to be exercised on the subject of its improvement.

Probably the earliest inventions of man had reference to the procuring and preparing of food, and the ingenuity of man is exercised even now upon it more eagerly than ever before, and the power of man to produce food has been increased during the last fifty years more than it had been for a thousand years before.

Fifty years ago, a large part of the wheat and other grain raised in this country was cut, a handful at a time, with a sickle, and a man could not, as a rule, reap more than a quarter of an acre a day. An instrument called a cradle was beginning to come into use, and with that a man could reap about two acres.

Within fifty years inventors have given the world the reaping machine, with which a man and two horses will cut from fifteen to twenty acres a day.

Fifty years ago the grain was almost wholly thrashed from the straw by pounding it upon a floor with a flail. If I remember correctly, a man sometimes received one bushel in ten for thrashing, ami from ten to twenty bushels must have been a day's work.

Now a machine will thrash out hundreds of bushels in a day, at an expense of a very few cents a bushel.

Inventions have changed the meaning of words. When I was a boy, a reaper was a man who reaped grain with a sickle, and a thrasher was one who thrashed it with a flail. Now, reapers and thrashers are machines driven by steam or horse-power.

For what part of our daily bread are we not indebted to inventions? Some of the fruits of the earth we eat as Nature gives them to us, but how much even of them do we take directly from the tree or shrub or plant which produced it, and eat without the aid of invention?

All our animal food comes within our reach and is prepared for use only by the aid of inventions.

I looks and nets and spears give us all we have of fish. The fishhook is a very simple contrivance. Is it a great invention or a small one? If the fish-hooks should all be suddenly destroyed, together with the ability to make them, would not the loss of the invention be a greater calamity than any which has befallen the world for a thousand years? If so, were not the inventors of that instrument, and those who have improved it, real benefactors to the world?

Could we get along without needles? Could we give up pins without a sigh? Are knives and forks and spoons a necessity? They are all among the simplest things that man makes, yet he has not obtained them without a great deal of mental labor; without the exercise of powers of invention of a high order.

It is less than fifty years since the little articles called matches have come into use. They are now so common and so cheap that we use them almost as we do air and water, without thinking at all of their real value. How few there are of us who do not use them every day, and many times a day, and how inconvenient it would be not to have them! But, when I was a boy, nobody had them; nobody could have them, for they did not exist. In the country-houses, at least, the greatest care was exercised not to let the fire go out upon the hearth, because in such case it became necessary to send to a neighbor's, often at a distance, for a fresh brand. Every night the live coals upon the hearth were carefully buried in the ashes to preserve them alive for the morning. In spite of this precaution, the fire was often lost. I have been sent many a time, in such cases, to a neighbor's in a cold morning to get a burning brand to start the fire at home anew. Nobody now thinks of taking any pains to preserve a fire, for it is easier to start a new one with a match than to preserve an old one. A very common way of lighting a candle in the house when darkness came on was to take, with the tongs, a coal from the fire—wood-fires were then used—and blow it, applying the wick of the candle to it at the same time. Sometimes it could be lighted very readily, but oftentimes it could be done only by the exercise of a good deal of skill and patience, A great deal of vexation and trial of nerves and temper has been saved to the world by the invention of matches, and the comforts of our homes increased in many ways. Perhaps, therefore, the comparison I suggested between friction-matches and Sunday-schools is not so incongruous as it may at first seem.

There were some devices known in those days for obtaining a light or fire artificially, but they were inconvenient, somewhat expensive, and not in general use. The tinder-box was one of them.

A gentleman not much older than myself told me not long since that when he was in college one of his classmates was rich in the possession of a tinder-box by means of which he could strike a light and a fire in case of emergency, and he gave me a humorous account of the process of striking a light, involving considerable skill, much patience, and, as he said, some swearing.

A great many boys have been taught in Sabbath-schools not to swear, but a great many more have doubtless, by the use of friction matches, escaped numerous occasions and temptations to swear, and wives have no doubt by this invention been saved from innumerable scoldings for not covering up the fire properly at night.

There is one curious fact about matches which I do not remember to have seen mentioned. We speak of them as a recent invention, but they are only an improvement upon a very old invention. Travelers among savages have generally, if not universally, found that they possessed the art of procuring fire when they wished, by rubbing two pieces of wood together till the heat generated by the friction between them caused one of them to take fire. It is described as a pretty crude way of working, calling for considerable skill and some labor and patience. Perhaps the date of the invention may go back to the earliest use of fire by man. Yet the invention itself is essentially that which we practice when we strike a match. We rub the match upon another substance, and the heat generated by the friction between the two causes the match to take fire. The improvement which the civilized man has made upon the invention of his savage ancestor is to coat the end of a piece of wood with a little composition of matter which takes fire at a lower temperature than the wood itself, and burns more rapidly. Simple as the improvement is, it took the world a long time to get it, and its inventor made a most important contribution to the comforts of man.

I was forcibly impressed a few years ago with the value to the uncivilized man of the simplest inventions of the civilized man, as I watched an Indian at Lake Superior at work upon a birch-bark canoe. He had for tools only a knife, a hammer, and an awl, but I suppose he must have used a hatchet to procure the wood and bark of which the canoe was built. It was slow work even with these tools, and it was difficult to believe that he could have built the vessel with the blunt instruments with which his ancestors had to be content before they came into contact with the white man. What an acquisition the white man's fish-hook must have been to the Indian!

Fifty years ago a large part of the people of this country had no other resource for artificial light than the tallow-candle. I remember it, and the vexations attending its use, the difficulty of lighting it by a coal of tire, the constant snuffing it required to make its light tolerable, and its constant tendency to melt and besmear everything in its vicinity. I venture to say that any of you would consider it an intolerable hardship to be compelled to use it and nothing else. Those who used oil-lamps got a little better light, but not much less discomfort. Gas was used only in the large cities. But the inventors have been busy in providing a new material for illumination and the means for using it and in cheapening their production; and now in kerosene and in kerosene-lamps, both of which have been called into existence within thirty years, the poorest people can enjoy, at the most trifling expense, a light better far than anything which anybody could command at any price before the invention of gas less than a hundred years ago.

Can we estimate the comforts of the homes of the country due to these inventions? Can we estimate the greater value of the evening hours for work, or study, or reading, which these inventions have given them?

I remember that my mother had a vial of what she called rock-oil, which she thought very good for sprains or bruises. It was said to have come from Western New York. I now suppose it to have been petroleum. Petroleum has been known to man for a long time, but it had no value till it came under the hands of the inventor. He has made a worthless article a blessing. Invention marks every step of its history. Petroleum in this country lies deep in the earth. By the aid of recent inventions man reaches it. By their aid he stores it, for it is a dangerous and difficult article to keep and transport. By invention, man has changed its character. And now, not only this country, but the whole world, is lighted by this new material. Yet all the invention which has been bestowed upon it would have been wasted but for another class of inventors and another lino of inventions. The lamps had to be invented or improved, and hundreds of men have been engaged on their improvement for years.

And now inventors have entered a new field and given us a light for our homes and streets almost as brilliant as that from the sun itself, from that agent which, since the world began, has lighted up the sky in angry flashes only to alarm timid and superstitious man.

It is a curious and interesting exercise to take any common article of daily use and inquire how much invention has been involved in its production; what inventions have preceded it; what ones, if any, it has supplanted, and what ones it gave birth to; what consequences followed its introduction, and what part it plays in the welfare of man.

The inquiry soon becomes a bewildering one.

Take paper, for instance. I believe we are indebted to the Chinese for its invention. Do we ever think of it as one of the great inventions of man? Why, it is nothing but rags ground up in water to a pulp, spread out in a thin sheet, and dried. I think the art of making paper has been known in Europe less than a thousand years. It has taken the place of parchment for writing. It made the art of printing possible. It made the newspaper possible, and especially the daily paper. The multiplication of pictures by engraving could not be carried on without it, nor the modern art of photography, to which I shall refer again. We attach great value to a system of general education as one of the most important agencies of modern civilization. But the first requisite of such a system is cheap books, and for these paper is the only thing we could use. Would any of you undertake to enumerate within the next half-hour all the uses to which paper is put? Would you undertake to name and describe all the kinds that are used?

Paper is largely made of rags. Rags presuppose the existence of cloth. Cloth is the product of two distinct inventions, spinning and weaving. Spinning and weaving are very old inventions, but even in their simplest form they involve the use of still older inventions. Whatever material is used for paper, a long line of antecedent inventions is involved in its use.

Paper must, I think, rank as one of the great inventions of man, and, if the heathen Chinese had given the world nothing more than this, he would have made no small contribution to the progress of civilization.

I have said that paper is made from rags, and that cloth implies the arts of spinning and weaving. But it also implies much more. To me, one of the greatest marvels of human industry is a yard of cotton cloth at the price at which it is sold. The price of a yard of cotton cloth of the kind called print-cloth, and which when printed becomes calico, is less than four cents, and the cotton itself costs half this sum. What inventions are involved in the raising of the cotton and its transportation to the mill where it is to be converted into cloth! Of course we all think of the cotton-gin, because that invention was made with special reference to the production of cotton, and has been much referred to as a striking example of the results which flow from an invention.

But the gin comes into use only after the cotton is grown. Of course the common agricultural inventions are used in raising cotton: the plow, the hoe, the machinery by which the plow is made, the arts of making iron and steel, including the machinery employed, the harness for the horse or mule which draws the plow, and the art of tanning the leather of which the harness is made. Recently planting or drilling machines for planting the seed have come into use, and artificial fertilizers—the product of the chemist's art—and the mechanism for distributing it over the ground. Even after the plant has begun to grow and before it is ripe, invention must often be called into play to protect it from the ravages of insects, and not a few devices, mechanical or chemical, have been called into existence for this purpose.

The ripe cotton-balls are still picked by hand, though inventors are busy with the problem of picking it by machinery. It is gathered into baskets or bags, themselves inventions, to be transported by a cart, another invention, to the gin-house, still another invention, where it comes under the operation of the gin to separate the cotton from the cotton-seed.

Would you like to know what the cotton-gin has done toward making cotton cheap, toward enabling enough to be sold for two cents to make a yard of cloth? An acre of ground is expected to produce at least one bale of cotton, which weighs four hundred pounds or over. Before the cotton-gin was invented, a man could pick about four pounds and a half of cotton from the seed in a day; so that it took a man about ninety days to separate the cotton which he could raise on an acre from the seed.

Whitney invented the cotton-gin, and with it a man could separate seventy pounds. In other words, he could do the work in six days which before took him ninety days. The invention was made less than a hundred years ago, but inventors have been busy with it ever since, improving it year by year, and now it turns out four thousand pounds a day! In other words, a single machine will do the work of about a thousand men.

As soon as the cotton is through the gin it must be pressed into bales, for the cotton is a light, bulky article which can not be transported without confinement and a great reduction of bulk. So another invention is required, the cotton-press. Some of these presses are wonderful machines. They embrace a steam-engine, a force-pump, and a hydraulic or hydrostatic press, and give a pressure of 4,000 pounds to the square inch.

The cotton-bale is surrounded by a coarse cloth called gunny-cloth, itself the product of another line of inventions, including the arts of spinning and weaving, and made by special machinery. The bale must also be hooped with iron hoops, involving again the inventions pertaining to the manufacture of iron, but in addition the machinery for rolling it into thin and narrow strips, and I think this embraces the art of rolling iron into round bars and drawing it into wire.

These hoops must at last be fastened around the bales, and that has called for the invention of peculiar fastenings called cotton-bale ties.

At length, through all these inventions, we have the cotton ready for market and transportation to the factory, where it is to be made into cloth.

This demands the use not only of the cart or wagon, an old but important invention, but the railroad, the car, and the locomotive or the steamship, or perhaps both of them. It is bewildering to think of the inventions involved in these, and I could not even enumerate them in the time I have, if I knew them all.

When the cotton reaches the factory, an invention stands ready to unload it from the cars and deposit it where it is to be used. The iron bands are removed by some instrument invented for the purpose, and the cotton is released from its confinement. It is submitted to machinery to free it from dirt and restore it to something of its original light, flocculent character, and it then enters a machine which spreads it out into a long sheet like cotton batting. This sheet in turn is stretched out into a long, soft rope, called a roving. Successive machines, four or five in number, I believe, extend the roving and make it smaller, till it is smaller than a common pencil. It then goes on to a spinning-frame and is twisted into a thread ready for weaving. Our two cents' worth of cotton has been drawn out into a fine thread more than 7,000 yards long, each inch of which has more than forty twists in it.

Shall I stop to tell you what man has achieved in the art of spinning? The art, as you know, is a very old one. Its invention lies back of the records of history. It was practiced a long time in its primitive form as a mere manual operation. The wool or flax or cotton was carried on a distaff. The thread was drawn out and twisted by means of a spindle held in the left hand, by which it was set to whirling while the fibers were drawn out of the mass and guided by the fingers of the right hand. The art was practiced in this crude way for ages, and it is so practiced now in some countries.

A book which describes this process says it was an obvious improvement to set the spindle in a frame and set it whirling by a band passed round it, and around a large wheel which was in revolution. But it was not so obvious that anybody, through long years, thought of it till about three hundred and fifty years ago. I believe this improvement which constituted the common spinning-wheel was invented in Germany. A woman could spin with it much faster than in the old way, but she only kept one spindle employed. A little more than a hundred years ago the spinning-frame was invented in England, in which a number of spindles were set and kept in operation at the same time. At first only eight spindles were used, but now several hundred are used in one frame.

There were three leading inventors at this early date who each made important improvements in spinning—Hargreaves, Arkwright, and Crompton. With a common wheel a woman can draw out a thread about four miles long in a day. On a modern spinning-frame she can take care of 800 or more spindles and spin threads the aggregate length of which would be more than 2,000 miles.

On these machines cotton yarn has been spun so fine that one pound of cotton would make a thread 335 miles long, and as a feat threads have been so fine that a pound of cotton would reach nearly 5,000 miles!

To go back to our two cents' worth of cotton, which has been converted into yarn. It is subjected to the action of several machines before it reaches the loom, where it is converted into cloth. Weaving, like spinning, is old, and some sort of machinery has always been employed in the process, but the power-loom of our factories is a modern invention. I sometimes think it is the most wonderful machine used. To make one yard of cloth, a shuttle carrying the filling-thread is thrown across the web perhaps 1,500 times, at the rate of a hundred crossings a minute.

There are looms which weave cloth more than three yards wide. There may be nearly 10,000 warp-threads in cloth of this width, and 5,000 filling-threads in a yard carried across the web at the rate of nearly a hundred throws a minute.

The art of printing has always been recognized as one of the great inventions of man. It is over four hundred years old, but after its first introduction very little improvement was made until the present century. Since then it has presented a rapid succession of the highest efforts of mechanical genius. I shall not attempt to follow their history or describe their character; but it is interesting to know that they have been made almost wholly by English or American inventors, and that more has been done in this country than in England. The wonder of modern printing is that it can be done so cheaply. You have all seen the series of publications by the Harpers called the "Franklin Square Library." I bought a copy for ten cents, the regular price. It contained thirty-six printed pages. I had the curiosity to estimate the number of words on a page and calculated it roughly at 2,000. That would give for the whole book 72,000 words, all for ten cents. Can you form a conception of the number of inventions which has made such an achievement possible? I think a modern daily newspaper is, however, one of the greatest wonders of the age.

I buy a morning paper, the "Boston Herald," for instance, for two cents. I read it on my way to Boston in the horse-cars and abandon it at the end of the trip, not because it is worthless, but because I have obtained from it what I wanted and it will not pay to preserve it for any other person or for future use. Now, what do I buy for my two cents? The physical thing that I buy is a sheet of paper and a certain amount of printers' ink impressed upon the surface of the paper in the shapes of letters and words. It is a wonderful fact that man can spread out the fibers of various vegetable substances into a thin, uniform sheet like that of paper, that he can cover such sheet with signs which can be made to express every passion or emotion of the human heart, every conception of the mind, and every fact in nature! Scarcely less wonderful than the fact that he can do it at all is the fact that he can make such a sheet of the size of the "Boston Herald" for two cents. It would take a volume to record all the inventions which have been made relating to the manufacture of paper alone to make such a result possible, and another for the inventions relating to printing. But the inventions relating to paper and printing would not of themselves enable "Boston Heralds" to be printed. The "Herald" is not made and sold for the paper and ink of which it consists, but primarily for the news it contains of what has taken place only the day before all over the world. You will find in the "Herald," as you know, or any other morning paper, day after day, the news of what took place the day before, not in Boston or vicinity alone, or even in Massachusetts or New England, or in this country, but in Europe, Asia, and Africa as well.

Through the potency of modern inventions you may perhaps tomorrow morning shudder over the horrors of a railway accident taking place at this moment thousands of miles away. Not till within a short time, and only through the works of the inventor, did a railway accident become possible.

You may perhaps read that a palace of the Emperor of Russia has been blown down with dynamite. Will you stop to think that dynamite is a new invention, or that the telegraph which brings the news was unknown fifty years ago?

The paper may tell you that Mr. Edison has perfected his electric light and is at this moment illuminating many cities, and you will speculate upon the effect that the announcement will have upon gas stocks, but will it occur to you that neither gas-stocks nor gas was known a hundred years ago, and that till within less than half that period man had but little more control of electricity than he has now of earthquakes?

Now, consider for a moment how this facility for transmitting intelligence must affect society in one of its most important aspects. A great calamity falls upon some distant city or community. If the news of it reached us, as it would have done a century ago, only after the lapse of days, or weeks, or months, and if friendly help can be given only after the lapse of a similar period, we may be touched with pity, but there will arise but little sense of sympathy or generosity or duty.

But when the intelligence reaches us almost at the moment of the occurrence of the event, and we are conscious that it lies in our power to help, the sympathies of thousands are awakened, their generous impulses are touched, and they recognize a moral obligation to bestow needed help, because it can be made immediately available. The duty springs from the ability, and the ability is the fruit of invention. It may seem a strange assertion to many persons, but I believe it can be shown to be true, that the development of the moral nature of man has been as directly dependent upon invention as has his physical comfort.

[To be continued.]