Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/March 1886/The Influence of Inventions Upon Civilization II

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THE relation between astronomical and mathematical investigations and navigation has been long recognized, but this relation is dependent upon the observation of the apparent position of heavenly bodies at given times, and these observations are in turn dependent upon telescopes and upon clocks and chronometers, both modern inventions. The working of the railroads of the country is hardly less dependent upon the time-keepers we possess than navigation is upon chronometers. Let any one ask himself how the railroads of this country could be operated if our only time-keepers were sun-dials, hour-glasses, and the clepsydras of the ancients, and he will soon see that the construction of the time-tables of our railroads and the operation of the roads in conformity with them would be impossible.

Mr. Atkinson will tell us what it costs to transport a barrel of flour upon our railroads from Minneapolis to Boston, and approximately what the saving is by the railroads over the old modes of transportation, but can he tell us what part of that saving is to be credited to the clocks at the railroad-stations and to the watches which the conductors carry in their pockets?

The late Judge Curtis said to me several years ago that the introduction of railroads had made a great change in the habits of the people as to punctuality in keeping appointments; that before their introduction nobody thought of being punctual to a minute, or even to an hour. Nobody thought of being "on time" till the railroads presented the alternative of being so or of "getting left."

One can now easily see that before the general use of clocks and watches, punctuality, as it is now understood among business-men, could hardly have been reckoned as a duty. This is one illustration out of many more important ones where our social or moral obligations have arisen from or have been changed by physical inventions. By observations upon the laws or conditions of health by means of recent inventions and only possible by their means, we have learned how to counteract or prevent the introduction or spread of many diseases, and in consequence of this, men recognize the duty to adopt and enforce many regulations in society for which no reason could be found a few years ago.

How could we live without glass? It enters so largely into the list of things we consider absolutely necessary, to say nothing of its uses for convenience or luxury, that we should almost as soon think of living without light or heat, without air or water, as to live without this cheap substance made principally out of the sand under our feet. Can any one tell what civilization would be without it? It would certainly be a very different thing from what it is.

We talk of the fireside and the influence it has upon families and social life, but the window plays a more important part in our homes than the fireside. The invention of glass goes back to a very early period, but its general use for windows is comparatively recent. Accustomed as we are to glass windows, it is difficult for us to conceive how a house could be lived in with comfort without it.

There is another use of glass, resting upon a very simple invention, which plays a very important part in the comfort of man and the value of his labor, and which contributes wonderfully to our knowledge of nature and the universe.

Ever since man was capable of observing things around him, he must often have seen that a straight stick thrust obliquely into the water appeared to be bent at its surface. It was a long time before man learned the value of this fact; but at length the lens was discovered. The invention consisted simply in the form given to a piece of glass; in giving to one or both of the surfaces of a disk of glass a curved form. This we know forms a lens, and a lens has become one of the most valuable devices known to man, but it was a long time after its invention before it became of much value.

A thousand years elapsed after the invention of the lens before it assumed an important place among the instruments employed by man. But man learned its value at last. Lenses may be made of other materials than glass, but for all practical purposes they are made of glass, and no other material will supply its place.

I alluded to spectacles as a valuable invention. I have never seen any attempt to estimate its value. I do not know that I ever heard the inquiry made. And yet when we remember that nearly every person above the age of forty-five, and very many below that age, use glasses, we see that they must enter largely into the sum of our comforts. How many persons would be deprived of the pleasures and benefits of reading and writing during a large portion of their lives but for this simple invention! How many kinds of labor would be performed badly and with great discomfort but for these devices! At what disadvantage literary labor would be carried on without them! For how many delicate handicrafts would men and women become unfitted in their later years but for them! At what discomfort and inconvenience would domestic needlework be performed in their absence! How much trial of the patience is saved by their use! I doubt not our tempers are much better in old age for these helps.

But the value of the invention of the lens is not limited to its use for spectacles. From it has grown up those wonderful modern instruments, the telescope and microscope. Through the former has come a large part of our astronomical knowledge, which has a great commercial value from the security it gives to man in navigating the oceans. It has also a high moral and mental value from the field it opens to the exercise and training of the powers of observation and imagination; from the new conceptions it has given us of the immensity of creation, and of the power which gave it birth. I wonder if any man can rise from a contemplation of the facts, the mysteries, and magnitudes of the universe, revealed to us by the telescope and spectroscope, without repeating to himself, with a new sense of its significance, the question, "What is man that Thou art mindful of him, or the son of man that Thou visitest him?"

But, while the lens thus opens up to man in the boundless regions of space a universe which no stretch of the imagination could give him a glimpse of without it, it opens up to him also a no less wonderful universe in regions which, by reason of their littleness, lie equally beyond his powers of observation or the powers of his imagination.

It reveals to him the presence of life in forms as wonderful for their minuteness and activity and numbers as the sun and stars are for the mighty spaces they occupy and traverse.

This little device, then, of a piece of glass formed with curved surfaces, which a boy may fashion upon a piece of sandstone, not only enters into the daily use of man, ministering to his comfort and prolonging his power to work efficiently, but in no figurative sense it enables him to behold a new heaven and a new earth. It opens to him the most wonderful secrets of nature, and gives him new conceptions of the vastness of the universe and of the magnitude of the forces involved in its mechanism. The ancients believed that the sun was only a few miles away, a few thousand miles at most, but the telescope has enabled man to learn that the sun is 92,000,000 miles away from us; that the earth, 8,000 miles in diameter, in his yearly journey around it, travels 600,000,000 miles, at the rate of nearly twenty miles a second.

What conception of infinite power could the imagination, unaided, give to man, which could in the least approach that which is involved in this movement of the earth!

But we know through the telescope, that this power, mighty as it is, is but an infinitesimal part of that which is actually displayed in the regions of space which only within recent years and by the aid of a multitude of inventions have been opened to the observation of man.

Upon glass and the lens man is dependent for the use of another recent invention, which now that we have it we would not willingly do without.

A beautiful art has come into existence since I was a young man, which gratifies one of the strongest desires of the heart and ministers to the social pleasures of every family and circle of friends. I well remember when the newspaper first announced that a Frenchman had invented a way of taking pictures by the help of the sun. Before that time very few people could have likenesses of their friends, living or dead. The face of a friend could only be seen when he was present. When absent, memory must do what it could to preserve the features. Only the rich, and not a large proportion of them, could command portraits of themselves or friends. Into what houses will you now go where you do not expect to find likenesses of whole families, and whole circles of friends? Very poor indeed are those who can not and do not find the means of procuring and preserving pictures of those they love. Can any one measure the amount of gratification which the world has received from the practice of the wonderful art of taking pictures from nature, through the agency of a few chemicals spread upon a sheet of paper or of silver, and of the rays of light concentrated by means of a lens? There has been received from it mental, artistic, and moral culture. The invention has opened up a new field of investigation and research to the labor of the chemist and to the student of nature. From the first announcement to the world, to the present hour, a host of inventors have been engaged in perfecting and improving the art, enlarging the field of its applications, and studying the laws of nature upon which it rests. The boundaries of human knowledge, in more than one department of physics, have been greatly extended in these efforts. Astronomy has received important aid from it, and by its help we get not merely pictures of what exists in the heavenly regions, but records of what is there taking place.

This art has even come to play an important part in the administration of justice and in the protection of the community against crime. By its aid criminals are detected, watched, and convicted. Forgeries are proved or disproved by its use. It finds an important place in the ordinary business of commerce and the mechanic arts. By its aid, copies or representations of all valuable works of art are placed within the reach of multitudes who, otherwise, would know nothing of them or know them only through inadequate verbal description. The improvement of the public taste in relation to art, by the knowledge of works of art which has been thus diffused, has been very great.

Does any one doubt that this extension and this spread of knowledge of the works of art must tend to the improvement of man's moral nature? Can it be doubted that the social affections are quickened by the preservation of the features of friends and the interchange among friends and families of pictures of those who make up the family circle? Will not a boy, absent from home, feel the influence of home more strongly when he looks upon the faces of parents or sisters, than he would if he could not thus bring them into his presence?

But all these benefits which the world reaps from photography have come to us from inventions. It is not the fruit so much of genius, as of that patient labor and research which is winning from Nature, day by day, secrets far more valuable to man than all her hidden treasures of gold and silver.

Within the memory of men not very old, a new power has, by the genius of inventors, been trained into the service of man. This power is electricity. It has always, as we now know, been present in many of the phenomena of nature, exhibiting itself most strikingly in the lightnings of the thunder-storm, revealing, as man believed, the presence of a mysterious power which might be destructive, but which never could be useful to man.

A trifling incident revealed to an observing man in Italy the fact that, when two metals and the leg of a frog were made to touch, the muscles of the leg were contracted. This was a little more than a hundred years ago. This led to the invention of the galvanic battery, an instrument by which man was enabled to generate electricity for his own use. But many years were still to elapse before man could turn the instrument to much service.

Forty years later, another observer noticed that, when a wire which was carrying a current of electricity generated by a battery was placed near the needle of a compass, it turned the needle one way or the other on its pivot. A few years later, Faraday discovered that if such a wire was wound around a piece of soft iron, it made a magnet of the iron. Out of these simple facts have arisen the inventions of the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric light. The oldest of these inventions, the telegraph, is only about forty-five years old, and there are many who can easily remember the feelings of incredulity and amazement with which the claim that the invention had been made was received.

Can any one calculate the influence which this invention is destined to have upon the condition of man? We think it has spread over the world with wonderful rapidity. And so it has. But the world has just begun to use it. Although we see telegraph lines spread all over this country, and we say and think that everybody uses the telegraph, yet the number of messages sent last year did not much exceed one to each two persons in the land, while the number of letters written, including postal-cards, probably exceeded ten to each individual. When messages can be sent, as they most certainly will be, to any part of the land for ten cents or less, multitudes of people, who never think now of using the telegraph except upon matters of pressing importance, will use it upon the most common occasions. How many times would the simple "all well" be exchanged daily between friends if it could be done for five or ten cents!

A multitude of inventors have been necessary to make the telegraph what it is, and its improvement was never going on more rapidly than to-day. I well remember how difficult it was for many persons to form an idea, when the telegraph was first invented, of the way it worked. It was not an uncommon belief that the paper on which the message was written was in some way sent along the wire to its destination. r>ut the idea became familiar after a little time that the electricity only traversed the line and operated a mechanism at the distant place which recorded the message in a new language, or delivered it directly to the ear, and people began to think that they understood how the telegraph was worked. But when inventors began to talk about sending two or three messages over the same wire, at the same time, the limit of belief seemed to have been reached, and people obstinately refused to believe that the thing could be done. But it has been done in more ways than one, and now there are numerous wires in the country over which four or even six messages are sent at the same time. As these inventions enable one wire to do the work of two or four or more, the wires which are wanting are called by the telegraph people "phantom-wires." The improvement of the telegraph is taking other directions. On the common lines the messages are sent by the operator at the rate of about thirty or forty words a minute, lint inventions are in progress, and are now being introduced, which will enable a thousand words a minute to be sent. Think of sending messages from Boston to New York over one wire, and recording them there, at the rate of a thousand words a minute! Few people speak at the rate of two hundred words a minute.

Those of us who are in the habit of receiving messages, often get them printed on long strips of paper. The invention used in sending messages in that way is one which enables a man in New York, by touching keys like those of a piano, to operate a printing-machine in Boston or Chicago.

The highest achievements in telegraphy are undoubtedly reached in the ocean telegraph. It demanded a whole line of inventions peculiar to itself. A simple wire could not be used for a conductor. It would give out the electricity to the water so fast that none would reach the farther end to deliver the message, and the wire itself would be speedily destroyed. A coating must, therefore, be found for it which would at once protect the wire from the action of the water and keep the electricity from going off into the water. When such a coating had been invented, it was found necessary to strengthen the copper wire used for the conductor by the addition of steel wires, which must not touch the copper wire, but surround it, and this too must be protected by a coating. Then machinery had to be invented to combine the copper and steel wires with the coating material into a cable. Other machinery had to be invented to deliver the cable from a ship as she sailed over the course where the cable was to be laid. Only the steamship could be used for the purpose, and thus the invention of the steam-engine gave to man the power to establish ocean telegraphs. New instruments of the most wonderful sensibility had to be invented both for sending and receiving the messages. A minute magnet carries a tiny mirror and is suspended by a thread so as to yield to the slightest impulse. A ray of light from a lamp falls upon this mirror and is reflected upon a screen some feet distant. This ray of light is the finger which the operator watches upon the screen. As the current in the wire varies under the action of the sending instrument, the magnet turns one way or the other, and the spot of light on the screen moves one way or the other and indicates the signals of the Morse alphabet to the operator and enables him to spell out the words.

Sometimes a fault is developed in the wire as it lies on the bottom of the ocean, and signals can not be sent. Does it seem possible that man can tell whereabout on three thousand miles of wire, two miles under water, the fault is? He has invented instruments which enable him to do it, and to send a vessel to the very spot over the wire where the fault is, pick up the wire and mend it, and return it to its resting-place.

Some time before his death, in 1819, while resting from labor in his old age, James Watt, when asked to allow his fellow-citizens to honor him with a seat in Parliament, refused, saying that he had given employment to the better part of a million of men, and had earned the right to rest from work. To how many millions of men since then has his invention given employment! In a life of Watt published many years since I find a statement that the steam-power of the world was equal to that of 400,000,000 men, and this amount has probably been doubled since the statement was made. And yet the world has even now but just begun to reap the fruits of this invention. Each year witnesses the extension of its use.

About seventy years ago Robert Fulton, one of the greatest mechanical geniuses of this country, applied the steam-engine to a boat and made the first trial of a ship moved by the power of heat in a trip from New York to Albany. Now every ocean is plowed by the steamship, and there is hardly a navigable river on the face of the globe that has not become a highway for it. A few years later, in 1825, George Stephenson invented the locomotive and gave to man the railroad, and now, sixty years later, we have more than 128,000 miles of railroad in operation in this country alone.

I believe that no other Englishman has done so much for his fellow-men, so much to change the social and economical conditions of society, as George Stephenson.

Would you like to know how much the steam-engine has increased the power of man in Massachusetts? I can tell you what the locomotive has done. In 1878 the railroad companies of this State had 1,030 locomotives. The proportion due to the amount of their track in this State was 757, and the work they did was equal to what 913,545 horses could do on good common roads, and was equivalent to the labor of 5,481,270 laboring-men, or to that of a population of nearly 20,000,000.

Now, in 1875, Massachusetts had only about 130,000 horses, and her population was a little more than a million and a half.

But this was not all that Massachusetts owed to the steam-engine. She employs it largely in steam-vessels owned in the State or coming from abroad. What the whole amount of work done by these vessels was equal to I do not know, but it was large.

She also employed steam-and water-power in her manufactures equal to that of 1,912,488 men. The work done by the steam-and water-power was equal to what could have been done by hand-power by a population of 7,400,000.

I think there are more than 20,000 locomotives in the United States. There would be more than that if all the roads were as well provided with locomotives as the roads in Massachusetts are.

Assuming that to be the number, and that they do as much work as they do here, and the work is equal to that of 25,000,000 horses, or to that of nearly 150,000,000 men, or to a population of nearly 500,000,000. I suppose the actual population of the United States is nearly 00,000,000. We see by this how much in this country alone the inventions of Watt and Stephenson have increased the powers of man. The imagination staggers under the figures.

Of course a host of other inventors have been concerned with the results I have given, but the results are none the less the work of inventors because there are many of them.

The steam-engine has entered into many other inventions, the steam drill and the steam-dredge, for instance, which have given to man the ability to execute engineering works of the most extraordinary character.

The steam-hammer is another of the wonders of modern machinery which followed the steam-engine. One of the gods of ancient mythology was Vulcan, a blacksmith, who was supposed, I believe, to have forged the thunderbolts of Jupiter. What conception may have been entertained of his power or of the magnitude of thunderbolts, I can not say, but probably he was never supposed to wield a hammer like a modern steam-hammer, weighing thirty-five tons, through a distance of ten or twelve feet, or to have executed any work like the forging of the propeller-shaft of a modern steamship. But what ancient gods could not do the modern inventor easily does.

The power of the steam-engine comes from heat—from the fire in the boiler. The fuel used is largely coal, stored ages ago in the earth. Fire has been long known to man and has been ready to do his work, and the iron and steel for engines had been long known. But not till the magic of the inventor had brought these things together did man learn what power was lying ready to his hand.

If at the time Watt made his improvement in the steam-engine some change in the laws of Nature had come into play which had gradually increased the physical power of man until now it had become tenfold greater than it was, this increase would not be equal to that which man has gained from the labors of Watt and the inventors who have succeeded him in the development of that instrument, and in the invention and improvement of machines to be used in connection with it. And this increased power of man is not exerted for the rich alone, but is shared by the great mass of men as impartially as if the power of each individual had been increased, as I have supposed, in the same ratio. We see this most strikingly in the ability which the railroad and the telegraph have given to the laboring-men in the mechanical industries throughout the land to combine and organize for mutual support, and in opposition, as it is said, to capital. It is only through the agency of the railroad and the telegraph that a great body of laboring-men scattered over a wide area of territory are able to organize and act as a unit, and thus secure the highest prices for their labor which the nature of their work and the demands of society will permit. It is only by reason of the capital of others invested in these recent inventions that laboring-men have acquired the power, which may be used either wisely or unwisely, to secure and exercise the strength which comes from union, and to deal with employers and capitalists on an equal footing, if not with the conditions in their favor.

Take another illustration:

One of the most simple transactions of our lives is to purchase a postal-card for one cent, write a communication on one side, and on the opposite side a direction to a correspondent in any part of the United States or Canada, and drop it into a box on a street corner. We have no further control over or agency in it; but we are perfectly assured that it will in no long time, within a week, even if its destination is San Francisco, be delivered to the correspondent. And, if we wish to write a long letter, we have only to add another cent and purchase a postage-stamp, for which a letter weighing one ounce may in like manner be sent and delivered. Now the ability to do this is shared by rich and poor alike, for there is hardly any depth of poverty which precludes any one from doing what I have described. But there is no step in the transaction, from the purchase of the stamp or card to the delivery to the correspondent, or in the antecedent conditions which make it possible, which is not an invention. I can not attempt to enumerate the inventions directly or indirectly involved, and I refer to the matter only as an illustration of the results which have been reached by invention in placing things highly important or desirable to men within the reach of all. It is not many years since the rates of postage in this country were so high, varying from six cents to twenty-five on each sheet, that a correspondence with distant friends involved an expense which could be but sparingly indulged by laboring-men, and was felt to be a burden by many in comfortable circumstances. The cost of sending a letter four hundred miles was equal to the price of half a day's work at the common monthly rate of wages of agricultural laborers. Now a letter may be sent ten times as far, at one twelfth the cost, and in less than one tenth the time.

A few years after Watt invented the steam-engine, and while he was laboring to improve it and adapt it to the various wants of the world, a wonderful military genius arose in Europe, who tilled the world with his fame and made himself as large a place in history, perhaps, as any man ever did. lie played havoc with the nations of Europe, changed the boundaries of countries and their forms of government, and apparently raised Trance to the highest pitch of power. But he lived to destroy. Measuring Bonaparte and Watt by their works and their works by the consequences which followed them, and which must stand as the greater fact in the history of the world? Which controlled most potently, for his own time and for the future, the destiny of nations, and which most deserves the admiration and homage, not to say gratitude, of mankind?

I hear people not infrequently express the belief that man-will soon exhaust the field of invention. The inventions of the last century have been so numerous and wonderful that to many minds it seems most likely that man will soon reach the limit of his power, or that he will exhaust the resources of Nature. But there is little reason to fear that either condition can be reached for ages, if ever. It is as little likely that man will ever reach the limit of invention as it is that he will be able to fix the bounds of the universe. Man makes inventions by combining the materials and forces of Nature, so as to reach new results. Let any one consider how numerous are the materials which Nature presents to the observation and use of man, how varied in kind and degree are the forces which are in constant operation, and how multifarious and intricate are the laws which govern their actions and relations, and then calculate, if he can, the number of possible combinations which can be made. I have seen the statement, which is no doubt true, that the fifteen blocks in the gem-puzzle can be arranged in more than a million different ways. If this simple toy possesses such capabilities, what possibility is there that man can ever exhaust the field of Nature? Wonderful as man's inventions are in number and character, they are at an infinite distance behind the works of Nature. What a multitude of created things there are in Nature, looking simply at species and varieties, and not at the individuals! How many kinds of plants and animals are to be found! What multitudes of reptiles and insects! No machine which man has invented calls into play such wonderful forces or is governed by such wonderful laws as the humblest plant on which he treads! Man is far enough yet from inventing a structure which shall build itself up from the earth, air, and water, and scatter germs for its indefinite reduplication I lie has succeeded in copying some of the products of Nature, and he will achieve still greater results, but in doing it he has but opened a new field of invention, one which only a few years before seemed utterly beyond his reach. He has enlarged the field of invention, not exhausted it. A striking instance of what man has done in this new direction is exhibited in the substance called alizarine. It is the substance which gives to madder its coloring quality. Not many years ago, madder was extensively cultivated in many countries to supply the demand for the arts. Now the article is made artificially from coal-tar, and the fields where madder was cultivated have to be devoted to other purposes. Invention has taught man how to make indigo, and the artificial article is likely to supplant the natural product. Diamonds have been produced artificially. I have full faith that sugar will in time in like manner be produced artificially. Starch and oil may not unlikely be provided in the same way. Man now cultivates the silk-worm which devours mulberry-leaves and converts a large portion into a glutinous fluid which, when spun out into a fine thread, hardens and forms our silk. Man may yet learn how to extract silk directly from the leaves, and perhaps even produce the substance which the worm elaborates, and spin it into silk!

Since the telephone has shown that man, through the agency of electricity, can talk with his fellow-man hundreds of miles away, there are men daring enough to think that through the same agency man may yet see things at an equally great distance, so that you may not only talk from Boston to your friend in New York, but may actually see him as if face to face, and they claim that their attempts have been attended with some degree of success. Would you dare to say it is more unlikely that such a result may be achieved than that man should be able to transmit intelligence instantly three thousand miles through the depths of the ocean? Through long ages man remained unconscious of the presence and action of the forces of magnetism and electricity, but we now know that they are constantly present everywhere, and incessantly active. What other forces may still be hidden from the observation of man it is impossible to know.

The present scientific belief is that the atmosphere is an aggregation of infinitely small molecules, which really till but a small part of the space the air seems to occupy; that through the unoccupied space these molecules are rushing at a high speed, hitting each other and the solid bodies around them and rebounding, and that what we call the pressure of the atmosphere, fifteen pounds to the inch, is really the bombardment of these molecules upon whatever arrests their course. The reason that all solid things are not swept away by this incessant pounding is, that the blows are struck in every direction, and so neutralize each other. But here is an ever-present and ever-active force, and, if man should ever discover a way to make all the particles of a body of air move in one direction, he would have at every place on the surface of the earth an unlimited amount of power placed at his command.

But even if man should accomplish all this, there would still be an infinite distance between anything which he could devise or construct and the organic structures which grow up around him; between the forces which he could wield and those exhibited in the operations of Nature; and each step which he might take, while it would enlarge his knowledge, would at the same time bring him into the presence of new mysteries, and open up to him new problems for solution. Each new invention gives birth to a host of other new ones.

The steam-engine has been the study of inventors for a hundred years, and each year has witnessed improvements upon it, and such improvements are going on more rapidly than ever before.

About forty years have elapsed since Howe gave the sewing-machine to the world, and thousands of inventions for its improvement or adaptation to new uses have been made, and they are going on still. The same is true of reaping-machines, spinning-machines, looms, the manufacture of iron and steel, printing and telegraphy, and of almost everything used by man.

There is no sign that the work of the inventor is near its end, and those who believe, as I do, that he has been the chief agent in the progress of the world, have no reason to doubt that the world will be still more deeply indebted to him as the centuries go by.

There are now in force in this country more than two hundred and fifty thousand patents for inventions, the fruits to a very large extent of the mental labor of those who are called the laboring-men of the country. Aside from the direct value of these inventions in promoting the comfort and increasing the wealth of the country, there is another factor to be considered, having the most vital relation to the industries of the country and its powers of production. This large number of inventions implies a high degree of intelligence and mental activity in the great body of the people. It indicates trained habits of observation and trained powers of applying the knowledge which has been acquired. It shows an ability to turn to account the forces of Nature and train them to the service of man, such as has been possessed by the laborers of no other country. It suggests as pertinent and most important, the inquiry whether any other country is so well equipped for competition in production as our own; whether in any other country the laboring-man is as efficient and his labor therefore as cheap as in our own; whether he does not exhibit the seeming paradox of receiving more for his labor than in any other country, and at the same time doing more for what he receives—giving more for what he receives, and receiving more for what he gives.