Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Why Progress Is by Leaps

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AS master of electricity man is crowned the king of Nature. A brief glance at what electricity has done and promises to do may have interest in itself; it may have yet more in disclosing the law by which art and science march onward with ever-hastened pace, how it comes about that the history of modern progress is little else than a story of revolution. We shall see that the subjugation of electricity means for thought and work not an addition merely, but a multiplier. It marries the resources of the mechanic, the engineer, the chemist, the artist, with issue attested by all its own fertility, while it annexes province after province unimagined before its advent. Because the latest upward stride in knowledge and faculty has fallen to the lot of the electrician, he has broadened the scientific horizon vastly more than any earlier explorer; beyond any predecessor he has found more in the field wherewith to prove the fecundity that infallibly stamps every supremely great agent of discovery. As we trace a few of the unending interlacements of electrical science and art with other sciences and arts, we shall be reminded of a series of permutations where the newest of the factors, because newest, multiplies all the factors that went before by an unexampled leap.[1] We shall find reason to believe that this is not merely probable, but really is as a tendency true, and not alone of the gains which follow in the train of conquered electricity, but also with regard to every other signal victory which has brought man to his present pinnacle of power and insight. If in former advances this permutative principle has been undetected, it stands forth in clearest relief in that latest and therefore utmost stride of skill and interpretation ushered in by Franklin, Volta, and Faraday. And we shall presently note that this permutative tendency offers a key to some puzzling chapters in the biography of the creatures which man has far outstripped in the race of life, and may also shed a needed ray on the story of the planet where they and he have together struggled and vanquished or succumbed. If all this may be maintained, a permutative tendency can perhaps be suggested with respect to evolution in general as colorably as with regard to development in particular realms. Is this a large claim? To the evidence, then:

By way of preface, let us for a moment consider the achievement most worthy to be compared with the conquest of electricity, and, indeed, its necessary precursor.

When man first kindled fire, he rose to a new primacy among created beings. Long before that fateful day he must have noticed how the blaze of a tree riven by lightning could bring roots and herbs to refreshing palatability, or, as a far volcano welled forth its lava, how welcome the radiance in wintry air. What, he may have thought, if I can summon fire at my bidding instead of waiting upon heaven to let it fall or earth to belch it forth? How the wish came to fulfillment has been the subject of many an ingenious guess. The likeliest of them imagines that in striking a bit of quartz against a flint to point an arrow, a spark fell on dry tinder, and that what at first was accident was soon repeated by design. No piecemeal acquisition this, like learning to hit a mark with stone or bolt. The man barely able to light a fire was enormously advantaged as compared with his fellow, however dexterous, who just fell short of this skill. At once the fire-maker took a bound forward that decisively withdrew him from his next of kin. It was as if the globe had expanded itself beneath his tread; for now, no longer chained by the sunbeam, all the frozen north was added to his hunting ground. The burning brand cleared his path through the forest or shaped from a tree trunk his rude canoe. It lifted the dreary pall of night. His hearth, heaped with boughs, cheered with light as well as warmth, and became the family rallying place and altar. Baneful roots buried in its embers lost their poison and furnished a toothsome meal, while food of many kinds when roasted or seethed was improved in flavor and could be longer stored to abridge the seesaw between plenty and want. As the cook daubed clay on her roasting tray of twigs that it might the better withstand flame, she soon learned that clay by itself was a capital material for oven, pot, or kettle, and Sèvres and Worcester, with all their varied art, here took their rise. As primitive fisherman and hunter, man employed fire to lure his prey, to affright the beasts to which he himself was prey, or to yield protecting smoke against insect pests scarcely less to be dreaded. In later ages as mariner he erected on storm-beaten coasts beacons whose carefully tended blaze gave warning or comfort to drifting voyagers, the flickering ray foretelling the sunlike beam of Sandy Hook or Skerryvore. As warrior he crowned the hills with similar flares to voice alarm to scattered allies, prefiguring every modern telegraph. Again, as warrior, having profited by the hardness fire conferred upon his wooden spear, he was to receive gifts yet greater. Where, as on the shores of Lake Superior, native copper almost pure lay upon the ground, it was laboriously pounded into the primitive knife or hammer. With fire his servant, the savage was independent of such rare finds. Wherever he came upon an earthy mass, glittering with however small a fraction of metal, he had but to bring the ore to his hearth to free copper or iron from its bondage. There and then the art of the founder began to take the place of the drudgery of the smith—a supersedure characteristic enough and one of an uncounted series where good has had to make way for better, where the worker and the fighter himself has been overcome by stronger thews and keener wits. No triumph of miner or chemist, of engineer on land or sea, that does not date from the memorable hour when a savage just a little cleverer than his fellows kindled for himself a blaze. Plainly, then, fire came among the resources of man as a permutator of exalted power. It gave an impulse to food-getting, to tool and weapon making, to building, to migration, to every art that cheered and adorned the home. It was an influence as pregnant as any that has made man human and brought the empire of Nature to his feet.

Through the course of all the ages since, almost down to our own day, flame had beside her a twin force all unrecognized. Elusive as a wood nymph she glinted as lightning, or as the aurora streamed fitfully across the sky. Anon she condescended to the amber of the sea beach, which under gentle friction drew to itself fragments of fallen leaves, of withered straw. In yet other guise she defied the downward tendency of unsupported masses, and, as the legend tells us, sorely puzzled a shepherd in bidding his crook cling fast to the ceiling of a cave roofed, as we would say now, with magnetic ore. At a later day the magnet became something more than an empty marvel, and as the compass assumed the office of guiding sun and star when these wei e hidden. Little wonder that so various a masquerade was long impenetrable, that Franklin less than five generations ago should detect that lightning and electricity are one, and that only in our day at the hands of Hertz has it been demonstrated that the electric pulse differs only from the wave of heat or light in being longer. This discovery of Hertz was long ago foreshadowed in the observation that heat can have electric origin. One of the first fruits of electrical study was the finding that some metals transmit electricity better than others, and that the efficacy of a conductor depends in part on its size. When a conducting wire was reduced to extreme tenuity, the resistance to the current's passage, with striking resemblance to common friction, expressed itself as vivid heat. The miner and the gunner at once saw their opportunity to use electricity to touch off their fuses and to explode at the same instant, with an effect before impossible, a round of separate charges.

Copying the methods of the miner, the mechanic and the chemist very often find electric heat the most advantageous they can employ. When the broken blade of a propeller is to be repaired, the electric welder can be taken to its work instead of the work having to go to a stationary welder. When electric heat is carried into a crucible through almost impenetrable walls of gypsum, it enters the very heart of its task without the offense and waste of flame. Thus to-day is flame face to face with a supplanter in the shape of its long undetected twin. Until this generation flame alone was the source not only of heat, but of the beam of candle, lamp, and gas jet. To-day myriads of electric bulbs are aglow without flame—indeed, just because combustion is rendered impossible by the rigid exclusion of air. As these incandescent lamps were long ago prophesied in the miner's electric fuse, so also has the first simple process of the electroplater led up to an art incomparably more important. To-day not surfaces merely, but large masses, chiefly of statuary, are built in cool tanks by electricity. Let the current become cheaper still, and the founder may find the remainder of his business transferred to this formidable rival, the warping heats of sand molds banished, the scorching temperature of crucible and ladle a reminiscence. The same fate may be in store for the smelting furnace. Already vast quantities of copper are refined electrolytically, and an auspicious beginning has been made in using electricity for the whole process of parting metal from ore. Thus methods which commenced in dismissing flame end boldly by eliminating heat itself. This usurping electricity, it may be said, usually finds its source, after all, in fire under a steam boiler. True, but mark the harnessing of Niagara, of the Lachine Rapids near Montreal, of a thousand streams elsewhere. In the years of the near future motive power of Nature's giving is to be wasted less and less, and per force will more and more exclude heat from the chain of transformations which issue in the locomotive's flight, in the whirl of factory and mill; and thus in some degree is allayed the fear, never well grounded, that when the coal fields of the world are spent, civilization must collapse. As the electrician hears this foreboding, he recalls how much fuel is wasted in converting heat into electricity. He looks beyond either turbine or shaft turned by wind or tide, and, remembering that the zinc dissolved in his battery yields at his will its full content of energy, either as heat or electricity, he asks. Why may not coal and forest tree, which are but other kinds of fuel, be made to do the same?

In another field let us observe electricity as a factor of fruitfullness quite as singular. It was at first the chemist who emancipated electricity for new and myriad uses. His successor to-day is the engineer, who wins his spurs by bringing his generator to practical perfection, by improving his steam and gas engines to double their efficiency of thirty years ago. If to the engineer and mechanic the electric art owes much, magnificently has the debt been repaid. As we discover in replacing at our street door an old-fashioned moving bell pull by an electric wire armed with a push button, electricity transmits motion without movement of its conductor as a mass. Availing himself of this golden property, the machinist removes from his shop a labyrinth of wheels and belts and puts in their stead a few wires at rest, each in charge of the motor actuating a machine. Manifold gains result. The power needed to whirl these wheels and belts is saved, and when but one or two machines of a large number are to be set in motion the economy rises to a high figure, while the workshop is lighter, cleaner, more wholesome in every way. Since electricity is of all phases of energy the easiest to preserve from losses resembling leakage or friction, the current can not only be distributed throughout the largest workshop with convenience and economy, it can be sent to the shop from an engine or a water wheel many miles away, as in connecting motors at Buffalo to dynamos at Niagara, twenty-seven miles distant. With the transmission of electricity for distances vastly exceeding twenty-seven miles we have long been familiar in the telegraph. It is by improving the coverings which prevent the current escaping from its wire, by taking advantage of the fact that a wire can almost as well carry a current of high tension as of low, and, above all, by increasing the quantity of the current so as to make the enterprise worth while, that the telegraphy of power has followed upon the telegraphy of mere signals.

In the telegraph at work over long distances a remarkable peculiarity of electricity displays itself. In days of yore, when letters were intrusted to a chain of messengers, each of whom bore the pouch for a stage of its journey, a carrier might come to the end of his trip utterly fagged out; but if ho had barely the strength to pass his burden to the next man it was enough. Much the same is the system of relays when a telegram takes its way from New York to Tacoma. First it goes to Buffalo, where the current, faint after its run of four hundred and forty miles, touches off a second powerful current born in Buffalo. This in its turn bears the dispatch to Chicago. There a third current is impressed into service, and so on, until at the end of a succession of transfers the words are clicked out in Tacoma. This whole process is committed to self-acting repeaters that do their work in the fraction of a second. It is in pulling triggers in such fashion as this, in liberating forces indefinitely greater than the initial impulse, that electricity brings to muscles of brass and steel something very like a nervous system, so that the merest touch directs the course of a steamship through the tempest-tossed Atlantic. Engineer, workman, and artist can thus reserve their strength for tasks more profitable than muscular dead lift and find their sweep of initiation and control broadened to the utmost bound. In the field of war, for instance, a torpedo can be launched, propelled, steered, and exploded by a telegraph key a mile or two away; the constructor may, indeed, confidently give all his orders in advance and build a torpedo which will fulfill a fate of both murder and suicide predestined in its cams and magnets. Or a camera, under the control of an operator at the safe end of a wire, is sent soaring in a balloon car above an enemy's camp, effectively playing the spy.

Another apparatus electric and photographic, happily less uncommon, is employed for observatory records which, as near Arequipa, in Peru, without supervision keeps itself busy for a fortnight together. Still more remarkable is Mr. Muybridge's round of cameras, timed as only electricity can time them, which seize practically instantaneous views of figures in rapid motion, as horses trotting. In Mr. Edison's kinetoscope photographs made at each forty-sixth of a second follow one another so quickly under an eyepiece as to fuse with the effect of life and action. Pictures of birds thus caught on the wing may prove seed corn for harvests to be reaped by the experimenter in mechanical flight—an achievement which, strange to say, attracts the interest of military rather than business men. In the service of war and peace one would suppose the ordinary telegraph to be speedy enough. Not so, thinks the inventor. In the latest process a dispatch wings its way from New York to Chicago at the rate of one thousand words a minute, to Philadelphia thrice as fast. The telegram is taken first to a machine which symbolizes each letter as perforations on a strip of paper; then the strip is run between. metallic springs of exquisite delicacy. At each perforation the springs touch and the current takes its way through the wire. At the receiving station the delay involved in the arousal and action of electro-magnets is abolished. The current instant by instant writes its message on a moving ribbon of paper sensitized so as to change color under an electric flow. This instance is typical of what ingenuity can do when electricity is added to its armory. A task is divided between an operator and an automatic machine in such wise that intelligence is allotted only that part for which intelligence is required, while for the remaining part the utmost speed of electrical and chemical action is invoked—a pace which in this particular case sixtyfold outstrips the most dexterous manipulation.

Another means by which inventors have expedited telegraphy has been by transmitting several messages simultaneously over a single wire. Of these multiplex systems certain are synchronous in principle and seem to have suggested to Prof. Elisha Gray his telautograph, an instrument that imitates exactly the motion of a pencil, in say Boston, by the motion of another, in say Baltimore, reproducing with equal facility either handwriting or outline drawing. To understand the principle involved, let us glance at an everyday application of electricity in keeping scores of clock pendulums, no matter how far apart, in perfect step. If two pendulums at right angles to each other are attached to a moving pencil their motions may be communicated to a distance by two currents which actuate two pendulums in control of a second and copying pencil. The electric clock at which we have just been looking can, if we please, be sealed in a glazed box, secure from dust and dampness. Here opens a fresh path to the inventor who wishes to avoid the resistance or leakage entailed when a rod moves through a slot or a stuffing box. It is often of cardinal importance that a bit of metal at rest should throb with a pulse strong enough to do severe drudgery or tell a tale which otherwise would go untold. If an engineer wishes to know how much heat wastes itself through the walls of a steam cylinder, his question is answered through a motionless wire attached to a delicate metallic thermometer buried in the cylinder's mass. In experimenting with new alloys the same method informs the chemist of changes of temperature at the core of his crucible, changes often abrupt and transient and at times denoting qualities he seeks to detain or reproduce. In a very different domain of exploration the engineer uses the telephone to expose perilous defects in metal beams.

As we prove when we unhook a telephone, or lift an incandescent lamp, electricity readily traverses a flexible wire: this unbars a fresh resource to invention. To-day rock drills, coal cutters, and deck planers are designed in forms which combine motor and tool; so much is thereby gained in adaptability that a remodeling is in progress of much light machinery in its first estate rigidly limited in play by shafts, belts, or gearing. Dentistry and other arts of refined manipulation are indebted for novel facilities to the flexible mechanical shaft—a tightly wound coil of steel wire. This device is in turn being shown to the door by the new partnership between an electric thread and a tool. And the wire, however slender, which binds a reservoir of power to its work, can on occasion be discarded, as in the rolling contact of the electric trolley wheel. And even contact can be dispensed with if strict economy is not imperative. We are familiar with the annoyance, due to induction, of being obliged in a telephone circuit to overhear other subscribers, whose wires are often far distant from our own. A hint in this for the engineer at the head of the British telegraphs, Mr. Preece. Utilizing induction, he has established a telegraph between Oban and Auchnacraig, divided by six miles of sea, using wires strung along the opposite shores. Electricity, light, heat, and chemical action are all in essence motion; electricity is the most desirable of them all, because it can most readily and fully become the source or issue of any other. The pre-eminent sensitiveness of electrical apparatus makes it a surpassing means of measuring minute portions of space or time, of light, heat, chemical activity, or mechanical motion. Hence a brood of telltales of widely contrasted purpose. Selenium, a metalloid of the same lineage as sulphur, and betraying its descent by a striking family resemblance, has the curious property of transmitting electricity more freely in light than in darkness; a stick of selenium, therefore, is the pivot of a device to give warning when extinction befalls a lamp charged with important duty. In thermometers a circuit broken or completed acts as a fire signal, or, on shipboard, heralds the approach of an iceberg. Electric fingers sound a gong when the water recedes below the safety level in a steam boiler, or report an attempted breach of bolt or bar by the burglar's jimmy. Each of these warnings can be registered at a distance, so that in case of neglect by an attendant there can be no disputing the fact. Now, if an electric alarm can summon a servant to duty, why may not the inventor go further, and so add to his device that it shall of its own motion do what needs to be done? Accordingly, we find furnaces fitted up with electrical control, so that the draft is opened or fuel added when the temperature falls too low, or the reverse, when the flame is too fierce; when the fuel is gas this stoking leaves nothing to be desired. New mechanism of this kind is constantly being contrived. The inventor who began by conferring electric nerves on muscles of brass and iron has. thanks to electricity, gone the length of combining his wires and magnets into something very like a conscious and responsive brain: his intelligence culminates in duplicating itself.

Prodigal as electricity is of gifts to the mechanic and engineer, it as generously multiplies the resources of their friend and partner, the chemist. Electricity, we must not forget, was presented to the world as a stream of tolerably even flow, by a process of chemical undoing, in Volta's crown of cups. If chemical taking apart can yield a current, a current can in turn be used to build, as every piece of plating proves. Yet to construct a battery in which both processes shall alternate, without undue weight or waste of material, is a task as yet not satisfactorily accomplished, despite constant and ingenious attack. A thoroughly good and simple storage battery would mean nearly as much for electric art as the dynamo. From a dynamo it would receive currents derived from wind or water powers, or from engines temporarily laden below their capacity, and use these currents to restore a metal from its solution by a process exactly that of electroplating. Then, on demand, it would yield electricity once more by surrendering this metal to solution, as a common voltaic battery does. If the chemist has thus far been somewhat baffled by the problems of the storage battery, he has had better fortune in other fields of endeavor. Electricity joined to heat hands him a two-edged sword of irresistible cleaving power. Compounds, such as those of chromium, of peculiar refractoriness, are readily parted in the electric furnace of Moissan, and elements once extremely rare are now marketed in quantity at prices steadily falling. A generation ago aluminum was so scarce and dear that it was formed into jewelry; to-day the metal has been so cheapened by electricity that it finds a ready sale as kitchen ware. Minute diamonds and rubies of electric manufacture are now competing with the product of the mine, and materials used on a gigantic scale in the arts—caustic soda, bleaching powder, and the like—are produced at less cost than ever by electrical agency. The chemist, when he chooses, can beat his electrical sword into a trowel, and build compounds which seem prophetic of the day when the slow elaborations of the farm and orchard shall make way for the artificial synthesis of sugars, oils, and starch.

Greater than all the wealth created by electricity in workshop or laboratory are its aids to pure research. The chief physical generalization of our time, the persistence of force, came into view only when electricity was recognized as a phase of energy, only when electrical means of measurement had become trustworthy. It is because men of absolutely disinterested spirit, like Faraday and Henry, devoted themselves to ascertaining the laws of electricity that we have to-day the telegraph, the telephone, and the electric furnace. "Before there can be applied science there must be science to apply," and it is in enabling the investigator to know Nature under a fresh aspect that electricity rises to its highest office. As a case in point, take the bolometer of Prof. S. P. Langley: its delicate wire, sensitive to one millionth of a degree centigrade, is moved by minute steps through the invisible areas of the solar spectrum; each indication of temperature, automatically photographed, comes out in a series of dark and bright lines. This process, repeated with each chemical element, promises that one day the physicist will have before him a full or tolerably complete map of every distinctive spectrum. He can then ask. Given such and such vibrations, how is the body constituted that sent them forth?—much as a musician might try to reason from the tone and timbre of a note to the structure of the instrument which uttered the note. In further uses of photography the physicist, by means of instantaneous contacts, is beginning to find out what goes on in the critical moments when chemical collisions in the voltaic cell are gliding into electric waves—an inquiry which bears on the prime question of electric art, namely, how the chemical energy contained in coal can be transformed into a current without the enormous levies imposed by the steam engine. Hertz, in the purely scientific excursion by which he generated electric waves intermediate in length between those of sound and light, came upon a discovery of profound interest—that, given its appropriate ray, every substance whatever offers it a free and open path. It remained for Prof. Röntgen to complete the proof that certain of these rays, while refusing obedience to the laws of light, can, nevertheless, exert photographic power. His apparatus combines in the happiest way the utmost resources of both the electrician and the photographer; at a vital point it employs the singular capacity for fluorescence whereby the compounds of barium and other substances can convert to visibility an otherwise invisible image. Apart from such a triumph as this, rich in possibilities for art and science, the common routine of ascertaining electrical constants has high value in research; to know the conductivity, polarizability, and other electrical properties of matter is to peer at its architecture through new windows; to detect many of the links which bind atom to atom, molecule to molecule. A new orchestration of inquiry is possible through the instruments created by the electrician, through the advances in method which these instruments suggest. Hence to-day a surround is in progress which may early in the twentieth century make atom and molecule as obedient to the chemist as brick and stone are to the builder now. But, however much new knowledge may do with electricity, some of its best work is already done. It is not likely in the future to perform a greater feat than placing all mankind within earshot of each other. Were electricity unmastered, there could be no democratic government of the United States. To-day the drama of national affairs is more directly in the view of every American citizen than a century ago the public business of Delaware could be to the men of that little State. Railroads, with all they mean for civilization, could not have been born without the telegraph; and railroads and telegraphs are the sinews and nerves of national life, the prime agencies in welding together the diverse and widely separated States and Territories of the Union. A Boston merchant builds a cotton mill in Georgia; an Illinois manufacturer establishes an agency in Seattle; the telegraph, which informs them day by day how their investments prosper, tells idle men where they can find work, where work can seek idle men. Chicago is laid in ashes, Charleston topples in earthquake, Johnstown is whelmed in flood, and instantly a continent rises to their relief. And benefits denied to charity issue in the strictly commercial services of the telegraph. Its click has exorcised the fiend of famine from every quarter of the civilized globe; for, with its finger on the throttle-valves of locomotive and steamship, no longer does food rot here when thousands lack bread there; the markets of the world are merged, and that one great market reaches every man's door.

In a less conspicuous way electricity works equal good. Its motor, freeing us from the horse's deliberate pace, is spreading out our towns and cities into their adjoining country; field and garden compete with narrow streets; the sunny cottage is in rivalry with the odious tenement house. Electric lines, at first suburban, are now fast linking town to town and city to city, while as auxiliaries to steam railroads they place sparsely settled districts in the arterial current of the world. Great as are the blessings which electricity brings to country folk, it stands ready to bestow yet more in the hives of population. Until a few decades ago the water supply of cities was drawn in part from wells here and there, from lines of piping laid in favored areas, and always insufficient. To-day a supply such as that of New York is abundant and cheap because it enters every house. Let a single electrical service enjoy a like privilege, and it can offer a current which is heat, light, chemical energy, or motive power at a wage lower than that of any other servant. Unwittingly, then, the electrical engineer is a political reformer of high degree. All that he asks is that this municipal electricity shall be under control at once competent and honest. Let us hope that his plea, joined to others as weighty, may quicken the spirit of civic righteousness so that some of the richest fruits ever borne in the garden of art and science may not be proffered in vain.

This rapid survey of what electricity has done and yet may do has shown it the creator of a thousand material resources: the corner stone of physical generalization; a stimulus to the moral sense, by making what otherwise were an empty wish rise to sympathy fulfilled; while, in more closely binding up the good of the bee with the welfare of the hive, it is an educator and confirmer of every social bond. Are we not, then, justified in holding electricity to be a multiplier of faculty and insight, a means of dignifying mind and soul, unexampled since man first kindled fire and rejoiced?

And the advances due to electricity have significance still unexhausted. It was in 1800, on the threshold of the nineteenth century, that Volta devised the first battery—the crown of cups. In less than a hundred years the force then liberated has vitally interwoven itself with every art and science, with fruitage not to be imagined even by men of the stature of Watt, Lavoisier, or Humboldt. Compare this rapidity of conquest with the slow adaptation, through age after age, of fire to cooking, smelting, tempering. Yet it was partly because the use of fire had drawn out man's intelligence that he was ready so quickly to seize upon electricity and subdue it. The principle of permutation, illustrated in both victories, interprets not only the vast expansion of human empire won by a new weapon of prime power, it explains also why these accessions are brought under rule with ever-accelerated pace. Every new talent but clears the way for the talents newer still which are born from it.

And a fresh mode of mastery entails other consequences well worthy of remark. Suppose two contending armies face each other, fairly matched, except that one has the telegraph and the other has not. Which will win? In less striking fashion, but still decisively, must every factor of prime rank as it made its appearance have told in the battles of early man. Let us turn from discovery and invention to some consideration of the primitive discoverer and inventor, and try to recall the epoch when his inarticulate cries were becoming the rudiments of speech. Let us imagine him a hunter returning to his fellows from a solitary expedition. He tells that he saw a deer quench its thirst at a brookside, but found the animal too fleet for his arrow; how he heard in the distance a bear's fierce growl, and fortunately came upon a cave where he took refuge till the brute had passed. Such a faculty of communication as this, even in its beginnings, would give a tribe enjoying it an incalculable advantage over its unspeaking kin. Speech makes the distant as if present in space, makes the past as if present in time; it is the first and most signal step, therefore, by which man conquers both space and time. No elephant or dog, however intelligent, has means to tell what he saw here an hour ago, or what is to be found there beyond the range of the eye. Because in early times speech thus placed the experience of one man at the service of other men, the possessors of this matchless power could, if they chose, exert deadly rivalry against their mute next of kin, and either annihilate them, or banish them to sterile wilds, or degrade them to servitude. What is probable here is probable in other fields of struggle, and we have a hint as to why connecting links in the plexus of organic life are either very rare or wholly lacking. The introduction of a radically new weapon, or tool, would so redouble the strength of the creature able to grasp and wield it that its war on competitors would end so soon as to leave scarcely a relic on the field.

Speech led to another great achievement when it called to its aid the carved or painted symbol, the word-picture, and at last the alphabet. Then the recorder, the priest, the teacher, was no longer a mere speaker who had to be present when he told his story. Ages after his death, his annals, prophecies, parables, remained to be read, to echo his voice—and this perhaps on shores many leagues remote from the penman's home or grave. Knowledge could now be accumulated as never before, for every man could begin where the experience of his predecessors had left off. The culmination of this mighty art issues to-day in two wonderful instruments—the phonograph, which bids the spoken word record and repeat itself with all its characteristic tones; the camera, which instantly limns all the eye can see and more, which prints much that the tongue and the pen must leave unsaid. In a masterly discussion of the origin of languages and the antiquity of speaking man, Mr. Horatio Hale concludes that the acquirement of speech dates back but eight to ten thousand years. He credits speech and writing with the sudden and wonderful flowering of human genius which developed in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Phœnicia, Northern India, and China a high and varied civilization, whose memorials, in their works of art and literature, astonish us at this day, and in some respects defy imitation.[2]

To paint and to write implies a free and supple hand; gesture, upon which philologists are substantially agreed that primitive speech largely depended, requires the like freedom of hand and arm. Hence, before man could paint, or write, or even gesticulate, it was necessary that he should be erect. Man's assumption of the upright attitude marks one of the supreme stages of his progress. What have since become arms and hands, relieved from tasks of locomotion, were able to come into contact with things and know them more fully and exactly than ever before. The brain, informed and stimulated by its new harvest of impressions, imagined fresh feats of skill and directed them. The rude stone, lifted from the ground and used as a hammer, was gradually shaped as an axe, a scraper, a chisel, an arrowhead. There lay the germ of the ingenuity which blossoms to-day in the locomotive and steamship, in the observatory camera which multiplies the known universe a thousand times, which in the telephone catches the echo of storms sweeping the solar disk. As with the faculty of speech, so doubtless also when the hand began to handle and to tell the brain what it could feel and do. A gain so pregnant as dexterity, even in its feeble inception, would come as an irresistible wedge between the fighters and the workers who had it and their fellows who missed it by however little.

The permutative tendency which we are tracing has dug other gulfs than those which part man and anthropoid. Let us glance for a moment at creatures far beneath mankind in the scale of being. Birds are clearly derived from reptiles, but how far apart to-day are the bird and the reptile! It was the power of flight, with all that it involved in transforming every organ of the body, in revolutionizing habit, that stood at the parting of the ways. Even in its beginnings this power would promote escape from enemies, the procuring food in places otherwise inaccessible. In the process of natural selection here would be the faculty valuable beyond any other, and therefore first seized in its favoring variations. Flight beyond any other capacity would thus be developed and increased as one generation succeeded another, until at last the flier could disregard its unwinged enemies, seek food on steepest crag or farthest islet, and there lay its eggs and nurse its brood with none to make it afraid. As far as the fossil record has been pieced together, it amply warrants this view of the early history of the avian race.

Take passage now to a widely different realm and note the permutative effect wrought when insects supplant the winds at the business of fertilizing flowers. Nectar secreted near the pollen of a plant attracts flies and moths brushed by this pollen; they sail away to other flowers and tie a marriage knot with an effectiveness impossible to the aimless air. The consequence is that simply through such woolliness of vesture as enables them to catch dust on their clothes, insects of narrowest intelligence are unknowingly the painters, sculptors, and perfumers of unnumbered varieties of blossoms. And indefinitely prior to either flower or reptile was the day when the earth, a fiery cloud, had come to the critical point, in its gradual loss of heat, where atom stood almost within the attractive range of atom, when the latent combinability of matter we call chemical was ready to be born. Was not the releasing touch of cold a permutator of highest degree? It made every other possible, it forged the first link in the chain of forces, vital, mental, moral, in the life of earth and man.

What is here indicated in outline was suggested by the writer in the Popular Science Monthly for June, 1876. He has since gathered from men of mark in diverse walks of science data from which inferences such as those here set forth may be deduced in ample detail. These data he expects in due time to offer to the public, together with consideration of the facts which mask or qualify the permutative principle in evolution—a principle which accounts for the leaps of progress, human and general, for the accelerations of that progress, and for there being chapters missing in its story.

  1. Permutations of two elements, 1 and 2, are (1 x 2) two: 1,2; 2, 1; or a, b; b, a. Of three elements the permutations are (1x2x3) six: 1, 2, 3; 1, 3, 2; 2, 1, 3; 2, 3, 1; 3, 1, 2; 3, 2, 1; or a, b, c; a, c, b; b, a, c; b, c, a; c, a, b; c, b, a. Of four elements the permutations are (1x2x3x4) twenty-four; of five elements, one hundred and twenty, and so on. A new element or permutator multiplies by an increasing figure all the permutations it finds.
  2. Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Buffalo, 1886, p. 315.