Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/May 1901/Progress and Tendency of Mechanical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century I

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 59 May 1901  (1901) 
Progress and Tendency of Mechanical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century I by Robert Henry Thurston




THE progress and tendency of mechanical engineering in the nineteenth century comprehends the progress and the tendency of almost all that has distinguished the nineteenth century from all the centuries of time, historic and prehistoric, that have preceded.

The progress of the human race includes advancement in all the languages, all the literatures, all the arts and all the sciences of all times. But the progress of past time in language is the evolution of the employment of the tongue in the conveyance of ideas, and it is the idea that is important, rather than the language. Progress in literature is the perfection of our methods of permanent preservation of ideas, and, again, it is the ideas, not the systems of preservation, that count. Progress in the sciences, in a proper acceptation of the term, is the progress of the race in knowledge of the laws of nature and the phenomena of nature, the progress of reduction of such exact knowledge to system, the construction of a code of natural law in all departments of science. Progress in the arts is advancement in the utilization of Nature's laws in the construction of a system of application of the materials and forces of nature to the enrichment and elevation of human life from its crudest and simplest forms to the highest and noblest phases of civilization. Progress in mechanical engineering is the evolution of the methods and machinery of production, transportation and utilization of the material forms of wealth. In all other directions, the progress of the world has been more or less steady, continuous and evolutionary from the beginning of the life of the race; in the sciences and the arts, it has been an evolution mainly of the later times, though having an origin prehistoric.

Progress in mechanical engineering, the production of permanent wealth in most part, could only come after language should have supplied a satisfactory vehicle for ideas; it could only begin after literature should be competent to furnish a means of storage of ideas and of knowledge in safe and accessible treasuries; it could only progress rapidly after science had accumulated sufficient store of knowledge of facts, of phenomena and of natural law to permit complete reliance upon that stock of substantial learning in the effort to develop the resources of nature for use; and such advances could only go on, unimpeded, after the nature of the great sources of power in the world should have been discovered and their availability for the purposes of the engineer recognized. Mechanical engineering, as we understand it, could only fairly start in its wonderful progress after the mechanic had found ways of utilizing natural forces and energies, and of making the tools with which to produce these prime motors, through the operation of which all the arts could be given application in the production of wealth, multiplying the power of the unaided hand by making it in the performance of work the guide of greater powers, rather than the tool itself. It was only when mighty powers could be thus developed and guided and directed that mighty tasks could be performed by so weak and insignificant an organism as man. Man as a prime mover is feeble and helpless before the great powers of nature; man as the master and guide of nature's powers is only less than omnipotent.

Mechanical engineering, to achieve its highest tasks, must have control of the grandest powers of nature and of all her energies; it must avail itself of prime movers transforming all actual and potential energies into available, transformable, useful work; it must be capable of making for itself tools and machines and apparatus, scientific and other, competent to direct those energies in definite and helpful ways to the performance of every useful task. Progress must wait for the power and power must be guided, divided, applied, through invention and the mechanic arts, to defined and precisely related productive operations. The natural order is: first, sources of available energies; second, prime movers applying while developing those energies; third, tools and machines devised and constructed to perform detailed tasks, exactly and perfectly. Invention is the first necessity, and necessity has been found to be the mother of invention; but invention is helpless without tools, and invention began with the first crude tools; the motors followed, and better tools followed motors, and better motors followed the invention of better tools. It was only a century ago, or a little more, when the inventor had reached a certain stage in the production of tools, that Watt could produce the steam engine of the nineteenth century, that a system of manufactures could come into being as the fruit of invention and that the Golden Age of the centuries could begin.

The Golden Age of the World, in all good senses, had its origin with the birth of the nineteenth century, and when mechanical engineering began uniting all the sciences and all the arts into one great system of adaptation of nature's powers to the work of the promotion of civilization. This fairly begun, the steam-engine, the gas-engine, the electric motors and generators, telegraphs and telephones, the steamboat, the locomotive, the automobile, textile manufactures, iron and steel making, shortened working hours for the people came and leisure for the enjoyment of the best that life affords, for thought, for contrivance, for self-communing, for self-exaltation in spiritual realms, became a birthright with mankind.

Mechanical engineering is the highest illustration of applied science; and applied science is the fruition of pure science. A fundamental basis for mechanical engineering could not be secured until physical science could find safe development, and this could only be when, the age of martyrdom past and perfect freedom of thought and research assured, later Brahes and Galileos could work in peace and Gilbert and Lavoisier and Faraday and Davy and their successors could devote themselves to their labors in all the fields of science without molestation. Invention could not freely develop the arts until after these master-minds had assured freedom to the more modest but none the less glorious workers in science and the arts, and to the mechanics and the inventors, and had secured that political and social freedom to work in any and all fields, irrespective of birth and caste and creed, which has only, even now, been witnessed in America. When absolute liberty of mind and body and freedom of choice of vocation had become possible without dictation by church or state or convention; when any man could pursue research and publish results, and could follow any art and could give vent to his highest and best aspirations and impulses—only then could steady progress become possible.

It was only in the nineteenth century that a Darwin could safely pronounce his judgment, that a Spencer could formulate a system of philosophy, that a Huxley could declare his conviction and a Haeckel could face the dogmatist and that warfare between science and dogma could no longer effectively repress honest work and sincere conviction. It was only in the century lately closed that the mechanic could take up any trade, without regard to the caste of his fathers, that progress became easy for the scientific Papin, the clerical Cartwright and the physicist Black, or that the instrument-maker Watt could proceed with the evolution of the heat-engines. Only in the nineteenth century came it to pass that the inventor, impelled into any line of study and experiment and labor, could unite with every other man in the same field to perfect the machinery of the world, and that invention could build up nations like Great Britain and the United States, and give wealth to Germany and to France. Only in the century just closed did it become possible to gain freedom in the competition of brain with brain for all men.

The political freedom of the United States and its admirable policy and its practice of encouraging invention by wise patent laws have now made our country the leader among nations in all fundamental modern industries.

At the opening of the twentieth century we have far better occasion than had at any time the great cynic, Carlyle, to exclaim:

"The Present Time, youngest-born of eternity, child and heir of all the Past Times, with their good and evil, and parent of all the Future, is ever a 'New Era' to the thinking man; and comes with new questions and significance; however commonplace it looks: to know it and what it bids us do is ever the sum of knowledge for all of us. This new Day, sent us out of Heaven, this also has its heavenly omens—amid the bustling trivialities and loud empty noises, its silent monitions; which, if we can not read and obey, it will not be well with us! . . . . But, in the days that are now passing over us, even fools are arrested to ask the meaning of them; few of the generations of men have seen more impressive days. . . . There must be a new world if there is to be any world at all! . . . One thing I do know," he adds, . . . "That the few Wise will have, by one method or another, to take command of the innumerable foolish; that they must be got to take it; and that, in fact, since Wisdom, which means also Valor and heroic Nobleness, is alone strong in this world, and one wise man is stronger than all unwise, they can be got."

How shall the wise men and the wisest men accomplish their tasks? I take it that Carlyle was also right when he prescribed the two great tasks lying before us:

"Huge-looming through the dim tumult of the always incommensurable Present Time, outlines of two tasks disclose themselves: the grand Industrial of conquering some half or more of this Terraqueous Planet, for the use of man; then, secondly, the grand constitutional task of sharing, in some pacific, endurable manner, the fruit of said conquest and showing all people how it might be done."

"Moreover," he goes on, "there are spiritual budding-times, and then also there are physical appointed to Nations.

"Thus, in the middle of that poor calumniated Eighteenth Century, see once more! Long Winter again past, the dead-seeming tree proves to be living, to have been always living, after motionless times, every bough shoots forth, on the sudden, very strangely—it now turns out that this favored England was not only to have had her Shakespeares, Bacons, Sydneys, but to have had her Watts, Arkwrights, Brindleys! We honor greatness in all kinds. . . . Prospero can send his Fire-demons panting across all oceans; shooting with the speed of meteors, on cunning highways, from end to end of all kingdoms; and make Iron his missionary, preaching its evangel to the brute Primeval Powers, which listen and obey. . . . Advancing always, through all centuries, in the middle of the eighteenth they arrived. The Saxon kindred burst forth into cotton-spinning, cloth-dropping, iron-forging, steam-engining, railwaying, commercing and careering towards all the winds of Heaven."

Carlyle saw more clearly than perhaps any other man of his time that, as others have since said, the world owes absolutely nothing, in its conquest of the forces and powers of nature, to the kings and princes or to the aristocracy of the worlds, past or present; they, with their battles and contentions and their subordination to their own insignificant affairs of every element of real progress, have been the great impediments to progress. The world owes all rather to the inventor, to the mechanic, to the man of science and the man of mind. All progress has been effected irrespective of, if not in spite of, the acts and famous deeds of kings and warriors, and through the arts of times of peace, or through revolutions which have been effective protests against the infringement of liberty and the restriction of the worker. Science, applied science, invention and the industrial army have done the work.

With the opening of the twentieth century we are indeed arrived at a Day of Great Things, the fruition of all those forces and movements and evolutions which have been the characteristic features of the history of the nineteenth century. All great works are performed on a mighty scale, and the advances of the industrial army are now made through wide-spread and far-reaching movements of army corps, instead of, as but two or three generations ago, in a thin and straggling line of individual skirmishers. All the world is falling into line, and the whole world-wide army is moving in concert if not under a single generalship. In the industries, the captains of industry, once commanding squads and companies, now are become majors with their battalions, colonels with their regiments, generals with their brigades, their army corps, with mighty armies overspreading all the fields of production of a whole country, even of many countries. Where the single worker labored hour by hour through the long day, from sun to sun,' in the days of our grandparents, companies of workers now cooperate, by subdivided and wonderfully trained tactile talent, in a single multiplex task; the squad of workers in the little factory or mill has grown into an organized body numbering regiments. A whole industry is organized and supplies an enormously expanding market with continually improving product, at steadily declining costs and prices, while, at the same time, giving its armies of workmen and workwomen steadier work, at better wages, under more reasonable and comfortable conditions, day by day and year by year. The higher the wages paid and the shorter the working hours, the less the cost and the lower the price of the product, the greater is the purchasing power of the day's work and of the dollar paid the worker. This is the nineteenth century statement of the Law of Supply and Demand.[2]

Goethe, poet, man of science and seer, prophesied that the nineteenth century would solve the problems of organization of the industries and the great social and economic problems of an industrial epoch. Carlyle saw the same problems in progress of solution, and his disquisition on the organization of labor as the problem of the coming days shows that great men here thought alike. Hitze defines the standing problem of our time, the problem of the nineteenth century, particularly—already partly, yet not wholly, solved—to be that of finding a social organization corresponding to the modern conditions of production; Just as the social organization of the Middle Ages was adapted to the simple industrial conditions of that time.[3] Henry Dyer's 'Evolution of Industry'[4] traces this process of solution of these problems, so far as solved to date, in a most interesting way. His conclusion, that the mechanical development of the past century is a necessary element of the evolution of society, as well as of the industries, is as sound as is his deduction that the problems of the twentieth century should be solved in such manner as to insure a final evolution of an ideal, discreet, wise, prudent, pleasant and righteous life, which shall conform to the ideals of the scholar, the gentleman, the seer and the poet. On the organization of the mechanical industries largely depends the future of the world, and in this evolution of a finer and better life, through industrial and social evolution, the influence of one such man as Dolge, at Little Falls, N. Y., and of one such firm as the famous Patterson's at Dayton, Ohio, tells more powerfully than all polemic discussion.

Thus the organization of the workshop and the humanizing of the workman, as Ashbee denominates it, may be expected to proceed together.[5]

The noble view of the Bishop of Durham, as expressed a few years ago, may well be taken as the enunciation of the problem and the purpose of the coming centuries:[6]

"Manufactures, trade, commerce, agriculture, if once the thought of personal gain can be subordinated to the thought of public service, offer scope for the most chivalrous and enterprising and courageous. It can only be through some misapprehension that it seems nobler to lead a regiment to the battlefield than to inspire the workers in a factory with the enthusiasm of labor."

He anticipates, nevertheless, that the time is coming, surely if slowly, but possibly quickly, when the Great Industry will be "made to contribute to the material and moral elevation of all who are engaged in it, not as separate or conflicting units, but as parts of the social organism."

In his remarkable little book, Our Country,' Dr. Strong, fifteen years before its close, affirmed that the later years of the nineteenth century constitute a 'focal point' in history, and are second only in importance to "that which always must remain first, viz., the birth of Christ." He goes on to say in his introduction:

"Many are not aware that we live in extraordinary times. Few suppose that these years of peaceful prosperity, in which we are quietly developing a continent, are the pivot on which is turning the nation's future. And fewer still imagine that the destinies of mankind, for centuries to come, can be seriously affected, much less determined, by the men of this generation in the United States."

The nineteenth century has been the first distinctively machine-using period. Until heat-motors could be found, it was impracticable to employ machinery in any very great extent in the performance of the work of the world. Until entire freedom of the worker could be assured, enabling him to devise and to find means of constructing machinery, inventions could not find general use. Until the machines for machine-making could be had, the general use of machinery could not be secured, simply because the finer classes of machinery could not be accurately and satisfactorily made. Until the modern system of manufacturing and of working to gauge, and of interchangeable parts, could be adopted, the production of an industrial system for mechanical production was not practicable. Thus all kinds of mechanisms and every department of invention waited upon every other until, nearing the beginning of the nineteenth century, the long-delayed conjunction was attained, the beginning of the machine-using age introduced a new era, and the world took a sudden leap forward; thenceforward advancing with a continuous acceleration. Then came a machine-using world. Then one man became equal, in productive power, to two or five, or sometimes to ten, or even to a hundred, lacking the aid of the machine. For the first time in the history of mankind, a real, permanent, rapid and rapidly increasing progress began. One man then became able to do the work of four of his predecessors in making agricultural machinery, and he made it incomparably better; one man could do the work of fifty in making gun-stocks, after the Blanchard lathe for turning irregular forms had been adapted to the task of aiding him. One man does the work of six in boot and shoe making; in some departments of textile manufacture one man with his machinery does the work of a hundred of earlier generations. In fact, the earlier generations from prehistoric days have no record of any very important progress. Each man, with his modern newspaper-printing press, taking its paper from its miles of rolls, printing, cutting into sheets, pasting together, folding and piling ready for the carrier, does the work that five hundred men would have been employed to do a century earlier, and then it would have been a work very badly done, as gauged by our standards. Mr. Wright reckons that the machinery of the United States gives the power of doing work that, without it, would require the labor of a hundred millions of workers; thus multiplying the average work of the average individual worker by about six.[7] In a very large proportion of the later developments, especially in the application of steam-power, the task of the machine could not be performed at all; as, for example, the haulage of the railway train at the rate of a mile a minute or more, or the driving of a transoceanic liner across three thousand miles of stormy seas at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles an hour. A large fleet would be required to carry the labor and provisions for a single craft, equivalent in total power, driven by animal force.

It has been the use of machinery that has permitted the people of our country to use twenty pounds of cotton per capita where they formerly used but five; to increase their consumption of iron and steel from a few pounds to four hundred per capita, and the consumption of steel from an insignificant amount up to two hundred and fifty pounds and over. This use of machinery and universal extension of mechanical engineering has even permitted the doubling of our population in the last generation and the increase in the number of people employed in productive vocations one hundred and seventy-five per cent., according to Mr. Wright's statistics. One-sixteenth of the whole population of the country is supported by labor in railway transportation, and the once minute proportion engaged in coach and other transportation by means of horses has been multiplied many times over; yet these people were the most vigorous and powerful of all opponents of this advance.

The sewing machine, giving the power of multiplying many times the productivity of the needle, instead of displacing the sewing girl, as once anticipated by many ignorant persons, proves to be not properly a labor-saving machine, but a machine assisting labor and multiplying not only the efficiency of the worker, but also many times increasing the quantity of work to be done and the numbers needed for the work, as occurs in all such cases. In a thousand instances the invention of a machine or the introduction of a new method in some department of mechanical engineering has brought into use an entirely new form of industry and made effective and productive the highest powers of thousands of people who otherwise would probably be compelled to drudge on in old ways and to content themselves with old rates of compensation. The reduction of costs of product and the increase in the wages of labor are the two most striking results of the revolution of the century; while the accession of value conferred upon material is sometimes quite as impressive, if not actually as important—as when the often recounted fact is noted of the increase of the value of iron from one dollar in the ore to five or six in the shape of iron bar, to $10 in any one of many finished machine-made forms, to $200 and upward in fine cutlery, to $5,000 and $10,000 in needles, to $200,000 and more in common watch-springs, and to perhaps half a million dollars in the shape of hair-springs, the most refined condition of the metal yet attained, or even up to $2,500,000, according to Mr. Woods, in the form of pallet-arbors.

The earlier days of the factory system, while an improvement upon what had preceded, were not particularly promising, as viewed from this latter-day standpoint. The manners and morals of the time were necessarily imported into the factory, and, while the working men and women and children soon gained a higher plane of comfort, that level would seem to us an exceedingly small advance upon the conditions of the Middle Ages. The hours were long, the wages low, the social conditions in all respects still unsatisfactory. Women and children were flogged for actual or imputed idleness, for incompetence, or even for lack of endurance and of strength. But the output soon filled the markets of a then poor and moneyless people, and wages and prices began to readjust themselves, as always, to the new commercial conditions, and the end of the century has found the operatives organized and powerful, knowing and compelling fair treatment, sometimes even tyrannizing over the employer, indeed, but usually simply securing by force what is fairly theirs and can not be otherwise obtained. "Wages have risen and prices fallen, until the day's "work earns several times as much as a century ago. Moral tone has improved as social conditions have thus been improved, and comfortable houses, plenty of good food and many of the luxuries of the beginning of the century are taken as ordinary comforts by the operatives of to-day. Then the wealth of the country was $320 per capita, to-day $1,350; then it aggregated seven and a half millions, to-day its total is about a hundred billions, increasing thirteen times, while the per capita account has risen to four times its initial figure. In a half-century these workers have increased their per capita account as depositors in the savings banks from about $175 to about $400; the total deposits growing from something over forty millions to about twenty-five hundred millions. The factory system is also the source of all labor legislation, and this, on the whole, splendidly beneficent code is thus due to the perfection of the methods of mechanical engineering. Society is advantaged from top to bottom and in every class, most of all in the humblest.

While it is true, as I have sometimes asserted, that "great movements, whether of mind or matter, of nations or of plants, of civilization or of comets, have definable rate and path," and while it is the fact that, as I have put it, 'Nature turns no sharp corners' in such mighty fluxes of energies, it is nevertheless true that some of her movements have paths of considerable deviation from the right line, and some of the motions illustrated are occasionally almost as tremendous accelerations as is the irruption of the volcano after its long period of preliminary development and storage of energy. The process of evolution is continuous; but its action involves every variety of acceleration and visible change, even though the evolution is itself a steady operation. We see only portions of its action and lose sight of its continuity and its steadiness. So it has happened that the nineteenth century has illustrated such an apparent, though not real, exception to the law. The forces of civilization had been cumulative; the resultant forces gathering through the earlier ages, partly stored and latent, but none the less potential, and partly as the actual and kinetic energies of phenomena of visible evolution. All energies seem to have become kinetic and visible in their aggregate results in this Victorian Era. The outcome has been described as a 'tidal wave' of upward and onward movement on the sea of universal progress, a climax of an evolution of which the earlier periods have been quiet and silent and simply those of preparation. It has been like the action of the seas beating upon a yielding shore. Slowly and steadily through the ages it cuts farther and farther into the obstruction, unobserved and unrealized as a great natural movement, until, at last, the dike is cut through and the ocean rushes in and overflows the land. This flood, beneficent as the other might be destructive, has had a somewhat similar history. The nineteenth century is the period of uprush and inrush of the flood of efficiently applied human intellect, making effective al those powers which have been till now frittered away, the magnificent potentialities of which have never been before realized.

This volcanic development of previously latent, but gathering and cumulative, energy has been effective in every department of human activity, but most of all, perhaps, in the field of invention, of the mechanic arts, of what we have come to-day to designate 'mechanical engineering.' The acceleration has been one beside which that of the falling stone or a dropping shot or the meteor precipitated into the field of attraction of our globe seems insignificant in resultant effects. In the year 1800 we had not a locomotive or a railroad for public service in the world. To-day the United States alone, with half the mileage of the world, possess 200,000 miles, nearly, of rail and about 40,000 locomotives. Then we had no telegraph; to-day its wires span the continents and carry messages along the bed of every ocean, binding the continents as with ties of steel. Over three millions of miles of wire transmit three hundred to four hundred millions of messages annually, and nations are brought within speaking distance and bound heart to heart. The events of the antipodes are signalled to us, hour by hour, as they occur, and we read at the breakfast table of battles, coronations, deaths and births of individuals and of nations, of all the great phenomena of a world, from Atlantic to Pacific and to Atlantic again, and almost from pole to pole.

(To be concluded.)

  1. An address delivered before the Washington Academy of Sciences, Columbian University, February 19, 1901.
  2. The Modern Version of the Law of Supply and Demand.—R. H. T.—Science, 1898.
  3. 'Die Quintessenz der Socialen Fragen.'
  4. 'The Evolution of Industry'-. By Henry Dyer, C.E., M.A., D.Sc, New York and London, Macmillan & Co., 1895.
  5. 'Workshop Reconstruction and Citizenship.'
  6. Economic Review, October, 1894.
  7. 'Industrial History of the United States'; Chautauqua-Century Press, 1895.