Popular Science Monthly/Volume 9/August 1876/The Apotheosis of Steam

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IN a newspaper notice of a late book the critic complains that it is "an apotheosis of steam," an offense which he does not explain, but he conveys the inference that the book mentioned attributes to steam and to its age too much influence and importance in human life. He raises the question whether steam deserves apotheosis, and I answer affirmatively, undertaking to prove that, with its associate forces, it has conferred upon mankind benefits of vast, and, if considered absolutely, of unparalleled value; that the period since Watt's machine came into use deserves to rank as the leading era in history; and that it demands from us more study than either of the preceding ages of the press, iron, bronze, or stone, though they lasted much longer and have heretofore occupied much greater prominence in historical study.

Modern civilization belongs to the Euraryan—the Teutonic, Latin, Celtic, Slavonic and Greek—nationalities which migrated from Asia in the remote past to Europe, whence some of them passed over to other parts of the world, carrying their culture, their energy, and their high capacity for further progress, with them. The Asiatics, the Africans, and the aboriginal Americans and Polynesians, have for the last four centuries acted a part so subordinate in the great drama of human advancement, that they are like the shadows of a picture; they serve mainly as contrasts to bring out the brilliancy of the forms and colors in the light.

The age of steam—the period between 1770 and 1875—has trebled the Euraryans who have given us the enlightenment of the present, and are the hope of the future. Their number a hundred years ago was probably 120,000,000; though Gibbon, in the sixty-second note to the second chapter of his "Decline and Fall," following Voltaire, who was a respectable authority, said that Europe then had 107,000,000 inhabitants, including twenty-two in Germany, twenty in France, twelve in Russia, ten in Italy, eight in Spain and Portugal, eight in Great Britain and Ireland, seven in Scandinavia, as many more in Turkey, and four each in Hungary and the Netherlands. The facilities for getting information then were not so good as now, and, though Gibbon was very careful in his statements, yet he probably made a mistake in his figures. Kolb, in his "Hand-book of Comparative Statistics" (German, and not translated), tells us that France had 22,500,000 in 1770, Spain nine and one-third in 1768, Germany thirty in 1786, and Italy twenty in 1812; and Levi, in his "History of British Commerce," credits Great Britain and Ireland with ten in 1763. After excluding certain nationalities not of Aryan blood in Europe, and adding the British and Spanish colonists in America, we may estimate the total number of Euraryans in 1770 at 120,000,000. The present number is about 360,000,000, including three hundred in Europe, and forty-eight in North America. This great increase, far from being a necessary or natural result of the lapse of time, is entirely unexampled. The Roman Empire had about 120,000,000 inhabitants, and the same territory after a lapse of eighteen centuries had no more. Egypt 3,000 years ago, and Peru and Mexico before the Spanish conquest, had more inhabitants than now. As a general rule, population has been nearly stationary; century after century has passed, with little difference until we come within the magic influence of steam, and then suddenly the Euraryan race, acquiring the power to draw larger crops from the soil, to distribute them more evenly, thus preventing disease and famine, and to visit new and more profitable fields of industry, multiplies so as to keep pace with the increased supplies of food and with the demand for labor.

Education, like civilization, of which it is a large part, belongs mainly to the Euraryans. It is the misfortune of the Chinese and Japanese that more time is required to learn their hieroglyphical writing than to get a liberal education in a Teutonic or Latin tongue. The Arabs and Hindoos have alphabets, but they have no eminent schools, no rich literature, no great city in which their race has reached a leading place in culture. The possession of the alphabet, with the books, the schools, the wealth, and the centres of civilization, in the temperate zone, where man has the strongest stimulus and the most energy for the exercise of his physical and mental faculties, gives to Euraryans the mastery of the fortunes, and almost a monopoly of the interest of earth. Progress depends not so much on the number of those who come within its nominal domain, as of those who are under its full influence and appreciate its value; that is, the educated people. They have increased ninefold since 1770. In that year not one out of a hundred adults in Russia and Turkey, not ten in Catholic Europe, not thirty in Protestant Europe, could read. Now, about eighty-five out of a hundred in the Teutonic, and fifty in the Latin nations, can read, or nearly 200,000,000 in all. The gain in education is, however, much more than that indicated in the mere increase of those able to read. The quality of the learning has improved as much as its quantity. In the middle of the last century, there were few books worth reading in any modern language. A man was not accounted well educated unless he were familiar with Latin. So scanty were the literatures of French, English and German, that they were considered unworthy of the notice of scholars. The student had to read Greek and Latin to learn "the humanities." There was no science save dry astronomy and mathematics, little history, little philosophy, little poetry. The chemistry, geology, and physiology, which form the bulk of our positive knowledge, are products of the steam age; and, instead of being dry and remote from the business and associations of practical life, they come home to us every day, guarding our health, assisting our industry, and influencing our opinions. Ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Hindostan, and the prehistoric man in Europe, have been made known to us by late research, and even our histories of Greece and Rome have required rewriting, to adapt them to the advance of our knowledge and philosophy.

A large majority of our most instructive books are the product of the last hundred years. Of the works sold in the book-stores or loaned by the public libraries, at least ninety-five per cent, are new. Nearly all our prose romance, and most of our poetry, history, and miscellaneous literature, belong to the steam age in origin and spirit. We now write ten times as many books, and publish fifty times as many volumes annually, as they did in the last century. The United States turns out 2,000 and Great Britain 4,000 new books every year, and the other Euraryan nations probably bring the total figure up to 15,000; whereas, before the middle of the last century, the number was probably not more than 1,500. Besides the books, we have now 7,000 newspapers which are new, and in the aggregate furnish as much material for reading, and contribute nearly as much to education, as the books.

The commerce of the world has been revolutionized in the age of steam. Many obstacles which stood in the way of its development in 1770 have now been removed. National animosities, sectarian passions, popular ignorance, despotic governments, the division of one nationality into numerous independent states, and the established policies of conquest, balance of power, sectarian intolerance, and trade-restriction bred frequent wars, and destroyed confidence in the duration of any peace. Hostilities were waged with little regard for the property or persons of non-combatants; and plunder and devastation were among the common accompaniments of invasion, and were recognized as customary rights of the invaders. The uncertainty of enjoying accumulated wealth deprived the people of zeal for labor or economy. But now there has been a vast change for the better, and commerce and finance have made wonderful advances. International and national traffic have risen to proportions which far surpass the wildest visions of past ages.

In the middle of the last century a turnpike, covered with gravel or broken stone, was a rarity even in the neighborhood of the great capitals; and for every mile of such road, and for every stage running regularly to carry passengers then, there are now a thousand. Travelers were few, and usually went on horseback. Not a hundred years have elapsed since the owners of riding-horses petitioned the English Parliament to forbid the establishment of a stage-line which had lately been started, and was ruining their business. In 1763 one stage left London for Edinburgh each month, taking nearly two weeks to make the trip each way; and in 1810 only two hundred and twenty travelers entered Paris by stage in an average day. The increase has exceeded a thousand-fold. England did not commence building canals till 1760, and in the mean time not less than 6,000 miles have been built by the Euraryans, at a cost of not less than $500,000,000. The shipping of Christendom has risen from 1,500,000 to 15,000,000 tons, and a third of the increase is in steamers, which make three trips for one by a sailing-vessel. They not only carry three times as much freight per ton as the sailers, but they take many perishable articles which could not go by the slower navigation, and were therefore not produced, or were wasted. There has been a vast increase in the construction and in the number of freight-wagons for common roads; and the railroads, with an aggregate length of 140,000 miles, and a cost of $2,000,000,000, are new. The freight which cost thirty cents a ton from London to Manchester in 1825 now costs one cent. Counting the macadamized roads, the new and improved wagons, the canals, the river and ocean steamboats, the increase in the number, and the improvements in the size, pattern, rigging, and speed of sailing-vessels, and the railroads, there is no exaggeration in saying that the facilities for domestic and foreign commerce have increased one hundred-fold.

And then the gain in the materials for commerce has been immense. Steam-engines furnish a power estimated to be equal to that of 300,000,000 working-men, and the saving of labor by other machines is probably not less. The production of cloth and the manufacture of iron have been revolutionized, and the annual consumption of the most useful of metals has increased from 200,000 to 12,000,000 tons. The industrial arts generally have made so much progress, that no extensive branch of business is now conducted as it was in the middle of the last century. Our houses, our tools, our clothing, our food, our trades, and our professions, are different in many important points. The farmers have thrown aside the wooden plough, the sickle, and the flail, which were their chief implements in 1750. The wooden mouldboard was excellent as compared with the barbaric plough which had no mould-board, and did not throw a furrow to one side, but merely scratched the ground, making a ridge on each side of the plough-point. While oak was the material, the farmer usually hewed or chopped out his own board, and fastened it on his plough; but both the shape and the adjustment were bad, and the surface, from the nature of the material, would never "scour" well in the moist earth. I accord to Scotland, on what appears to be a preponderance of evidence, the credit of producing the first iron mould-board, though the claim is contested by the United States, where the invention was first generally appreciated, and perfected by various small improvements. The superiority of the iron plough in form, adjustment, and surface, made a vast saving in friction; the furrow was turned over more regularly; the weeds were killed more thoroughly; the pulverization was better; and the working capacity of the ploughman and the productive capacity of the soil were each nearly if not quite doubled; so that now, France, with a smaller number of men engaged in the business, yields three times as much wheat at an average harvest as it did about 1770. Since the farmers are the largest class of producers, and the basis of national prosperity, and since ploughing is the most important part of their labor, the invention of the iron mould-board deserves to be considered one of the greatest contributions to modern civilization, ranking next to the steam-engine and to movable type, in its influence on the general condition of mankind.

The sickle was superseded by the cradle, with which the farmer could cut four times as much, and that by the reaping-machine, with which a man can cut five times as much, as with the cradle. The scythe gave way to the mowing-machine, and the flail to the thrashing-machine. The steam-plough has not yet been introduced extensively, but it will doubtless make another revolution. The progress made in the drainage of land by pipes, in the drying of fruits and vegetables by hot air, and the canning of fruits and meats, all are important aids to agricultural industry. The breeds of farm-animals have been greatly improved. The Ayrshire, the Durham, the Jersey, and the Devon, the Cotswold, the Southdown and the Cheviot, the Chester and the Berkshire, the Clydesdale and the American trotter, have been either started, or for the first time introduced into extensive use, in the steam age.

The miner has adopted dynamite and other explosives stronger and safer to handle than the charcoal-powder, and can, at the same time, hold and strike the small drill, whereas the large drill needed for the weaker powder required one man to hold the drill while another was striking. Steam not only hoists the ore and pumps the water, but sometimes drills the rock. The method of stoping toward the shaft has been introduced. More important still is the general education of the superintendents in engineering and chemistry. The processes of separating gold and silver from the earthy and rocky matter which hold them in a state of nature are new in their principal features.

All the prominent mechanical occupations have felt the influences of our progressive time, and many have been added to the list. Nearly every labor-saving machine has called a new trade into existence. The builders of stationary engines, of locomotives and of railway-cars, the boiler-maker, the steam, the railway, and the gas engineers, the gas-fitter, and the manufacturer of chemicals, are a few out of many. Planing and moulding machines, and circular and band saws, wire ropes and iron bridges, "balloon" house-frames, fastened together with nails, and without the old style of mortices and tenons, and machines to make cut-nails and wood screws, have had much influence in mechanical business. If steel pens had not come into use as a substitute for quills, the supply of which would have been entirely inadequate to the scribbling demands of the present day, education might have felt a check. The steam-press, the turbine-wheel, the type-casting machine, lamp-chimneys which secure better light with less smoke, kerosene-lamps, cleanly stearine-candles instead of the dirty tallow, are all to be credited to the steam age.

The railroads and the steamboats have covered the land, the rivers, and the lakes of Europe and North America with the beneficent network of their routes, and have given a new life to commerce. The exports of Great Britain in 1770 amounted to $65,000,000, and in 1870 to $1,220,000,000. In the same period the measurement of the shipping owned in that country increased from 550,000 to 7,100,000 tons, and that of the shipping entered in a year from 890,000 to 18,000,000 tons. The amount insured rose from $850,000,000 to $6,800,000,000. The greater part of the increase in commerce since 1770 has occurred within the last fifteen years, and the annual gain now is greater than the total traffic in the middle of the last century, and tenfold greater than the traffic at any time before the discovery of America.

The advance in the other nations of Europe generally has not been so rapid as in England, yet it is remarkable. The exports of France rose from $400,000,000 in 1840, to $700,000,000 in 1869; those of Austria from $40,000,000 in 1842, to $160,000,000 in 1869; and those of Russia from $50,000,000 in 1851, to $125,000,000 in 1869. In the United States the progress has been more rapid than in England. The total aggregate value of the exports and imports (excluding the precious metals) of the fifteen leading commercial nations was $6,000,000,000 in 1860, and $9,500,000,000 in 1870. These figures are astounding, and nothing but figures can give us a correct idea of the overwhelming magnitude of the present, and the relative insignificance of the past. And if now commerce gains nine per cent, annually, whereas before the steam age it did not increase one per cent., shall we not exalt the age of steam, which has brought the improvement? It is to be observed that the forces which have caused the wondrous development, instead of having reached the culmination of their influence, are only beginning to get full swing, and that the new commerce has not yet had time to exert its power. Statesmen and people do not yet comprehend the vastness of the commercial interests, nor have the merchants and capitalists yet learned how to combine to prevent the legislative follies of past ages. Commerce is destined to be the great bond of peace between nations, and they will be compelled soon to organize a league to administer international justice, and to protect the vast interests involved in their trade. They must adopt new rules for their new circumstances. The policy which might have been beneficial in a national point of view in 1700 would be foolish now. "Commerce," as John Stuart Mill said, "first taught nations to see with good-will the wealth and prosperity of one another. Before, the patriot, unless sufficiently advanced in culture to feel the world his country, wished all countries weak and poor and ill-governed, but his own." Now, he understands that the greater their wealth and prosperity, the greater also will be that of his nation; in the same manner as the individual merchant or mechanic thrives better with rich than with poor neighbors and customers. But we are told that the spirit of our age is bad; it is too materialistic; it is hostile to æsthetical and spiritual influences; it exalts money and machinery. The meaning of this complaint is that its authors have not been properly educated, and they find that the world is not in sympathy with them. They measure it by their ignorance and prejudice, and conclude that it is wrong. In all ages such lamentations have been heard about the progress of the most beneficent changes. The discredit into which many of the old metaphysicians have fallen is chargeable in a great degree to our superior knowledge. We have discovered that their premises were false, and of course we care nothing for their conclusions. I assert that poetry, painting, sculpture, and architecture, never within an equal period produced so many great works as since 1770, but I have not here the space to argue that point.

I think the proof is sufficient that there has been an immense change in human life for the better since the middle of the last century—a change great enough to require the recognition of a new era in culture. The preponderant influence and characteristic of our time suggest that it should be called "The Age of Steam;" and this, like the universally-accepted stone, bronze, and iron ages, suggests that industry is the most important feature of culture. No other name has been offered, no other force can compete with it. The improvements in printing and in the manufacture of iron and cloth, great as they are, are yet dependent for much of their value on the steam which drives the press, the rolling-mill, and the loom, and transports their products to market. The electric telegraph is inferior to either of these three: Watt's invention remains master of the field. It has made a new era, which ranks with that of bronze, and the two surpass in importance all the others.

When savages learned to make bronze, their former weapons and tools of stone and bone were thrown away. The flint knife, which lost its brittle edge at the first cut into wood, was replaced by tough metal which could be sharpened anew every day, and would last for years. The clumsy obsidian spear-head, that flew to pieces at the first throw, was superseded by another of better shape and more durable material, fitted for the wear of centuries. The savage armed with flint weapons was no match for the man of bronze, and thus the latter could take the most fertile valleys and reduce the former to slavery. The possession of metallic hoes, spades, and sickles, was the beginning of systematic agriculture. The soil began to produce abundantly; the supply of food was larger and more constant; population became dense; buildings of cut stone were erected for temples, fortifications, and granaries; the accumulation of property became possible and reputable; nations were organized and armies drilled. All these changes were the necessary results of the discovery of the art of making bronze. Previously men were in the stone age, without durable houses, without national government, without cities, without any accumulation of property, division of labor, literature, or prospect of progress.

The iron and printing ages made revolutions in society, but they were far less important than those of bronze and steam. The bronze revolution was the greater, looked at from a relative standpoint, but, considered absolutely, it was small in comparison, and very slow in progress, with the influence of steam. The ancient Egyptians asserted that their monarchy had stood without material change for 10,000 years. There is much reason for believing that their religion and polity were about the same for at least 3,000 years, and for presuming that they must have been very slow in reaching that condition. The farther we look back into history, the longer we find the intervals between the permanent improvements of culture. The present age is resplendent not less for the magnitude of its inventions and discoveries than for the speed with which they have crowded upon one another's heels, and have been carried round the world. No previous time has approached ours in its achievements, and, if ever any force of culture deserved apotheosis, it is steam.