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The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century

Edward W. Byrn

Rita Head's Group

The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century
by Edward W. ByrnCHAPTER I.
THE PERSPECTIVE VIEW.Standing on the threshold of the Twentieth Century, and looking back a
hundred years, the Nineteenth Century presents in the field of invention
a magnificent museum of thoughts crystallized and made immortal, not as
passive gems of nature, but as potent, active, useful agencies of man.
The philosophical mind is ever accustomed to regard all stages of growth
as proceeding by slow and uniform processes of evolution, but in the
field of invention the Nineteenth Century has been unique. It has been
something more than a merely normal growth or natural development. It
has been a gigantic tidal wave of human ingenuity and resource, so
stupendous in its magnitude, so complex in its diversity, so profound in
its thought, so fruitful in its wealth, so beneficent in its results,
that the mind is strained and embarrassed in its effort to expand to a
full appreciation of it. Indeed, the period seems a grand climax of
discovery, rather than an increment of growth. It has been a splendid,
brilliant campaign of brains and energy, rising to the highest
achievement amid the most fertile resources, and conducted by the
strongest and best equipment of modern thought and modern strength.The great works of the ancients are in the main mere monuments of the
patient manual labor of myriads of workers, and can only rank with the
buildings of the diatom and coral insect. Not so with modern
achievement. The last century has been peculiarly an age of ideas and
conservation of energy, materialized in practical embodiment as
labor-saving inventions, often the product of a single mind, and
partaking of the sacred quality of creation.The old word of creation is, that God breathed into the clay the breath
of life. In the new world of invention mind has breathed into matter,
and a new and expanding creation unfolds itself. The speculative
philosophy of the past is but a too empty consolation for short-lived,
busy man, and, seeing with the eye of science the possibilities of
matter, he has touched it with the divine breath of thought and made a
new world.When the Nineteenth Century registered its advent in history, the world
of invention was a babe still in its swaddling clothes, but, with a
consciousness of coming power, was beginning to stretch its strong
young arms into the tremendous energy of its life. James Watt had
invented the steam engine. Eli Whitney had given us the cotton gin. John
Gutenberg had made his printing type. Franklin had set up his press.The telescope had suggested the possibilities of ethereal space, the compass
was already the mariner's best friend, and gunpowder had given proof of
its deadly agency, but inventive genius was still groping by the light
of a tallow candle. Even up to the beginning of this century so strong a
hold had superstition on the human mind, that inventions were almost
synonymous with the black arts, and the struggling genius had not only
to contend with the natural laws and the thousand and one expected
difficulties that hedge the path of the inventor, but had also to
overcome the far greater obstacles of ignorant fear and bigoted
prejudice.A labor-saving machine was looked upon askance as the enemy
of the working man, and many an earnest inventor, after years of arduous
thought and painstaking labor, saw his cherished model broken up and his
hopes forever blasted by the animosity of his fellow men. But with the
Nineteenth Century a new era has dawned. The legitimate results of
inventions have been realized in larger incomes, shorter hours of labor,
and lives so much richer in health, comfort, happiness, and usefulness,
that to-day the inventor is a benefactor whom the world delights to
honor.So crowded is the busy life of modern civilization with the
evidences of his work, that it is impossible to open one's eyes without
seeing it on every hand, woven into the very fabric of daily existence.
It is easy to lose sight of the wonderful when once familiar with it,
and we usually fail to give the full measure of positive appreciation to
the great things of this great age. They burst upon our vision at first
like flashing meteors; we marvel at them for a little while, and then we
accept them as facts, which soon become so commonplace and so fused into
the common life as to be only noticed by their omission.To appreciate them let us briefly contrast the conditions of to-day with
those of a hundred years ago. This is no easy task, for the comparison
not only involves the experiences of two generations, but it is like the
juxtaposition of a star with the noonday sun, whose superior brilliancy
obliterates the lesser light. But reverse the wheels of progress, and
let us make a quick run of one hundred years into the past, and what are
our experiences? Before we get to our destination we find the wheels
themselves beginning to thump and jolt, and the passage becomes more
difficult, more uncomfortable, and so much slower.We are no longer gliding along in a luxurious palace car behind a magnificent locomotive,
traveling on steel rails, at sixty miles an hour, but we find ourselves
nearing the beginning of the Nineteenth Century in a rickety, rumbling,
dusty stage-coach. Pause! and consider the change for a moment in some
of its broader aspects. First, let us examine the present more closely,
for the average busy man, never looking behind him for comparisons, does
not fully appreciate or estimate at its real value the age in which he
lives.There are to-day (statistics of 1898), 445,064 miles of railway
tracks in the world. This would build seventeen different railway
tracks, of two rails each, around the entire world, or would girdle
mother earth with thirty-four belts of steel. If extended in straight
lines, it would build a track of two rails to the moon, and more than a
hundred thousand miles beyond it. The United States has nearly half of the entire mileage of the world, and gets along with 36,746 locomotives, nearly as many passenger coaches, and more than a million and a quarter
of freight cars, which latter, if coupled together, would make nearly
three continuous trains reaching across the American continent from the
Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. The movement of passenger trains is
equivalent to dispatching thirty-seven trains per day around the world,
and the freight train movement is in like manner equal to dispatching
fifty-three trains a day around the world. Add to this the railway
business controlled by other countries, and one gets some idea of how
far the stage-coach has been left behind.To-day we eat supper in one city, and breakfast in another so many hundreds of miles east or west as
to be compelled to set our watches to the new meridian of longitude in
order to keep our engagement. But railroads and steam-cars constitute
only one of the stirring elements of modern civilization. As we make the
backward run of one hundred years we have passed by many milestones of
progress. Let us see if we can count some of them as they disappear
behind us. We quickly lose the telephone, phonograph and graphophone. We
no longer see the cable-cars or electric railways. The electric lights
have gone out. The telegraph disappears. The sewing machine, reaper, and
thresher have passed away, and so also have all india-rubber goods. We
no longer see any photographs, photo-engravings, photolithographs, or
snap-shot cameras. The wonderful octuple web perfecting printing press;
printing, pasting, cutting, folding, and counting newspapers at the rate
of 96,000 per hour, or 1,600 per minute, shrinks at the beginning of the
century into an insignificant prototype.We lose all planing and wood-working machinery, and with it the endless variety of sashes,
doors, blinds, and furniture in unlimited variety. There are no
gas-engines, no passenger elevators, no asphalt pavement, no steam fire
engine, no triple-expansion steam engine, no Giffard injector, no
celluloid articles, no barbed wire fences, no time-locks for safes, no
self-binding harvesters, no oil nor gas wells, no ice machines nor cold
storage. We lose air engines, stem-winding watches, cash-registers and
cash-carriers, the great suspension bridges, and tunnels, the Suez
Canal, iron frame buildings, monitors and heavy ironclads, revolvers,
torpedoes, magazine guns and Gatling guns, linotype machines, all
practical typewriters, all pasteurizing, knowledge of microbes or
disease germs, and sanitary plumbing, water-gas, soda water fountains,
air brakes, coal-tar dyes and medicines, nitro-glycerine, dynamite and
guncotton, dynamo electric machines, aluminum ware, electric
locomotives, Bessemer steel with its wonderful developments, ocean
cables, enameled iron ware, Welsbach gas burners, electric storage
batteries, the cigarette machine, hydraulic dredges, the roller mills,
middlings purifiers and patent-process flour, tin can machines, car
couplings, compressed air drills, sleeping cars, the dynamite gun, the
McKay shoe machine, the circular knitting machine, the Jacquard loom,
wood pulp for paper, fire alarms, the use of anæsthetics in surgery,
oleomargarine, street sweepers, Artesian wells, friction matches, steam
hammers, electro-plating, nail machines, false teeth, artificial limbs
and eyes, the spectroscope, the Kinetoscope or moving pictures,
acetylene gas, X-ray apparatus, horseless carriages, and--but, enough!
the reader exclaims, and indeed it is not pleasant to contemplate the
loss.The negative conditions of that period extend into such an
appalling void that we stop short, shrinking from the thought of what it
would mean to modern civilization to eliminate from its life these
potent factors of its existence.