H.G. Wells > A Short History of the World > 57. The Development of Material Knowledge
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H.G. Wells (1866–1946).  A Short History of the World.  1922.

LVII.  The Development of Material Knowledge


THROUGHOUT the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the opening years of the nineteenth century, while these conflicts of the powers and princes were going on in Europe, and the patchwork of the treaty of Westphalia (1648) was changing kaleidoscopically into the patchwork of the treaty of Vienna (1815), and while the sailing ship was spreading European influence throughout the world, a steady growth of knowledge and a general clearing up of men’s ideas about the world in which they lived was in progress in the European and Europeanized world.   1
  It went on disconnected from political life, and producing throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries no striking immediate results in political life. Nor was it affecting popular thought very profoundly during this period. These reactions were to come later, and only in their full force in the latter half of the nineteenth century. It was a process that went on chiefly in a small world of prosperous and independent-spirited people. Without what the English call the “private gentleman,” the scientific process could not have begun in Greece, and could not have been renewed in Europe. The universities played a part but not a leading part in the philosophical and scientific thought of this period. Endowed learning is apt to be timid and conservative learning, lacking in initiative and resistent to innovation, unless it has the spur of contact with independent minds.   2
  We have already noted the formation of the Royal Society in 1662 and its work in realizing the dream of Bacon’s New Atlantis. Throughout the eighteenth century there was much clearing up of general ideas about matter and motion, much mathematical advance, a systematic development of the use of optical glass in microscope and telescope, a renewed energy in classificatory natural history, a great revival of anatomical science. The science of geology—foreshadowed by Aristotle and anticipated by Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519)—began its great task of interpreting the Record of the Rocks.   3
  The progress of physical science reacted upon metallurgy. Improved metallurgy, affording the possibility of a larger and bolder handling of masses of metal and other materials, reacted upon practical inventions. Machinery on a new scale and in a new abundance appeared to revolutionize industry.   4
  In 1804 Trevithick adapted the Watt engine to transport and made the first locomotive. In 1825 the first railway, between Stockton and Darlington, was opened, and Stephenson’s “Rocket,” with a thirteen-ton train, got up to a speed of forty-four miles per hour. From 1830 onward railways multiplied. By the middle of the century a network of railways had spread all over Europe.   5
  Here was a sudden change in what had long been a fixed condition of human life, the maximum rate of land transport. After the Russian disaster, Napoleon travelled from near Vilna to Paris in 312 hours. This was a journey of about 1,400 miles. He was travelling with every conceivable advantage, and he averaged under 5 miles an hour. An ordinary traveller could not have done this distance in twice the time. These were about the same maximum rates of travel as held good between Rome and Gaul in the first century A.D. Then suddenly came this tremendous change. The railways reduced this journey for any ordinary traveller to less than forty-eight hours. That is to say, they reduced the chief European distances to about a tenth of what they had been. They made it possible to carry out administrative work in areas ten times as great as any that had hitherto been workable under one administration. The full significance of that possibility in Europe still remains to be realized. Europe is still netted in boundaries drawn in the horse and road era. In America the effects were immediate. To the United States of America, sprawling westward, it meant the possibility of a continuous access to Washington, however far the frontier travelled across the continent. It meant unity, sustained on a scale that would otherwise have been impossible.   6
  The steamboat was, if anything, a little ahead of the steam engine in its earlier phases. There was a steamboat, the Charlotte Dundas, on the Firth of Clyde Canal in 1802, and in 1807 an American named Fulton had a steamer, the Clermont, with British-built engines, upon the Hudson River above New York. The first steamship to put to sea was also an American, the Phœnix, which went from New York (Hoboken) to Philadelphia. So, too, was the first ship using steam (she also had sails) to cross the Atlantic, the Savannah (1819). All these were paddle-wheel boats and paddlewheel boats are not adapted to work in heavy seas. The paddles smash too easily, and the boat is then disabled. The screw steamship followed rather slowly. Many difficulties had to be surmounted before the screw was a practicable thing. Not until the middle of the century did the tonnage of steamships upon the sea begin to overhaul that of sailing ships. After that the evolution in sea transport was rapid. For the first time men began to cross the seas and oceans with some certainty as to the date of their arrival. The transatlantic crossing, which had been an uncertain adventure of several weeks—which might stretch to months—was accelerated, until in 1910 it was brought down, in the case of the fastest boats, to under five days, with a practically notifiable hour of arrival.   7
  Concurrently with the development of steam transport upon land and sea a new and striking addition to the facilities of human intercourse arose out of the investigations of Volta, Galvani and Faraday into various electrical phenomena. The electric telegraph came into existence in 1835. The first underseas cable was laid in 1851 between France and England. In a few years the telegraph system had spread over the civilized world, and news which had hitherto travelled slowly from point to point became practically simultaneous throughout the earth.   8
  These things, the steam railway and the electric telegraph, were to the popular imagination of the middle nineteenth century the most striking and revolutionary of inventions, but they were only the most conspicuous and clumsy first fruits of a far more extensive process. Technical knowledge and skill were developing with an extraordinary rapidity, and to an extraordinary extent measured by the progress of any previous age. Far less conspicuous at first in everyday life, but finally far more important, was the extension of man’s power over various structural materials. Before the middle of the eighteenth century iron was reduced from its ores by means of wood charcoal, was handled in small pieces, and hammered and wrought into shape. It was material for a craftsman. Quality and treatment were enormously dependent upon the experience and sagacity of the individual iron-worker. The largest masses of iron that could be dealt with under those conditions amounted at most (in the sixteenth century) to two or three tons. (There was a very definite upward limit, therefore, to the size of cannon.) The blast-furnace rose in the eighteenth century and developed with the use of coke. Not before the eighteenth century do we find rolled sheet iron (1728) and rolled rods and bars (1783). Nasmyth’s steam hammer came as late as 1838.   9
  The ancient world, because of its metallurgical inferiority, could not use steam. The steam engine, even the primitive pumping engine, could not develop before sheet iron was available. The early engines seem to the modern eye very pitiful and clumsy bits of ironmongery, but they were the utmost that the metallurgical science of the time could do. As late as 1856 came the Bessemer process, and presently (1864) the open-hearth process, in which steel and every sort of iron could be melted, purified and cast in a manner and upon a scale hitherto unheard of. To-day in the electric furnace one may see tons of incandescent steel swirling about like boiling milk in a saucepan. Nothing in the previous practical advances of mankind is comparable in its consequences to the complete mastery over enormous masses of steel and iron and over their texture and quality which man has now achieved. The railways and early engines of all sorts were the mere first triumphs of the new metallurgical methods. Presently came ships of iron and steel, vast bridges, and a new way of building with steel upon a gigantic scale. Men realized too late that they had planned their railways with far too timid a gauge, that they could have organized their travelling with far more steadiness and comfort upon a much bigger scale.  10
  Before the nineteenth century there were no ships in the world much over 2,000 tons burthen; now there is nothing wonderful about a 50,000-ton liner. There are people who sneer at this kind of progress as being a progress in “mere size,” but that sort of sneering merely marks the intellectual limitations of those who indulge in it. The great ship or the steel-frame building is not, as they imagine, a magnified version of the small ship or building of the past; it is a thing different in kind, more lightly and strongly built, of finer and stronger materials; instead of being a thing of precedent and rule-of-thumb, it is a thing of subtle and intricate calculation. In the old house or ship, matter was dominant—the material and its needs had to be slavishly obeyed; in the new, matter had been captured, changed, coerced. Think of the coal and iron and sand dragged out of the banks and pits, wrenched, wrought, molten and cast, to be flung at last, a slender glittering pinnacle of steel and glass, six hundred feet above the crowded city!  11
  We have given these particulars of the advance in man’s knowledge of the metallurgy of steel and its results by way of illustration. A parallel story could be told of the metallurgy of copper and tin, and of a multitude of metals, nickel and aluminum to name but two, unknown before the nineteenth century dawned. It is in this great and growing mastery over substances, over different sorts of glass, over rocks and plasters and the like, over colours and textures, that the main triumphs of the mechanical revolution have thus far been achieved. Yet we are still in the stage of the first fruits in the matter. We have the power, but we have still to learn how to use our power. Many of the first employments of these gifts of science have been vulgar, tawdry, stupid or horrible. The artist and the adaptor have still hardly begun to work with the endless variety of substances now at their disposal.  12
  Parallel with this extension of mechanical possibilities the new science of electricity grew up. It was only in the eighties of the nineteenth century that this body of enquiry began to yield results to impress the vulgar mind. Then suddenly came electric light and electric traction, and the transmutation of forces, the possibility of sending power, that could be changed into mechanical motion or light or heat as one chose, along a copper wire, as water is sent along a pipe, began to come through to the ideas of ordinary peopleƒ.  13
  The British and French were at first the leading peoples in this great proliferation of knowledge; but presently the Germans, who had learnt humility under Napoleon, showed such zeal and pertinacity in scientific enquiry as to overhaul these leaders. British science was largely the creation of Englishmen and Scotchmen working outside the ordinary centres of erudition.  14
  The universities of Britain were at this time in a state of educational retrogression, largely given over to a pedantic conning of the Latin and Greek classics. French education, too, was dominated by the classical tradition of the Jesuit schools, and consequently it was not difficult for the Germans to organize a body of investigators, small indeed in relation to the possibilities of the case, but large in proportion to the little band of British and French inventors and experimentalists. And though this work of research and experiment was making Britain and France the most rich and powerful countries in the world, it was not making scientific and inventive men rich and powerful. There is a necessary unworldliness about a sincere scientific man; he is too preoccupied with his research to plan and scheme how to make money out of it. The economic exploitation of his discoveries falls very easily and naturally, therefore, into the hands of a more acquisitive type; and so we find that the crops of rich men which every fresh phase of scientific and technical progress has produced in Great Britain, though they have not displayed quite the same passionate desire to insult and kill the goose that laid the national golden eggs as the scholastic and clerical professions, have been quite content to let that profitable creature starve. Inventors and discoverers came by nature, they thought, for cleverer people to profit by.  15
  In this matter the Germans were a little wiser. The German “learned” did not display the same vehement hatred of the new learning. They permitted its development. The German business man and manufacturer again had not quite the same contempt for the man of science as had his British competitor. Knowledge, these Germans believed, might be a cultivated crop, responsive to fertilizers. They did concede, therefore, a certain amount of opportunity to the scientific mind; their public expenditure on scientific work was relatively greater, and this expenditure was abundantly rewarded. By the latter half of the nineteenth century the German scientific worker had made German a necessary language for every science student who wished to keep abreast with the latest work in his department, and in certain branches, and particularly in chemistry, Germany acquired a very great superiority over her western neighbours. The scientific effort of the sixties and seventies in Germany began to tell after the eighties, and the German gained steadily upon Britain and France in technical and industrial prosperity.  16
  A fresh phase in the history of invention opened when in the eighties a new type of engine came into use, an engine in which the expansive force of an explosive mixture replaced the expansive force of steam. The light, highly efficient engines that were thus made possible were applied to the automobile, and developed at last to reach such a pitch of lightness and efficiency as to render flight—long known to be possible—a practical achievement. A successful flying machine—but not a machine large enough to take up a human body—was made by Professor Langley of the Smithsonian Institute of Washington as early as 1897. By 1909 the aeroplane was available for human locomotion. There had seemed to be a pause in the increase of human speed with the perfection of railways and automobile road traction, but with the flying machine came fresh reductions in the effective distance between one point of the earth’s surface and another. In the eighteenth century the distance from London to Edinburgh was an eight days’ journey; in 1918 the British Civil Air Transport Commission reported that the journey from London to Melbourne, halfway round the earth, would probably in a few years’ time be accomplished in that same period of eight days.  17
  Too much stress must not be laid upon these striking reductions in the time distances of one place from another. They are merely one aspect of a much profounder and more momentous enlargement of human possibility. The science of agriculture and agricultural chemistry, for instance, made quite parallel advances during the nineteenth century. Men learnt so to fertilize the soil as to produce quadruple and quintuple the crops got from the same area in the seventeenth century. There was a still more extraordinary advance in medical science; the average duration of life rose, the daily efficiency increased, the waste of life through ill-health diminished.  18
  Now here altogether we have such a change in human life as to constitute a fresh phase of history. In a little more than a century this mechanical revolution has been brought about. In that time man made a stride in the material conditions of his life vaster than he had done during the whole long interval between the palæolithic stage and the age of cultivation, or between the days of Pepi in Egypt and those of George III. A new gigantic material framework for human affairs has come into existence. Clearly it demands great readjustments of our social, economical and political methods. But these readjustments have necessarily waited upon the development of the mechanical revolution, and they are still only in their opening stage to-day.  19



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