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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Science and Technology

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The progress in practical science and invention, in this country and the civilized world, has been so amazingly rapid during the present century, that the merest hint of a few of the most important elements of that progress can alone be given. The fertility of the human intellect, in devising quicker and more exact methods of doing those things which contribute to the wealth and the pleasure of man, has accomplished results so vast and so varied since the Declaration of Independence, that the mind cannot survey the smallest portion of this field without bewilderment and wonder. If we should visit the Patent Office at Washington, and give ourselves up to a scrutiny of its records, its tabulated results, and its long rows of cases of models, we should in time gain some idea of the extent to which American minds have carried the effort of invention.

Yet the Patent Office, while it exhibits the results of American invention, fails to show anything like the total amount of useful discovery which has been achieved on this continent since the foundation of the government. There are those who discover and invent, and who do not patent. There are discoveries which cannot be circumscribed by the filling-out of blank forms, and an official restriction on their use. This is emphatically the case with discoveries in the exact sciences, which, while they have added immeasurably to the knowledge of mankind, have also attained results the most useful and practical.

Illustrations of this truth may be found in the progress made by such sciences as astronomy and meteorology. No one can doubt the value of the result which accrues to human lore from a more accurate knowledge of astronomy, of the mutual influences of the solar system, and the physical character of its members. Nor can we deny that the rapid strides which have been made within thirty years in the science of meteorology are of the most immediate benefit to the material interests of men. The simple statement that the predictions of "Old Probabilities" as to the weather prove, in a large majority of instances, to be justified by the event,--founded as they are, not upon mere guesswork, but upon ascertained meteorological laws and a proved uniformity in the direction of storms,--is enough to show the importance of the recent discoveries in this field. One has only to reflect upon the changes in the course of little and of great events wrought by the weather, to be convinced of their large and permanent value.

We can look in no direction, however, without at once in some degree appreciating, and being astonished at, the metamorphosis which has been effected by the activity of scientific invention and discovery of the most palpably practical kind. No practical profession, trade, or industry can be named in which the improvements in machinery and methods have not been such, within the century, as to alter most of its conditions, and very greatly to multiply its efficiency and productiveness. These improvements have descended, too, from general systems to the minutest details. Cloth fabrics are not only manufactured on a very different scale and extent, but every little appliance of the machinery has been made better, and does its appointed work faster and with greater precision.

If one were asked what two inventions made within the century have wrought the greatest changes, the reply would be prompt that they are locomotion by steam and communication by electricity. The steam-engine and the steamship have made it possible to travel around the world, if not in the eighty days required of Jules Verne's hero, at least in a hundred; while the telegraph enables us to talk with our friends at the antipodes--if such we have--within a week. What share America has had in achieving these mighty agencies is signified by the names of Fulton and Morse. Nor have other means of locomotion and communication been neglected. The horse-car has to a large extent taken the place of the omnibus and of the lumbering stage-coach; while vertical travelling, by means of the elevator, has become easy and luxurious in our day. In the making of carriages of every kind, the progress becomes very apparent when we compare the light and elegant vehicles which fill our fashionable avenues on a pleasant day, with the coaches in which Washington and Lafayette deigned to ride on state occasions.

In the great industries, invention has supplied the means of changing the rude ore or the raw material into every manifold form of use and ornament, in an increased production which would have filled the men of '76 with amazement. Machinery has come to do a vast amount of work which manual labor used to do; yet, by a happy compensation in the economic condition of things, human labor, far from being left in the lurch by mechanical introduction and ever increasing efficiency, is in greater demand than before. In the melting and puddling of iron, in its casting, forging, and rolling, and especially in its turning and planing, the inventions have been, perhaps, more striking than in any other operations upon metals; and the importance of the improvements thus effected in the manufacture of iron may be appreciated when we consider to how many more precious uses iron is put than any other metal. The advances made in the working of wood, and in that noble engineering science which employs itself in the construction of canals, dikes, and bridges, are not less notable.

To even mention the devices by which the manufacture of cotton and woollen fabrics, of shoes, of silks, and very many other articles, has been brought from rude processes to the rapid production seen to-day at our great industrial centres, would require a volume. To America is due the sewing-machine, which in the factory and in the household has given a manifold value to labor, has cheapened time, and is assuredly one of the chief triumphs of human ingenuity. We have done our part, too, in devising deadly weapons for contending armies. The revolver, invented by Samuel Colt, made a man armed with it six times as formidable as he was before; and the breech-loader, first attempted by John Hall of Yarmouth, Massachusetts, more than seventy years ago, was generally adopted in Europe. It is said that the greater number of the military arms made in the United States for Europe are on the breech-loading system. The invention of what is called the principle of "assembling," which consists in making the various parts of a machine "in distinct pieces of fixed shape and dimensions, so that the corresponding parts are interchangeable," has brought about a revolution in the manufacture of other articles besides fire-arms. It is applied also to watches, sewing-machines, knitting-machines, and even to agricultural implements and the building of locomotive engines.

The kitchen, the farm, and the sitting-room have been invaded by labor-saving appliances so numerous and so deft as to make each of these domestic departments a sort of factory in itself. The spinning-wheel has been abandoned for the sewing and the knitting machine, and the hand-plough for the steam-plough, and the scythe for the mowing-machine, and the rude kitchen knife and spoon for an endless variety of contrivances, from the apple-parer, the egg-beater, and the bean-shelters, to the lemon-squeezers, knife-sharpeners, and coffee-mills.

It is equally vain to attempt the enumeration of the improvements in the security of movable property, the rapidly changing devices for more effective fire-alarms, the revolution in the system of fire prevention with its steam-engine and its fire-alarm telegraph, the growing efficiency of the science of aerostation, the invention of scales for weighing heavy bodies, the processes for refining the precious metals, the achieved idea of making ice by machinery, the great advance effected in the making of glass, and the vast changes which have been wrought in many respects by the perfection of india-rubber as an article of common use.

Nor must we forget to hint at the discoveries which have given new effect to surgical skill--the discovery of anaesthetics, the perfection of artificial limbs, the repair of the body, and the valuable method of lithotrity; while even the match need not be disdained as one of the chief inventions of the century. Paper, too, and engraving, and printing (with all its complications of stereotyping, electrotyping, and helio typing), photography (with its constant improvements), can only be mentioned to open the mind to a wide vista of marvellous triumphs. We have but to glance along the stalls of a modern book-store, to appreciate that the arts of printing and engraving have made a more rapid progress during the past hundred years than during all the previous centuries since the invention of type; while it may fairly be said that the United States can at last boast that not only is her literature worthy to be compared with that of England, but that it is as well printed, illustrated, and bound, and is presented on home-made paper as elegant and as durable, as are the choicest publications of London and Paris.