Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 69.djvu/272

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.

By S. E. SLOCUM, Ph. D.


THE history of mechanics affords a notable instance of what may be called the relativity of science. In the course of its development three distinct sets of mechanical principles have been formulated, each having served in its turn as the foundation of a complete system of mechanics. The first set of principles may be regarded as the first mental image which man formed of the causes underlying the natural motion of material bodies, and, although admirable in many respects, was necessarily somewhat crude and naive. With increased mentality came the formation of a new image, showing a greater maturity of thought than the first and offering a more powerful method of analysis. Finally, in recent times, a third image has been formed, which, although not essentially different in content from the others, exhibits a greater refinement of thought and expression. It is the purpose in what follows to outline briefly these three stages of development, and sketch the chief characteristics of each.

The first scientific development of mechanics arose from investigations concerning the equilibrium and motion of the simple machines in common use, such as the lever, inclined plane and pulley. This order of development was inevitable for the twofold reason that these implements had become familiar by centuries of use, and that they made a direct appeal to the understanding through the grosser and more elementary sensations of weight and pressure. In the second century, b.c., these investigations culminated in Archimedes's famous statement of the principle of the lever, but for seventeen centuries thereafter this statement remained the only instance of correct reasoning on natural phenomena. Apparently human experience did not yet suffice to extend the interpretation of natural law, as witnessed by the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, and Aristotle's division of motions into natural and violent; a classification which served rather to obscure than elucidate the subject.

In the latter part of the fifteenth century a fresh start was made, and the principle of the lever, handed down from Archimedes, was further investigated and generalized by Guido Ubaldi and Leonardo da Vinci. In 1586 these results were extended by Simon Stevin, who, by hanging a string of fourteen balls over a triangular support, established the properties of the inclined plane, and generalized his