Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/July 1878/Editor's Table

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 13‎ | July 1878



IN the death of Prof. Henry, Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, which occurred May 13th, American science has met with an irreparable loss. Little needs to be said in eulogy of a character so widely and familiarly known, and so profoundly respected and admired, as this venerable savant. In Volume II. of The Popular Science Monthly will be found an excellent portrait of Prof. Henry, with a sketch of his life, and an enumeration of his most important scientific labors; but there are two or three features of his career that are entitled to special recognition, now that he has passed away.

It is very well understood in the scientific world that, more than any other man, Prof. Joseph Henry is the scientific founder of the system of modern telegraphy, and this honor ought to be equally conceded to him by the general public. His earliest discoveries and his most important scientific work were in the field of electro-magnetic research, entered upon within a very few years after Oersted had announced the discovery of the relations of electricity and magnetism. Prof. Henry worked out experimentally, and by the most elaborate investigations, those laws and principles of electro-magnetic action which made the telegraph possible; and not only this, but he actually constructed and operated an electric telegraph years before Prof. Morse turned his attention to the subject. The great contrivance was of course bound to come, but no consideration of this kind should be permitted to detract in the slightest degree from the honor of those by whom it came. The scientific discoverer is entitled at any rate to have his work recognized, especially as he rarely gets anything else. It is the man who runs in upon his discoveries and applies them and brings them into notice that is usually credited in the popular estimation with all the honor. In this case, Morse has appropriated the glory that fairly belongs to Henry. Morse originated nothing by the current telegraphic alphabet—that is, the combinations of taps and clicks of the instrument, by which letters are denoted. Electricity had long been looked to as an agent for the transmission of intelligence. Many experiments had been made from the time of Franklin to secure this object, but none of them had succeeded. Various contrivances had met more recently with partial success, but Prof. Henry's sounder of 1830 has gradually displaced, and has now almost entirely superseded, all other methods of electric signaling. Mr. E. N. Dickerson, in tracing out the history of telegraphic invention, after stating the merits of various previous contrivances, thus refers to Henry's work:

"Then came Prof. Henry, who, in 1830, deduced from the hypothesis of Ampère—that magnetism was the circulation of electricity at right angles to the line connecting the poles of the magnet—the invention now known as the compound electro-magnet. In that year he constructed an electro-magnet that would sustain 1,000 pounds weight; and he answered the demonstration of Barlow, and proved that the electro-magnetic telegraph was possible. In the same year he set up an electro-magnetic telegraph at Albany, over a line of a mile and a half in length, using what is now known as the 'polarized relay,' between the poles of which a magnetic armature vibrated upon a hinge, as the current of electricity was reversed—the end of the armature striking a sounder, and transmitting the intelligence by sound. This was the first electro-magnetic telegraph (I use the popular phrase) ever made; and it was the first one possible to be made, because, until Prof. Henry's electro-magnet was invented, it was an impossibility. This electro-magnetic telephone, made by Prof. Henry in 1830, is the thing in universal use to-day. It goes by the erroneous name of the 'Morse telegraph;' and it will be in use till the end of time. The thing was perfect as it came from the hand of its author, and has never been improved from that day to this as a sounding telegraph."

Having immortalized himself by these brilliant researches of the laboratory, Prof. Henry was called into a more conspicuous sphere of action as the organizer and administrator of a great public enterprise of national scope in connection with the progress of science. John Smithson, an English chemist and physicist, and member of the Royal Society, had left upward of half a million dollars as a trust to the American Government, to be used for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men." How this language was to be construed and how the money was to be expended were open questions. The Washington politicians were in favor of spending it on buildings, libraries, and museums to be established at the national capital, and the whole fund would probably have been buried and lost in this way, but for the influence of Prof. Henry. He was appointed, in 1846, as secretary and principal executive officer of the Institution, and at once applied all his energies to rescue the fund from the misdirection that had been given to it, and to devise more efficient means of obtaining the comprehensive object to which it was devoted. As Smithson was a man of science, and an original investigator of that "natural knowledge" which the Royal Society of Great Britain, of which he was a fellow, was founded to promote, Prof. Henry fairly and justly assumed that the intention of the donor was the increase and diffusion of scientific knowledge—increase and augmentation by research and organized systems of observation, and diffusion by means of extended publication. Henry's policy, therefore, was to diminish expenditures upon buildings, libraries, museums, and art-galleries, that the money might be devoted to wider and more legitimate purposes. He took the ground that the Institution ought to do nothing which can be equally well done by any organization or instrumentality already in action. He accordingly drew up a scheme of operations which provided for extensive researches especially in the fields of ethnology and of meteorology. He had for many years five hundred meteorological observers scattered over the continent, accumulating data designed to elucidate the laws which govern the phenomena of the weather. This branch of work, begun on so thorough a scale by the Smithsonian Institution, has developed into the Signal Service and Weather Bureau in Washington, now so important to the agriculture and commerce of the country. In the department of publications the public has been furnished with the "Smithsonian Contributions to Knowledge," now consisting of many large quarto volumes, all valuable as positive additions to the sum of existing knowledge. Besides these, the Institution has put forth the "Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections," and "Annual Reports," all of which are intrinsically valuable for the information they contain, and are very widely circulated through the country. Prof. Henry's plan also comprehended an extensive system of exchanges of works, proceedings, and reports, between the literary and scientific associations of the Old and New World. All these features of Prof. Henry's broad and liberal scheme of administering the Smithsonian trust have been carried out vigorously, and with a degree of success that has commanded universal approval. An administration of thirty years has settled the policy of the Institution, and will undoubtedly shape its future, and it is very doubtful if there was another man in the United States that could have done this work with such conspicuous success as the distinguished man to whom it was so fortunately intrusted.

It may be added that, in a business point of view, the establishment has been managed with great skill and efficiency. The amount of money received from Smithson, in 1838, was $515,000, to which was added in 1865 a residuary legacy of Smithson amounting to $26,000; and, notwithstanding that a large portion of the fund has been absorbed in building, all the plans of Prof. Henry have been carried out, and the fund now available exceeds $700,000.



How scientific discoveries run in groups, one thing suggesting another so quickly as to make an epoch, is just now illustrated anew in the field of acoustics, and with the usual result of rival claims and disputed priority. Following the telephone and growing out of it comes another remarkable revelation, that minute sounds may be magnified to the ear as minute objects are magnified by lenses to the eye.

The telephone, in transmitting sound, greatly reduces or minifies it, and it therefore became a problem for experimenters to find out how sounds can be transmitted with the least loss of volume and intensity. Mr. Thomas A. Edison early attacked this problem with his usual assiduity and fertile inventiveness. Operating upon many hundred substances of diverse qualities and in varying conditions to test their sonorous capacities under electrical influence, he found that carbon possesses this singular property in a very remarkable degree. He found, moreover, that the effect varies with the pressure upon the carbon, and, what is more astonishing still, that it varies so greatly with the small differences of pressure produced by the passage of sound waves as to alter the flow of the electrical current. More than a year ago he embodied this principle in the "carbon telephone," by which the capacity of the instrument was greatly augmented.

But now Prof. D. E. Hughes, already well known as the inventor of the type-printing apparatus that bears his name, comes forward with an arrangement involving the same property of the same substance, but developing almost incredible effects. He claims to have reached these results in his own way, as follows: Following a hint of Sir William Thomson in regard to the molecular change and conductivity of wires under mechanical strain, he inserted a stretched and strained wire in his telephonic circuit. But no effect was produced until it broke, when a sound was given out so curious and marked that Prof. Hughes followed it up, by pressing the broken ends together, when the new effect was faintly reproduced. Following this suggestion, he introduced other pieces so as to have broken or imperfect connections, when the faint sounds were improved. Iron nails or a steel watch-chain also answered the purpose.

Prof. Hughes says he found the same property in porous charcoal, and that it was heightened by infiltrating the carbon with metallic mercury. The part introduced into the circuit Prof. Hughes calls the "transmitter," and the arrangement which he recently exhibited to the Royal Society consists of a glass tube two inches long, and one-fourth inch in diameter, filled with a series of plugs of mercurialized carbon, the end-plugs being attached to the wires of the circuit. He uses a small three-celled galvanic battery to furnish the current, and, with the transmitter introduced, sounds otherwise perfectly inaudible by the ear are not only heard, but are conveyed to great distances by the telephone. The surprising thing is that when these pieces of carbon barely touch each other the electric current will not pass; but when the molecules of those adjacent pieces are agitated by sound-waves they transmit electricity freely. The same effect is produced by light when the metal selenium is exposed to light, and its electrical conductivity is unequally affected by the different rays of the spectrum. Prof. Hughes calls his invention the microphone, and it has this peculiarity, that the sounds are taken up directly by the "transmitter."

The London Telegraph thus refers to the results of Prof. Hughes's experiments before the Royal Society: "Inserting a 'transmitter' in his circuit, an absolutely amazing sensitiveness to sound, as well as power of conveying it with the utmost fidelity, was displayed by the apparatus. A touch of the finger on the vibrating plate of the telephone was conducted to the speaking end in volume of vibration like the rustle of a forest; the stroking of a camel's-hair brush on a card was magnified into the sound of a loud whisper; the beating of a pulse or the tick of a watch was found to pass with perfect clearness through a resistance representing a hundred miles of space; and, when a fly happened to walk over the plate, the tramp of its feet was most distinctly caught, like that of some six-legged horse trotting, and it was, moreover, heard to trumpet from its raised proboscis like an elephant in an Indian jungle. Sounds, in fact, totally inaudible before to human ears, were arrested and reported by this simple and accidental expedient of interrupting the electrical circuit with a finely-divided conducting material."



Under the title of "Hell and Science," a writer in the Catholic World for June makes an elaborate reply to our recent comments on the doctrine of future punishment. He is especially indignant, as might be expected, at our remark that there has been a "rapid liberalization of theological opinion" on this subject. He says that "the doctrine of hell is not a theological opinion but an inspired dogma," which, of course, can be neither liberalized nor got rid of in any other way. In speaking of the altered theological tone upon this subject, we of course referred to what currently passes under the name of theology, but our reviewer avers that we were utterly wrong in the application of the word. This is his case:

"Theology is essentially based on authority; hence theology has no existence in the Protestant sects, whose very reason of being is a contemptuous disregard of authority, and the assumed right of private interpretation. Now, all those who ventured to argue against the existence of eternal punishment belonged to Protestant sects; and, therefore, their 'liberal view' of the subject does not constitute 'theological opinion.' Protestants may, indeed, assume the title of 'divines;' but the title is not the thing. There is no real theology outside of the Catholic Church. When Catholic divines shall discuss the existence of hell as a free theological opinion—which, of course, will never happen—then only Prof. Youmans will be welcome to say that there has been a liberalizing of theological opinion."

We freely admit that there is great shrewdness in this policy of the Catholics, by which so effective an instrument of domination as the fear of hell is placed beyond examination on the part of the followers of that faith. By shutting off the right of private judgment on dogmas sanctioned by authority, they no doubt get rid of the ferment of discussion and diversity of opinion which, among Protestants, follows the exercise of the right of private interpretation. The writer in the Catholic World identifies liberalism with Protestantism, and recognizes that among Protestant sects the notion of hell is dying out. He thus concedes that liberalism leads to this result, which is all that we claimed, but he denies that modern liberalism exerts its baneful and pestilent influence within the precincts of his church, or that there is any change going on within it respecting the dogma of hell. Yet of this we are not so certain. The liberalizing influences of the age are subtile, diffusive, encroaching, and all-pervading. Such influences have been growing for centuries, and the Catholic Church has by no means escaped them in times past. They have convulsed it and rent it, and are now agitating it profoundly. What warrant have we that these patent disturbing agencies are to be inoperative in the future? Our reviewer, indeed, informs us that there is no change in his church in regard to eternal damnation. To our remark that the doctrine of hell is being refined away, he replies that "the literal lake of fire and brimstone is preached even now all over the earth;" and, to our assertion that the notion is growing obsolete, he rejoins that "two hundred millions of Catholics believe the doctrine as a cardinal tenet of the Church."

But it is important not to be misled here. In what sense are these two hundred million Catholics said to "believe" in the doctrine of hell? Belief implies evidence, and is founded upon it; how, then, can men believe that of which they are never permitted to think in connection with evidence? They may assent to the doctrine, or accept it under the influence of early teaching, or terror, or the coercion of spiritual authority; but the rational act of belief implies the liberty of doubt, the freedom of inquiry, and a judgment resting upon proof. How can this be possible with a dogma upon which men are forbidden to exercise their minds, and are not even permitted to class as a "theological opinion?" We know what the Catholics profess; it is quite another thing to know what they really believe. Of course, the term belief in the theological world is used in a very loose way, and is made to cover whatever is contained in an accepted creed. But in aiming to get at the real state of mind, which is the object here, it is necessary to discriminate between views that are rationally entertained on some claim of reasonable grounds and dogmas that are blindly held under theological dictation. Our reviewer admits that there is a growing liberalization, that it is the very essence of Protestantism, and that it is inroading upon the old doctrine of future everlasting punishment; and it is perfectly well known that the Catholic Church is deeply troubled about the encroachments of the so-called "spirit of the age," which it denounces in the most solemn manner. Can there be any doubt that the invading spirit of liberalism will affect Catholic minds in the same way that it has Protestant minds. If not, where is the danger, and what the excuse, for the anxiety of the Church? Under the external exertion of a rigorous ecclesiastical system, uniformity of profession can be secured; but of what avail is the force of authority in the case, or where does it take effect if not in resisting private reason, and substituting profession for real belief? There may be two hundred million Catholics who still accept the belief in hell, but it is not possible that all of them, in this age, can be in such a complete state of mental paralysis as not to reflect upon the grounds of their belief, and to hold the opinion with more or less of the same reservations that are exercised by other classes of Christian believers.



Prof. Du Bois-Reymond, of Berlin, several months ago gave an address before a scientific association at Cologne, which was recently published in an amplified form by the author. We procured an early copy for translation, and sent the English proof to the author for revision. Meantime the discourse had quickly passed through several German editions, revised by the author, so that the address, the first part of which is now presented to the readers of The Popular Science Monthly, embodies his latest corrections and emendations.

We were especially desirous of having a complete and authorized edition of this elaborate address, both from the profound interest of the topic, and because of certain special views developed by the author which are likely to attract much attention. It is an historical disquisition on the course of civilization in relation to science, and sketches the various stages and phases of man's progress in culture with masterly compression and a vivid eloquence, which will enchain all thoughtful readers. How the Greeks and Romans failed to seize upon the scientific aspects of Nature, and the calamities to the world that followed from that deficiency in their mental cultivation, are problems that Prof. Du Bois-Reymond handles in a fresh and original way. Equally interesting is his view, that for science the world is indebted to Christianity, which, by its monotheism and the intolerance entailed by sincere monotheistic belief, gave a new earnestness and intensity to the human mind, that impelled it to a deeper research into causes, and to a more thorough exploration of the order and method of Nature.

But Prof. Du Bois-Reymond's thesis does not stop with speculative inquiries; it extends to important practical results. The history of the rise of science, as discussed in the first part of his essay herewith printed, has a weighty interest on its own account, but its claim upon our consideration is redoubled from the import of the conclusions arrived at in the sequel. The history of science and civilization derives its highest significance from the bearing it has on the policy of modern culture. The organization or reorganization of education, the formation of national systems of instruction, and the modification and extension of the old colleges and universities, are undoubtedly the gravest questions that the present age has before it, and it is with these that the eminent German professor has grappled in this discussion. They, moreover, have become in a literal sense world-questions; and so intimate are now the intellectual reactions among distant and different countries that the higher policy of education is nothing less than international. Prof. Du Bois-Reymond is keenly alive to these broader aspects of the subject, and the views he presents will have a peculiar interest for readers in this country, because he recognizes not only that America is exerting an influence upon the higher education of Europe, but because he considers that influence as by no means of an elevating or ennobling character—as something rather that the intellect of Europe must put forth its utmost power to withstand.



We continue the important series of papers, by Prof. Alexander Bain, on "Education as a Science." He is now dealing with its psychological basis, and with those laws of mind—in the present paper, of sensibility and emotion—which govern the processes of culture and the arts of the teacher. In his great work on the "Emotions and the Will," Prof. Bain has carefully worked out the principles which are here briefly reëxpounded in their bearing upon educational practice. How to get command of the motors of intellectual cultivation—the emotions—is one of the teacher's most urgent problems. What emotions will hinder the work of culture, and what will promote it, how they are to be quickened and how restrained, under what circumstances they shall be appealed to, and how they come in play in different stages of development and in relation to different objects of study—all these practical questions turn upon a knowledge of psychology, which, if we are ever to have a science of education, must be so sufficient that it can be applied to individual cases. Prof. Bain is clearing the ground for a thorough-going discussion of that element of culture which has been more misunderstood and perverted than any other—the subject of discipline.