Popular Science Monthly/Volume 21/July 1882/Editor's Table



THERE are many who will regret to learn that this great work has been brought to a close. It has not been carried, as far as its projector originally intended, but still we can not say that it has stopped prematurely or remains merely as a fragment. On the contrary, it is substantially accomplished. It was a large enterprise, broadly conceived by Spencer twenty-five years ago, as a comprehensive basis on which to build the superstructure of sociological principles. The undertaking involved a carefully digested method of collecting and classifying all the main orders of facts which represent the constitution and characteristics of different human societies, in a form suitable for convenient reference and ready comparison; and it was on a scale that implied the co-operation of several scholars working through many years to execute it. It was inevitable that this task should be of gigantic proportions and involve enormous labor, because social generalizations, to have value, must be based upon that which is both common and peculiar to many and diverse communities.

The enterprise was, moreover, wholly new, nothing having been previously done toward gathering the multitudinous data necessary for studying what may be called the natural history of human societies. It was also desirable that the work should at first be so effectually done that it could be made popularly available; and, in securing this object, the magnitude of the effort expended upon it by the editor and the compilers simply represented so much labor saved by the student of social questions. Its preparation was not only an elaborate process of condensation and simplification, but it involved a selection of valuable data to be of permanent use in subsequent social inductions and constructions. An incalculable amount of material had to be overhauled to find the pertinent facts. It was a winnowing of the bulky chaff of history to separate its wheat. Science applied to history gives us first of all a revaluation of its materials. The great mass of it must be left out as comparatively worthless. As Professor J. R. Seeley well remarks: "History is now a department of serious scientific investigation. The study history now in the hope of giving more precision, definiteness, and solidity to the principles of political science." And it may be added that we are beginning to study history with a view of obtaining clearer, truer, and broader ideas of the constitution and development of human society.

It is unnecessary here to expatiate on the value of Spencer's method in this undertaking, or the thoroughness of its execution. The original plan, though not technically completed, has been carried out on a comprehensive scale. Three great groups of human communities have been treated, viz.: 1. Savage and Uncivilized Societies; 2. Civilized Societies, Extinct or Decayed; and, 3. Civilized Societies, Historic and still Flourishing. Of these groups, representing communities of every type and grade, past and present, stationary and progressive, the social constitution and history of seventy-two distinct communities are systematically described.

This is done in eight large folio parts or separate treatises, in which the facts are first brought into relation by tabular arrangements, and then the authorities for all the statements are given in an appended form as extracts from the works consulted. The simplification is remarkable; and the command given over the immense details of the whole subject is something quite incredible to those unacquainted with the work.

We are therefore justified in saying that Spencer's "Descriptive Sociology" is nothing less than a cyclopædia of social data, inexhaustible in its wealth of instructive facts, lucid in method, elaborately fortified in its authorities, free from all hypothesis, and furnishing in a very accessible form the kind of knowledge most demanded by the modern student of social affairs.

It would seem that such a work ought to have been welcomed and liberally sustained by a public-spirited age. But it has been commercially a disastrous failure. The obvious reason is, that there is but very little appreciation of the need of such a work. Neither our so-called "Schools of Political Science" nor our so-called "Associations for the Promotion of Social Science" seem to have any idea of what science means in relation to social phenomena. The solitary cultivators of the science are without backing by any parties, societies, or schools, and are left to their unaided exertions. Mr. Spencer could find no publisher to take the pecuniary risk of his enterprise, and so he printed his costly cyclopædia at his own expense. He contributed his talent and his time, paid his assistants and his printer's bills, but he made a work that was not wanted and would not sell, and he has had to take the penalty in very serious losses. With Part 8, devoted to French Sociology, he issues the following notice of the cessation of the work:

With the issue of the eighth part, herewith, the publication of the "Descriptive Sociology" will be closed.

The collecting, classifying, and abstracting of the materials contained in the parts now completed was commenced in 1867; and the work, carried on at first by one compiler, subsequently by two, and for some years by three, has continued down to the present time.

On going through his accounts, Mr. Spencer finds that during the fourteen years which have elapsed since the undertaking was commenced, the payments to compilers, added to the costs of printing, etc., have amounted to £4,425 15s. 7d., while up to the present time the returns (including those from America) have been £1,054 12s. 1d.—returns which, when they have been increased by the amount derived from the first sales of the part now issued, will leave a deficit of about £3,250.

Even had there been shown considerable appreciation of the work, it would still have been out of the question to continue it in face of the fact that, after the small sales which immediately follow publication, the returns, so far from promising to repay expenses in course of time, do not even yield five per cent interest on the capital sunk.

Should the day ever come when the love for the personalities of history is less and the desire for its instructive facts greater, those who occupy themselves in picking out the gold from the dross will, perhaps, be able to publish their results without inflicting on themselves losses too grievous to be borne—nay, may possibly receive some thanks for their pains.

The personality of this announcement makes some corrections here appropriate. It has been often said that the profits of Mr. Spencer's American reprints have been greater than those of the original English publications. This is a mistake. Some of his books sold better in this country at first, but the English sales have had a steady increase, so that the income from them has been greater than from the American editions. In regard to the "Descriptive Sociology," although encouraged by his American friends to expect fair returns from it here, the sales have been so small that the publishers declined to reproduce it after the third number, and the work has been kept in stock by the help of others and by advances from Mr. Spencer himself. The appearance of the above notice of discontinuance has, moreover, been the occasion of no little misrepresentation, both in England and in this country. In England it was rumored that Mr. Spencer's losses from publication have been so great as to compel him to go to America to recruit his means by lecturing; and in this country the newspapers have intimated that the failure of his "French Sociology" has brought him to actual want. These statements are wholly groundless. Mr. Spencer has never for a moment entertained the idea of lecturing here, although offered very liberal terms; and, while he is not a rich man, he is by no means in straitened circumstances. He could, of course, ill afford to lose sixteen thousand dollars, besides many years of labor, on a single publication, but it has certainly not made him a bankrupt.

It must be added that Mr. Spencer has never accepted a farthing from any source contributed for his private or personal benefit. When his "System of Philosophy," which was not self-sustaining, was threatened with suspension, some funds were sent him from this country to meet the expenses of its continuance, but they were accepted solely as a public trust, and to be applied to an object recognized by all as of a purely public nature.


Since the first announcement of M. Faure's improvement of the Planté secondary battery, speculation has been rife as to the great number and kinds of uses to which such batteries could be applied; and, while much of it has been only sober prediction, some of it has been altogether fanciful. The recent arrival of the steamship Labrador with a number of these batteries on board, which had been successfully used during the passage in electric illumination, has revived both the interest and the speculations about them in this country, so that a few words on their possibilities, and what has been so far accomplished, may be here appropriate. It is hardly necessary to say anything regarding the construction of the Faure cell, as it was fully described in the August number of the "Monthly" of last year, and has since received much attention in the technical papers and by the daily press.

That a thoroughly commercial storage-battery has a wide field of usefulness before it there can be no question. Of the many uses to which it could be applied, one of the most important, perhaps, is as an element in a system of electric distribution for both light and power purposes. With a storage battery in each house, a smaller electric producing plant in continuous operation could take the place of the larger one required without it, and distribution could be readily accomplished with one set of mains, as, by simply connecting groups of battery-cells in the proper way, arc and incandescent lamps, as well as various pieces of machinery, could be run quite independently of each other.

The power that such a battery confers of utilizing the results of work performed at other times and places makes it peculiarly well adapted for use in isolated electric plant, such as would be suitable for suburban and country houses. Wind and water power are both suitable for charging the battery, but neither of them would commonly be available as direct agents in maintaining a current. It is not at all impossible that we may yet see the farmers using the power of the wind, which costs nothing beyond interest on investment in a mill and repairs, to light their houses, and obtain all the power necessary for many of the operations of the farm.

Such batteries would also have a not unimportant use in the propulsion of cars on street and suburban railways, and it is quite within the bounds of reasonable expectation to think that they could in a good many cases displace steam with advantage on ordinary railways. The conditions requisite to render this feasible are simply good water-power facilities at sufficiently frequent intervals along the line, or such a proximity to coal-mines that the electricity for the charging can be generated at the pit, and coal transportation, therefore, dispensed with. The great advantages of a method of railway propulsion which would dispense with the fire, steam, and smoke of the locomotive, are too obvious to need specifying. Many other applications of these batteries might be named, and the sphere of their utility will doubtless constantly enlarge with the progress of industry.

In order, however, for the storage battery to take its place as an important element in the growing industrial applications of electricity, it must reach a considerably higher efficiency than it appears to have yet attained. The results obtained in the experiments on the Faure battery at the Conservatoire des Arts-et-Métiers, communicated to the French Academy of Sciences in March last, and which constitute the only trustworthy account yet given of the performance of this battery, certainly leave much to be desired. The experiments were conducted to determine—1. The mechanical labor expended in charging the battery; 2. The quantity of electricity stored up during the charge; 3. The quantity of electricity given out during the charge; and, 4. The electrical work actually effected during the discharge. They resulted in showing that the battery returned forty per cent of the total mechanical power spent in I charging it, and sixty per cent of the electrical work spent upon it. The latter result is alone to the point, as in the former the efficiency of the dynamo-machine enters as an element, as well as that of the storage-battery. On this showing the storage-battery does not seem to have reached a commercial stage, but that it will do so at no very remote time there is every warrant for believing, when we consider the large amount of attention there is now being given to the subject, and the rapidity with which electric appliances are at present passing out of the experimental into the industrial stage.