Popular Science Monthly/Volume 34/January 1889/Editor's Table
IT is idle to be continually repeating that this is a very wonderful age; but we may with good reason congratulate ourselves that science has now reached a point that insures to the human race an ever-increasing mastery over the powers and resources of nature, and that ought, with any kind of right management, to be productive of better modes of life from year to year, not for the few only but for all. At the last meeting of the British Association an address was delivered by Mr, Preece, President of the Section of Mechanical Science, which, though confined to the single subject of the recent advances in the practical applications of electricity, furnishes a vivid picture of the changes which scientific knowledge generally is working in the world. Things that to our forefathers were perfect types of the unknowable, are to-day, as Mr. Preece remarks, among the best-understood of natural phenomena, if not in relation to their ultimate cause, at least in regard to the laws of their operation. Among the various troublesome questions asked of the patriarch Job was one as to whether he could send lightnings, so that they might come and go at his bidding. Of course, Job had to give it up; but that was not because the problem was absolutely insoluble, but because he had not the scientific knowledge necessary to solve it. To-day lightnings are flying to and fro in most complete subjection to the will of man; and even the free lightnings of heaven have to a large extent been placed under bonds to do him no harm. Mr. Preece antedates, we observe, by five years the classical experiment of Franklin with the electricity of the clouds, placing it in 1747 instead of in 1752; but he is correct in stating that nearly a century elapsed after Franklin's great discovery before, as a working power, electricity was fairly mastered. Naturally the Church was opposed to the study of electricity in its beginnings; but that study has been too fruitful of beneficial results, and too victoriously successful all along the line, to remain under a ban of any kind. Churches themselves are now protected by lightning-rods against random thunderbolts, just as the clergy, in common with other classes, are protected by vaccination against small-pox. On the subject of lightning-rods, Mr. Preece's declaration that "as long as points remain points, as long as conductors remain conductors, as long as the rods make proper connection with the earth, lightning protectors will protect," is a word spoken in season; as also is the caution he goes on to give as to the neglect of the conditions upon which the whole efficiency of the system of protection against lightning depends.
It would be impossible within our limits to give anything like a satisfactory summary of the very interesting address to which we have referred. Two or three points may, however, be singled out for notice. The electric telegraph may now be said to have been in use for business purposes for half a century. The rate of transmission at the outset was five words a minute; today it is six hundred. Cooke and Wheatstone required five wires for their first needle instrument, which worked only at the rate of four words a minute; whereas one wire now conveys six messages simultaneously at ten times the speed. On the 8th of April, 1886, now nearly three years ago, when Mr. Gladstone introduced his Home-Rule Bill in the British House of Commons, no less than 1,500,000 words were sent over the wires from the Central Telegraph office in London. Mr. Preece seems to approve of the purchase of the telegraphs by the British Government. He states that the telegraph business which, when assumed by the Government in 1870, brought in £550,000 per annum, now yields £2,000,000 per annum; and that the annual number of messages has increased from 6,000,000 to 52,000,000. What the increase in revenue and work done would have been had the telegraphs remained in private hands, it is impossible to say. Government telegraphing is cheap—6d. for a message to any part of the United Kingdom—and that, no doubt, tends to make it popular. Mr. Preece refers with natural pride to the leading part Great Britain has taken in the laying of submarine cables. British ships, he states, have laid 110,000 miles of cable; and British capital to the amount of £40,000,000 has been expended in this very useful work. The railway system of to-day could not have reached its present development without the aid of the telegraph, by means of which the whole movement of trains is checked and controlled from moment to moment. A well-equipped signal-box on a main line of railway is a very interesting place to visit. To quote the words of the address: "The signal-man is able to survey the lines all round him by the aid of his electric signals; he can talk by telegraph or telephone to his neighbors and his station-master; he learns of the motion of the trains he is marshaling by the different sounds of electric bells; he controls his out-door signals by the deflection of needles or the movement of miniature semaphores; he learns the true working of his distant signals by their electric repetition; machinery governs and locks every motion that he makes, so that he can not make a mistake." The safety thus secured for the traveling public is indicated by the fact that in the whole United Kingdom the average annual loss of life by railway accidents in the five years ending 1887 was only sixteen, or, as Mr. Preece computes it, one life to every 35,000,000 journeys made by train.
Great inventions have often a considerable period of incubation before they assume their proper importance and development. Thus, nearly seventy years elapsed between the discovery of the electric light by Sir Humphry Davy and its practical introduction for purposes of street-lighting. Mr. Preece is enthusiastic for the electric light, which he contrasts in its purity and wholesomeness with "filthy gas and stinking oil." He states that in the Central Savings-Bank, at London, the introduction of the electric light was followed by an appreciable improvement in the health of the staff. Every year sees some increase of efficiency or diminution of cost in connection with this admirable system of lighting. At this moment it is beyond comparison the cheapest method of producing any given unit of light. For the working of tram-cars or street-railways, Mr. Preece is of opinion that electricity is incontestably the agency destined to be most extensively used in the near future. In saying this he has in view the climatic conditions of the British Isles; but there is good reason to expect that experiments now being made in this country will demonstrate that, even where snow-storms have to be contended with, electricity will carry the day in the contest with horse-flesh. The progress made in the electrolytic extraction of metals from their ores is shown in the fact that whereas not long ago it was considered economical to absorb 0·85 horse-power in depositing one pound of copper per hour, the same work can now be done with 0·3 horse-power. The uses, however, of electricity are almost beyond enumeration. We have electric welding, electric production of chlorine, iodine, and oxygen, electric decomposition of poisonous gases, electric fire-alarms and frost-alarms, electric photography, electric bells, electric clocks, electricity as a curative agent, and electricity as a substitute for hanging. The question as to what electricity is, or how it may be most correctly defined, will probably continue to furnish matter for debate for some time to come. Mr. Preece finds fault with those physicists who object to recognize in electricity a form of energy, and insists that the engineer has a right to speak of electricity as he finds it, and therefore to speak of it as "energy." This is a dispute into which we can not enter further than to say that the arguments urged by Mr. Preece do not seem to us to touch the position of the physicists. We are with him entirely, however, when he says that "the engineer feels that steam and electricity in his hands have done more to economize labor, to cheapen living, to increase wealth, to promote international friendship, to alleviate suffering, to ward off war, to encourage peace, than all the legislation and all the verbosity of the politician." It is satisfactory to think that, while science is being railed at in certain quarters, its methods are being ever more fruitful of good to mankind. Science is doing its part nobly in the world, and, if moral results do not seem to keep pace with the enlightenment of the age, that should be a matter of special concern to those who feel themselves responsible for the moral interests of the community. May it not be reasonably said that, if they would do their work as well as the man of science is doing his, an equal success would crown their labors? It is all doubtless a matter of the adjustment of means to end; and, when the right means are employed in the moral sphere, we may expect to see there a progress not less marked than that which is now taking place in theoretical and practical science.
No more timely or important document has been given to the world, of late years, than the protest reprinted in our present number from the "Nineteenth Century," on the subject of the sacrifice of education to examinations. The protest in question is signed by the leading educators of Great Britain, and by many others eminent in science and letters. It is re-enforced by separate articles by England's greatest philologist, Prof. Max Müller; her greatest historian, Prof. Freeman; and her most brilliant and philosophical essayist, Mr. Frederic Harrison. All these men see clearly that a great intellectual and moral injury is being done to the nation by an excessive use of examinations, and, generally, by an excessive stimulation of the work of education. The universities do their own share of mischief by offering large pecuniary prizes as the rewards of proficiency tested by examinations. The Government helps on the evil cause by making access to the public service a simple question of "marks." Teachers obtain their positions and schools their grants in the same way; while the unfortunate pupils are having their studies continually interrupted in order that some one may grub at the roots of their growing knowledge for the purpose of spying out how weak a thing it is, and, in doing so, making it still weaker.
The philosophy of the whole business is simple enough. So long as the intellectual development of a country is following a simple, unforced course, education will be pursued for the sake of the essential benefits it brings; and educators will think chiefly, if not exclusively, of the true intellectual interests of their pupils. There will not be a feverish anxiety to ascertain the precise results achieved at a score of different points in a course of instruction. It will rather be taken for granted that only those who desire to profit will seek instruction, and that the result of their studies will appear in some spontaneous form in later days. If questions are asked, it will be for the sake of exciting intellectual interest, or of giving an opportunity for diversities of treatment of a certain topic. It will not be done in the spirit of the highwayman who offers you the alternative of surrendering your money or your life. But when once a "great public interest" has been awakened in education, and the Government has "taken it up in earnest," and grants of money become available for schools that can earn them by passing a certain number of pupils through certain grades, then the whole spirit of education becomes changed. The student's one ambition—if he has any at all—is to pass an examination, the teacher's is to get as many of his pupils as possible to pass as many examinations as possible; and to these wretched ends the whole work of the school is made subservient. There is no time allowed for reflection or for the slow gathering of results, none for the enjoyment of what is learned, none for the gathering of wayside illustrations; all is hurry and press, strain and stress, business from the start and business to the close. The result is, the all but complete extinction of true intellectual interests. Our young people do not learn to love knowledge for its own sake, for any sense of mental enlargement that it confers, or for any benefit that it enables them to bestow on their fellows. They hardly have time, indeed, to realize the difference between what is real and vital in knowledge and what is its mere outward husk or shell; and they leave school in thousands with intelligences blunted rather than sharpened, and—we grieve still more to think—with moral sensibilities dulled rather than quickened, by the routine to which they have been subjected.
Some may hold that we overdraw the picture; but there can hardly be a doubt in the mind of any liberally cultivated man or woman that the evil to which we refer, and on which the signers of the "protest" that has given rise to our remarks expatiate, is a very real one. We trust sincerely that the whole subject will receive a very thorough discussion, and that, in our own country, there will prove to be a sufficient force of enlightened public opinion to introduce at least some partial reforms. More than this, in an essentially state-directed system of education, we dare not hope for.
Our readers who have followed the "New Chapters in the Warfare of Science," by Dr. Andrew D. White, as they have appeared from time to time in the "Monthly," will be glad to learn that the publication of this unique series will be resumed in the February number. These papers are characterized by novelty, pith, and scholarly research. Dr. White has devoted several years to the investigation of his subject, and is now in Europe, examining the libraries and collections of antiquities for additional material. This research, which the author is making unusually exhaustive, can not fail to bring out many facts and incidents in the history of dogma and superstition which have never before seen the light, or have been buried in obscurity for centuries. With such resources at his command, Dr. White is in a position to lay before his readers some very remarkable illustrations of the persistent dominance of delusion in the human mind. But much more than this superficial interest is aimed at, for the author hopes by the publication of these papers to start some trains of thought among reflecting men which shall be of permanent service alike to Christianity and to science. The chapters immediately forthcoming will treat of the subject of "Demoniac Possessions and Insanity."