Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/August 1891/The Relations of Abstract Research to Practical Invention

1196626Popular Science Monthly Volume 39 August 1891 — The Relations of Abstract Research to Practical Invention1891Frank Wigglesworth Clarke



A HUNDRED years ago. just after the first American patent was issued, two other events, fitly to be mentioned here, became a part of history. In 1791 Galvani published his famous book on animal electricity; and at about the same time the Royal Society gave its highest honor, the award of the Copley Medal, to Volta. Between these events and the passage of our first patent law no connection was then apparent, nor for many years afterward did any relation become obvious. The patent system dealt with affairs of practical utility, while Galvani and Volta were mere visionaries, prying into matters of only speculative interest, and of no real value or importance to anybody. Indeed, Galvani was ridiculed throughout Europe as "the frogs' dancing-master," so remote from all material considerations, so useless to all outward seeming, were his investigations.

In spite of ridicule and indifference, however, the unpractical researches went on, from step to step, from discovery to discovery, until at last they ripened into invention. Galvani and Volta had worthy successors—Oersted, Ampere, Ohm, Faraday, Henry, and others—all devoted to knowledge for its own sake, and caring little for any reward other than the consciousness of achievement. The voltaic pile, the galvanic battery, and the electro-magnet were added to the resources of science; facts, principles, and laws came into recognition; and suddenly a relation of the work done to the work the great world was doing became manifest. Nearly half a century was passed in these preliminaries, and then came the inventions of electro-metallurgy, of the telegraph, and of all the hurrying swarm of wonders that mark this "age of electricity." Suddenly the Patent Office became a center of interest in what at the date of its foundation had been apparently remote from its purposes; and to-day, grown from the germs of a century ago, we see one of the chief objects of its activity. All now know the merit of Galvani's work, and yet its lesson of history is far too seldom realized. Every true investigator in the domain of pure science is met with monotonously recurrent questions as to the practical purport of his studies; and rarely can he find an answer expressible in terms of commerce. If utility is not immediately in sight, he is pitied as a dreamer, or blamed as a spend-thrift of time; for the questioning man of affairs can recognize only affairs, and to him speculations not convertible into coin of the realm must naturally seem profitless. High aims count for little or nothing—results, and tangible results at that, are wanted.

It would be easy to multiply instances in illustration of my meaning. For example, iodine, discovered in 1812 by Courtois, was for many years a chemical curiosity. Why should any one waste his time in the study of so useless a body? To-day industries unknown to Courtois, born since his day, find in iodine one of their most necessary appliances. Photography, one of the arts in which iodine is useful, itself grew out of researches which were seemingly useless when made; and the camera, its most essential implement, was once only a philosopher's plaything. Investigations which had only the pursuit of truth for its own sake as a justification, brought rainbows of color out of coal; and coal-tar, not forty years ago a nuisance to be thrown away, is now a source of profit and prodigal of beauty. From the same hopeless material, through researches still unarmed at profit, have come the latest and best additions to our materia medica; and so again the methods of Science, as applied by her highest votaries, are vindicated by the fruits they bear. In short, every department of invention, every advance in civilization, owes much to the student; no industry is independent of the results won by purely abstract research. Even the most trivial details of modern life are affected by the work of the scientific investigator; luxuries and necessaries alike are influenced; and so obtrusively evident is this truth to most of us, that, taking it for granted, we daily ask, "What next?" Indeed, our gratitude to Science is often manifested in that cynical form which has been wittily defined as "a lively sense of favors yet to be received." We expect more in the future than we have realized in the past, and, as the marvels of the last century become commonplace, we look for new wonders which shall be even greater. The magic of the ancients is already outdone, and still the tide of discovery has not reached its flood. To preserve what we have gained, and to insure the promise of the years to come, is the problem before us. Speaking in the interest of future invention we may fairly ask, How best shall the work of investigation be furthered?

It is an old saying, and one partly true, that what has been, shall be. We may, therefore, consider through what agencies science has heretofore grown, and so recognize the foundations upon which building is possible. These agencies, briefly summarized, are as follows: First, individual enterprise; second, schools and universities; third, learned societies and endowments; fourth, government aid. Like nearly all classifications this list is imperfect, for it represents only one phase of the truth; and the several items, far from being distinct, shade into one another through many gradations of circumstance. Among them all, individual enterprise comes properly first, for, without that, without the influence of guiding spirits, the other agencies must fail. In a restricted sense, however, except perhaps as regards the beginnings of science, individual enterprise is the weakest force of all. To the modern investigator leisure and opportunities are necessary; in chemistry and physics, at least, apparatus and laboratories are indispensable; and few men working alone can command either the needful time or the bare material resources. During this century nine tenths of the great discoveries have been made by men with institutions back of them, through the aid of which the work was rendered possible. Wealth, scholarship, ability, and the spirit of research too seldom go together; and happy is the man in whom all these conditions are fortunately united. Under our second heading, in the shelter of schools and universities, the science of to-day has chiefly been developed.

The truth of my last statement may be verified by a reference to the files of those standard scientific journals in which original researches are recorded, or by scrutinizing in detail the history of any great discovery. In either case, whether we consider this country or Europe, the university work will be found to predominate overwhelmingly, and for obvious reasons. Every true university is something more than a distributor of knowledge; it is a producer of knowledge also; and in Germany, where the university system is most fully developed, the two functions are equally recognized. A German student, aspiring to academic honors, must do original work, and the professors' chairs are always filled from among the men who have most distinguished themselves as investigators. A chemist who had done nothing for pure science could hardly be recognized in Germany; not one of the higher professional positions would be within his reach; erudition alone, unsustained by evidence of creative ability, would do little for his advancement. In consequence of this policy, Germany now leads the scientific world; and, in consequence of that leadership, a certain industrial supremacy is fast becoming hers. One example will serve to illustrate the tendency to which I refer. The aniline dyes were discovered by Perkin in England about thirty-five years ago, and in that country the manufacture began. To-day, through the researches of German universities, Germany is the center of the coal-tar industry, and Engalnd has only a subordinate rank. Until recently the English universities have slighted experimental science, and English manufactures are paying for the neglect. One German firm alone, producers of coal-tar colors, employs over fourteen hundred workmen; but with them there are about fifty scientific chemists, every one a man trained in pure research, the product of the university system. These men are engaged to make investigations; to improve processes; to discover new compounds of value; and, in short, to use the most vigorous methods of science for the up-building of industry. The German manufacturer does not employ a chemist who has only learned by rote the wisdom gained by others; he does not ask to be told that which he already knows; he seeks rather to push forward into new fields; to excel his competitors more by intelligence than by brute force; and to gain a growing supremacy in preference to a mere victory for the moment. This practical policy, the outgrowth of intellectual culture, has made Germany a dangerous rival to all other countries in those departments of industry which rest upon scientific foundations. Applied science can not exist until there is the science to apply; and, where the latter is most favored, the industrial development is sure to be most perfect. This lesson is one which the United States must learn more thoroughly than heretofore, if it hopes to hold its own in the front rank of manufacturing nations. In a few of our universities the truth is already realized; but in too many American schools the so-called "practical" view prevails. Under the latter, teaching becomes routine; and the student, while learning elaborately that which is known, is not taught how to discover. He has little or no training in the art of solving unsolved problems; and that art is the mainspring of modern industrial growth. A teacher of science ought also to be an investigator, were it only for the inspiration that his example might give to the pupils in his charge. To impart knowledge is a good thing, but to reveal the sources of knowledge is better; and in that revelation is found the educational value of research regarded as a part of the teacher's essential duty.

The third agency for the advancement of investigation, the organization of scientific societies, shades imperceptibly into the other three. Private workers and university teachers here come together for purposes of co-operation, and in many countries the associations formed are aided by the state. As a rule, the great European academies are directly or indirectly patronized by the Government, and occasionally endowments are bequeathed to them by private individuals for the foundation of prizes or medals, or for the assistance of research. In our own country the societies and academies are sustained by private enterprise, but some of them hold endowments of considerable value. Partly through the latter, partly through the stimulus to effort given by awards of honor, and more largely as publishers of results, they do their greatest good, and render to science services of unmistakable value. A large proportion of the leading scientific journals are published by organized societies, and without these discovery would oftentimes be dumb.

Of government aid, the fourth great means for furthering research, little need here be said. Ostensibly such aid is given for selfish motives, since every modern government demands the help of science in return. Nowadays no government could long exist were it deprived of all the resources for defense and intercommucation which science has invented. The relation between science and the state, therefore, is a mutual relation, and each needs the assistance of the other. In Washington the fact is manifest; it is recognized in the organization of nearly every administrative department; and nowhere is it more apparent than under the Commissioner of Patents. From science the Government is daily receiving benefits; to science, therefore, it is rightly a liberal giver; and through its patronage many investigations become possible which, because of their magnitude, would be beyond the reach of private undertaking. Doubtless the time will come when the scientific resources of the national capital will be concentrated more than they are now, and so made more efficient; and sooner or later they should be crowned by the establishment of a national university, in which the highest and most productive scholarship may find a fitting home.

So far my statements have been tinged with rose-color. The great achievements of science command our admiration, and admirable also are the agencies by which it has been advanced. Still, much remains to be done, and many are the. gaps in our knowledge. Take any important series of physical data, or any well-defined group of chemical compounds, bring the facts together in systematic form, and the strangest deficiencies will become manifest. Take, for example, those physical properties of the chemical elements which are capable of quantitative measurement, and not for one of them are the attainable data even approximately complete. Even iron, copper, gold, silver, and mercury are but imperfectly known. Were it not for theory, that apprehension of natural law through which science can prophesy, reaching out from the seen to the unseen, a great part of our knowledge would be little more than bare empiricism, and research itself would lack its keenest implement. It is common among ignorant men, themselves wildly speculative, to affect a contempt for theory, and yet without theory science could not exist. All great discoveries begin with theory, and lead up to wider generalizations upon which new researches find a secure foothold. The history of science teaches no more certain lesson than this.

It is easy to find a reason for the incompleteness of our knowledge. Apart from the vastness of the field to be explored, itself a sufficient excuse for ignorance, the more obvious deficiencies are due to excessive individualism in research. Thousands of earnest men are working independently, with insufficient reference to one another, each attacking that corner of the unknown which most attracts his fancy. All are ambitious to accomplish great results, each one hopes to make some discovery of signal importance; and so the drier and less attractive details of investigation are oftentimes neglected. The field is cut up into many fields, between which the ground is uncultivated, and there no harvest is gathered. To systematize research, to bring about co-operation, to put the art of discovery itself more truly upon a scientific basis, is a problem for the future. In the final solution of this problem the practical inventor may help. The wealth created by invention should serve as the organizer. The law of mechanics that action and reaction are equal and opposite, applies to human affairs as well as to physical forces. Hence, since scientific discovery makes invention possible, it is clear that the inventor owes something to science in return. That some of the harvest should go back to its source as seed is not an unreasonable expectation. Indeed, it is justified by history; and if we trace back to their origin the endowments of our universities, we shall find that the successful inventors have done their fair share. What more is needed, and on what new lines?

In the science of astronomy this question is partly answered already. Every endowed observatory is an institution for research, and outside of that the observers have little else to do. They are employed primarily to gather and discuss data, the raw material of science, and all other duties are secondary. In the solution of large problems several observatories may co-operate, each taking a definite and prescribed portion of the field; and so the science grows symmetrically, with fewer gaps than exist in other departments of knowledge. Perfection of work, completeness in the absolute sense of the term, is of course unattainable, but to that ideal within the limits of its province astronomy approaches most nearly. By its example the other sciences may profit.

Now, for chemistry and physics institutions should be organized resembling in policy the astronomical observatories. I mean, of course, endowed laboratories for research, in which the greater problems could be effectively handled, and important data determined with the highest accuracy. The more precise and at the same time the most difficultly measurable physical constants are of direct value to industrial science, and their determination should not be left to the caprice or convenience of individuals. They represent routine work of the most tedious kind; their measurement involves the highest degree of skill and the most elaborate resources, and they are the foundation-stones of exact theory. They are needed by pure and applied science alike; and yet, under existing conditions, their determination is but scantily encouraged. They yield to the investigator results more solid than brilliant; they do not give quick returns of fame; and so other researches, more showy or more profitable, are in greater favor. With most men of science, unfortunately, research is a matter secondary to other duties; the professor must teach, the commercial chemist must analyze; and only the time left over, the occasional leisure hour, is available for higher studies. Many an able man, willing and enthusiastic, who might otherwise benefit mankind by investigation, is crowded out of the field by sheer necessity. He is loaded with labors which leave no time for research, and his capacities are exhausted in mere routine. For such men opportunities should not be altogether wanting.

Sometimes the kind of work here indicated has been carried on at public expense; for example, the classical researches of Regnault upon gases and vapors were maintained by the French Government; but all such assistance has been sporadic, while the investigations needed should be continuous and systematic. In a laboratory endowed, equipped, and manned for research only, a rich harvest of results would be sure, far exceeding in value the cost of the undertaking. No such laboratory, I believe, now exists in the civilized world; and the United States might well have the glory of being the first organizer. In its Patent Office it has led all other nations, and in the science which underlies invention it might lead also. To the manufacturers and inventors of America I offer these suggestions, in the hope that they may be speedily realized.

  1. An address delivered at the Patent Centennial in Washington, April 9, 1891.