Popular Science Monthly/Volume 48/March 1896/Scientific Literature

Scientific Literature.


In these days when many wonders are being accomplished through electricity, and greater ones are constantly expected, it is interesting to glance backward into the times when the lodestone and the sulphur globe stood for all that was known about this mysterious form of energy. Such a glance is afforded us by Mr. Park Benjamin's[1] popular history of the advance of knowledge in this subject. Our author has ranged far and wide to gather his material. He has laid under contribution the works of those early philosophers who took all knowledge for their province, the Greek and Roman classics, the results of modern investigation into the old civilization of Phoenicia, Egypt, and even of people of prehistoric epochs, the Norse histories, the ancient writings of the Chinese and Arabs, the treatises of the fathers of the Church, the works of mediæval monks, magicians, cosmographers, and navigators, etc. The significance of the title he has chosen lies in the fact that he has aimed not so much to chronicle the laying of fact upon fact in the building of the present science of electricity as to show how the progress of the human intellect is indicated by the way in which it has grappled with and overcome the problems in this field that have successively presented themselves. He shows how mythology, which was the world's resource for explaining strange phenomena when the lodestone became known, gave way to philosophy, and how philosophy in turn yielded its sway to science. Who first discovered that a freely suspended magnet will point north and south our author does not undertake to say, but from a careful examination of the allusions to the use of the compass in Chinese writings, and a consideration of the Chinese character, he is convinced that it was not the Chinese. For several centuries the development of the compass was the only advance in the field of magnetism made by Arabs or Northmen or the peoples of western Europe. Roger Bacon made some interesting observations on the compass, but it appears that the French engineer, Peter Perigrinus, of whom Bacon speaks in glowing terms, made an experimental study of this instrument, which was far more fruitful than any earlier efforts. Among other things he revealed the law that unlike magnetic poles mutually attract, he invented several forms of compass, including the first which could be constantly used to steer by as the modern mariner's compass is used, and he proposed the first magnetic (electric) motor. Columbus figures in Mr. Benjamin's history as discovering the line of no variation of the compass needle. After him comes Hartmann, who discovered the dip of the needle, then Sarpi, whom Galileo addresses as "my father and my master," Porta, Cardano, and other learned Italian physicians of the sixteenth century. These men prepared the way for the important advances made by Queen Elizabeth's physician William Gilbert, who is rightly regarded as the founder of the science of electricity, even if Francis Bacon could never appreciate his talents. The young science was fostered by Galileo and Descartes and von Guericke and the Abbé Nollet on the Continent, by Newton and Boyle and Hauksbee in England. Other men, also, less known to fame, were at work upon electrical problems during the same period. Gilbert's discoveries did not fail to raise up a swarm of charlatans, among whom Van Helmont and Kenelm Digby stand forth prominently. The history stops with Franklin's demonstration that lightning and electricity are identical. This, says Mr. Benjamin, "brings to culmination the long series of events whereby the single incomprehensible effect observed in the lodestone and the amber gradually grew into recognition as a world force, subject to universal law and pervading all Nature." The volume is tasteful as to its mechanical features, and is embellished by reproductions of many of the portraits and quaint engravings in the early books from which its material has been drawn.

Those who are desirous of improving the environment of the poor may obtain valuable guidance from the eighth special report of the United States Commissioner of Labor.[2] As would be expected, the greater part of the report is devoted to model dwellings, other matters receiving some consideration in the fore part of the volume. Dr. Gould tells what is being done to secure better housing for the poor in New York, the chief cities of Great Britain, and more briefly in western Europe, through building and sanitary laws, and municipal condemnation of insanitary houses. Sanitary aid societies have greatly furthered this end by co-operating with or spurring on the public authorities in their work. A form of private effort that has done much good is the rent-collecting agency of Miss Octavia Hill, in London. The method pursued by her and the assistants whom she has trained is both businesslike and philanthropic. She buys tenement houses with capital furnished by those interested in her work, and undertakes the collection of rents or the whole management of buildings for others, at fixed rates. She rewards prompt payments and proper use of the premises by making repairs and improvements in the buildings. The incorrigible are turned out, but by the use of tact the number of these is kept very small. The moral influence of her system has been to admit women to a greater extent into the management of housing companies. In his account of model buildings Dr. Gould takes up successively "block buildings" or flats, small houses, and lodging houses. He describes model block buildings in Brooklyn, New York, and Boston, and in large cities of Great Britain, France, Germany, Holland, and Sweden. Views and plans of many of these buildings are given, which show that in securing convenient interiors neat and attractive exteriors have not been sacrificed. Nearly all of the groups of small houses described have been erected by large commercial corporations for their workpeople. Judging from the number of examples given here, France and Germany seem to lead in this sort of dwellings. In the United States examples are taken from Maine, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Illinois. The model lodging houses described are confined to Baltimore and five British cities. The author of this report has given prominence to the financial returns from model houses, being convinced that there can be no permanent solution of the housing problem unless improved housing can be shown to pay. Moreover, for the sake of the self-respect in the persons benefited, which a wise philanthropy seeks to build up, such operations should be self-supporting. Model housing has a view to the morals as well as the health of the tenants, aiming to correct the abuse of adults and children of both sexes huddling into the same sleeping rooms. In cities rapid transit has an important influence on the housing problem. For the workingman's purposes space is measured by time, not by distance. Taking into consideration all the agencies that are now operating against unwholesome congestion, the outlook is decidedly hopeful.

There is much food for thought in the relation between man and the animals that he has trained to his service. The most obvious result of their association with him has been to promote most efficiently his ascendency over the actively hostile or inertly resistant features of his environment. This association, also, has greatly modified the numbers, distribution, and development of the domesticated animals, while the necessity of controlling and caring for his dependents has had its influence upon the intellectual growth of man himself. These considerations and others are suggested in the attractive volume on the Domesticated Animals[3] recently issued from the press of the Scribners. It is no dry and formal treatise that Prof. Shaler here presents, nor yet a string of more or less authentic "stories about animals." He has pursued a happy mean by giving facts not only interesting in themselves but having a bearing also upon those problems of the origin, evolution, and intelligence of animals with which science has long been engaged. The first place in the volume is given to the dog—the first of the lower animals to be domesticated. Prof. Shaler discusses the ancestry of domesticated dogs, the variations induced by civilization, the evils of specialized breeding, and the future development of the species. He describes the peculiarities of character exhibited in the principal breeds, and gives considerable attention to canine intelligence, especially with reference to the expression of emotions. The intelligence of dogs is also compared with that of other animals, and it is only in this comparison that cats figure in the book. The horse is described in much the same way as the dog. Briefer consideration is given to the beasts for burden, food, and raiment, among which camels, elephants, and pigs are included with the commoner kinds. There is an interesting chapter on barnyard and water fowl, pigeons, song birds, and falcons; the few useful insects are also duly considered. Prof. Shaler takes up the question, which has appeared only in recent times, as to how far it is justifiable to inflict pain upon animals for the benefit of man, and seeks to reconcile the opposing views on this subject now current. He has something to say, also, on the general conditions of domestication, which indicate the possible future of the art. The volume is handsomely printed, and is bound and generously illustrated in the style of the day.

  1. The Intellectual Rise in Electricity, By Park Benjamin. Pp. GU, 8vo. New York: D. Appleton & Co. Price, $4.
  2. The Housing of the Working People. Prepared under the Direction of Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor, by E. R. L. Gould, Ph. D. Pp. 461, 8vo. Washington.
  3. Domesticated Animals. By Nathaniel Southgate Shaler. Pp. 267, 8vo. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. Price, $2.50.