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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/February 1900/South Sea Bubbles in Science

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | February 1900








THE advances in science lead to hopes of the sudden accumulation of gold, just as the discovery of new worlds led our ancestors to invest in many inflated enterprises of commerce and conquest. This older temptation has passed away, for there are no new worlds to discover, and this small globe has been practically staked out; but the mysterious domains of science are still illimitable, and afford vast opportunities for inflated schemes which have their prototype in the South Sea Bubble.

Let us refresh our memory of this surprising delusion. It arose in the reign of Queen Anne, nearly one hundred and eighty years ago, and when we consider the extent of the speculation and gambling which it caused and the number of those who lost everything and who consigned their families to bitter poverty, we are tempted to class it with those other calamities which preceded it and which afflicted England so heavily—the great fire of London and the plague. The South Sea Company claimed to have enormous sources of profit in certain exclusive privileges, obtained from the Spanish Government, for trading in their possessions in South America and Mexico; and it may be well for us in these times of the flotation of schemes for obtaining gold from salt water and from sands, of power from air and something more ethereal than • air, to be reminded of the many bubbles that came into existence and burst at the time of the collapse of the South Sea Bubble.

The stock of the South Sea Company rose from one hundred to a thousand, and an army of future victims crowded the offices of the company, anxious to invest in what they believed would suddenly enrich them. Indeed, all England seemed to go mad, and the craze of the time is reflected in the writings of Pope and Swift. Pope says:

"At length corruption like a general flood
Did deluge all; and avarice creeping on,
Spread like a low-born mist, and hid the sun.
Statesmen and patriots plied alike the stocks,
Peeress and butler shared alike the box;
And judges jobbed, and bishops bit the town.
And mighty dukes packed cards for half a crown;
Britain was sunk in lucre's sordid charms."

The rise of the great bubble was accompanied by the formation of hundreds of minor ones. Among these we will mention a few which are pertinent to the subject of this paper:

A wheel for perpetual motion. Capital, one million pounds.

For extracting silver from lead.

For the transmutation of quicksilver into a malleable fine metal.

Puckles Machine Company, for discharging round and square cannon balls and bullets, and making a total revolution in "the art of war."

For carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, "but nobody to know what it is."

It is estimated that the proposed capital for floating these and similar schemes was three hundred million pounds. We find, in the annals of the time, that the Duchess of Marlborough persuaded her husband, John Churchill, the great general, not to increase his holdings, and to sell his shares; he, like a sensible man, took a sensible woman's advice and made one hundred thousand pounds. When we come to speak of the connection of women with modern delusions, we must remember this act of one of their sex.

At this time, nearly two hundred years after the singular outbreak of chimerical projects of Queen Anne's reign, we can match some of these bubbles almost exactly; for have we not had the Keeley motor, the extraction of gold from salt water, and is there not great activity in making the wonder of the public over some advance in science a source of money-making? The unscientific person is certainly open to a new danger in the increasing tendency to promote enterprises based upon some new scientific discovery, and it behooves the followers of science to suggest a remedy for this growing evil. I shall endeavor to do my part in this paper in pointing out the necessity of some oracular medium—a scientific oracle of Delphos—to which the common man can repair and get trustworthy information, for it is a melancholy fact that such information can not be obtained from the daily press or from the literary magazines of the time.

Many of our newspapers draw such an income from their advertising columns that the editors are unwilling to print any criticism which would lead to the restriction of this source of gain; thus if a company promoting a scientific bubble should advertise liberally in a leading newspaper, the editors are usually loath to insert an article upon the scheme, for the printing of the criticism might lead to the withdrawal of the advertisement. It is possible that the editors of such daily papers have not overmuch confidence in the judgment of scientific men, for have not the latter often been mistaken? There was Lardner, who prophesied that steamships could not cross the Atlantic, but we must remember that Lardner was not a scientific man; he was a popularizer of science, and never made a scientific investigation. It is said that there have been college professors who have denied the possibility of sending messages under the ocean. This I also doubt, for I am a witness in the flesh of the way such stories can arise. Not long since I was invited to speak before a commercial club, and the presiding officer, in introducing me, remarked: "The professor will now address you on the advances in electricity. When I was in college I well remember his describing an electric motor and his remark that it would never become a practical invention." There was, of course, laughter, and the president sat down with a comfortable air of having made a point. The professor pointed out that the presiding officer graduated before he became professor in the university, and before the Gramme machine and the electric motor were invented. Nevertheless, the world loves to believe in the inaccuracy of the accurate, and even a sophomore takes infinite delight in discovering arithmetical mistakes in an edition of Newton's Principia.

I mention this proneness to believe that scientific men are apt to be mistaken, for it is a blame laid at their doors often by the promoters of scientific bubbles, and for a very easily understood reason, and the editors of newspapers and literary magazines can ease their consciences after publishing sensational scientific articles by reflecting on the fallibility of the followers of science. Lawyers and judges, too, make their mistakes; nevertheless, we continue to resort to them for advice; and few editors, I imagine, would dare to publish a legal opinion without consulting an authority in law. Yet we read every day so-called scientific articles in newspapers and magazines which have evidently never been submitted to competent critics. Have we not read statements of the possibility of exploding powder magazines oh board ships by electric waves; of the manufacture of liquid air without the expenditure of energy; of electricity direct from coal; papers on the nebular theory, more nebulous than any nebula yet discovered? When we read a broad sheet in the morning paper setting forth a glowing scheme to manufacture power out of nothing, to what oracle can we repair to ascertain the truth? It is true that common sense might lead the reader to reflect that when he is told that the shares can now be obtained for five dollars, but in a short time they will be advanced to ten dollars, and now is the time to invest, that such good things are quickly taken up without the necessity of advertising. When the morning mail brings a prospectus of a company formed to make diamonds by electricity, a company with ten million dollars capital (why not one hundred millions?), to whom should one go to allay the fever of sudden gain? While men and women will carefully consider which line of steamships to Europe is the best equipped with engines, the efficiency of which depends upon the laws that prove the impossibility of perpetual motion, they enter at the same time upon schemes to obtain power without the consumption of work.

We are indeed confronted with the curious fact that even so-called intelligent people can be led to believe that what we have learned in regard to the working of Nature may be thrown aside, and that some new and unrelated laws may rule supreme. Thus we have what is called Christian Science, one of the intuitional sciences which may be said to add a new peril to matrimony. We find cultivated men believing that a government can make money by pronouncing silver equal to gold. Thus there are those who fondle their delusions and those who bank upon credulity. Education seems to be ineffectual with some temperaments; on the whole, however, it has a saving grace, and there are undoubtedly a number in the community who would welcome a source of scientific authority which might answer for them just as the Times does in political and economic questions to an Englishman. The American has especial reason to fear scientific bubbles, for our patent laws make it comparatively easy for promoters to make a great show of vested rights. One method is to build an imposing plant, with powerful dynamos and with a multiplicity of electrical devices, and to capitalize for an enormous sum an expensive plant in sight with millions in patents of very little value. The proposed investor is taken to see the great plant; its magnitude appeals to his reverence for size, and his pocketbook is soon at the service of the promoter. Another method is to select some scheme which is on the borderland between physics and chemistry, such as the electrolytic method of obtaining gold from salt water. There is a minute quantity of gold in salt water, and the chemist, thinking that electricity miglit afford an economical method of treating large quantities of water, is reticent in regard to such a scheme, while the electrician, ignorant of chemistry, is ready to concede that the chemists may have found a cheap extractor, so the promoter can play the chemist against the electrician, and there is no arbitrator in sight. The American is peculiarly in peril from the absence of a large body of men trained in technical science, such as exist in Germany. He also has been unduly excited, and his desire for love of sudden wealth stimulated by phenomenal successes. The commercial triumph of the telephone has led to a multitude of scientific bubbles, and has resulted, like the discovery of gold in the Klondike, in a rush into electrical schemes which have been held up to a hungry crowd of victims as second only to the Bell telephone.

While the telegraph and the telephone can prevent speculations like the South Sea Bubble in a great measure, for such schemes were much aided by a lack of a general dissemination of intelligence, and this lack is supplied by a quick interchange of knowledge, they bring their own peculiar peril, for they are examples of what profit may be reaped from discovery in the world of science. The commercial enterprises of the world have been brought within reach of the many by the telegraph and telephone. They no longer belong to the few, while the successful working of the field of science is still confined to a minority and the general public; even the cultivated people are very ignorant of the approaches to the New El Dorado. No bogus land scheme or salted mining enterprise can be kept in existence to-day for a long period; but the Keeley motor, with its ethereal vibrations and its pseudo-molecular motions, was limited in activity only by the life of the promoter. Instead of the alchemists we have the seekers after power, which costs nothing, and in the train of the honest inventor there are unscrupulous promoters ready to capitalize any remarkable new fact or discovery which attracts public attention.

I have mentioned the influence of the first Duchess of Marlborough in inducing her husband, the great duke, to sell out his shares in the South Sea Bubble when they had risen to a high value because this example of discrimination and prudence in a woman supports one in the belief that all women are not prone to invest in women's bank schemes, in Keeley motors, or in enterprises for "carrying on an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is." One of my friends recently visited the office of a company which proposed to produce power without the expenditure of a due amount of energy, and found among those anxious to invest a woman who said that she had just received a dividend from the company for extracting gold from salt water, and she was anxious to invest it in the new power company. The dividend was the result of a liquidation of the Gold from Sea Water Company, and represented half of her original sum. She had come out of one delusion with a loss of half of her property, and was now ready to enter another one with the remaining half. It was an old-fashioned notion that women should be kept in ignorance of business, for business knowledge, it was thought, was the concern of the husbands. This notion prevails still in some quarters, and there may be some connection between the number of women in Christian Science temples and their lack of education in practical matters, or in what may be called the legal business habit—a habit which weighs the probabilities of this and that, and leads to ways of exact thinking.

One of the remedies for this proneness of women to invest in scientific bubbles, to invest money on faith, is the lack of exact training, which is not acquired by them either in private schools or colleges. The classes of philosophy and psychology in women's colleges are crowded, while those in the exact sciences have only handfuls. This remark also applies to the students in men's colleges, and we realize in this respect how closely college women imitate college men. They follow the latter also in the habit of taking lecture courses, a custom which increases vagueness, inaccuracy of thought, and looseness of statement. This choice of studies by the young women in their colleges is a serious question for mankind, in view of the speculative spirit which the feminine sex show toward scientific bubbles and schemes which promise an inordinate rate of interest; for the graduates of these colleges will become teachers of youth, and if not teachers they have an influence upon the coming citizen during his formative period. As teachers they will far outnumber men teachers, and they are fast coming into competition with men also in the routine of business offices and in certain positions in commercial houses. In these activities they will need a balance of judgment, exactness of thought, and business habits. They should be given a sufficient knowledge of the elements of physical science to know that power can not be created from nothing, and that the great mass of our knowledge of mechanics and of the relation of electricity to mechanics can not be overturned by any new discovery. Whatever is discovered must be related to what has preceded it. This is a characteristic of a science, and this is what distinguishes it from a delusion—namely, the great body of related facts put upon a mechanical basis, so that any fact can be substantiated and any phenomenon repeated. When this latter test is applied to many of the isms of the day they fade into thin air, and young women need especially to be taught to apply such a test. It would seem as if the present choice of study by women students tended to intensify vagueness of thought rather than to correct it, to keep them in ignorance of business habits rather than to educate them in the balance of judgment on economic questions.

Women are born speculators, and are peculiarly prone to invest money and heart in bubbles. Being the power behind the throne, they can carry men into action, and it seems to me that especial attention should be paid in women's colleges to the studies that cultivate accurate thought and business methods. A certain amount of the study of scientific methods and a study of common law might take the place of the study of philosophy, psychology, and biology, certainly in the first years of a woman's college course, for psychology and biology are studies which demand long scientific training and maturity of thought. Recently I heard the following conversation at a bank in Cambridge. The cashier was speaking with a young lady: "Miss ——, your friend has overdrawn her account three hundred dollars, and you say she has left Cambridge." "Yes, the trouble with Jane is she is too much educated." A long residence in a university town makes one wary of educational theories, but the proneness of women to invest in women's banks and bogus trust companies certainly seems to need a corrective in a new college curriculum. Men can indulge in delusions and can recover mental balance, and perhaps their fortunes; but women are apt to become bankrupt permanently. Their experience in business delusions is similar to that in affairs of the heart. Washington Irving says of this feminine attribute:

"She sends forth her sympathies on adventure; she embarks her whole soul in the traffic of affection, and if shipwrecked her case is hopeless, for it is a bankruptcy of the heart."

More mathematics and science, and less philosophy and psychology, might correct that vagueness of thought which leads both men and women into delusion.

Now for our other remedies. Shall we have an academy which shall issue storm warnings of scientific bubbles? I fear that the influence of academies is waning, and that the conviction that there are as many good men outside of the academy as inside would militate against their dicta. We could have courts of scientific appeal, with judges appointed by the State to sit on scientific questions of perplexity, and to sift expert opinions. Such a constitution of scientific courts might be a good thing in several ways—a saving health to the public. The college professor would certainly be greatly relieved of endeavors of promoters to use the name and reputation of the professor's university, and incidentally the little his own name might add. This remedial solution is not in sight, and we must direct our vision in another direction. We know that the newspaper can not serve us, for we seek to kill sensations, and it seeks to live on them. We are bound to turn to some journal or periodical which will publish only what it considers sound science and will eschew sensational science; a journal which, just as the London Times is regarded as the authority on political and economical questions, will be looked up to as an authority on matters of science.

In order, therefore, to protect the public against scientific bubbles we must impress upon both men and women the fact that an education in science is desirable, and is becoming more important as the world grows older; but until a scientific education becomes more general, it is important that there should be some scientific oracle of Delphos, and I can not think of any better than a well-managed scientific journal, the editors of which will seek for the best information on scientific questions which interest the financial world. When it is known that such a journal admits to its pages nothing that is sensational, when it is realized that the best specialists contribute to it, surely it will become a saving help in times of trouble.