Popular Science Monthly/Volume 59/June 1901/Progress and Tendency of Mechanical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century II

Popular Science Monthly Volume 59 June 1901  (1901) 
Progress and Tendency of Mechanical Engineering in the Nineteenth Century II by Robert Henry Thurston


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IN 1800, Galvani and Volta had sewed the seed, and since has sprung up the whole science and art of electrical physics. Ten years ago we had about 700 miles of electric railway; to-day about 15,000 miles are in operation in the United States alone; a thousand millions of dollars are invested in the stock, and an army of two hundred thousand men is employed by them, mainly in the great cities, but with steady growth towards all sections and into all aggregations of population. Two thousand millions of dollars are reported to be now invested in apparatus of electrical distributions of energy, converted ultimately into light and power. About two-thirds of a billion of dollars are invested in the property of the electric light companies. We have between one and two million miles of telephone wire, and can talk from Boston to Chicago; from Chicago to San Francisco will soon be found an easy conversational distance. The Bell Company alone owns a million miles of wire, a million and a half instruments, and receives six millions of dollars a year from its business. The world, outside the United States, utilizes not quite as much capital in this most wonderful of the inventions of the century as does our own country, having about a half-million exchanges to our six hundred thousand and over on the Bell system alone.

Of steam power, about twenty millions of the engineers' 'horsepower,' the equivalent of perhaps seventy-five, or even possibly more nearly a hundred, millions of horse-power developed by animal forces, move the fleets of the world, merchant and naval, and drive our ships across every sea. It even has been found practicable to apply steam-power to the sewing machine, and of the million or more manufactured in the United States and the fifty per cent, added to the total by other nations, a very considerable fraction are operated by steam-power, and of the hundred thousand people engaged in its manufacture and the millions engaged in its use, a corresponding proportion are aided by this mighty engine of civilization. Steam supplies the power for driving the machinery which produces a quarter of a million mowers and reapers in the United States—an unknown industry a century ago—and thus, with the help of the steam-plow and other machinery of agriculture, all inventions of the century, secures for the nation a foreign market for two hundred millions of dollars' worth of grain and flour, a surplus left us after feeding our own population as the people of no other country are, or ever were, fed. Farms of tens of thousands of acres in area can now be thus cheaply cultivated.

Electrical engineering is to-day one of the most impressive of all modern developments in mechanical engineering, and the whole world is coming to be served by the installation of the machinery of our light and power distribution 'plants.' While it is true, as often remarked, that electrical engineering is not only a department of mechanical engineering, but one which involves, in large proportion, design, construction and operation in the more familiar departments of mechanical engineering as fundamental bases, it is none the less true that electrical engineering is most closely approximate to pure science and most distinctive in its own character among all specialties taken up by the engineer as individual vocations. The machinery of the business involves all the principles of design and construction taught the mechanical engineer, and the scientific side, once almost purely such, now attaches itself to the mechanical as a lesser to a greater. The whole of this enormous accession to the world's industries has come in within the last half-century, practically, and the telegraph, the telephone, the electric light and the electric railway have succeeded one another since that date. The last is the outcome of the last quarter-century.

The energy which carries the telegram along the wires to-day comes from the steam-engine, which is now a principal and most absolutely essential element; telephones, like telegraph instruments, are the output of most extensive and important manufacturing establishments; electric light and power distributions are all systems of distribution of the power of the steam-engine. To-day there are probably $3,000,000,000 invested, in our country alone, in telegraphs, telephones and electric distributions, of which the larger part by far is invested in the latter. In fact, Mr. T. C. Martin reckons a still larger total, and computes these figures: telegraph, $250,000,000; telephones, $300,000,000; electric lighting, $1,300,000,000; electric railways, $1,800,000,000; other uses of electric power, $250,000,000; manufacturing, $150,000,000; storage batteries, etc., $25,000,000; total, $3,975,000,000, about four thousand millions, nearly four billions, of dollars.

More seductive even than the problems of the electrical engineer, more deceitfully promising than any one of the great problems of the age, seemingly more completely solved in its subsidiary elements and almost on the very verge of solution, completely and perfectly, is the task assigned the inventor from the earliest days of the world, from the day when the first man saw the first bird rise from under his feet and wing its way toward the heavens, safe, free and joyous: the problem of aërodromics, of aviation and aëronautics. Inventors attacked this problem in prehistoric times, and have never ceased their endeavors; for there is no invention, and never has been imagined an invention more attractive to the mind of man; nor is there any invention the perfection of which would have more interest for mankind or illustrate more splendidly the triumph of the mind of man over the conditions which hem him in. Yet the century which has seen such marvelous, almost catastrophic, evolutions in all other fields has seen its end without final success here.

Yet some important advances have been made. The dirigible balloon has become capable of contending with moderate winds, and of traversing still air in any direction at moderate speed and for small distances; the balloon itself and its motors are taking definite form and standard proportions, especially in the hands of the military staff of the armies of European nations. Our own army officers have not, so far as known, entered upon this task, though having at hand the most royal inventors of the world. Count Zeppelin probably illustrates the furthest advance in this department.

In aërodromics. Professor Langley has completely developed the fundamental principles of self-sustaining flight, and has revealed the fact that there are far fewer and far less formidable obstacles to be overcome in this direction than had been previously supposed. His researches are the classics of this division of applied science, and his experimental investigations of the laws of this science will permanently stand as the first important steps in the development of the rational basis of all future work, and as the foundations of aërodromic science; while his extraordinary work in the practical evolution of the aerodrome—the more wonderful as the work of a scientific man whose vocations, and until recently whose avocations, have been in quite other departments than those of mechanical construction—will always remain famous as the first deliberate and successful attempt to carry into practice principles thus revealed. In the nineteenth century, we may at least claim, these first advances on firm grounds have been effected, and we need not be at all surprised if, in the earlier years of the new century, complete success, so far as the mechanical engineering of the case is concerned, shall be attained. There is some reason to doubt whether commercial success will follow—not that it is in itself inherently impossible, but that it is a question whether, in the presence of the competition of the more advantageous methods of transportation on solid land and with the buoyant and hardly less effective support of the ocean wave, conveyance of passengers and of merchandise can not always be generally effected vastly more safely and cheaply. Yet that there will be found a place and purpose for aviation, in time of war if not in time of peace, and even probably for profitable employment, we may not doubt.

Steam is apparently coming, as the various other motor-fluids are, into use on the highway, and, after an interregnum of a half-century or more, due to the stupidity of legislators mainly, the automobile, in innumerable forms and on innumerable 'systems,' is once again displacing the horse in city streets and, in less degree, perhaps, on country roads, and is promising ere long to do a large part of our transportation of merchandise over short routes and off the line of the railway. Thousands are now in use in this country and abroad, and tens—hundreds, nominally—of millions of dollars are invested in their manufacture.

In infinite variety the progress of invention thus reveals itself. Individuals, nations, even continents and worlds have courses like that of the rocket: rising with rapid acceleration, upward and onward, to a culmination, when a sudden development of energy from latent form occurs, and a brilliant illumination for the moment surprises and enlightens us; then the limit is attained, the path curves over and downward, and after a brief period, downward acceleration begins and its career presently comes to an end. This is not the history of invention, which is never self-limited; a step made is never retraced. The progress of the day is not only recorded in written and printed history and permanently preserved, but is given a still more permanent record in the life and habits and traditions of the people, and each invention and each new advance is the basis of a later and still higher progress. The only limit to be expected to this advancement of civilization, through invention and the mechanic arts, is that set by some catastrophe which shall ultimately involve the life of the race, having its source in natural evolutions of a physical character, and bringing to an end all the activities of mankind in some probably far-distant generation.

The extent to which the specialization consequent upon the changes in the mechanism and methods of manufactures have progressed during the century just past, may be realized more fully when it is understood that, for example, in the making of a watch, there may be fifteen or sixteen hundred operations conducted with the help of five or six hundred machines by as many operatives, each of whom necessarily acquires wonderful expertness in tasks thus repeated constantly, hour by hour, day by day, throughout the working day and the calendar year. These movements become intuitive and automatic; their accuracy and rapidity become almost incredible, and the human machine, through its internal automatism, thus relieves the mind and gives it freedom from stress and fatigue in a manner unknown to the worker of earlier days. The labor-assisting machinery also thus enables the operative to produce, without serious toil and fatigue, from ten to a hundred times as much of his special product as could his unaided predecessor in the vocation with, however, more concentrated attention giving far less skill and accuracy. The inventor and the mechanic thus illustrate the immense difference in value and efficiency to be observed between work of brain and work of muscle alone.

Meantime the worker receives larger wages; each dollar will buy more of the necessaries of life, vastly more of its comforts. Clothing is better, cheaper and more plentiful; food is better, of greater variety and is easier obtained; wages have gone up and prices have gone down; the average citizen finds it easier to secure employment at remunerative wages; he secures a larger and a larger proportion of the earnings of capital and labor, and he obtains more opportunities for incidental profit and for paying investments of his more easily acquired savings. The savings banks of the country are now finding difficulty in caring for his accumulations, while the larger capitalist is finding no less difficulty in securing a fair return on invested capital in large amounts.

Twenty years ago, when preparing the second annual address of the then President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, I wrote:[1]

"I have sometimes said that the world was waiting for the appearance of three great inventors, yet unknown, for whom it has in store honors and emoluments far exceeding all ever yet accorded to any one of their predecessors.

"The first is the man who is to show how, by the consumption of coal, we may directly produce electricity, and thus, perhaps, evade that now inevitable and enormous loss that comes of the utilization of energy in all heat-engines driven by substances of variable volume. Our electrical engineers have this great step still to take, and are apparently not likely soon to gain the prize that may yet reward some genius yet to be born.

"The second of these greatest inventors is he who will teach us the source of the beautiful soft-beaming light of the firefly and the glow-worm, and will show us how to produce this singular illuminant, and to apply it-with success practically and commercially. This wonderful light, free from heat and from consequent loss of energy, is nature's substitute for the crude and extravagantly wasteful lights of which we have, through so many years, been foolishly boasting. The dynamo-electrical engineer has nearly solved this problem. Let us hope that it may be soon fully solved, and by one of those among our own colleagues who are now so earnestly working in this field, and that we may all live to see him steal the glow-worm's light, and to see the approaching days of Vril predicted so long ago by Lord Lytton.

"The third great genius is the man who is to fulfil Darwin's prophecy (1759), closing the stanza:

"Soon shall thy arm, unconquered steam, afar
Drag the slow barge or drive the rapid car,
Or, on wide-waving wings expanded bear
The flying chariot through the fields of air."

Of these three inventors none has yet appeared, and their coming may prove to be the great events of the twentieth century. The task set for the first has been often attacked by later men of science, and especially the chemists; but, while some real progress has been made, the purpose of this inventor is not accomplished and seems little, if any, nearer accomplishment than at the end of the last quarter-century. But the time will yet come, we at least may reasonably hope, if not predict, when a way will be found thus to increase the availability of the stored energy of our fuel deposits, until they shall furnish ten times the power and energy now obtainable from each ton of fuel; thus correspondingly lengthening the period of human life and work in the temperate regions of the earth. Were this to-day possible, the endurance of the Pennsylvania coal-beds as sources of power would be lengthened from the present anticipated century to a millennium, and the thirtieth century, instead of only the twentieth, would profit by them. Great Britain might hope to continue a manufacturing nation for five centuries to come, and the world might gain ten times as much permanent wealth, by its use of the latent energy of fuel, as now seems possible.

The mechanical engineer, the electrician and the chemist have here an incentive to a most magnificent task and a noble rivalry.

The second of our great triumvirate of inventors or discoverers is more certainly coming. His advent is indicated by the electrical engineer and the physicist in their use of electrical energy of enormously high tension; while the biological chemist is now a close second in the race, through his researches in the field of low-temperature combustion and amongst the animal forms producing light and electricity without heat—the animal machines in which the processes of nature are seen already accomplishing the task. This being done, the engineer will be able to reduce the cost of lighting, as measured in power, to one-twentieth its present amount, and as measured in fuel, if he can combine these two improvements effectively, to one-two-hundredth its amount to-day, proportionally reducing the intimidating waste now going on in our deposits of irreplaceable natural stores of power.

The third inventor is also here with a crude beginning of his task, and while, at the commencement of the nineteenth century, he was a subject of unsparing ridicule, and even sometimes by able men within the last decade, he would be a bold man who should to-day dare to assert the improbability of the coming century seeing the problem solved, so far as its engineering is concerned. The commercial problem must be left to take care of itself—as it always has done hitherto.

All these are evidently problems affecting vitally all progress in the future of energy-production in the field of mechanical engineering. When complete conversion of energy is effected by any mechanism employing our natural sources of energy, the task of the builder of the air-ship is rendered less difficult, the cost of light-production is made easier and the utilization of the latent energy of fuel through the heat-engine is made comparatively insignificant in cost.

This much is revealed to us through 'The Great Discovery of the Age,' as some one has rightly called it: the discovery and experimentally confirmed 'Law of Substance,' as Haeckel denominates it, the principle in nature which I enunciated a quarter of a century ago thus:

"All that exists, whether matter or force, or their product, energy, and in whatever form, is indestructible except by the infinite power which has created it."[2]

This principle, probably as old as Aristotle, or older, enunciated by Cicero when he declared, "One eternal and immutable law embraces all things and all times;" experimentally proved, at least qualitatively, by Rumford in the latter part of the eighteenth century, confirmed by Davy, proved and quantitatively illustrated by Mayer, by Joule and by Rowland and numerous contemporary investigators, the Law of Substance of Haeckel, is itself a nineteenth century product and the basis of our whole system of energy production, transmutation and transmission, the foundation of the whole superstructure in mechanical engineering and of its wealth-production, and of human progress and higher human life.

Education in applied science and in the principles directly underlying the work of the engineer, in common schools, secondary schools and professional schools and colleges, an education which has seen as much improvement as have the arts and sciences themselves, has had much to do with the later progress of mechanical engineering, especially in the United States. Systematic instruction in the departments of mechanical engineering, such as is now obtainable by almost any young man determined to secure it, not only has much to do with our progress at the moment, but it is this phase of education, in our state colleges particularly, which is settling the tendency of the flow of the rising tide for the immediate future, and probably for all coming time. Although it has been a force of recognized importance and influence for less than a single generation, and has had a distinct and special position among 'the educations' for a very brief period, it has already done much to correct the defects of the industrial system of our country—still more that of France and that of Germany, hardly less that of Great Britain—and also to systematize our industries. The discoveries of science and the inventions of our mechanics ""furnish material to be utilized by the alumni of our technical and professional schools and colleges as they can be by no other class in the community; the scientific method of the schools and the scientific knowledge of their graduates, and the hands and brains of the new leaders of the industrial army give perfected organization and improved administration to every branch of the great economical, machine-like, modern industrial system. Even where these well-trained officers are not in command, their influence is felt, and every member of the organization works in accordance with their more efficient systems. The whole nation is rapidly learning how to make the most and best of its powers, as well as how to profit by growing opportunities and acquisitions.

Thomas Huxley, admittedly an authority on the subject of scientific training, said, in his Mason College address:

"Neither the discipline nor the subject-matter of classical education is of such direct value to the student of physical science as to justify the expenditure of valuable time on either." . . . "For the purpose of attaining real culture, an exclusively scientific education is at least as effectual as an exclusively literary education."

Huxley was a member of nearly all the royal commissions on education of his time, and had large opportunities for observation and investigation in this field. His views were founded on extensive and rare experience and sound knowledge; none could speak with greater authority. He says in one of his addresses on this subject:

"The great mass of mankind have neither the liking nor the aptitude for either literary or scientific or artistic pursuits; nor, indeed, for excellence of any sort. Their ambition is to go through life with moderate exertion and a fair share of ease, doing common things in a common way. And a great blessing and a comfort it is that the majority of men are of this mind; for the majority of things to be done are common things, and are quite well enough done when commonly done. The great end of life is not knowledge, but action. What men need is as much knowledge as they can assimilate and organize into a basis for action; give them more and it may become injurious. One knows people who are heavy and stupid from undigested learning, as others are from over-fulness of meat and drink. But a small percentage of the population is born with that most excellent quality, the desire for excellence, or with special aptitude of some sort or other. . . . Now, the most important object of all educational schemes is to catch those exceptional people and turn them to account for the good of society. No man can say where they will crop up; like their opposites, the fools and the knaves, they appear sometimes in the palace, sometimes in the hovel; but the great thing aimed at, I was almost going to say the important end of all social arrangements, is to keep these glorious sports of Nature from being corrupted by luxury or starved by poverty, and to put them into the positions in which they can do the work for which they are specially fitted. . . . I weigh my words well when I say that if the nation could purchase a potential Watt or Davy or Faraday at the cost of a hundred thousand pounds down, he would be dirt cheap at the money."[3]

But our modern educations are producing many Watts and Davys and Faradays, and as progress continues and research becomes more and more the privilege of these 'glorious sports of Nature,' and as more and more men of genius become revealed by systematic, scientific education, the outcome must inevitably be a vastly more complete exploration of the hidden mysteries of natural phenomena and continually more and more rapid development of these as yet unexplored mines. Our Watts and Davys and Faradays are already gradually discovering the secrets of Nature's production of light without heat, of heat without wastes, of electricity within minimum weight and space, making all elements subservient with at least similar, if not equal, effectiveness with that measured by them in the animal machine—the animal machine, still concealing from them many a secret, must soon reveal all, and permit many later Watts and Davys and Faradays to make our stores of natural energies of multifold value and efficiency in the performance of the tasks of the future.

The outcome of the century, so far as our methods of education are concerned, has been the recognition and the introduction of those ideals of intellectual, technical and practical training which were the ideals of Milton and of many another great mind in earlier days, but which had never before been adopted by educators and statesmen. We have at last, however, come to see that

"The type of education and training most effective in rendering the individual most helpful to his fellows is that which gives ability to be helpful. Given the power of effectively aiding others, the sympathies will be found always present; given the means of utilizing generous impulses, they will be found always fruitfully active.

"Teach habits of physical and mental activity, and a healthy body and mind will be prolific of wholesome and noble thought; cultivate skill in fruitful industries, and the inclination to employ that skill in helpful ways will not be lacking; feed the soul with the harvests of thought of all ages, with the gleanings of the wisdom of the centuries—in whatever language, however given verbal expression—and all sympathies, latent or active, will find their destined place and work. Breed 'the soul of the sage in the body of the athlete,' and give the perfected soul, within its perfected body, ability to do for itself and others what life may demand of it, and trust that what may be done most effectively for the world will be done best by this perfected humanity, through the exercise of broadest sympathies and most efficient powers of aiding fellow men.

"It is thus that the Miltonian training, reinforced by Miltonian learning, perfected by Miltonian culture, doing most for the humblest, much for the highest, whether ranked by place or by mind, giving health to the body, skill to eye and hand, stimulus to the intellect, and greatness to the soul, will, always and everywhere, most effectively broaden the sympathies and render the individual most helpful to his fellow men."[4]

With such education of the people, a nation is assured of permanence and progress. Demagoguism may still poison its legislatures; hysteria may continue to affect its press and here and there a community; amateurism is likely to reduce for a time the efficiency of its public services; but its youth, growing up with a true Miltonian training, with not only learning, but wisdom, not only culture, but directly practical training, will steadily improve governmental, industrial and educational methods and raise the nation to higher than Platonian levels.

Thus, the Progress and Tendency of Mechanical Engineering have been like that of human life, in many ways. As the outcome of an evolution extending back into an infinite, or at least indefinite, past, its birth, the first sensible evidence of existence, occurred a century ago. ]ts growth involved the development of many and different phenomena, the perfection of all, in the adult, depending ultimately upon the perfection of each in the process of development. This mighty giant of modern civilization was conceived in liberty, nourished by law. Invention and protecting legislation, assuring to every man the fruit of his brain as of his hand, gave the child health and early and sturdy development. The introduction of new and great inventions in the early part of the century; the formulation in legal terms of our Constitution, of the patent-law and of a system of universal common-school education; the systematization of manufactures, and their care and support, until the advantages of foreign competitors were neutralized; the substitution in all departments of production of automatic and of labor-assisting machinery; the reduction of all productive vocations to scientific departments of mechanical engineering; legal provision for the cooperation of individuals, the invention of the corporation, the later cooperation of corporations in reduction of non-productive labor and the resultant decrease of costs and prices; the introduction of science and of practically applied science into the curriculum of the schools and colleges; the provision of technical and professional schools for the constructive arts and professions; the gravitation of the management of the productive, and of all industrial, operations into the hands of scientifically and practically expert men, who supplement the learning of schools by the perhaps higher learning of the arts and of the professions—all these have illustrated the progress and tendency of mechanical engineering during the nineteenth century and the plainly distinguishable tendency of the time points the way in which the twentieth century is to further illustrate this progress and tendency, in even more marked degree.

In the future, as in the recent past, the progress of invention and of the mechanic arts will undoubtedly be still onward and upward, with a still accelerated motion; the discoveries of the century may be expected to be more important and more imposing than ever before; the work of the world will be performed with a more complete system, and industrial operations of every sort will be carried on on a still larger scale. The now familiar motors, developing the energies of Nature and supplying the powcr needed to do the work of the world, will be, undoubtedly, still further improved and developed, and it may be hoped, if not fairly expected, that a new method of utilizing the latent powers of Nature may be discovered, and the requisite mechanism invented, by which to evade the inevitable loss of the larger part of that energy when developed by our present thermo-dynamic machines, and thus to secure the greater part as actually utilized, as useful power. The perfection of our machinery by improvement of details by our later inventors and the production of new and still more wonderfully productive machines, automatic and labor-multiplying, will as certainly continue, and in some fields is likely to astonish us, callous as we have become to these marvels, quite as much as were our parents surprised by the inventions of the last generations. Coöperation of labor, of capital, of manufacturing organizations, will necessarily go on, and the 'captains of industry' will have continually larger and larger armies and greater and greater tasks, and we shall have generals, as well as colonels and captains and subordinates, in the vast armies of united workers of the coming century.

We shall secure a liberal supply of this world's good things by a reasonable day's labor on the part of the humblest, wealth in abundance in repayment for superior talent, industry and forethought, and comfort and a healthful and wholesome life, a happy life, will be assured to all who choose to make the most and best of opportunity, including the wealthy, whose opportunities will be readily found in the promotion of higher learning, of nobler charities and of more generous care of the physically and intellectually lame and halt and blind. We shall increase the speed of our fast trains, cross the Atlantic in less time, transport the food and clothing and wealth of the world more cheaply, and very possibly add to the fields of invention and the practically available means of transportation the long-looked-for department of aeronautics and aërodromics. We have conquered the land and the water; who shall say that Man is less equal than albatross or sparrow to the task of subduing the elements of the atmospheric world?

With further evolution in these departments, and consequent improvement in the condition of the people, all intellectual and moral conditions may be hopefully expected to improve, and the people will grow in character as they acquire knowledge, gaining intelligence as they secure ease of life, and will rise to a higher plane of rectitude and happiness as they are relieved of the grinding pressure of the poverty of earlier times.

Progress has come to be enormously rapid, and the advance of a generation is much greater than was formerly that of centuries. We may reasonably hope to see something of this multiplied progress of the coming generation; our children will see the still larger multiplication of gain of the twentieth century, and help carry the world a long way toward that ideal which has been but feebly described in Plato's Republic and More's Utopia, and has been the aspiration of all good men.

  1. Trans. Am. Soc. M. E.—1881.
  2. Proceedings of Am. Assoc, for Advancement of Science, 1878; Vice-Presidential Address: 'The Scientific Method of Advancement of Science.'—R. H. T.

    Also 'Manual of the Steam-Engine,' Vol. 1, Chap. IV, §75, p. 299, The Popular Science Monthly, March, 1901.

  3. Mitchell's sketch of The Life and Work of Huxley; Leaders in Science Series; Putnams; 1900; Chap. XI.
  4. Miltonian Teaching: an address delivered at Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, December 11, 1894.—R. H. T.