Popular Science Monthly/Volume 65/October 1904/Invention and Discovery


By Hon. CHARLES A. PARSONS, M.A., F.R.S., M.Inst.C.E.,


ON this occasion I propose to devote my remarks to the subject of invention.

It is a subject of considerable importance, not only to engineers, but also to men of science and the public generally.

I also propose to treat invention in its wider sense, and to include under the word discoveries in physics, mechanics, chemistry and geology.

Invention throughout the middle ages was held in little esteem. In most dictionaries it receives scant reference except as applied to poetry, painting and sculpture.

Shakespeare and Dryden describe invention as a kind of muse or inspiration in relation to the arts, and when taken in its general sense to be associated with deceit, as 'Return with an invention, and clap upon you two or three plausible lies.'

As to the opposition and hostility to scientific research, discovery and mechanical invention in the past, and until comparatively recent times, there can be no question, in some cases the opposition actually amounting to persecution and cruelty.

The change in public opinion has been gradual. The great inventions of the last century in science and the arts have resulted in a large increase of knowledge and the powers of man to harness the forces of nature. These great inventions have proved without question that the inventors in the past have, in the widest sense, been among the greatest benefactors of the human race. Yet the lot of the inventor until recent years has been exceptionally trying, and even in our time I scarcely think that any one would venture to describe it as altogether a happy one. The hostility and opposition which the inventor suffered in the middle ages have certainly been removed, but he still labors under serious disability in many respects under law as compared with other sections of the community. The change of public feeling in favor of discovery and invention has progressed with rapidity during the last century. Not only have private individuals devoted more time and money to the work, but societies, institutions, colleges, municipalities and governments have founded research laboratories, and in some instances have provided large endowments. These measures have increased the number of persons trained to scientific methods, and also provided greatly improved facilities for research; but perhaps one of the most important results to engineers has been the direct and indirect influence of the more general application of scientific methods to engineering.

Sir Frederick Bramwell, in his presidential address to this association in 1888, emphasized the interdependence of the scientist and the civil engineer, and described how the work of the latter has been largely based on the discoveries of the former; while the work of the engineer often provides data and adds a stimulus to the researches of the scientist. And I think his remarks might be further appropriately extended by adding that since the scientist, the engineer, the chemist, the metallurgist, the geologist, all seek to unravel and to compass the secrets of nature, they are all to a great extent interdependent on each other.

But though research laboratories are the chief centers of scientific invention, and colleges, institutions and schools train the mind to scientific methods of attack, yet in mechanical, civil and electrical engineering the chief work of practical investigation has been carried on by individual engineers, or by firms, syndicates and companies. These not only have adapted discoveries made by scientists to commercial uses, but also in many instances have themselves made such discoveries or inventions.

To return to the subject, let us for a moment consider in what invention really consists, and let us dismiss from our minds the very common conception which is given in dictionaries and encyclopedias that invention is a happy thought occurring to an inventive mind. Such a conception would give us an entirely erroneous idea of the formation of the great steps in advance in science and engineering that have been made during the last century; and, further, it would lead us to forget the fact that almost all important inventions have been the result of long training and laborious research and long-continued labor. Generally, what is usually called an invention is the work of many individuals, each one adding something to the work of his predecessors, each one suggesting something to overcome some difficulty, trying many things, testing them when possible, rejecting the failures, retaining the best, and by a process of gradual selection arriving at the most perfect method of accomplishing the end in view.

This is the usual process by which inventions are made.

Then after the invention, which we will suppose is the successful attempt to unravel some secret of nature, or some mechanical or other problem, there follows in many cases the perfecting of the invention for general use, the realization of the advance or its introduction commercially; this after-work often involves as great difficulties and requires for its accomplishment as great a measure of skill as the invention itself, of which it may be considered in many cases as forming a part.

If the invention, as is often the case, competes with or is intended to supersede some older method, then there is a struggle for existence between the two. This state of things has been well described by Mr. Fletcher Moulton. The new invention, like a young sapling in a dense forest, struggles to grow up to maturity, but the dense shade of the older and higher trees robs it of the necessary light. If it could only once grow as tall as the rest all would be easy, it would then get its fair share of light and sunshine. Thus it often occurs in the history of inventions that the surroundings are not favorable when the first attack is made, and that subsequently it is repeated by different persons, and finally under different circumstances it may eventually succeed and become established.

We may take in illustration almost any of the great inventions of undoubted utility of which we happen to have the full history—for instance, of some of the great scientific discoveries, or some of the great mechanical inventions, such as the steam-engine, the gas-engine, the steamship, the locomotive, the motor-car or some of the great chemical or metallurgical discoveries. Are not most, if not all, of these the result of the long-continued labor of many persons, and has not the financial side been, in most cases, a very important factor in securing success?

The history of the steam-engine might be selected, but I prefer on this occasion to take the internal-combustion engine, for two reasons—firstly, because its history is a typical one; and secondly, because we are to hear a paper by that able exponent and great inventor in the domain of the gas-engine, Mr. Dugald Clark, describing not only the history, but the engine in its present state of development and perfection, an engine which is able to convert the greatest percentage of heat units in the fuel into mechanical work, excepting only, as far as we at present know, the voltaic battery and living organisms.

The first true internal-combustion engine was undoubtedly the cannon, and the use in it of combustible powder for giving energy to the shot is strictly analogous to the use of the explosive mixture of gas or oil and air as at present in use in all internal-combustion engines; thus the first internal-combustion engine depended on the combination of a chemical discovery and a mechanical invention, the invention of gunpowder and the invention of the cannon.

In 1680 Huygens proposed to use gunpowder for obtaining motive power in an engine. Papin, in 1690, continued Huygens's experiments, but without success. These two inventors, instead of following the method of burning the powder under pressure, as in the cannon, adopted, in ignorance of the thermodynamic laws, an erroneous course. They exploded a small quantity of gunpowder in a large vessel with escape valves, which after the explosion caused a partial vacuum to remain in the vessel. This partial vacuum was then used to actuate a piston or engine and perform useful work. Subsequently several other inventors worked on the same lines, but all of these failed on account of two causes which now are very evident to us. Firstly, gunpowder was then, as it still is, a very expensive form of fuel, in proportion to the energy liberated on explosion; secondly, the method of burning the powder to cause a vacuum involves the waste of nearly the whole of the available energy, whereas, had it been burned under pressure, as in the cannon, a comparatively large percentage of the energy would have been converted into useful work. But even with this alteration, and however perfect the engine had been, the cost of explosives would have debarred its coming into use, except for very special purposes.

We come a century later to the first real gas-engine. Street, in 1794, proposed the use of vapor of turpentine in an engine on methods closely analogous to those successfully adopted in the Lenoir gas-engine of eighty years later, or thirty years ago. But Street's engine failed from crude and faulty construction. Brown, in 1823, tried Huygens's vacuum method, using fuel to expand air instead of gunpowder, but he also failed, probably on account of the wastefulness of the method.

Wright, in 1833, made a really good gas-engine, having many of the essential features of some of the gas-engines of the present day, such as separate gas and water pumps, and water-jacketed cylinder and piston.

Barnett, in 1839, further improved on Wright's design, and made the greatest advance of any worker in gas-engines. He added the fundamental improvements of compression of the explosive mixture before combustion, and he devised means of lighting the mixture under pressure, and his engine conformed closely to the present-day practise as regards fundamental details. No doubt Barnett's engine, so perfect in principle, deserved commercial success, but either his mechanical skill or his financial resources were inadequate to the task, and the character of the patents would seem to favor this conclusion, both as regards Barnett and other workers at this period. Up to 1850 the workers were few, but as time went on they gradually increased in number; attention had been attracted to the subject, and men with greater powers and resources appear to have taken the problem in hand. Among these numerous workers came Lenoir, in 1860, who, adopting the inferior type of non-compression engine, made it a commercial success by his superior mechanical skill and resources. Mr. Dugald Clerk tells us: "The proposals of Brown (1823), Wright (1833), Barnett (1838), Bansanti and Matteucci (1857), show gradually increasing knowledge of detail and the difficulties to be overcome, all leading to the first practicable engine in 1866, the Lenoir." This stage of the development being reached, the names of Siemens, Beaude, Roches, Otto Simon, Dugald Clerk, Priestman, Daimler, Dowson, Mond and others appear as inventors who have worked at and added something to perfect the internal-combustion engine and its fuel, and who have helped to bring it to its present state of perfection.

In the history of great mechanical inventions there is perhaps no better example of the interdependence of the engineer, the physicist and the chemist than is evidenced in the perfecting of the gas-engine. The physicist and the chemist together determine the behavior of the gaseous fuel, basing their theory on data obtained from the experimental engines constructed by the mechanical engineer, who, guided by their theories, makes his designs and improvements; then, again, from the results of the improvements fresh data are collected and the theory further advanced, and so on till success is reached. But though I have spoken of the physicist, the chemist and the engineer as separate persons, it more generally occurs that they are rolled into one, or at most two, individuals, and that it is indispensable that each worker should have some considerable knowledge of all the sciences involved to be able to act his part successfully.

Now let us ask: Could not this very valuable invention, the internal combustion engine, have been introduced in a much shorter time by more favoring circumstances, by some more favorable arrangement of the patent laws, or by legislation to assist the worker attacking so difficult a problem? I think the answer is that a great deal might be done, and I will endeavor to indicate some changes and possible improvements.

The history of this invention brings before our minds two important considerations. Firstly, let us consider the patentable matter involved in the invention of the gas-engine, the utilization for motive-power purposes of the then well-known properties of the explosive energy of gunpowder or of mixture of gas and oil with air. Are not these obvious inferences to persons of a mechanical turn of mind and who had seen guns fired, or explosions in bottles containing spirits of turpentine when slightly heated and a light applied to the neck? Surely no fundamental patent could have been granted under the existing patent laws for so obvious an application of known forces. Consequently, patent protection was sought in comparative details, details in some cases essential to' success which were evolved or invented in the process of working out the invention. In this extended field of operations a slight protection was in some instances obtained. But in answer to the question whether such protection was commensurate with the benefits received by the community at large, there can, I think, be only one reply. Generally, those who did most got nothing, some few received insufficient returns, and in very few cases indeed can the return be said to have been adequate. The second important consideration is that of the methods of procedure of the patentees, for it appears that very few of them had studied what had been suggested or done before by others before taking out their own patent. We are also struck by the number of really important advances that have been suggested and have failed to fructify, either from want of funds or other causes, to be forgotten for the time and to be re-invented later on by subsequent workers.

What a waste of time, expense and disappointment would be avoided if we in England helped the patentee to find out easily what had been done previously, on the lines adopted by the United States and German Patent Offices, who advise the patentee after the receipt of his provisional specification of the chief anticipatory patents, dead or alive! And ought we in England to rest content to see our patentees awaiting the report of the United States and German Patent Offices on their foreign equivalent specifications before filing their English patent claims? Ought not our Patent Office to give more facilities and assistance to the patentee?

Before proceeding further to discuss some of the possible improvements for the encouragement and protection of research and invention, I ask you to further consider the position of the inventor—the man anxious to achieve success where others have hitherto failed. To be successful he must be something of an enthusiast; and usually he is a poor man, or a man of moderate means, and dependent on others for financial assistance. Generally the problem to be attacked involves a considerable expenditure of money; some problems require great expenditure before any return can thereby accrue, even under the most favorable circumstances. In the very few cases where the inventor has some means of his own they are generally insufficient to carry him through, and there have unfortunately been many who have lost everything in the attempt. In nearly all cases the inventor has to cooperate with capital: the capitalist may be a sleeping partner, or the capital may be held by a firm or syndicate, the inventor in such cases being a partner—a junior partner—or a member of the staff. The combination may be successful and lasting, but unfortunately the best inventors are often bad men of business. The elements of the combination are often unstable, and the disturbing forces are many and active; especially is this so when the problem to be attacked is one of difficulty, necessitating various and successive schemes involving considerable expenditure, generally many times greater than that foreshadowed at the commencement of the undertaking. Under such circumstances, unless the capitalist or senior partner or board be in entire sympathy with the inventor or exercise great forbearance, stimulated by the hope of ultimate success and adequate returns, the case becomes hopeless, disruption takes place, and the situation is abandoned. Further, in the majority of cases, after some substantial progress has been made it is found that under the existing patent laws insufficient protection can be secured, and the prospect of a reasonable return for the expenditure becomes doubtful. Under such circumstances the capitalist will generally refuse to proceed further unless the prospect of being first in the field may tempt him to continue.

Very many inventors, as I have said, avoid the expense of searching the patent records to see how far their problem has been attacked by others. In some cases the cost of a thorough search is very great indeed; sometimes it is greater than the cost of a trial attack on the problem. In the case of young and inexperienced inventors there sometimes exists a disinclination to enter on an expensive search; they prefer to spend their money on the attack itself. There are some, it is true, who have a foolish aversion to take steps to ascertain if others have been before them, and who prefer to remain in ignorance and trust to chance. It will, however, be said that the United States and German Patent Office reports ought to suffice to warn or protect the English patentee; but my own experience has been that such protection is not entirely satisfactory. There is, firstly, a considerable interval before such reports are received, and the life of a patent is short. Then, if the patent is upon an important subject, attracting general attention, the search is vigorous and sometimes overwrought, and the patent unjustly damaged or refused altogether. If, however, the patent is on some subject not attracting general attention, it receives too little attention and is granted without comment.