Saturday, March 3, 2018

With such a retrospect, the sage of the Nineteenth Century may lie down to quiet rest

From The Progress of Invention in the Nineteenth Century by Edward W. Byrn.

Love the enthusiasm of the final chapter.
Whatever the future centuries may bring in new and useful inventions, certain it is that the Nineteenth Century stands pre-eminent in this field of human achievement, so far excelling all other like periods as to establish on the pages of history an epoch as remarkable as it is unique. Never before has human conception so expressed itself in materialized embodiment, never has thought been so fruitfully wedded to the pregnant possibilities of matter, never has the divine function of creation been so closely approximated, never has such an accretion of helpful instrumentalities and material resources been added to the world’s wealth—not merely the miserly and inert wealth of gold and gems, but the wealth of an enlarged human existence. This life itself is but a limited span; beginning in infancy, expanding to highest achievement in middle age, and declining at the end, it quickly passes away, and another generation follows. Growth and decay with all living things mark the immutable law of nature, and the inevitable fate of mortality. The rose blossoms into beauty, fades, and decays. The bird in the air, and the beast in the field, each plays his part and passes to the great unknown, leaving no record; man himself is mortal, but his work is immortal. The inspired conception of his best thought, the materialized embodiment of his work in useful agencies, and the subjugation of the laws of nature to his service, all endure and live forever in his inventions. These partake of the breath of life, and in their immortality are of kin to the soul. Cities may grow up and vanish, civilizations may decay, and man himself may degenerate, but the principle of the lever and the screw, once discovered, is for all time perfect, invariable and immortal. Every invention made is another permanent gift to posterity. All of enduring wealth that the present gets from the past are its ideas reduced to a working basis. All else is but dross, or evanescent dreams which vanish into oblivion in the light of a larger knowledge. But ideas wrought into practical, substantive things, tried and proven true, these are inventions—immortal creations—and of these the Nineteenth Century has borne fruit in[466] paramount abundance, and this legacy it now bequeaths to the coming century.

To follow conventional methods, the final chapter of a book should be an “In conclusion” with a “finis” and a dismantled torch, but the history of invention will ever be a continued story. There is no end in this field. The trusteeship of the Twentieth Century man is great, and great his responsibilities; but his restless and dominant spirit knows no decadence, and his mental endowment and material equipment, without parallel in history, are a guarantee of future achievements.


The old man in his dreams of the past rejoices in his achievements, for he has stolen the fires of Prometheus and forged anew the thunderbolts of Jove for the arts of peace. Delving into the secret recesses of the earth, he has tapped the hidden supplies of nature’s fuel, has invaded her treasure house of gold and silver, robbed Mother Earth of her hoarded stores, and possessed himself of her family record, finding on the pages of geology sixty millions of years’ existence. Peering into the invisible little world, the infinite secrets of microcosm have yielded their fruitful and potent knowledge of bacteria and cell growth. Pain has been robbed of its terrors by anæsthesia; the heat of the sun has been brought down in the electric furnace, and the cold of inter-stellar space in the ice machine and liquid air. With telescope and spectroscope he has climbed into limitless space above, and defined the size, distance, and constitution of a star millions of miles away. The north star has been made his sentinel on the sea. The lightning is made his swift messenger, and thought flashes in[467] submarine depths around the world. Dead matter is made to speak in the phonograph, the invisible has been revealed in the X-Rays, coal has been made his black slave, steam the breath of the world’s life, and all of nature’s forces have been made his constant servants in attendance.

With such a retrospect, the sage of the Nineteenth Century may lie down to quiet rest, with an assuring faith that what God hath wrought is good, and what is not may yet be.

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