THE wonderful advance of science during the last half century has done much to imbue us with the nothing-new-under-the-sun spirit, and it would require nothing short of the supernatural to rouse more than a passing interest.
But there are dramatic incidents and situations in the consummation of any of the great ideas which we have come to look upon with such callous, twentieth century commercialism. The accounts of these situations read like Arabian Nights' tales, and afford food for reflecting whether, after all, fact is not stranger than fiction.
Few incidents in the history of invention have been more dramatic than those which have had to do with the first voyage of the world's first steamboat.
It was a fine day, late ill the summer of 1807, and everything was in readiness for the Clermont, Robert Fulton's crude and ugly little boat, to begin her trial trip up the Hudson. Crowds of jeering and incredulous people were on the wharf to laugh at Fulton's Folly." Sure failure was inevitable. Had not this foolish crack-brained enthusiast sailed confidently up the Seine, only to go down in mid-stream?
Even the friends who were to accompany the inventor were almost ashamed that they had consented to go. Then, too, it was dangerous, and the thought of approaching death does not tend to enliven a crowd at any time.
With considerable puffing and blowing of whistles the vessel started out boldly, the wheels churning the blue waves into foam. A moment of silence; then a rousing cheer.
Suddenly the boat stopped. The cheer died away, and the passengers thought the Clermont would never go any farther. It was as they had anticipated. Impatience gave way to open reproach and ridicule.
Fulton begged for a short delay, and in thirty minutes, amid the roaring hurrahs of the spectators, "Fulton's Folly" rode proudly up the Hudson.
The impossible had been accomplished.
Along the banks of the river the country people stared in open-mouthed wonder at the strange-looking machine; others ran screaming into the woods. The shrill whistle startled the fishermen at night, and when they saw the boat plunging toward them, with side-lights gleaming and a column of fire arising from the smokestack, they thought some monster of the deep had come to devour them, or, worse still, it was the forerunner of the day of doom. Their cries and prayers echoed through the darkness, contrasting strangely with the peacefulness of a few hours before.
All on hoard, however, was gaiety and happiness. Chancellor Livingston who, with several friends, was on the vessel, had just announced the betrothal of Fulton and his own beautiful niece, Harriet Livingston. Success had been achieved and our hero came hack from New York after having made the trip of 150 miles in thirty hours, to find himself not merely the owner of " Fulton's Folly," but the most famous man in America.
Now, going back a little farther, we see how the idea arose of making the hitherto terrifying lightning useful. There were many theories evolved by savants regarding electrical phenomena, none very practical, however, as superstition and fear prevented any experiments with the weapons of the Almighty. And it remained for an American to dare the first experiment and bring it into subjection.
About the middle of the eighteenth century, the scientific world was astounded by a theory very clearly expounded in a series of observations, made by one Franklin from a little place called Philadelphia, on the similarity of electricity and lightning and the possibility of protecting houses by means of iron rods and wires. The idea was preposterous, it was said. Scientific noses were lifted high in the air.
Franklin Chains the Lightning.
Franklin, however, was not in the least disconcerted. His theory was not a chance one, but a legitimate deduction from patiently accumulated facts. He himself would make the experiment, so on June 15, 1752, he decided to fly the immortal kite. Accompanied only by his son he went out to test this theory.
The kite was made of a large silk handkerchief and was fitted with a piece of sharpened wire. Part of the string was of hemp and part of silk. The sky was dark and lowering, illuminated by frequent flashes of lightning.
The kite was raised. Up it went, but when it reached the first thunder-laden clouds there was no sign of electricity from Franklin's key. Just as he was beginning to think that the world was right and that, after all, he was only a fool, there was a loud peal of thunder, a flash of lightning and the hempen string began to tighten. Approaching his hand to the key he felt a decided shock. Drawing in his rain-soaked kite, he returned to the little Quaker village, like another Prometheus having stolen the precious fire from the gods and brought eternal good to humanity.
How the Cotton-Gin Was Made.
Among the world's benefactors to whom we owe debts of gratitude, probably the greatest, from a utilitarian viewpoint, is the inventor of the cotton-gin. Cotton was grown in the Southern States to some extent, but the almost insurmountable difficulty prevented its growth as a large industry. All the work now done by machinery was then done by hand. It was an unending task, taking one man seven days to pick four pounds of cotton from the seed. It was seen that until some swifter method could be devised, cotton-culture must remain a pet theory rather than a reality, and it was quite a coincidence that it should be the lot of one not born in the South - a New Englander - to devise that method and create the nucleus of those colossal fortunes of the ante-bellum South.
When Eli Whitney was stopping at the home of the widow of General Nathaniel Greene, near Savannah, Georgia, he was asked one day, by some planters, to try his hand at an invention to separate the seeds from the cotton. They were only half in earnest, for it seemed to them a project too wonderful to be practical. Put Mrs. Greene had said young Whitney could do anything, and here was a chance for him to prove himself.
Whitney was doubtful of his ability to supply what was wanted. Besides, he was reading law and did not care to spare the time from his studies. Then too, he had never seen a cotton-seed.
The more he thought of it, however, the more interested in it he became. So, obtaining some cotton, he shut himself up to work.
For weeks he toiled away, making his own machinery. Finally he saw that he must have teeth for his cylinders. He could get no steel or tin-plates in Savannah.
Saved by a Baby.
While he sat, worried and tired, in rushed his hostess's little daughter with a bundle of wire.
"Do make me a bird cage," she coaxed, holding out the wire with a bright smile.
Good! A bright idea!
The cage was made, and soon he had a wooden cylinder armed with rings of wire teeth. All now was ready for a trial. Would it work? The cotton was put into the hopper and he began to turn the crank, while, with bated breath, he watched the wire teeth carry through the opening of the plate a pile of snowy cotton.
This indeed was a moment of victory, but there was more to be done. The lint clogged the teeth of the cylinder. This he explained to his hostess, and she laughingly picked up a hearth-brush, telling him to sweep it out with that.
"Thank you, I will," he said, and acting upon the hint, he made another cylinder with rows of little brushes. The invention was complete. The neighboring planters were called in and the gin put to work. Imagine their surprise and admiration when they saw done in a few moments what had hitherto required several days' labor. It was certainly a great event for the South, and Eli Whitney was the hero of it.
The Triumph of Professor Morse.
The era of electrical wonders was ushered in by Professor Samuel F. B. Morse, a painter of some distinction, with his telegraph. He was not the first painter to desert art and turn inventor, for Robert Fulton was also a well-known artist.
The United States Government issued to Mr. Morse a patent on his telegraph in 1840, three years after he had applied for it, and it was three years more before he could secure the passage of a bill recommending an appropriation for testing it. The bill was ridiculed, and many jokes were made about the telegraph and its visionary inventor. People were never more skeptical.
Immediately after the appropriation was made Mr. Morse went to work to construct the first telegraph line. It was to extend from Baltimore to Washington. At first the wires were put in tubes and then into the earth. This did not work well, so the idea of putting them on poles was hit upon. This proved cheap, and far more satisfactory.
On May 4, 1844, the line was finished. Mr. Morse was at Washington and a Mr. Vail represented him at Baltimore. Everything was in readiness for the great test.
Miss Ellsworth, a young friend of the inventor, had been promised the honor of sending the first message. She had selected a passage from the Bible.
In an instant the words, "What God bath wrought" were flashed along the line, and read at Washington, "baptizing," as Mr. Morse said, the telegraph with the name of its author," and indeed it did seem too wonderful to be the work of man.
The Telephone and Phonograph.
After the invention of the telegraph there were many improvements on the original, and many new inventions of a similar kind, so it is not at all strange that several men should lay claim to the honor of inventing the telephone, which was first given to the world by Professor Alexander Graham Bell.
In 1876 while Professor Bell was teaching in the Monroe School of Oratory, in Boston, he one day took several of his pupils into his room on the fourth floor. He showed them a cigar-box affair on the table, and told them to sit down and to place a queer can-looking construction to their ears. A sound of a voice singing a popular song was plainly heard.
With an old cigar-box, two hundred feet of wire and two magnets from a toy fish-pond, the first Bell telephone had come into existence.
After Bell comes Thomas A. Edison, the Wizard of Menlo Park," with his many wonders.
Edison was once absent-mindedly singing in front of the mouthpiece of a telephone, when his attention was suddenly arrested by the vibrations of his own voice which sent a fine steel point into his finger. That set him to thinking.
If lie could control the action of the point and send it over the same surface afterward, what would be the result? He tried the experiment on a strip of telegraph paper and found that the point made an alphabet.
"Hello, hello!" he shouted into the 'phone, running the paper over the steel point.
"Hello, hello!" sounded faintly in return.
He tried it again. This time the answer was more distinct; but perhaps it was only an accident.
"Hello, Hello, this is Edison."
The sentence was repeated plainly. He no longer had any misgivings, but determined to make a machine that would work accurately and in a short time the world was listening in wonder to the phonograph.
The First Wireless Message.
And now we come to the grand finale - wireless telegraphy.
The idea of utilizing the limi4ess and mysterious ether as a means of communication for some time had absorbed the attention of the brilliant young Italian, Guglielmo Marconi. Of course he was laughed at.
Marconi believed in his theory. So did a number of other scientists. He worked on, making experiment after experiment. Again, our old boyhood friend, the kite, was to play an important part.
Marconi had established his colleagues at Poldhu, in Cornwall, England, while he was shivering (for it was a cold December day in 1901) at Hospital Point on the coast of Newfoundland. There, with a kite attached to a delicate wire, a tube and a telephone ear-piece, he waited. Then over the invisible waves came the three short dot signals of the Morse Code which signified the letter "S."
This was the first oversea wireless message, and the world was astonished.