Page images
PDF
EPUB

centuries ago, and made acquainted with their domestic utensils and domestic arrangements. We see too little, both of the conveniences and inconveniences of their daily and ordinary life. There are, indeed, rich materials for interesting details on these particulars, to be collected from the labours of Goguet and Beckmann, Henry and Turner ; but, still, a thorough and well written history of those inventions in the mechanic arts, which are now commonly known, is a desideratum in literature.

Human sagacity, stimulated by human wants, seizes first on the nearest natural assistant. The power of his own arm, is an early lesson among the studies of primitive man. This is animal strength; and from this he rises to the conception of employing, for his own use, the strength of other animals. A stone, impelled by the power of his arm, he finds will produce a greater effect than the arm itself; this is a species of mechanical power. The effect results from a combination of the moving force with the gravity of a heavy body. The limb of a tree is a rude, but powerful instrument; it is a lever. And the mechanical powers being all discovered, like other natural qualities, by induction, (I use the word as Bacon used it,) or experience, and not by any reasoning a priori, their progress tras kept pace with the general civilization and education of nations. The history of mechanical philosophy, while it strongly illustrates, in its general results, the force of the human mind, exhibits, in its details, most interesting pictures of ingenuity struggling with the conception of new combinations, and of deep, intense, and powerful thought, stretched to its utmost to find out, or deduce, the general principle from the indications of particular facts. We are now so far advanced beyond the age when the principal, leading, important mathematical discoveries were made, and they have become so much matter of common knowledge, that it is not easy to feel their importance, or be justly sensible what an epoch in the history of science each constituted. The half frantic exultation of Archimedes, when he had solved the problem respecting the crown of Hiero, was on an occasion and for a cause certainly well allowing very high joy. And so also was the duplication of the cube.

The altar of Apollo at Athens, was a square block or cube, and to double it required the duplication of the cube. This was a process involving an unascertained mathematical principle. It was quite natural, therefore, that it should be a traditional story, that by way of atoning for some affront to that god, the oracle commanded the Athenians to double his altar; an injunction, we know, which occupied the keen sagacity of the Greek geometricians for more than half a century, before they were able to obey it. It is to the great honor, however, of this inimitable people, the Greeks, a people whose genius seems to have been equally fitted for the investigations of science and the works of imagination, that the immortal Euclid, centuries before our era, composed his Elements of Geometry; a work which, for two thousand years, has been, and still continues to be, a text-book for instruction in that science.

A history of mechanical philosophy, however, would not begin with Greece. There is a wonder beyond Greece.

Higher up in the annals of mankind, nearer, far nearer, to the origin of our race, out of all reach of letters, beyond the sources of tradition, beyond all history, except what remains in the monuments of her own art, stands Egypt, the mother of nations! Egypt! Thebes! the Labyrinth! the Pyramids! Who shall explain the mysteries, which these names suggest? The Pyramids! Who can inform us, whether it was by mere numbers, and patience, and labor, aided perhaps by the simple lever; or if not, by what forgotten combination of power, by what now unknown machines, mass was thus aggregated to mass, and quarry piled on quarry, till solid granite seemed to cover the earth and reach the skies?

The ancients discovered many things, but they left many things also to be discovered ; and this, as a general truth, is what our posterity, a thousand years hence, will be able to say, doubtless, when we and our generation shall be recorded also among the ancients. For, indeed, God seems to have proposed his material universe, as a standing, perpetual study to his intelligent creatures; where, ever learning, they can yet never learn all ; and if that material universe shall last till man shall have discovered all that is unknown, but which, by the progressive improvement of his faculties he is capable of knowing, it will remain through a duration beyond human measurement, and beyond human comprehension.

The ancients knew nothing of our present system of arithmetical notation; nothing of algebra, and of course nothing of the important application of algebra to geometry. They had not learned the use of logarithms, and were ignorant of fluxions. They had not attained to any just mode for the mensuration of the earth; a matter of great moment to astronomy, navigation, and other branches of useful knowledge. It is scarcely necessary to add, that they were ignorant of the great results which have followed the developement of the principle of gravitation.

In the useful and practical arts, many inventions and contrivances, to the production of which the degree of ancient knowledge would appear to us to have been adequate, and which seem quite obvious, are yet of late origin. The application of water, for example, to turn a mill, is a thing not known to have been accomplished at all in Greece, and is not supposed to have been attempted at Rome, till in or near the age of Augustus. The production of the same effect by wind, is a still later invention. It dates only in the seventh century of our era. The propulsion of the saw, by any other power than that of the arm, is treated as a novelty in England, so late as in the middle of the sixteenth century. The Bishop of Ely, Ambassador from the Queen of England to the Pope, says, " he saw, at Lyons, a saw-mill driven with an upright wheel, and the water that makes it go, is gathered into a narrow trough, which delivereth the same water to the wheels. This wheel hath a piece of timber put to the axletree end, like the handle of a brock, (a hand organ,) and fastened to the end of the saw, which being turned with the force of water, hoisteth up and down the saw, that it continually eateth in, and the handle of the saine is kept in a rigall of wood, from severing. Also the timber lieth, as it were upon a ladder, which is brought by little and little to the saw by another vice.” From this description of the primitive power-saw, it would seem that it was probably fast only at one end, and that the brock and rigall performed the part of the arm, in the common use of the handsaw.

It must always have been a very considerable object for men to possess, or obtain, the power of raising water, otherwise than by mere manual labor. Yet nothing like the common suction pump has been found among rude nations. It has arrived at its present state only by slow and doubtful steps of improvement; and, indeed, in that present state, however obvious and unattractive, it is something of an abstruse and refined invention. It was unknown in China, until Europeans. visited the “Celestial Empire;" and is still unknown in other parts of Asia, beyond the pale of European settlements, or the reach of European communication. The Greeks and Romans are supposed to have been ignorant of it, in the early times of their history; and it is usually said to have come from Alexandria, where physical science was much cultivated by the Greek school, under the patronage of the Ptolemies.

These few and scattered historical notices, gentlemen, of important inventions, have been introduced only for the purpose of suggesting that there is much which is both curious and instructive in the history of mechanics; and that many things which to us, in our state of knowledge, seem so obvious as that we should think they would at once force themselves on men's adoption, have, nevertheless, been accomplished slowly and by painful efforts.

« PreviousContinue »