The history of empires is that of men’s misery. The history of the sciences is that of their grandeur and happiness.
—EDWARD GIBBON, 1761
There is more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and abstention from meat.
—ANTON CHEKHOV TO ALEXEI SUVORIN, 1894
From about 1820, the liberal-scientific nations accrued unprecedented amounts of power—over nature, and over their fellow human beings. This technological transformation freed billions from mind-deadening toil. It replaced the charm of tradition with the shock of the new. It also fostered political and military preeminence, and while it would be pleasing to report that the empowered nations acted solely to liberate, enlighten, and enrich the rest of humankind, most instead reverted to anachronistic campaigns of conquest. A handful of nations came, for a time, to rule most of the world. The era of imperialism and colonialism left behind an enduring legacy of cynicism about science and technology, especially among those who think of science less as a way of obtaining knowledge than as an engine of power.
Since science drives so much of today’s technological development, many assume that it played the same role in the past—as, indeed, it sometimes did. Chemists helped iron-and steelmongers improve the smelting process, thermodynamics showed how and why steam engines worked, and the young Guglielmo Marconi could not have made his first radio transmissions without the prior research of scientists like James Clerk Maxwell and Heinrich Hertz. But nineteenth-century technological breakthroughs more often arose from the efforts of industrialists, entrepreneurs, and amateur inventors, whose products inspired science at least as much as they were inspired by science. Henry Adams, writing about public attitudes toward the steam engine during Jefferson’s presidency, noted that Americans generally were “roused to feel the necessity of scientific training” by their exposure to the practical benefits of technological advancement: “Until they were satisfied that knowledge was money, they would not insist upon high education; until they saw with their own eyes stones turned into gold, and vapor into cattle and corn, they would not learn the meaning of science.”
Most inventions failed, and most of the unheralded inventors stayed unheralded. The popular mass-produced Singer sewing machines of the 1860s were preceded by a century of sewing machines that didn’t work very well. Primitive dishwashers were being patented for a century before improved models came into general household use in the 1950s. Fiber optics preoccupied dozens of inventors, starting with John Tyndall in 1854 and Alexander Graham Bell in 1880, but did not start carrying telephone conversations until 1977. How could these millions of often haphazard experiments, whether conducted in corporate laboratories or a local crackpot’s basement, have so often surpassed the accomplishments of educated specialists and government planners? Perhaps because, as the mathematician H. B. Phillips maintained, liberalism and free enterprise promote the emergence of what he called “thought centers.” “Advances will be most frequent when the number of independent thought centers is greatest, and the number of thought centers will be greatest when there is maximum individual liberty,” Phillips wrote. “Thus it appears that maximum liberty is the condition most favorable to progress.” Through free experimentation the steam engine, the clock, and the dynamo gained sufficient dominion over space, time, and energy to fulfill the optimistic predictions of inventors like William Strutt, who in 1823 suggested that although he knew that his forecast would “be laughed at,” the day would come when “time, distance, and expense shall be almost annihilated.”
Foremost among these innovations was that emblem and embodiment of the Industrial Revolution, the steam engine.
The British began mining coal in earnest after the widespread use of wood for heating, cooking, and charcoal making had driven timber prices up by a factor of ten. As the demand for coal kept rising, the miners found it necessary to sink shafts so deep that flooding became a persistent problem. Financial opportunities emerged for anyone who could develop better engines to keep the mines pumped dry. It was for this purpose that, in 1712, an itinerant ironmonger and hardware salesman named Thomas Newcomen developed the first practical steam engine. The Newcomen engine was inefficient but this was not a major problem at the mines, where the coal it burned for fuel lay close at hand. Then one day James Watt, a self-educated instrument maker and repairman at Glasgow University, was instructed to repair a Newcomen engine. He took it apart, experimented with ways to make it work better, and produced a smaller, more efficient steam engine suitable for use in transportation.
Steam engines on rails soon emerged from the mines, thanks mainly to men who grew up doing colliery work and were comfortable getting their hands dirty. Few were what you would call intellectuals. Richard Trevithick, the son of an illiterate Cornish mine captain, was a bar-brawling wrestler, baffled by books but at ease taking apart every mechanical device entrusted to his care. He built locomotives while working in the tin mines of Cornwall, and on February 21, 1804, his Penydarren, the first steam locomotive to run on rails, won a competition by hauling seventy men and a ten-ton load on a tramway in South Wales. George Stephenson, the son of a colliery fireman, created a series of improved locomotives and became the chief engineer for five railroad companies. His son Robert went on to construct ever-longer rail lines. The iron rails kept breaking but steel soon fixed that. An American kettle manufacturer, William Kelly—and, more successfully, the English engineer Henry Bessemer—developed the blast furnace techniques that have remained essential to steel production ever since. Steel mills, their showering sparks and glowing rivers of molten metal emblematic of industrial advance, became giant laboratories in their own right. Andrew Carnegie, whose steel mills made him the world’s richest man, recalled that “years after we had taken chemistry to guide us,” his competitors “said they could not afford to employ a chemist. Had they known the truth then, they would have known that they could not afford to be without one.” The mighty triumvirate of coal, steel, and steam, itself a sort of reciprocal engine, hummed into action and went to work shrinking terrestrial space and time.
The world’s first commercial railway opened in 1830. Operating between Liverpool and Manchester, it ran on a timetable, charged fares by the mile, offered three classes of service, and employed two sets of tracks so trains could run simultaneously in both directions. During twenty years of boom-and-bust speculation, the railroads expanded; their steel rails, cutting across European and American landscapes like giant draftsman’s lines, became part of the aesthetics of local landscapes. Some lines curved gracefully around hills, in the manner of Joseph Locke, while others carved through the terrain, as favored by Robert Stephenson—two approaches described by the civil engineer Thomas Tredgold as to “clamber over or plough through”—but all approximated what Einstein would enshrine in relativity theory as geodesics, lines of maximal space-time efficiency. Passengers compared the experience of rail travel to dreams of riding a magic carpet—the actress Fanny Kemble reporting, after taking a 30-mph publicity ride on George Stephenson’s Rocket, that the “sensation of flying was quite delightful and strange beyond description.” As higher-pressure steam locomotives and improved tracks reduced travel times (by 1847, a London-to-Birmingham train was routinely clocking speeds of 75 mph) the lure of rapid transit grew. By 1870 the English were taking 330 million rail trips annually, up from a tenth that many in 1845. American railroads grew from 2,800 miles of track in 1840 to over 30,000 miles by 1860.
Rail travel afforded city dwellers an opportunity to take in the fresh air and beauty of the countryside, but the intrusion of thundering, moving machines disquieted many of the Victorian intellectuals who lived through it. The poet William Wordsworth, who described himself as a “sensitive being” and “creative soul” and had romanticized the working class during the French Revolution (although he later became something of a reactionary on this point), protested in 1844 against a rural rail line on grounds that “uneducated persons” lacked the capacity to appreciate the beauty of the English Lake District. (“It is not against railways but against the abuse of them that I am contending,” he added; by “abuse” he seems to have meant the selling of train tickets to passengers less sensitive and creative than himself.) In America it was hoped that the railroads would bind the disparate states together with staves of steel, as the customary metaphor had it. John C. Calhoun spoke for many when he called on Congress to “conquer space” by underwriting the construction of railroads, highways, and canals. “Railroad iron is a magician’s rod,” declared Ralph Waldo Emerson. The railroads supercharged the factory system, which expanded rapidly thanks to a reliable supply of raw materials and parts, and the outward flow of inventory to fill orders, provided by rail at steadily decreasing costs—the early stirrings of today’s JIT (“Just in Time”) inventory management techniques.
With the railroads came the electric telegraph—the first in a series of devices, from the telephone to e-mail, that made it possible for messages to travel faster than messengers. Here too the new technology developed mainly in the hands of amateurs. Samuel F. B. Morse, who championed telegraphy and developed the binary dot-dash code that became its native tongue, was a portrait painter who plunged into telecommunications after his young wife, Lucretia, died while he was away on a business trip and was buried before he learned of her death. (“I long to hear from you,” he had written her, three days after she died.) Morse failed to persuade Congress to back his invention, but struck it rich by teaming up with private investors visionary enough to construct a network—it connected New York City with Philadelphia, Boston, and points west—before putting it on the market. Telegraph lines were soon going up along railroad rights-of-way so rapidly that no one agency could keep track of them all; by 1850, a dozen American telegraph companies managed an estimated twelve thousand miles of wires. The telegraph, as one historian writes, “severed the preexisting bond between transportation and communications…. At one stroke the life force of science—information—was freed of its leaded feet and allowed to fly at the speed of light.” “Is it not a feat sublime?” read the masthead of The Telegrapher, the journal of the National Telegraphic Union. “Intellect hath conquered time.”
The laying of transoceanic cables—a feat spurred by the efforts of the Irish physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin), who amused himself by developing low-voltage communications lines after having elucidated the science of thermodynamics—spawned fresh hopes that communication might promote international peace. “What can be more likely to effect [peace] than a constant and complete intercourse between all nations and individuals in the world?” asked Edward Thornton, the British ambassador to the United States, in a toast to Morse at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York in 1868. “Steam was the first olive branch offered to us by science. Then came a still more effective olive branch—this wonderful electric telegraph, which enables any man who happens to be within reach of a wire to communicate instantaneously with his fellow men all over the world.” Another toast at the same dinner party envisioned the telegraph’s “removing causes of misunderstanding, and promoting peace and harmony throughout the world.” Such rosy sentiments are easy to mock, but many today would agree that improved communications have, as another technological optimist put it long ago, helped people “know one another better…. [and] learn that they are brethren, and that it is no less their interest than their duty to cultivate goodwill and peace throughout the earth.”
As railroads and telegraph lines spread into the American West, the towns that sprang up at railheads and junctions often consisted of little more than a few clapboard buildings and unpaved streets plus a set of plat maps aimed at attracting investors. “Railroads in Europe are built to connect centers of population; but in the West the railroad itself builds cities,” observed Horace Greeley. “Pushing boldly out into the wilderness, along its iron track villages, towns, and cities spring into existence, and are strung together into a consistent whole by its lines of rails, as beads are upon a silken thread.” It sounded grand but did not always work: Midwestern boosterism was born of concern that one’s hometown had little to recommend it beyond a railroad station, a telegraph shed, and the positive outlook of its civic leaders. Those who survived risked recapitulations of the biblical saga of Cain and Abel when gunslingers, equivalent to the hunter-gatherers of old, swooped down to plunder towns protected by a single lawman or none at all: From such origins sprang an enduring tradition among rural Americans that families require firearms for their protection.
The railroad, the telegraph, and the factory transformed society’s sense of time. Clocks had been around for centuries but were mainly an enthusiasm of scientists: The first clock equipped with a minute hand was commissioned by the Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe from the Swiss mathematician Jost Burgi in 1577; the pendulum clock was invented in 1656 by the Dutch astronomer Christiaan Huygens; and the first man to wear a wristwatch was the French scientist Blaise Pascal. The rise of modern factories democratized this previously elite taste for accurate timekeeping, both by placing new temporal demands on workers—who punched a time clock and whose bosses liked to say, “Time is money”—and by producing affordable clocks and watches that became the high-tech centerpiece of many a working-class home. (Hence the gold watch upon retirement, and the cinematic trope of having commandos synchronize their watches before undertaking a mission.) Prior to the advent of the railroads, each community regulated its own clocks, from solar time as customarily measured by noting when the sun crossed the local meridian. Solar time depended on your longitude, and so was inherently local: A train conductor traveling 60 mph west from Pierre, South Dakota, would have to advance his watch seven minutes per hour in order to be on time when arriving in Livingston, Montana. This was neither practical nor safe, so in 1883 the railroads went ahead and divided the continental United States into four time zones, Congress eventually mandating the system in 1918. (A similar standardization in England was called “railroad time.”) Trains became symbols of time. Much of the lasting appeal of the 1952 movie High Noon arises from its insistence on the unity of three sounds—a ticking clock, a clicking telegraph, and the chuffing of a steam locomotive—imposed like civilization itself on a recently lawless West. Urged by a judge to save his life by getting out of town, the sheriff, played by Gary Cooper, replies, “There isn’t time.” Factually, his statement makes no sense—he still has ample opportunity to run away—but we take him to mean that it is no longer a time for the West, now bound together by rails and telegraph lines, to revert to the anarchy of old.
With the rise of electrical power, dynamos became central to the new technology. The dynamo generated electricity that could be carried by wires to provide lighting or, by using another dynamo in reverse, be turned back into mechanical power on demand. Its development had been difficult. Electricity had long fascinated the public—audiences were thrilled by demonstrations in which static electricity shocked ranks of hand-holding soldiers or sparked the lips of those venturesome enough to kiss an electrified woman—but nobody had been able to get much work out of it, Ben Franklin pronouncing himself “chagrined a little that we have been hitherto able to produce nothing in this way of use to mankind.” Its transformation into an engine of industry was eventually inaugurated by the research of Michael Faraday.
Faraday grew up behind his father’s blacksmith shop in London and at age fourteen was apprenticed to a bookbindery, where he educated himself by reading the books he bound. Intrigued by an article on electricity that he encountered in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, he began conducting electrical experiments and going to public science lectures, where showman-scientists staged gasp-inducing explosions and flashes of light. In 1812 Faraday attended a lecture by the famous chemist Humphry Davy—himself an autodidact who had first learned science from James Watt’s son Gregory, a boarder in the Davy household. Faraday bound his notes on the lecture in leather and sent them to Davy with a letter expressing, as Faraday recalled it, “my desire to escape from trade, which I thought vicious and selfish, and to enter into the service of science, which I imagined made its pursuers amiable and liberal.” He landed a job in the Royal Institution laboratory and soon became a science lecturer himself, but his real love was experimenting in his basement laboratory, where he remained doggedly determined even when repeatedly injured and once temporarily blinded. In 1849, speculating about a link between electromagnetism and gravitation—a connection that eluded him, as it would Einstein a century later—he scrawled this memorable passage in his notebook:
ALL THIS IS A DREAM. Still, examine it by a few experiments. Nothing is too wonderful to be true, if it be consistent with the laws of nature, and in such things as these, experiment is the best test.