The Future of Invention

In our recent national phenomena there is no other fact so significant, so startling, as the prodigious increase of inventions, both in their number and in their influence over business and daily life. Within the past ten years far more patents have been issued than during all our previous history, although the former period is more than half made up of our most prolonged and serious commercial crisis, while the latter includes nearly every prosperous season that we have ever known. Could the hard times materially soften, we might expect such a rush of new improvements as would resemble the bursting of a torrent through an ice gorge. But even as matters are, with an aggregate of more than two hundred thousand patents (mostly recent) and a weekly issue filling a ponderous printed volume, we cannot but feel ourselves in the presence of a growing force, which is not to be estimated, and which is assuredly the greatest factor of modern life.

Already nearly all other interests have begun to cluster around invention. It is a matter of common remark that most of the capital of the country is somehow bound up in patents, or drifting toward union with them. They raise or lower the value of farm lands and city lots. The great railroad arteries pulsate under their pressure from end to end. The manufacturer who ignores them invites speedy ruin. The merchant sells under them. The farmer, the mechanic, the miner, all work for them or by their authority. They constitute the most lucrative branch of legal practice. Vast sums are continually changing hands in the litigation upon them. They have probably made and unmade more fortunes than all other agencies combined.

Even in our seven greatest grain-growing States of the Northwest, from Ohio to Minnesota, the aggregate value of the manufacturing interest was shown by the last census to exceed the aggregate value of the agricultural interest by about seventy-six millions of dollars; and nearly all of the former sum is said to be invested in or employed under recent patents. No doubt the excess would be much more at the present day. A competent witness recently declared that it would require a population of nine millions, without machinery, to do what the State of Massachusetts is doing to-day, — this, when factories have lain idle for three years and more at Amesbury, and all over the State only a small proportion of them have been working full force and full time! Perhaps we cannot better realize the situation than by considering for a moment the effect of a sudden abolition of this complex artificial system which we have built about us. The confiscation of half the real estate of the country would scarcely be a more staggering blow to vested interests and settled order.

It is plain that we have evoked very literally a genius, which for good or evil will mold us to its will. We have already lost power over it, and can only ask, " What will it do to us and with us? What changes may we expect from it in our great national life and the yet greater life of the world outside?" If anything can be worth considering, this surely is; for it refers to a future which intimately concerns us all, and which will not long delay its coming.

Let us begin by considering the nature of this force, and its past history and results. A little thought will show that all inventions have their origin either in the desire to get something new, or in the desire to get something more cheaply. The former class would of course preponderate at first, since the tendency to acquire is generally greater than the tendency to save; and primitive man feels first of all the instinctive impulse to expand his powers. There is, at all stages, something very fascinating to the imagination in the advances of our race as a whole toward the subjugation of nature and the application of her laws and powers to man's benefit. But with the growing needs of a developing civilization, we should naturally expect to see that class of inventions come into view which looks first of all to economy in production. Especially is this true of such as tend to lessen the need for prime movers, such as human hands, the supply of which increases but slightly.

These expectations have been fulfilled. Until the last two or three centuries, most inventions had for their object the bringing of some new field under human control, the enabling men to have or to do what they could not have or do before. The mariner's compass, gunpowder, printing, and at earlier periods glass, iron-working, bronze, the bow, and the production of fire, may be cited as a few familiar instances of them. They came at wide, though decreasing, intervals; partly because of the dense, yet diminishing, ignorance of the world in physical matters, and partly because the laws of mental action make radical discoveries and vast acquisitions comparatively infrequent even in the most enlightened times. But they engrossed pretty nearly all the inventive power then manifest. The world was generally too crude and fragmentary to offer much encouragement to wholesale manufacture, and human labor was almost everywhere a drug. Moreover, a ready remedy for any special need of the kind was found in a raid over the borders of some neighboring state and the enslavement of a portion of its people. Even after these practices ceased, an unsettled and warlike feeling remained, which despised the useful arts, and tended to discourage economy as compared with the acquisition and manifestation of power. Unfortunately, this spirit is not quite dead even yet.

But at length the growing standard of comfort and the increasing love of peace had created, or stimulated, in certain countries a demand for articles of use and wear, which spread from class to class. Rapid, cheap, and multitudinous production became more and more essential; for it was necessary to supply with profit the many who were not rich. The first stumbling-block was soon found in the multitude of artisans needed, machines which demanded the most expensive of fuel, and at best could work only at a slow rate. It was imperative to substitute as far as possible something which should be vastly less costly and more efficient. Thus the spinning-jenny, the power-loom, and a legion of improvements came into being, each stimulating the others, and all urging forward the production of textile fabrics. Concurrent with these were advances or tentative efforts in most of the other arts, each having the same general object. Invention had entered on a new era.

It is worthy of remark that at this point the force of which we treat encountered for the first time a vehement opposition, which did not proceed from mere theological bigotry or hatred of innovation. It has been the fashion of late years to berate as blind and ungrateful fools the weavers who persistently thwarted Cartwright and mobbed Jacquard; but it may be questioned whether a good deal could not be advanced in favor of their intelligent appreciation of what was to come. The average human intellect is unfortunately too apt to consider class interests and personal interests rather than the grand advance of the race, and the dread of the discomforts of a transitional period, through which we and our immediate descendants must certainly pass, finds very little alleviation in the thought of a possible millennium beyond. As men, these resisters of progress were doubtless wrong, but as weavers, they were (in some sense) right. At least they acted, however impotently, in the line of the interests of their class. They had made the acquaintance of the labor-saving machine, and they realized, in spite of specious arguments, that it was the enemy of the mechanic, — as a mechanic.

As we draw nearer and nearer to our own times, we find the cheapening devices gaining ground more and more in number and prominence. We meet in brilliant succession, it is true, with the steam-engine, the steamboat, the telegraph, vulcanized rubber, the ice machine, Bessemer steel, the sand-blast, the telephone, and a number of others which constitute real advances; but they are only a handful in comparison with the multitude of inventions which have cheapness for their chief object.

At first, outlets for superfluous workmen were readily found. The new discoveries opened new fields for demand, and wants of all sorts were stimulated. The man who had been crowded out of weaving in his youth might learn to make horseshoe nails, or pins, in middle life, and at worst he could handle a sickle in the harvest field till old age came on. Moreover, telescopes and microscopes, steam-engines and cotton-gins, all required workmen for their manufacture. The very labor-saving machines themselves were in the last analysis the work of the mechanic's hands. Jack of all this lay the great need of the raw materials, such as grain, cotton, wool, wood, gold, silver, iron, and coal, all of which, in some way, had to be won from the earth by the effort of human strength. At first sight it might seem as if the compensation would be permanently adequate; and indeed it has generally been so regarded. But there are strong reasons for believing that in this the political economists (or some of them) have been wrong, and the uninstructed but interest-sharpened instincts of the workingman right.

The outlets and compensations mentioned obviously have their limits. Railroads, telegraphs, and steamboat lines, ranking among the greatest of them, cannot be infinitely extended. The earth itself is bounded, and we cannot cover it all with tracks. Already this country is blessed with a number of railways which are more likely to be abandoned than completed. Moreover, a railway once constructed has fulfilled the greater measure of its utility in this regard. It employs few men beside those needed for repairs, protection of property, and management of its rolling stock. It diminishes their number by the use of labor-saving machines in its shops and on its trains. It has, and often uses, every advantage of the market over those who remain. The same applies to steamboats and telegraphs, though in less degree.

The greatest compensation is perhaps to be found in the increased demand for raw material and for the production of food on a larger scale. At the base of nearly all our manufactures, except such as are worked by elemental power, lie the coal beds; and the more multifarious the forms of improvement the greater will be the demand for fuel. But then a single man can quarry in a few hours the condensed arid conserved power of many men for many days. Experience shows that this receptacle for overflow is itself generally overflowing. The same is true of gold mining, iron mining, and all allied industries. Everywhere the workingman is superseded by machinery, or he works to such advantage that one can supply what many may need.

Agriculture underwent a decided revolution with the rise of the manufacturing interest. From a means of providing the household it became a field for speculation, or a medium for supplying the multitudes who had left their normal position as the producers of their own food. It retains this wholesale and half-speculative character yet, and might, in this aspect, seem to offer a refuge. But here again the labor-saving machine interposes at every turn, and warns the machine of flesh and blood off the premises. The reaper has driven him mainly from the harvest field, the thresher from the threshing-floor. The cultivator is half a dozen hoes in one, and the horse-rake a dozen rakes. The binder takes the place of four or five additional laborers. Improvements crowd fast upon one another, and each means "a few more men out of the way. Nor can the workingman profitably farm (as a rule) on his own account, for the supply of the market. The above-mentioned cheapening devices have made the production of bread6tuffs so excessive that they will generally bring but a very low price, not nearly enough to pay expenses and interest on borrowed capital.

Many writers have assumed that the stimulated demand for familiar articles (partly arising from the greater activity of desire and the enlargement of hope due to our material advances, and partly caused by the improved quality of the goods manufactured by machinery) will always counterbalance the enormously increased supply produced by an unchanged, or but slightly changed, aggregate of hands working with the aid of continually improving machinery. But a little thought will show that this expectation is fallacious. The necessaries of life can never be required in more than certain quantities, and this is measurably true even of its luxuries as well. If hats become very cheap, a man may get a new one every month, instead of two or three a year; but no man can possibly need, or will buy, many more than the former number. The same is true of shoes and clothing. The cheapness of glass has caused it to be introduced into nearly every house outside of the backwoods; but after all, a dwelling cannot be entirely window-panes. Lucifer matches, pins, brooms, and other perishable articles may be used as wastefully as their reduced cost suggests, but nevertheless the bounds are easily reached. The number of horseshoes and horseshoe nails required is necessarily determined by the number of horses in use, and this cannot be multiplied at will. Newspapers and periodicals are numerous enough to make the world stare; but publishers have already discovered that it is possible to overload the reading public. If more tools be produced than can be used by the carpenter, the blacksmith, the gardener, or some other of the mechanical fraternity, they will lie unbought; and a great part of the work of these men either is not affected by the improvement of machinery or is superseded by it. A given number of persons can dispose of but a given maximum of prepared food or medicine, even if they have at their command all the cheapening and multiplying mechanism of which the human mind can conceive. Nor does the numerical increase of the race from generation to generation bear any considerable proportion to its growing facilities for producing the articles which it needs.

Of course, with the advance of civilization new articles of luxury are required, and here there is a real, though inadequate, compensation. It is inadequate, because with all of us the novelties of life bear but a small proportion to the things which have been long and familiarly used; because under our present social system the great majority of the people cannot afford many luxuries; and because ingenuity is less readily exerted in discovery than in improvement. It is far easier to shorten or expedite travel than to find a new country; it is far easier to simplify the manufacture of old things than to devise radically new ones. Moreover, as soon as any great demand grows up in this field, the labor-saving machine appears again, reducing the number of laborers who are thus relieved.

It must be remembered, also, that labor-saving devices, and indeed inventions of all kinds, often absolutely lessen demand instead of increasing it. Suppose, for example, that the many attempts at producing a satisfactory traction engine should result in success; is it not evident that the number of horses in use would be greatly diminished? This would similarly reduce the demand for horseshoes, horseshoe nails, currycombs, and harness of all sorts, every one of which now forms the centre of extensive manufacturing interests, employing many men. Again, the vast improvements in machinery for metal-working, wood-working, leather-working, and the like, of necessity tend to lessen the need for the tools required to labor at those trades by hand. Every simplification (and most real improvements are simplifications) of a process does away not only with some of the men formerly employed upon it, but also with the tools or ingredients which those men used in working, and which other men prepared elsewhere. This deduction must be made in every department. One may almost say that every labor-saving device is also a material-saving device. Its effect in stimulating demand for the articles which it produces and for those which are used in it is largely off-set by its effect in destroying demand for other articles. The remaining increase of demand will not at all compensate for the enormous increase of supply which most of these improvements afford.

The achievements of some of these latter-day inventions read almost like fairy tales. They have been so frequently published of late that it seems needless to present an array of figures here. We find the same phenomena in every one of the useful arts. The recent Congress called out some interesting facts with regard to one of the least familiar of them. A report having been circulated that a certain bureau of the government was injudiciously using patented machinery instead of human labor in a part of its work, a resolution of inquiry was passed, which led to the discovery that the change had resulted in a saving of about seventy-five per cent. of the expense. This represented the salaries or wages of nearly the whole force previously employed for the same service. Almost the only compensation for this permanent diminution of the demand for human labor is to be found in the small amount of such labor temporarily required to construct the machines, and to replace them, in whole or in part, as they wear out after long use. The same result must have followed wherever the same machines were introduced.

The most astonishing results of this sort, however, are found in the manufacture of small articles of ordinary use. Formerly, horseshoes were made one at a time by hand. The amount of labor and time required to transform a large, thick bar of metal into something so different as a heap of nails may be readily imagined. With all possible skill and exertion, only a comparatively small number could be produced in a given period. Now we have machines which will take bar after bar of metal as fast as it can be supplied, cut it into suitable lengths, compress it to any diameter in cross section, turn, shape, feed, point, cut, polish, and finally deliver into any receptacle, without human intervention at any stage of the process. The bars go in at one end, and the nails come out at the other, in a continuous stream. It is obvious that a machine of this kind, with its attendant, will take the place of a number of hand laborers not easily to be computed; and this in a market which is not capable of any very great expansion. In such a case, there is hardly any compensation beyond the slight temporary ones above noticed. The same may be said, with scarcely diminished force, of the manufacture of pins and other small articles. Of pins and needles in particular, we are told that the chief labor in their manufacture is now the sticking them into the paper. Yet it is not so very long since they were made by a slow and laborious succession of some half a dozen hand processes. In fact, there is hardly any one minor article of metal which cannot be produced by some existing machine nearly or quite as fast as a man can count. Even the more complicated operations, such as the manufacture of brooms, are performed automatically and rapidly by a single machine, with very little human aid. Every stage of wood-working has undergone a similar transformation, from the sawing and planing of huge masses of lumber to the shaping and throating of spokes, and the turning of irregular forms for children's toys.

The list might be very considerably extended. Everywhere we meet with the same state of facts. The labor-saving machine is entering every field, and its entrance is to the workman an irresistible command to go. We are brought face to face with a problem which is essentially new. To the contemporaries of Watt or of Arkwright the present quandary was what the future exhaustion of the coal fields is to us, — a great fact looming in the distance, full of changes for the race, but without immediate application. It was more than this, only to the extent that it compelled many persons to change their methods of earning a livelihood, — a serious inconvenience, no doubt, but not ruinous so long as only a few departments were occupied by machinery. But this is no longer true. Every-day experience and observation show that men are frequently thrown out of employment, and are reduced to great straits by their inability to get work elsewhere. Where is the field in which the supply is not greater than the demand? Who can show any reasonable hope that this will be reversed? The country swarms with the unemployed wandering from place to place. For years we have been growing accustomed to the growlings of labor in all our cities. The disease has continued so long that it unmistakably indicates a deep-seated and permanent cause, which can be cured only by a radical change of conditions in the great body of the people.

The crisis is delayed by the natural conservatism of mankind. If we were now practically using all the labor-saving appliances at command, the number of laborers employed would be much less than it actually is. In point of fact, many manufacturers, producers, and users on a large scale cling, through force of habit, to old, slow ways, and resist or distrust innovations. There are large and fertile agricultural districts where the self-binder is just making its way, and the sulky-plow and wheel corn-planner are almost unknown. The great majority of brick-makers do not use brick machines of any sort. Very many persons, through prejudice, decline to buy machine-made shoes or clothing. A good deal of house carpentry is still done by hand, which could be done more expeditiously and as well by existing machines. Most railroads as yet prefer a full complement of brakemen to the airbrake, and only a few have substituted for human hands any one of the fifteen hundred patented car-couplers now on record and accessible to the public.

Presented by

Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Dravet Syndrome is a severe form of epilepsy that affects children. Could marijuana oils alleviate their seizures?

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


Does This Child Need Marijuana?

Inside a family's fight to use marijuana oils to treat epilepsy


A Miniature 1950s Utopia

A reclusive artist built this idealized suburb to grapple with his painful childhood memories.


Why Principals Matter

Nadia Lopez didn't think anybody cared about her school. Then the Internet heard her story.


A History of Contraception

In the 16th century, men used linen condoms laced shut with ribbons.


'A Music That Has No End'

In Spain, a flamenco guitarist hustles to make a modest living.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In