The Future of Invention

Doubtless many other instances might be cited, but they serve only to postpone for a little the hour which must come. Conservatism is giving way every day before the demonstration of increased utility, convenience, and cheapness; and this is accelerated by the great efforts made by the owners of most of these inventions to secure their general adoption. Every improvement in their efficiency commends them more and more to the attention of all who need of them.

The first effect of the flood of inventions now pouring in, when most of those already existing have, been generally brought into use, will be to throw out of employment by far the greater number of persons now working on wages, and to make it impossible for them to get similar employment elsewhere. This will be brought about gradually as a result of the causes and limitations hereinbefore stated, but (in the absence of war, or any great property-destroying or labor-employing agent) it will have reached a point before many years which will be simply intolerable. This distress will not cheek invention, for the prevailing lowness of prices will stimulate manufacturers to use every possible means for still further reducing expenses, and the demand of the people for the necessaries of life cannot be greatly changed. But some outlet for the workingman will become a necessity, and fortunately such an outlet exists.

If our civilization rests on the coal beds, it is none the less true that our humanity rests on the soil. Our normal condition is that of the infant drawing its sustenance from its mother's breast. All our other arrangements are essentially artificial. We have built up on our primitive foundation an elaborate piece of architecture, which will soon topple down by its own weight, its fragments forming a stronger basis for the simpler structure which will follow. The support of man by man is the exception; the support of man directly by mother earth is the general law of the race. Our recent history is the only wide-spread attempt at overturning that law which the world can show; and it is not so much a designed effort at subversion as an inevitable, though in some sense abnormal, transition state. For the first time we have comparatively few men who are simply producing what they eat and use. The remainder comprise a minority of producers, and a great majority of remolders, traffickers, and consumers. The minority provide the majority with food, and both the majority and the minority are divided into numerous groups of varying size, each consisting of workingmen governed in some sense by a proprietor or proprietors. This leaves the great mass of mankind dependent on the will or the misfortune of the few; it is unfavorable to independence of thought and action; it perpetuates needless class distinctions; and it insures a vast amount of distress among those who do the hard work of the world. The natural escape from all this is the return of the masses to their normal and healthful existence as tillers of the soil, not for the sake of speculation or considerable sale, but for the means of living.

There is no one of our States which does not offer abundant space for settlement and cultivation. The practical difficulties would very speedily dwindle if they were seized by determined hands. Everywhere along the Atlantic slope there are waste lands which are quite beyond the reach of agricultural machines, and these tracts are generally very cheap. Only a small amount of land is necessary for subsistence, if plenty of labor be expended; and it would not be difficult to procure a locality where the water and the woods might add a variety of food. An independent, even if isolated, life of this sort would soon be found more satisfactory than a subordinate and precarious existence on wages, and would certainly be infinitely preferable to the hopeless hanging about after a job. Under the pressure of which I speak, the workingmen would soon feel the necessity of aiding one another to make the change of life suggested; those who had prospered in it would gladly urge and assist others to do likewise; and the manufacturer and capitalist, desirous of securing stability for his property, would see the wisdom of lending a helping hand. The remedy will doubtless come as gradually as the need, and not until after the latter has been long and sorely felt. But when there is an imperative necessity for relief, and only one possible method of escape, it is idle to suppose that any such obstacles as exist can permanently bar the way.

It must not be thought that I am predicting a return to barbarism by any part of the population. A self-supporting life of this kind, begun by persons of fair intelligence, could be made a very different thing to-day from what it would have been a century ago. It is not at all necessary to set up the old-fashioned spinning-wheel and loom, which give us the words spinster and wife, and which still hold their ground in the less accessible parts of the Appalachian chain. Clothing is likely at all times to be very cheap, and for this, as well as for other necessaries not easily producible, many things could be exchanged, either directly or through the medium of sale. There are a large number of commodities which from their very nature are ill adapted to be produced by the aid of machinery, and which are proportionally more profitable when grown in a small way than on a large scale. These could always be disposed of. An industrious, thrifty family, after having surmounted the first difficulties and hardships, would soon be able to supply themselves with many conveniences beside what their own soil might afford. The workingman would then once more be in league with invention. The labor-saving device would become his friend.

It must be remembered that labor-saving devices are of two kinds: those which are designed for accelerating and cheapening wholesale work, and of which we have heretofore spoken, and those which are intended chiefly for household or private use. We hear less about the latter, but they are destined to play a great part in smoothing the road of life and lightening the daily routine of the weaker members of the family. Invention has already been largely directed toward this class of subjects, and under the changed conditions of the future would be still more largely attracted thither. The increase in the number of isolated families would largely increase the demand for many of those articles. Of course their introduction would require time; but improvements make their way finally even to the most seemingly unlikely places. About a year ago an instance of this came to my notice. Riding through a dense piece of woodlands in one of the more sequestered counties of Maryland, I came on a cluster of negro cabins, and in the first one of them that I looked at was — a sewing-machine.

The four or five thousand patents already issued for washing-machines attest the need that has been felt to lighten the task of cleansing clothing as now generally performed. It is highly probable that among these there are a number which will eventually come into general use, even in small families.

Stoves have been so greatly improved as to make the labor of cooking, in a well-ordered household, comparatively light, and to insure good heating in winter.

In districts remote from water, or where the climate is too mild for a certain ice crop, refrigeration is often a troublesome problem. Invention in this direction has reached a point, however, whence we may confidently look forward to an ice-machine of the near future which shall be as manageable and as cheap as an ordinary cooking stove. It will in time be as common to make one's ice for the day or week as to prepare a baking of bread.

Unfortunately, no one has as yet devised a satisfactory machine for automatically sweeping and scrubbing floors, and it is likely that these labors will be generally performed by hand to the end of the chapter. But the toil has been lightened by improvements in the implements used for such purposes, and there will undoubtedly be further advances in that direction. The number of patented mop wringers, for instance, is very considerable, and rotary floor sweepers, like street sweepers, are already in use.

Human ingenuity has not yet invented a dining table which will automatically dress and set itself, but tables have been patented which obviate all need of passing things about by hand, or employing a waiter. They are arranged to rotate so as to bring the dishes around when slightly pulled, leaving a stationary platform or rim for holding the plates. There are moreover simple fanning and fly-brushing devices run by clock-work, which will keep the household free from annoyance during meals. There is not even any necessity for lifting the coffeepot and tea-pot, very neat and secure tilting frames being procurable, which reduce the effort to a minimum. These things are all practicable, and obtainable at no great cost. When the patents run out, almost any mechanic can make them for himself.

The improvements in churns have made the operation of churning much less onerous than it formerly was. There have been divers efforts to do away with nearly the whole of the remaining toil, by utilizing the ordinary motions of the body for that purpose. In one of the most notable of these, an attachment was made between a lady's rocking-chair and a strong coiled spring, whereby her leisurely oscillation while conversing or novel-reading would store up sufficient power to do the morning's churning, or to rock the baby's cradle through half the night. This scheme has been considered as carrying the utilization of waste force almost to the verge of laziness. There are, however, practicable churn powers driven by weights or springs, which need only a little winding up to do all the work required. The watch-dog, too, or a good sturdy setter, can be readily trained to add a little churning to the rest of his duties. A large Newfoundland for a long time manufactured most of the butter in a dairy not far from my office. Something like an ordinary horse-power, of the kind worked by treading, was the medium through which he operated.

Bee-hives, like churns, have formed the subject for a multitude of patents. A good many of them agree in being provided with easily removable drawers or boxes, in which the bees make their combs and leave their honey, ready packed for shipment or storing. By the use of these, all risk of stinging is avoided, and no labor worth mentioning is required.

Simple, satisfactory, and cheap milking machines and knitting machines are desiderata with which we shall doubtless in good time be supplied. The attention of inventors has long been more or less directed to both subjects, and something is sure to come of it. Already there are devices for both purposes which answer pretty well.

In short, there is no branch of domestic economy into which invention has not benevolently forced its way; and this is but an indication of what the future will give us. It is apparent that a household taking advantage of these improvements would not only be enabled to live in considerable comfort and moderate luxury, but would also easily find leisure for a fair share of mental culture and recreation.

The degree of civilization attained would depend, naturally, upon the energy and capacity of its members, but it might well be much higher than that of the average workingman of our cities. It is true that the life which I have sketched does not open a very tempting road to wealth, but then even under the present system we are learning that we cannot all become rich; and there are some already who would prefer a certain independent subsistence, and no more, to the possibility of riches, balanced by dependence and insecurity. As I have elsewhere said, the number will increase perforce by and by.

Of course there are many things which an isolated family, such as I have supposed, could not ordinarily manufacture in a profitable and desirable manner. No man is likely to set up a nail machine in his kitchen, or a match factory in his parlor. Under any probable state of future affairs it would seem wiser to pick a few berries, or dig a bushel of potatoes, or trap a rabbit or two, and exchange them at the nearest roadside store for the needed nails and matches. So, on a larger scale, of iron ware, tin ware, boots, hats, and clothing. Some of these things may doubtless be made satisfactorily at home; but in general the required labor can be better expended in other ways. Nor will invention probably change this. It is more likely to cheapen articles like the above, and thus aid the man who wishes to obtain them.

A very small farmer raising grain or hay can never work his place as easily as a large farmer. There is practically nothing between a man and a horse in our industry. The reaper is the simplest effective machine that a horse can use, and the scythe and cradle are the most considerable and effective that a man can handle. Animal force and physical conditions of resistance determine the matter. And what can a man substitute for a thresher?

The poor man of whom I write would do well not to attempt raising wheat. Here be comes into competition again with the labor-saving machine. In his corn patch (for home use) he is relieved from that conflict, and may even turn his old enemy to some account. Probably the machine best adapted to his use in out-door work, and least likely to do any injury, is the combined cultivator and potato digger. Its little sharp-edged rotary wheels are available for all his root crops, as well as wherever soil is to be loosened or lightened.

Invention has not as yet very greatly aided in the picking of small fruits, or the cultivation of leaf crops like tobacco. But under the changed conditions of which I speak, the demand for assistance in expediting such work would be very likely to call forth a suitable supply of devices. For tree fruits there are already numerous well-known forms of gatherers, provided with cutting knives for severing the peach or pear, and bags like inverted liberty caps for receiving them when severed and lowering them uninjured. Still, in almost every product suitable to cultivation on a small scale, invention finds as yet a promising but almost unoccupied field.

The great question, however, for the poor man is, or shortly will be, that of escape from competition with labor-saving machinery by occupying small tracts of land, particularly of such rough woodland as cannot he successfully invaded by machinery of less flexibility and adaptability than the human body. Here flesh and blood have the advantage, and he can live. Making his work easier is a less consideration, but by lightening the labor at home he obtains more assistance from his family in his out-door duties. The time saved from washing and churning may go to weeding and chopping; sewing is convertible into sowing. Thus the certainty of a living and of a fair exchangeable surplus becomes established. It is a life which can be made a success, and which will be one day the rule rather than the exception.

This change will of course strengthen all our institutions, by broadening the base of our national life and multiplying the number of those who have a direct property interest in public prosperity. It will not stop the growth of cities, which will still be needed as great distributing centres; nor will it lessen the number of inventions of a different sort from those last referred to. All that is needed now will be needed then, and there will be more people in a position to obtain what they want. The chief revolution will be the general substitution of unintelligent matter for human bodies in nearly all subordinate work, and the greater liberation of the human mind and will. Concurrent with this will be the more thorough development of the agricultural resources of the country, and the occupancy of its many places now lying waste. All this is not so far away as it may seem.

Other changes lie beyond, but they are too remote to be more than guessed at. In time, of course, this country will be absolutely full of inhabitants; so will the entire world at a later date. Before or after this (who can tell which?) the coal fields will give out, and all possible substitutes will follow. As our present civilization rests almost wholly upon coal, and as our social phenomena have thus far been largely caused by the law of the vacuum, we can hardly form a conception of the condition of our remote descendants. But the probabilities seem to indicate a more placid state than our own, in which personal desire shall play an unimportant part, and invention shall appear chiefly as the handmaid of scientific discovery. Possibly, like the early Christians, the people of that date may have all things in common.

Presented by

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


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open for 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in Technology

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In