The New Imagination
THE comfortless idea that the ghost of an old horse is trotting in front of all the express trains of the world sprang from the brain of H. G. Wells at the turn of this century. For once Mr. Wells was quite right. It is too bad that he switched his attention from this great discovery to other and less important matters. Had he amplified his discovery, preached it from the housetops and jammed it into the consciousness of modern life, he might have saved us from some of the deepest tragedies of unemployment. He might have freed us from our slavery to the machine.
The completion of Mr. Wells’s discovery is this — that, since the technical and scientific age began, our imaginations have failed utterly and miserably to keep pace with our inventive ability. We invent something and then fail to use it to its logical capacity, one result being to throw men out of work without creating enough new work to reabsorb them and many more.
For example, — to revive Mr. Wells’s illustration of the railroads, — we invented in the early nineteenth century a method of put ting a steam pump on wheels so that it could propel itself forward. This was the locomotive — probably the most important invention in locomotion since the cartwheel itself. Certainly it brought the first serious change in man’s ways of transporting himself in many thousands of years. The locomotive was a superb concept. It was something wholly new under the sun. It was so big that it dwarfed the world, literally making the world smaller by thousands of hours. It was man’s first great conquest of time since horses and wheels had been harnessed together. It changed at once every historic relationship between time and space. It was vastly more than a mechanical invention. It generated a complete revolution in the relation of man to man, and of man to distance.
But what did our imaginations do to this astounding invention? Did our minds even faintly encompass its meaning? Faintly — perhaps. But deeply and richly — no. The best our feeble imaginations could do was to call this superb creation ‘the iron horse.’ It was not a horse. It lacked even the remotest resemblance to a horse. But we called it a horse because our minds had been limited by the horse for thousands of years whenever we thought of transportation. We not only called it a horse, but — and here lay the great crime of omission, the great sin of stunted imagination — we used it as we had always used the horse! We literally hitched this magnificent new creation in front of the tramcars and stagecoaches built for horses and made the locomotive drag these coaches and trams along the same narrow rails over which the horse had plodded. We continued to do this for so long that, before our sluggish imaginations could wake up to our mistake, the cost of changing the size of the railroad tracks became prohibitive. The gauge of all the railroad tracks of the world was set, and remains set to-day, by the capacity of the horse. We dwarfed our invention of the locomotive to terms of horsepower. And there it remains, limited, cramped, and overshadowed by the ghost of the horse!
The locomotive was inherently capable of drawing a car at least twice the width of the familiar railroad coach — a car that would offer comfort and space to the traveler instead of unbearably cramped quarters. That scientific horror, the sleeping car, with its narrow aisles and stuffy berths and miniature conveniences, is part of the exorbitant price we pay to-day as a wholly unnecessary tribute to the horse. A grin of triumph must lurk in the mouth of every ancient gray mare grazing on a farm as the ‘ luxury ’ express speeds by. She knows her victory over the imaginations of men.
But the railroad is only one hidden conquest of the horse. The spavined gray mare can laugh at the automobile, too — and, again, it is Mr. Wells who hinted at her victory. At the time he wrote Anticipations, published in 1902, the modern automobile was little more than a rumor. He spoke of the possibility of a self-propelling vehicle which might attain such incredible speeds as sixty miles an hour. But the automobile did come, and with it speeds far in excess of sixty miles an hour. Again man evolved a superb invention. But the best we could do was to call it a ‘horseless carriage.’ This time we actually implied by the word ‘horseless’ the elimination of the horse. But in the next word, ‘carriage,’ we yanked the horse back again. The gasoline engine would pull a carriage just as the horse had pulled it, and — herewith the crime of countless accidents and sudden death — over the very carriage roads sacred to the horse.
Mr. Wells wrote optimistically of great highways, resembling in size and architectural beauty the old Roman viaducts, along which the new selfpropelling vehicles could speed safely at sixty miles an hour, with one-way traffic lanes and separate lanes for freight and pleasure vehicles. Had he fully grasped the significance of his own discovery about the railroads, he would have predicted more clearly, and not merely by inference, the second bankruptcy of imagination in favor of the horse. He would have said, ‘Men will continue for a third of a century and more to limit this magnificent new vehicle by forcing it to go over the old narrow winding horse-carriage roads; they will make its potentially safe speed unsafe by the sudden turns and invisible dangers of the horse road; they will invite head-on collisions with the impact of twice sixty miles an hour; they will spend millions on resurfacing and making permanent the highways of the horse instead of providing roads actually built to the power and specifications of the automobile; they will some day stand appalled at thousands upon thousands of fatal accidents in a year and will put all the blame on careless drivers instead of taking the crime to their own hearts and indicting their own incredible lack of imagination.’
Since we could not easily rebuild whole cities and city streets, we are perhaps not to blame for the continued small size of the automobile. The horse is not honored in that detail. But we have no defense for our interurban highways. Not one of them to-day is a match for our invention of the automobile. Not one of them provides that complement to the inherent safety of which the automobile can boast. Every single important highway in the country to-day is obsolete as a companion to the automobile. Yet, ironically enough, our imaginations still tremble before the problem of providing ‘useful’ work for the unemployed!
A million men and millions of tons of concrete and steel could be usefully employed to-day in nothing but the complete rebuilding of our highway system to catch up with our invention of the automobile. But our imaginations are still leashed to the horse. We have surfaced our roads at huge expense. We have, perhaps, cut off a dangerous corner here and a difficult grade there, but we have still made no fundamental change in highway construction. We have shown no ingenuity in road building even faintly comparable to the ingenuity required to construct just one small part of the automobile — the brakes. Yet, if we brutally capitalize the economic value of a human being at $50,000, and multiply that figure by 35,000 automobile fatalities a year, we arrive at an annual economic cost of one and three quarter billions. The cost in human anguish is incomparably greater. If our imaginations were only unleashed from the horse, we might replace that annual economic loss with a corresponding economic gain and wipe out our past sins of omission.
But it is not only in automobiles and railroads that we continue to live in a ‘horsepower’ age. The meaning of Mr. Wells’s discovery cuts far deeper than the illustrations he blithely drew at the turn of the century. What he implied is vastly more important than what he said. Every time that we produce, through invention, more than we are able to consume, through alert imagination, we run into a social and human impasse. Modern banking is an invention in itself—as inherently different from the hard-money banking of the Middle Ages as the horse from the automobile. But our imaginations are still quite incapable of using this new invention. We try to run it on hardmoney rules as religiously as we try to run the automobile on horse roads. Or, to enlarge the scope, our whole technological equipment permits, inherently an astounding rise in the material standard of living; yet we constantly limit it by the fears of overproduction based on an economy of hand labor and an inelastic demand for the products of labor. In our technical society, it is supply (at reasonable and lowering prices) that creates demand; and, since technology provides an almost unlimited supply, the potential demand has an elasticity it never before possessed.
When the making of a carriage body, for example, demanded a fixed or constant quantity of hand labor, and when the potential buyers had to create their buying power by an equally fixed amount of hand labor in some other trade, such as shoemaking, then both supply and demand were relatively inelastic, and limited by the number of hours of labor a given population could devote to varied types of hand production. But as machines reduced the number of man hours in an automobile, and also the number of man hours in a pair of shoes, the shoemakers could buy more automobiles and the automobile makers could buy more pairs of shoes. It needs the courage of a brilliant imagination for a Henry Ford to foresee that a plentiful supply of automobiles at a constantly lowering price would end in an automobile for nearly every family, compared to the thousands of years during which only one family in a thousand could buy a carriage. Happily, Mr. Ford had just the quality of imagination required to bring about this astonishing result. But if he had not created the supply and lowered the price and thus permitted the potential demand to become an actual demand, he might still be producing only a few thousand cars a year, and cars would still hold the luxury position that carriages once held.
Thus through the whole fabric of our modern technical life the true balance can be maintained only by matching invention with imagination in the use of invention. We already know, in a remote and academic way, that air conditioning has rendered millions of houses and apartment buildings partly obsolete. But how many manufacturers, taking the hint from Mr. Ford’s history, have stepped up production of air-conditioning units and reduced the unit price to a point where every family can live and sleep without absorbing untold quantities of carbon monoxide and dust and smoke pollution ? Broadly speaking, one can still almost buy an automobile for the price of an air-conditioning box for one large room.
The steel industry is only beginning, at this late date, to suspect a potential demand for steel-frame houses comparable to the demonstrated demand for automobiles. It is only within two or three years that the chemical industry has seriously turned to the extraction of industrial materials from farm products. This was a case of imagination delayed for more than a century. Human beings can still consume only a given amount of food. That, at least, is one form of demand that must always remain inelastic. But if chemistry finds a way of making building materials cheaply enough from cornstalks and alfalfa, or newsprint paper from hay, then the farmer can aspire to elastic markets that will help to keep him on an equality with industry. Imagination has at last seized on this possible use of chemical invention, but the awakening took a hundred years.
This need of matching invention with imagination is almost as new as the technical era itself. That is our one excuse and our one hope. It is only in a very limited sense that we had to use imagination in pre-inventive days. Let us take the case, for example, of John Adams setting out on his difficult diplomatic missions abroad during the Revolution. He made his outward journey on a sailing vessel. He knew he would return the same way — if he returned at all. His imagination could play with the possible events that might make his return impossible, but he did not have to give a thought as to how he would return. He would cross the seas exactly as his ancestors had crossed them. He would see the stars at night through masts and rigging, and there would always be the same hours of impatience in a dead calm. But a young man setting out on a two or three-year voyage to-day has no idea at all of how he may return. He may come back through the air, and quite possibly in a stratosphere rocket. His imagination has a new dimension to play in — the dimension of the ‘how.’
Once — and for long thousands of years — it was possible for a man to learn a trade, and to know from that point on just how he would earn his living. To-day a whole trade may be abolished overnight. A decade from now, bricklaying and plastering may be lost arts. General Washington at Valley Forge may have wondered when and where he would meet the enemy, but at least he knew that he would fight with muskets and artillery and sabred cavalry. The ‘how’ of warfare was a known quantity. But an army staff of to-day, thinking in terms of gas and airplanes, may find to-morrow’s battle fought with electric rays.
Imagination that once moved in terms of ‘when,’ ‘where,’ and ‘what’ now has this fourth dimension of ‘how.’ It is a wholly new challenge to human capacity. It reaches into industry and finance, into war and peace and the fates of nations, into every material phase of individual existence. It destroys much of the value of careful planning, and places an immeasurable premium on alertness and adaptability and instant perception of change. Invention has thrown down the gauntlet to imagination — and the life and happiness of man arc the stakes.