|The Story of Mankind|
|by Hendrik Willem Van Loon|
|Relates the story of western civilization from earliest times through the beginning of the twentieth century, with special emphasis on the people and events that changed the course of history. Portrays in vivid prose the achievements of mankind in the areas of art and discovery, as well as the political forces leading to the modern nation-states. Richly illustrated with drawings by the author. Winner of the first Newbery Award in 1922, The Story of Mankind has introduced generations of children to the pageant of world history. Ages 10-14 |
THE AGE OF THE ENGINE
BUT WHILE THE PEOPLE OF EUROPE WERE FIGHTING FOR THEIR NATIONAL INDEPENDENCE, THE WORLD IN WHICH THEY LIVED HAD BEEN ENTIRELY CHANGED BY A SERIES OF INVENTIONS, WHICH HAD MADE THE CLUMSY OLD STEAM ENGINE OF THE 18TH CENTURY THE MOST FAITHFUL AND EFFICIENT SLAVE OF MAN
 THE greatest benefactor of the human race died more than
half a million years ago. He was a hairy creature with a low
brow and sunken eyes, a heavy jaw and strong tiger-like teeth.
He would not have looked well in a gathering of modern scientists,
but they would have honoured him as their master. For
he had used a stone to break a nut and a stick to lift up a heavy
boulder. He was the inventor of the hammer and the lever, our
first tools, and he did more than any human being who came
after him to give man his enormous advantage over the other
animals with whom he shares this planet.
Ever since, man has tried to make his life easier by the use
of a greater number of tools. The first wheel (a round disc
made out of an old tree) created as much stir in the communities
of 100,000 B.C. as the flying machine did only a few years
In Washington, the story is told of a director of the Patent
Office who in the early thirties of the last century suggested
 that the Patent Office be abolished, because "everything that
possibly could be invented had been invented." A similar
feeling must have spread through the prehistoric world when
the first sail was hoisted on a raft and the people were able
to move from place to place without rowing or punting or
pulling from the shore.
Indeed one of the most interesting chapters of history is
the effort of man to let some one else or something else do his
work for him, while he enjoyed his leisure, sitting in the sun
or painting pictures on rocks, or training young wolves and
little tigers to behave like peaceful domestic animals.
Of course in the very olden days, it was always possible
to enslave a weaker neighbour and force him to do the unpleasant
tasks of life. One of the reasons why the Greeks and
Romans, who were quite as intelligent as we are, failed to
devise more interesting machinery, was to be found in the
wide-spread existence of slavery. Why should a great mathematician
waste his time upon wires and pulleys and cogs and fill
the air with noise and smoke when he could go to the marketplace
and buy all the slaves he needed at a very small expense?
And during the middle-ages, although slavery had been
abolished and only a mild form of serfdom survived, the guilds
discouraged the idea of using machinery because they thought
this would throw a large number of their brethren out of
work. Besides, the Middle Ages
were not at all interested
in producing large quantities of goods. Their tailors and butchers
and carpenters worked for the immediate needs of the small
community in which they lived and had no desire to compete
with their neighbours, or to produce more than was strictly
During the Renaissance, when the prejudices of the Church
against scientific investigations could no longer be enforced as
rigidly as before, a large number of men began to devote their
lives to mathematics and astronomy and physics and chemistry.
Two years before the beginning of the Thirty Years War,
John Napier, a Scotchman, had published his little book which
described the new invention of logarithms. During the war
it-  self, Gottfried Leibnitz of Leipzig had perfected the system of
infinitesimal calculus. Eight years before the peace of Westphalia,
Newton, the great English natural philosopher, was
born, and in that same year Galileo, the Italian astronomer,
died. Meanwhile the Thirty Years War had destroyed the prosperity
of central Europe and there was a sudden but very general
interest in "alchemy," the strange pseudo-science of the
middle-ages by which people hoped to turn base metals into
gold. This proved to be impossible but the alchemists in their
laboratories stumbled upon many new ideas and greatly helped
the work of the chemists who were their successors.
The work of all these men provided the world with a solid
scientific foundation upon which it was possible to build even
the most complicated of engines, and a number of practical
men made good use of it. The Middle-Ages had used wood for
the few bits of necessary machinery. But wood wore out
easily. Iron was a much better material but iron was scarce
except in England. In England therefore most of the smelting
was done. To smelt iron, huge fires were needed. In the
beginning, these fires had been made of wood, but gradually
the forests had been used up. Then "stone coal" (the petrified
trees of prehistoric times) was used. But coal as you
know has to be dug out of the ground and it has to be transported
to the smelting ovens and the mines have to be kept
dry from the ever invading waters.
THE MODERN CITY
These were two problems which had to be solved at once.
For the time being, horses could still be used to haul the
coal-wagons, but the pumping question demanded the application
of special machinery. Several inventors were busy trying to
solve the difficulty. They all knew that steam would have to
be used in their new engine. The idea of the steam engine was
very old. Hero of Alexandria, who lived in the first century
before Christ, has described to us several bits of machinery
which were driven by steam. The people of the Renaissance
had played with the notion of steam-driven war chariots. The
Marquis of Worcester, a contemporary of Newton, in his book
of inventions, tells of a steam engine. A little later, in the year
 1698, Thomas Savery of London applied for a patent for a
pumping engine. At the same time, a Hollander, Christian
Huygens, was trying to perfect an engine in which gun-powder
was used to cause regular explosions in much the same way as
we use gasoline in our motors.
All over Europe, people were busy with the idea. Denis
Papin, a Frenchman, friend and assistant of Huygens, was
making experiments with steam engines in several countries.
He invented a little wagon that was driven by steam, and a
paddle-wheel boat. But when he tried to take a trip in his
vessel, it was confiscated by the authorities on a complaint of
the boatmen's union, who feared that such a craft would deprive
them of their livelihood. Papin finally died in London in
great poverty, having wasted all his money on his inventions.
But at the time of his death, another mechanical enthusiast,
Thomas Newcomen, was working on the problem of a new
steam-pump. Fifty years later his engine was improved upon
by James Watt, a Glasgow instrument maker. In the year
1777, he gave the world the first steam engine that proved of
real practical value.
But during the centuries of experiments with a "heat-engine,"
the political world had greatly changed. The British
people had succeeded the Dutch as the common-carriers of the
world's trade. They had opened up new colonies. They took
the raw materials which the colonies produced to England,
and there they turned them into finished products, and then
they exported the finished goods to the four corners of the
world. During the seventeenth century, the people of Georgia
and the Carolinas had begun to grow a new shrub which gave
a strange sort of woolly substance, the so-called "cotton wool."
After this had been plucked, it was sent to England and there
the people of Lancashire wove it into cloth. This weaving
was done by hand and in the homes of the workmen. Very soon
a number of improvements were made in the process of weaving.
In the year 1730, John Kay invented the "fly shuttle."
In 1770, James Hargreaves got a patent on his "spinning
jenny." Eli Whitney, an American, invented the cotton-gin,
 which separated the cotton from its seeds, a job which had
previously been done by hand at the rate of only a pound a day.
Finally Richard Arkwright and the Reverend Edmund Cartwright
invented large weaving machines, which were driven by
water power. And then, in the eighties of the eighteenth
century, just when the Estates General of France had begun
those famous meetings which were to revolutionise the political
system of Europe, the engines of Watt were arranged in such
a way that they could drive the weaving machines of Arkwright,
and this created an economic and social revolution
which has changed human relationship in almost every part
of the world.
As soon as the stationary engine had proved a success, the
inventors turned their attention to the problem of propelling
boats and carts with the help of a mechanical contrivance.
Watt himself designed plans for a "steam locomotive," but
ere he had perfected his ideas, in the year 1804, a locomotive
made by Richard Trevithick carried a load of twenty tons at
Pen-y-darran in the Wales mining district.
At the same time an American jeweller and portrait-painter
by the name of Robert Fulton was in Paris, trying to convince
Napoleon that with the use of his submarine boat, the
"Nautilus," and his "steam-boat," the French might be able to
destroy the naval supremacy of England.
Fulton's idea of a steamboat was not original. He had
undoubtedly copied it from John Fitch, a mechanical genius of
Connecticut whose cleverly constructed steamer had first navigated
the Delaware river as early as the year 1787. But Napoleon
and his scientific advisers did not believe in the practical
possibility of a self-propelled boat, and although the
Scotch-built engine of the little craft puffed merrily on the Seine, the
great Emperor neglected to avail himself of this formidable
weapon which might have given him his revenge for Trafalgar.
THE FIRST STEAMBOAT
As for Fulton, he returned to the United States and, being
a practical man of business, he organised a successful steamboat
company together with Robert R. Livingston, a signer of
the Declaration of Independence, who was American Minister
 to France when Fulton was in Paris, trying to sell his invention.
The first steamer of this new company, the "Clermont,"
which was given a monopoly of all the waters of New York
State, equipped with an engine built by Boulton and Watt of
Birmingham in England, began a regular service between New
York and Albany in the year 1807.
As for poor John Fitch, the man who long before any one
else had used the "steam-boat" for commercial purposes, he
came to a sad death. Broken in health and empty of purse, he
had come to the end of his resources when his fifth boat, which
was propelled by means of a screw-propeller, had been destroyed.
His neighbours jeered at him as they were to laugh a
hundred years later when Professor Langley constructed his
funny flying machines. Fitch had hoped to give his country
an easy access to the broad rivers of the west and his countrymen
preferred to travel in flat-boats or go on foot. In the year
1798, in utter despair and misery, Fitch killed himself by taking
But twenty years later, the "Savannah," a steamer of 1850
 tons and making six knots an hour, (the Mauretania goes just
four times as fast,) crossed the ocean from Savannah to Liverpool
in the record time of twenty-five days. Then there was
an end to the derision of the multitude and in their enthusiasm
the people gave the credit for the invention to the wrong man.
THE ORIGIN OF THE STEAMBOAT
Six years later, George Stephenson, a Scotchman, who had
been building locomotives for the purpose of hauling coal from
the mine-pit to smelting ovens and cotton factories, built his
famous "travelling engine" which reduced the price of coal by
almost seventy per cent and which made it possible to establish
the first regular passenger service between Manchester and
Liverpool, when people were whisked from city to city at the
unheard-of speed of fifteen miles per hour. A dozen years
later, this speed had been increased to twenty miles per hour.
 At the present time, any well-behaved flivver (the direct descendant
of the puny little motor-driven machines of Daimler
and Levassor of the eighties of the last century) can do better
than these early "Puffing Billies."
THE ORIGIN OF THE AUTOMOBILE
But while these practically-minded engineers were improving
upon their rattling "heat engines," a group of "pure"
scientists (men who devote fourteen hours of each day to the
study of those "theoretical" scientific phenomena without which
no mechanical progress would be possible) were following a
new scent which promised to lead them into the most secret and
hidden domains of Nature.
Two thousand years ago, a number of Greek and Roman
philosophers (notably Thales of Miletus and Pliny who was
killed while trying to study the eruption of Vesuvius of the
 year 79 when Pompeii and Herculaneum were buried beneath
the ashes) had noticed the strange antics of bits of straw and of
feather which were held near a piece of amber which was being
rubbed with a bit of wool. The schoolmen of the Middle Ages
had not been interested in this mysterious "electric" power.
But immediately after the Renaissance, William Gilbert, the
private physician of Queen Elizabeth, wrote his famous treatise
on the character and behaviour of Magnets. During the
Thirty Years War Otto von Guericke, the burgomaster of
Magdeburg and the inventor of the air-pump, constructed the
first electrical machine. During the next century a large number
of scientists devoted themselves to the study of electricity.
Not less than three professors invented the famous Leyden
Jar in the year 1795. At the same time, Benjamin Franklin,
the most universal genius of America next to Benjamin Thomson
(who after his flight from New Hampshire on account of
his pro-British sympathies became known as Count Rumford)
was devoting his attention to this subject. He discovered that
lightning and the electric spark were manifestations of the same
electric power and continued his electric studies until the end of
his busy and useful life. Then came Volta with his famous
"electric pile" and Galvani and Day and the Danish professor
Hans Christian Oersted and Ampère and Arago and Faraday,
all of them diligent searchers after the true nature of the electric
They freely gave their discoveries to the world and Samuel
Morse (who like Fulton began his career as an artist) thought
that he could use this new electric current to transmit messages
from one city to another. He intended to use copper
wire and a little machine which he had invented. People
laughed at him. Morse therefore was obliged to finance his
own experiments and soon he had spent all his money and
then he was very poor and people laughed even louder. He
then asked Congress to help him and a special Committee on
Commerce promised him their support. But the members of
Congress were not at all interested and Morse had to wait
 twelve years before he was given a small congressional appropriation.
He then built a "telegraph" between Baltimore and
Washington. In the year 1887 he had shown his first successful
"telegraph" in one of the lecture halls of New York
University. Finally, on the 24th of May of the year 1844 the
first long-distance message was sent from Washington to
Baltimore and to-day the whole world is covered with telegraph
wires and we can send news from Europe to Asia in a few
seconds. Twenty-three years later Alexander Graham Bell used
the electric current for his telephone. And half a century
afterwards Marconi improved upon these ideas by inventing a
system of sending messages which did away entirely with the old-
While Morse, the New Englander, was working on his
"telegraph," Michael Faraday, the Yorkshire-man, had constructed
the first "dynamo." This tiny little machine was completed
in the year 1831 when Europe was still trembling as a
result of the great July revolutions which had so severely upset
the plans of the Congress of Vienna. The first dynamo grew
and grew and grew and to-day it provides us with heat and
with light (you know the little incandescent bulbs which Edison,
building upon French and English experiments of the forties
and fifties, first made in 1878) and with power for all sorts
of machines. If I am not mistaken the electric-engine will
soon entirely drive out the "heat engine" just as in the olden
days the more highly-organised prehistoric animals drove out
their less efficient neighbours.
Personally (but I know nothing about machinery) this will
make me very happy. For the electric engine which can be run
by waterpower is a clean and companionable servant of mankind
but the "heat-engine," the marvel of the eighteenth century,
is a noisy and dirty creature for ever filling the world with
ridiculous smoke-stacks and with dust and soot and asking
that it be fed with coal which has to be dug out of mines at
great inconvenience and risk to thousands of people.
And if I were a novelist and not a historian, who must stick
 to facts and may not use his imagination, I would describe the
happy day when the last steam locomotive shall be taken to the
Museum of Natural History to be placed next to the skeleton
of the Dinosaur and the Pterodactyl and the other extinct
creatures of a by-gone age.
Hundreds of additional titles available for
online reading when you join Gateway to the Classics