F. (François) Arago.

Biographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) online

. (page 32 of 38)
Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 32 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


relative to the piston's position, &c. If time permitted, I would show
Watt not less clever, or less fortunate, in his endeavours to improve
'the boilers, to diminish the loss of heat, and to burn completely the
torrents of black smoke that escape from common chimneys, however
high they may be carried.



WELFARE OF THE WORKING CLASSES. 407

Stone ; its volume and its weight can be easily calculated ;
its weight has been found to be about 5,900,000 kilograms
(nearly 5000 tons).

To elevate this weight to thirty-eight metres, which is
^the pyramid's centre of gravity, it would require to burn
8,244 hectolitres of coal (cubic metres). Our neigh-
bours have some foundries where they consume this
quantity every week.

MACHINES CONSIDERED RELATIVE TO THEIR EFFECT
ON THE WELFARE OF THE WORKING CLASSES.*

Many persons, without doubting the genius of Watt,
look on the inventions for which the world is indebted to
him, and on the impulse that they have given to indus-
trial labours, as a social misfortune. If we believed
them, the adoption of each new machine inevitably adds
to the troubles and miseries of labourers. Those won-



* In writing this chapter it seemed to me that I might unscrupu-
lously avail myself of many documents that I had collected, either in
various conversations with my friend Lord Brougham, or works that
he himself has i>ublished, or that have appeared under his patronage.

If I were to attend to the criticisms that have been printed after the
reading of this Biography, by trying to combat the opinion that ma-
chines are injurious to the labouring classes, I should be attacking an
old prejudice that has no longer any foundation, a mere phantom. I
would not ask more than to be able to believe it, for then I would very
willingly suppress all my arguments, bad or good. Unfortunately some
letters frequently sent me by excellent workmen, either as an acade-
mician or as a deputy; unfortunately, moreover, the recent and ex-
professo dissertations of several economists, leave me no doubt as to
the necessity of still saying, of repeating in every shape, that ma-
chines have never been the true and permanent cause of the sufferings
of one of the most numerous and most interesting of the classes of
society; that their destruction would aggravate the present state of
things; and that it is by no means in that direction that a remedy
would be found for the evils which I warmly compassionate.



408 JAMES WATT.

derful mechanical combinations that we are accustomed to
admire for the regularity and harmony of their move-
ments, for the power and delicacy of their effects, would
be instruments of injury ; the legislator ought to pro-
scribe them with a just and implacable rigour.

Conscientious opinions, especially when they are con-
nected with praiseworthy sentiments of philanthropy,
have a claim to an attentive examination. I add, that
on my part this is an imperious duty. I should have
neglected, indeed, the argument by which the labours of
our illustrious academician are shown to be most worthy
of public estimation, if, far from acceding to the preju-
dices of certain minds against the improvement of ma-
chines, I did not point out such works to the attention of
well-meaning men, as the most powerful, the most direct,
the most efficacious means of rescuing workmen fi'om
cruel sufferings, and calling them to partake of a crowd
of benefits, which seemed to be regarded as the exclusive
appanage of riches.

When we have to select one of two diametrically op-
posite propositions ; when the one being true, the other
must be false, and when nothing seems at first sight to be
able to dictate a rational choice, geometers seize on these
contrary propositions ; they follow up their details care-
fully through all their ramifications ; they make their
last logical results rise up : now the ill-stated proposition,
and that one only, seldom fails to lead, by wire-drawing,
to some results that a clear intellect could not admit.
Let us try for a moment the method of examination that
Euclid often uses, and which is so justly designated by
the epithet of mode of reducing to absurdity.

The adversaries of machines would wish to annihilate
them, or at least to restrain their propagation, — to re-



REDUCTIO AD ABSURDUM. 409

serve, say they, more employment for the workino- classes.
Let us, for a moment, take up this position, and the
anathema will be found to extend far beyond machines
properly so called.

From the beginning we shall be led, for example, to
tax our ancestors with great improvidence. If instead
of founding, if instead of persevering in extending the
city of Paris on the two banks of the Seine, they had
established it in the middle of the plain of Villejuif, for
centuries back the water-carriers would have formed the
most occupied, the most numerous, the most important
portion of the population. Well, Messrs. Economists,
set to work in favour of the water-carriers. To make
the Seine deviate from its course is not an impossibility ;
propose this undertaking ; open a subscription immedi-
ately to leave Paris dry, and the general laugh will show
you that the rnode of reducing to absurdity * has some
good in it, even in political economy ; and in their plain
sense, the workmen themselves will tell you that the
river has created the immense capital in which such re-
sources are found ; and that, without it, Paris would per-
haps still be a Villejuif.

Good Parisians had hitherto congratulated themselves
on the vicinity of those inexhaustible quarries where suc-
cessive generations go to dig out materials for the con-
struction of their temples, their palaces, their private
dwellings. A mere illusion ! The new political economy
will prove to you that it would have been eminently
advantageous if the plaster, the freestone, and rubble had

* This " m^thode de reduction a I'absurde " is the reductio ad ab-
surf?i«», or arguing ca; a^sarcZo, of logicians and mathematicians; in
which the truth of a proposition is proved by showing that the con-
trary "is unreasonable. — Translator.

SEC, SEU. 18



410 JAMES WATT.

been found only near Bourges for example. On this
hypothesis, compute on your fingers the number of work-
men that would have been required to bring to the site
of the capital all the stone that during five centuries has
been worked up by architects, and you will find a truly
prodigious result : and however little the new ideas may
smile upon you, yo« may go into ecstasies at your ease
on the happiness that such a state of things would have
shed on the proletaries.

Let us venture some doubts, although I know very
well that the Vertots of our day perfectly resemble the
Rhodian historian, when their seat is made, ('' quand leur
siege est fait.")

The capital of a powerful kingdom, not very distant
from France, is traversed by a majestic river, which
even men-of-war ascend. under full sail. The surround-
ing country is furrowed in all directions by canals which
carry heavy burdens at a very small freightage. A regu-
lar network of routes, admirably kept up, lead to all the
most distant parts of that territory. To these gifts of
nature and of art, this capital, which of course every one
has already named, unites an advantage of which Paris
is deprived ; the quarries of building-stone are not at its
gates, they lie at a distance. There then the Utopia of
the new economists is realized. Will they not now count
up by hundreds of thousands, perhaps by millions, the
quarrymen, the boatmen, the carters, the labourers in-
cessantly employed, digging out, carrying away, prepar-
ing the building-stone for the construction of the immense
number of edifices with which that capital is annually
enriched ? We will leave them to count at their ease.
There has happened in that city what would have hap-
pened in Paris if it had been devoid of its rich quarries ;



UTILITY OF MACHINES. 411

Stone being very dear, it is not used ; * brick is the gen-
eral substitute.

Millions of workmen are now executing, both on the
surface of the earth and in its bowels, immense works
which could not possibly be undertaken, if certain ma-
chines were proscribed. Two or three examples will
suffice to render this truth palpable.

The carrying off the water that rises daily in the gal-
leries of the Cornish mines alone, requires the power of
50,000 horses, or of 300,000 men. I ask you whether
the pay of 300,000 workmen would not absorb all the
benefit of the undertaking ?

Does the question of the expense and the benefit
appear to be too delicate ? Other considerations will
lead to the same result.

The working of one Cornish mine alone, comprised
under the name of the Consolidated Mines, requires a
steam-engine equal to upwards of three hundred horses
constantly in harness, and each twenty-four hours it
realizes the work of one thousand horses. Need I fear
any contradiction if I assert that there are no means of
making upwards of three hundred horses, or two thou-
sand or three thousand men, labour simultaneously and
to good purpose around the confined mouth of the shaft
of a mine ? To proscribe the steam-engine of the Con-
solidated Mines would be to reduce to inaction the great
number of workmen that the engine j-enders it possible
to employ there ; it would be the same as declaring that
the copper and tin of Cornwall shall remain buried there
for ever, under a mass of earth, of rock, and of water
several hundred meters in thickness. The thesis brought

* This is a very incon-ect expression, and might mislead a Parisian
hadaud. — Translator.



412 JAMES WATT.

into this last form will certainly have few defenders;
but what signifies the form when the substance is evi-
dently the same ?

If from labours that require an immense development
of power, we were to pass on to the examination of vari-
ous industrial products, which, from the dehcacy of their
materials and the regularity of their forms, have been
placed among the wonders of art, the insufficiency, the
inferiority, of our organs compared with ingenious me-
chanical combinations, would equally strike all minds.
Where is there, for instance, so clever a spinner as to
draw a thread from one pound of cotton wool fifty-three
leagues long, as is done by the machine called the mule-
jemiy ?

I am not ignorant of what certain moralists have
preached on the inutiUty of muslins and laces and gossa-
mer net, in the weaving of which this fine thread is
used ; but it suffices for me to remark, that the most
perfect mule-jenny spins under the constant inspection
of a great many workpeople ; that the only requisite they
care for is, to manufacture goods that will sell ; in short,
that if luxury is an evil, a vice, or even a crime, it is the
buyers who are to blame, and not the poor proletaries,
whose existence, I believe, would be very uncertain if
they themselves endeavoured to manufacture for the
ladies woollen stuffs instead of fashionable tulle.

Now let us quit remarks on details, and dive down to
the very bottom of the question.

Marcus Aurelius said: "We must not receive the
opinions of our fathers as children would, for the mere
reason that they were our fathers' opinions." This
maxim, though assuredly a very just one, ought not to
prevent us from thinking, or at least from presuming.



UTILITY OB' MACHINES. 413

that those ophiions against which no criticism has ever
been pronounced from the commencement of societies,
are conformable to reason and to general advantage.
Well, on the question so much debated, relative to the
utility of machines, what was the unanimous opinion of
antiquity ? Its ingenious mythology will inform us ; the
founders of empires, the legislators, the conquerors of
tyrants who oppressed their country, received the title of
demi-gods only ; but it was among the gods themselves
that they placed the inventors of the spade, the sickle,
and tlie plough.

I already hear our adversaries, on account of the
extreme simplicity of the instruments that I have cited,
boldly refuse them the name of machines, unwilling to
regard them as any thing but tools ; and ensconce them-
selves obstinately behind this distinction.

I might answer that such a distinction is puerile ; that
it would be impossible to say precisely where the tool
ends and the machine begins ; but it is better worth
remarking that in the pleadings against machines noth-
ing has ever been said of their greater or less complica-
tion. If they are repudiated, it is because with their aid
one man can do the work that would otherwise require
several men ; now would any one dare to maintain that
a knife, a gimblet, a file, a saw, do not confer great facil-
ity of operation on the hand that uses them ; that the
hand thus strengthened would not do the work of a great
many hands armed only with their nails ?

The workmen, seduced by the detestable theories of
some of their pretended friends, did not stop at the
sophisticated distinction between tools and machines ;
they wandered over certain counties of England, in
1830, vociferating the cry of doivn with the machines !



414 JAMES WATT.

Kigorous logicians, they broke in the farms, the sickle
intended to reap the corn, the flail that was to beat the
corn, the sieve by the aid of which the corn is winnowed.
And, in fact, are not the sickle, the flail, and the sieve
means for shortening labour ? The spade, the hoe, the
plough, the seedsower, could not find grace in the eyes
of this blinded horde ; and if any thing surprises me, it
is that in their fury they spai-ed the horses, a sort of
machine comparatively cheap to keep, and each of which
could do daily as much work as six or seven men.

Political economy has fortunately obtained a place
among the sciences of observation. The substitution of
machines for animated beings has been so often tried
during many years past, that people cannot hereafter but
perceive the general results amidst some accidental
irregularities. These results are as follows :

By sparing manual labour, machines enable us to
manufacture at a cheaper rate ; the effect of this cheap-
ness in an increased demand, sueh an increased demand
(so vivacious is our desire to be well off) that notwith-
standing the most inconceivable lowering of price, the
money value of the totality of the merchandise produced,
surpasses each year what it was before the improve-
ment ; the number of workmen employed by each branch
of industry increases with the introduction of means for
manufacturing expeditiously.

This last result is exactly contrary to what is wished
for by those who hate machines. At first sight it may
appear paradoxical, yet we shall soon see it proved by
a rapid examination of the most confirmed industrial
facts.

When, three centuries and a half ago, the printing
machine was invented, copyists used to furnish books to



MANUFACTURE OF BOOKS. 415

the very small number of rich men who could indulge in
this expensive fancy. One of these copyists being able
by the aid of the new proceeding to do the work of two
hundred, there were not wanting men in that epoch who
dubbed the new invention as infernal, as about to reduce
to inaction, in a certain rank of society, nine hundred
and ninety-five men out of one thousand. But let us
now place the real result by the side of the sinister pre-
diction.

Manuscript books were very little in demand ; printed
books, on the contrary, on account of their low price,
were sought after with the most lively eagerness. It
was found necessary incessantly to reproduce the Greek
and Roman authors. New ideas, new opinions occa-
sioned a multitude of new books to arise ; some of eternal
interest, others inspired by passing events. At last it
was calculated that in London, before the invention of
printing, the book trade employed only two hundred
men, now they are counted by twenty thousand.

And how much more would it be if, laying aside the con-
fined, and I might say material, point of view that I have
had to select, we were to estimate printing by its moral
and intellectual phases ; if we were to examine the influ-
ence that it exerted on public manners, on the diffusion
of public knowledge, on the progress of human reason ;
if we were to work out the enumeration of the many
books for which we are indebted to printing, that the
copyists would certainly have disdained, and in which
genius yet goes daily gathering the elements of its fruit-
ful conceptions ? But I must keep in mind that at
present we have only to treat of the number of work-
men employed by each branch of industry.

That of cotton offers even more demonstrative results



416 JAMES WATT.

than is done by printing. When Arkwright, an ingenious
barber of Preston, (who, by tlie way, left each of his cliil-
dren two or three millions of francs of income,) rendered
it both useful and proiitable to substitute revolving cylin-
ders for the fingers of the women who used to spin, the
annual product of the cotton manufacture in England did
not exceed 50,000,000 francs (2,000,000/.), now it ex-
ceeds 900,000,000 francs (36,000,000/.). In the county
of Lancaster alone, they annually deliver to the calico
manufacturers a quantity of yarn that 21,000,000 clever
spinners could not accomplish with only the aid of the
rock and spindle. Moreover, although in the art of spin-
ning mechanical means have been pushed, we may say,
to their utmost degree of perfection, 1,500,000 people
now find occupation there, where, before the inventions
of Arkwright and of Watt, there were only 50,000.*

A certain philosopher exclaimed, in a deep fit of de-
spondency, "Nothing new is published in the pi-esent
day, unless we call new that which has been forgotten."
If the philosopher alluded only to errors and prejudices,
he spoke truth. Time has been so fruitful in this line,
that no one can any more claim priority. For ex-
ample, the pretended modern philanthropists have not
the merit (if there be any merit in it) of inventing the
systems that I am examining. Rather look at that poor
William Lea (Lee), working the first stocking-frame in
the presence of James I. The mechanism apjjeared ad-
mirable ; why was he repulsed ? It was under the pre-

* Mr. Edward Baines, author of a much esteemed work on the Brit-
ish cotton manufactures, has had the whimsical curiosity to learn what
length of thread is annually i;sed in weaving the cotton manufactures.
This entire length he finds to be equal to ffty-one times the distance of
the sun from the earth ! (fifty-one times thirty-nine millions of post
leagues, or about two thousand millions of si;ch leagues.)



MANUFACTURE OF STOCKINGS. 417

text that the working class would suffer. France showed
herself equally short-sighted : William Lea found no en-
couragement there, and he was reduced to die in a hos-
pital ; like so many other men of genius, who have had
the misfortune of being too much a-head of their age !

Besides this, we should be very much mistaken if we
supposed the body of knitters very numerous, to whom
William Lea fell a victim. In 1583, it was only people
of high rank and fortune who wore stockings. The
middle class substituted for this portion of modern dress
narrow stripes of variously coloured cloths. The rest of
the population (nine hundred and ninety-nine out of a
thousand) walked bare-legged. In consequence of the ex-
tremely low price of stockings in the present day, there
is not above one man in a thousand who cannot afford to
buy them. Hence an immense number of workmen, in
every part of the world, is now employed in this branch
of manufacture.*

If it be deemed necessary I will add, that at Stock-
port, the substitution of steam power for manual labour
in weaving looms, has not prevented the workmen from
increasing by one third in a few years.

We must now deprive our adversaries of their last re-

* This is certainly an epochal point of gi-eat interest in domestic
manufacture. The bandaged stocking is of a very remote date, and is
found in all the Saxon figures of our missals and monuments ; it was
in common use among the peasantry of Europe even during the fif-
teenth century. Henry VIII., it appears, wore silk stockings, and
Queen Elizabeth refused to wear any others, whence they came into
vogue. These seem to have been brought from abroad; but in 1564,
William Rider, an apprentice on London Bridge, borrowed a pair of
knit worsted stockings from Mantua, took the hint, and made a pair
exactly like them, which he presented to the Earl of Pembroke. And
these are the first pair of worsted stockings known to be knit in Eng-
land: the prototype of millions upon millious. — Translator.
18*



418 JAMES AVATT.

source ; we must not leave them the power of saying that
we have only cited old branches of industry. I will,
therefore, now remark how much they were, not long
since, deceived in their lugubrious forebodings relative to
engraving on steel. A copper plate, they said, will not
give above two thousand impressions. A steel plate, by
yielding a hundred thousand without being worn, would
replace fifty copper plates. Will not these numbers prove
that the greater part of the former engravers (forty-nine
out of fifty) will feel obliged to abandon their profession,
to change their graver for the trowel or the hoe, or beg
charity in the public streets ?

For the twentieth time, prophets of evil, be pleased
not to forget in your lucubrations, the principal element
of the problem which you undertake to solve ! Think
of the insatiable desire to be well off, that Nature has
implanted in the human heart ; remember that one wish
is no sooner satisfied, than it immediately gives rise to
another wish ; that our appetites of every sort increase
with the cheapness of the objects adapted for their indul-
gence, and to a degree that defies the creative powers of
the most powerful machines.

But to return to tlie engravings. An immense major-
ity of the public did without them when they were dear ;
their price decreases, and all the world seeks for them.
They have become the necessary ornament of the best
books ; to middling books they give some chance of sale.
There are no almanacs even now, but what the old hid-
eous figures of Nostradamus, by Matthew Laensberg, are
replaced by picturesque views which, in a few seconds,
transport our immovable citizens from the shores of the
Ganges to those of the Amazon, from the Himalayas to
the Cordilleras, from Pekin to New York. Look also at



MACHINES FAVOUR POPULATION. 419

those engravers, whose ruin was so piteously announced
to us ; never were they either more numerous or more
occupied.

I am going to bring forward some irrefragable facts.
They will render it impossible, I think, to maintain that
among the inhabitants of this earth, such, at least, as Na-
ture has created, the use of machines can bring on the
result of a diminution of the number of workmen em-
ployed in each sort of industry. Other customs, other
habits, other passions, might, perhaps, have led to an en-
tirely different result ; but I leave such a text to those
who may be tempted to write treatises on political econ-
omy for the use of the inhabitants of the Moon, or of
Jupiter, or of Saturn.

Placed in a much more confined theatre, I ask myself
whether, after having sapped the very foundations of the
system maintained by the adversaries of machines, it can
be still requisite to cast a glance at some criticisms of de-
tail. Need we remark, for example, that the poor's rate,
that bleeding wound in the British nation, that wound
which some people pretend to trace to the abuse of ma-
chines, dates from the reign of Elizabeth, from a period
anterior by two centuries to the labours of Ai-kwrigiit
and of Watt ?

You will at least acknowledge, they say to us, that the
fire-machines, the mule-jennies, that the machines used
for carding, for printing, &c., objects of your predilection,
have not prevented pauperism from increasing and prop-
agating itself. This fi-esh avowal will cost me but little.
Did any one recommend machines as a universal panacea ?
"Was it ever maintained that they would have the un-
heard-of property of discarding error and passion from
political assemblies ? that they would direct the counsel-



420 JAMES WATT.

lors of pi'inces to the paths of wisdom, of moderation, of
humanity ? Was it ever pretended that they would turn
Pitt from unceasingly meddling in the affairs of neigh-
bouring countries ? fi'om annually raising enemies to
France in every part of Europe ? * from paying them



Online LibraryF. (François) AragoBiographies of distinguished scientific men (Volume 2) → online text (page 32 of 38)