H. G. (Herbert George) Wells.

Anticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought online

. (page 3 of 21)
Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsAnticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought → online text (page 3 of 21)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

to some minds, but I must confess I do not see
what is to prevent the process of elimination that
is beginning now with the heavy vans spreading
until it covers all horse traffic, and with the dis-
appearance of horse hoofs and the necessary filth
of horses, the road surface may be made a very
different thing from what it is at present, better
drained and admirably adapted for the soft-tired
hackney vehicles and the torrent of cyclists. More-
over, there will be little to prevent a widening of
the existing sidewalks, and the protection of the
passengers from rain and hot sun by awnings,
or such arcades as distinguish Turin, or Sir F.
Bram well's upper footpaths on the model of the
Chester rows. Moreover, there is no reason but
3 33


the existing filth why the roadways should not
have translucent velaria to pull over in bright
sunshine and wet weather. It -would probably
need less labor to manipulate such contrivances
than is required at present for the constant con-
flict with slush and dust. Now, of course, we
tolerate the rain, because it facilitates a sort of
cleaning process.

Enough of this present speculation. I have
indicated now the general lines of the roads and
streets and ways and underways of the twentieth
century. But at present they stand vacant in our
prophecy, not only awaiting the human interests
the characters and occupations, and clothing
of the throng of our children and our children's
children that flows along them, but also the decora-
tions our children's children's taste will dictate,
the advertisements their eyes will tolerate, the
shops in which they will buy. To all that we
shall finally come, and even in the next chapter I
hope it will be made more evident how convenient-
ly these later and more intimate matters follow,
instead of preceding, these present mechanical
considerations. And of the beliefs and hopes,
the thought and language, the further pros-
pects of this multitude as yet unborn of these
things also we shall make at last certain
hazardous guesses. But at first I would submit
to those who may find the "machinery in mo-
tion" excessive in this chapter, we must have



the background and fittings the scene before
the play.*

* I have said nothing in this chapter, devoted to locomotion,
of the coming invention of flying. This is from no disbelief in
its final practicability, nor from any disregard of the new in-
fluences it will bring to bear upon mankind. But I do not think
it at all probable that aeronautics will ever come into play as
a serious modification of transport and communication the
main question here under consideration. Man is not, for ex-
ample, an albatross, but a land biped, with a considerable dis-
position towards being made sick and giddy by unusual motions,
and however he soars he must come to earth to live. We must
build our picture of the future from the ground upward ; of flying
in its place.



NOW, the velocity at which a man and his be-
longings may pass about the earth is in itself
a very trivial matter indeed, but it involves certain
other matters not at all trivial standing, indeed, in
an almost fundamental relation to human society.
It will be the business of this chapter to discuss
the relation between the social order and the avail-
able means of transit, and to attempt to deduce
from the principles elucidated the coming phases
in that extraordinary expansion, shifting and in-
ternal redistribution of population that has been
so conspicuous during the last hundred 3 r ears.

Let us consider the broad features of the redis-
tribution of the population that has characterized
the nineteenth century. It may be summarized
as an unusual growth of great cities and a slight
tendency to depopulation in the country. The
growth of the great cities is the essential phe-
nomenon. These aggregates having populations
of from eight hundred thousand upward to four



and five millions, are certainly, so far as the world
outside the limits of the Chinese empire goes,
entirely an unprecedented thing-. Never before,
outside the valleys of the three great Chinese
rivers, has any city with the exception of Rome,
and perhaps (but very doubtfully) of Babylon
certainly had more than a million inhabitants,
and it is at least permissible to doubt whether the
population of Rome, in spite of its exacting a
tribute of sea-borne food from the whole of the
Mediterranean basin, exceeded a million for any
great length of time.* But there are now ten
town aggregates having a population of over a
million, nearly twenty that bid fair to reach that
limit in the next decade, and a great number at
or approaching a quarter of a million. We call
these towns and cities, but, indeed, they are of a

* It is true that many scholars estimate a high-water mark
for the Roman population in excess of two millions ; and one
daring authority, by throwing out suburbs ad libitum into the
Campagna, suburbs of which no trace remains, has raised the
two to ten. The Colosseum could, no doubt, seat over 80,000
spectators ; the circuit of the bench frontage of the Circus Maxi-
mus was very nearly a mile in length, and the Romans of Im-
perial times certainly used ten times as much water as the modern
Romans. But, on the other hand, habits change, and Rome
as it is denned by lines drawn at the times of its greatest ascen-
dency the city, that is, enclosed by the walls of Aurelian and
including all the regions of Augustus, an enclosure from which
there could have been no reason for excluding half or more of
its population could have scarcely contained a million. It
would have packed very comfortably within the circle of the
Grand Boulevards of Paris the Paris, that is, of Louis XIV.,
with a population of 560,000 ; and the Rome of to-day, were the
houses that spread so densely over the once vacant Campus



different order of things to the towns and cities
of the eighteenth-century world.

Concurrently with the aggregation of people
about this new sort of centre, there has been, it
is alleged, a depletion of the country villages and
small townships. But, so far as the counting of
heads goes, this depletion is not nearly so marked
as the growth of the great towns. Relatively,
however, it is striking enough.

Now, is this growth of large towns really, as one
may allege, a result of the development of railways
in the world, or is it simply a change in human
circumstances that happens to have arisen at the
same time? It needs only a very general review of
the conditions of the distribution of population to
realize that the former is probably the true answer.

It will be convenient to make the issue part of a
more general proposition namely, that the general
distribution of population in a country must al-
ways be directly dependent on transport facilities.
To illustrate this point roughly, we may build up
an imaginary simple community by considering
its needs. Over an arable country-side, for ex-
ample, inhabited by a people who had attained to

Martius distributed in the now deserted spaces in the south
and east, and the Vatican suburb replaced within the ancient
walls, would quite fill the ancient limits, in spite of the fact that
the population is under 500,000. But these are incidental doubts
on a very authoritative opinion, and, whatever their value, they
do not greatly affect the significance of these new great cities,
which have arisen all over the world, as if by the operation of a
natural law, as the railways have developed.



a level of agricultural civilization in which war
was no longer constantly imminent, the popula-
tion would be diffused primarily -by families and
groups in farmsteads. It might, if it were a very
simple population, be almost all so distributed.
But even the simplest agriculturists find a certain
convenience in trade. Certain definite points would
be convenient for such local trade and intercourse
as the people found desirable, and here it is that
there would arise the germ of a town. At first
it might be no more than an appointed meeting-
place, a market square, but an inn and a black-
smith would inevitably follow, an altar, perhaps,
and, if these people had writing, even some sort
of school. It would have to be where water was
found, and it would have to be generally con-
venient of access to its attendant farmers.

Now, if this meeting-place was more than a
certain distance from any particular farm, it would
be inconvenient for that farmer to get himself
and his produce there and back, and to do his
business in a comfortable daylight. He would
not be able to come, and, instead, he would either
have to go to some other nearer centre to trade
and gossip with his neighbors or, failing this,
not go at all. Evidently, then, there would be a
maximum distance between such places. This
distance in England, where traffic has been mainly
horse traffic for many centuries, seems to have
worked out, according to the gradients and so



forth, at from eight to fifteen miles, and at such
distances do we find the country towns, while
the horseless man, the serf, and the laborer and
laboring wench have marked their narrow limits
in the distribution of the intervening villages.
If by chance these gathering-places have arisen
at points much closer than this maximum, they
have come into competition, and one has finally
got the better of the other, so that in England the
distribution is often singularly uniform. Agri-
cultural districts have their towns at about eight
miles, and where grazing takes the place of the
plough, the town distances increase to fifteen.*
And so it is, entirely as a multiple of horse-and-f oot
strides, that all the villages and towns of the world's
country-side have been plotted out.f

A third, and almost final, factor determining
town distribution in a world without railways
would be the seaport and the navigable river.
Ports would grow into dimensions dependent on
the population of the conveniently accessible

* It will be plain that such towns must have clearly defined
limits of population, dependent finally on the minimum yearly pro-
duce of the district they control. If ever they rise above that limit
the natural checks of famine, and of pestilence following en-
feeblement, will come into operation, and they will always be
kept near this limit by the natural tendency of humanity to
increase. The limit would rise with increasing public intelli-
gence, and the organization of the towns would become more

1 1 owe the fertilizing suggestion of this general principle to a
paper by Grant Allen that I read long aero in Longman's Magazine.



coasts (or river-banks), and on the quality and
quantity of their products, and near these ports,
as the conveniences of civilization increased,
would appear handicraft towns the largest pos-
sible towns of a foot-and-horse civilization with
industries of such a nature as the produce of their
coasts required.

It was always in connection with a port or navi-
gable river that the greater towns of the pre-rail-
way periods arose, a day's journey away from the
coast when sea attack was probable, and shifting
to the coast itself when that ceased to threaten.
Such sea -trading handicraft - towns as Bruges,
Venice, Corinth, or London were the largest towns
of the vanishing order of things. Very rarely,
except in China, did they clamber above a quarter
of a million inhabitants, even though to some of
them there was presently added court and camp.
In China, however, a gigantic river and canal
system, laced across plains of extraordinary fer-
tility, has permitted the growth of several city
aggregates with populations exceeding a million,
and in the case of the Hankow trinity of cities
exceeding five million people.

In all these cases the position and the popula-
tion limit were entirely determined by the accessi-
bility of the town and the area it could dominate
for the purposes of trade. And not only were the
commercial or natural towns so determined, but
the political centres were also finally chosen for



strategic considerations in a word, communica-
tions. And now, perhaps, the real significance
of the previous paper, in which sea velocities of
fifty miles an hour, and land travel at the rate
of a hundred, and even cab and omnibus journeys
of thirty or forty miles, were shown to be possible,
becomes more apparent.

At the first sight it might appear as though the
result of the new developments wa^ simply to
increase the number of giant cities in the world
by rendering them possible in regions where they
had hitherto been impossible concentrating the
trade of vast areas in a manner that had hitherto
been entirely characteristic of navigable waters. It
might seem as though the state of affairs in China,
in which population has been concentrated about
densely congested "million -cities/' with pauper
masses, public charities, and a crowded struggle
for existence, for many hundreds of years, was
merely to be extended over the whole world. We
have heard so much of the "problem of our great
cities"; we have the impressive statistics of their
growth; the belief in the inevitableness of yet
denser and more multitudinous agglomerations
in the future is so widely diffused, that at first
sight it will be thought that no other motive than
a wish to startle can dictate the proposition that
not only will many of these railway - begotten
" giant cities " reach their maximum in the com-
mencing century, but that in all probability they,



and not only they, but their water-born prototypes
in the East also, are destined to such a process
of dissection and diffusion as to amount almost
to obliteration, so far, at least, as the blot on the
map goes, within a measurable further space of

In advancing this proposition, the present writer
is disagreeably aware that in this matter he has
expressed views entirely opposed to those he now
propounds; and in setting forth the following
body of considerations he tells the story of his
own disillusionment. At the outset he took for
granted and, very naturally, he wishes to imag-
ine that a great number of other people do also
take for granted that the future of London, for
example, is largely to be got as the answer to a
sort of rule-of-three sum. If in one hundred years
the population of London has been multiplied
by seven, then in two hundred years ! And
one proceeds to pack the answer in gigantic tene-
ment-houses, looming upon colossal roofed streets,
provide it with moving ways (the only available
transit appliances suited to such dense multitudes),
and develop its manners and morals in accord-
ance with the laws that will always prevail amid
over -crowded humanity so long as humanity
endures. The picture of this swarming concen-
trated humanity has some effective possibilities,
but, unhappily, if. instead of that obvious rule-
of-three sum, one resorts to an analysis of operat-



ing causes, its plausibility crumbles away, and it
gives place to an altogether different forecast
a forecast, indeed, that is in almost violent con-
trast to the first anticipation. It is much more
probable that these coming cities will not be, in
the old sense, cities at all; they will present a new
and entirely different phase of human distribution.

The determining factor in the appearance of
great cities in the past, and, indeed, up to the
present day, has been the meeting of two or more
transit lines, the confluence of two or more streams
of trade, and easy communication. The final
limit to the size and importance of the great city
has been the commercial "sphere of influence"
commanded by that city, the capacity of the al-
luvial basin of its commerce, so to speak, the vol-
ume of its river of trade. About the meeting-point
so determined the population so determined has
grouped itself and this is the point I overlooked
in those previous vaticinations in accordance with
laws that are also considerations of transit.

The economic centre of the city is formed, of
course, by the wharves and landing-places and
in the case of railway-fed cities by the termini
where passengers land and where goods are land-
ed, stored, and distributed. Both the administrative
and business community, traders, employers, clerks,
and so forth, must be within a convenient access
of this centre; and the families, servants, trades-
men, amusement purveyors dependent on these



again must also come within a maximum distance.
At a certain stage in town-growth the pressure
on the more central area would become too great
for habitual family life there, and an office region
would differentiate from an outer region of homes.
Beyond these two zones, again, those whose con-
nection with the great city was merely intermittent
would constitute a system of suburban houses and
areas. But the grouping of these, also, would be
determined finally by the convenience of access
to the dominant centre. That secondary centres,
literary, social, political, or military, may arise
about the initial trade centre, complicates the
application, but does not alter the principle here
stated. They must all be within striking distance.
The day of twenty -four hours is an inexorable
human condition, and up to the present time all
intercourse and business have been broken into
spells of definite duration by intervening nights.
Moreover, almost all effective intercourse has
involved personal presence at the point where
intercourse occurs. The possibility, therefore, of
going and coming and doing that day's work
has hitherto fixed the extreme limits to which a
city could grow, and has exacted a compactness
which has always been very undesirable and
which is now for the first time in the world's history
no longer imperative.

So far as we can judge without a close and un-
congenial scrutiny of statistics, that daily journey


that has governed, and still to a very considerable
extent governs, the growth of cities, has had, and
probably always will have, a maximum limit of
two hours, one hour each way from sleeping-place
to council chamber, counter, workroom, or office-
stool. And, taking this assumption as sound, we
can state precisely the maximum area of various
types of town. A pedestrian agglomeration such
as we find in China, and such as most of the Euro-
pean towns probably were before the nineteenth
century, would be swept entirely by a radius of four
miles about the business quarter and industrial
centre; and, under these circumstances, where the
area of the feeding regions has been very large
the massing of human beings has probably
reached its extreme limit.-* Of course, in the
case of a navigable river, for example, the com-
mercial centre might be elongated into a line and
the circle of the city modified into an ellipse with
a long diameter considerably exceeding eight
miles, as, for example, in the case of Hankow.

If, now, horseflesh is brought into the problem,
an outer radius of six or eight miles from the centre
will define a larger area in which the carriage
folk, the hackney users, the omnibus customers,
and their domestics and domestic camp followers
may live and still be members of the city. Tow-

* It is worth remarking that in 1801 the density of population
in the City of London was half as dense again as that of any
district, even of the densest " slum" districts to-day.

4 49


ards that limit London was already probably
moving at the accession of Queen Victoria, and it
was clearly the absolute limit of urban growth
until locomotive mechanisms capable of more
than eight miles an hour could be constructed.

And then there came suddenly the railway
and the steamship, the former opening with ex-
traordinary abruptness a series of vast through-
routes for trade, the latter enormously increasing
the security and economy of the traffic on the old
water routes. For a time neither of these inven-
tions was applied to the needs of intra-urban tran-
sit at all. For a time they were purely centripetal
forces. They worked simply to increase the general
volume of trade, to increase that is, the pressure
of population upon the urban centres. As a con-
sequence the social history of the middle and later
thirds of the nineteenth century, not simply in
England but all over the civilized world, is the
history of a gigantic rush of population into the
magic radius of for most people four miles, to
suffer there physical and moral disaster less acute,
but, finally, far more appalling to the imagination
than any famine or pestilence that ever swept the
world. Well has Mr. George Gissing named
nineteenth - century London in one of his great
novels the "Whirlpool," the very figure for the
nineteenth - century Great City, attractive, tumul-
tuous, and spinning down to death.

But, indeed, these great cities are no permanent


maelstroms. These new forces, at present still so
potently centripetal in their influence, bring with
them, nevertheless, the distinct promise of a centri-
fugal application that may be finally equal to the
complete reduction of all our present congestions.
The limit of the pre-railway city was the limit of
man and horse. But already that limit has been
exceeded, and each day brings us nearer to the
time when it will be thrust outward in every direc-
tion with an effect of enormous relief.

So far the only additions to the foot and horse
of the old dispensation that have actually come
into operation, are the suburban railways, which
render possible an average door - to - office hour's
journey of ten or a dozen miles further only in
the case of some specially favored localities. The
star -shaped contour of the modern great city,
thrusting out arms along every available railway
line, knotted arms of which every knot marks a
station, testify sufficiently to the relief of pressure
thus afforded. Great Towns before this century
presented rounded contours and grew as a puff-
ball swells ; the modern Great City looks like some-
thing that has burst an intolerable envelope and
splashed. But, as our previous paper has sought
to make clear, these suburban railways are the
mere first rough expedient of far more convenient
and rapid developments.

We are as the census returns for 1901 quite
clearly show in the early phase of a great develop-


ment of centrifugal possibilities. And since it
has been shown that a city of pedestrians is in-
exorably limited by a radius of about four miles,
and that a horse-using city may grow out to seven
or eight, it follows that the available area of a
city which can offer a cheap suburban journey of
thirty miles an hour is a circle with a radius of
thirty miles. And is it too much, therefore, in
view of all that has been adduced in this and the
previous paper, to expect that the available area
for even the common daily toilers of the great
city of the year 2000, or earlier, will have a radius
very much larger even than that? Now, a circle
with a radius of thirty miles gives an area of over
2800 square miles, which is almost a quarter that
of Belgium. But thirty miles is only a very mod-
erate estimate of speed, and the reader of the former
paper will agree, I think, that the available area
for the social equivalent of the favored season-
ticket holders of to-day will have a radius of over
one hundred miles, and be almost equal to the
area of Ireland.* The radius that will sweep
the area available for such as now live in the outer
suburbs will include a still vaster area. Indeed,
it is not too much to say that the London citizen
of the year 2000 A.D. may have a choice of near-
ly all England and Wales south of Nottingham

* Be it noted that the phrase " available area" is used, and
various other modifying considerations altogether waived for
the present.



and east of Exeter as his suburb, and that the
vast stretch of country from Washington to Al-
bany will be all of it "available" to the active
citizen of New York and Philadelphia before that

This does not for a moment imply that cities of

1 3 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21

Online LibraryH. G. (Herbert George) WellsAnticipations of the reaction of mechanical and scientific progress upon human life and thought → online text (page 3 of 21)