Invention: The Master-key to Progress

Invention: The Master-key to Progress

Bradley A. Fiske
Bradley A. Fiske

Author: Fiske, Bradley A. (Bradley Allen), 1854-1942
Inventions — History
Invention: The Master-key to Progress
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Former Aid for Operations of the Fleet, President U. S. Naval Institute,
Gold Medallist of U. S. Naval Institute, the Franklin Institute
and the Aero Club of America.
Author of “Electricity in Theory and Practice,” “War Time in Manila,”
“The Navy as a Fighting Machine,” “From Midshipman to
Rear-Admiral,” “The Art of Fighting,” etc.
Inventor of the Gun Director System, the Naval Telescope Sight, the Stadimeter,
the Turret Range Finder, the Horizometer,
the Torpedoplane, etc., etc., etc.
681 Fifth Avenue
Copyright, 1921,
By E. P. Dutton & Company

All Rights Reserved


To show that inventors have accomplished more than most persons realize, not only in bringing forth new mechanisms, but in doing creative work in many walks of life, is, in part, the object of this book. To suggest what they may do, if properly encouraged, is its main intention. For, since it is to inventors mainly that we owe all that civilization is, it is to inventors mainly that we must look for all that civilization can be made to be.
The mind of man cannot even conceive what wonders of beneficence inventors may accomplish: for the resources of invention are infinite.

The author is indebted to Ginn & Company, Boston, for the use of illustrations from “General History for Colleges and High Schools,” by Philip Van Ness Myers, and “Ancient Times, A History of the Early World,” by James Henry Breasted, and to George H. Doran Company, New York, for the use of a map from “A History of Sea Power,” by William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott.


I. Invention in Primeval Times 1
II. Invention in the Orient 24
III. Invention in Greece 51
IV. Invention in Rome: Its Rise and Fall 81
V. Invention of the Gun and of Printing 101
VI. Columbus, Copernicus, Galileo and Others 125
VII. The Rise of Electricity, Steam and Chemistry 148
VIII. The Age of Steam, Napoleon and Nelson 179
IX. Inventions in Steam, Electricity, and Chemistry Create a Dangerous Era 203
X. Certain Important Creations of Invention, and Their Beneficent Influence 231
XI. Invention and Growth of Liberal Government and American Civil War 255
XII. Invention of the Modern Military Machine, Telephone, Phonograph and Preventive Medicine 279
XIII. The Conquest of the Ether—Moving Pictures—Rise of Japan and the United States 301
XIV. The Fruition of Invention 322
XV. The Machine of Civilization, and the Dangerous Ignorance Concerning it, Shown by Statesmen 333
XVI. The Future 341


Carvings in Ivory and in Stone of Cavern Walls made by the Hunters of the Middle Stone Age 3
Early Babylonian Signs, Showing Their Pictorial Origin 27
Villa of an Egyptian Noble 34
The Pyramids of Gizeh 36
Assyrians Flaying Prisoners Alive 44
Two Cretan Vases 52
Insurgent Captives Brought Before Darius 58
The Lighthouse of the Harbor of Alexandria in the Hellenistic Age 77
Triumphal Procession from the Arch of Titus 96
The Printing of Books 113
Portuguese Voyages and Possessions 126
Hero’s Engines 150
Hero’s Altar Engine 151
Leupold’s Engine 154



Our original ancestors dwelt in caves and wildernesses; had no sewed or fabricated clothing of any kind; subsisted on roots and nuts and berries; possessed no arts of any sort; were ignorant to a degree that we cannot imagine, and were little above the brutes in their mode of living. Today, a considerable fraction of the people who dwell upon the earth enjoy a civilization so fine that it seems to have no connection with the brutish conditions of primeval life. Yet, as these pages show, a perfectly plain series of inventions can be seen, starting from the old conditions and building up the new.
The progress of man during the countless ages of prehistoric times is hidden from our knowledge, except in so far as it has been revealed to us by ruins of ancient cities, by prehistoric utensils of many kinds, and by inscriptions carved on monuments and tablets. The sharp dividing line between prehistoric times and historic times, seems to be that made by the art of writing; for this epochal invention rendered possible the recording of events, and the consequent beginning of history.
Of prehistoric times we have, of course, no written record; and we have but the most general means of estimating how many millenniums ago man first had his being. Geological considerations indicate a beginning so indefinitely and exceedingly remote that the imagination may lose itself in speculations as to his mode of living during those forever-hidden centuries that dragged along, before man had advanced so far in his progress toward civilization as to make and use the rude utensils which the researches of antiquarians have revealed.
Inasmuch as the most important employment of man from his first breath until his last has always been the struggle to preserve his life; inasmuch as the endeavor of primeval man to defend himself against wild beasts must have been extremely bitter (for many were larger and stronger than he), and inasmuch as man eventually achieved the mastery over them, one seems forced to conclude that man overcame wild beasts by employing some means to assist his bodily strength, and that probably his first invention was a weapon.
The first evidences of man’s achievements that we have are rude implements of stone and flint, evidently shaped by some force guided by some intelligence;—doubtless the force of human hands, guided by the intelligence of human minds. Many such have been found in caves and gravel-beds over all the world. They were rough and crude, and indicate a rough and crude but nevertheless actual stage of civilization. Some call this the Old Stone Age and others call it the Early Stone Age. Besides stone and flint, bones, horns and tusks were used. Among the implements made were daggers, fish-hooks, needles, awls and heads of arrows and harpoons. One of the most interesting revelations of those rude and immeasurably ancient implements is the fact that man, even in those times, possessed the artistic sense; for on some of them can be seen rough but clear engravings of natural objects, and even of wild animals.

Carvings in Ivory (1 and 3–7) and in Stone of Cavern Walls (2), made by the Hunters of the Middle Stone Age

Men naturally supported themselves mainly by hunting and fishing, as savages do now; and it was because they had invented suitable implements and weapons for practicing those necessary arts, that their efforts were successful. The first weapon was probably the fist-hatchet, a piece of sharpened flint about nine inches long, that he grasped in his hand. At some time during the centuries of the Old Stone Age, someone invented a much finer weapon, that continued to be one of the most important that was known, until the invention of the gun, and is used even now in savage lands—the bow and arrow. What a tremendous advantage this weapon was in fighting wild beasts (and also men not possessing it) it is not hard for us to see; for the arrow tipped with flint or bone, could be shot over distances far greater than the spear or javelin could be thrown, and with sufficient force to kill. The club and spear had probably been devised before, for they were simpler and more easily imagined and constructed.
How the bow and arrow came to be invented we have no intimation. The invention of the club and spear did not probably involve much creative effort, so simple were those instruments, and so like the branches that could be broken from the trees. Yet, to the untrained mind of the primeval savage, the idea of sharpening a straight branch of wood into a fine point at the end, in order that penetration through the skin might be facilitated, must have come as an inspiration. No such thing as a spear exists as a spear in nature, and therefore the making of a spear was a creative act. To us, the use of the spear as a projectile may not seem to have required the inventive faculty—unless the hurling of stones may also be supposed to have required it. It may be, however, that with the dull mind of primeval men, even the idea of using stones or javelins as projectiles was the result of a distinct, and perhaps startling inspiration.
The invention of the bow and arrow was one of the first order of brilliancy, and would be so even now. It is not easy to think of any simple accident as accounting for the invention; because the bow and arrow consists of three entirely independent parts—the straight bar of wood, the string, and the arrow; for the bow was not a bow until the string had been fastened to each end, and drawn so tight that the bar of wood was forced into a bent shape, and held there at great tension. When one realizes this, and realizes in addition the countless centuries during which the bow and arrow held its sway, the millions of men who have used it, and the important effect it has had in the overcoming of wild beasts, and the deciding of many of the critical battles of the world, he can hardly escape the conclusion that the invention of the bow and arrow was one of the most important occurrences in the history of mankind.
A still more important occurrence was the invention of making fire. Probably less inventive effort was needed for this than for the bow and arrow; for fire could be seen in the lightning and in trees struck by lightning, and in the sparks that came forth when two hard stones were struck together. The discovery of fire may have been made by accident; but this does not mean that no invention was needed for devising and producing the means whereby fire could be produced at will. To note the fact of a phenomenon, say the production of fire when stones are accidentally struck together, or the falling of an apple from a tree, requires no special effort, and of itself brings forth no benefit; but to reason from the appearance of the sparks to the production of an apparatus for making fire at will; or to reason from the falling of an apple to the enunciation of Newton’s Law of Gravitation, is the kind of successful mental effort that has produced the effects which it is the endeavor of this humble book to indicate. These effects have combined as progress has advanced, to put civilized man in a position relatively to his natural surroundings very different from that held by primeval man, and very different from that held by the brutes, both in primeval days and now. Evidently, the effects have been made possible by some faculty possessed by man and not by brutes. This faculty is usually called reason, and is held to be a faculty by means of which man can infer cause from effect, and effect from cause, and can remember events and facts to a degree sufficient to enable him to hold them in his mind, while reasoning about them.
But it seems impossible to explain the advent of even the oldest and simplest inventions by the possession of reason only, using the word reason in its ordinary sense; for it is obvious that no matter how clearly a man could reason as between cause and effect, no matter how great a student of all phenomena he might be, no matter how good a memory he might have, he might nevertheless live for many years and never invent anything. In fact, we see men at the present day who possess great knowledge, splendid energy, keen powers of analysis, high courage, and even great administrative talent, and yet who are obviously deficient in originality, who seem to possess the constructive faculty in only a small degree, and who seem incapable of taking any step forward except on paths that have been plainly trod before.
Countless instances can be cited of the persistence of men, even in civilized lands, in following a certain practice for long periods, until someone possessing the inventive faculty has devised a better one. For the sake of brevity, only two cases, and those well known, will be mentioned as illustrative. One was the invention of movable type, and the other that of pointing the wood screw. Man had continued for centuries to make blocks of wood or other material on which words and phrases were engraved or cut, and then to print from them. Suddenly a man in Germany (usually said to be John Guttenberg) made the change, so slight in appearance and yet so tremendous in results, of cutting only one letter on a block, and arranging and securing the blocks in such a way as to enable him to print any word or words desired. This did not occur until about the year 1434 A. D. Why had not someone done this in all the long centuries? Surely it was not because men of great reasoning faculties had not lived; for in the long interval the civilization of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome had flourished; and Plato, Aristotle, Cæsar and the great inventor Archimedes had lived! Similarly, men continued to use in wood the same flat pointed screw that they used in metals, boring the hole first in the wood with a gimlet, and then entering the flat point of the screw into the hole. Suddenly (but not until the nineteenth century A. D.) an inventor made and patented a screw which came to a sharp point like a gimlet, which could be forced into wood just as the gimlet was, and then screwed into the wood without further ado. How can we explain the curious fact that countless men of reason, intelligence and mechanical skill had continued century after century to bore into wood with gimlets, and then follow the gimlet with flat-pointed screws?
The explanation seems to be expressed in the phrase, “the idea had not occurred to them.” Why had it not occurred to them? This question cannot, of course, be answered convincingly; but it may be pointed out that there is a small class of men to whom original ideas seem to come of their own accord. The inventor of mechanical appliances is in this class, and is perhaps its most conspicuous exemplar.
It may be pointed out, however, that the inventors of mechanical appliances are not the only men to whom original conceptions come; for original conceptions evidently come to the poets, the novelists, the musical composers, the artists, the strategists, the explorers, the statesmen, the philosophers, the founders of religions and the initiators of all enterprises great and small. It may be pointed out also that their mental processes are similar, and that they are best described by the greatest of all poets in the lines—

“The poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling,
Glances from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.”

These lines suggest that the first step in invention is made almost without effort; that a picture, confused and dim but actual, is made by the imagination on the mental retina; and that, after that, the constructive faculties arrange the elements of the picture in such wise as to produce a clear and definite entity.
Regarded in this way, the inventor of mechanical appliances suddenly sees a confused and dim picture of an instrument or a mechanism (or a part of it) that he has never seen with his bodily eyes; the musical composer hears imperfectly and vaguely a new musical composition; the sculptor sees a statue, the painter sees a new combination of objects and colors producing a new effect, and the poet feels the stirring in him of vague, but beautiful, or powerful or inspiring thoughts. If now the picture is allowed to fade, or if the constructive faculty is not able to make it into an actuality, or if the picture has not in itself the elements which the state of civilization then prevailing make it possible to embody in an entity, no invention of a mechanical appliance is made, no plan of campaign, no musical composition, no statue, no painting, no poem is produced.
If, however, the constructive effort develops successfully the conception that the imagination made, and if the circumstances of time and place are all propitious, then the art of making fire at will is born, or Bonaparte’s suggestion at Toulon is made, or the strains of Beethoven’s music inspire the world, or the statue of Moses is carved, or the Immaculate Conception is pointed, or Hamlet is written, or the electric telegraph bi

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