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Anticipations

ANTICIPATIONS

OF THE
REACTION OF MECHANICAL AND SCIENTIFIC
PROGRESS UPON HUMAN LIFE
AND THOUGHT

 

BY

H. G. WELLS

I

Locomotion in the Twentieth Century

It is proposed in this book to present in as orderly an arrangement as the necessarily diffused nature of the subject admits, certain speculations about the trend of present forces, speculations which, taken all together, will build up an imperfect and very hypothetical, but sincerely intended forecast of the way things will probably go in this new century.[1] Necessarily diffidence will be one of the graces of the performance. Hitherto such forecasts have been presented almost invariably in the form of fiction, and commonly the provocation of the satirical opportunity has been too much for the writer;[2] the narrative form becomes more and more of a nuisance as the speculative inductions become sincerer, and here it will be abandoned altogether in favour of a texture of frank inquiries and arranged considerations. Our utmost aim is a rough sketch of the coming time, a prospectus, as it were, of the joint undertaking of mankind in facing these impending years. The reader is a prospective shareholder—he and his heirs—though whether he will find this anticipatory balance-sheet to his belief or liking is another matter.

For reasons that will develop themselves more clearly as these papers unfold, it is extremely convenient to begin with a speculation upon the probable developments and changes of the means of land locomotion during the coming decades. No one who has studied the civil history of the nineteenth century will deny how far-reaching the consequences of changes in transit may be, and no one who has studied the military performances of General Buller and General De Wet but will see that upon transport, upon locomotion, may also hang the most momentous issues of politics and war. The growth of our great cities, the rapid populating of America, the entry of China into the field of European politics are, for example, quite obviously and directly consequences of new methods of locomotion. And while so much hangs upon the development of these methods, that development is, on the other hand, a process comparatively independent, now at any rate, of most of the other great movements affected by it. It depends upon a sequence of ideas arising, and of experiments made, and upon laws of political economy, almost as inevitable as natural laws. Such great issues, supposing them to be possible, as the return of Western Europe to the Roman communion, the overthrow of the British Empire by Germany, or the inundation of Europe by the "Yellow Peril," might conceivably affect such details, let us say, as door-handles and ventilators or mileage of line, but would probably leave the essential features of the evolution of locomotion untouched. The evolution of locomotion has a purely historical relation to the Western European peoples. It is no longer dependent upon them, or exclusively in their hands. The Malay nowadays sets out upon his pilgrimage to Mecca in an excursion steamship of iron, and the immemorial Hindoo goes a-shopping in a train, and in Japan and Australasia and America, there are plentiful hands and minds to take up the process now, even should the European let it fall.

The beginning of this twentieth century happens to coincide with a very interesting phase in that great development of means of land transit that has been the distinctive feature (speaking materially) of the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century, when it takes its place with the other centuries in the chronological charts of the future, will, if it needs a symbol, almost inevitably have as that symbol a steam engine running upon a railway. This period covers the first experiments, the first great developments, and the complete elaboration of that mode of transit, and the determination of nearly all the broad features of this century's history may be traced directly or indirectly to that process. And since an interesting light is thrown upon the new phases in land locomotion that are now beginning, it will be well to begin this forecast with a retrospect, and to revise very shortly the history of the addition of steam travel to the resources of mankind.

A curious and profitable question arises at once. How is it that the steam locomotive appeared at the time it did, and not earlier in the history of the world?

Because it was not invented. But why was it not invented? Not for want of a crowning intellect, for none of the many minds concerned in the development strikes one—as the mind of Newton, Shakespeare, or Darwin strikes one—as being that of an unprecedented man. It is not that the need for the railway and steam engine had only just arisen, and—to use one of the most egregiously wrong and misleading phrases that ever dropped from the lips of man—the demand created the supply; it was quite the other way about. There was really no urgent demand for such things at the time; the current needs of the European world seem to have been fairly well served by coach and diligence in 1800, and, on the other hand, every administrator of intelligence in the Roman and Chinese empires must have felt an urgent need for more rapid methods of transit than those at his disposal. Nor was the development of the steam locomotive the result of any sudden discovery of steam. Steam, and something of the mechanical possibilities of steam, had been known for two thousand years; it had been used for pumping water, opening doors, and working toys, before the Christian era. It may be urged that this advance was the outcome of that new and more systematic handling of knowledge initiated by Lord Bacon and sustained by the Royal Society; but this does not appear to have been the case, though no doubt the new habits of mind that spread outward from that centre played their part. The men whose names are cardinal in the history of this development invented, for the most part, in a quite empirical way, and Trevithick's engine was running along its rails and Evan's boat was walloping up the Hudson a quarter of a century before Carnot expounded his general proposition. There were no such deductions from principles to application as occur in the story of electricity to justify our attribution of the steam engine to the scientific impulse. Nor does this particular invention seem to have been directly due to the new possibilities of reducing, shaping, and casting iron, afforded by the substitution of coal for wood in iron works; through the greater temperature afforded by a coal fire. In China coal has been used in the reduction of iron for many centuries. No doubt these new facilities did greatly help the steam engine in its invasion of the field of common life, but quite certainly they were not sufficient to set it going. It was, indeed, not one cause, but a very complex and unprecedented series of causes, that set the steam locomotive going. It was indirectly, and in another way, that the introduction of coal became the decisive factor. One peculiar condition of its production in England seems to have supplied just one ingredient that had been missing for two thousand years in the group of conditions that were necessary before the steam locomotive could appear.

This missing ingredient was a demand for some comparatively simple, profitable machine, upon which the elementary principles of steam utilization could be worked out. If one studies Stephenson's "Rocket" in detail, as one realizes its profound complexity, one begins to understand how impossible it would have been for that structure to have come into existence de novo, however urgently the world had need of it. But it happened that the coal needed to replace the dwindling forests of this small and exceptionally rain-saturated country occurs in low hollow basins overlying clay, and not, as in China and the Alleghanies for example, on high-lying outcrops, that can be worked as chalk is worked in England. From this fact it followed that some quite unprecedented pumping appliances became necessary, and the thoughts of practical men were turned thereby to the long-neglected possibilities of steam. Wind was extremely inconvenient for the purpose of pumping, because in these latitudes it is inconstant: it was costly, too, because at any time the labourers might be obliged to sit at the pit's mouth for weeks together, whistling for a gale or waiting for the water to be got under again. But steam had already been used for pumping upon one or two estates in England—rather as a toy than in earnest—before the middle of the seventeenth century, and the attempt to employ it was so obvious as to be practically unavoidable.[3] The water trickling into the coal measures[4] acted, therefore, like water trickling upon chemicals that have long been mixed together dry and inert. Immediately the latent reactions were set going. Savery, Newcomen, a host of other workers, culminating in Watt, working always by steps that were at least so nearly obvious as to give rise again and again to simultaneous discoveries, changed this toy of steam into a real, a commercial thing, developed a trade in pumping engines, created foundries and a new art of engineering, and almost unconscious of what they were doing, made the steam locomotive a well-nigh unavoidable consequence. At last, after a century of improvement on pumping engines, there remained nothing but the very obvious stage of getting the engine that had been developed on wheels and out upon the ways of the world.

Ever and again during the eighteenth century an engine would be put upon the roads and pronounced a failure—one monstrous Palæoferric creature was visible on a French high road as early as 1769—but by the dawn of the nineteenth century the problem had very nearly got itself solved. By 1804 Trevithick had a steam locomotive indisputably in motion and almost financially possible, and from his hands it puffed its way, slowly at first, and then, under Stephenson, faster and faster, to a transitory empire over the earth. It was a steam locomotive—but for all that it was primarily a steam engine for pumping adapted to a new end; it was a steam engine whose ancestral stage had developed under conditions that were by no means exacting in the matter of weight. And from that fact followed a consequence that has hampered railway travel and transport very greatly, and that is tolerated nowadays only through a belief in its practical necessity. The steam locomotive was all too huge and heavy for the high road—it had to be put upon rails. And so clearly linked are steam engines and railways in our minds that, in common language now, the latter implies the former. But indeed it is the result of accidental impediments, of avoidable difficulties that we travel to-day on rails.

Railway travelling is at best a compromise. The quite conceivable ideal of locomotive convenience, so far as travellers are concerned, is surely a highly mobile conveyance capable of travelling easily and swiftly to any desired point, traversing, at a reasonably controlled pace, the ordinary roads and streets, and having access for higher rates of speed and long-distance travelling to specialized ways restricted to swift traffic, and possibly furnished with guide-rails. For the collection and delivery of all sorts of perishable goods also the same system is obviously altogether superior to the existing methods. Moreover, such a system would admit of that secular progress in engines and vehicles that the stereotyped conditions of the railway have almost completely arrested, because it would allow almost any new pattern to be put at once upon the ways without interference with the established traffic. Had such an ideal been kept in view from the first the traveller would now be able to get through his long-distance journeys at a pace of from seventy miles or more an hour without changing, and without any of the trouble, waiting, expense, and delay that arises between the household or hotel and the actual rail. It was an ideal that must have been at least possible to an intelligent person fifty years ago, and, had it been resolutely pursued, the world, instead of fumbling from compromise to compromise as it always has done and as it will do very probably for many centuries yet, might have been provided to-day, not only with an infinitely more practicable method of communication, but with one capable of a steady and continual evolution from year to year.

But there was a more obvious path of development and one immediately cheaper, and along that path went short-sighted Nineteenth Century Progress, quite heedless of the possibility of ending in a cul-de-sac. The first locomotives, apart from the heavy tradition of their ancestry, were, like all experimental machinery, needlessly clumsy and heavy, and their inventors, being men of insufficient faith, instead of working for lightness and smoothness of motion, took the easier course of placing them upon the tramways that were already in existence—chiefly for the transit of heavy goods over soft roads. And from that followed a very interesting and curious result.

These tram-lines very naturally had exactly the width of an ordinary cart, a width prescribed by the strength of one horse. Few people saw in the locomotive anything but a cheap substitute for horseflesh, or found anything incongruous in letting the dimensions of a horse determine the dimensions of an engine. It mattered nothing that from the first the passenger was ridiculously cramped, hampered, and crowded in the carriage. He had always been cramped in a coach, and it would have seemed "Utopian"—a very dreadful thing indeed to our grandparents—to propose travel without cramping. By mere inertia the horse-cart gauge, the 4 ft. 8½ in. gauge, nemine contradicente, established itself in the world, and now everywhere the train is dwarfed to a scale that limits alike its comfort, power, and speed. Before every engine, as it were, trots the ghost of a superseded horse, refuses most resolutely to trot faster than fifty miles an hour, and shies and threatens catastrophe at every point and curve. That fifty miles an hour, most authorities are agreed, is the limit of our speed for land travel, so far as existing conditions go.[5] Only a revolutionary reconstruction of the railways or the development of some new competing method of land travel can carry us beyond that.

People of to-day take the railways for granted as they take sea and sky; they were born in a railway world, and they expect to die in one. But if only they will strip from their eyes the most blinding of all influences, acquiescence in the familiar, they will see clearly enough that this vast and elaborate railway system of ours, by which the whole world is linked together, is really only a vast system of trains of horse-waggons and coaches drawn along rails by pumping-engines upon wheels. Is that, in spite of its present vast extension, likely to remain the predominant method of land locomotion—even for so short a period as the next hundred years?

Now, so much capital is represented by the existing type of railways, and they have so firm an establishment in the acquiescence of men, that it is very doubtful if the railways will ever attempt any very fundamental change in the direction of greater speed or facility, unless they are first exposed to the pressure of our second alternative, competition, and we may very well go on to inquire how long will it be before that second alternative comes into operation—if ever it is to do so.

Let us consider what other possibilities seem to offer themselves. Let us revert to the ideal we have already laid down, and consider what hopes and obstacles to its attainment there seem to be. The abounding presence of numerous experimental motors to-day is so stimulating to the imagination, there are so many stimulated persons at work upon them, that it is difficult to believe the obvious impossibility of most of them—their convulsiveness, clumsiness, and, in many cases, exasperating trail of stench will not be rapidly fined away.[6] I do not think that it is asking too much of the reader's faith in progress to assume that so far as a light powerful engine goes, comparatively noiseless, smooth-running, not obnoxious to sensitive nostrils, and altogether suitable for high road traffic, the problem will very speedily be solved. And upon that assumption, in what direction are these new motor vehicles likely to develop? how will they react upon the railways? and where finally will they take us?

At present they seem to promise developments upon three distinct and definite lines.

There will, first of all, be the motor truck for heavy traffic. Already such trucks are in evidence distributing goods and parcels of various sorts. And sooner or later, no doubt, the numerous advantages of such an arrangement will lead to the organization of large carrier companies, using such motor trucks to carry goods in bulk or parcels on the high roads. Such companies will be in an exceptionally favourable position to organize storage and repair for the motors of the general public on profitable terms, and possibly to co-operate in various ways with the manufactures of special types of motor machines.

In the next place, and parallel with the motor truck, there will develop the hired or privately owned motor carriage. This, for all except the longest journeys, will add a fine sense of personal independence to all the small conveniences of first-class railway travel. It will be capable of a day's journey of three hundred miles or more, long before the developments to be presently foreshadowed arrive. One will change nothing—unless it is the driver—from stage to stage. One will be free to dine where one chooses, hurry when one chooses, travel asleep or awake, stop and pick flowers, turn over in bed of a morning and tell the carriage to wait—unless, which is highly probable, one sleeps aboard.[7]...

And thirdly there will be the motor omnibus, attacking or developing out of the horse omnibus companies and the suburban lines. All this seems fairly safe prophesying.

And these things, which are quite obviously coming even now, will be working out their many structural problems when the next phase in their development begins. The motor omnibus companies competing against the suburban railways will find themselves hampered in the speed of their longer runs by the slower horse traffic on their routes, and they will attempt to secure, and, it may be, after tough legislative struggles, will secure the power to form private roads of a new sort, upon which their vehicles will be free to travel up to the limit of their very highest possible speed. It is along the line of such private tracks and roads that the forces of change will certainly tend to travel, and along which I am absolutely convinced they will travel. This segregation of motor traffic is probably a matter that may begin even in the present decade.

Once this process of segregation from the high road of the horse and pedestrian sets in, it will probably go on rapidly. It may spread out from short omnibus routes, much as the London Metropolitan Railway system has spread. The motor carrier companies, competing in speed of delivery with the quickened railways, will conceivably co-operate with the long-distance omnibus and the hired carriage companies in the formation of trunk lines. Almost insensibly, certain highly profitable longer routes will be joined up—the London to Brighton, for example, in England. And the quiet English citizen will, no doubt, while these things are still quite exceptional and experimental in his lagging land, read one day with surprise in the violently illustrated popular magazines of 1910, that there are now so many thousand miles of these roads already established in America and Germany and elsewhere. And thereupon, after some patriotic meditations, he may pull himself together.

We may even hazard some details about these special roads. For example, they will be very different from macadamized roads; they will be used only by soft-tired conveyances; the battering horseshoes, the perpetual filth of horse traffic, and the clumsy wheels of laden carts will never wear them. It may be that they will have a surface like that of some cycle-racing tracks, though since they will be open to wind and weather, it is perhaps more probable they will be made of very good asphalt sloped to drain, and still more probable that they will be of some quite new substance altogether—whether hard or resilient is beyond my foretelling. They will have to be very wide—they will be just as wide as the courage of their promoters goes—and if the first made are too narrow there will be no question of gauge to limit the later ones. Their traffic in opposite directions will probably be strictly separated, and it will no doubt habitually disregard complicated and fussy regulations imposed under the initiative of the Railway Interest by such official bodies as the Board of Trade. The promoters will doubtless take a hint from suburban railway traffic and from the current difficulty of the Metropolitan police, and where their ways branch the streams of traffic will not cross at a level but by bridges. It is easily conceivable that once these tracks are in existence, cyclists and motors other than those of the constructing companies will be able to make use of them. And, moreover, once they exist it will be possible to experiment with vehicles of a size and power quite beyond the dimensions prescribed by our ordinary roads—roads whose width has been entirely determined by the size of a cart a horse can pull.[8]


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