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READ TO THE BOSTON MECHANICS' INSTITUTION, AT THE OPEN
ING OF THE COURSE OF LECTURES. NOV. 12, 1828.
I appear before you, gentlemen, for the performance of a duty, which is, in so great a degree, foreign from my habitual studies and pursuits, that it may be presumptuous in me to hope for a creditable execution of the task. But I have not allowed considerations of this kind to weigh against a strong and ardent desire to signify my approbation of the objects, and my conviction of the utility, of this institution; -and to manifest my prompt attention to whatever others may suppose to be in my power, to promote its respectability and to further its designs.
The Constitution of the Association declares its precise object to be, “Mutual Instruction in the Sciences, as connected with the Mechanic Arts."
The distinct purpose is to connect science, more and more, with art; to teach the established, and invent new, modes of combining skill with strength; to bring the power of the human understanding in aid of the physical powers of the human frame; to facilitate the cooperation of the mind with the hand; to augment convenience, lighten labor, and mitigate toil, by stretching the dominion of mind, farther and farther, over the elements of nature, and by making those elements, themselves, submit to human rule, follow human bidding, and work together for human happiness.
The visible and tangible creation into which we are introduced at our birth, is not, in all its parts, fixed and stationary. Motion, or change of place, regular or occasional, belongs to all or most of the things which are around us. Animal life everywhere moves; the earth itself has its motion, and its complexities of motion; the ocean heaves and subsides; rivers run lingering or rushing, to the sea;
and the air which we breathe moves and acts with mighty power.
Motion, thus pertaining to the physical objects which surround us, is the exhaustless fountain, whence philosophy draws the means, by which, in various degrees, and endless forms, natural agencies and the tendencies of inert matter, are brought to the succour and assis
tance of human strength. It is the object of mechanical contrivance to modify motion, to produce it in new forms, to direct it to new purposes, to multiply its uses,—by means of it to do better, that which human strength could do without its aid,—and to perform that, also, which such strength, unassisted by art, could not perform.
Motion itself is but the result of force; or, in other words, force is defined to be whatever tends to produce motion. The operation of forces, therefore, on bodies, is the broad field, which is open for that philosophical examination, the results of which it is the business of mechanical contrivance to apply. The leading forces or sources of motion are, as is well known, the power of animals, gravity, heat, the winds, and water. There are various others of less power, or of more difficult application. Mechanical philosophy, therefore, may be said to be that science which instructs us in the knowledge of natural moving powers, animate or inanimate; in the manner of modifying those powers, and of increasing the intensity of some of them by artificial means, such as heat and electricity; and in applying the varieties of force and motion, thus derived from natural agencies, to the arts of life. This is the object of mechanical philosophy. None can doubt, certainly, the high importance of this sort of knowledge, or fail to see how suitable it is to the elevated rank and the dignity of reasoning beings. Man's grand distinction is his intellect, his mental capacity. It is this, which renders him highly and peculiarly responsible to his Creator. It is this, on account of which the rule over other animals is established in his hands; and it is this, mainly, which enables him to exercise dominion over the powers of nature, and to subdue them to himself.
But it is true, also, that his own animal organization gives him superiority, and is among the most wonderful of the works of God on earth. It contributes to cause, as well as prove, his elevated rank in creation. His port is erect, his face toward heaven, and he is furnished with limbs which are not absolutely necessary to his support or locomotion, and which are at once powerful, flexible, capable of innumerable modes and varieties of action, and terminated by an instrument of wonderful, heavenly workmanship,-the human hand. This marvellous physical conformation, gives man the power of acting, with great effect, upon external objects, in pursuance of the suggestions of his understanding, and of applying the results of his reasoning power to his own purposes. Without this particular formation, he would not be man, with whatever sagacity he had been endowed. No bounteous grant of intellect, were it the pleasure of heaven to make such grant, could raise any of the brute creation to an equality with the human race. Were it bestowed on the Leviathan, he must remain, nevertheless, in the element where alone he could maintain his physical existence. He would still be but the inelegant, misshapen inhabitant of the ocean, “wallowing unwieldy, enormous in his gait.” Were the Elephant made to possess it, it would but teach him the deformity of his own structure, the unloveliness of his frame, though “the hugest of things," his disability to act on external matter, and the degrading nature of his own physical wants, which lead him to the deserts, and give him for his favorite
home the torrid plains of the tropics. It was placing the king of Babylon sufficiently out of the rank of human beings, though he carried all his reasoning faculties with him, when he was sent away, to eat grass like an ox. And this may properly suggest to our consideration, what is undeniably true, that there is hardly a greater blessing conferred on man than his natural wants. If he had wanted no more than the beasts, who can say how much more than they, he would have attained? Does he associate, does he cultivate, does he build, does he navigate? The original impulse to all these, lies in his wants. It proceeds from the necessities of his condition, and from the efforts of unsatisfied desire. Every want not of a low kind, physical as well as moral, which the human breast feels, and which brutes do not feel and cannot feel, raises man, by so much, in the scale of existence, and is a clear proof, and a direct instance, of the favor of God towards his so much favored human offspring. If man had been so made as to have desired nothing, he would have wanted almost everything worth possessing.
But doubtless the reasoning faculty, the mind, is the leading characteristic attribute of the human race. By the exercise of this, he arrives at the knowledge of the properties of natural bodies. This is science, properly and emphatically so called. It is the science of pure mathematics; and in the high branches of this science lies the true sublime of human acquisition. If any attainment deserve that epithet, it is the knowledge, which, from the mensuration of the minutest dust of the balance, proceeds on the rising scale of material bodies, everywhere weighing, everywhere measuring, everywhere detecting and explaining the laws of force and motion, penetrating into the secret principles which hold the universe of God together, and balancing world against world, and system against system. When we seek to accompany those, who pursue their studies at once so high, so vast and so exact; when we arrive at the discoveries of Newton, which pour in day, on the works of God, as if a second fiat for light had gone forth from his own mouth;=when, further, we attempt to follow those, who set out where Newton paused, making his goal their starting place, and proceeding with demonstration upon demonstration, and discovery upon discovery, bring new worlds, and new systems of worlds within the limits of the known universe, failing to learn all only because all is infinite; however we say of man, in admiration of his physical structure, that “ in form and moving he is express and admirable,” it is here, and here without irreverence, we may exclaim,“ in apprehension how like a God!” The study of the pure mathematics will of course not be extensively pursued in an institution, which, like this, has a direct practical tendency and aim. But it is still to be remembered, that pure mathematics lie at the foundation of mechanical philosophy, and that it is ignorance only which can speak or think of that sublime science as useless research or barren speculation.
It has already been said that the general and well known agents, usually regarded as the principal sources of mechanical powers, are, gravity, acting on solid bodies, the fall of water, which is but gravity acting on fluids, air, heat, and animal strength. For the
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Iluman magarity, stimulated by human wants, seizes first on the nearest natural assistant. The power of his own arm, is an early lommon, among the studies of primitive man. This is animal strength, and from this he rises to the conception of employing, for his own uno, the strength of other animals. A stone, impelled by the power of his arm, he finds will produce a greater effect, than the airin it well"; this is a species of mechanical power. The effect remulle from a combination of the moving force with the gravity of a heavy body. The limb of a tree is a rude, but powerful instrument; it is a lever. And the mechanical powers being all discovered, like other natural qualities, by induction, (I use the word as Bacon used it,) or experience, and not by any reasoning a priori, their progress has kept pace with the general civilisation and education of nations. The history of mechanical philosophy, while it strongly illustrates, in its general results, the force of the human mind, exhibits, in its details, most interesting pictures of ingenuity struggling with the conception of new combinations, and of deep, intense, and powerful thought, stretched to its utmost to find out, or deduce, the general principle from the indications of particular facts. We are now so far advanced beyond the age when the principal, leading, important mathematical discoveries were made, and they have become so much matter of common knowledge, that it is not easy to feel their importance, or be justly sensible what an epoch in the history of science each constituted. The half frantic exultation of Archimedes, when he had solved the problem respecting the crown of Hiero, was on an occasion and for a cause certainly well allowing very high joy. And so also was the duplication of the cube.
The altar of Apollo at Athens was a square block, or cube, and to double it required the duplication of the cube. This was a process involving an unascertained mathematical principle. It was quite natural, therefore, that it should be a traditional story, that by way of atoning for some affront to that god, the oracle commanded the Athenians to double his allar; an injunction, we know, which occupied the keen sagacity of the Greek geometricians for more than half a century, before they were able to obey it. It is to the great honor, however, of this inimitable people, the Greeks, a people whose genius seems to have been equally fitted for the investigations of science and the works of imagination, that the immortal Euclid, centuries before our era, composed his Elements of Geometry; a work which, for two thousand years, has been, and still continues to be, a text book for instruction in that science.
A history of mechanical philosophy, however, would not begin with Greece. There is a wonder beyond Greece. Higher up in the annals of mankind, nearer, far nearer, to the origin of our race, out of all reach of letters, beyond the sources of tradition, beyond all history, except what remains in the monuments of her own art, stands Egypt, the mother of nations! Egypt! Thebes! the Labyrinth! the Pyramids! Who shall explain the mysteries, which these names suggest? The Pyramids!' Who can inform us, whether it was by mere numbers, and patience, and labor, aided perhaps by the simple lever, or if not, by what forgotten combination of power, by what now unknown machines, mass was thus aggregated to mass, and quarry piled on quarry, till solid granite seemed to cover the earth and reach the skies?
The ancients discovered many things, but they left many things also to be discovered; and this, as a general truth, is what our posterity, a thousand years hence, will be able to say, doubtless, when we and our generation shall be recorded also among the ancients. For, indeed, God seems to have proposed his material universe, as a standing, perpetual study to his intelligent creatures; where, ever