SHARING MEMORIES, WEEK SEVENTEEN

The Carleton Place Herald, January 8, 1879

Article by James Poole, owner & editor

 

Scientific Progress, Year 1878

The past year has been, in many respects, the most remarkable of modern times.  The historic tableau may be described in post Raphaelitic parlance as a “nocturne in black and gold,” charged with a brighter tint of hope and deeper gloom of utter darkness than the combined genius of Turner and Whistler ever painted, or the erratic pen of Ruskin ever characterized.  How many brilliant promises belied at the critical moment, how many confident anticipations swept away, by the remorseless logic of history.  Saluted at its birth by a volcanic roar of artillery from the passes of Etropole Balkans, where Muscovite and Muslem were ringing down the curtain upon the lurid drama of the “Indpendence and Integrity of the Ottoman Empire:, the year closes amid the deepest intricacies of the “Great Asian Mystery” now being enacted amid the everlasting snows of the Hindu-Kush, the pathless wastes of the “Roof of the World” and the shifting sands of the Kixil Kum (Kyzyl Kum).  The interpreters of prophetic visions still have

Ample room and verge enough

The characters of hell to trace

Upon their premillennial canvas, and they would do well to keep their lamps trimmed and burning, for the dawn of peace is not yet come.

But while the political annals of the year are writ large with battle, murder and sudden death, the scientific record stands written in letters of living light.  No future chance or change in human event can rob this passing year of the glory of being one of the greatest epoch-making crises in man’s knowledge of nature – a Promethean moment richly fraught with “the wonders that shall be,” the marvels of the present, the axioms of the coming hour.  In no other seas of human activity is it truer than in the deepest gulfs of physical speculation that “there is a tide in the affairs of men.”  Every really great discovery is reached almost simultaneously by isolated workers separated by thousands of miles.  These earnest searchers are like so many athletes swiftly speeding toward a common goal, which the most fortunate gains but a moment before the slowest of his competitors.

At the very outset of the past year the world of science was assembled on the judges’ stand, counting seconds in the race between Pictet and Cailletet for liquefying the last of the gases, and thus experimentally proving the unity of nature and the continuity between the solid, liquid and gaseous domains.  Cailletet had scored the first round by liquefying oxyen and carbonic oxide as early as December 2, 1877, but being then a candidate for election to a seat in the Academy of Science he magnamiously refrained from announcing his success and consigned the account of his discovery to a sealed packet, which was opened at the academic session of December 24.  Strange to relate, M. Raoul Pictet, of Geneva, announced by letter at that meeting the same result achieved by entirely different processes.  Scarcely had the wandering savans found time to announce to the public this double triumph when M. Cailletet, on the last day of the year, accomplished the liquefaction of hydrogen, nitrogen and atmospheric air, and, pressing closely upon him M. Pictet swept to the goal January 11, definitely establishing the sequence of the “constants of nature” by the solidification of hydrogen.  It was found to be a metal, thereby brilliantly justifying the conclusion first reached forty years ago by the veteran chemist, J. B. Dumas, who had the honor, as president of a leading scientific society, to receive the first telegraphic announcement from M. Pictet, and to make known to his associates at Paris this grand discovery on the very day it was made at Geneva.

Results such as these would suffice to make the year 1878 forever memorable in the annals of science, but only the first page had yet been written.  In the same month of December, 1877, when Cailletet and Pictet were winning their first laurels in Paris and Geneva, Thomas Alva Edison rode into New York one morning from Menlo Park with a queer brass cylinder under his arm, and astonished the ‘Scientific American’ with the brazen-faced assertion that “Mary had a little lamb.”  The phonograph had sprung, unheralded upon the world, and so incredible was the scientific fact thus revealed that several weeks elapsed before it was generally credited.  Although the full-fledged discovery of the phonograph pertains to 1877, the whole of its development, and world-wide renown belong to 1878 and it is assuredly not the least of its many titles to perpetual remembrance that “the Wizard of Menlo Park” then first assumed a recognized position as a factor to civilization.  Of Edison’s manifold other and curious inventions – the megaphone, the phonomotor, and the aerophone – we have no need now to speak, though in other times they would rank high among the curiosities of science.  But there are three other achievements of his genius which distinctly call for mention among the wonders of the year – the improved carbon telephone, the tasimeter, and the electric lamp.  Other workers have inscribed their names upon Fame’s eternal bead-roll with similar titles, and it would be unjust not to recognize the great merit of Professor Hughes in the discovery of the microphone, of Professor Graham Bell in perfecting his telephone, of Mr. Sterns in “duplexing” the Atlantic cable, of Professor Alfred M. Mayer in his illustrations of the atomic theory by floating magnets, of Sir J. D. Hooker and Paul Bert in their discoveries in vegetable chemistry, of Count Du Moncel in his ingenious development of the phonograph into a condensateur chantant, of Lewis Swift and Professor Watson in their discovery of intra-Mercurial planets, of Professor Wilde Newlands and others in their ingenious classifications of the elements by periodic laws, and of Loutin, Repiaff, Jablochkoff, Werdermann, Sawyer, Hommer and Gary in their important, but not yet fully realized, applications of electric forces.

The crowning discovery of the year, however, if the half that has been claimed should prove true; will belong neither to Pictet, Cailletet, Edison, Hughes, Watson nor Swift, but to the eminent English astronomer and spectroscopist, Mr. J. Norman Lockyer, who visited America in July last for the observation of the great solar eclipse.  His discovery is nothing less than that all the sixty-four so-called ‘elements’ are condensations or modifications by the interaction of the cosmic forces upon a single primitive matter, which, so far as this earth is concerned, seems to be hydrogen, but which, in the solar ? is found to be four times lighter than hydrogen.  Of course men are already speaking of this discovery as if it were synonymous with alchemy or the transmutation of metals.

In one sense they are right, but not in the most important meanings connected with those expressions.  It may be found possible to reduce gold and other precious metals and ? to their primitive calcium or hydrogen, but it may be positively stated that it will never be possible to make gold from hydrogen or calcium.  The reason is the same as in the parallel case of reducing fuel to ashes.  To destroy is easy; to reconstruct from the same or similar materials is impossible.  Above all, one of the factors in the formation of metals is unlimited duration of time for the play of the cosmic forces, and until the new alchemists can control that factor their efforts will be useless.  It is too early to predict the range of Mr. Lockyer’s discovery; but granting all the facts which he claims, he has but demonstrated experimentally an idea which is perfectly familiar to modern chemists.  It is highly probable that Mr. Lockyer’s conclusions are well founded and that they will revolutionize the formal teaching of chemistry, but they cannot change the facts as they have always existed.  Meanwile the scientific world is becoming impatient for the record of Mr. Lockyer’s experiments – not for his conclusions, for those they can draw as well as he.