Popular Political Economy: Four Lectures Delivered at the London Mechanics' Institution

Hodgskin, Thomas
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
London: Charles Tait
Pub. Date

Chapter II

Influence of knowledge not noticed by economists till very lately.—Mr. Say's opinion.—Knowledge necessary to preserve existence.—Its influence in agriculture.—Example of fallows, and green crops.—Potatoes.—Their effects on population, particularly in Ireland.—Source of agricultural improvement.—Wheat, and other grain not found growing wild.—Subsistence augmented by the discoveries of Beukels, as to curing herrings.—Increase of productive power by improvement in navigation, exemplified by the price of tea.—Effects of our increased knowledge of magnetism.—Economical advantages of the safety lamp.—Steam-engines.—The cotton manufacture.—Gas-lights.—All improvements depend on observation.


IN The Wealth of Nations there are numberless scattered remarks, which show that Dr. Smith was aware of the influence of knowledge in adding to productive power; yet he has not dedicated any part of his book expressly to this subject. He has made no attempt whatever to explain the natural laws which regulate the increase of knowledge; and he has not examined the enactments of the legislator, with a view to ascertain in what respect or degree they promote or retard our acquaintance with the laws which regulate the material world. His successors in this country have humbly imitated his example. Some brief observations may be found in their writings, particularly in Mr. M'Culloch's last work, "The Principles of Political Economy," on the influence of knowledge, but they have never treated of it as a distinct and leading principle. The single circumstance which Dr. Smith brought prominently forward, as adding to productive power, was division of labour, to which his successors have added, accumulation of capital, and no farther progress was made up to a late period, in explaining the natural laws which influence and regulate production.


Monsieur Say, a well known and deservedly celebrated political economist, has at length placed the effects of observation and knowledge in a proper point of view, and claimed for them that pre-eminence they justly deserve, as the great elements of augmenting productive power. In one of his latest publications, he says, "I do not pretend to dispute the great importance which Mr. Storch, following Adam Smith, attributes to the division of labour. Its advantages in satisfying the wants of man are immense. But there is another and a more efficient cause of the fruitfulness of production, viz., the art of profiting by the powers of nature,—by that gratuitous action which is lost in most cases, but which is so fruitful in results when we know how to employ it.*14


It is obvious, that till some knowledge has been obtained of the laws which govern the material world, it must be difficult to preserve existence, and impossible to augment wealth. Men must have observed the habitudes of plants, and the qualities of different soils, before they could successfully have cultivated the ground. They must have carefully noted the natural return of seed-time and harvest, and have become sensible of the probable effects of casting grain into the earth, before they could anticipate, from what at first appears to be only waste, a rich return at the end of a few months. Possessing a knowledge, however, of the course of the seasons, of the nature of plants, and of the properties of the soil, as well as of the processes by which the effects of the sun, of light, and of air, may be made most efficacious in promoting vegetation, we can, with comparatively little muscular exertion, procure a great abundance and variety of vegetable food. As all the animals which we consume live on vegetables, we are able by this same knowledge, knowing also their instincts and properties, to obtain a great quantity of animal food. A people acquainted with the art of agriculture, must, it is plain, be better able to nourish themselves with ease, and to obtain the raw materials of several most important manufactures, than a people ignorant of this art. On account of its great utility, the discoverer of a new and useful plant, the inventor of an improved agricultural process, the importer of some better and cheaper method of cultivation, or of some before unknown vegetable, has, in all ages of the world, been regarded as a general benefactor. Though agriculture does not supply us with the most striking examples of observation adding to productive power, yet even in this neglected and generally speaking, slave-practised art, we may find numerous examples of the hand of the labourer having been rendered productive by the observations of the philosopher.


To say nothing of those improved means invented within the last fifty years, for procuring, smelting, and forging iron; the results of our progress in chemical knowledge, which have diminished to a great extent the labour necessary to make all agricultural instruments, of which iron is one of the materials; and to say nothing of those machines, the fruit of observation, such as improved ploughs, threshing-machines, drills, etc., by which the labour necessary to grow and prepare corn for the market, has been abridged,—though it seems that many useful processes, such as drilling, by which much seed corn is saved, and horse-hoeing, by which the ground is kept clean, and only those plants suffered to vegetate which are of use to us, could not be practised except in a country where the art of the smith had attained a singular degree of perfection,—to say nothing of these circumstances, though it is at all times worthy of observation, that improvement in arts, apparently the most remote from each other, tend materially to lighten labour in both; let us only consider what has been effected in modern times by the introduction of new crops and new methods of tillage.


"An intelligent agriculturist," says M. Say, "after having for many years allowed his fields to remain idle every third year, took it into his head, that the land might, during that year, give him a supply of green crops, which without exhausting the soil, would enable him, to fatten sheep to manure his land, and to have both wool and mutton for sale. He was indebted for this improvement to his conception of a better method of employing the powers of the soil, which supplies different nourishment for wheat and for beet-root, or turnips; so that the nourishment for the wheat is restored and augmented at the same time that the soil is producing green crops. The result of this conception is, that the whole produce of the land, under this species of management, has been increased one third."*15


M. Say is wrong, perhaps, in ascribing this improvement to a chance conception. It was the result of continued observation; and its advantages had to be shown by repeated experiments, before it was adopted on those soils where fallows can be dispensed with. He also estimates much too high the advantages of the conception: for farther experience has shown, that fallows cannot always be advantageously dispensed with on all soils. But there can be no doubt, by the agriculturist having recourse to them much less frequently than formerly, together with the introduction into husbandry of several different green crops, by which a greater number of cattle can be kept at all times, and subsistence secured for them through the winter, ensuring the agriculturist against the loss of them; by which, therefore, not only the quantity of animal food, but also the quantity of manure, and ultimately the quantity of corn are increased,—that the produce of what is sometimes ridiculously called our old worn-out soil, has been augmented, without adding to labour, fully one-third within the last century.


The introduction of potatoes into European husbandry is another example of improvement effected in agriculture by observation and knowledge. They were brought from America to Europe, either by Sir Walter Raleigh or under his influence, it is generally supposed, about the year 1586.*16 An acre of land cultivated with this root, will yield, it is stated by competent authority,*17 rather more than twice as much food as when cultivated with wheat. We are indebted, therefore, to the observation, that potatoes were good food, and to the consequent introduction of them into Europe, for a capability of doubling the quantity of subsistence, raised from a given space, with about an equal quantity of labour. This comparison, be it remarked also, is not made with the spontaneous productions of the ground, but with its produce, under a species of cultivation, which is itself the result of numberless observations, and ages of practice; and of knowledge handed down, increasing as it descended, from generation to generation, and transmitted from country to country.


But this view does not show all the advantages of introducing potatoes into European husbandry. They are supposed to be better than either turnips or cabbages for fattening cattle, and they can be secured against the severities of winter, which are apt to destroy both the others. The nourishment they contain for man can also be easily extracted, preserved in a dry state, and if necessary, be transmitted, like flour, from one place to another. Moreover, they are very useful as a first crop for land, which has not before been cultivated; and but for them, much of that which has been brought under tillage in this country, within the last century, would, from not affording a profit, have remained a neglected waste.


The introduction of this root into husbandry has had no inconsiderable effects, therefore, on the power and resources of this empire. By its use, which is now general nearly throughout Europe, population has been everywhere increased: but in Ireland, which possesses a climate and soil peculiarly favourable to potatoes, it has been astonishingly multiplied. In 1672, the population of that country was estimated at 1,320,000; in 1821, it was very little short of 7,000,000; a rate of increase hardly anywhere met with except in the United States of America. The greater number of these people live almost exclusively on potatoes; so that they are indebted for their nourishment, and even for their existence, to a root originally brought from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean.*18


I say nothing of the effects, both moral and commercial, of the great majority of a nation consenting to subsist, without seeking greater comforts and enjoyments, on the smallest possible quantity of the cheapest possible food, to which the misery of the Irish peasantry is attributed; though to suppose that the great majority of any people, do or will voluntarily consent to any such degradation, is directly at variance with the desire inherent in the human heart of obtaining more and more enjoyment; I only quote the increased return for labour, the result of some voyager bringing potatoes from America, as an example of the influence of observation and knowledge in adding to productive power. To guard against being misunderstood, I must remark, however, that the unhappy situation of the Irish peasantry has no connection whatever with the food they subsist on. The peasantry and the labourers of every country of Europe, whether their productive power be great like that of the labourers of England, or small like that of the peasantry of Poland; and whether they have been accustomed to subsist on wheaten bread as in France, or on potatoes as in Ireland, are all in a nearly equally destitute condition. The poverty of the Irish labourer, therefore, is not caused by his living on potatoes.


To obtain food at the least possible cost, is the great object of all agricultural improvements; and in this respect, potatoes, as a crop, are to be preferred to wheat, as agriculture itself is to be preferred to fishing and hunting. That this general natural principle should seem not to hold good as to Ireland, is not a reason for condemning it; but for our setting ourselves diligently to work, to find out those social causes, which, in that country, turn what are in every other country the bounties and the blessings of Nature into curses. I shall not enter farther into this subject than to quote a passage of which I approve; and I should not have adverted to it, had I not been anxious to guard against the supposition that a natural principle can, under any circumstances, lead to misery, unless its consequences be misdirected by ambitious legislation. "Under the government and political institutions of Ireland," it has been remarked, "the population of that country would have been equally redundant, though much smaller than it now is, if they had lived on oats or wheaten bread. The introduction of the potatoe may be the cause why the population is now six in place of three millions, but it is not the cause why, during the whole period of the increase, the numbers of the people have been greater than under the existing circumstances could be comfortably maintained."*19 In fact, the poverty and misery of individuals in Ireland, was as great before as since the general use of potatoes.


Most of the roots and grasses lately or formerly introduced into our husbandry, such as turnips, potatoes, and clover, are not originally the produce of our country. Before any person could think of removing a root like the potatoe, from one country to another, or of recommending turnips or clover as an agricultural crop, he must have known, or conjectured from what he had previously learned, that the root, or the seed, would keep so long as to permit its transport; he must have ascertained some of its properties, and have formed hopes from some similarity of climate or soil, that it would flourish in his own country; and he must have been aware of some utility or agreeableness in adding a foreign vegetable to the thousands which teem from almost every soil, before the thought of importing it from a remote corner of the globe could have been rationally entertained. Accordingly, we find that learned travellers like Sir Walter Raleigh, and Sir Richard Weston,*20 in former times, were the means of introducing potatoes, turnips, and clover, into England from foreign countries: and such men as Lord Kaimes, Arthur Young, Mr. Dawson, Mr. Coke, and other intelligent gentlemen, have been in our day the means either of introducing improvements into agriculture, or of spreading a knowledge of them through all parts of the country. But for their observation, the potatoe might now, like so many other vegetables, only have added to the perennial waste of America; and our Flemish neighbours might have been the only people on the globe who knew the utility of clover as an agricultural crop. Had such improvements been blundered on by chance, they might have been confined to the spots and individuals with whom they originated; but the knowledge of them being conveyed over Europe and America, now tends, and will for ever tend, to multiply the produce of more millions of acres than my arithmetic can calculate.


If the reader should imagine that knowledge informing skill only multiplies the means of subsistence, he will have a very inadequate idea of what it actually performs. It may be almost said to create both the animals and vegetables on which we subsist. We can, indeed, trace out the parent stock of our oxen and sheep, but so different in their wild state from the large flesh and wool-bearing and milk-giving animals that are nourished by the art of the grazier, into almost gigantic magnitude, that it may be doubted if the natural historians of antiquity, could they now see our oxen and sheep, would recognize in them the animals which in their time bore corresponding names. But the origin of our most useful vegetables is not so well known.


"There is scarcely," says Dr. Paris, "a vegetable that we at present employ that can be found growing naturally. Buffon states that our wheat is a factitious production, raised to its present condition by the art of agriculture. Rice, rye, barley, or even oats, are not to be found wild; that is to say, growing naturally in any part of the earth; but have been altered by the industry of mankind, from plants not now resembling them even in such a degree as to enable us to recognise their relatives. The acrid and disagreeable apium graveolens, has thus been transformed into delicious celery; and the colervort, a plant of scanty leaves, not weighing altogether half an ounce, has been improved into cabbage, the leaves of which weigh many pounds, or into a cauliflower of considerable dimensions, being only the embryo of a few buds, which, in their natural state, would not have weighed many grains. The potatoe again, the introduction of which has added many millions to our population, derives its origin from a small acrid bitter root, which grows wild in Chili and Monte Video."*21


Fishing being, like agriculture, one of the arts earliest learnt by man, we may proceed to draw our next illustration from it. "The resources which this art offers,' says M. Storch, "are limited by the necessity of consuming near the coast the greater part of its products. If every species of fish could be transported to a distance without spoiling, fishing would be more favourable than it is to the increase of population. Beukels having taught the Dutch the art of packing herrings, and thus of preserving and sending to a distance this abundant supply of food, the means of subsistence has been augmented wherever they have been carried, and profits wherever they have been caught and prepared. Several millions of men are indebted to Beukels for their existence; and we, therefore, have no reason to be surprised at the honours the Dutch have bestowed on his memory."*22


But it must be well known to the reader, that the resources with which the observation and knowledge of Beukels endowed Holland, though they for many years contributed to her maritime ascendency, were not limited to that country. Curing herrings, and salting cod, ling, tusk, and other fish, have long added to the food and wealth of Great Britain, and of several other countries; and it appears by a late parliamentary paper, that the former branch of industry exceeded in this country in 1826, its greatest amount in Holland, when the fisheries of that country excited envy in every other maritime state of Europe.


If we turn to some other arts, we shall find in them, perhaps, even more striking examples of improvement effected in productive power, than in agriculture and fishing. A ship derives all her vast utility, all that power which she possesses of distributing equally the gifts of nature, to recorded knowledge. By means of this valuable instrument, the supposed fertility of different spots, or rather their produce, belongs, in fact, or may belong, to the whole globe: every region being tributary to those persons who are skilful and industrious. To say nothing of that transmitted skill which must be possessed by so many hundred different labourers, before a ship can be built, equipped, and sent to sea,—but for the observation first made by so obscure an individual, that his name and country are almost unknown, that a magnetised piece of iron, when freely suspended, always pointed due North, and but for the recorded observations of geographers, astronomers, and travellers,—the fruit of many years close attention,—by which the mariner is enabled to shape his course straight across the pathless ocean, the utility of this most magnificent of all the time-improved inventions of our race, would have been very limited. Even after much of this knowledge was acquired, or one hundred and fifty years ago, two and even three years were consumed in going to and returning from India; since the year 1800, that voyage has been completed within seven months, and may be performed with ease in less than one year. The effects of this more rapid navigation, on the productive power of labour, may perhaps be best illustrated by the alteration which has taken place in the price of tea, since it became in Europe one of the luxuries, if not one of the necessaries, of life. The price of any commodity, the reader will remember, may in general be taken, in a rough way, as an index both to the quantity of labour required to bring it to market, and to the quantity of labour those who want it must give to obtain it.


When tea was first brought to Europe, about the year 1610, the price—the chief cost consisting in the expense of bringing it—was from 6l. to 10l. sterling, the pound weight. It continued to sell in this country for 60s. per pound, the price at Batavia being then 2s. 6d or 3s., till towards the year 1700;*23 and at present the retail price in the shops is between 5s. and 16s. This includes a heavy duty on tea; it includes the retailers' and merchants' profit, and it includes a still heavier tax even than that paid to the government, levied on us by the East India Company's monopoly. At New York, in North America, and in Amsterdam, the wholesale price of tea is from 1s. 3d. to 3s. 1d. per pound, or one half less than here; so that we may really take the reduction of freight on tea, since the year 1700, to have been at least fifteen fold. This reduction in price has been caused by improvements in the knowledge and skill of the navigator, and of the numberless artisans who prepare all the materials for ship-building, and who build ships and make them ready for sea, and by the recorded observations of the geographer and astronomer. I give it only as an example; but the real price of other articles has suffered a similar reduction. It is probably not too much to say, owing to an increase of knowledge, that the labour necessary for obtaining nearly all commodities has been diminished, like the price of tea, fifteen fold since the route to India round the Cape of Good Hope was discovered, by those adventurous Europeans, who had the honour and the danger, leaving the benefits of the discovery to posterity.


It is a well known principle, that the average profits in all trades and occupations must compensate for losses and risks; and in al money prices such a compensation is included. Whatever lessens risk, therefore, like an actual reduction in the quantity of labour necessary to produce commodities, lessens price. When the ship-owner or merchant is liable on an average to lose both vessel and cargo every tenth voyage, the price at which he sells his goods must cover the expense of an insurance calculated on this probability. In consequence, however, of increased knowledge and improved skill, the premiums on the insurance of vessels have been gradually decreased. In some cases, when the knowledge of the seas is very accurate, as for example, in the trade between London and Leith, the chances of loss are very small, and the premium of insurance almost nothing. But even this premium will be lessened, probably, by the improved knowledge of the properties of the magnet acquired in our times. Mr. Bain, Mr. Barlow, and some other gentlemen, have lately discovered in the attraction of the iron fastenings of ships, a cause before unobserved, for variations in the compass, which very often led to disastrous consequences. The latter gentleman has pointed out a simple and admirable remedy for the evil; and henceforth the chances of shipwreck being diminished by this discovery and invention, though in what degree it is not possible to say, the labour and cost of bringing the required supply of any commodities from a distance by sea will be lessened.


The economical advantages of the safety-lamp, one of the most happy applications of a scientific discovery to a useful purpose ever made, must be estimated on the same principle. It is not for me to expatiate on its glorious results for humanity, I have only to inform the reader of its commercial advantages. The probability of calamities occurring in mines, compels the consumer of coals to pay a premium of insurance equal to the risk; but this premium has been already lessened, and will be so hereafter in a still greater degree, by the invention of the safety-lamp. Every accident which occurs in mines causes an addition to the quantity of labour necessary to bring the whole requisite supply of coal or other mineral to market; and whatever diminishes these accidents, diminishes the quantity of labour by which we obtain coals. Such an increase in the productive power of labour, and such a lessening of cost, are the results of the observations and discoveries of Sir Humphry Davy on the nature and properties of flame.


Steam-engines must be considered as the result of a close and attentive examination of the properties of steam, and of the effects, first, of applying heat to water, and then condensing its product;—of the weight of the atmosphere, and of the tenacity of certain metals,—as these various properties had been made known to us by several generations of inquirers. The expansive power of steam has been known almost as long as history can trace back the existence of our race; but an immense reach of intellect, numberless observations, a prodigious quantity of knowledge, gathered in all the ages of the world, and a vast variety of experiments, were necessary to devise this engine in its present admirable, but not yet perfect form. Of the addition it has made to our power I can give no illustration equal to that contained in the following passage:—

"All the world," says a writer in the Quarterly Review, "is more or less acquainted with those immense masses, the pyramids of Egypt, which were considered among the wonders of antiquity. The materials of which the largest of them is constructed, were dug out of the earth at a considerable depth; and at no small distance from their present situation. They cover more than eleven English acres; and are piled up to the height of about 700 feet. According to M. Dupin's calculation, their volume is equal to about 4,000,000 of cubic metres; their weight is 10,400,000 tons; which raised to the height of eleven metres from the bottom of the quarries to the surface of the earth, and of forty-nine more as their mean elevation above the basis; in all sixty metres above the original level—give 624,000,000 tons raised to the height of one metre. Now the steam-engines employed in England are equal to the force of 320,000 horses (1820), and can raise 862,800,000 tons to the height of one metre in twenty-four hours. But 624,000,000 tons being less than than three-fourths of this quantity, it follows, that the steam-engines of England could have raised the materials of which the great pyramid is constructed out of the quarries, could have conveyed them to their present place, and heaped them up in their present form, in less than three-fourths of one day, that is to say, in less than eighteen hours. According to Diodorus Siculus, this building employed 360,000 workmen; according to Herodotus, 100,000 workmen, during twenty years. Whichever of these estimates be nearest the truth, it is certain that one of the most powerful monarchies of remote antiquity applied its whole disposable resources in the construction. Therefore the mechanical power of British steam-engines was, in 1820—and it has much increased since that time—to that of the Egyptian monarch Cheops, inversely as the times necessary to each to perform the same task; that is to say, as twenty years to eighteen hours, or about 10,000 times as great.*24

"It is more than probable," adds the Reviewer, "that the (productive) power of England is at this moment (June 1826) 2500 times as great as was that of Egypt at the period when the pyramid was constructed."—"By the power of steam every machine to which it is applied receives, not an addition, but a multiplication of force. The power thus produced in 1820 was computed to be equal to 320,000 horses, or about 2,240,000 men. At this moment steam, on account of its many new applications, and the improvements made in the manner of employing it, may perform the work of near three millions of men, in the United Kingdom."


Perhaps, however, the effects of knowledge in increasing productive power, may be still more strikingly displayed by referring to the cotton manufacture of this country. The raw material of every species of cotton, from the finest net lace or flowered muslin, to the canvass which, when it forms the sails of a ship, resists the most violent storms, is the downy nest provided by Nature for the seeds of a plant which grows to advantage only in tropical climates. At present it is chiefly cultivated in the East and West Indies, and in the southern parts of the United States of America. The people who cultivate the plant, and pick and sort the wool, must be acquainted with a branch of agriculture quite distinct from any of the common practices of Europe, and they must have learned one part of the manufacture. To bring it hither from those distant countries the whole art of navigation must lend its assistance, and it is impossible for me to describe the vast variety of knowledge in numberless workmen, and the innumerable discoveries, which have contributed to the present perfection of this art. Again, to clean and pick the cotton, to spin it into yarn, and weave it into cloth, to bleach, dye, print, and embroider it, a vast variety of knowledge is necessary, which, if lost or forgotten in any one branch of the manufacture, would extinguish the whole.


Before men could apply and regulate the first moving power, whether it be wind, water, or steam, which sets in motion the various and complicated machinery for cleansing, carding, spinning, and weaving cotton, the knowledge acquired by centuries of experience was necessary. To construct all this machinery men must know the properties of metals, the methods of softening, melting, and fashioning them; and they must have an intimate acquaintance with the mechanic powers before these materials can be put together. So admirable, however, is this knowledge-made machinery, that the fibre of the cotton is not bruised nor rent, though it be spun as fine as a gossamer-thread, and wove into a web as delicate as the curious production of the spider. To bleach, dye, and print it, other sets of machines are used, requiring different knowledge to construct them; and to perform these operations, the whole science of chemistry is summoned to the aid of the workman.


In 1765, cotton, as an article of trade, was scarcely known in this country, and the whole manufacture, which was very limited, was confined to the supply of the home market. Cotton cloth then cost considerably more than linen, and cotton stockings were then nearly as dear as silk. In 1767, Richard Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny, and in 1769, Mr. Arkwright invented his power-spinning frame. In 1779, the mule, a still more efficacious spinning instrument, was invented; and from that time to the present, improvements in cotton-spinning and weaving machinery have been continually and successively made.


To illustrate the effects of these improvements, I can do no better than quote another passage from the article in the Quarterly Review, from which I have already largely borrowed. "The various machinery now used in manufacturing cotton has enabled one man to perform the work of one hundred and fifty. Now the lowest computation supposes 280,000 men—some say 350,000 men—to be employed in it. Hence the work now performed in this single branch, would-half a century ago—have required 42,000,000 of men—according to some 53 000,000; that is to say, at the lowest computation, more than twice as many men, women, and children, as now people the British islands. Now supposing the labour of each of these men to cost, at this hour, the very moderate sum of one shilling per day, or 18l. per annum, the pay of 42,000,000 of labourers would be 756,000,000l. per annum, or a little more than thirteen times the annual revenue of England. Deducting from this sum the pay of the labourers now really employed at the above annual rate, (280,000 × 18l.=5,040,000l.) and allowing the enormous sum of 50,000,000l. sterling for the wear and tear of machinery, buildings, and incidental expenses; the result is, that the machinery employed in the cotton manufactories saves 700,000,000l. sterling to the British nation; or, in other words, that, without machinery and steam, the prodigy of British industry and civilization would still have been wanting to honour mankind."


The conclusion drawn by the author of this article from these statements, which is well worthy of every man's attention, is, that the manufacturing industry of England may be fairly computed as four times greater than that of all the other continents, except Europe, taken collectively;—"and that the average productive power of our people may be estimated as one thousand to one over the average productive power of mankind at large."*25 This most wonderful increase, by which the productive power of England is 2500 times as great as was that of Egypt, and by which one man here may do the average work of a thousand labourers in the world at large, is the magnificent result of that beautiful machinery, which the skilful hand of our artizans has been taught to fashion by the combined observations and experience of ages. In the particular case of the cotton manufacture, being of comparatively recent origin, and hardly known above sixty years, though now of the annual value of thirty millions sterling, we can trace every step and every cause of its improvement;—and that cotton is now so much cheaper than silk or linen—they also, being at present made at a much less expense of labour than formerly—that the productive power of all those engaged in manufacturing cotton has been so astonishingly increased, is entirely owing to the knowledge and inventions of Richard Hargreave, James Watt, and their fellow labourers, and successors.


The advantages and cheapness of illumination by gas are well known, but these advantages never could have been realized without considerable knowledge. Long before we had gas lights, it was ascertained that coal supplied an inflammable substance; but till Priestley had invented pneumatic chemistry, this gaseous matter could not be confined, and was only regarded as a noxious vapour. As produced from coal, it is contaminated by various substances, and to chemistry we are indebted for the means of purifying it. The properties of the gas itself, and of the metallic conduits through which it has to pass, the pressure of the atmosphere, and the greater expansive power of the gas, must have all been known, and a great deal of skill in adapting this knowledge to this particular purpose must have been in existence, before this beautiful invention could have been brought to its present state. The effects of this contrivance are not limited to supplying light at a less cost than before. The great brilliancy, almost equal to day-light, protects the peaceable and industrious citizen from the nightly burglar; and gives all classes a degree of security, not to be attained even by the most vigilant police. Persons otherwise disposed are obliged to have recourse to honest industry; and gas lights—a result of modern chemistry—augment the national wealth, not only by the labour they save, but by what they compel men to perform.


I might expatiate on many such subjects as these, but it would be an unwarrantable waste of the reader's time. He has only to cast his eyes around him, and he will find that every skilful operation he performs, or which is performed by others, has at some time or other depended for its success on a close observation of the laws of nature and the properties of matter. The most simple instrument in use, such as a common spade, a carpenter's gimlet, or a sewing needle, by the help of which labour is not merely facilitated, but without which several most useful and necessary daily operations could not possibly be performed, were at one time unknown; and probably required as close observation of the properties of iron and steel—of the form and powers of the human body, so as to adapt the digging and sewing instruments to its capabilities—and the gimlet to the purpose of boring rapidly through wood, and bringing to the surface the little pieces it cuts away,—as the invention of the steam-engine at a later period required of the properties of caloric, and of the weight of the atmosphere. We have been taught the arts which our ancestors learnt by observation, and are apt to forget that they, like the new discoveries of our own times, which are to be the means hereafter of facilitating the labour of our descendants, were the result of a close and attentive examination of the external world.

Notes for this chapter

Notes to M. Say's edition of Cours d'Economie Politique, by Henri Storch, vol. i. p. 167.
Notes to Cours d'Economie, vol. i. p. 167.
History of Cultivated Vegetables, by Henry Phillips. Art Potatoe.
Encyclopædia of Agriculture, by J. C. London, p. 784.
Should I hereafter satisfy the reader that the increase of population is the chief natural circumstance which promotes the increase of knowledge, and which extends division of labour; thus augmenting productive power, not merely in the simple ratio of the increase in the number of labourers, but in the compound ratio of this increase, multiplied by the effects of knowledge, and division of labour, whatever they may be, he will then perceive, that every improvement, which, like the introduction of potatoes into husbandry, augments the means of subsistence, is a cause, by increasing the number of people, of multiplying to an astonishing degree the productive power of our species. Consequently, the view given in the text of the advantages of such improvements, as add to our means of subsistence, is essentially incomplete, and falls far short of what actually occurs.
Encyclopædia Britannica, article Ireland.
Afterwards Lord Treasurer, created Earl of Portland in the reign of Charles I.
A Treatise on Diet, etc., by J. A. Paris, M. D., F. R. S. page 8.
Cours d'Economie Politique, vol. 3, page 319.
Phillips's History of Cultivated Vegetables. Art. Tea.
Quarterly Review, No. lxvii, for June 1826.
Quarterly Review. No. 67. p. 93.

Part I, Chapter III

End of Notes

Return to top