The Invention I Consider the Most Useful to Mankind
The number of inventions of high utility to mankind is so great, that it is difficult to decide which is the most important. How can we choose between printing, the steam engine, the aeroplane, antiseptic surgery, chloroform, and the various inventions connected with electricity, such as the telegraph, the telephone, wireless telegraphy, and electric light? If we judge an invention’s utility by the extent of the changes it has brought about in men’s thoughts and social life, perhaps the steam engine and the printing press stand first. The printing press has most profoundly influenced men, but the social revolution caused by the steam engine has been more dramatic and can be more easily described.
10 The steam engine has made the world smaller. It has contracted space and shortened time. By rail and steam-ship, we can now reach different parts of the world by journeys of hours instead of days, and of days instead of months.
With this means, travel has become so easy, quick and comparatively cheap, that people of all nations, who were formerly confined to their native countries, are now diffused all over the globe. The world has got to know itself better; national isolation has been broken down; and men of all nations are beginning to feel they all belong to one great family, the human race.
The wonderful improvement and extension of the means of communications has led to an enormous increase of trade and commerce; which brings the products of all lands to everybody’s doors.
Above all, the steam engine brought about the industrial revolution, which resulted in the form of civilization characteristic of the 19th and 20th centuries. Applied to machinery, it made possible the rapid production in enormous quantities of all kinds of useful articles at low prices, which brought things, which were luxuries, before within the reach of even the poor. It produced the factory system, which meant gathering together thousands of working men in one business and under one control in place of the former small business, and this again produced the great modern towns, with their conveniences and their grave social problems.