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IMPORTANCE TO PI ACTICAL MEN
AND ON THE
ENCOURAGEMENTS TO ITS PURSUIT.
THOMAS CLARK, 38 GEORGE STREET.
The object of the Mechanics’ Institute is, to diffuse useful knowledge among the mechanic class of the community. It aims, in general, to improve and inform the minds of its members; and particularly to illustrate and explain the principles of the various arts of life, and render them familiar to that portion of the community, who are to exercise these arts as their occupation in society. It is also a proper object of the Institute, to point out the connection between the mechanic arts and the other pursuits and occupations, and show the foundations, which exist in our very nature, for a cordial union between them all.
These objects recommend themselves strongly and obviously to general approbation. While the cultivation of the mind, in its more general sense, and in connection with morals, is as important to mechanics as to any other class of the community, nothing is plainer than that those whose livelihood depends on the skilful practice of the arts, ought to be instructed, as far as possible, in the scientific principles and natural laws, on which the arts are founded. This is necessary, in order
The following Essay is compiled from a discourse delivered by the author, at the opening of the Mechanics' Institute in Boston, in November, 1827; an address before the Middlesex County Lyceum, at Concord, in November, 1829; and an oration before the Columbian Institute at Washington, January, 1830.
that the arts themselves should be pursued to the greatest advantage; that popular errors should be eradicated; that every accidental improvement in the processes of industry, which offers itself, should be readily taken up and pursued to its principle; that false notions, leading to waste of time and labour, should be prevented from gaining or retaining currency; in short, that the useful, like the ornamental arts of life, should be carried to the point of attainable perfection.
The history of the progress of the human mind shows us, that for want of a diffusion of scientific knowledge among practical men, great evils have resulted, both to science and practice. Before the invention of the art of printing, the means of acquiring and circulating knowledge were few and ineffectual. The philosopher was, in consequence, exclusively a man of study, who, by living in a monastic seclusion, and by delving into the few books which time had spared, -particularly the works of Aristotle and his commentators, succeeded in mastering the learning of the day; learning, mostly of an abstract and metaphysical nature. Thus, living in a world not of practice, but speculation, never bringing his theories to the test of observation, his studies assumed a visionary character. Hence the projects for the transmutation of metals ; a notion not originating in any observation of the qualities of the different kinds of metals, but in reasoning, a priori, on their supposed identity of substance. So deep-rooted was this delusion, that a great part of the natural science of the middle ages consisted in projects to convert the baser metals into gold. It is plain, that such a project would no more have been countenanced, by intelligent, well-informed persons, practically conversant with the nature of the metals, than a project to transmute pine into oak, or fish into flesh.
In like manner, by giving science wholly up to the philosophers, and making the practical arts of life merely a matter of traditionary repetition from one generation to another of uninformed artisans, much evil of an opposite kind was occasioned. Accident, of course,
could be the only source of improvement; and for want of acquaintance with the leading principles of mechanical philosophy, the chances were indefinitely multiplied against these accidental improvements. For want of the diffusion of information among practical men, the principles prevailing in an art in one place were unknown in other places; and processes existing at one period were liable to be forgotten in the lapse of time. Secrets and mysteries, easily kept in such a state of things, and cherished by their possessor as a source of monopoly, were so common, that mystery is still occasionally used as synonymous with trade. This also contributed to the loss of arts once brought to perfection, such as that of staining glass, as practised in the middle ages. Complicated machinery was out of the question : for it requires, for its invention and improvement, the union of scientific knowledge and practical skill
. The mariner was left to creep along the coast, while the astronomer was casting nativities; and the miner was reduced to the most laborious and purely mechanical processes, to extract the precious metals from the ores that really contained them, while the chemist, who ought to have taught him the method of amalgamation, could find no use for mercury, but as a menstruum, by which baser metals could be turned into gold.
At the present day, this state of things is certainly changed. A variety of popular treatises and works of reference have made the great principles of natural science generally accessible. It certainly is in the power of almost every one, by pains and time properly bestowed, to acquire a decent knowledge of every branch of practical philosophy. But still, it would appear, that, even now, this part of education is not on the right footing. Generally speaking, even now, all actual instruction in the principles of natural science is confined to the colleges; and the colleges are, for the most part, frequented only by those intended for professional life. The elementary knowledge of science, which is communicated at the colleges, is indeed useful in any and every calling; but it does not seem right, that none but