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AMONG all the physical elements which the ingenuity of man has ever employed for useful purposes, steam-power holds, by far, the highest rank. As a mechanical agent, it has rendered, and continues to render, the most important services to the arts, to manufactures, and to commerce. Although the expansive force of steam has been known to mankind for many ages, yet the application of it to the arts, is comparatively of recent date, and may still be regarded as in its infancy.
The first individual who gives any account of the application of the vapor of water as a mechanical force, is Hero of Alexandria, an eminently learned man, distinguished for the number and ingenuity of his inventions, who lived in the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus, about one hundred and thirty years before Christ. He describes, in one of his works, two machines, which he had constructed to operate by steam, and which he regarded rather as means of amusement, than as designed for any useful purpose. Indeed, the idea does not seem to have occurred. to him, that this prodigious power could be of any service to mankind. He ascribes to the action of steam, the sounds, which, fifteen centuries previous to his time, issued from the statue of Memuon; an opinion which, as Professor Renwick says, "is an ingenious explanation of the mode in which he could have effected the same object, rather than an account of what was really performed by the Egyptian priests.'
Among modern writers, Cardan and Mathesius are the earliest who speak of the mechanical force of steam; the former of whom, was also familiar with the fact, that a vacuum could be
produced by the condensation of steam. Brancas, and the Marquis of Worcester, are among those who claim the honor of having first suggested steam as a moving power in mechanics. "It is said that the Marquis, while confined in the Tower of London, was preparing some food on the fire of his apartment; and the cover having been closely fitted, was by the expansion of the steam, suddenly forced off, and driven up the chimney. This circumstance, attracting his attention, led him to a train of thought, which terminated in his important discovery."
The names also of Baptista Porta, a Neapolitan, of Solomon de Caus, a native of Normandy, of Sir Samuel Moreland, and others, are distinguished among those, who, in the seventeenth century, made experiments in the application of steam-power to practical purposes. But the most important and interesting period of the history of this agent, is the time when the steamengine was improved, and we might almost say, invented by James Watt. He examined on scientific principles, the properties of steam, and developed them with wonderful success.
With the application of this power to navigation by Fulton and Stevens, in the year 1807, and its uses in producing locomotion, we are all familiar; and as it is not our object to trace the history of steam-power, or attempt to settle the conflicting claims of the various competitors for the honor of having first applied it as a mechanical force, we proceed to speak in the first place, of its agency in promoting civilization.
In its application to the purposes of travel, the transportation of goods, and the navigation of rivers and oceans, it is in a thousand ways changing the face of society, and promoting the intercourse and enterprise, the social and political interests, of the civilized world. All this vast machinery for rapid intercourse, and the bringing of communities and nations together, is itself an evidence of the intense activity and energy of our age. It is a development of the law of progress, in full and vigorous action. The shallow or prejudiced observer, or the venerator of antiquity, who can see nothing in modern times but innovations, and a sad departure from ancient and long established usages, may view this spectacle as the offspring of the restless or avaricious spirit of the age. But these iron roads which are intersecting every part of this and other lands, and are uniting city to city, and state to state, are designed, under Providence, for
some other purpose than simply to yield dividends to stockholders. Mountains are brought low, and valleys are exalted, and the crooked made straight, and the rough places plain, that civilization and human improvement may advance. The very ploughman in the field, who stops to look at the train as it flies by him, has his mind quickened by the view, and returns to his toil with renewed vigor. The individual who is borne along with such lightning speed, if possessed of ordinary sensibility, cannot but be stimulated, and mentally quickened. He feels that he lives in an age, when the will of man is subduing the mightiest agents of nature, and making them tributary to his interests.
If we examine the history of the past, we shall find that the facilities for communication between different cities and nations, have been, in every age, the index of the state of civilization. In the earliest periods of the world, and among barbarous tribes, there was little or no communication except for purposes of war. Each community being ignorant of the habits, feelings and pursuits of others, regarded them as enemies to be annoyed, pillaged, or slaughtered, as inclination, or supposed interests, might prompt. Consequently, literature, the useful arts, and religion, were all in a low state. There being little interchange of commodities contributing to the comfort and luxury of life, and no importation of knowledge, and the discoveries of science, from the more cultivated nations, as at the present time; the human mind was stagnant, and society rude, and the means of subsistence scanty and coarse. The Phoenicians were the earliest navigators of the world, and although they possessed only a narrow strip of ground, between Syria on the north, and Judea on the south, they yet acquired great power and renown, and absorbed the commerce of the Western Empire. Sidon, their capital, was distinguished for opulence and refinement, and Tyre was ornamented with many magnificent buildings. They cultivated philosophy, and invented, or improved the sciences of arithmetic and astronomy, and introduced letters into Greece.
The most splendid periods, in the history of the kingdom of Israel, were, when there was the freest intercourse with foreign nations. In the reign of Solomon, a lucrative trade was opened with Egypt and Phoenicia, and rich cloths, linen, gold, and other commodities were brought from Tyre, and exchanged for corn, balm and other articles of export. Ships manned by foreign
sailors, were sent to foreign countries, and even as far as Spain. At this period, learning, architecture and religion flourished.
We are aware that the age of Roman glory was an age when avenues of trade and travel were open between foreign countries. While the streets of ancient Rome were but partially paved, and are described as being in a rude and even filthy condition, the Romans as well as the Greeks, paid special attention to their military roads. "There was no part of the Roman polity," says a correct historian, "which so effectually promoted the good of mankind, or which has transmitted such exalted ideas of the imperial grandeur, as the number and magnificence of the roads. Though constructed principally for military purposes, they were of vast utility to the districts which they traversed, and proved the most efficacious means of promoting the civilization of the conquered people. They also greatly assisted the missionaries of Christianity in promulgating the doctrines of the cross."
The power of steam as applied to the conveyance of passengers, and the transportation of merchandize in our Western States, where the rivers are of such immense length, and the amount of produce to be taken to market so enormous, is an element of civilization and progress which can scarcely be overrated. Were we to seek for the prominent cause of the rapid growth of that country, we should be forced to fix upon the introduction of the steam-engine.
According to a recent report, presented at a river and harbor convention held in Chicago last year, we learn that there are two hundred and fifty-one steamers plying to St. Louis alone, and that the whole number on the Western waters amounts to twelve hundred.* In 1846, the receipts at New Orleans from the upper country of the Mississippi amounted in value to seventy-seven millions of dollars. The total value of the inland commerce afloat is four hundred and thirty-nine millions; being double the amount of the whole foreign commerce of the nation.
It is stated that a railroad has been surveyed, and will soon be in progress from Chicago to the Mississippi, to connect with the great chain to Buffalo, Boston and New York. The moment this
*The statistics given in this article, are drawn from the most authentic sources within reach. Besides the difficulty of obtaining the exact truth in every case, steamboats and railroads multiply so rapidly, that statistics which are correct to day, may not be so to-morrow,