The Net Advance of Physics RETRO:

We Go Home by the Water, Says Bryan O'Lynn

2013 September 16

Since the 1960s most "radical" social movements in the Western World have been (ostensibly) hostile to technology. Neo-Luddite thinking has been so pervasive in the Left for the last half-century that one easily forgets how it arose rather suddenly, when a new awareness of manufacturing's environmental cost happened to dawn during the Vietnam era of public disillusionment with the military-industrial complex. Old Lefty songs about the Grand Coulee Dam and the glories of electrification, once ubiquitous, now seem almost jarring.

Everything in history is of course cyclical, and the back-and-forth over technology by advocates of social justice has happened many times before. Everyone remembers the English Luddites of the 1810s, and the failure of their revolt:

"As the Liberty lads o'er the sea
Bought their freedom, and cheaply, with blood,
So we, boys, we
Will die fighting, or live free,
And down with all kings but King Ludd !

"When the web that we weave is complete,
And the shuttle exchanged for the sword,
We will fling the winding-sheet
O'er the despot at our feet,
And dye it deep in the gore he has pour'd.

"Though black as his heart its hue,
Since his veins are corrupted to mud,
Yet this is the dew
Which the tree shall renew
Of Liberty, planted by Ludd !"

So wrote Lord Byron in a letter to Thomas Moore (1816 December 24). Byron was famously sympathetic to the justice of the Luddite cause, but he did not reject technology per se; Gibson and Sterling were probably right to imagine him in an alternate life as leader of the Technological Radical Party. In our own neck of the multiverse, obviously, no such party emerged, and for many years "workers' movements" remained, in reality, craftsmen's movements which viewed the Industrial Revolution mainly as a threat to skilled labour. By the 1830s a more nuanced attitude began to prevail -- and here we join the story, in an impoverished but hopeful pre-Famine Ireland where nationalists are already dreaming of a Celtic utopia. Should there be machines in Tir na nÓg?

Bryan O'Lynn (played in Sandycove on James Joyce's personal guitar!). The cricket verse quoted below is sung at 1:15.


by "F." (presumably J. S. Folds, publisher of the magazine)
[Dublin Penny Journal 1, 234 (1833)]

F.'s words are in bold.

The articles on Machinery in our late numbers have been misapprehended by some people. "Oh," they cry, "the Dublin Penny Journal is slily putting out feelers on the subject --- it would not offend us and beggar us by a bold and sweeping introduction of that power which will deprive us of our labour at once, but quietly introduce it inch by inch, until it is established and we are ruined !"

Now this is a mistake, and it is also no mistake.

We would like to see machinery introduced inch by inch, not for the purpose of ruining, but for the purpose of improving, the people.

"But we don't want machinery at all," is the reply. "Look at the artizans of Manchester, of Preston, &c. They are starving in the midst of their machinery."

Answer this question --- Whether has machinery destroyed or created employment? It has done evil, certainly --- does that evil overbalance the good?

Many an ungrateful fellow, while smoking his farthing pipe, exclaims against machinery. Does he know that without a mould -- a machine for copying pipes -- it would cost him a shilling?

What a comfortable thing it is to have glass in our windows ! What a still more comfortable thing it is to be enabled by a mirror to survey our outward man, to have a glance at ourselves. And what an agreeable thing it is, to have a cut-glass decanter on the table ! Machinery, as the term is commonly employed, is certainly not much used in the manufacture of glass: yet without the subdivision of labour which machinery introduces, without blow-pipes and wheels, without blasts and furnaces, we (the working classes at least) would not have glass in our windows, far less the tell-tale mirror and the sparkling decanter.

Machinery created a prodigious employment for all classes ; but then it was introduced too fast. It was seen to be a productive thing, and capital was eagerly invested in it. Yet the only reply to all argument is, "We don't want machinery here at all !"

And, pray, what is a machine?

"Every thing from the teeth out."

Whatever a man uses, in addition to his hands, his fingers, and his nails, is a machine. Therefore machinery is as old, or very nearly so, as the world.

The most stupid man that ever existed is, beyond all comparison, a machine more cunningly made by the hand of his Creator, more perfect in all his parts, less liable to accidents, and less injured by wear and tear, than the most perfect machine that ever was made. Some of the simplest movements of a man's body cannot be imitated by any mechanical contrivance, however ingenious. And the adaptation of the mind to the body --- the adjustment of the mental to the physical --- what metaphysician will explain that ?

The most savage nation that ever was, invents and uses machinery. The lance tipt with fish-bone --- the two rough stones for grinding corn --- the sharp instrument of shell, stone, or bone, for cutting, stabbing, and carving --- all are machines --- rough, misshapen machines --- without which the rude savages who use them, would be worse than the fowls of heaven, who have instinct given them to build their nests with mechanical ingenuity.

By and bye, man finds he need not waste so much strength and time on these rude machines. He finds out how to extract iron from its natural state in the ore, and then he tempers it, and makes an iron knife instead of a bone one. Man was gifted with reasoning powers, in order to enable him to avail himself of the advantages which nature has placed at his disposal.

Windmills were early invented, and one element early taken into account, and made subservient to man's purposes. It certainly was a long time before many other, and seemingly obvious, applications of mechanical power and ingenuity were made. And yet, whatever nation is long or slow in availing itself of the application or combination of the mechanical powers, that nation is low in moral power --- so closely connected are physical and moral combinations.

A man who has a block of wood, has a wooden bowl in the centre of it. A knife would cut it out, perhaps in two weeks or a month. A turning machine would do it far better, and more accurately in half an hour ! One turn of a wheel, one stroke of a steam engine, one pinch of a pair of rollers, one blow of a die, would do more in a second than a man could do in a month !

To roast a piece of meat by holding it to the fire, is a tedious and painful operation. A common jack makes it simple and easy.

A knife would, do very laboriously what is done very quickly by a hatchet. The labour of using a hatchet, and the material which it wastes, are saved twenty times over by the saw. Every boy of mechanical ingenuity, has tried with his knife to make a boat. With his knife it is the work of weeks --- give him a chisel, and a gouge, and a vice to hold his wood, and the little boat is the work of a day.

The delicate operations of carpentry could not, by any possibility, be performed by a knife or a hatchet or a saw. But give the skilful workman planes, rabbet-planes, fillisters, bevils, and centre-bits, and how beautifully is that work performed, which, without them, would be rough and imperfect !

The making of an earthen bowl would be no easy matter to the man who made the first attempt. With a wheel, the potter can convert, in a few minutes, a shapeless mass of clay into a beautiful form. True, it is only round vessels that can he made on the wheel : those of other shapes are made in moulds of plaster --- yet all who have witnessed the operations of a potter, must he astonished at the facility and ease by which a man can convert a rough and soft mass into a form exquisite and beautiful.

Formerly, a woman's allowance was called her pin-money, a proof that pins were once a tolerably dear article. Now, in order to show the low estimate we have of any thing, we say, it is not worth a pin ! Suppose a very skilful workman had a lump of brass ready to make into pins --- he beats it upon an anvil till it becomes nearly thin enough for his purpose. A very fine hammer, and a very fine touch he must have, to produce a pin of any sort --- even a large corking pin ! ! With a machine, five thousand pins can he made cheaper, more perfect, and more expeditiously, than fifty, two hundred years ago.

There are six mechanical powers : the lever, the wheel and axis, the pulley, the inclined plane, the wedge, and the screw. Now the great difference between a civilized and an uncivilized nation is, that the one knows how to apply and combine these powers, and the other does not.

Take, for instance, the watch. What an exquisite combination of the mechanical powers does it exhibit ! Show it to a savage, and he starts back in wonder and fear when he hears the clicking of its machinery. There is a humorous stanza which tells us that

Bryan O'Lynn had no watch to put on,
So he scooped out a turnip to make him a one,
Then he put a cricket clane under the skin,
"Whoo! they'll think it is ticking!" says Bryan O'Lynn.

Ludicrous as this is, it is not an inapt illustration of the difference between the use of machinery, and the want of it. Uncivilized nations have only the cricket; the watch and its machinery they know nothing about. And yet this same watch and its beautiful and nicely adapted machinery are but the result of the ingenious application of the mechanic powers, just as a fine piece of music is the result of a tasteful and skilful combination of the simple notes of the gamut.

Iron and Coal by Wm. Bell Scott [National Trust, Wallington]

If machinery, therefore, is not to be introduced into Ireland, it is equivalent to saying that we must still perform by brute force any operations our rude state will require ; and to be consistent, and make a fair beginning, we should break up our steamboats, demolish our windmills, fling away our knives and forks, smash our crockery, burn our calicoes, and creep, like Diogenes, into our tubs, and survey from them the wilderness which our folly has created !

Irishmen, we would not advocate one single measure which would tend to the injury of any body of men. We would not urge a single theory which would be mischievous in practice. But machinery must be cautiously and deliberately introduced, ere the country can be raised from degradation.

We wish to see the cabins of Ireland as the cottages of England --- comfortable.

We wish to see employment for the idle, and provision for the poor.

And the object of our untiring solicitude shall be, to pour through the country the spring-tide of knowledge, to merge party strife in intellectual improvement and national good, to guide into that "region of delectation," the reasoning faculties, all that may enlarge and increase its boundaries and its stores, and to send a cry through the land which will tingle in the ears of all who are asleep, while mind is up, and like the eagle, preparing its plumes to stretch into the empyrean !