Illustrated London News, 3 October 1891 - ’Science as Devastator’ by Frederick Greenwood
The nineteenth century, which will soon come to an end now (and not improbably in convulsions) has many things to be proud of; but it is most distinguished above all foregoing centuries by its amazing victories in the realms of science and its command of the arts of invention. Much good have they done us; and yet the world would be happier at this moment, and the future far more bright, if the Genius of the Nineteenth Century had been less inventive by half. It is, indeed, no impossibility that before the newspapers are stamped with the date 1900 they may have to record more disaster from the triumphs of inventive art than its gifts as a whole will compensate.
This must be a frequent thought in many a mind just now, though I have only twice seen it in print. Once was when some essayist deplored that if science has increased the wealth of the world its inventions are adding enormously to the cost of war, and, while multiplying the forces of devastation, giving to them a scope and energy which do not shock the conscience of humanity as it was predicted they would. The other occasion was when an essayist of lighter vein proposed that the European Governments should agree to seize, immure, or otherwise effectually dispose of any inventor who employed his talent in adding to the destructive machinery of war – as by Maxim guns, new and improved magazine rifles, explosive compounds deadlier than dynamite, and other ravaging devilries of enormous cost and no profit, save to the designers and manufacturers thereof. He was right, that scribe; and, though the voice of Wisdom will not be listened to on this point, well would it be for every consideration that can be named if the nations of the earth were to agree to use no weapons of destruction more deadly than have been invented for them already. Why not? They have already agreed never to use explosive bullets.
Here is Mr Maxim (whose excessive cleverness suggests these reflections) with a new idea: an idea which, if he can carry it out, will add strangely and vastly to the horrors of war. He has already invented a gun of such admirable properties that it will mow men down in rows and rows every two minutes; you only have to turn a handle and the thing is done. He believes that he has now invented an aerial machine – or can show the way to its invention – of which the advantage is thus explained by himself in one of the monthly magazines: “Certainly not for carrying freight, and not (for a considerable time at least) for conveying passengers, it will at once become an engine of war” – a veritable engine of war, and not merely of use for discovering the position or observing the motions of an enemy. For this aerial steam-plateau will be large enough to carry in the air a weight of nine thousand pounds over and above its own weight; that is to say, it will bear aloft nine thousand pounds of war-material and of men to use it. The war-material will consist of “large bombs charged with high explosives,” compared with which dynamite is a mild compound; and Mr Maxim confidently anticipates that machines of this character would “completely paralyse an enemy by destroying in a few hours bridges, armouries, arsenals, gas and water works, railway stations, public buildings” – in short, whole cities, with their houses and the people in them: which I take to be the meaning of the words “et cetera” added to “public buildings” in Mr Maxim’s suggestive little catalogue. “Only the rich and highly civilised nations” could make and use these engines; indeed, their inventor believes that one nation in Europe alone could do so at the moment. But the richer and more civilised the nation the greater the number of them that could be sent aloft to rain destruction on an enemy’s arsenals, gas and water works, public buildings, et cetera.
It may be that the inventor’s hopes will be disappointed yet. Neither he nor his grandchildren may see so blest a sight as fleets of steam-machines battling in the blue, charging each other, wrecking each other, and hurtling down to earth with their cargoes of the newest bombs. But Mr Maxim does not merely dream. He has made experimental engines, and he thinks it almost certain that he will succeed; quite certain that success will come to someone in the next ten years, for the necessary “motor” has been found at last. But, whether the Maxim Devastator is or is not to improve upon the Maxim gun, we know that similar blessings are unlikely to fail us. Not a year passes without some invention, some discovery, to add to the waste and to quicken and extend the havoc of war. Now it is a new rifle, now a new “explosive”, now some death-dealing machine to do in five minutes the hour-long work of fifty men with guns. Every one of these inventions and discoveries increases the cost of war-preparation enormously. The rifle that cost millions to “adopt” four years ago is superseded by another that costs millions today and will be superseded in turn five years hence. So with other things besides rifles at five guineas apiece and great guns that blow eighty pounds sterling into smoke at every discharge. And it is not alone by its improvements in the mechanical means of destruction that invention adds to the waste of war. As someone has said before, it helps to swell the numbers of men drawn from hearth and home into the vast battalions that cover Europe. For, as war becomes more swift of execution, more urgent is the need of calling out the whole resources of a nation for instant use. The greater the destruction of a week’s fighting, so many men more must be kept ready to carry on the conflict.
And when, turning from these drafts upon labour and treasure, we think upon the sweeping slaughter of invention’s battlefields, and when we also think of the dwindling part assigned to manliness by the mechanics of war, it is time to ask what compensation for the horror and the waste does the inventor give us? I can think of none. It may have happened that the possession of a superior weapon has given an advantage to one combatant over another; but experience teaches that no nation can hope to keep the secret of a new arm for long, and that invention matched against invention gives no country a clear superiority over the rest of the world. If war broke out in Europe six months hence, it would find the combatants as equally equipped for fight as in the days of the musket and the hand-grenade. Nation would meet nation with new weapons, but on much the same terms as they would have met without them. More men by tens of thousands could be brought into the field; thousands more would perish in more sudden and more awful scenes of carnage; the slaughter and the burning would be costlier by ten times than at the beginning of the century; and that is about all that Civilisation has to thank Science for inasmuch as she has devoted herself to soldiering. Nothing but incessant increase of waste, ruin, and blood-shedding, and therewithal the reduction of war from its old heroisms to something brutally mechanical. But yet the inventor goes on, still shining as a benefactor of his species; and his activities are now so increasingly fruitful that if the long-dreaded day of Armageddon happens to lie at any distance, what a day of horrors will the intellectual endowment of our own nineteenth century make of it!