I would love to bring the long-dead author of this piece back for a day for a chat. What opinion would YOU give him about his generation?
The Preston Guardian, 4 April 1891
The nineteenth century is never weary of wondering what the twentieth will think of it and, being a scientific age, desires our descendants to recognise the work we have done for their advantage. Yet although we have no difficulty ourselves in determining our merits, it may not be the quite the same thing for posterity, should it ever trouble itself to look for them. They must comprehend, we think, what we have done in the cause of knowledge.
In electricity our progress in a few years has been many times greater than that of our predecessors, over a period ten times as long. Twenty-five years ago, electricity was a vague, theoretical science, connected in the text books with heat and light. Today it is becoming a sort of handmaid of all branches of science, carrying the sounds of our voices across wide continents, storing up our words in mysterious cylinders, lighting houses, running our messages, moving our conveyances, and aiding the surgeons to cure our diseases. And what has already been achieved by this magnificent force is manifestly but an earnest of what we expect in the future. It is helping to erase the word ‘impossible’ from the dictionary, and promises to make man’s dominion over nature complete outside the limits of life and death. Consequently we never tire of bragging about our triumphs in electrical knowledge and its mechanical application, and demand, as a right, that the century of 1991 shall recognise what 1891 has done for it.
We are equally proud too of the knowledge we have acquired by patient investigation and prolonged search. In medicine and pathology we are advancing; we are conquering death in some of its forms, and tracking disease to its secret lair. We are steadily increasing man’s prospects of longevity and decreasing the necessity of his pain, and we expect posterity to be grateful. Moreover ours is the generation that beheld the fruits of Darwin’s great genius. Evolution and the myriad possibilities suggested in the idea of heredity is the intellectual offspring of our Time-Spirit.
In all branches of science we see activity; research in one subject often throwing sudden and unexpected light on the dark places of another. If, therefore, we are conceited and move along with one eye fixed on the end of the twentieth century, we are not without an excuse. But after all, what will 1991 think of us? Will they describe us as a generation especially animated by the scientific spirit, as we flatter ourselves is the case, or will they look down upon us with the same pitying superiority with which we regard the England of 1791, with its bran new political nostrums for cursing all human ills that our own experience has so widely modified.
Perhaps the twentieth century will take more pleasure in counting our mistakes than in reckoning our victories. We may be sure they will not be half so proud of us as they will be of themselves. Possibly if they do admire us it will be for some quality that at present we are unaware of possessing. We cannot tell what we are to bequeath our descendants, because an inventory cannot be taken in the dark. The nineteenth century, when it was young, did not recognise the genius of Shelley or Keats, but it bought twenty editions of ‘Satan’ Montgomery‘s poems. In a recent speech, Lord Derby asked what Statesman or General will be remembered in the future like Darwin. But all that is remembered about Darwin will not rebound greatly to our credit. When the ‘Descent of Man‘ was published, it raised up a perfect storm of bigotry, obloquy, and misapprehension. We have not forgotten how to stone our prophets, the manner of doing it alone is changed. We still have to bear the weight of our sins in this respect. Besides, we know not how many false prophets we have been worshipping. They are not found out, as a rule, by the adorers at the shrine. The next century will, probably, discover a good many of them, perhaps not in sufficient numbers to neutralise our progress, but enough to make them wonder at our blindness and infatuation.
The probability is, however, that the twentieth century will be too much occupied with its own work and play to trouble much about us. The exact amount of our knowledge or ignorance in electricity in 1891 will not interest the world of 1991 so much as the cut of our clothes and the fashion of our slang.