Man's Debt to the Inventor—The Beginning of Invention—Necessity the Mother of Invention.

AS we read the story of invention it is wise to remember the "once upon a time" when all things had their beginning. Only thus do we realize that we are kin with our earliest ancestors and understand that it is mainly in the advantages we enjoy that we differ from the cave man.

We live to-day in a world of marvels, but few of the wonders which we usually think of as the products of our own time do not have their roots in a distant past, and the first germ of an idea usually eludes our search because there is ever something that went before.

The chronometer, for instance, that marvel of delicate mechanism which keeps time with almost the accuracy of the sun itself, was born when a clever Greek added a cogwheel to the water clock, and that simple instrument owed its origin to the happy thought of one who had realized the need of all for an instrument more useful than the Sundial, which speaks only when the sun is shining. The Sundial itself carries us back a long, long way, and we can be assured that even that hoary clock was but a development of means used in the Stone Age to mark the passing hours in the dawn of mankind.

Then, again, a monkey cracks a nut with his teeth, but some early man discovered that he could save his teeth by using two stones. He was an inventor, and took the first step upward on the long ladder which has ended in giving us the marvellous modern flour mills driven by steam power, with their steel rollers and silken sieves.

And so we hold the two ends of this thread that runs through the ages, and knowledge should make us thankful to the countless inventors who have contributed so greatly to brighten our lives and to make them vastly easier than those of our ancestors. Invention binds us to all who have gone before, even to the remotest bounds of time.

But our debt to the inventor is so great that it takes hard thinking to realize it. Every single thing around us—the clothes we wear, the chairs we sit upon, the glass in the windows, the lamp by which we read, this book itself—all these things had to be invented. But for the inventor we should be living in trees like the monkeys, without clothes or shelter or food, except nuts and wild fruit. The story of invention is the story of civilization and of how man rose from savagery to his present state of civilization.

Of man's earliest inventions we know very little. The first may have been the use of a stone to crack a nut. The next was possibly the use of a stick to strike an enemy. Once man found that sticks and stones were useful, it was only a step, though perhaps a long one, to the making of a rude weapon by fastening a stone to the end of a stick.

Man used sticks and stones long before he dared to meddle with fire, for early man resembled the wild creatures in his dread of fire. Fire, of course, existed, for lightning must sometimes have set the forests ablaze just as it does to-day; while in those days volcanoes were much more frequent and active than they now are. The forgotten hero who first dared to tame fire to his own use was the greatest of early inventors, for once man had fire he was master of all the lower creatures.

"Hero" I have written, but I should have said "heroes", for without doubt fire was tamed not by one man but by many different individuals at widely different times in different parts of the earth. Civilization, please remember, did not begin in any particular place or at any particular date. In those long-ago days there were many tribes small or large in numbers, entirely isolated from one another, and all slowly struggling upward. Some of these hardly rose at all, others with better brains rose to a comparatively high pitch, only to be wiped out by flood, earthquake, or some similar calamity. Each of these races developed along its own lines, and often very unevenly—so unevenly, indeed, as to fill our minds with astonishment when we realize it.

You ask how we know such things about peoples who vanished long, long before the dawn of history, and I answer that we learn by digging in the earth and discovering their burying places, and by searching in the caves which were at that time their only homes. We can also tell a good deal by carefully observing those few races who are still entirely uncivilized, such as the natives of Central Australia, of Central Africa, and of the great forests of South America.

Some of our discoveries go to prove what I have already stated with regard to the comparatively high pitch of civilization to which very early races attained. At Combarelles in the French department of Dordogne a cave has been discovered, the walls of which for a distance of three hundred feet are literally covered with prehistoric drawings, or perhaps one should say carvings, for the lines are cut deep in the rock. These drawings represent various animals, among them being the mammoth or woolly elephant, which has been extinct for a very long time. By this and other evidence we know that these drawings were made at least twenty thousand and perhaps twenty-five thousand years ago. Yet the work is beautiful, being far superior to that done by other races who lived thousands of years later.

Wooly Mammoth
From the painting of a Mammoth on a cave wall.

Even more recently, in another French cave on a tributary of the Garonne, there have been found a large number of clay models of animals, some about five feet long, which have been preserved by stalagmite, a glassy substance formed by water dropping from the roof. These, too, are evidence of high art in a period enormously remote. Still another proof of the curiously uneven growth of inventive genius is given by the natives of Australia. When white men first came in touch with the black fellow about a century and a half ago they found a people who seemed lower than any yet discovered. These natives had no clothes, no pottery; they lived largely on insects and reptiles; they had absolutely no idea of tilling the ground or domesticating animals. They were, in fact, on a level with the Palæolithic or "Old Stone" people who inhabited England some seventy thousand years ago.

Yet these people used the boomerang, that strangely-shaped piece of wood which can be thrown so as to return through the air to its thrower. How they had invented such a weapon no one has been able to imagine, but the fact remains that they did invent it, and had been using it for centuries before the white man arrived to stare in wonder at such an amazing device.

Stone Age axe
A modern stone age axe from Central Australia

All the early inventors were naturally influenced by their surroundings. Those who lived in a country where flints were common were better off than those whose home was in a country where there were no hard, sharp-edged stones. So the flint-country people got on more quickly than their less fortunate neighbors.

Among the early inventions of these people were knives, spears, and scrapers, as well as clubs and hammers. The knives and spears enabled them to kill animals for food and cut them up when killed, and it was the people who got food most easily who found most leisure in which to perfect new inventions.

Tribes living near the sea used shells. Shells are very hard, and, when broken, have sharp edges, so we must take it that these seashore peoples also got started quite early in the making of tools. Quite lately the natives of the Andaman Islands were still using keen-edged shells for sharpening arrows made of cane and bamboo, and as knives for cutting meat or thatch to roof
A bowman of the later stone age
their huts. They also had nautilus shells for drinking cups and larger flat shells for plates.

When man had made himself weapons with which to kill animals he found the skins of these animals useful to keep his body warm. At first he merely wrapped the untanned hide round his naked body, but after a while it occurred to some inventor to cut holes through which to thrust his arms. After that, some one must have discovered that, by scraping and pounding a skin, it could be made soft. So clothes of a kind came into being.

Another very early invention was the bow. The spear made of a flint head fastened upon a straight piece of wood was a very ancient discovery, and was at first used merely in hand-to-hand fighting. Then some genius discovered that a spear could be thrown, and so made to kill at a distance. The next step was probably the invention of the throwing stick for hurling a spear, and at last some one strung a strip of hide to the two ends of a springy cane and so was able to drive a light spear or arrow to a considerable distance.

A great advance was the discovery of the fishhook. This we know to have been a very early invention, for fishhooks made of bone are found in some of the oldest graves. The discovery of the fishhook would, of course, enable its owner to gain an immensely larger supply of food with very little extra trouble, and, as I have already pointed out, it is only when savages have a sufficient food supply that they are able to spend time on inventions.

Whether the fishhook led to the invention of the boat
Bone Harpoons
Bone Harpoons
or the boat to the fishhook we have no means of knowing. It does not require much power of thought to realize that a floating log will sustain a weight greater than itself, but the first man who hollowed out a log into the form of a canoe was a very great inventor indeed.

Another was the person who first made a dish out of clay. No pottery is found in the earliest burying places, so we know that this is a more modern invention than the spear, the bow and arrow, and the fishhook.

We have no knowledge whatever as to who first made a vessel of clay, or where it was made, but necessity being the mother of invention, it seems likely that some early cook was the inventor. After fire had been mastered it was at first used only for protection against wild beasts. Later it came into use for cooking, but only for the roasting of chunks of meat. The art of boiling came later still, and the earliest saucepan was merely a tightly woven basket filled with water, into which red-hot stones were dropped until the water boiled. Then came pots of soapstone, but these were hard to make and had to be very thick or they would crack when put upon a fire.

Clay is found almost anywhere, and it is so soft and easily handled that every child loves to play with it. No doubt some savage genius, having amused himself by molding a piece of clay, happened to notice that the article, whatever it was, having stood out in the sun for a day or two, became almost as hard as stone. Then what more natural than to copy the soapstone pot in clay?
Peruvian Vase
Peruvian Terra-Cotta vase

All the earliest pottery was merely sun-dried. It was perhaps a long time before the discovery was made that clay articles burned in a fire were harder and more waterproof than those dried in the sun. It is an interesting point that the Australian savages, who were clever enough to invent the boomerang, never dreamed of making pottery. They still cook in open fires and pits and drink out of shells or gourds.

The finest of early clay workers were those who lived in Mexico and in the Southern part of the United States. Very long ago they learned how to temper their clay with powdered shells and other materials, and much of their pottery was very beautiful in shape and most daintily ornamented. In Africa, too, many of the tribes have been expert potters from time out of mind. They use clay taken from the hills of the white ants, which has already been mixed and kneaded by these little mound builders.

The Eskimo tribes of the Arctic, when first discovered, heated their snow huts and cooked their food by means of lamps. These lamps were shallow dishes cut from soapstone and filled with blubber. The wick was made of twisted moss. There is a part of Arctic America where soapstone is not found, and here the natives were found to be using stoves made of clay. The clay was kneaded up with seal blood and hair, and in this way rendered tough enough to be used without much drying, for the sun in the Far North does not give sufficient heat for thoroughly drying clay.

Even before pottery was first made it is probable
Navaho carrying basket
A carrying basket
made by Navaho
that the art of weaving was discovered. The first articles woven were baskets of reeds or grass or wicker. As the weavers became more adept they used vegetable fibers for making cloth, and from that it was only a step to using the hair and fur of animals.

Some of the peoples of the Pacific Islands never needed to weave, for they had trees whose inner bark provides a dress material almost ready-made. The natives of Hawaii used the bark of the paper mulberry, out of which they made a material called tapa. The bark was taken off in strips six feet long and two inches wide, and these strips were dried in the sun. When required for use the strips were soaked in water and beaten with a round club on a smooth stone until formed into a kind of felt. The stuff was then dyed. And speaking of clever savage inventions, the Hawaiians were making for themselves waterproof garments long before such things were ever dreamed of in Europe. This they did by soaking their tapa cloth in coconut oil.

In spite, however, of the ease with which bark cloth is made, some of the Polynesian natives do most exquisite hand-weaving. They use filaments of bark split from the hibiscus shrub and weave wonderful robes and sleeping mats. Civilized man has never been able to compete with so-called savages in the perfection of hand weaving. One example with which we are all familiar is the Panama hat, the best of which are so closely woven that they will hold water like a pail.

In order to procure yarn for weaving it was necessary to find means of twisting fibrous substances into rounded strands.

The spindle for spinning is a very old device, and, in its simplest form, was nothing but a rod of wood on which the yarn was wound.

String or binding material of some sort was one of the earliest needs of man, and was obtained from many different sources. In hot countries "coir", a fiber prepared from the outer husk of the coconut, has been used for thousands of years past, but in colder climates the sinews from the legs of the larger animals answered the purpose. These were cleaned and dried; then, when picked over, were ready for use. Twisted together, the short lengths were made into bowstrings, and even to-day Eskimo women use them for sewing together the furs of which they make clothes. The Eskimo woman has no scissors for cutting, but uses a stone or metal knife; her needle is made of bird bone, and, with her thread of sinew, she draws the edges of the skins so firmly together that the garment, when finished, is absolutely watertight. The Eskimo make the most wonderful twine out of rawhide, and they perfectly understand the art of netting. Foot coverings came later than clothes, yet must have been used for a very long time. Tribes who lived in places where thorns were plentiful made themselves sandals of rawhide to protect their feet; others whose homes were in hot desert countries made sandals to save their feet from the burning sand. Others, again, who lived in the Far North, were obliged to invent footgear to save their toes from being frostbitten.

Speaking of boots and shoes brings us to means of travel.

Roads are quite a modern invention, and for ages and ages the pack animal was the only means of conveying weighty goods from one place to another. Yet the sledge must have been invented tens of thousands of years ago, and if we go back to the very dawn of written history we find that wheeled vehicles were in common use. The origin of the wheel is lost in the mists of the past, but even savages understand its principle. It grew, no doubt, from the roller. Mr. Henry Elliott tells how a tribe of Eskimo, who had never before come into touch with civilization, used rollers made of inflated sealskins so as to pull a big canoe up over a shingly beach without damaging its delicate skin. In some such way as this it may well be that the idea of the wheel first came into being.

Man has always been a fighting animal and war taught the early peoples a great deal. It made them invent weapons. From bare fists and stone clubs they went on to spears and sabers with stone blades, and battle-axes. Then, in order to kill at a distance, they invented the boomerang, throwing spears, bows and arrows, and slings. The sling is, perhaps, as ancient a weapon as the bow and arrow. Some tribes were clever enough to invent new weapons, such as the blowgun of the Indians of Guiana, shooting poisoned darts, which is the ancestor of our air gun. Another peculiar weapon is the bolas of the Patagonian Indians. This consists of two stone balls fastened to thongs of rawhide, which are thrown considerable distances, and made to twist round the legs of a wild animal or enemy.

Early man also learned to protect his body with shields and armor. The Mexican Indians wore padded cotton to save their bodies from arrows and spearheads. War also taught bodies of savages to work together, to be obedient to discipline, to fortify their villages, and to signal at a distance. It sharpened their wits in a hundred different ways.

All our modern inventions are merely the savage devices worked out. The match descends from the friction stick with which the savage made fire, the flour mill from the ancient quern, the gun from the blowpipe, while the Eskimo kayak or hunting canoe was the forerunner of the magnificent modern yacht. All these are monuments to forgotten inventors.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman