Society and Solitude "Invention Breeds Invention"

Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Invention Breeds Invention"

Context: Philosophical idealist though he was, Emerson had a great admiration for what man was able to do with the stuff of this life. Emerson was a canny Yankee, as well as a philosopher, and he found his own century to be "an age of tools." He pities earlier generations for not having known all the contrivances which had come into being by his own time. Man's discoveries, such as "steam and galvanism, sulphuric ether and ocean telegraphs, photograph and spectroscope," Emerson says, "open great gates of a future, promising to make the world plastic and to lift human life out of its beggary to a godlike ease and power." He goes on to sound a litany of products and techniques acquired by man during the first three-quarters of the nineteenth century, and he sees the progress mankind is making to be an unfolding of the work of the Deity; he hints that such progress is a better approach to Deity, who seems to be working through mankind. But Emerson warns, later in the essay, that man must be careful lest machinery, which he sees as aggressive, does not begin to use mankind, instead of mankind's using machinery. But, as Emerson sees it, the technical progress is enthralling:

There does not seem any limit to these new informations of the same Spirit that made the elements at first, and now, through man, works them. Art and power will go on as they have done,–will make day out of night, time out of space, and space out of time.
Invention breeds invention. No sooner is the electric telegraph devised than gutta percha, the very material it requires, is found. The aëronaut is provided with gun-cotton, the very fuel he wants for his balloon. When commerce is vastly enlarged, California and Australia expose the gold it needs. When Europe is over-populated, America and Australia crave to be peopled; and so throughout, every chance is timed, as if Nature, who made the lock, knew where to find the key.