In 1820, while ten thousand steam engines were developing a force of 200,000 horsepower in England, there were barely a hundred in France, where Denis Papin was born. This comparison can give an idea of the advance taken by English industry.
The movement did not even occur in France until 1850. It has accelerated to the point where our steam engines now number one hundred thousand, developing 7 million horsepower.
In spite of the experimental discoveries of scientists, headed by the names of Sadi Carnot and Victor Regnault, the successive improvements due to engineers and the daily progress of construction, the margin that still separates practice from theory can be measured by the fact that the power output of steam engines only reaches one tenth of the total energy produced by the combustion of coal.
Oil engines, of recent application, already present advantages which will undoubtedly only increase.
Gas engines, which are invaluable in small-scale industry, are on the way to bringing about profound economic changes in large-scale industry, by using blast furnace gases, which have hitherto been unused.
Water turbines, using natural forces, are also set to play an increasingly important role.
These various engines, distributed in the Palace of Electricity and in the Palace of Mechanics, some huge and rather slow, others small and all the more rapid, developed their powerful and silent movements. From this absence of noise, indicating the perfection of the workmanship, from this stable immobility of the mass framing the agitation of the organs, there was a quiet sensation of strength. They were no longer blind and fearsome monsters, but wise instruments under the hand of the man who knew how to operate them.
Whatever the origin of manufacture, French or foreign, an intelligent concern for the decoration made the brass shine and the polished steel gleam; the roughness of the rough surfaces of the cast iron was softened.
This care is not a vain luxury; a man becomes attached to his tool if he honours it by its good behaviour. In the absence of art, which would be out of place here, the cleanliness of the workshop is essentially moralizing.
Machine tools have a double mission: they multiply the result and reduce fatigue. In the galleries of the Exhibition and in the American annex of Vincennes, one could see them lending themselves to the most varied tasks, surprising especially in the manufacture of small objects, like needles.
Mechanics have arrived at movements of a flexibility equal to human action, but more regular and more constant. Without mentioning machines with infinite complications, certain tools, fulfilling a modest mission of friction, gave the impression of a living hand to the point of obsession.
The workers looked at these instruments with grateful attention. The time has passed when the introduction of mechanical work caused rebellion. Today it is considered by those primarily concerned as a reduction in fatigue and a reason for an increase in salary, a double expression of social progress.
©L'Exposition du Siècle - 1900