Wednesday, 23 December 2015

23rd December 1815: 'The Thrashing Machine: A Tale'


Many ages ago, the inhabitants of a large, populous, and opulent island were divided into sects or castes, distinguished from each other by the kind of corn which they grew and consumed. The principal of these were the Wheatites. There were the Oatites, the Barleyites, the Ryeites, and a great many ites, most of them composed of different mixtures of some of the above-mentioned kinds of grain. In these enlightened and liberal-minded times, it will be almost difficult to comprehend and believe, how much animosity subsisted between these different classes of the same community, for no other reason in the world, but because they each chose to grow, and live upon that food, which they believed would the most contribute to health and long life. My intention is not at present to enter into either the cause, the nature, of the effects of these animosities, otherwise the subject might be rendered both instructive and interesting. I shall therefore proceed to the relation and description of what is my more immediate object.

A distinguished and opulent Farmer from amongst the Wheatites, sailed to a far distant country where these islanders had long had a settlement. When there, he could not but notice and be pleased with a very simple machine, which had long been used in country for thrashing corn. The most unskilful person could manage it. It was certainly very rude in its construction, and did not rid much work,—but the Farmer saw at a glance of his "eagle eye," that it was capable of much improvement. With distinguished benevolence, he not only set himself to construct one on an improved plan but, without fear or reward undertook to instruct the natives in the use of it, and for several years continued to assist them in working it. Such was his success that every body who saw it, at once perceived and admired its beauty and utility.

A length he transmitted to his own country a full, clear and correct description of the apparatus, and the effects which it had produced. Strange as it may seem, little notice was taken of his invention by any of his countrymen at home. Not a Wheatite offered to profit by the valuable discovery. When the benevolent Farmer returned to his native island, he had the mystification of learning, that his suggestion had been by his caste totally unnoticed. Having himself for the business which fully engaged his time and attention, he suffered his own discovery to lie totally dormant, and so to this day, in all human probability, would it have lain, for any thing that the Wheatites cared about it. It happened, however, that before the return the Benevolent Farmer, a poor labourer, of the name of Joseph who had all this life been a thasher of corn, happened to see the statement which the Farmer had transmitted home, and being both a shrewd and industrious man, he at once recognized the value of the discovery, and determined to avail himself of it; at the same time he perceived, that it was capable of great extension and improvement.

Joseph was a kind of [illegible] [illegible], not so much inclined to [illegible] as many others; he therefore was not so narrow minded as to stand entirely aloof from those who ate different bread from himself, when he thought, that by joining together, they might benefit each other. He saw that machine might be constructed, and worked at little expence, capable of thrashing much more corn than could be thrashed by the poor, (for he intended it for their use,) of any one caste in any one neighbourhood. The only chance, therefore, which he had of proving the capability of the invention was, to induce the rich of all castes to contribute towards erecting the machine, and the poor of all castes to send their corn to be thrashed by it. This, in these times of christian charity, may be thought not only to be an easy task, but one which would meet with universal approbation and support. Poor Joseph, however, had the prejudices of other times to contend with. At first, notwithstanding these, such was the novelty of the plan, and such its evident utility, that it banished for a time all animosity, and rich and poor, of all castes, joined so heartily in the undertaking, that Joseph had soon more work for his machine than it could do. This, instead of disheartening him, served only to stimulate him to greater exertions; he enlarged his machine, he published an account of its success; the whole island rang with its praises; almost every town in the kingdom were at strife which should erect the first and the best, and they called them by the name of Joseph. The great and the noble of the land patronized him, and even ROYALTY itself visited, [advocated] and encouraged the use of the machine, [illegible] poor Joseph too much for weak human nature to bear without being the worse for it. Joseph’s heart not being devoid of the seeds of vanity,—and this rich manure so abundantly appeared, caused them to grow, and bear leaves, flowers, fruit so abundantly, that the appearance of the meek and humble man was in a great measure hid under their luxuriance. At this good may sigh, the gay may smile, but none but the bad will rejoice. Let him, who could have better withstood such temptations, throw the first stone at poor Joseph, yet the man who could have withstood such flattery, will be among the last to do it.

Now it came to pass, that when the rich Wheatites, and more particularly the great farmers among them, perceived that Joseph’s Thrashing Machines were then spreading through the whole land, that the rich of all castes supported them, and that the poor of all castes sent their corn to be thrashed [illegible], they began to look about and bestir themselves in good earnest, meeting together and saying "if this man be thus suffered to thrash the corn of our poor, we shall have half of them poisoned by their wheat being contaminated with pernicious mixtures,—some scattered grains of oats, or barley, or rye, cannot fail to get in amongst it, and let the other castes say what they will and thrive even better than they do, which is not necessary, we are well assured that no kind of grain is wholesome but pure wheat. If they will thrash for their own poor, we will take care that they do not thrash for ours. Besides, what business have they to use these Trashing Machines at all; much less to call them after the name of a man, who has no more claim to the invention than a thief to his stolen property? Did not our caste invent it, and shall we suffer another to claim the merit, and reap the advantage without asserting in supporting our title to whatever may have arisen from it? So saying they sent, and called the Benevolent Farmer from that useful retirement in which he had almost forgotten that such a machine existed. They told him of the mighty works which he had done. He stared a little at first, but he was soon persuaded,—(for who could not in such a case be soon persuaded)—that he had been the author of all these wonderful things.—They determined to erect Trashing Machines for the thrashing of wheat only, in all parts of the Island, to be called NATIONAL MACHINES; they appointed the Farmer Superintendent of them, and they raised him to great honour and riches.

Now, notwithstanding that Trashing Machines of both kinds were thus very numerous, the island was so fruitful in corn of every kind, that there was more than work sufficient supplied by the poor, for them all. The competition, therefore, was of the greatest advantage—since almost all the poor, of whatever caste, might now have their corn thrashed in an expeditious way for nothing, instead of knocking it on as well as they could themselves, or having it done for them by the old, slow, and expensive method. Thus far, therefore, the effect at least was good, and all might have thrashed away as hard as they could, in peace and harmony with each other, without any fear of wanting employment.

It, however, unfortunately happened, that some of the more opulent farmers amongst the Wheatites were not content to enjoy the advantages which their caste reaped from the greatly improved Machines, unless the whole world would confess that they and they only, had any claim to merit in the discovery and perfecting of the machine. They abused poor Joseph most dreadfully, called him very hard names, and probably, if they had had him fully in their power, might have employed their machines in thrashing something else besides wheat. Nay, they went so far as to affirm that all the alterations which he had made in the machine, were calculated to spoil it; wherefore they did all in their power to turn the whole into ridicule; and they determined, that not a nail, a screw, or a wheel in theirs, should resemble Joseph’s machine. They asserted, that the latter were without exception coarsely and clumsily put together; that the power was ill applied, and that many parts were introduced for no other purpose than to attract attention and produce surprise. They affirmed, that the oil used was not only injudiciously administered, but that it was in itself bad and unfit for the purpose.—They asserted, that these machines did not perform their work well, but that in spite of all the care they could take, each kind of flour would contract and retain a flavour of some of the others. The corn, they said, was too much agitated in passing through the machine, jumping about from side to side, kicking up a very great and unnecessary dust, in short, they affirmed that poor Joseph was more fitted for exhibiting dancing automata at a country fair, than for being the manager and conductor of a machine, which required the greatest solidity of judgment, with the most unwearying perseverance.

How much of this was true the account from which I have drawn this statement does not proceed to state; it however does affirm, that the Wheatites were not, in this instance, altogether actuated by those pure and disinterested motives which in our happier times prevail. Neither does the accounts go on to state the final result of this conduct in the Wheatites; perhaps it was written during the contest, and before the issue could be known. We, however, in these latter days, who have had more experience, and have, moreover, the happiness and the privilege to live in an age, when brotherly love so much more abundantly prevails amongst all sects, parties and classes, shall feel no hesitation in condemning and stating our conviction of the mischievous consequences of such unchristian conduct. We, supposing ourselves the place of the Wheatites, should no doubt have felt and acted very differently. We should have seen and acknowledged that each of the rival candidates had his respective share of merit.—We should have rejoiced in the success of our rivals in the good cause, as well as in our own.—We should have strenuously supported our own machine, without derogating from the advantages of theirs:—nay we should have been happy, whenever they had hit upon any improvement, to adopt it, as well as to have furnished them with any useful idea which had suggested itself to us. Thus should we have gone on in love and charity together, mutually encouraging and assisting each other in the good work. Let us not, however, too severely condemn the errors of men who have prejudices of time country, station and self  interest to combat, which, probably, under all the same circumstances, we might not have been able to overcome. Let us, therefore, be thankful but not censorious.


This article was published in the Leeds Mercury of 23rd December 1815.

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