Read CROWDS AND MACHINES - CHAPTER VII of Crowds A Moving-Picture of Democracy, free online book, by Gerald Stanley Lee, on


The most distinctively modern thing that ever happened was when Benjamin Franklin went out one day and called down lightning from heaven.  Before that, power had always been dug up, or scraped off the ground.  The more power you wanted the more you had to get hold of the ground and dig for it; and the more solid you were, the more heavy, solid things you could get, the more you could pull solid, heavy things round in this world where you wanted them.  Franklin turned to the sky, and turned power on from above, and decided that the real and the solid and the substantial in this world was to be pulled about by the Invisible.

Copernicus had the same idea, of course, when he fared forth into space, and discovered the centre of all power to be in the sun.  It grieved people a good deal to find how much more important the sky was than they were, and their whole little planet with all of them on it.  The idea that that big blue field up there, empty by day and with such crowds of little faint dots in it all night, was the real thing-the big, final, and important thing-and that they and their churches and popes and pyramids and nations should just dance about it for millions of years like a mote in a sunbeam, hurt their feelings at first.  But it did them good.  It started them looking Up, and looking the other way for power.

Very soon afterward Columbus enlarged upon the same idea by starting the world toward very far things, on the ground; and he bored through the skylines, a thousand skylines, and spread the nations upon the sea.  Columbus was the typical modern man led by the invisible, the intangible; and on the great waters somewhere between Spain and New York, between the old and the new, Columbus discovered the Future Tense, the centrifugal tense, the tense that sweeps in the unknown, and gathers in, out of space, out of hope, out of faith, the lives of men.  The mere fastened-down stable things, the mere actual facts, stopped being the world with Columbus, and the air and the sky began to be swung in, and to be swept through the thoughts and acts of men and of women....  Then miners, mariners, explorers, inventors-the impossible steamship, the railway, the impossible cotton-gin and sewing-machine and reaper, Hoosac tunnels and Atlantic cables.  The impossible became one of the habits of modern life.

Of course the sky and the air and the unknown and the future had been recognized before, but only a little and in a rather patronizing way.  But when a world has made a great, solid continent by following a horizon line, it begins to take things just beyond very seriously.  And so our Time has been fulfilled.  We have had the stone age; we have had the iron age; and now we have the sky age, and the sky telegraph, and sky men, and sky cities.  Mountains of stone are built out of men’s visions, towers and skyscrapers swing up out of their wills and up out of their hearts.

Not long ago, as I was coming away from New York in the Springfield Express, which was running at fifty-five miles an hour, I saw suddenly some smoke coming up apparently out of a satchel on the floor, belonging to the man in the chair in front of me.  I moved the satchel away, and the smoke came up through the carpet.  I spoke to the Pullman conductor who was passing through, and in a second the train had stopped, and the great wild roaring Thing had ceased, and we stood in a long, wide, white silence in the fields.  We got off the car-some of us-to see what had happened, and to see if there was a hot box on the wheels.  We found that the entire underside of the floor of the car was on fire, and what had happened?  Nothing except a new impossibility; nothing except that a human being had invented an electrical locomotive so powerful that it was pulling that train fifty-five miles an hour while the brakes on the car were set-twelve brakes all grinding twenty miles on those twelve wheels; and the locomotive paid no more attention to the brakes of that heavy Pullman than it would to a feather or to a small boy, all the way from New York to Stamford, hanging on behind.  As I came in I looked again at the train-the long dull train that had been pulled along by the Invisible, by the kingdom of the air and the sky-the long, dull, heavy Train!  And the spirit of the far-off sun was in it!

In Count Zeppelin’s new airship the new social spirit has a symbol, and in the gyroscopic train the inspired millionaire is on a firm foundation.  The power of the new kind and new size of capitalist is his power of keeping an equilibrium with the people, and the men of real genius in modern affairs are men who have motor genius and light genius over other men’s wills.  They are allied to the X-ray and the airship, and gain their pre-eminence by their power of forecast and invention-their power of riding upon the unseen, upon the thoughts of men and the spirit of the time.  Even the painters have caught this spirit.  The plein air painters are painting the light, and the sculptors are carving shadows and haloes, and we have not an art left which does not lean out into the Invisible.  And religion is full of this spirit and theosophy and Christian Science.  The playwrights are touched by it; and the action, instead of being all on the stage, is thrown out into the spirit of the audience.  The play in a modern theatre is not on the stage but in the stalls.  Maeterlinck, Ibsen, Shaw, merely use the stage as a kind of magic-lantern or suggestion-centre for the real things that, out behind us in the dark, are happening in the audience.