Ministry of Invention
“There’s nothing left to invent.”
The group of men sat around the long table drinking char fell silent at that comment. They all turned to look at the speaker, Professor Griffith.
“Really?” replied Regis Lewin, another one of the senior scientists. “And tell me then, Professor, why are we here if all our work has been done?”
Griffith gulped a draught of char, it scalded the back of his throat and he tried not to splutter as he marshalled his thoughts. Around him he could see the eager anticipation on the faces, he had dared to say what some people in the realms of power thought and now would have to justify it. There were many incredulous looks. After all, their continued employment depended in no small part in his being wrong.
“I merely mean that to my mind the major advances have been made. We control the land and the seas with steam and clockwork, we use the resources of the planet to our advancement and our race is supreme.”
Lewin nodded, this view was not uncommon, especially when the government was short of money. With the cost of the recent wars, money was short and the talk was of savings. Griffith was known to be well connected; maybe he was toeing the official line.
“So you see our work as tinkering around the edges then, of minor improvements to things already known.”
“Yes, sir. I do. We perfect the discoveries of our fathers.”
Lewin tried another tack. “There are new sciences are there not, which may reveal themselves in whole new directions.”
“They will all fall into the great scheme of things in time.”
“And what of the things that we cannot do now, such as fly?”
Griffith snorted. “Flight is one of those things that we will never master, in my opinion.”
There was an intake of breath from the others in the group. These were all men who were somehow involved in resolving the problems of powered flight. Balloons were a halfway point in the process; primitive engines had been tested in them. Griffith was pushing his luck suggesting that all this work was in vain. Or perhaps he had heard of bad news coming.
“And even if it were,” said Mollis, joining the conversation, “who knows what else we may discover, you have no doubt heard of serendipity.”
Mollis was a renowned man, he could be said to be the father of pressure dynamics. If anyone could solve the problems of powered flight it would be him. Griffith said nothing; his look of disdain showed his views on that.
“And what of statics?” There was a gasp around the table. Trevor had spoken up. Statics was a new branch of science which was little understood. It concerned the behaviour of magnets and wires and some strange forces that they produced under certain conditions.
“A diversion,” said Griffith confidently, “a sideshow with no potential. It’s true that there are some interesting effects but they cannot be reproduced reliably.”
“And do you not think that warrants further study?”
“It will fall into place but I doubt it to be of much use. The forces involved are so small that they could never do the work of a steam engine.”
There was much nodding at that, and even Lewin had to concede the point. Just then the hooter sounded.
Their break over, the scientists returned to their individual tasks, Lewin was working on a problem in fluid mechanics but found it hard to concentrate. He was irritated by the lack of ambition shown by the professor. In his day Griffith had been a leading light, many everyday objects were the result of his ideas but lately, his inventing muscles had atrophied.
He watched as the water passed over the rotating propeller, small particles suspended in it showed the flow of water over the blades. He knew that the motion of the propeller pushed the water backwards and the ship forwards but he wanted to understand why increasing the power did not increase the speed. He modified the angle of the blades to the drive shaft and tried again. He had been doing this for several days; perhaps Griffith was right, the limits of understanding were being reached. Finding this test gave no better results than the last he stopped the shaft and removed the propeller. Removing one blade he lifted it up to the light and cursed as water ran up his arm. He looked at the blades’ flat surfaces.
“What you got there, sir?” The voice came from the char seller, astride her clockwork cart. He had been so engrossed in the blade that he hadn’t heard her arrival.
“It’s nothing,” he replied. “I’m just stuck on a problem. A cup if you please”
The lady dismounted and fiddled with her urn. “You need to clear your mind, sir. My old man says you should go and do something different and put it out of your mind. The answer will come to you if you distract yourself.”
She was kind and Lewin was not rude, but he wanted her gone so he could think. Manners made him carry on the conversation.
“And how pray does he put it out of his mind?” he asked.
“Well,” she replied, “he goes for a dip in the sea, the cold and the exertion forces other thoughts from his head.” She paused. “He has to clear his mind to all but trying not to drown himself,” she finished with a laugh.
“I see,” said Lewin, not noticing the humour in her voice. “And is he at danger of drowning then?”
“Oh no, sir. He is a good swimmer, the fastest in our hamlet.” She passed him the char in its Ministry cup.
“Thank you,” said Lewin.
As the seller climbed back on her seat she threw him a parting comment. “He reckons his bald head goes through the water faster than his mates with their fancy hair.” The cart whirred into life and disappeared down the corridor.
Lewin had a sudden thought, bald heads were curved, perhaps if one side of the propeller blades were curved it would be more efficient.
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