Wednesday, October 22, 2008

'The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth' by Steven Stoll

On a fall afternoon in 1845, 800 members of the Tropical Emigration Society gathered on a field outside Oxford, England, to see their future in action. Specifically, they were there to see the prototype of a great machine -- "The Satellite," they called it -- that promised to generate "infinite wealth" and reinvent society. Roughly the size of two shipping containers placed side-by-side, this wheeled iron vehicle was self-propelled by 12 built-in windmills and could theoretically clear, sow, plow and harvest up to 70 acres at a time. It would deliver those assembled from their sorry lives of toil.

That, at least was the idea. As Steven Stoll, a professor of history at Fordham University, writes in "The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth," when the iron beast "lumbered into its public trial with all the spooky expectation and mystical excitement of a séance," it had no chance of actually working, not "in a million years." Indeed, the Satellite was so flawed a conception that even the prototype -- at half scale and powered by a steam engine -- "bridled against its ropes and clawed against the ground" to no avail. Its inventor had not properly calculated the effects of friction or the weight of his machine.

That man was John Adolphus Etzler, and he was not on hand to witness the failure of his brainchild. The German-born visionary was already far across the globe, scouting a Venezuelan paradise where the society's willing emigrants could plant themselves anew, their every need supplied by his mechanical wonder. More than 200 dreamers were deluded enough to follow him, nevermind the botched demonstration. An article in the Morning Star, the house organ of the society, promised a life of leisure in an Eden where "there is no disease, no such thing as coughs or colds." That naivete -- Etzler's, theirs -- was astonishing. Of the first 41 settlers to reach the tropics, 15 died within five months. A colonial report, written in the fiasco's aftermath, declared, "never, probably, did any body of European immigrants . . . find themselves in such a state of destitution and unmitigated misery."

Etzler's charisma was powerful, even if it wore off quickly. Stoll describes him as "a practical man of science with an intense and distant gaze who claimed that he could unify physics and economy, turn sunshine into money." Of course, he couldn't do any of those things. The son of a German cobbler, he came under the spell of the philosopher Hegel, who suggested that America was the "land of the future." In 1831, he joined forces with another Hegelian with radical ideas, a young engineer named John Roebling, to lead followers across the Atlantic to establish a colony. The partnership didn't even last the trip. Etzler's ego was too large to share leadership. As a practical man of science, he was vastly inferior to Roebling, who went on to design the Brooklyn Bridge.

No comments: