The Useful Man


We have scientific writers of several kinds, and their number is continually increasing; there is no harm in that, but their studies are mainly directed to form theorists capable of ordering workmen, but unable to put their own hands to the work. Banish to their country seats the most celebrated engineers, and they will be as embarrassed to perform the smallest thing for themselves, as our statesmen, magistrates, professors, poets, painters, and wealthy merchants.

If a lamp leaks, a coffee-pot is broken, a screw lost, a lock damaged, or a chair on three legs—and for a thousand other petty trifles—they must send to the neighboring town. If it is an emergency, a messenger on horseback must be dispatched, with perhaps a kettle round his neck, and a couple of watering-pots in his hand: there is no poor Robinson Crusoe to be found in these oases of luxury and indigence.

There is, therefore, wanting a class of men who have a slight knowledge, not enough to manufacture but sufficient to repair every thing,—who can place a little solder on this place, a little glue on that; clean their employer’s gun or watch; forge a bolt, take down a stove, bore a hole and fit in a screw, patch up a valuable piece of porcelain, and adjust a hand organ; who can give one blow with a hammer and another on a flute; bend a piece of wire, and tie up a bell rope; saw off the end of a plank, plane a little off the door, make a shovel-full of mortar, mix up a little plaster, lay a coating of color on a wall, and take out a spot of it on your coat,—in short, who can frame a picture, prevent a chimney from smoking, varnish a piece of furniture, and, in case of necessity, put a shoe on a horse, &c. &c.

In our society of imbeciles, each of these things requires a particular workman, who must be sent for several times, and who only troubles himself with what concerns his own trade and nothing else. What a heap of bills and accounts at the end of the year—they are never done coming in.

While the workmen whisper to one another, “what an awkward helpless set of fellows these rich men are—obliged to run after us to open a trunk, splice a rope, make a hole in a strap, join a hoop, put a pin in the wheel of a child’s coach and a tail to the kite. All those great men who make laws, and do not know how to work with their ten fingers, can teach us nothing.”

“I have seen some who do not know the difference between tin and lead—between gum arabic and gum lac; they take iron pyrites for silver ore, oats for wheat, and do not know how the bread they eat is made. I have heard of one, who, wishing to instruct his son, attached to an embassy, said to him, ‘You see that big tree, that is a poplar, pine boards are made out of it.’”

“And yet they always have a book in their hand, and send their children to school up to twenty years of age. What in heavens name can they learn there? They must be very thick-headed not to know as much as we who have never learnt anything. It is not for want of time, for they do not know what to do with themselves all day.”

These are the very natural expressions of work-people among themselves; but let us return to our “Useful Man”. Is it possible that a man of this kind would not be valuable on a gentleman’s country-seat—that he would not be sought after and paid the same as a good cook?

Well, any young countryman that knows how to read, write, and cypher would require, at the utmost, two years at a special school to learn to do all the repairing that we have mentioned, and much more. Five days passed in the workshop of a turner, cabinet-maker, smith, locksmith, tinman, glazier, plumber, sadler, frame maker, &c., would be sufficient, with a few explanations, and receipts written in a memorandum book to enable him to mend any thing belonging to the above trades.

A fortnight passed with a clock-maker, gunsmith, and lamp maker, would give him an insight into the fabrication of arms, watches, lamps, locks, and principal tools of each of these trades. Some lessons of common drawing, given at school between the visits to the workshops, would complete the education of the useful man.

A workshop could be set apart for him in the house; the tools would not be expensive—a small joiners bench, a vise, a few files, pincers, and chisels, a plane, hammer, saw, and soldering iron, some screw taps, a small anvil, ditto furnace, and a grindstone; add to these a glaziers diamond, a hand drill, some bottles of oil, varnish, and acid, a little mastic and wax, a glue pot, and a few pieces of tin and brass wire, and you have the entire fittings of the useful mans workshop, which his employer will very soon be willing to augment by the addition of a lathe, a small forge, and a galvanic battery, with some crucibles and porcelain vessels.

There would thus be completed, insensibly, as occasion presented, a country workshop, which would be the delight of the owner, to whom all these nick-knacks of handicraft are a sealed secret, and who, in a short time, would become an inventor like his useful man. This latter would be the favorite of the children, for he would mend their little balloons, little wagons, and little mills; the favorite of the old folks, whose spectacles he would repair; the favorite of the cook, for he could tinker up her pans, and fresh solder the coffee-pot; the favorite of the lady, because he could mend her fan and make the drawers of the cabinet to slide in smoothly; the favorite of the neighbors, who would be ready to have him to dinner, to put a string to the piano, arrange the French clock, and see what is the matter with the pump.

In fact, I can assure you that the useful man would be the envy of the township, provided he knows neither Latin nor algebra, and reads no political papers,—if he does this, he will be like every body else, and the best thing that can be done will be to give him a letter of recommendation to your nearest neighbor. There would be a vast exportation of useful men to the Brazils, Peru, and Mexico, every hacienda would like to have one; they would be the preservers, the civilizers of the new world; the Russian boyard would contend for them with the Spanish hidalgo; the Hungarian magnates with the Turkish pachas, and perhaps the Chinese mandarin with the Indian nabob.

The useful man would be the necessary link in the chain that ought connect the man of science and the daily workman, for he would lay one hand on the theory and the other on the practice, and would often take the place of the two.

Translated from “L’Invention

Scientific American – November 20, 1852

—Jeff Burks

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10 Responses to The Useful Man

  1. Reblogged this on Paleotool's Weblog and commented:
    Some thoughts on a “useful man” from 1852. Possibly the best thing I’ve read this year.
    “The useful man would be the necessary link in the chain that ought connect the man of science and the daily workman, for he would lay one hand on the theory and the other on the practice, and would often take the place of the two.”

  2. Great piece of writing.

    I count NINE drawknives in the photo. Was the photo taken at a local Cracker Barrel?

  3. Ryan McNabb says:

    That shaving horse is right out of Drew Langsner’s book on green woodworking. I built the same one myself. That’s a lovely little shop, wherever it is, apparently at a museum if you can go by the wire separating fence on the left.

  4. Eric R says:

    Really enjoy your entries Jeff.
    I appreciate your efforts.
    Just wanted you to know.
    Thanks a bunch.
    central Florida

  5. Eric R says:

    By far one of my favorites.
    So true and obvious but lost in today’s society.

  6. One not knows the truth in blood of that essay as do I and any who applied their crafts in that manor. I, in my prime, sat down with therapists and neurosurgeons to discuss the customized seating needs of pediatrics for wheelchairs. I was told what they desired to accomplish, then I had to pick a frame to modify, cut and shape from raw material the wood or synthetic material to be used, different density foams and gels, design patterns for the cover materials, sew the covers, design and make headrests, support harnesses, padded straps, and yes even restraints in extreme situations. Apply different hardware for appropriate application and when, and many a time needed, fabricate or invent whatever was necessary to accomplish the task of protecting that precious fragile child. Once all was built, adjusted, and fitted to that child and all my labor of love would itself become the center of attention, was deemed a success by those learned folk, then, and only then, would the most rewarding sense of accomplishment and fulfillment wrap around me and flood my soul with the warmth of comfort shining in that child’s eyes, I would shadow the limelight while mine were silently tearing with joy. Those days are past. Now all is mass produced, one unidentifiable piece after another, assembled methodically by machine or hands assigned from 9 to 5, disconnected and removed from the intended end user, never to sense that deserved love of hands-on accomplishment nor the eyes of that child. I am of a bygone age not unlike that shop pictured. I am the spirit whose hand is on every tool, whose sweat is the smell of those timbers, whose sight is the light that shows the dust of undisturbed ages through the window, the sound of my life is now the silence that fills that room.

  7. Great article truer today than when it was written. I have always said that if everyone is to be “educated” who will make the books and pencils?

  8. Andy in Germany says:

    In ‘the useful Man’ I recognise what I was aiming for when I started taking a Cabinet Makers apprenticeship. Unfortunately outside of the college the whole focus was to train me to operate machines, to make cheap disposable furniture out of chipboard. I resisted throughout and now I’m looking for ways to continue building a way of life that I want…

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