Garet Garrett’s article, “The Articles of Progress,” (1934) brings to life what is described in the caption of The Saturday Evening Post as “The World’s Fastest Passenger Train, the Super-Streamlined Zephyr.” Its description of the new train technology as a species was both an intriguing hook and a metaphor for technology as a form of life. Garret defines progress in a number of new and old ways for his time. He compared the locomotive to its predecessor, making arguments for its superiority and for the steam engine to potentially become obsolete. He also reveals a complex relationship between government regulations over a company, when mixed with government lending and profits for both parties. Garrett made several references to the biology of animal species which inspire me to wonder at what future technology might render obsolete.
Garrett compared his time’s new technology of the, “gas-electric locomotive,” with animals and biological forms of life. He wrote, “the advent of a new mechanical species is a sign of change and progress. But a sign only.” This seemed reasonable for the date of the publication, given the train had just made its appearance. Garrett’s use of rhetoric about the form of life and the form of technology are compared as to be made interchangeable. He draws comparison between popular perceptions of railroad technology and lifeforms, in writing, “(railroad) property has at last achieved a permanent form, never to be superseded by a competitive form.” He then makes Darwinian arguments about the new technology’s competition and the old technology’s survival. He aptly predicts that the details of the new technology signal that it will replace the old technology, and lists many good reasons why this may happen, stopping short of calling it inevitable.
According to Garret, something is obsolete when it consumes more than it performs. He compared the new locomotive to the steam train and the extinct mammoth, saying the latter two both consume more than they work, losing more heat than they retain. He compares the forms of older and newer technological systems using the locomotive as an example, in writing, “a gas-electric locomotive makes its own juice, and is self-contained in its own mobility. It is power station, transmission line and motor all in one.” It seems clear from Garrett’s words that he is predicting a shift from localized to mobilized technological forms through natural competition in the market.
Garett’s conception of progress comes in three waves throughout his article. He writes, “The very first term of progress is surplus exertion, meaning all manner of human activity above the level of necessity.” He takes the stance of earlier writers on technology such as Henry George who in 1855 said, “The Industrial Arts are necessary Arts.” Garrett goes on to define progress a second way, writing, “progress is momentum…the output must be continuous and cumulative.” This is an astounding prediction, in light of the 1965 prediction by Moore that circuitry would have to double in efficiency every ten years, only 31 years later. Garrett writes, “Progress is not inevitable.” In doing so he is making a concession to his audience, that there are many reasons to believe the train would not become a success. He also noted the consequences of changing to the new technology, in writing, “There is a price to be paid for progress.” In remarking on the many ways which the new technology might affect society, Garrett puts forth a fair cost and benefit analysis for the public’s consideration.
Garrett revealed the likely-well-known history of the Railroad companies’ lobby efforts and the Government regulations, which had tied the profits of the company to the repayment of the loans from the government to them. Such railroad companies had such a cozy relationship with government that they projected years of increased earnings for both parties, and as Garrett mentions, “they stopped paying off their debt out of earnings.” As the Garrett argues, the bailouts from the government would not be enough to stem the losses of maintaining their infrastructure and rising ticket cost profit strategy.
Garrett all but predicts success for the new locomotive, outlining its every feature and making arguments for their excellence. His predictions seem to make him a visionary for his time. His rhetoric on technology as a species inspire imaginative thoughts about the future of human workers, human society and the forms of technology waiting to replace whole towns or cities perhaps. Will the spaceship render planet earth obsolete altogether, or will there always be a purpose for even the most seemingly insignificant of life’s many forms? I propose that Garrett would agree larger forms are not necessarily better.