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Dec. 8, 1759.
IN questions of general concern, there is no law of government, or rule of decency, that forbids open examination and publick discussion. I shall, therefore, not betray, by a mean apology, that right which no man has power, and, I suppose, no wise man has desire to refuse me; but shall consider the letter published by you last Friday, in defence of Mr. M-'s' design for a new bridge. Mr. M― proposes elliptical arches. It has been objected, that elliptical arches are weak; and, therefore, improper for a bridge of commerce, in a country where greater weights are ordinarily carried by land, than, perhaps, in any other part of the world. That there is an elliptical bridge at Florence is allowed, but the objectors maintain, that its stability is so much doubted, that carts are not permitted to pass over it.
To this no answer is made, but that it was built for coaches; and if it had been built for carts, it would have been made stronger: thus all the controvertists agree, that the bridge is too weak for carts; and it is of little importance, whether carts are prohibited, because the bridge is weak, or whether the architect, knowing that carts were prohibited, voluntarily constructed a weak bridge. The instability of the elliptical arch has been sufficiently proved by argument, and Ammanuti's attempt has proved it by example.
The iron rail, whether gilt or varnished, appears to me unworthy of debate. I suppose every judicious eye will discern it to be minute and trifling, equally unfit to make a part of a great design, whatever be its colour. I shall only observe how little the writer understands his own positions, when he recommends it to be cast in whole pieces from pier to pier. That iron forged is stronger than iron cast, every smith can inform him; and if it be cast in large
* Mr. Milne.
pieces, the fracture of a single bar must be repaired by a new piece.
The abrupt rise, which is feared from firm circular arches, may be easily prevented, by a little extension of the abutment at each end, which will take away the objection, and add almost nothing to the expense.
The whole of the argument in favour of Mr. Monly, that there is an elliptical bridge at Florence, and an iron balustrade at Rome; the bridge is owned to be weak, and the iron balustrade we consider as mean, and are loath that our own country should unite two follies in a publick work.
The architrave of Perrault, which has been pompously produced, bears nothing but its entablature; and is so far from owing its support to the artful section of the stone, that it is held together by cramps of iron; to which I am afraid Mr. M- - must have recourse, if he persists in his ellipsis, or, to use the words of his vindicator, forms his arch of four segments of circles drawn from four different
That Mr. Mobtained the prize of the architecture at Rome, a few months ago, is willingly confessed; nor do his opponents doubt that he obtained it by deserving it. May he continue to obtain whatever he deserves; but let it not be presumed that a prize granted at Rome, implies an irresistible degree of skill. The competition is only between boys, and the prize, given to excite laudable industry, not to reward consummate excellence. Nor will the suffrage of the Romans much advance any name among those who know, what no man of science will deny, that architecture has, for some time, degenerated at Rome to the lowest state, and that the pantheon is now deformed by petty decorations.
I am, Sir, yours, &c.
Dec. 15, 1759.
IT is the common fate of erroneous positions, that they are betrayed by defence, and obscured by explanation; that their authors deviate from the main question into incidental disquisitions, and raise a mist where they should let in light.
Of all these concomitants of errours, the letter of Dec. 10, in favour of elliptical arches, has afforded examples. A great part of it is spent upon digressions. The writer allows, that the first excellence of a bridge is undoubtedly strength but this concession affords him an opportunity of telling us, that strength, or provision against decay, has its limits; and of mentioning the monument and cupola, without any advance towards evidence or argument.
The first excellence of a bridge is now allowed to be strength; and it has been asserted, that a semi-ellipsis has less strength than a semicircle. To this he first answers, that granting this position for a moment, the semi-ellipsis may yet have strength sufficient for the purposes of commerce. This grant, which was made but for a moment, needed not to have been made at all; for, before he concludes his letter, he undertakes to prove, that the elliptical arch must, in all respects, be superiour in strength to the semicircle. For this daring assertion he made way by the intermediate paragraphs, in which he observes, that the convexity of a semi-ellipsis may be increased at will to any degree that strength may require; which is, that an elliptical arch may be made less elliptical, to be made less weak; or that an arch, which, by its elliptical form, is superiour in strength to the semicircle, may become almost as strong as a semicircle, by being made almost semicircular.
That the longer diameter of an ellipsis may be shortened, till it shall differ little from a circle, is indisputably true; but why should the writer forget the semicircle differs as little from such an ellipsis? It seems that the difference, whether small or great, is to the advantage of the semi
circle; for he does not promise that the elliptical arch, with all the convexity that his imagination can confer, will stand without cramps of iron, and melted lead, and large stones, and a very thick arch; assistances which the semicircle does not require, and which can be yet less required by a semi-ellipsis, which is, in all respects, superiour in strength.
Of a man who loves opposition so well, as to be thus at variance with himself, little doubt can be made of his contrariety to others; nor do I think myself entitled to complain of disregard from one, with whom the performances of antiquity have so little weight; yet, in defiance of all this contemptuous superiority, I must again venture to declare, that a straight line will bear no weight; being convinced, that not even the science of Vasari can make that form strong which the laws of nature have condemned to weakness. By the position, that a straight line will bear nothing, is meant, that it receives no strength from straightness; for that many bodies, laid in straight lines, will support weight by the cohesion of their parts, every one has found, who has seen dishes on a shelf, or a thief upon the gallows. It is not denied, that stones may be so crushed together by enormous pressure on each side, that a heavy mass may safely be laid upon them; but the strength must be derived merely from the lateral resistance; and the line, so loaded, will be itself part of the load.
The semi-elliptical arch has one recommendation yet unexamined: we are told, that it is difficult of execution. Why difficulty should be chosen for its own sake, I am not able to discover; but it must not be forgotten, that, as the convexity is increased, the difficulty is lessened; and I know not well, whether this writer, who appears equally ambitious of difficulty, and studious of strength, will wish to increase the convexity for the gain of strength, or to lessen it for the love of difficulty.
The friend of Mr. M, however he may be mistaken in some of his opinions, does not want the appearance of reason, when he prefers facts to theories; and that I may
not dismiss the question without some appeal to facts, I will borrow an example, suggested by a great artist, and recommended to those who may still doubt which of the two arches is the stronger, to press an egg first on the ends, and then upon the sides.
I am, Sir, yours, &c.
SOME THOUGHTS ON AGRICULTURE,
BOTH ANCIENT AND MODERN,
With an account of the honour due to an English farmer §.
AGRICULTURE, in the primeval ages, was the common parent of traffick; for the opulence of mankind then consisted in cattle, and the product of tillage, which are now very essential for the promotion of trade in general, but more particularly so to such nations as are most abundant in cattle, corn, and fruits. The labour of the farmer gives employment to the manufacturer, and yields a support for the other parts of the community: it is now the spring which sets the whole grand machine of commerce in motion; and the sail could not be spread without the assistance of the plough. But though the farmers are of such utility in a state, we find them, in general, too much disregarded among the politer kind of people in the present age; while we cannot help observing the honour that antiquity has always paid to the profession of the husbandman; which naturally leads us into some reflections upon that occasion.
Though mines of gold and silver should be exhausted, and the specie made of them lost; though diamonds and pearls should remain concealed in the bowels of the earth, and the womb of the sea; though commerce with strangers
From the Universal Visiter, for February, 1756, p. 59.-Smart, the poet, had a considerable hand in this miscellany. The very first sentence, however, may convince any reader that Dr. Johnson did not write these Thoughts: they are inserted here merely as an introduction to the Further Thoughts, which follow, and which are undoubtedly his.