In the House of Lords it was condemned by the Duke of Wellington in the strongest way as an imprudent and half-crazy proposal which could only end in heavy loss to the revenue, without doing any particular good to anybody. But the Duke's bark was often worse than his bite; and in this instance he announced, that as the Government had evidently set their hearts on this absurd scheme, he felt compelled to advise the House of Lords to throw the responsibility of failure on the shoulders of her Majesty's Ministers and let the measure pass into law. In the House of Commons, so great a financier and so enlightened a statesman as Sir Robert Peel was found to condemn the Government proposal, on the ground of the immense loss it must entail on the revenue. The Bill became law; and the measure worked so well in practice, that at the opening of January, 1840, the postage was fixed at one penny for every letter not more than half an ounce in weight, delivered in the United Kingdom. So immediate was the effect of the cheap postage upon the correspondence of the country, that while in 1839, the last year of the old-fashioned postage rate, the number of letters delivered in Great Britain and Ireland was hardly more than eighty-two millions, including more than five millions and a half of franked letters which paid nothing to the national revenue, in 1875, more than a thousand millions of letters were delivered in Great Britain and Ireland, and the population in the meantime had not nearly doubled itself. It need hardly be said, that the principle of Sir Rowland Hill's reform has since been adopted in every civilised country all over the world. Ever since his scheme was put into operation we have had continual alterations, either of the rate of charge or of the weight to be carried for the reduced charge, or of both together.
International Conventions have been held, again and again, with the object of reducing and equalising the postal rate. There has been a generous rivalry among all countries to bring down the charge for the delivery of letters to the lowest possible amount. For years and years there were varying scales of charge for the transmission of letters between England and her own Colonies, not to say between England and foreign countries. Now we can send a letter, not exceeding four ounces in weight, to any part of Great Britain and Ireland for one penny; and we can send a letter, not exceeding half an ounce in weight, that is to say, an ordinary four-page letter, to almost any part of the globe, at a charge of twopence halfpenny. There can be little doubt that before long Sir Rowland Hill's dream, as people once thought it, of an inter-oceanic post at the cost of a penny stamp will become a reality. Long after the enthusiasm about Hill's scheme had died away, there were men like the late Elihu Burritt, the American philanthropist and reformer, who pressed for an inter-oceanic penny post and failed to see their wishes accomplished in their time. We may safely assume now, that before long we shall be able to send a letter from London to San Francisco, or from London to Sydney, at the same rate of postal charge as that which Rowland Hill was thought a madman for trying to apply to letters sent from one part of the United Kingdom to the other.
The developments of science have in many ways made even the reform in the postal system seem poor and prosaic by comparison. The telegraph system began to expand almost at the same time with the popularisation of travel by steamships and railways. At first, the communication by telegraph only applied to messages sent from one part of an island or a continent to another, or at most to messages despatched across narrow channels of sea. But there came a time when an enterprising American, the late Mr. Cyrus W. Field, a business man rather than a scientific man, started a project for laying a telegraph cable across the bed of the Atlantic. Most of us can remember the interest, the eagerness, the hope, the doubt, the incredulity, the curiosity with which the progress of this scheme was followed; how the cable was laid at last under the waves of the Atlantic, and messages were transferred at lightning speed from New York to London and from London to New York; and how the messages suddenly ceased and the cable was silent. Then it was found that the great wire had parted in the bed of the ocean; and a new expedition had to be fitted out to seek for the severed strands of the cable and to knit them together; and at last, on July 27, 1866, the Atlantic telegraph became the complete success over which we have all now forgotten to wonder. Then there followed, as a matter of course, systems of communication connecting by land and by ocean the countries of Europe with China and Japan, with Melbourne and Sydney, with the Cape of Good Hope and the islands of the Pacific. Scientific men have all the time been experimenting in schemes which should accomplish a telegraphic intercommunication without even the need of the connecting wires and cables; and only a rash man indeed could venture to say that such experiments are not destined to achieve any success. Then we have the telephone brought by the inventive genius of Mr.
Herbert Spencer. 1820-.
Edison and other men to such a system of practical working order that people in their offices, in every civilised country, can enter into conversation with friends or agents hundreds of miles away. All this, if it could have been talked of seventy years ago, would have seemed but the extravagance of a frenzied imagination, far surpassing that which ever inspired the poet's most fantastic dream. There are other wonders, of course, in the development of modern science - wonders that work in the remedy of pain, in the healing of disease, in the production of rays which enable the surgeon to see through to the injured bone of his patients; these and other marvels of applied science, not less surprising or less beneficial in their way than anything that has been accomplished by steam and wire and ocean cable and the tube of the telephone. But we have been dealing only with these latter wonders, and make no pretence at anything like a comprehensive description of what science has done for the world in these later days. We have only, then, to ask our readers to consider what they think our old friend Doctor Johnson, if we may refer to him once more, would have said, had he been told that the Englishmen of a few generations to come could leave Liverpool on one Saturday and breakfast in New York the Saturday after; could send a message from New York to his friends in England to assure them of his safe arrival, which message would only take a few minutes in its transmission; could talk from London with a friend in Edinburgh at something like the ordinary rate of persons conversing in the same room; and would have a postal system which could take letters all over the world at a cost of twopence halfpenny, and would by reason of its very cheapness make the Post Office one of the best paying departments of the State. Nearly all these great changes have come to pass during the present reign; and the strange thing about them is that they came not gradually and slowly, but all at once, flooding the world with a new and sudden dawn, which had given hardly any preliminary rays to herald its emerging from the darkness. The world had travelled at the same rate of speed, and sent its communications at the same rate of speed, for thousands of years, during which science, in some form or other, was working; during which, intellect and imagination had reached a height that can never be surpassed; and yet it was reserved for the early years of the second quarter of the present century to see the sudden growth which we have been endeavouring to describe. Perhaps no other phenomenon quite equally strange is to be noted in the history of the world.