Thoughts from the Drawing Room
Eric P. Nichols
I picked a piece of lint from my smoking jacket, and ducked into Nigel’s library. A few other members of the club were already present, and politely acknowledged my arrival.
Nigel put his hand on my shoulder and gently directed me to the bar. “Might I interest you in some Absinthe, Frederick?”
I shook my head. “I’ve heard that’s some vile-tasting stuff.”
Nigel laughed. “After the first one, you won’t even notice the taste, I assure you.”
“I...uh...see,” I said, skeptically.
Nigel, sensing my malaise, laughed again, and waved his hand. “We’re all free-thinkers here; of course you’re free not to partake. Let’s have a seat, shall we?”
I made my way toward the semicircle of chairs arrayed about a large slate board on an easel in the midst of the den, and took my customary seat, the third one from the anti-clockwise end. I retrieved my Meerschaum pipe from the hip pocket of my smoking jacket and lit up.
On the slate board, in Nigel’s immaculate hand, was printed in off-white chalk, “Necessity is the Mother of Invention.”
Nigel took his customary stance to the left of the slate board. He took his rubber tipped pointer and rapped on the top of the slate board.
“Gentlemen, I would propose to you that this statement is unmitigated balderdash.” He paused a moment for us to consider his words. He continued.
Can anyone present identify a modern convenience that at one time wasn’t a mere curiosity? Perhaps the simple result of an experiment having gone awry? Consider the photograph, the telegraph, the gas-light, the railroad.”
“Or Absinthe!” Carlton chimed in, raising his glass.
“Here, Here!” responded several club members in chorus.
“Or Absinthe,” Nigel repeated, warmly. He took a sip from his own glass and continued.
“You see, bad philosophy creates bad thinking. If we are to shackle ourselves with such outdated platitudes...no, no, not merely outdated, but patently wrong...we place ourselves at the risk of stifling all creativity. It is a misuse of brainpower to merely focus on existing problems. For there will always be problems. For every problem we solve, another problem will present itself; and we have really learnt nothing.
To obtain genuine knowledge, we have to look at the principle of the thing. We have to look at it during a time of peace and stability. Emergencies result in timely solutions, but not timeless solutions. The problem with timely solutions is that they become obsolete when their time has passed.”
The ensuing silence in the room seemed to indicate that Nigel’s words were well received. I, myself, could find no direct fault in what he had to say. However, in order to foment further discussion, I decided to play devil’s advocate. I took a deep draught of my pipe.
“Nigel. For the sake of argument, let’s look particularly at the telegraph. I will agree that it was a mere laboratory curiosity not too long ago. I can also agree that in 1750, nobody needed, as it were, the telegraph. Although, I’m certain, it would have been nice, and might even have resulted in quite a different outcome with respect to the Colonies...a moot point now, I’m sure.”
My colleagues got a good laugh out of the latter part of my assertion, so I continued.
“But, all of us here know fairly precisely how the telegraph works; it’s not such a mystery, any more. It has achieved a good level of sophistication, and most of those improvements have come about because of blatantly commercial interests, not curiosity. And look what that has achieved. We have communications at the speed of lightning; we’ve achieved the ultimate in human development, much of it having come about by crass materialism, if not emergency.”
Several of my fellow clubbers nodded in quiet agreement.
Nigel took another sip of his Absinthe. “The ultimate in human development, you say? I have heard that in America, they’ve been toying with wireless telegraphy.”
“Wireless!” Carlton laughed, rising to his feet, his Absinthe sloshing onto the polished hardwood floor. “Fairy tales and alchemy, I say!” He fell to his seat in paroxysms of laughter. Soon, the entire club was engulfed with such knee-slapping and uproar, save for myself, that Nigel despaired that he should ever regain control. Eventually, the cacophony subsided as the clubbers ran out of steam, if not derision.
Nigel rapped on the slate board with his pointer, restoring a semblance of order. “Why does it seem that Frederick is the only one present who is not overcome with such a spirit of skepticism? Aren’t we all free thinkers?”
Carlton sheepishly seemed to accept Nigel’s rebuke, though not entirely.
“My apologies, Nigel. But we’ve all heard these wireless rumors for nigh unto a decade. What has it produced? Absolutely nothing. Mark my word, this wireless nonsense will be long forgotten before any of us here breathes our last breath.”
“Here, here,” echoed a couple of clubbers, but with somewhat subdued enthusiasm.
We spent the rest of the evening solving the remainder of the world’s problems, but when Nigel prepared his final words, I felt strangely uneasy. I knew that Nigel’s opening premise was right. Invention was indeed the mother of Necessity.
Much to our collective surprise, the conversation turned oddly Biblical, as one of the members, I’ve forgotten who, obliquely addressed Nigel’s assertion.
“I have to agree, Ni. If we’re to believe the Bible...I’m not saying that I do...but if I did, and God, say, started out in a totally trouble-free environment, there was really no compelling need for anything to be created. I mean, what problem did creation solve, if Heaven, however you might conceive it, was already perfect? Was there any conceivable need for Man? It would seem that Man was a solution waiting for a problem. It was only after Man was...er...invented, so to speak, that there was any problem that needed solving...again, if we are to take the Biblical account at face value.”
Nigel nodded thoughtfully. “My point precisely; thank you.”
I was about to raise my hand, not sure whether in agreement or dispute, but then realized that it was closing time for our meeting. Whatever uncertainly might have presented itself during our meetings, the one constant was that the meetings closed precisely at eleven p.m., not a second later. We would have a week to ruminate on the matter.