I. PREHISTORIC SCIENCE

3. Turning from the heavens to the earth, and ignoring such primitive observations as that of the distinction between land and water, we may note that there was one great scientific law which must have forced itself upon the attention of primitive man. This is the law of universal terrestrial gravitation. The word gravitation suggests the name of Newton, and it may excite surprise to hear a knowledge of gravitation ascribed to men who preceded that philosopher by, say, twenty-five or fifty thousand years. Yet the slightest consideration of the facts will make it clear that the great central law that all heavy bodies fall directly towards the earth, cannot have escaped the attention of the most primitive intelligence. The arboreal habits of our primitive ancestors gave opportunities for constant observation of the practicalities of this law. And, so soon as man had developed the mental capacity to formulate ideas, one of the earliest ideas must have been the conception, however vaguely phrased in words, that all unsupported bodies fall towards the earth. The same phenomenon being observed to operate on water-surfaces, and no alteration being observed in its operation in different portions of man's habitat, the most primitive wanderer must have come to have full faith in the universal action of the observed law of gravitation. Indeed, it is inconceivable that he can have imagined a place on the earth where this law does not operate. On the other hand, of course, he never grasped the conception of the operation of this law beyond the close proximity of the earth. To extend the reach of gravitation out to the moon and to the stars, including within its compass every particle of matter in the universe, was the work of Newton, as we shall see in due course. Meantime we shall better understand that work if we recall that the mere local fact of terrestrial gravitation has been the familiar knowledge of all generations of men. It may further help to connect us in sympathy with our primeval ancestor if we recall that in the attempt to explain this fact of terrestrial gravitation Newton made no advance, and we of to-day are scarcely more enlightened than the man of the Stone Age. Like the man of the Stone Age, we know that an arrow shot into the sky falls back to the earth. We can calculate, as he could not do, the arc it will describe and the exact speed of its fall; but as to why it returns to earth at all, the greatest philosopher of to-day is almost as much in the dark as was the first primitive bowman that ever made the experiment.

Other physical facts going to make up an elementary science of mechanics, that were demonstratively known to prehistoric man, were such as these: the rigidity of solids and the mobility of liquids; the fact that changes of temperature transform solids to liquids and vice versa—that heat, for example, melts copper and even iron, and that cold congeals water; and the fact that friction, as illustrated in the rubbing together of two sticks, may produce heat enough to cause a fire. The rationale of this last experiment did not receive an explanation until about the beginning of the nineteenth century of our own era. But the experimental fact was so well known to prehistoric man that he employed this method, as various savage tribes employ it to this day, for the altogether practical purpose of making a fire; just as he employed his practical knowledge of the mutability of solids and liquids in smelting ores, in alloying copper with tin to make bronze, and in casting this alloy in molds to make various implements and weapons. Here, then, were the germs of an elementary science of physics. Meanwhile such observations as that of the solution of salt in water may be considered as giving a first lesson in chemistry, but beyond such altogether rudimentary conceptions chemical knowledge could not have gone—unless, indeed, the practical observation of the effects of fire be included; nor can this well be overlooked, since scarcely another single line of practical observation had a more direct influence in promoting the progress of man towards the heights of civilization.