THE HISTORY OF PROJECTS.
When I speak of writing a History of Projects, I do not mean either of the introduction of, or continuing, necessary inventions, or the improvement of arts and sciences before known, but a short account of projects and projecting, as the word is allowed in the general acceptation at this present time; and I need not go far back for the original of the practice.
Invention of arts, with engines and handicraft instruments for their improvement, requires a chronology as far back as the eldest son of Adam, and has to this day afforded some new discovery in every age.
The building of the Ark by Noah, so far as you will allow it a human work, was the first project I read of; and, no question, seemed so ridiculous to the graver heads of that wise, though wicked, age that poor Noah was sufficiently bantered for it: and, had he not been set on work by a very peculiar direction from heaven, the good old man would certainly have been laughed out of it as a most senseless ridiculous project.
The building of Babel was a right project; for indeed the true definition of a project, according to modern acceptation, is, as is said before, a vast undertaking, too big to be managed, and therefore likely enough to come to nothing. And yet, as great as they are, it is certainly true of them all, even as the projectors propose: that, according to the old tale, if so many eggs are hatched, there will be so many chickens, and those chickens may lay so many eggs more, and those eggs produce so many chickens more, and so on. Thus it was most certainly true that if the people of the Old World could have built a house up to heaven, they should never be drowned again on earth, and they only had forgot to measure the height; that is, as in other projects, it only miscarried, or else it would have succeeded.
And yet, when all is done, that very building, and the incredible height it was carried, is a demonstration of the vast knowledge of that infant age of the world, who had no advantage of the experiments or invention of any before themselves.
"Thus when our fathers, touched with guilt, That huge stupendous staircase built; We mock, indeed, the fruitless enterprise (For fruitless actions seldom pass for wise), But were the mighty ruins left, they'd show To what degree that untaught age did know."
I believe a very diverting account might be given of this, but I shall not attempt it. Some are apt to say with Solomon, "No new thing happens under the sun; but what is, has been:" yet I make no question but some considerable discovery has been made in these latter ages, and inventions of human origin produced, which the world was ever without before, either in whole or in part; and I refer only to two cardinal points, the use of the loadstone at sea, and the use of gunpowder and guns: both which, as to the inventing part, I believe the world owes as absolutely to those particular ages as it does the working in brass and iron to Tubal Cain, or the inventing of music to Jubal, his brother. As to engines and instruments for handicraftsmen, this age, I daresay, can show such as never were so much as thought of, much less imitated before; for I do not call that a real invention which has something before done like it--I account that more properly an improvement. For handicraft instruments, I know none owes more to true genuine contrivance, without borrowing from any former use, than a mechanic engine contrived in our time called a knitting-frame, which, built with admirable symmetry, works really with a very happy success, and may be observed by the curious to have a more than ordinary composition; for which I refer to the engine itself, to be seen in every stocking-weaver's garret.
I shall trace the original of the projecting humour that now reigns no farther back than the year 1680, dating its birth as a monster then, though by times it had indeed something of life in the time of the late civil war. I allow, no age has been altogether without something of this nature, and some very happy projects are left to us as a taste of their success; as the water-houses for supplying of the city of London with water, and, since that, the New River--both very considerable undertakings, and perfect projects, adventured on the risk of success.