Impractical as its mad subject
On a fall afternoon in 1845, 800 members of the Tropical Emigration Society gathered on a field outside Oxford, England, to see their future in action. Specifically, they were there to see the prototype of a great machine -- “The Satellite,” they called it -- that promised to generate “infinite wealth” and reinvent society. Roughly the size of two shipping containers placed side-by-side, this wheeled iron vehicle was self-propelled by 12 built-in windmills and could theoretically clear, sow, plow and harvest up to 70 acres at a time. It would deliver those assembled from their sorry lives of toil.
That, at least was the idea. As Steven Stoll, a professor of history at Fordham University, writes in “The Great Delusion: A Mad Inventor, Death in the Tropics, and the Utopian Origins of Economic Growth,” when the iron beast “lumbered into its public trial with all the spooky expectation and mystical excitement of a seance,” it had no chance of actually working, not “in a million years.” Indeed, the Satellite was so flawed a conception that even the prototype -- at half scale and powered by a steam engine -- “bridled against its ropes and clawed against the ground” to no avail. Its inventor had not properly calculated the effects of friction or the weight of his machine.
That man was John Adolphus Etzler, and he was not on hand to witness the failure of his brainchild. The German-born visionary was already far across the globe, scouting a Venezuelan paradise where the society’s willing emigrants could plant themselves anew, their every need supplied by his mechanical wonder. More than 200 dreamers were deluded enough to follow him, nevermind the botched demonstration. An article in the Morning Star, the house organ of the society, promised a life of leisure in an Eden where “there is no disease, no such thing as coughs or colds.” That naivete -- Etzler’s, theirs -- was astonishing. Of the first 41 settlers to reach the tropics, 15 died within five months. A colonial report, written in the fiasco’s aftermath, declared, “never, probably, did any body of European immigrants . . . find themselves in such a state of destitution and unmitigated misery.”
Etzler’s charisma was powerful, even if it wore off quickly. Stoll describes him as “a practical man of science with an intense and distant gaze who claimed that he could unify physics and economy, turn sunshine into money.” Of course, he couldn’t do any of those things. The son of a German cobbler, he came under the spell of the philosopher Hegel, who suggested that America was the “land of the future.” In 1831, he joined forces with another Hegelian with radical ideas, a young engineer named John Roebling, to lead followers across the Atlantic to establish a colony. The partnership didn’t even last the trip. Etzler’s ego was too large to share leadership. As a practical man of science, he was vastly inferior to Roebling, who went on to design the Brooklyn Bridge.
From that point on, Etzler’s trail, lukewarm from the outset, grows increasingly cold. Eventually, Stoll tells us, he made it to England, where he founded his ill-fated emigration society. But extended stretches of his career are left blank. Stoll mentions Etzler’s marriage only in passing. Even his death is unexplained; Stoll speculates he was lost at sea in the Caribbean, but the author has no concrete evidence. The result is an unsatisfying catalog of “probablys,” “most likelys” and “would haves.”
In lieu of facts, Stoll promises to unpack Etzler’s “ideas as if they were packages.” The Satellite, Stoll argues, is best understood as a “metaphor for economic growth.” Etzler saw it that way as well, calling it “an iron slave, which in its multiplication will break the chain of human slaves by superseding them.” It was just this way of thinking, in grandiose metaphors rather than concrete reality, that was at the root of Etzler’s failures. This was no surprise even to Etzler’s contemporaries: In an 1843 essay, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “His success is in theory, and not in practice, and he feeds our faith rather than contents our understanding.”
“The Great Delusion” is similarly undone by an excess of theorizing and by the freighting of a rickety conceit with more weight than it can possibly bear. As Stoll freely admits, Etzler was “not a major theorist” and “did not invent anything we use today.” Instead, Stoll has chosen him as “a nexus for the complex of ideas that boiled and simmered into a full-fledged conception of material progress.” This allows the author to flip his story into a prolonged disquisition on the philosophical principles of 19th century political economy, and an argument against the idea that the world can support infinite growth. “Etzler’s paradise came down to a realm of pleasure and convenience strikingly similar to the highway-strip, big-box-store, low-rise-condo sprawl that has caused so many people to reconsider the meaning of consumption,” he writes. It’s an intriguing conclusion, but readers would do well to think carefully before accepting it uncritically.