Jeremy Bentham

The Collected Works of Jeremy Bentham: The Correspondence of Jeremy Bentham, Vol. 4: October 1788 to December 1793

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Editor’s Note 776To King George the Third11 May 1791 (Aet 43)

May it please Your Majesty,—

The enclosed account of an amphibious vehicle for the conveyance of armies, with their appendages, is an extract of a letter from my younger brother, Samuel Bentham, a colonel in the Russian service. The regiment of which it speaks was given him for his services in the defeat of the Captain Bashaw, off Oczakoff, in October, 1789, together with the order of St George, which he has your Majesty's gracious permission for wearing in his own country.

The invention struck me at first glance as that sort of one which a subject of your Majesty's ought not to make public, without first using his humble endeavours to know your Majesty's pleasure. Bridges rendered needless: rivers, the broadest and most rapid, no obstacles to the largest army,—all by a modification given to the structure of a baggage-wagon! Expense saved too, instead of increased. The contrivance as simple as it has been proved to be effectual. Long, very long may it be, before any demand occurs for an invention of any such nature, in your Majesty's immediate service! But even now, in the East Indies, perhaps, it might have its use. Had General Howe, or Lord Cornwallis, or General Burgoyne, been thus provided—But I will not any farther obtrude upon wisdom the suggestions of ignorance.2

In its infant state, it appears to have been practised with approbation in the Russian army; but the subsequent improvements which place the importance of it in a very different light, do not appear to have been ever known there. Detesting barbarity, the pg 290regiment he has chosen, is in a station many thousand miles distant from the seat of war. As far as depends upon myself, the idea remains a secret even to my father, whom I have accordingly been obliged to leave in ignorance of the whole letter, though full of little personal matters, such as a father would have been glad to see. Unqualified of myself to determine whether publication in such a case, be, or be not, a matter of indifference, I have hitherto abode by the old rule—'Quod dubitas ne feceris.' Submitting the determination thus absolutely, and in the first instance, to the first and most competent of all judges, I have fulfilled what appears to me the duty of a good subject. If, within a month from the present date, I receive no commands from your Majesty to the contrary, my doubts will be resolved; and I shall conclude myself in possession of your Majesty's permission to speak of this invention, as a man might of any other, without reserve.

Being in the track of presumption, I will presume so much further, as to lay at your Majesty's feet an invention of a very different nature, of which, though the superstructure be my own, the fundamental idea originated with the same person,—a sort of building, which I call a Panopticon; because to an eye stationed towards the centre, it exhibits everything that passes within it at a view. Your Majesty's approbation, could the man of science and humanity be consulted at my humble distance from the King, would be one of the first honours it could receive. It has been brought to its present state from the first crude conception, as exhibited in the first of the enclosed plates, at the desire of your Majesty's servants in Ireland, in the view of its being made use of there. Here, (not to mention the other purposes to which it might be applicable,) one-half, at least, of the present expense of maintaining felons might be saved by it at the first outset; and that without prejudice to the settlement in New South Wales; to which, considered in the light of a colony, every male, exceeding a small overplus above the number of females, is, in point of morals and population, worse than useless.

The original letters, descriptive of the sort of building, and of its principal uses, refer only to the original rude sketch. The enclosed copy, printed at Dublin, is in the imperfect state (without introduction or advertisement) in which, by mistake, it has been sent to me. I am reprinting it here, together with a postscript, of which the first part gives a detailed account of the invention in its present less imperfect state, including some improvements that have occurred since the engraving of the plates; and the other, of a plan pg 291of management, such as the construction had in view. The reimpression of the letters is nearly finished. The first part of the postscript now accompanies the plates, and the second is in considerable advance. A copy of the whole, when completed, will be sent to your Majesty's library. The sheets now sent may serve till then for the explanation of the plates.

Your Majesty needs not be told to what a disadvantage a building of this nature must be represented on a flat surface. I have thoughts of getting a model made; and, could I flatter myself so far as to hope that your Majesty would condescend to honour it with a glance, I should not hesitate.

I am, with all humble respect, may it please your Majesty, your Majesty's dutiful subject,

Jeremy Bentham            

  • Dollis's, near Hendon, Middlesex,
  •   May 11, 1791.

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Editor’s Note
776. 1 Bowring, x, 260–1. Introduced by the statement: 'The discovery of his brother, to which reference is made in the correspondence from Zadobras, Bentham was induced to bring to the notice of George the Third; but I cannot find that any answer was given to the letter, which I have found among Bentham's papers, even if it was forwarded to the King.'
No such letter appears to be among the royal archives at Windsor Castle.
Editor’s Note
2 The implicit thought is that the outcome of the American War of Independence might have been different if Samuel's device had been available to the three best-known British generals involved: William Howe, Viscount Howe (1729—1814), Charles Cornwallis, 2nd Earl Cornwallis (1738–1805), and John Burgoyne (1722—92).
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