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Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9


Progress of the Arts subsidiary to Commerce - Engineering - Railways: Rapid Extension to all Civilised Countries: The Labour they Cost compared with the Pyramids - Bridges: Britannia and Conway: Saltash; The Victoria Bridge over the St. Lawrence - The Metropolitan Underground Line - Number of Railway Stations in London in 1871 - Mont Cenis Tunnel and Railway - Construction of Foreign Railways - Traffic, Miles Open, Passengers, Capital, and Returns of the United Kingdom, 1851 and 1871 - Shipping and Shipbuilding: The British Mercantile Navy: Merchant Seamen and Tonnage: Iron Steamers: The War Navy: The Battle of the Guns and Armour Plates: Screw Propellers: The Great Britain: The Great Eastern - The Suez Canal - The Electric Telegraph: Export of Telegraph-wire - Purchase of Land Telegraphs by the British Government - The First Submarine Telegraph between England and France - Ocean Telegraphy: The Atlantic Cable.
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"Lords and Commons of England," says Milton, in his Areopagitica, " consider what nation it is whereof ye are, and whereof ye are governors; a nation not slow and dull, but of a quick, ingenious, and piercing spirit; acute to invent, subtile and sinewy to discourse, not beneath the reach of any point, the highest that human capacity can soar to." This eloquent description of the genius of Englishmen in the seventeenth century applies with no less justice to their descendants of the nineteenth. In the arts and sciences, in literature, in politics, in public life and private life, in peace and war, Englishmen of the later generations have accomplished things which render them not unworthy to be placed by the side of those forefathers to whom Milton gave so high a character. But in few things has the truth of the great poet's words been more remarkably exemplified than in those great achievements of engineering skill of which the later generations of Englishmen can boast, and which, indeed, mark the present age with a character of its own. It is to British engineers that the world owes railways - the greatest of all modern inventions. To them it owes the fleets of iron which, propelled by screw and steam, and no longer dependent on the winds and waves, have, in a few years, doubled the wealth of nations. To them it owes the ocean telegraphs, whereby the remotest peoples can instantaneously communicate their thoughts and deeds, and man has been rendered virtually ubiquitous. The engineering art is not, indeed, a novel one. Centuries before the Christian era, it built the Egyptian Pyramids; it constructed the locked canals of China; it raised the aqueducts, and laid the Cloaca Maxima of ancient Rome. But in modern times it has appeared under quite new forms. It works with different agencies, if not for different ends. To erect the monuments of the Pharaohs there was no motive power available but the muscle and sinews of men and of animals;. but the streams of the Tamar and of the St. Lawrence were spanned by the aid of new forces - the forces of coal, of iron, and of steam. And it is to these forces, applied in a thousand forms by the engineering art, that the nineteenth century mainly owes its unprecedented wealth and prosperity. It is not, however, our purpose here to write a history of modern engineering, or to trace the effects of the introduction of these new agents upon the progress of manufactures and commerce since the time when Watt perfected the steam-engine, and George Stephenson laid down his first railway on the banks of the Tees. We have the more limited task of sketching some of the most important developments of mechanical skill which have made their appearance since the close of the first half of the nineteenth century. And in the first place, we have to notice some of those works, produced by the energy and invention of engineers, which are immediately subsidiary to commerce - that is, to the distribution and exchange of the products of manufacturing and agricultural industry. To the extended facilities afforded in recent years for the more rapid exchange of the products of various climes, it is that the vast development which has been shown to have taken place of late in the commerce and industry of the United Kingdom is mainly due. But for the labours of the engineers, the vast additions which the United Kingdom has made to its population, as well as to its wealth, in the nineteenth century, would have been impossible. But for the benefits which their genius is every day conferring upon the world, the fruits of the tropics would be left to rot where they grow, the cotton- fields of India and Georgia would be again abandoned to the desert, the plains of Southern Russia and Hungary would smile with diminished harvests; while at home, on the other hand, the mills of Manchester and Leeds would stand still, the forges of Sheffield and Birmingham would be extinguished, and the docks of London and of Liverpool pay no more dividends. It is mainly owing to the several and united labours of the various classes of engineers - civil engineers, mechanical engineers, mining engineers, naval engineers, and naval architects - that the civilised nations of the world, each pursuing the line of industry in which it possesses the greatest relative advantage, have been enabled, by the mutual exchange of the results of their labour, to maintain an increased and rapidly increasing population in the enjoyment of a degree of comfort, and even of luxury, unknown to earlier times.

Few things more marvellous are to be found in history than the importance attained by railways, and by the kindred invention, steam-ships, within forty years of their introduction. Within that period, railways have extended to every continent, steam-ships to every sea. From their cradle in the north of England, railways had spread over the world with such rapidity, that in 1866 - forty years from the date of their origin - they had an aggregate length of nearly a hundred thousand miles. They had, in that short interval of time, become the great arteries of land communication throughout the civilised globe.

It is, however, an error to suppose that this method of locomotion sprang into existence in a perfect form all at once. There were railways in England two centuries and a half ago. But then, and for long afterwards, the rails were of wood. Horses supplied the motive power, and the use of these primitive tramways was limited to the conveyance of the produce of mines and quarries to wharves and furnaces situated at a distance of a few miles.

Some pig-iron was laid down at Coalbrook Dale, in Shropshire, some time after the middle of the eighteenth century, to serve as rails, in place of wood, which was found to wear out very rapidly. This was the first origin of the iron rail, and a great step in advance, though the improvement was not generally adopted at the time. In 1789 edge-rails and flanged wheels were first used, by Jessop, at Loughborough, the rails being laid on cast-iron chairs and sleepers. Such, in brief, was the origin of one of the indispensable elements of the modern railway - the iron road itself. But as yet the motive power was that of horses. As yet only tramways were in existence, confined principally to the districts where coal and iron mining and stone quarrying were carried on. In 1784 Watt patented his locomotive carriage; and this machine, though it was not itself adapted to travel on rails, suggested the modern steam locomotive. The first successful railway steam-engine was designed in 1813 by "William Headley, the Wylam Colliery viewer, who, in his " Puffing Billy " - which has recently been deposited in the Patent Museum at South Kensington - conquered the difficulties which had hitherto prevented the use of steam power in locomotion from the slipping of the engine-wheels upon the smooth rails. A year later George Stephenson, working independently, constructed his Killingworth engine, which was also made to " bite " the rails. All the essential elements of the modern railway were now obtained, but it was some years before any further progress was made.

In the year 1825 the Stockton and Darlington railway, constructed by George Stephenson, who had advanced, from his humble beginning as a stoker, to the position of engineer, was opened to the public. It was the first of passenger lines, and with it the era of modern railways commenced. The speed of locomotives had hitherto been but four miles an hour; Stephenson, by his tubular boiler, raised it at an early period to thirty miles: since which time engines have been constructed which are capable of travelling, with enormous loads, at double the speed. In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway was opened. In its construction Stephenson had triumphed over engineering difficulties which not a few professional men pronounced insuperable. The next great work was the London and Birmingham railway, constructed by Robert Stephenson, in conjunction with his father - a work in which still more formidable difficulties were encountered and successfully overcome. With the completion of these lines, the adoption and the extension of the railway system - not only in the United Kingdom, but throughout the civilised world - were assured.

How vast was the labour involved in these great enterprises may be gathered from a comparison which has been drawn between the work spent in constructing the railway last mentioned and that spent in erecting one of the greatest monuments of antiquity. The Great Pyramid of Egypt was, according to Diodorus Siculus, constructed by 300,000 (according to Herodotus, by 100,000) men.

It required for its execution twenty years, and the labour expended upon it has been estimated as equivalent to lifting 15,733,000,000 (fifteen thousand seven hundred and thirty-three millions) of cubic feet of stone one foot high: whereas, if the labour expended in constructing the London and Birmingham railway be in like manner reduced to one common denomination, the result is 25,000,000,000 (twenty-five thousand millions) of cubic feet more than was lifted for the Great Pyramid; and yet the English work was performed by about twenty thousand men in less than five years. And while the Egyptian work was executed by a powerful monarch, concentrating upon it the labour and capital of a great nation, the English railway was constructed, in the face of every conceivable obstruction and difficulty, by a company of private individuals out of their own resources, without the aid of Government or the contribution of one farthing of public money.

Such was one of the earliest achievements, in an untried path, of the first great railway engineers - the self-educated Northumbrian collier and his son. It was an example to the world - an example soon followed in many lands, and often, indeed, in subsequent works surpassed.

Among other early railway works in the United Kingdom in which great engineering skill was displayed, must be mentioned the line connecting the Metropolis with the city of Bristol. Mr. Isambard Brunei, himself the son of a distinguished engineer, constructed this railway, which, with its tunnel carried for nearly two miles through the solid rock near Bath, and other remarkable works, is considered one of the finest examples of railway engineering in existence. No expense was spared, indeed, in making it a model railway. On this line, Mr. Brunei, departing from the practice followed by the Stephensons, introduced the broad gauge, in which the rails were placed at a distance of seven feet from each other, or more than two feet wider apart than those of the narrow gauge system. It was the expectation of the promoters of this line that it would greatly stimulate the somewhat languishing commerce of the western port, and thereby bring them a handsome return for their outlay; while the engineer himself, who, by his broad gauge, attained a higher speed and greater smoothness in travelling than had been reached on the narrow gauge, anticipated that the improvement would become general. The anticipations of the one and the expectations of the other were, however, equally disappointed; while the lavish expenditure on the original construction of the line involved those connected with it in difficulties from which they could not for many years see any escape.

Another novelty was introduced by Mr. Brunei into the working of railways. This was the propulsion of trains by atmospheric pressure in place of steam. The invention, which was elegant and ingenious, enjoyed the approval of many of the highest scientific authorities, including, besides Mr. Brunei, Mr. Cubitt, Mr. Vignolles, Dr. Lardner, and others. The names of the Stephensons, however, did not appear amongst the supporters of the scheme. Companies were formed to carry the new invention into practice, and it was commonly supposed that atmospheric railways would soon supersede the locomotive altogether. George Stephenson was solicited to lend his support also to the new principle, but he hesitated to do so, preferring to " wait and see if it would pay." It was brought into operation on the South Devon railway, a line constructed by Brunei. The working expenses were found to swallow up all the profits, with a balance of more than 20,000 loss. Shortly afterwards it appears that the company reverted to the locomotive system, abandoning the atmospheric principle, with its ingenious and costly apparatus of tubing, altogether.

Of the engineer whose scientific enthusiasm betrayed him into these experiments, a writer in the Times remarked that, " Unlike Stephenson, who made everything pay, Brunei made nothing pay. As an engineer, he raised the mightiest works, and ruined the richest men. The Great Western railway and the Great Eastern steam-ship - the best line of railway in the world, and the noblest steam-ship afloat - both the most glorious growths of a scientific intellect - have had the same melancholy result of swamping the fortunes of all who invested in them. The engineer won renown, and the shareholders lost their money."

Disastrous as were the pecuniary results, to those immediately concerned, of most of Brunei's grandest works - his last, the Great Eastern steam-ship, when finished, could not be launched without an unexpected expenditure of 70,000; a calamity which, it is believed, tended to shorten his days - there can be little question that the art of engineering, and, through it, society generally, have benefited by his labours and experiments. Ever since original inventors and experimenters existed, it has been the unenviable fate of some amongst them to bring ruin on themselves and their friends, and to confer benefits on posterity alone. And, in the case of Brunei, it may The that some of the principles he upheld with such lamentable results to his supporters, and which for the time are discarded, are destined hereafter to play the part he anticipated.

It was not with all the educated members of the engineering art that the Stephensons were on as friendly terms as with Brunei. George Stephenson was entitled to be called the founder of modern railways and the father of railway engineering; but, what with professional etiquette and professional jealousy, he was never made a member of the 44 Institute of Civil Engineers." His genius, no doubt, had added enormously to the importance, the dignity, and the emoluments of the craft. Most of its members were, in one sense or other, his scholars. But it was his fate to possess no other training or education save what had been self-acquired; and to the day of his death, though he coveted the honour, he was never admitted into the ranks of the chief central society of the profession of which he was, in his own person, at once the greatest benefactor and the most distinguished ornament.

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Pictures for Chapter LII, of Cassells Illustrated History of England, Volume 9

Royal agricultural college
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Robert Stephenson
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Isambard K. Brunel
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The Mont Cenis railway
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The Victoria bridge at Montreal
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Opening of the Suez canal
Opening of the Suez canal >>>>
Mr. Bessemer
Mr. Bessemer >>>>

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