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JAMES WATT.

James Watt (1736-1819), Scottish inventor and mechanical engineer
who made fundamental improvements to the steam engine.


THE inventor of the steam-engine, now so extensively applied to production in all the arts of industry, is entitled to be regarded as one of the most extraordinary men who has ever lived.  Steam is the very Hercules of modern mythology.  In the manufactures of Great Britain alone, the power which it exercises is estimated to be equal to the manual labour of four hundred millions of men, or more than double the number of males supposed to inhabit the globe.  Steam has become the universal lord.  It impels ships in every sea, and drags tram-loads of passengers and merchandise in all lands.  It pumps water, drives mills, hammers iron, prints books and newspapers, and works in a thousand ways with an arm that never tires.  All this marvellous and indescribable power has flowed from the invention of one man, the subject of the following memoir.



    JAMES WATT was born at Greenock on the Clyde, on the 19th of January, 1736.  His parents were of the middle class,—honest, industrious people, with a character for probity which had descended to them from their "forbears," and was the proudest inheritance of the family.  James Watt was thus emphatically well-born.  His grandfather was a teacher of navigation and mathematics in the village of Cartsdyke, now part of Greenock, and dignified himself with the name of "Professor."  But as Cartsdyke was as yet only a humble collection of thatched hovels, and the shipping of the Clyde was confined principally to fishing boats, the probability is, that his lessons in navigation were of a very humble order.  He was, however, a dignitary of the place, being Bailie of the Barony, as well as one of the parish elders.  His son, James Watt, the father of the engineer, settled at Greenock as a carpenter and builder.  Greenock was then little better than a fishing-village, consisting of a single row of thatched cottages lying parallel with the sandy beach of the Frith of Clyde.  The beautiful shore, broken by the long, narrow sea-lochs running far away among the Argyllshire hills, and now fringed with villages, villas, and mansions, was then as lonely as Glencoe; and the waters of the Frith, now daily plashed by the paddles of almost innumerable Clyde steamers, were as yet undisturbed, save by the passing of an occasional Highland Coble.  The prosperity of Greenock was greatly promoted by Sir John Shaw, the feudal superior, who succeeded in obtaining from the British Parliament, what the Scottish Parliament previous to the Union had refused, the privilege of constructing a harbour.  Ships began after 1740 to frequent the pier, and then Mr. Watt added ship-carpentering and dealing in ships' stores to his other pursuits.  He himself held shares in ships, and engaged in several foreign mercantile ventures, some of which turned out ill, and involved him in embarrassments.  A great deal of miscellaneous work was executed on his premises,—household furniture and ship's carpentry,—chairs and tables, figure-heads and capstans, blocks, pumps, gun-carriages, and dead-eyes.  The first crane erected on the Greenock pier, for the convenience of the Virginia tobacco-ships, was supplied from his stores.  He even undertook to repair ships' compasses, as well as the commoner sort of nautical instruments then in use.  These multifarious occupations were the result of the smallness of the place, while the business of a single calling was yet too limited to yield a competence.  That Mr. Watt was a man of repute in his locality is shown by his having been elected one of the trustees to manage the funds of the borough in 1741, when Sir John Shaw divested himself of his feudal rights, and made them over to the inhabitants.  Mr. Watt subsequently held office as town-treasurer, and as bailie or magistrate.

    Agnes Muirhead, the bailie's wife, and the mother of James Watt, was long remembered in the place as an intelligent woman, bountifully gifted with graces of person as well as of mind and heart.  She was of a somewhat dignified appearance; and it was said that she affected a superior style of living to her neighbours.  One of these, long after, spoke of her as "a braw, braw woman, none like her now-a-days," and commented on the extraordinary fact of her having on one occasion no fewer than "two lighted candles on the table at the same time"!  The bailie's braw wife was, perhaps, the only lady in Greenock who then dressed à-la-mode,—the petticoat worn over a hoop, and curiously tucked up behind, with a towering head-dress over her powdered hair.  This pretentious dame, as she appeared, probably did no more than adapt her mode of living to Mr. Watt's circumstances, which seem to have enabled him to adopt a more generous style than was usual in small Scottish towns, where the people were for the most part very poor, and accustomed to slender fare.

    From childhood, James Watt was of an extremely fragile constitution, requiring the tenderest nurture.  Unable to join in the rude play of healthy children, and confined almost entirely to the house, he acquired a shrinking sensitiveness which little fitted him for the rough battle of life; and when he was sent to the town-school it caused him many painful trials.  His mother had already taught him reading, and his father a little writing and arithmetic.  His very sports proved lessons to him.  His mother, to amuse him, encouraged him to draw with a pencil upon paper, or with chalk upon the floor, and he was supplied with a few tools from the carpenter's shop, which he soon learned to handle with considerable expertness.  The mechanical dexterity he acquired was the foundation upon which he built the speculations to which he owes his glory, nor without this manual training is there the least likelihood that he would have become the improver and almost the creator of the steam-engine.  Mrs. Watt exercised an influence no less beneficial on the formation of his moral character; her gentle nature, strong good-sense, and earnest, unobtrusive piety, strongly impressing themselves upon his young mind and heart.  Nor were his parents without their reward; for as he grew up to manhood he repaid their anxious care with warm affection.  Mrs. Watt was accustomed to say, that the loss of her only daughter, which she had felt so severely, had been fully made up to her by the dutiful attentions of her son.

    From an early period he was subject to violent headaches, which confined him to his room for weeks together.  It is in such cases as his that indications of precocity are generally observed, and parents would be less pleased at their appearance did they know that they are generally the symptoms of disease.  Several remarkable instances of this precocity are related of Watt.  On one occasion, when he was bending over a marble hearth, with a piece of chalk in his hand, a friend of his father said, "You ought to send that boy to a public school, and not allow him to trifle away his time at home."  "Look how my child is occupied," replied the father, "before you condemn him."  Though only six years of age, he was trying to solve a problem in geometry.  On another occasion, he was reproved by Mrs. Muirhead, his aunt, for his indolence at the tea-table.  "James Watt," said the worthy lady, "I never saw such an idle boy as you are; take a book, or employ yourself usefully; for the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup, and now a silver-spoon, over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, catching and counting the drops it falls into; are you not ashamed of spending your time in that way?"  In the view of M. Arago, "the little James before the tea-kettle becomes the mighty engineer preparing the discoveries which were to immortalize him."  In our opinion, the judgment of the aunt was the truest.  There is no reason to suppose that the mind of little James was occupied with philosophical considerations on the condensation of steam.  This is an afterthought borrowed from his subsequent discoveries.  Nothing is commoner than for children to be amused with such phenomena, in the same way that they will form air-bubbles in a cup of tea, and watch them sailing over the surface till they burst; and the probability is that little James was quite as idle as he seemed.

    At school, where a parrot-power of learning what is set down in the lesson-book is the chief element of success, Watt's independent observation and reflection did not enable him to distinguish himself, and he was even considered dull and backward for his age.  He shone as little in the playground as in the class.  The timid and sensitive boy found himself completely out of place in the midst of the boisterous juvenile republic.  Against the tyranny of the elders he was helpless; their wild play was completely distasteful to him; he could not join in their sports, nor roam with them along the beach, nor take part in their hazardous exploits in the harbour.  Accordingly, they showered upon him contemptuous epithets; and, the school being composed of both sexes, the girls joined in the laugh.  Continual ailments, however, prevented his attendance for weeks together.

    When not yet fourteen, he was taken by his mother for change of air to some relatives at Glasgow, then a quiet place, without a single long chimney, somewhat resembling a rural market-town of the present day.  He proved so wakeful during his visit, and so disposed to indulge in that story-telling which even Sir Walter Scott could admire at a late period of his life, that Mrs. Watt was entreated to take him home.  "I can no longer bear the excitement in which he keeps me," said Mrs. Campbell; "I am worn out with want of sleep.  Every evening, before our usual hour of retiring to rest, he adroitly contrives to engage me in conversation, then begins some striking tale, and, whether it be humorous or pathetic, the interest is so overpowering, that all the family listen to him with breathless attention; hour after hour strikes unheeded, but the next morning I feel quite exhausted.  You must really take home your son."  His taste for fiction never left him; and to the close of his days he took delight in reading a novel.

    James Watt, having finished his education at the grammar-school of his native town, received no further instruction.  As with all distinguished men, his extensive after-acquirements in science and literature were entirely the result of his own self-culture.  Towards the end of his school career his strength seems to have grown; his progress was more rapid and decided; and before he left he had taken the lead of his class.  But his best education was gathered from the conversation of his parents.  Almost every cottage, indeed, in Scotland, is a training-ground for their future men.  How much of the unwritten and traditionary history which kindles the Scotchman's nationality, and tells upon his future life, is gleaned at his humble fireside!  Moreover, the library shelf of Watt's home contained well-thumbed volumes of Boston, Bunyan, and "The Cloud of Witnesses," with Harry the Rhymer's "Life of Wallace," and old ballads tattered by frequent use.  These he devoured greedily, and re-read them until he had most of them by heart.

    During holiday times, he indulged in rambles along the Clyde, sometimes crossing to the north shore, and strolling up the Gare Loch and Holy Loch, and even as far as Ben Lomond itself.  He was of a solitary disposition, and loved to wander by himself at night amidst the wooded pleasure-grounds which surrounded the old mansion-house overlooking the town, watching through the trees the mysterious movements of the stars.  He became fascinated by the wonders of astronomy, and was stimulated to inquire into the science by the nautical instruments which he found amongst his father's ship-stores.  It was a peculiarity which characterized him through life, that he could not look upon any instrument or machine without being seized with a determination to unravel its mystery, and master the rationale of its uses.  Before he was fifteen, he had twice gone through, with great attention, S'Gravesande's Elements of Natural Philosophy, which belonged to his father.  He performed many chemical experiments, and even contrived to make an electrical machine, much to the marvel of those who felt its shocks.  Like most invalids, he read eagerly such books on medicine as came in his way.  He went so far as to practise dissection; and on one occasion he was found carrying off the head of a child who had died of some uncommon disease.  "He told his son," says Mr. Muirhead, "that, had he been able to bear the sight of the sufferings of patients, he would have been a surgeon."  In his rambles, his love of wild-flowers and plants lured him on to the study of botany.  Ever observant of the aspects of nature, the violent upheavings of the mountain ranges on the northern shores of Loch Lomond next directed his attention to mineralogy.  He devoured all the works which fell in his way; and on a friend advising to be less indiscriminate, he replied, "I have never yet read a book, or conversed with a companion, without gaining information, instruction, gaining or amusement."  This was no answer to the admonition of his friend, who merely recommended him to bestow upon the best books the time he devoted to the worse.  But the appetite for knowledge in inquisitive minds is, during youth, when during curiosity is fresh and unslaked, too insatiable to be fastidious, and the volume which gets the preference is usually the first which comes in the way.

    Watt was not a mere bookworm.  In his solitary walks through the country, he would enter the cottages of the peasantry, gather their local traditions, and impart to them information of a similar kind from his own ample stores.  Fishing, which suited the tranquil character of his nature, was his single sport.  When unable to ramble for the purpose, he could still indulge the pursuit while standing in his father's yard, which was open to the sea, and the water of sufficient depth, at high tide, to enable vessels of fifty or sixty tons to lie alongside.

    Watt, as we have seen, had learnt the use of his hands, a highly serviceable branch of education, though not taught at schools or colleges.  He could ply his tools with considerable dexterity, and he was often employed in the carpenter's shop in making miniature cranes, pulleys, pumps, and capstans.  He could work in metal, and a punch-ladle of his manufacture, formed out of a large silver coin, is still preserved.  His father had originally intended him to follow his own business of a merchant, but having sustained several heavy losses about this time,—one of his ships having foundered at sea,—and observing the strong bias of his son towards mechanical pursuits, he determined to send him to Glasgow, to learn the trade of a mathematical-instrument maker.

    In 1754, when he was in his eighteenth year, he accordingly set out for Glasgow, which was as different from the Glasgow of 1860 as it is possible to imagine.  Little did he dream, when he entered it a poor prentice lad, what it was afterwards to become, through the result of his individual labours.  Not a steam-engine or a steamboat then disturbed the quiet of the town.  There was a little quay on the Broomielaw, partly covered with broom; and this quay was fitted with a solitary crane, for which there was but small use, as boats of more than six tons could not ascend the Clyde.  Often not a single-masted vessel was to be seen in the river.  The chief magnates of the place were the tobacco-merchants and the Professors of the College.  Next to tobacco, the principal trade of the town with foreign countries was in grindstones, coals, and fish,—Glasgow herrings being in great repute.

    Inconsiderable though Glasgow was at the middle of last century, it was the only place in Scotland which exhibited signs of industrial prosperity.  About the middle of last century Scotland was a poor and haggard country.  Nothing could be more dreary than those Lowland districts which now perhaps exhibit the finest agriculture in the world.  Wheat was so rare a plant, that a field of eight acres within a mile of Edinburgh attracted the attention of the whole neighbourhood.  Even in the Lothians, Roxburgh, and Lanarkshire, little was to be seen but arid, bleak moors and quaking bogs, with occasional patches of unenclosed and ill-cultivated land.  Where manure was used, it was carried to the field on the back of the crofter's wife; the crops were carried to market on the back of the plough-horse, and occasionally on the backs of the crofter and his family.  The country was without roads, and between the towns there were only rough tracks across moors.  Goods were conveyed from place to place on pack-horses.  The trade between Glasgow and Edinburgh was conducted in the same rude way; and when carriers were established, the time occupied going and coming between Edinburgh and Selkirk—a distance of only thirty-eight miles—was an entire fortnight.  The road lay along Gala Water, and in summer the driver took his rude cart along the channel of the stream, as being the most level and easy path.  In winter the road was altogether impassable.  Communication by coach was scarcely anywhere known.  A caravan, which was started between Glasgow and Edinburgh in 1749, took two days to perform the journey.  For practical purposes, these towns were as distant from London as they now are from New York.  As late as 1763, there was only one stage-coach which ran to London.  It set out from Edinburgh once a month, and the journey occupied from fifteen to eighteen days.  Letters were mostly sent by hand, and after mails were established the post-bags were often empty.  Sir Walter Scott knew a man who remembered the London post-bag, which contained the letters from all England to all Scotland, arriving in Edinburgh with only one letter.  In 1707, the entire post-office revenue of Scotland was only £1,194; in 1857, the penny-postage of Glasgow alone produced £68,877.  The custom-dues of Greenock now produce more than five times the revenue derived from the whole of Scotland in the times of the Stuarts.  The Clyde, which less than a century ago could scarcely admit the passage of a herring-boat, floats down with almost every tide vessels of thousands of tons burden, capable of wrestling with the hurricanes of the Atlantic.  The custom-duties levied at the port of Glasgow have been increased from £125 in 1796, to £718,835 in 1856.  The advance has been nearly the same in all the other departments of Scotch industry.

    At Glasgow, Watt in vain sought to learn the trade of a mathematical-instrument maker.  The only person in the place dignified with the name of "Optician" was an old mechanic who sold and mended spectacles, constructed and repaired fiddles, tuned the few spinnets of the town and neighbourhood, and eked out a slender living by making and selling fishing-rods and fishing-tackle.  Watt was as handy at dressing trout and salmon-flies as at most other things, and his master no doubt found him useful enough; but there was nothing to be learnt in return.  Professor Dick, having been consulted as to the best course to be pursued, recommended the lad to proceed to London.  Watt accordingly set out for the metropolis in June, 1755, in the company of a relative, Mr. Marr, the captain of an East-Indiaman.  The pair travelled on horseback, and performed the journey in thirteen days.  Arrived in town, they went about from shop to shop without success.  Instrument-makers were few in number, and the rules of the trade, which were then very strict, only permitted them to take into their employment apprentices who should be bound for seven years, or journeymen who had already served their time.  "I have not," said Watt, writing to his father about a fortnight after his arrival, "yet got a master; we have tried several, but they all make some objection or other.  I find that, if any of them agree with me at all, it will not be for less than a year, and even for that time they will be expecting some money."  At length, one Mr. Morgan, an instrument-maker in Finch Lane, consented to take him for a twelvemonth, for a fee of twenty guineas.  He soon proved himself a ready learner and skilful workman.  The division of labour, the result of an extensive trade, which causes the best London-built carriages to be superior to any of provincial construction, was even then applied to mathematical instruments.  "Very few here," wrote Watt, "know any more than how to make a rule, others a pair of dividers, and such like."  His discursive mind would under no circumstances have allowed him to rest content with such limited proficiency, and he probably contemplated setting up in Scotland, where every branch of the business would have to be executed by himself.  He resolved to acquire the entire art, and from brass scales and rules proceeded to Hadley's quadrants, azimuth-compasses, brass sectors, theodolites, and the more delicate sort of instruments.  By the end of the year he wrote to his father that he had "just made a brass sector with a French joint, which is reckoned as nice a piece of framing work as is in the trade."  To relieve his father of the expense of his maintenance, he wrought after-hours on his own account.  His living cost him only eight shillings a week; and lower than that, he wrote, he could not reduce it, "without pinching his belly."  When night came, "his body was wearied and his hand shaking from ten hours' hard work."  His health suffered.  His seat in Mr. Morgan's shop during the winter being close to the door, which was frequently opened and shut, he caught a severe cold.  But in spite of sickness and a racking cough, he stuck to his work, and still earned money in his morning and evening hours.

    Another circumstance prevented his stirring abroad during the greater portion of his stay in London.  A hot press for sailors was then going on, and as many as forty press-gangs were out.  In the course of one night they took a thousand men.  Nor were the kidnappers idle.  These were the agents of the East India Company, and had crimping-houses, or depots, in different parts of the metropolis, to receive the men whom they secured for the Indian army.  When the demand for soldiers slackened, they continued their trade, and sold the poor wretches to the planters in Pennsylvania and other North American colonies.  Sometimes severe fights took place between the press-gangs and the kidnappers for the possession of the unhappy victims who had been seized.  "They now press anybody they can get," wrote Watt in the spring of 1756, "landsmen as well as seamen, except it be in the liberties of the city, where they are obliged to carry them before the Lord Mayor first; and unless one be either a prentice or a creditable tradesman, there is scarce any getting off again.  And if I was carried before my Lord Mayor, I durst not avow that I worked in the city, it being against their laws for any non-freeman to work, even as a journeyman, within the liberties."  What a curious glimpse does this give us into the practice of man-hunting in London in the eighteenth century!

    When Watt's year with Mr. Morgan was up, his cold had assumed a rheumatic form.  Distressed by a gnawing pain in his back, and depressed by weariness, he determined to leave London, although confident that he could have found remunerative employment, and seek for health in his native air, among his kinsfolk at Greenock.  After spending about twenty guineas in purchasing tools, together with the materials for making many more, and buying a copy of Bion's work on the construction and use of mathematical instruments, he set off for Scotland, and reached Greenock in the autumn of 1756.  Shortly after, when his health had been somewhat restored by rest, he proceeded to Glasgow and commenced business on his own account, at twenty years of age.

    In endeavouring to establish himself in his trade, Watt encountered the same obstacle which, in London, had almost prevented his learning it.  Although there were no mathematical-instrument makers in Glasgow, and it must have been a public advantage to have him settle in the place, he was opposed by the corporation of hammermen, on the ground that he was neither the son of a burgess, nor had served an apprenticeship within the borough.  He had been employed, however, to repair some mathematical instruments bequeathed to the University by a gentleman in the West Indies; and the Professors, having an absolute authority within the area occupied by the college buildings, determined to give him an asylum, and free him from the incubus of Guilds.  By the midsummer of 1757 he was securely established within the College precincts, where his room, which was only about twenty feet square, is still to be seen, and is the more interesting that its walls remain in as rude a state as when he left it.  It is entered from the quadrangle by a spiral stone staircase, and over the door in the court below Watt exhibited his name, with the addition of "Mathematical-Instrument Maker to the University."

    Though his wants were few, and he subsisted on the humblest fare, Watt had a hard struggle to live by his trade.  After a year's trial of it, he wrote to his father, in September, 1758, "that unless it be the Hadley's instruments, there is little to be got by it, as at most other jobs I am obliged to do the most of them myself; and as it is impossible for one person to be expert at everything, they very often cost me more time than they should do."  Of the quadrants, he could make three in a week, with the assistance of a lad, and the profit upon the three was 40s.  But the demand was small, and, unless he could extend his market, "he must fall," he said, "into some other way of business, as this will not do in its present situation."  Failing sufficient customers for his instruments in Glasgow, he sent them to Greenock and Port Glasgow, where his father helped him to dispose of them.  Orders gradually flowed in upon him, but his business continued to be very small, eked out though it was by map and chart selling.

    The most untoward circumstances have often the happiest results.  It is not Fortune that is blind, but man.  The fame and success of Watt were probably due to his scanty trade, which made him glad to take any employment requiring mechanical ingenuity.  A Masons' lodge in Glasgow desired to have an organ, and he was asked to build it.  He was totally destitute of a musical ear, and could not distinguish one note from another.  But he accepted the offer.  He studied the philosophical theory of music, and found that science would be a substitute for his want of ear.  He commenced by building a small organ for Dr. Black, and then proceeded to the large one.  He was always, he said, dissatisfied both with other people's work and his own, and this habit of his mind made him study to improve upon whatever came before him.  Thus in the process of building his organ he devised a number of novel expedients, such as indicators and regulators of the strength of the blast, with various contrivances for improving the efficiency of the stops.  The qualities of the organ when finished are said to have elicited the surprise and admiration of musicians.  He seems at one period to have been almost as much a maker of musical as of mathematical instruments.  He constructed and repaired guitars, flutes, and violins, and had the same success as with his organ.

    Small as was Watt's business, there was one circumstance connected with his situation which must have been peculiarly grateful to a man of his accomplishments and thirst for knowledge.  His shop, being conveniently situated within the College, was a favourite resort for professors as well as students.  Amongst his visitors were the famous Dr. Black, Professor Simson, the restorer of the science of geometry, Dr. Dick, and Dr. Moor; and even Dr. Adam Smith looked in occasionally.  But of all his associates none is more closely connected with the name and history of Watt than John Robison, then a student at Glasgow, and afterwards Professor of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University.  He was nearer Watt's own age than the rest, and stood in the intimate relation of bosom friend as well as fellow-inquirer in science.  Robison was a prepossessing person, frank and lively, full of fancy and good humour, and a general favourite in the College.  He was a capital talker, an extensive linguist, and a good musician; yet, with all his versatility, he was a profound thinker and a diligent student, especially of mathematical and mechanical philosophy, as he afterwards abundantly proved in his able contributions to the "Encyclopædia Britannica," of which he was the designer and first editor.

    Robison's introduction to Watt has been described by himself.  After feasting his eyes on the beautifully finished instruments, Robison entered into conversation with him.  Expecting to find a workman, he was surprised to discover a philosopher.  "I had the vanity," said Robison, "to think myself a pretty good proficient in my favourite study (mathematical and mechanical philosophy), and was rather mortified at finding Mr. Watt so much my superior.  But his own high relish for these things made him pleased with the chat of any person who had the same tastes with himself; and his innate complaisance made him indulge my curiosity, and even encourage my endeavours to form a more intimate acquaintance with him.  I lounged much about him, and, I doubt not, was frequently teasing him.  Thus our acquaintance began."  Shortly after, Robison, who had been originally destined for the Church, left College.  Being of a roving disposition, he entered the navy as a midshipman, and was present at some of the most remarkable actions of the war; and, amongst others, at the storming of Quebec.  Robison was on duty in the boat which carried Wolfe to the point where the army scaled the heights the night before the battle, and, as the sun was setting in the west, the General, doubtless from an association of ideas which was suggested by the dangers of the coming struggle, recited Gray's Elegy, and declared that "he would prefer being the author of that poem to the glory of beating the French on the morrow."

    When Robison returned from his voyagings in 1763, a travelled man,—having had the advantage during his absence of acting as confidential assistant of Admiral Knowles in the course of his marine surveys and observations,—he reckoned himself more than on a par with Watt; but he soon found that his friend had been still busier than himself, and was continually striking into new paths, where Robison was obliged to be his follower.  The extent of the mathematical-instrument maker's investigations was no less remarkable than the depth to which he pursued them.  Not only did he master the principles of engineering, civil and military, but he diverged into studies in antiquity, natural history, languages, criticism, and art.  Every pursuit became science in his hands, and he made use of this subsidiary knowledge as stepping-stones towards his favourite objects.  Before long he was regarded as one of the ablest men about the College; and "when," said Robison, "to the superiority of knowledge, which every man confessed, in his own line, is joined the naive simplicity and candour of his character, it is no wonder that the attachment of his acquaintances was so strong.  I have seen something of the world, and I am obliged to say that I never saw such another instance of general and cordial attachment to a person whom all acknowledged to be their superior.  But this superiority was concealed under the most amiable candour, and liberal allowance of merit to every man.  Mr. Watt was the first to ascribe to the ingenuity of a friend things which were very often nothing but his own surmises followed out and embodied by another.  I am well entitled to say this, and have often experienced it in my own case."  There are few traits in biography more charming than these generous recognitions of merit, mutually attributed by the one friend to the other.  Arago, in quoting the words of Robison, has well observed that it is difficult to determine whether the honour of having uttered them be not as great as that of having inspired them.

    By this high-minded friend the attention of Watt was first directed to the subject of the steam-engine.  Robison in 1759 suggested to him that it might be applied to the moving of wheel-carriages.  The scheme was not matured, and indeed science was not yet ripe for the locomotive.  But after a short interval Watt again reverted to the study of steam, and in 1761 he was busily engaged in performing experiments with the humble aid of apothecaries' phials and a small Papin's digester.  There were then no museums of art and science to resort to for information, and he perhaps cultivated his own powers the more thoroughly, that he had no such easy methods of acquiring knowledge.  He mounted his digester with a syringe a third of an inch in diameter, containing a solid piston.  When he turned a cock the steam rushed from the digester against the lower side of the piston in the syringe, and by its expansive power raised a weight of fifteen pounds with which the piston was loaded.  Then again turning the cock, which was arranged so as to cut off the communication with the digester, and open a passage to the air, the steam escaped, and the weight upon the piston, being no longer counteracted, forced it to descend.  He saw it would be easy to contrive that the cocks should be turned by the machinery instead of by the hand, and the whole be made to work of itself with perfect regularity.  But there was an objection to the method.  Water is converted into vapour, as soon as its elasticity is sufficient to overcome the weight of the air which keeps it down.  Under the ordinary pressure of the atmosphere the water acquires this necessary elasticity at 212°; but as the steam in Papin's digester was prevented from escaping, it acquired increased heat, and by consequence increased elasticity.  Hence it was that the steam which issued from the digester was not only able to support the piston and the air which pressed upon its upper surface, but the additional load with which the piston was weighted.  With the imperfect mechanical construction, however, of those days, there was a risk that the boiler in which this high-pressure steam was generated would be burst by its expansive power, which also enabled it to force its way through the ill-made joints of the engine.  This, conjoined with the great expenditure of steam, led Watt to abandon the plan.  The exigencies of business did not then allow him to pursue his experiments, and the subject again slept till the winter of 1763-64.

    The College at Glasgow possessed a model of one of Newcomen's engines, which had been sent to London for repair.  It would appear that the eminent artificer to whom it had been entrusted paid little attention to it, for at a University meeting in June, 1760, a resolution was passed to allow Mr. Anderson "to lay out a sum not exceeding two pounds sterling to recover the steam-engine from Mr. Sisson, instrument-maker, at London."  In 1763 this clumsy little engine, destined to become so famous, was put into the hands of Watt.  The boiler was somewhat smaller than an ordinary tea-kettle, the cylinder two inches in diameter, and the mathematical-instrument maker merely regarded it as "a fine plaything."  When, however, he had repaired the machine and set it to work, he found that the boiler, though apparently sufficiently large, could not supply steam fast enough, and only a few strokes of the piston could be secured.  The fire under it was stimulated by blowing, and more steam was produced, but still the machine would not work properly.  Exactly at the point where another man would have abandoned the task in despair, the mind of Watt became thoroughly roused.  "Everything," says Professor Robison, "was to him the beginning of a new and serious study; and we knew he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificance, or had made something of it."  Thus it happened with the phenomenon presented by the model of the steam-engine.  He endeavoured to ascertain from books by what means he was to remedy the defects; and when books failed to aid him, he commenced a course of experiments, and resolved to work out the problem for himself.  In the course of his inquiries he came upon a fact which more than any other led his mind into the train of thought which at last conducted him to the invention of which the results were destined to prove so stupendous.  This fact was the existence of latent heat.  But before we go on to state his proceedings, it is necessary to describe the condition at which the steam-engine had arrived when his investigations commenced.

    Steam had not then become a common mechanical power.  The sole use to which it was applied was to pump water from mines.  A beam, moving upon a centre, had affixed to one end of it a chain, which was attached to the piston of the pump; to the other end of it a chain, which was attached to a piston that fitted a cylinder.  It was by driving this latter piston up and down the cylinder that the pump was worked.  To communicate the necessary movement to the piston, the steam generated in a boiler was admitted to the bottom of the cylinder, forcing out the air through a valve, and by its pressure upon the under side of the piston counterbalancing the pressure of the atmosphere upon its upper side.  The piston, thus placed between two equal and opposite forces, was then drawn up to the top of the cylinder by the greater weight of the pump-gear at the opposite extremity of the beam.  The steam, so far, only discharged the office which was performed by the air it displaced; but if the air had been allowed to remain, the piston once at the top of the cylinder could not have returned, being pressed as much by the atmosphere underneath as by the atmosphere above it.  The steam, on the contrary, could be condensed, by injecting cold water through the bottom of the cylinder.  This caused a vacuum below the piston, which was now unsupported, and descended by the pressure of the atmosphere upon its upper surface.  When the piston reached the bottom, the steam was again let in, and the process was repeated.

    This was the machine in use when Watt was pursuing the investigations into which he was led by the little model of the Newcomen engine.  Among other experiments, "he constructed a boiler which showed, by inspection, the quantity of water evaporated in a given time, and thereby ascertained the quantity of steam used in every stroke of the engine."  He was astonished to discover that a small quantity of water, in the form of steam, heated a large quantity of water injected into the cylinder for the purpose of cooling it; and upon further examination, he ascertained that steam heated six times its weight of well-water to 212°, which was the temperature of the steam itself.  Unable to understand so remarkable a circumstance, he mentioned it to Dr. Black, who then expounded to him the theory of latent heat, which this great, chemist had already taught his pupils, unknown to Watt.  This vast amount of heat stored up in the steam, and not indicated by the thermometer, involved a proportionate consumption of coals.  When Watt learnt that water, in its conversion into vapour, became such a reservoir of heat, he was more than ever bent upon economizing it, striving, with the same quantity of fuel, at once to augment its production and diminish its waste.  "He greatly improved the boiler," says Professor Robison, "by increasing the surface to which the fire was applied; he made flues through the middle of the water, and made his boiler of wood, as a worse conductor of heat than the brick-work which surrounds common furnaces.  He cased the cylinder and all the conducting-pipes in materials which conducted heat very slowly; he even made them of wood."  But none of these contrivances were effectual; for it turned out that the chief expenditure of steam, and consequently of fuel, was in the re-heating the cylinder after it had been cooled by the injection of the cold water.  Nearly four fifths of the whole steam employed was condensed on its first admission, before the surplus could act upon the piston.  Watt therefore came to the conclusion, that, to make a perfect steam-engine, it was necessary that the cylinder should be always as hot as the steam that entered it; but it was equally necessary that the steam should be condensed when the piston descended,—nay, that it should be cooled down below 100°, or a considerable amount of vapour would be given off, which would resist the descent of the piston and diminish the power of the engine. [p.21]  The two conditions seemed quite incompatible.  The cylinder was never to be at a less temperature than 212°, and yet at each descent of the piston it was to be less than 100°.

    "He continued," he says, "to grope in the dark, misled by many an ignis fatuus."  At length, as he was taking a walk one Sunday afternoon, in the spring of 1765, the solution of the problem suddenly flashed upon his mind.  As steam was an elastic vapour, it would expand and rush into a previously exhausted space.  He had only to produce a vacuum in a separate vessel, and open a communication between this vessel and the cylinder of the steam-engine at the moment when the piston was required to descend, and the steam would disseminate itself and become divided between the cylinder and the adjoining vessel.  But as this vessel would be kept cold by an injection of water, the steam would be annihilated as fast as it entered, which would cause a fresh outflow of the remaining steam in the cylinder till nearly the whole of it was condensed, without the cylinder itself being chilled in the operation.  An air-pump, worked by the steam-engine, would pump from the subsidiary vessel the heated water, air, and vapour, accumulated by the condensing process.  Great and prolific ideas are almost always simple.  What seems impossible at the outset appears so obvious when it is effected, that we are prone to marvel that it did not force itself at once upon the mind.  Late in life, Watt, with his accustomed modesty, declared his belief that, if he had excelled, it had been by chance, and the neglect of others.  But mankind has been more just to him than he was to himself.  There was no accident in the discovery.  It had been the result of close and continuous study, and the idea of the separate condenser, which flashed upon him in a moment, and filled him with rapture, was merely the last step of a long journey,—a step which could not have been taken unless the previous road had been traversed.

    The steam in Newcomer's engine was only employed to produce a vacuum.  The working power of the engine was in the down stroke, which was effected by the pressure of the air upon the piston; hence it is now usual to call it the atmospheric engine.  Watt perceived that the air which followed the piston down the cylinder would cool the latter, and that steam would be wasted in reheating it.  To effect a further saving, he resolved "to put an air-tight cover upon the cylinder, with a hole and stuffing box for the piston-rod to slide through, and to admit steam above the piston, to act upon it instead of the atmosphere."  When the steam had done its duty in driving down the piston, a communication was opened between the upper and lower part of the cylinder, and the same steam, distributing itself equally in both compartments, sufficed to restore equilibrium.  The piston was now drawn up by the weight of the pump-gear, the steam beneath it was then condensed to leave a vacuum, and a fresh jet of steam from the boiler was let in above the piston, and forced it again to the bottom of the cylinder.  From an atmospheric it had thus become a true steam-engine, and with a much greater economy of steam than when the air did half the duty.  But it was not only important to keep the air from flowing down the inside of the cylinder.  The air which circulated without cooled the metal, and condensed a portion of the steam within.  This Watt proposed to remedy by a second cylinder, surrounding the first, with an interval between the two which was to be kept full of steam.  "When once," he says, "the idea of separate condensation was started, all these improvements followed as corollaries in quick succession, so that in the course of one or two days the invention was thus far complete in my mind."

    But although the engine was complete in his mind, it cost Watt many long and laborious years before he could perfect it in execution.  One source of delay was the numerous expedients which sprung up in his fertile mind, "which," he said, "his want of experience in the practice of mechanics in great flattered him would prove more commodious than his matured experience had shown them to be.  Experimental knowledge is of slow growth, and he tried too many fruitless experiments on such variations."  One of his chief difficulties was to find mechanics to make his large models for him.  The beautiful metal workmanship which has been called into being by his own invention did not then exist.  The only available hands in Glasgow were the blacksmiths and tinners,—little capable of constructing articles out of their ordinary walk.  He accordingly hired a small workshop in a back street of the town, where he might himself erect a working model, with the aid of his assistant, John Gardiner.  His mind, as may be supposed, was absorbed in the desire to realize his beautiful conception.  "I am at present," he wrote to his friend Dr. Lind, "quite barren on every other article, my whole thoughts being bent on this machine."  The first model, on account of the bad construction of the larger parts, was only partially successful, and then a second and bigger model was commenced in August, 1765.  In October it was at work; but the machine leaked in all directions, and the piston proved not steam-tight.  To secure a nice-fitting piston, with the indifferent workmanship of that day, taxed his ingenuity to the utmost.  At so low an ebb was the art of making cylinders, that the one he employed was not bored but hammered, the collective mechanical skill of Glasgow being then unequal to the casting and boring of a cylinder of the simplest kind.  In the Newcomen engine a little water was poured upon the upper surface of the piston, and filled up the interstices between the piston and the cylinder.  But when Watt employed steam to drive down the piston, he was deprived of this resource; for the water and the steam could not coexist.  Even if he had retained the agency of the air above, the drip of water from the crevices into the lower part of the cylinder would have been incompatible with keeping the surface hot and dry, and, by turning into vapour as it fell upon the heated metal, it would have impaired the vacuum during the descent of the piston.  To add to Watt's troubles, while he was busied with his model, the tinner, who was his leading mechanic, died.  "My old white-iron man is dead," he wrote to Dr. Roebuck in December,—an almost irreparable loss!  By the addition of collars of varnished cloth the piston was made steam-tight, and the machine went cleverly and successfully on repeated trials, at a pressure of ten to fourteen pounds on the square inch.  Thus inch by inch Watt battled down difficulty, held good the ground he had gained, verified the expectations he had formed, and placed the advantages of the invention, to his own mind, beyond the reach of doubt.

    Watt's means were small, and there were no capitalists in Glasgow likely to take up the steam-engine.  Commercial enterprise had scarcely begun, or was still confined to the trade in tobacco.  To give a fair trial to the new apparatus would involve an expenditure of several thousand pounds; and who on the spot could be expected to invest so large a sum in trying a machine so entirely new, and depending for its success on physical principles very imperfectly understood?  But he had not far to go for an associate.  "Most fortunately," says Professor Robison, "there was in the neighbourhood such a person as he wished,—Dr. Roebuck, a gentleman of very uncommon knowledge in all the branches of civil engineering, familiarly acquainted with the steam-engine, of which he employed several in his collieries, and deeply interested in this improvement.  He was also well accustomed to great enterprises, of an undaunted spirit, not scared by difficulties, nor a niggard of expense."  He was born at Sheffield in 1718, and practised as a physician at Birmingham with distinguished success, had made many improvements in various manufacturing arts, and was now engaged in the double task of carrying on iron-works at Carron and sinking coal-mines at Borrowstoness.

    As early as August, 1765, Watt was in full correspondence with Roebuck on the subject of the engine.  No partnership was entered into till 1767; but it is evident, from the nature of Watt's letters, that Roebuck took the greatest interest in the project, and had probably pledged himself to engage in it if the experiments promised success.  In November, Watt sent detailed drawings of a covered cylinder and piston to be cast at the Carron works.  Though the cylinder was the best that could be made there, it was so ill-bored as to be useless.  The piston-rod was constructed at Glasgow, under his own supervision; and when it was completed, he was afraid to send it in a cart, lest the work-people should see it, which would "occasion speculation."  "I believe," he added, "it will be best to send it in a box."  These precautions would seem to have been dictated by a fear of piracy.  The necessity of acting by stealth increased the difficulties arising from the clumsiness and inexperience of the mechanics.  There is a gap in the correspondence of Watt with Roebuck from May, 1766, to January, 1768, and we hear no more of this piston-rod or of its worthless cylinder.  Something, however, must have occurred in the interval to inspire Roebuck with confidence, for, in 1767, he undertook to pay a debt of £1,000 which Watt had contracted in prosecuting his project, to provide the money for the further experiments, and to pay for the patent.  In return for this outlay, he was to have two thirds of the property in the invention.

    In April, 1768, Watt made trial of a new model.  The result was not altogether satisfactory.  Roebuck, in reply to the announcement, asked Watt to meet him at Kilsythe, a place about half-way between Carron and Glasgow, and talk the matter over.  "I would," says Watt, in his answer, "with all my heart, wait upon you on Friday, but am far from being well, and the fatigue of the ride would disable me from doing anything for three or four days; besides, I hope by that time to have a more successful trial, without which I cannot have peace in my mind to enjoy anything."  After various contrivances, a trial which he made on the 24th of May answered to his heart's content.  "I intend," he wrote to Dr. Roebuck, "to have the pleasure of seeing you at Kinneil on Saturday or Friday.  I sincerely wish you joy of this successful result, and hope it will make you some return for the obligations I ever will remain under to you."  Kinneil House, where Watt hastened to pay his visit of congratulation to Dr. Roebuck, was a singular old edifice, a former country-seat of the Dukes of Hamilton, finely situated on the shores of the Forth, with large apartments and stately staircases, and an external style of architecture which resembles the old French chateau.  The mansion has become rich in classical associations, having been inhabited, since Roebuck's time, by Dugald Stewart, who wrote in it his "Philosophy of the Human Mind."  There he was visited by Wilkie, the painter, when in search of subjects for his pictures, and Dugald Stewart found for him, in an old farm-house in the neighbourhood, the cradle-chimney which is introduced in the "Penny Wedding."  But none of these names can stand by the side of that of Watt, and the first thought at Kinneil, of every one who is familiar with his history, would be of the memorable day when he rode over in exultation to Dr. Roebuck to wish him joy of the success of the steam-engine.  His note of triumph was, however, premature.  He had yet to suffer many sickening delays, and many bitter disappointments; for though he had contrived to get his model executed with fair precision, the skill was still wanting for manufacturing the parts in their full size with the requisite nicety, and his present conquest was succeeded by discomfiture.

    The model went so well that it was now determined to take out a patent, and in August, 1768, Watt went to London for the purpose.  After transacting his business he proceeded home by way of Birmingham, then the best school of mechanics in England.  He here saw his future partner, Mr. Boulton, for the first time, and they at once conceived for each other a hearty regard.  Mr. Boulton, in particular, was strongly impressed both by the character and genius of Watt.  They had much conversation respecting the engine, and it cheered its inventor that the sagacious and practical Birmingham manufacturer augured well of its success.  Watt seems, however, to have been seized with low spirits on his return to Glasgow; his heart probably aching with anxiety for his family, whom it was hard to maintain upon hope so often deferred.  The more sanguine Doctor was elated with the good working of the model, and he was impatient to put the invention in practice.  "You are letting," he wrote to Watt, October 30th, 1768, "the most active part of your life insensibly glide away.  A day, a moment, ought not to be lost.  And you should not suffer your thoughts to be diverted by any other object, or even improvement of this, but only the speediest and most effectual manner of executing one of a proper size, according to your present ideas."  This was an allusion to the fresh expedients which were always starting up in Watt's brain, and which appeared endlessly to protract the consummation of the work; but it was by never resting satisfied with imperfect devices that he attained to perfection.  Long after, when a noble lord was expressing his admiration at his great achievement, Watt replied, "The public only look at my success, and not on the intermediate failures and uncouth constructions which have served as steps to climb to the top of the ladder."  As to the lethargy of which Roebuck spoke, it was merely the temporary reaction of a mind strained and wearied with long-continued application to a single subject.

    The patent was dated January 5th, 1769, a year also memorable as that in which Arkwright took out the patent for his spinning-machine, and Watt by the law had four months in which to prepare his specification.  To render it as perfect as possible, he commenced a series of fresh experiments, and all his spare hours were devoted to making various trials of pipe-condensers and drum-condensers,—trying to contrive new methods of securing tightness of the piston, and devising steam jackets to prevent the waste of heat,—inventing oil-pumps, gauge-pumps, and exhausting-cylinders,—loading valves, beams, and cranks.

    He commenced at Kinneil the construction of a steam-engine on a larger scale than he had yet attempted.  It had been originally intended to erect it in the small town of Borrowstoness; but as he wished to avoid display, being determined, as he said, "not to puff," he put it up in an outhouse at Kinneil, close by the burnside in the glen, where there was abundance of water and secure privacy.  The materials were brought partly from Glasgow and partly from Carron, where the cylinder had been cast.  The process of erection was tedious, for the mechanics were unused to the work.  Watt was occasionally compelled to be absent on other business, and he generally on his return found the men at a stand-still, not knowing what to do next.  As the engine neared completion "his anxiety for his approaching doom kept him from sleep," for his fears, he says, were at least equal to his hopes.  The whole was finished in September, 1769, and proved a "clumsy job."  One of his new contrivances did not work well; and the cylinder, having been badly cast, was almost useless.  Watt again was grievously depressed.  "It is a sad thing," he wrote to his friend, Dr. Small of Birmingham, in March, 1770, "for a man to have his all hanging by a single string.  If I had wherewithal to pay the loss, I don't think I should so much fear a failure; but I cannot bear the thought of other people becoming losers by my scheme, and I have the happy disposition of always painting the worst."  His poverty was already compelling him to relinquish his experiments for employment of more pecuniary profit.

    Watt had married his cousin, Miss Miller, in July, 1764.  His expenses were thus enlarged almost at the very moment when his invention began to fill his mind, and distracted his attention from his ordinary calling.  His increasing family led him before long to seek employment as a land-surveyor, or, as it is called in Scotland, a "land-louper."  Much of his business was of the class which now belongs to the civil engineer, and in 1767 he laid out a small canal to unite the rivers Forth and Clyde.  There was a rival scheme, cheaper and more direct, which was espoused by the celebrated Smeaton, and Watt had to appear before a Committee of the House of Commons to defend his plan.  "I think," he wrote to Mrs. Watt, April 5, 1767, "I shall not long to have anything to do with the House of Commons again: I never saw so many wrong-headed people on all sides gathered together."  The fact that they decided against him had probably its share in producing this opinion of their wrong-headedness.

    In April, 1769, when he was busily engaged in erecting the Kinneil engines, he heard that a linen-draper in London, of the name of Moore, had plagiarized his invention, and the reflections which this drew forth from him is an evidence of the settled despondency which clouded his mind, and even cramped his faculties.


    "I have resolved, unless these things that I have now brought to some perfection reward me for the time and money I have lost on them, if I can resist it, to invent no more.  Indeed, I am not near so capable as I once was; I find that I am not the same person that I was four years ago, when I invented the fire-engine, and foresaw, even before I made a model, almost every circumstance that has since occurred.  I was at that time spurred on by the alluring hope of placing myself above want, without being obliged to have much dealing with mankind, to whom I have always been a dupe.  The necessary experience in great was wanting; in acquiring which I have met with many disappointments. [p.30]  I must have sunk under the burden of them if I had not been supported by the friendship of Dr. Roebuck.  I have now brought the engine near a conclusion, yet I am not in idea nearer that rest I wish for than I was four years ago.  However, I am resolved to do all I can to carry on this business, and if it does not thrive with me I will lay aside the burden I cannot carry.  Of all things in life there is nothing more foolish than inventing."


    It is nevertheless a remarkable proof of his indefatigable perseverance in his favourite pursuit, that at this very time, when apparently sunk in the depths of gloom, he learnt German for the sole purpose of getting at the contents of a curious book, the Theatrum Machinarum of Leupold, which just then fell into his hands, and which contained an account of the machines, furnaces, methods of working, profits, &c., of the mines in the Upper Hartz.  His instructor on the occasion was a Swiss dyer settled in Glasgow.  With the similar object of gaining access to untranslated books in French and Italian,—then the great depositories of mechanical and engineering knowledge,—Watt had already mastered both these languages.

    Mrs. Watt had on one occasion written to him, "If the engine will not do, something else will: never despair."  The engine did not do for the present, and he was compelled to continue his surveying.  Instead of laying aside one burden he was constrained to add a second.  In September, 1769, just when he tried the Kinneil engine, he was employed in examining the Clyde with a view to improve the navigation,—for the river was still so shallow as to prevent boats of more than ten tons burden ascending to the Broomielaw.  Watt made his report, but no steps were taken to execute his suggestions until several years later, when the commencement was made of a series of improvements, which have resulted in the conversion of the Clyde from a pleasant trouting-stream into one of the busiest navigable highways in Europe.

    "I would not have meddled with it," he wrote to Dr. Small,


"had I been certain of bringing the engine to bear; but I cannot, on an uncertainty, refuse any piece of business that offers.  I have refused some common fire-engines, [p.31] because they must have taken up my attention so as to hinder my going on with my own.  However, if I cannot make it answer soon, I shall certainly undertake the next that offers; for I cannot afford to trifle away my whole life, which God knows may not be long.  Not that I think myself a proper hand for keeping men to their duty; but I must use my endeavour to make myself square with the world if I can, though I much fear I never shall."


    "To-day," he again wrote to Dr. Small on the 31st of January, 1770,


"I enter into the thirty-fifth year of my life, and I think I have hardly done thirty-five pence worth of good in the world; but I cannot help it."


    The people of Glasgow decided upon making a canal for coal traffic to the collieries at Monkland, in Lanarkshire; "and having," says Watt, "conceived a much higher idea of my abilities than they merit, they resolved to encourage a man that lived among them rather than a stranger."  He made the survey in 1769, and the air and exercise acted like a cordial upon him.  "The time," he wrote to Dr. Small, January 3, 1770, "has not been thrown away, for the vaguing [wandering] about the country, and bodily fatigue, have given me health and spirits beyond what I commonly enjoy at this dreary season, though they would still thole amends [bear improvement].  Hire yourself to somebody for a ploughman,—it will cure ennui."  He made another survey of a canal from Perth to Cupar in the spring of 1770, with a less favourable result.  The weather was inclement, and the wind and snow and cold brought back his low spirits and ill health.  When the Act for the Monkland Canal was obtained, he was invited to superintend the execution of it, and "had to select whether to go on with the experiments on the engine, the event of which was uncertain, or to embrace an honourable and perhaps profitable employment."  His necessities decided him.  "I had a wife and children, and saw myself growing gray without having any settled way of providing for them."  He determined, however, not to drop the engine, but to proceed with it the first spare moments he could find.  In December, 1770, he made a report to Dr. Small of his experience in canal-making, and it was not very favourable.  His constant headaches continued, but in other respects he had gained in vigour of mind and body.  "I find myself more more resolute, less lazy, less confused than I was when I began it."  His pecuniary affairs were also more prosperous.  "Supposing the engine to stand good for itself, I am able to pay all my debts, and some little thing more, so that I hope in time to be on a par with the world."  But there was a dark side to the picture.  His life was one of vexation, fatigue, hunger, wet, and cold.  The quiet and secluded habits of his early life did not fit him for the out-door work of the engineer.  He was timid and reserved, and wanted that rough strength,—that navvy sort of character,—which enables a man to deal with rude labourers.  He was nervously fearful lest his want of experience should betray him into scrapes, and lead to impositions on the part of the workmen.  He hated higgling, and declared that he would rather "face a loaded cannon than settle an account or make a bargain."  He acted as surveyor, engineer, superintendent, and treasurer, with only the assistance of one clerk; and had been "cheated," he said, "by undertakers, and was unlucky enough to know it."  His men were so inexperienced, that he had to watch the execution of every piece of work that was out of the common track.  Yet, with all this, "the work done was slovenly, the workmen bad, and he himself not sufficiently strict."  The defect which he charged on himself was merely the want of training and experience in the labourers.  When Telford afterwards went into the Highlands to construct the Caledonian Canal, he encountered the same difficulty.  The men were unable to make use of the most ordinary tools; they had no steadiness in their labour; and they had to be taught, and drilled, and watched like children at school.  In fact, every great undertaking in engineering may be regarded in the light of a working academy in which men are trained to the skilful use of tools and the habit of persistent industry; and the Scotch labourers were only then passing through the elementary discipline.  Watt determined he would not continue a slave to this hateful employment.  He was willing to act as engineer, but not as manager, and said he would have nothing to do "with workmen, cash, or workmen's accounts."

    His superintendence of the Monkland Canal, for which he received a salary of £200 a year, lasted from June, 1770, to December, 1772.  Before that period had expired, a commercial crisis had arrived; and Dr. Roebuck, whose unremunerative speculations had already brought him to the verge of ruin, was unable to weather the storm.  All the anxieties of Watt were revived, and more for Roebuck than for himself.  But an extract from his letter to Dr. Small, on the 30th of August, 1772, will best speak his sentiments:—


    "I pursued my experiments till I found that the expense and loss of time lying wholly upon me, through the distress of Dr. Roebuck's situation, turned out to be a burden greater than I could support, and not having conquered all the difficulties that lay in the way of the execution, I was obliged for a time to abandon the project.  Since that time I have been able to extricate myself from some part of my private debts, but am by no means yet in a situation to be the principal in so considerable an undertaking.  The Doctor's affairs, being yet far from being reinstated, give me little hope of help from that quarter: in the meantime the time of the patent is running on.  It is a matter of great vexation to me that the Doctor should be out so great a sum upon this affair, while he has otherwise such pressing occasion for the money.  I find myself unable to give him such help as his situation requires; and what little I can do for him is purchased by denying myself the conveniences of life my situation requires, or by remaining in debt where it galls me to the bone to owe."


    He repeated in November, that nothing gave him so much pain as having entangled Dr. Roebuck in the scheme, and that he would willingly have resigned all prospect of profit to himself, provided his associate could have been indemnified.  He regarded the considerable sum which he had sunk on his own part, "as money spent upon his education," and looked for scarce any other recompense "for the anxiety and ruin in which the engine had involved him."  These are the sentiments of a mind of sensitive honour, as well as scrupulous integrity.  In the issue, the embarrassments of Roebuck proved the making of the steam-engine and of Watt.

    The association of Watt with Dr. Roebuck was in many respects fortunate, for the latter possessed the qualities in which the former was deficient.  "I find myself," Watt wrote, "out of my sphere when I have anything to do with mankind; it is enough for an engineer to force Nature, and to bear the vexation of her getting the better of him.  Give me a survey to make, and I think you will have credit of me; set me to contrive a machine, and I will exert myself."  To invent was Watt's faculty; to push an invention was entirely contrary to his temperament.  Not only was he averse to business, but he was easily depressed by little obstructions, and alarmed at unforeseen expense.  Roebuck, on the contrary, was sanguine, adventurous, and energetic.  The disposition of Watt to despond under difficulties, and his painful diffidence in himself, were frequent subjects of friendly merriment at Kinneil House; and Mrs. Roebuck said one evening: "Jamie is a queer lad, and without the Doctor his invention would have been lost; but Dr. Roebuck won't let it perish."  Watt always acknowledged the debt he owed him, and declared he had been to him "a most sincere and generous friend."  The alliance, however, was not without its drawbacks.  The extensive undertakings of Dr. Roebuck absorbed both his capital and his time.  He was unable to pay, according to the terms of his engagement, the expenses of the patent, and Watt had to borrow the money from Dr. Black.  His coal and iron-works required incessant superintendence, and the management of the business connected with the steam-engine chiefly devolved upon Watt, who said he "was incapable of it from his natural inactivity, and want of health and resolution."  When he passed through Birmingham on his way from London, in October, 1768, Mr. Boulton, who then knew nothing of Watt's agreement with Roebuck, offered to be concerned in the speculation.  This gave "great joy" to Watt, and he wished Dr. Roebuck to consent.  But the latter "grew more tenacious of the project the nearer it approached to certainty," and he only proposed to Boulton to allow him a share in the engine for the counties of Warwick, Stafford, and Derby.  The letter which Boulton wrote to Watt upon the occasion (Feb. 7, 1769) shows how clearly he saw what was required to render the invention available:


    "I was excited by two motives to offer you my assistance,—which were, love of you, and love of a money-getting, ingenious project.  I presumed that your engine would require money, very accurate workmanship, and extensive correspondence, to make it turn out to the best advantage; and that the best means of keeping up the reputation, and doing the invention justice, would be to keep the executive part out of the hands of the multitude of empirical engineers, who, from ignorance, want of experience, and want of necessary convenience, would be very liable to produce bad and inaccurate workmanship,—all which deficiencies would affect the reputation of the invention.  To remedy which, and to produce the most profit, my idea was to settle a manufactory near to my own, by the side of our canal, where I would erect all the conveniences necessary for the completion of engines, and from which manufactory we would serve all the world with engines of all sizes.  By these means, and your assistance, we would engage and instruct some excellent workmen, who (with more excellent tools than would be worth any man's while to procure for one single engine) could execute the invention twenty per cent cheaper than it would be otherwise executed, and with as great a difference of accuracy as there is between the blacksmith and the mathematical-instrument maker.  It would not be worth my while to make for three counties only; but I find it very well worth my while to make for all the world."


    This was precisely the plan which was ultimately adopted.  Watt, when he read it, must have been more than ever urgent to have Boulton for a coadjutor, and he again, in September, 1769, pressed upon Roebuck the wisdom of admitting him into the partnership.  In November, Roebuck proposed to make over a third of the patent to Mr. Boulton or Dr. Small for any sum, not less than £1,000, which they should think reasonable, after the experiments on the engine were finished.  They were to take their final resolution at the end of a year; but though they assented to the terms, no agreement seems to have been made at the conclusion of the twelvemonth; and it was not till ruin drove Roebuck to sell his share, that the bargain was struck.  Then he transferred his entire property in the patent to Mr. Boulton in the latter half of 1773, in consideration of being released from a debt of £630, and receiving the first £1,000 of profit from the engine.  "My heart bleeds for his situation," Watt wrote to Boulton, "and I can do nothing to help him.  I stuck by him till I have much hurt myself.  I can do so no longer; my family calls for my care to provide for them.  Yet, if I have, I cannot see the Doctor in want, which I am afraid will soon be the case."  The situation of this able, upright, and enterprising man, who deserved a better fate, was not, in the opinion of his assignees, rendered worse by the sale of his share in the steam-engine, for they did not value it at a single farthing.  Even Watt said that Boulton had got one bad debt in exchange for another.

    This was the turning-point in Watt's fortunes.  It was the imperfect workmanship, and ineffective superintendence, which had caused the failure of so many experiments, and the wise and vigorous management of Mr. Boulton was soon to show the engine in its true powers.  But before Watt enjoyed this triumph, he had another bitter cup to drink.  He was suddenly summoned to Glasgow in the autumn of 1773, when on a survey of the Caledonian Canal, by intelligence of the illness of his wife.  The journey was dreary, through a country without roads.  "An incessant rain," said he, "kept me for three days as wet as water could make me: I could hardly preserve my journal book."  On reaching home he found his wife had died in childbed.  She had struggled with him through poverty, had often cheered his fainting spirit when borne down by doubt, perplexity, and disappointment; and often afterwards he paused on the threshold of his house, unable to summon courage to enter the room where he was never more to meet "the comfort of his life."  "Yet this misfortune," he wrote to Small, "might have fallen upon me when I had less ability to bear it, and my poor children might have been left suppliants to the mercy of the wide world.  I know that grief has its period; but I have much to suffer first."  "None of the many trying calamities," he said, fifteen years afterwards, "to which human nature is subjected, bears harder or longer on a thinking mind than that grief which arises from the loss of friends.  But, like other evils, it must be endured with patience.  The most powerful remedy is to apply to business or amusements which call the mind from its sorrows and prevent it from preying on itself.  In the fullness of our grief we are apt to think that allowing ourselves to pursue objects which may turn our minds from the object it is but too much occupied with, is like a kind of insult or want of affection for the deceased, but we do not then argue fairly: our duty to the departed has come to a period, but our duty to our living family, to ourselves, and to the world, still subsists, and the sooner we can bring ourselves to attend to it the more meritorious."  Upon these wise sentiments he endeavoured, though not very successfully, to act.  To work was in some degree within the power of his will, but to regain the elasticity of the mind was beyond the reach of self-control.  "Man's life, you say," he wrote to Dr. Small, in December, 1773, "must be spent either in labour or ennui; mine is spent in both.  I am heart-sick of this country; I am indolent to excess, and, what alarms me most, I grow stupider.  My memory fails me so as often totally to forget occurrences of no very ancient dates.  I see myself condemned to a life of business; nothing can be more disagreeable to me; I tremble when I hear the name of a man I have any transactions to settle with.  The engineering business is not a vigorous plant; we are in general very poorly paid.  This last year my whole gains do not exceed £200."  But the darkest hour, it is said, is nearest the dawn.  Watt had passed through a long night, and a gleam of sunshine was at hand.  He was urged to proceed to Birmingham to superintend the manufacture of his engines, one of which was nearly completed.  He arrived at Birmingham in the summer of 1774, and in December he wrote to his father, now an old man, still resident at Greenock: "The business I am here about has turned out rather successful; that is to say, that the fire-engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made, and I expect that the invention will be very beneficial to me."  Such was Watt's modest announcement of the practical success of the greatest invention of the eighteenth century!

    His partner, who proved himself such an able second, had the rare quality of a first-rate man of business.  Mr. Boulton was not a mere buyer and seller, but a great designer, contriver, and organizer.  His own original trade was that of a manufacturer of plated goods, ormolu, and works in steel.  He subsequently turned his attention to improving the machinery for coining, and attained, says M. Arago, to such rapidity and perfection of execution, that he was employed by the British Government to recoin the whole copper specie of the kingdom.  His methods were established, under his superintendence, in several mints abroad, as well as in the National Mint of England.  With a keen eye for details, he combined a large and comprehensive grasp of intellect.  Whilst his senses were so acute that, sitting in his office at Soho, he could at once detect the slightest derangement in the machinery of his vast establishment, his power of imagination enabled him to look along extensive lines of possible action throughout Europe, America, and the Indies.  He was equally skilful in the fabrication of a button and in the establishment of the motive power that was to revolutionize the industrial operations of the world.  In short, he was a man of various gifts, nicely balanced and proportioned,—the best of tradesmen, a patron of art and science, the friend of philosophers and statesmen.  With all his independent titles to distinction, he esteemed the steam-engine of his friend the pride of his establishment.  Once, when he was in the company of Sir Walter Scott, he said, in reply to some remark: "That's like the old saying, In every corner of the world you will find a Scot, a rat, and a Newcastle grindstone."  This touched the national spirit of the novelist, and he retorted, "You should have added, and a Brummagem button."  "We make something better in Birmingham than buttons," replied Boulton,—"we make steam-engines and when he next met Scott, he showed that he had not forgiven the disparaging remark.  Boswell, who visited Soho in 1776, shortly after the manufacture of steam-engines had been commenced there, was struck by the vastness and contrivance of the machinery.  "I shall never forget," he says, "Mr. Boulton's expression to me, when surveying the works: 'I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have,—POWER.'"  "He had," continues Boswell, "about seven hundred people at work.  I contemplated him as an iron chieftain; and he seemed to be a father of his tribe.  One of the men came to him complaining grievously of his landlord for having distrained his goods.  'Your landlord is in the right, Smith,' said Boulton; 'but I'll tell you what,—find you a friend who will lay down one half of your rent, and I'll lay down the other, and you shall have your goods again.'"  Mrs. Schimmel-Penninck, a native of Birmingham, gives, in her autobiography, a lively description of his person.  "He was tall, and of a noble appearance; his temperament was sanguine, with that slight mixture of the phlegmatic which imparts calmness and dignity; his manners were eminently open and cordial; he took the lead in conversations, and, with a social heart, had a grandiose manner like that arising from position, wealth, and habitual command.  He went among his people like a monarch bestowing largess."

    Not long after Watt settled at Birmingham, he married his second wife, Miss Macgregor, the daughter of a citizen of Glasgow.  The precise date of the marriage is not stated by Mr. Muirhead, but it seems to have been in 1776, and at any rate took place much too early to render possible an incident told by Mrs. Schimmel-Penninck, that when Watt was mourning the loss of his first wife, Miss Macgregor—then a girl, according to the story, three or four years old—"came up to his knee, and, looking in his face, begged him not to grieve, for she would be his little wife, and make him happy."  This lady was a thrifty Scotch housewife, and such was her passion for cleanliness, that she taught her pet dogs to wipe their feet upon the door-mat.  Her propensity was carried to a pitch which often fretted her son by the restraints it imposed; and once when a lady apologized to him for the confusion in which he found her house, he exclaimed, "I love dirt!"  But Mrs. Watt was a partner worthy of her husband, and with the revival of his domestic felicity, and surrounded by all the appliances for perfecting his steam-engine, he was for a brief space in a happier position than he had enjoyed for many years past.

    The mechanics of Birmingham were the chief workers in metal in England.  The best tools and arms of the kingdom had been manufactured there almost from time immemorial, and the artisans possessed an aptitude for skilled manipulation which had descended to them from their fathers, like an inheritance.  Watt, as we have seen, had found to his sorrow that there was no such class of workmen in Scotland.  The consequence was, that the very first engine erected at Soho was a greater triumph than all that Watt had previously been able to accomplish.  Some of the most valuable copper-mines in Cornwall had been drowned out; Boulton immediately wrote to the miners, and informed them of the success of the new invention.  A deputation of Cornish miners went down to Birmingham to look at the engine.  There could be no doubt as to its efficiency, but it was dear, and it was some time before any orders were given.  Boulton saw that, to produce any large result, he must himself supply the capital, and he entered into an arrangement with the miners, by which he agreed to be at the whole cost, provided he was allowed as royalty one third of the value of the ascertained saving of coal, as compared with Newcomen's best engines.  The bargain having been struck, Watt went into Cornwall to superintend the work.  The impression produced by one of the earliest engines he erected is thus described in one of his letters to Mr. Boulton: "The velocity, violence, magnitude, and horrible noise of the engine, give unusual satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not.  I have once or twice trimmed the engine to end its strokes gently and make less noise; but Mr. ―― cannot sleep unless it seems quite furious, so I have left it to the engineman.  And, by the by, the noise seems to convey great ideas of its power to the ignorant, who seem to be no more taken with modest merit in an engine than in a man."  Whilst in Cornwall Watt, whose mechanical ingenuity was inexhaustible, invented a counter to ascertain the saving effected.  It was attached to the main beam, and marked the number of the strokes, which was the measure of the payment.  The register, which was contrived to keep the record for an entire year, was enclosed in a locked box, and thus fraud was prevented.  It was shortly found that the saving of coal by the new engine was nearly three fourths of the whole quantity formerly consumed, or equal to an annual saving on the Chacewater engine of £7,200.  Such a result did not fail to tell, and orders for engines soon came in at Soho; but the capital invested by Mr. Boulton amounted to some £47,000, before any profits began to be derived from their sale.

    As some years had been expended in unremunerative experiments, one of the first necessities, when it was apparent that the engine could be made to answer, was to obtain an extension of the patent, and in 1775 an Act of Parliament was passed to preserve the rights of the patentees till the year 1800, in consideration of the great utility of the invention, and the trouble and expense incurred in completing it.  It was long before it yielded any return.  In 1780, Watt and Boulton were still out of pocket, and in 1783 they had not realized a profit.  But the extension of the patent gave a stimulus to the busy brain of the inventor, and he continued to devise improvement upon improvement.  The application of the powers of steam to give a rotatory motion to mills, had from the first formed the subject of his particular attention, and in his patent of 1769 he described a method of producing continued movement in one direction, which Mr. Boulton proposed to employ for working boats along the canals.  A continuous movement of machinery had indeed to some extent been secured by the use of the steam-engine, which was employed to pump up water, the fall of which turned water-wheels in the usual way.  But Watt's object was to effect this by the direct action of the engine itself, and thus to supersede, in a great measure, the use of water, as well as of animal power.  This he at length accomplished by contrivances which are embodied in the patents he took out between the years 1781 and 1785.  Among other devices, these patents include the rotatory motion of the sun and planet-wheels, the expansive principle of working steam, the double engine, the parallel motion, the smokeless furnace, and the governor,—the whole forming a series of beautiful inventions, combining the results of philosophical research and mechanical ingenuity to an extent, we believe, without a parallel in modern times.


A Boulton and Watt engine of 1784 (p.44)
Picture Wikipedia.


    The idea of the double-acting engine occurred to Watt in 1767, but he kept it back in consequence of the difficulty "he had encountered in teaching others the construction and use of the single engine, and in overcoming prejudices."  In the single engine the force which drew up the piston was the counterpoise on the pump-gear, which merely sufficed to put the piston in a position for the effective down-stroke.  The working powers of the engine were therefore idle during half the time, or while the piston was ascending.  By making the upper part of the cylinder as well as the lower communicate with the condenser, he alternately formed a vacuum above and below, and the piston in its ascending stroke, beyond the addition of its own weight, experienced no more resistance than it had previously done in the down-stroke.  While the steam was condensing at the top of the cylinder fresh steam was let in below, and drove the piston up.  The process was then reversed.  The steam at the bottom of the cylinder was condensed, and fresh steam was let in at the top to drive the piston down.  Thus every movement was one of working power, and time was no longer lost while the engine was employed, as it were, in gathering up its strength for the stroke.  The expansive principle, which effects an immense saving of steam, also occurred to Watt as early as 1767.  It simply consists in cutting off the flow of steam from the boiler when the cylinder is partly filled, and allowing the rest of the stroke to be accomplished by the expansive power of the steam already supplied.  As the elastic or moving force of the steam diminishes as it expands, a stroke of the piston upon this plan is not as powerful as a stroke upon the old; but the saving of steam is in a much greater proportion than the diminution of the power.

    The circumstances connected with the invention of the sun and planet motion are illustrative of Watt's fertility of resources.  The best method of securing continuous rotation which occurred to him was the crank,—not, as he says, an original invention, for "the true inventor of the crank rotative motion was the man, who unfortunately has not been deified, that first contrived the common foot-lathe.  The applying it to the engine was merely taking a knife to cut cheese which had been made to cut bread."  Models of a plan for adapting it to the steam-engine were constructing at Soho, when one Saturday evening a number of the workmen, according to custom, proceeded to drink their ale at the Wagon and Horses, a little low-browed, old-fashioned public-house, still standing in the village of Handsworth, close to Soho.  As the beer began to tell, one Cartwright, a pattern-maker, who was afterwards hanged, talked of Watt's contrivance for producing rotatory motion, and to illustrate his meaning proceeded to make a sketch of the crank upon the kitchen table with a bit of chalk.  A person in the assumed garb of a workman, who sat in the kitchen corner and greedily drank in the account, posted off to London, and forthwith secured a patent for the crank, which Watt, "being much engaged in other business," had neglected to do at the moment.  He was exceedingly wroth at the piracy, averring that Wasbrough had "stolen the invention from him by the most infamous means;" but he was never at fault, and, reviving an old idea he had conceived, he perfected in a few weeks his Sun and Planet motion.  Eventually, however, when Wasbrough's patent had expired, Watt reverted to the employment of the simpler crank, because of its less liability to get out of order.  Its mere adaptation to the steam-engine ought not to have been protected by a patent at all, any more than the knife which was made to cut bread should be capable of being patented for every new substance to which its edge is applied.

    The mode by which Watt secured the accurate rectilinear motion of the ascending and descending piston-rod, by means of the Parallel Motion, has been greatly and justly admired.  "My soul," he said, "abhors calculations, geometry, and all other abstract sciences;" but when an end was to be gained, he could apply the principles of geometry with exquisite skill.  The object was to contrive that, whilst the end of the beam was moving alternately up and down in part of a circle, the end of the piston-rod connected with it should preserve a perfectly perpendicular direction.  This was accomplished by means which can hardly be made intelligible in mere verbal description; but so beautiful is the movement, that Watt said that when he saw his device in action he received from it the same pleasure that usually accompanies the first view of the invention of another person.  "Though I am not over anxious after fame," he wrote in 1808, "yet I am more proud of the parallel motion than of any other mechanical contrivance I have ever made."

    In spite of the outward success which attended Watt, his disposition did not permit him to be happy in the midst of bustle and rivalries.  "The struggles," he wrote to Dr. Black in December, 1778, "which we have had with natural difficulties, and with the ignorance, prejudices, and villainies of mankind, have been very great; but I hope are now nearly come to an end."  In this hope he was disappointed, for they continued unabated.  The perpetual thought which the engine required to bring it to perfection, and the large correspondence in which the business of the establishment involved him, had to be performed under the oppression of those sick-headaches which were the bane of his existence.  He was sometimes so overcome by them, that he would sit by the fireside for hours together, with his head leaning on his elbow, and scarcely able to utter a word.  In 1782 his father died, and his inevitable absence from his bedside weighed upon his spirits.  His despondency gathered strength with years, till in 1786 it appeared to have reached its climax.  "In the anguish of my mind, amid the vexations occasioned by new and unsuccessful schemes, like Lovelace, 'I curse my inventions,' and almost wish, if we could gather our money together, that somebody else should succeed in getting our trade from us."  So he wrote to Mr. Boulton in April, and in June his account of himself was sadder still: "I have been quite effete and listless, neither daring to face business nor capable of it; my head and memory failing me much; my stable of hobby-horses pulled down, and the horses given to the dogs for carrion.  I have had serious thoughts of throwing down the burden I find myself unable to carry, and perhaps, if other sentiments had not been stronger, should have thought of throwing off the mortal coil.  Solomon said that in the increase of knowledge there is increase of sorrow: if he had substituted business for knowledge it would have been perfectly true."  These wailing notes of a mind radically wretched were renewed by the attempts to pirate his inventions.  Watt was so fruitful in contrivances, that the fortunes of many ordinary mechanicians were made by their pickings and stealings from him.  When he was an unknown Glasgow artisan, his drawing-machine had been boldly appropriated by a London mathematical-instrument maker; his micrometer had been purloined by another pilferer of the same class; his crank had been stolen from him through the instrumentality of his own workmen; and now the pirates were endeavouring to make a prize of the condensing-engine itself, which had cost him full twenty years of anxiety and labour.  The Cornish miners especially, who had derived immense pecuniary advantages from its adoption, sought on the most frivolous pretences to evade the payment of that portion of the saving which they had stipulated to pay to Boulton and Watt.  A baser instance of unprincipled greediness is hardly to be found in the annals of trade.  "We have been so beset with plagiaries," Watt wrote to Dr. Black, "that, if I had not a very good memory of my doing it, their impudent assertions would lead me to doubt whether I was the author of any improvement on the steam-engine, and the ill-will of those we have most essentially served, whether such improvements have not been highly prejudicial to the commonwealth!"  Though the patentees were invariably successful, the vindication of their rights proved a heavy fine; their legal expenses during only the last four years of their patent having amounted to between five and six thousand pounds.  The peace of mind which the lawsuits cost Watt was far more serious than the cost in money.  His feelings during the pending trial of 1796 are described by himself as less acute than what he had been accustomed to undergo on more insignificant occasions.  "Yet I remained," he says, "after the trial, nearly as much depressed as if we had lost it.  The stimulus to action was gone, and but for the attentions of my friends I ran some risk of falling into stupidity."  In 1803, "after he had retired with a very moderate fortune that he might enjoy the quiet for which alone he was fitted," he ascribed his incapacity for further exertion "to the vexation he had endured for many years from this harassing lawsuit."  Whoever is tempted to envy a great inventor would surely be cured of his passion by the contemplation of the life of him who was the chief of the race.  Whilst he was struggling with difficulties at Glasgow, his friend Dr. Hutton had strongly dissuaded him from proceeding further with his unprofitable and distressing work.  "Invention," said he, "is only for those who live by the public; or who, from pride, would choose to leave a legacy to the public.  It is not a thing that will pay, under a system where the rule is to be best paid for the thing that is easiest done."  But to invent was the habitual operation of Watt's intellect, and neither the admonitions of friends, nor his experience of the miseries it entailed upon him, could turn his mind aside from its natural bent.

    Among his minor works, the contrivance of which formed the pastime of his leisure hours, were his machine for copying letters, his instrument for measuring the specific gravity of fluids, his regulator lamp, his plan of heating buildings by steam, and his machine for drying linen, invented for his father-in-law, Mr. Macgregor, a dyer at Glasgow.  He was also occupied with speculations respecting an arithmetical machine, and early threw out the suggestion of a spiral oar for the propulsion of ships.  His specification of the steam-engine included a steam-carriage for use on common roads, and he had many discussions with his assistant, William Murdock, and his friend, Lovell Edgeworth, on the subject.

    His residence at Birmingham was greatly cheered by the society of men of eminence in science, literature, and art.  Boulton and himself formed a centre of attraction to many kindred minds, and the meetings of the Lunar Society, (p.49) at Soho House, were long remembered as among the most delightful things of their kind.  Lovell Edgeworth, himself a member, has thus described the group: "Mr. Keir, with his knowledge of the world and good sense; Dr. Small, with his benevolence and profound sagacity; Wedgwood, with his unceasing industry, experimental variety, and calm investigation; Boulton, with his mobility, quick perception, and bold adventure; Watt, with his strong inventive faculty, undeviating steadiness, and large resources; Darwin, with his imagination, science, and poetical excellence; and Day, with his unwearied research after truth, his integrity, and eloquence,—formed, altogether, such a society as few men have had the good fortune to live with,—such an assemblage of friends as fewer still have had the happiness to possess and keep through life."  To these distinguished members others were afterwards added, among whom may be mentioned Dr. Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and other gases; Mr. Galton, the ornithologist, and Dr. Withering, the botanist.  In the meetings of this society originated Watt's experiments on water; and it is now placed beyond a doubt, that he was the first to promulgate the true theory of its composition, though Cavendish had arrived, by independent research, at the same result.

    The designation of "Lunar Society" was converted into "Lunatic Society" by the people, and when the riots of 1791 broke out, one of the watchwords of the mob was, "No philosophers!"  Sir Samuel Romilly says that some persons even painted the denunciation on their houses.  The Birmingham folks, during the last century, were certainly good haters.  When the firebrand Dr. Sacheverell went down to Birmingham and called upon the people to "build up Zion," they responded to the exhortation by gutting a Dissenters' meeting-house in the neighbourhood.  So, again, at the public dinner which was held in the town to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution, the mob, who took the loyal side of the question, rose, pulled down two dissenting meeting-houses, and burnt or sacked the houses of some of the principal inhabitants;—among others, those of Mr. Taylor, one of the chief employers of skilled labour in the town; Mr. Hutton, the bookseller and historian; and several more.  But their principal fury was directed against the "philosophers,"—especially Dr. Priestley, whose house and library they destroyed, and were busily engaged in plundering the house of Dr. Withering when the military arrived.  Watt was included in the proscription, and, apprehending an attack upon his house, he had the Soho workmen armed for Mr. Boulton's defence and his own.  "Though our principles," said he, writing to his friend De Luc, "are well known, as friends to the established government and enemies to republican principles, and should have been our protection from a mob whose watchword was 'Church and King,' yet our safety was principally owing to most of the Dissenters living on the south of the town; for, after the first moments, they did not seem over nice in their discrimination of religion or principles.  I, among others, was pointed out as a Presbyterian, though I never was in a meeting-house in Birmingham, and Mr. Boulton is well known as a Churchman.  We had everything most portable packed up, fearing the worst; however, all is well with us."  The circumstance is worth recording, not only as an incident in the life of Watt, but as a specimen of the insane and ignorant ideas which animate mobs.

    Watt's later years were years of comparative peace, but of bereavement.  One by one his early friends dropped away; the pride and hope of his heart, his son Gregory, died also; and the old man was left almost alone.  Fragile though his frame had been through life, he survived the most robust among his associates.  Roebuck, Boulton, Darwin, and Withering went before him, as well as his dear friends Robison and Black.  Black had watched to the last, with tender interest, the advancing reputation and prosperity of his protégé.  When Robison returned from London, and told him of the issue of Watt's suit with Hornblower, for the protection of his patent-right, the kind old Doctor was delighted even to tears.  "It's very foolish," he exclaimed, "but I can't help it when I hear of anything good to Jamie Watt."  Watt, in his turn, said of Black, "To him I owe, in great measure, my being what I am; he taught me to reason and experiment in Natural Philosophy."  Dr. Black expired so peacefully, that his servant, in describing his death, said that he had "given over living," having departed with a basin of milk upon his knee, which remained unspilled.  "We may all pray," was the comment of Watt, "that our latter end may be like his; he has truly gone to sleep in the arms of his Creator."

    Towards the close of his life, Watt was distressed by the apprehension that his mental faculties were deserting him, and remarked to Dr. Darwin, "Of all the evils of age, the loss of the few mental faculties one possessed in youth is the most grievous."  To test his memory, he again commenced the study of German, which he had allowed himself to forget; and speedily acquired such proficiency as enabled him to read the language with comparative ease.  But he gave stronger evidence of the integrity of his powers.  When, in his seventy-fifth year, he was consulted by a company at Glasgow as to the mode of conveying water from a peninsula across the Clyde to the company's engines at Dalmarnock, a difficulty which appeared to them almost insurmountable, the plan suggested by Watt proved that his remarkable ingenuity remained unimpaired by age.  It was necessary to fit the pipes through which the water passed to the uneven and shifting bed of the river, and Watt, taking the tail of the lobster for his model, forwarded a plan of a tube of iron similarly articulated, which was executed and laid down with complete success.

    A few years later, when close upon his eightieth year, the aged mechanician formed one of a party assembled in Edinburgh, at which Sir Walter Scott was present.  He delighted the Northern literati with his kindly cheerfulness, not less than he astonished them by the extent and profundity of his information.  "The alert, kind, benevolent old man," says Scott, "had his attention alive to every one's question, his information at every one's command.  His talents and fancy overflowed on every subject.  One gentleman was a deep philologist,—he talked with him on the origin of the alphabet, as if he had been coeval with Cadmus; another, a celebrated critic,—you would have said the old man had studied political economy and belles-lettres all his life; of science it is unnecessary to speak,—it was his own distinguished walk."  The vast extent of his knowledge was remarked by all who came in contact with him.  "It seemed," says Jeffrey, "as if every subject that was casually started had been that which he had been occupied in studying."  Yet, though no man was more ready to communicate knowledge, none could be less ambitious of displaying it.  "He was," says Mrs. Schimmel-Penninck, in the vivid portrait she has drawn of him in her Autobiography, "one of the most complete specimens of the melancholic temperament.  His head was generally bent forward or leaning on his hand in meditation, his shoulders stooping and his chest falling in, his limbs lank and unmuscular, and his complexion sallow.  His utterance was slow and unimpassioned, deep and low in tone, with a broad Scottish accent; his manners gentle, modest, and unassuming.  In a company where he was not known, unless spoken to, he might have tranquilly passed the whole time in pursuing his own meditations.  When he entered a room, men of letters, men of science, nay, military men, artists, ladies, even little children, thronged round him.  I remember a celebrated Swedish artist having been instructed by him that rats' whiskers make the most pliant painting-brushes; ladies would appeal to him on the best means of devising grates, curing smoking chimneys, warming their houses, and obtaining fast colours.  I can speak from experience of his teaching me how to make a dulcimer and improve a Jew's-harp."  What Jeffrey said of the steam-engine may be applied to the conversation of its parent,—that, like the trunk of an elephant, it could pick up a pin or rend an oak.

    Watt returned to his little workshop at Heathfield, to proceed with the completion of his diminishing-machine for copying busts and statues.  His habit was, immediately on rising, to answer all letters requiring attention; then, after breakfast, to proceed into the workshop adjoining his bedroom, attired in his woollen surtout, his leather apron, and the rustic hat which he had worn some forty years, and there go on with his machine.  He succeeded with it so far as to produce specimens of its performances, which he distributed amongst his friends, jocularly describing them as "the productions of a young artist just entering into his eighty-third year."  But the hand of the workman was stopped by death.  The machine remained unfinished, and, what is a singular testimony to the skill and perseverance of a man who had invented so much, it is almost his only unfinished work.

    He was fully conscious of his approaching end, and expressed from time to time his sincere gratitude to Divine Providence for the blessings which he had been permitted to enjoy, for his length of days, and his exemption from the infirmities of age.  "I am very sensible," said he, to the mourning friends who assembled round his death-bed, "of the attachment you show me, and I hasten to thank you for it, as I am now come to my last illness."  He passed quietly away from the world on the 19th of August, 1819, in his eighty-third year.  A statue by Chantrey—perhaps the greatest work of that master—has been placed in Handsworth Church, where Watt lies buried, and justifies the compliment paid to the sculptor, that he "cut breath;" for when uncovered before the old servants assembled round it at Soho, it so powerfully reminded them of their master, that they "lifted up their voices and wept."  Watt has been fortunate in his monumental honours.  The colossal statue in Westminster Abbey, also from the chisel of Chantrey, bears upon it an epitaph from the pen of Brougham, which is beyond all comparison the finest lapidary inscription in the English language, and among its other signal merits has one which appertains rather to its subject than its author, that, lofty as is the eulogy, every word of it is strictly true.


――――♦――――

 

ROBERT STEPHENSON.

Robert Stephenson F.R.S. (1803-59), English civil engineer
and locomotive builder.
Picture from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles.


ABOUT forty years since, a little boy, the son of a colliery engineman at Killingworth, dressed in a suit of homely gray stuff, cut out by his father, was accustomed to ride to Newcastle daily upon a donkey, for the purpose of attending school there.  Years passed, and the boy became the man known to world-wide fame as Robert Stephenson, the engineer.  He died, and on the 14th of October, 1859, he was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, side by side with the departed kings, statesmen, and great men of his country.

    Only ten years before, the remains of George Stephenson, the father, were quietly interred in a small church on the outskirts of the town of Chesterfield, followed to the grave principally by his own work-people.  The event excited little interest beyond the bounds of that secluded locality.  Yet George Stephenson, thus obscurely buried, was the inventor of the passenger locomotive, and the founder of the now gigantic railway system of England and of the world; and it is only within the last few years that the public have learnt from his biography how great a man then passed from the earth.  But the honours which George Stephenson failed to receive during his life and at his death, and which, in the strength of his self-dependence, he would have been the last to seek, have at length not unworthily been reflected upon his eminently meritorious son; and those who hereafter read his tablet and contemplate his monument in Westminster Abbey will probably not fail to remember that Robert Stephenson was himself one of the best products of his great father's manly affection, his noble character, and his indefatigable industry.


George Stephenson (1781-1848), English civil engineer and locomotive builder,
and inventor of the Stephenson miners' safety lamp.
Picture from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles.


    Every reader now knows the story of the father's life,—his early encounter with poverty and difficulty, his strenuous endeavours after self-education, his determination to gain "insight" into all the details of his business, his patience, his bravery, his self-discipline and self-reliance.  But greatest of all was his manly love for his only son, and his resolution, formed almost as soon as the boy was born, and steadily acted out in his life, that no labour, nor pains, nor self-denial should be spared to furnish him with the best education that it was in his power to bestow.  His own words on the subject are memorable.


"In the earlier period of my career," said he, "when Robert was a little boy, I saw how deficient I was in education, and I made up my mind that he should not labour under the same defect, but that I would put him to a good school, and give him a liberal training.  I was, however, a poor man, and how do you think I managed?  I betook myself to mending my neighbours' clocks and watches at nights, after my daily labour was done, and thus I procured the means of educating my son."


    The father, moreover, taught the boy to work with him, and trained him as it were to educate himself.  When a little fellow not big enough to reach so high as to put a clock-head on, his father would make him mount a chair for the purpose; and to "help father" became the proudest work which the boy then, and ever after, could take part in.  This daily and unceasing example of industry and application, working on before the boy's eyes in the person of a loving and beloved father, imprinted itself deeply upon his mind, in characters never to be effaced.  A spirit of self-improvement took possession of him, which continued to influence him through life; and to the close of his career he was proud to confess that, if his success had been great, it was mainly to the example and training of his father that he owed it.

    When Robert went to Mr. Bruce's school at Newcastle, he was a rough, unpolished country lad, speaking the broad dialect of the pitmen; and the other boys would tease him occasionally, for the purpose of provoking an outburst of his Killingworth Doric.  But he was kindly of disposition, and a diligent pupil; Mr. Bruce frequently holding him up to the laggards of the school as an example of good conduct and industry.  He was accustomed to spend much of his spare time at the rooms of the Literary and Philosophical Institute; and when he went home in the evenings he would recount to his father the results of his reading.  Sometimes he was allowed to take to Killingworth a volume of the Repertory of Arts and Sciences, which the father and son studied together, George laying great stress upon his son's being able to read and understand the plans and diagrams without reference to the written descriptions.  Sometimes they tried chemical experiments together, assisted by Wigham, a neighbouring farmer's son; and occasionally Robert experimented on his own account, as, for instance, upon the cows in Wigham's enclosure, which he electrified by means of his electric kite, making them run about the field with their tails on end, and on another occasion upon his father's Galloway when standing at the cottage door, nearly knocking the pony down by the smartness of the shock.

    George was about this time occupied with the invention of his safety-lamp, and Robert was present and assisted in making many of the experiments upon the fire-damp brought from the Killingworth pits.  On one occasion, George was engaged in experimenting by means of a gasometer and glass receivers borrowed from the Newcastle Institute; Nicholas Wood being appointed to turn the cocks, and Robert to time the experiment.  The flame being observed to descend in the tube, the word was given to turn the cock, but unfortunately Wood turned it the wrong way; the gas exploded, and the apparatus was blown to pieces, though fortunately no one was hurt.  At other times, Robert was engaged in embodying in a practical shape the drawings of machines and instruments which he found described in the books he read; amongst other things, constructing a theodolite spirit-level, on which he engraved the words, "Robert Stephenson, fecit."  Another of his works, while he was still at Bruce's school, was the sun-dial, the joint work of father and son, constructed after much study and labour, and eventually fixed over the cottage door at Killingworth, where it is still to be seen.  Not long since, Mr. Stephenson visited the place with some friends, and pointed out the very desk in the little room of the cottage at which he had studied the plan of the dial and calculated the latitude of his village.

    The youth left school well grounded in the ordinary branches of education, and an adept in arithmetic, geography, and algebra.  In his after life, he with good reason attached much importance to the thorough training in mathematics which he received at Bruce's school, and considered that it had been the foundation of much of his success as an engineer in the higher walks of the profession.  His father at first destined him for the business of a coal-miner, and with that object apprenticed him to Nicholas Wood, then chief viewer at Killingworth.  While thus engaged, Robert acquired a familiarity with underground work, which afterwards proved of much value to him; and in the evenings, after the day's work was over, he pursued his studies in mechanics under the eye of his father, who had by this time been advanced to the post of chief engine-wright of the colliery.

    The Killingworth locomotive was now in full work, and Robert became familiar with its every detail.  The possible adaptation of the engine to more important uses than the hauling of coal to the shipping-place, the improvement of the steam-blast (employed in all the engines constructed by Stephenson subsequent to the year 1815), and the enlargement of the heating surface, so as to produce a more rapid supply of steam, formed the subject of repeated evening discussions in the cottage of the Stephensons.  Of the two, the youth was at that time by much the most sanguine, his father "holding him back" by setting up all manner of objections for him to answer, and thus in the most effectual way cultivating his faculties and stimulating his inventiveness.  It was a happy time for both, full of discipline, co-operation, self-improvement, and steadily advancing mechanical ability.

    The father, however, was not satisfied with the knowledge which his son might thus laboriously acquire by studying in company with himself at Killingworth.  He was fully conscious of his own want of scientific knowledge, which had hampered him at every stage of his career.  Above all things, he desired that Robert should be well grounded in the principles of natural science; for which purpose he felt it would be necessary to place him under disciplined teachers.  He resolved, accordingly, to send Robert to Edinburgh University, where he spent the winter and summer sessions of 1820-21, attending the classes of Natural Philosophy under Sir John Leslie, Mineralogy under Professor Jamieson, and Chemistry under Dr. Hope.  Young Stephenson was one of the most diligent and hard-working students of his year.  He took copious notes of all the lectures, which he was accustomed carefully to write out, and afterwards to consult, even to the close of his life.  One evening, a few years ago, an engineering friend was discussing with him in his library in Gloucester Square some scientific point, when Mr. Stephenson rose, and took down from the shelves a thick volume, for the purpose of consulting it.  On the question being asked, "What have we here?" he replied, "When I went to college, I knew the difficulty my father had in collecting money to send me there; before going I studied shorthand, and while at Edinburgh I took down verbatim every lecture I attended; every evening before I went to bed I transcribed those lectures word for word, and you see the result in that range of books."

    It was a good custom of Professor Jamieson, at the close of each session, to select the most diligent and meritorious of his pupils to accompany him in a botanical and geological excursion over some of the most interesting parts of Scotland; and Robert Stephenson was one of these favoured pupils at the close of the session of 1820-21.  Only about a year before his death, when he was making an excursion in his yacht with a party of friends through the Caledonian Canal, he took occasion to point out some of the ground which he had gone over during that delightful excursion with his professor, and he then expressed the practical advantages which he had derived from studying the great works of the Creator upon the chart of Nature itself.  The students' excursion ended, Robert returned to Killingworth; and his father was a proud man when his son reported the progress he had made, and, above all, when he laid before him the prize for mathematics which he had won at the University.  The cost of the year's education was about eighty pounds; but though a large sum in the estimation of both father and son at the time, George then and afterwards declared that it was one of the best investments of money which he had ever made.

    We have been thus particular in describing the several stages in the education of Robert Stephenson, and the active part which his father took in the process, because it was thus that the foundations of his character were laid.  The young man was now to enter by himself upon the road of life, fortified by good example, his habits well trained, his faculties well disciplined, and fully conscious that the issue rested mainly with himself.  For several years more, however, he remained under his father's eye, passing through the admirable discipline of the workshop, to which he himself in after years was accustomed to attach the greatest importance.  At the meeting of Mechanical Engineers, held at Newcastle, in August, 1858, he used these words: "Having been brought up originally as a mechanical engineer, and seen perhaps as much as any one of the other branches of the profession, I feel justified in insisting that the civil engineering department is best founded upon the mechanical knowledge obtained in the workshop.  I have ever been fully conscious how greatly my civil engineering has been modified by the mechanical knowledge which I acquired from my father; and the further my experience has advanced, the more have I been convinced that it is necessary to educate an engineer in the workshop.  That is the education emphatically which is calculated to render the engineer most intelligent, most useful, and the fullest of resources in times of difficulty."

    In 1824 George Stephenson was busily engaged in the construction of the Stockton and Darlington Railway; and at the same time Robert was occupied in the locomotive manufactory already commenced at Newcastle, in superintending the construction of No. 1 engine, the "Active," for that railway; the same engine that was lately placed upon a pedestal in front of the Darlington station.  He was also busy designing the fixed engine for the Brusselton incline, which he completed by the end of the year, when he left England for a time to take charge of the engines and machinery of a mining company newly established in Columbia, South America.  Severe study and close application had begun to tell upon his health, and his father consented that he should accept the situation which had been offered him, in the hope that the change of scene and occupation might restore him to health and strength, though ill able to dispense with his valuable assistance at that important crisis in his own career.

    The Darlington line was finished and opened, and its success was such as to encourage the Liverpool merchants shortly after to project their undertaking of a railway between that town and Manchester. The difficulties encountered in obtaining the act, and in constructing the railway across Chat Moss, are among the most interesting chapters in George Stephenson's life, and need not be adverted to here. Then began the battle of the locomotive, and the keen discussions between the advocates of fixed and travelling engines, George Stephenson standing almost alone in his advocacy of the latter.  At this juncture he wrote to his son, urging him to return home, as the fate of the locomotive hung upon the issue.  Accordingly we find Robert Stephenson again returned to England, and in charge of the locomotive manufactory at Newcastle, by the end of the year 1827.  From this time forward Robert was as his father's right hand, fortifying his arguments, illustrating his views, embodying his ideas in definite shapes, writing his reports to the directors, exposing the fallacies contained in the arguments put forward by the advocates of fixed engines, and in all ways energetically fighting by the side of his father the battle of the locomotive.  At length their joint perseverance produced its effect; a prize was offered for the best locomotive, and George and Robert Stephenson's engine, the "Rocket," won the prize at Rainhill.  Mr. Booth furnished the idea of the multitubular boiler; George Stephenson furnished the general plan of the engine; but the working out of the whole details, on which so much depended, was carried out by Robert Stephenson himself in the manufactory at Newcastle.  Successful, however, though the performances of that engine were, it was but the beginning of Robert Stephenson's labours.  For many years after, he continued to devote himself to perfecting the locomotive in all its details; and it was astonishing to observe the rapidity of the improvements effected, every engine turned out of the Stephenson workshops exhibiting an advance upon its predecessor in point of speed, power, and working efficiency.


Picture from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles.


    The success of railways being now proved, railway projects multiplied in all directions, and Mr. Stephenson then decided to enter upon the business of a civil engineer; the first railway laid out by him being the Leicester and Swanington line; after which, in conjunction with his father, he was appointed engineer of the London and Birmingham Railway.  It is related as an illustration of his conscientious perseverance in laying out this line, that, in the course of his examination of the country between London and Birmingham, he walked over the whole intervening districts upwards of twenty times.  The difficulties encountered in carrying out this undertaking in those early days of railway-making were of the most formidable kind, the most important being the construction of the Kilsby Tunnel; but by perseverance and skill added to his previous knowledge of mining operations, which proved of great service to him, they were all surmounted; and the success of the London and Birmingham Railway speedily introduced our young engineer to a vast and prosperous business, in which he continued to hold the very first place to the close of his life.  It was stated in his presence at the celebration of the opening of the High Level Bridge at Newcastle a few years ago, that not less than eighteen hundred and fifty miles of railway had then been constructed after his designs and under his superintendence, at an outlay of seventy millions sterling.

    His Parliamentary business was necessarily extensive.  In the session of 1846 he appeared as the engineer for no fewer than thirty-three schemes; and he might have been engineer for as many more, if he would have allowed his name to appear in connection with them.  On all questions of railway working and railway construction, his evidence was eagerly sought and highly valued.  Into the controversy respecting the comparative merits of the narrow and broad gauges, and the locomotive as compared with the atmospheric system, he threw himself with more than ordinary scientific keenness.  He was the head and front of the opposition to his friend Brunel's innovations, and the result proved that his views were correct.  The most vehement Parliamentary struggle of this kind occurred in the session of 1845, when the rival schemes of Brunel and Stephenson were before Parliament,—the one promoting the Northumberland Atmospheric, and the other the Newcastle and Berwick (locomotive) line.  The former was recommended to the Commons Committee by Mr. Sergeant Wrangham, as calculated to be "a respectable line, and not one that was to be converted into a road for the accommodation of the coal-owners of the district;" and Mr. Brunel summed up his evidence in these words: "In short, rapidity, comfort, safety, and economy are its recommendations."  Mr. Stephenson was examined at great length, and his evidence must have had its due weight with the Committee, who passed the preamble of his bill; and the shareholders were thus saved much useless expenditure, for after the lapse of a few years the atmospheric system was everywhere abandoned.


Newcastle high level road and railway bridge (behind swing bridge) of 1849.
Picture Wikipedia.


    The High Level Bridge at Newcastle formed part of the east coast system of railways, of which Mr. Stephenson was then the engineer, extending from London to Berwick.  This noble work occupied three years in construction, and it was opened by her Majesty on the 19th of August, 1849.  It is a much finer architectural structure than any of the great iron bridges subsequently erected by Mr. Stephenson; combining, also, in a remarkable degree, the qualities of strength, rigidity, and durability.  The bridge and viaduct approaching it are of great length, being, together, about four thousand feet.  The bridge spans the Tyne between Newcastle and Gateshead, and passes completely over the roofs of the houses which fill the valley on either side of the river.  The prospect from the bridge is most striking; the Tyne, full of shipping, lies a hundred and thirty feet below, the funnels and masts of steamers being visible, when the smoke allows, far being down the river.  Seen from beneath, the bridge is very majestic, the impress of power being grandly stamped upon it.  One of the most important features of the bridge—characteristic of all Mr. Stephenson's structures, but especially so in this case—is its utility.  It is a double bridge, forming a direct road connecting the busy towns of Newcastle and Gateshead with each other, at the same time that it is an integral part of the railway system along which the traffic by the east coast between England and Scotland is enabled to pass without break of gauge; and it will probably remain, for many centuries to come, the finest and most appropriate monument in Newcastle to the native genius of the Stephensons.


The Britannia tubular bridge (as built) of 1850.
Picture from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles.


    Another of Mr. Stephenson's great structures is his well-known Britannia Bridge across the Menai Straits,—a masterly work, the result of laborious calculation, founded on painstaking experiment, combined with eminent constructive genius and high moral and intellectual courage.  The original idea embodied by Mr. Stephenson in this bridge was the application of wrought-iron tubes in the form of an aerial tunnel, for the purpose of spanning this arm of the sea at such a height as to enable vessels of large burden to pass underneath in full sail.  The arch was rejected, as incompatible with the requirements of the Act of Parliament, and the engineer was thrown upon his own resources to overcome the apparently insurmountable difficulties of the passage.  After much reflection and study, the scheme of a wrought-iron hollow beam, of gigantic dimensions, was adopted; Mr. Stephenson feeling satisfied that the principles on which the idea was founded were nothing more than an extension of those in daily use in the profession of the engineer.  While his mind was still occupied with the subject in its earlier stages, an accident occurred to the Prince of Wales iron steamship, at Blackwall, which singularly corroborated Mr. Stephenson's views as to the strength of wrought-iron beams of large dimensions.  While launching this vessel, the cleet on the bow gave way, in consequence of the bolts breaking, and let the vessel down so that the bilge came in contact with the wharf, and she remained suspended between the water and the wharf, for a distance of about one hundred and ten feet, without injury to the plates of the ship, thus proving her great strength.  The illustration was well-timed, and so fully confirmed the calculations which Mr. Stephenson had already made on the strength of tubular structures, that it greatly relieved his anxiety, and converted his confidence into a certainty that he had not undertaken an impracticable task.  Then commenced a series of elaborate experiments, in which the engineer was ably assisted by Professor Hodgkinson, Mr. Fairbairn, and Mr. E. Clarke, to determine the best form, thickness, and dimensions of the required tubes, so that assurance might be made doubly sure.  Every detail was carefully attended to, and not a point was neglected that could add to the efficiency and security of the structure.  As Mr. Stephenson himself said, at the opening of the bridge for traffic: "The true and accurate calculation of all the conditions and elements essential to the safety of the bridge had been a source not only of mental, but of bodily toil; including, as it did, a combination of abstract thought and well-considered experiment adequate to the magnitude of the project."  Mr. Stephenson's anxiety was very great during the arduous process of raising the tubes, and it is said that for three weeks he was almost sleepless.  Sir F. Head, however, relates, that on the morning following the raising of the final tube, when about to leave the scene of so many days' harassing operations, he observed, sitting on a platform which had been erected to enable some of the more favoured spectators to command a good view of the preceding day's operations, a gentleman reclining entirely by himself, smoking a cigar, and as if almost indolently gazing at the aerial gallery before him.  It was the father looking at his new-born child!  He had strolled down from the neighbouring village, after his first sound and refreshing sleep for weeks, to behold in sunshine and solitude that which, during a weary period of gestation, had been either mysteriously moving in his brain, or, like a vision,—sometimes of good omen, and sometimes of bad,—had, by night as well as by day, been flitting across his mind.


The Victoria Bridge, Montreal, under construction.
Picture Wikipedia.


    The Victoria Bridge, across the St. Lawrence, near Montreal, is constructed on the same principle as the Britannia Bridge, but on a much larger scale; the Victoria Bridge, with its approaches, being only sixty yards short of two miles in length.  In its gigantic strength and majestic proportions, there is no structure to compare with it in ancient or modern times.  It consists of not less than twenty-five immense tubular bridges joined into one; the great central span being three hundred and thirty feet, the others two hundred and forty-two feet in length.  The weight of wrought iron in the bridge is about ten thousand tons; and the piers are of massive stone, containing some eight thousand tons each of solid masonry.  Of this last and greatest of his works, it is to be lamented that the engineer did not live to see the completion.


A multi-span tubular bridge, opened in 1859.
Picture from The Life of George Stephenson by Samuel Smiles.


    For many years his time was completely occupied with the promotion of railway bills, the surveying of new lines for many companies, and giving evidence for those companies in Parliament, as well as superintending the construction of railway works in progress.  During this busy period of his life his income was very large, and his accumulation of property was rapid,—far beyond any previous example of engineering gain.  And when his father died, in 1848, bequeathing to him his valuable collieries, his share in the engine manufactory at Newcastle, and his accumulated savings, Robert Stephenson occupied the position of an engineer millionaire,—the first of the race.  He continued, however, to live in a quiet style, and, although he bought pictures, and indulged in the luxury of a yacht, he did not live up to his income, which went on accumulating.  He had no family to inherit his fortune, and he could, therefore, afford to be generous—which he was, to his honour—to the educational institutions of his native town.  The Newcastle and Literary Institute had liberally assisted his father and himself with books and apparatus in the days of their obscurity; and he accordingly presented the Institute, during his lifetime, with a sum of above £3,000, towards paying off the debt which lay heavy upon the institution, conditional on its local supporters finding the remaining half of the debt, which they did.  It is well to see men of wealth thus mindful of the educational claims of the localities to which they belong, and of the institutes which helped them in their youth.

    Mr. Stephenson was greatly esteemed in his profession, and when any difficulty arose, he was prompt to render his best advice and assistance.  When Mr. Brunel was occupied with his first fruitless efforts to launch the Great Eastern, at the close of one most disheartening day's work, he wrote Mr. Stephenson, urging him to come down to Blackwall on the following morning, and confer with him as to further measures.  Next morning Mr. Stephenson was in the yard at Blackwall shortly after six o'clock, and he remained there until dusk.  While superintending the operations about midday, he came to the end of a balk of timber which canted up, and he fell up to his middle in the Thames mud.  He was merely in his ordinary dress, without any great coat (though the weather was bitter cold) and with only thin boots upon his feet.  He was urged to leave the yard and change his dress, but, with his usual disregard of health, his reply was, "O, never mind me, I'm quite used to this sort of thing;" and he went paddling about in the mud, smoking his cigar until almost quite dark, when the work of the day was completed.  The consequence of this exposure was an inflammation of the lungs, which kept him to his bed for a fortnight.

    No man could be more beloved than Mr. Stephenson was by a wide circle of friends.  His pupils and juniors in the profession regarded him with a sort of worship; and he even ran some risk of being spoilt by the adulation with which they surrounded him.  But he preserved his simplicity, his modesty, and his manliness, through all.  He was a kind and pleasant companion, very unaffected, cordial, and communicative.  Possessing ample means, he was enabled to do many benevolent acts, particularly to those who had worked with him in the early part of his career; and he was always ready to help on the deserving and the industrious.

    He was greatly honoured in his life, though he died untitled.  Like his father, he was offered knighthood, and declined it; but he accepted the honours of foreign potentates for whom he had performed important services.  By the King of the Belgians he was made Knight of the Order of Leopold; the King of Sweden presented him with the Grand Cross of Olaf; and the Emperor of the French decorated him with the Order of the Legion of Honour.  In 1857, the University of Oxford conferred on him the honour of D. C. L.; and for many years he represented Whitby in Parliament.  The greatest honour of all, however, was reserved for his death, when he was laid to rest amidst the great departed of England in Westminster Abbey.

    Amongst those who stood beside his grave were many of the friends of his boyhood and his manhood.  William Kell, Philip Staunton, and Joseph Glynn, his schoolfellows; Nicholas Wood, his first master in the business of life; Joseph Sandars, the projector of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; Henry Booth, his coadjutor in designing the "Rocket," which won the prize at Rainhill; Joseph Locke and John Dixon, his early professional companions; Mr. Glyn, Mr. Ellis, and Mr. Joseph Pease, fast friends of his father, as well as himself; down to Henry Weatherburn, driver of the "Harvey Combe," beside whom the engineer stood on the foot-plate of the locomotive at the opening of the London and Birmingham Railway.  Besides these were many of the greatest living men of thought and action, assembled at that solemn ceremony to pay their last mark of respect to this illustrious son of one of England's greatest workingmen.  Requiescat!



[DR. ARNOLD]

 



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