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42 IMPROVES WINDING MACHINE. Chap. III.
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? 1 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."
Besides mending clocks and watches at this time, he also continued to make and mend shoes, and to manufacture shoe-lasts for the shoemakers of the neighbourhood. He even cut out the pitmen's clothes for their wives to make up; and it is said that to this day there are clothes worn at Killingworth which have been made after "Geordy Steevie's cut."
Soon after he became a brakesman at the West Moor, he observed that the ropes with which the coal was drawn out of the pit by the winding-engine were badly arranged, as he thought, and he suggested an improvement. The ropes "glued," and wore each other to tatters by the perpetual friction. There was thus great wear and tear, and a serious increase in the expenses of the pit. George found that the ropes which, at other pits in the neighbourhood, lasted about three months, at the West Moor Pit became worn out in about a month. As there was at that time an interruption of the trade with Eussia in consequence of the war, and ropes were exceedingly dear (about Is. bd. the pound), it was obvious to him that any improvement by which a saving in the wear of ropes could be effected, would be of considerable advantage to the owners. His suggestions were approved by the head engineer of the pit, and he was encouraged to carry them into effect. He accordingly did so, and by shifting the pulley-wheels so that they worked immediately over the centre of the pit, and by an entire rearrangement of the gearing of the machine, he shortly succeeded in greatly lessening the wear and tear of the ropes, much to the advantage of the owners as well as of the workmen, who were thus enabled to labour more continuously and profitably.
He also, about the same time, attempted to eifect an Chap. III.
ENGINEERS AT FAULT.
improvement in the winding-engine which he worked, by placing a valve between the air-pump and condenser. This expedient, although it led to no practical results, showed that his mind was actively at work in mechanical adaptations. It continued to be his regular habit, on Saturdays, to take the engine to pieces, for the purpose, at the same time, of familiarising himself with its action, and of placing it in a state of thorough working order. And by thus diligently mastering the details of the engine, he was enabled, as opportunity occurred, to turn to practical account the knowledge thus patiently acquired.
Such an opportunity was not long in presenting itself. In the year 1810, a pit was sunk by the " Grand Allies" (the lessees of the mines) at the village of Killingworth, now known as the Killingworth High Pit. An atmospheric or
Killingworth High Pit
Newcomen engine, originally made by Smeaton, was fixed there for the purpose of pumping out the water from the shaft; but somehow or other the engine failed to clear the pit. As one of the workmen has since described the circumstance—" She couldn't keep her jack-head in water: all the enginemen in the neighbourhood were tried, as well as Crowther of the Ouseburn, but they were clean bet." The engine went on fruitlessly pumping for nearly 44 BECOMES CELEBRATED AS Chap. III.
twelve months, and began to be looked on as a total failure. Stephenson had gone to look at it when in course of erection, and then observed to the over-man that he thought it was defective; he also gave it as his opinion that, if there were much water in the mine, the engine would never keep it under. Of course, as he was only a brakesman, his opinion was considered to be worth very little on such a point, and no more was thought about it. He continued, however, to make frequent visits to the engine, to see "how she was getting on." From the bankhead where he worked his brake he could see the chimney smoking at the High Pit; and as the workmen were passing to and from their work, he would call out and inquire "if they had gotten to the bottom yet?" And the reply was always to the same effect,—the pumping made no progress, and the workmen were still " drowned out."
One Saturday afternoon he went over to the High Pit to examine the engine more carefully than he had yet done. He had been turning the subject over in his mind; and after a long examination, he seemed to satisfy himself as to the cause of the failure. Kit Heppel, who was a sinker at the pit, said to him: "Weel, George, what do you mak' o' her? Do you think you could do anything to improve her?" "Man," said George in reply, "I could alter her and make her draw: in a week's time from this I could send you to the bottom."
Forthwith Heppel reported this conversation to Ealph Dodds, the head viewer; and Dodds, being now quite in despair, and hopeless of succeeding with the engine, determined to give George's skill a trial. George had already acquired the character of a very clever and ingenious workman; and at the worst he could only fail, as the rest had done. In the evening Mr. Dodds went towards Stephenson's cottage in search of him. He met him on the road, dressed in his Sunday's suit, about to proceed to "the preaching" in the Methodist Chapel, which he at that time attended. "Well, George," said Mr. Dodds, accosting him, "they tell me you think you can put the engine at the Chap. III. AN ENGINE-DOCTOR. 45
High Pit to rights." "Yes, sir," said George, "I think I could." "If that's the case, I'll give you a fair trial, and you must set to work immediately. We are clean drowned out, and cannot get a step further. 'The engineers hereabouts are all bet; and if you really succeed in accomplishing what they cannot do, you may depend upon it 1 will make you a man for life."
It is said that George, the same evening, borrowed the "howdie horse"* and rode over to Duke's Hall, near Walbottle, where his old friend Hawthorn, the engineer to the Duke of Northumberland, then resided, and consulted him as to the improvements which he proposed to make in the pumping-engine. And next morning, Sunday though it was (for the work must be commenced forthwith), Stephenson entered upon his labours. The only condition that he made, before setting to work, was that he should select his own workmen. There was, as be knew, a good deal of jealousy amongst the "regular " men that a colliery brakesman should pretend to know more about their engine than they themselves did, and attempt to remedy defects which the most skilled men of their craft, including the engineer of the colliery, had failed to do. But George made the condition a sine qua ncm. "The workmen," said he, "must either be all Whigs or all Tories." There was no help for it, so Dodds ordered the old hands to stand aside. The men grumbled, but gave way; and then George and his party went in.
The engine was taken entirely to pieces. The injection cap, being considered too small, was enlarged to nearly double its former size, the opening being increased to about twice the area. The cylinder having been found too long, was packed at the bottom with pieces of timber; these and other alterations were necessarily performed in a rough way, but, as the result proved, on true principles. The repairs occupied about four days, and by the following Wednesday the engine was carefully put together again
* One of the pit horses generally employed in cases of emergency in bringing the midwife to the rescue.
40 BECOMES CELEBRATED AS Chap. III.
and set to work. Stephenson also, finding that the hoiler would bear a greater pressure than five pounds to the inch, determined to work it at a pressure of ten pounds, though this was contrary to the directions of both Newcomen and Smeaton. The engine was kept pumping all Thursday, and by the Friday afternoon the pit was cleared of water, and the workmen were " sent to the bottom," as Stephenson had promised. The alterations thus effected in the pumping apparatus proved completely successful, and Stephenson's skill as a pump-curer became the marvel of the neighbourhood.
Mr. Dodds was particularly gratified with the manner in which the job had been done, and he made Stephenson a present of ten pounds, which, though very inadequate when compared with the value of the work performed, was accepted by him with gratitude. He was proud of the gift as the first marked recognition of his skill as a workman; wid he used afterwards to say that it was the biggest sum of money he had up to that time earned in one lump. Ealph Dodds, however, did more than this. He appointed Stephenson engineman at the High Pit, at good wages, during the time the pit was sinking,—the job lasting for about a year; and he also kept him in mind for further advancement.
Stephenson's skill as an engine-doctor soon became noised abroad, and he was called upon to prescribe remedies for all the old, wheezy, and ineffective pumping machines in the neighbourhood. In this capacity he soon left the "regular" men far behind, though they in their turn were very much disposed to treat the Killingworth brakesman as no better than a quack. Nevertheless, his practice was really founded upon a close study of the principles of mechanics, and on an intimate practical acquaintance with the details of the pumping-engine.
Another of his smaller achievements in the same line is still told by the people of the district. While passing to and from his work at the High Pit, he observed that the workmen in the quarry at the corner of the road leading to