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got ahead of his father in his station as a workman; for the plugman holds a higher grade than the fireman, requiring more practical knowledge and skill, and usually receiving higher wages. The duty of the plugman was to watch the engine and to see that it kept well in work, and that the pumps were efficient in drawing the water. When the water-level in the pit was lowered, and the suction became incomplete through the exposure of the suction holes, then his business was to proceed to the bottom of the shaft and plug the tube so that the pump should draw: hence the designation of Plugman. If a stoppage in the engine took place through any defect in it which he was incapable of remedying, then it was his duty to call in the aid of the chief engineer of the colliery to set the engine to rights. But from the time when George Stephenson was appointed fireman, and more particularly afterwards as enginenian, he applied himself so assiduously and so successfully to the study of the engine and its gearing, taking the machine to pieces in his leisure hours for the purpose of cleaning and mastering its various parts, -that he very soon acquired a thorough practical knowledge of its construction and mode of working, and thus he very rarely needed to call to his aid the engineer of the colliery. His engine became a sort of pet with him, and he was never wearied of watching and inspecting it with devoted admiration. There is indeed a peculiar fascination about an engine, to the intelligent workman who watches and feeds it. It is almost sublime in its untiring industry and quiet power: capable of performing the most gigantic work, yet so docile that a child's hand may guide it. No wonder, therefore, that the workman, who is the daily companion of this lifelike machine, and is constantly watching it with anxious care, at length comes to regard it with a degree of personal
chap. II.] THE STEAM-ENGINE. 15
interest and regard, speaking of it often in terms of glowing admiration. This daily contemplation of the steam-engine, and the sight of its steady action, is an education of itself to the ingenious and thoughtful workman. It is certainly a striking and remarkable fact, that nearly all that has been done for the improvement of the steam-engine has been accomplished, not by philosophers and scientific men, but by labourers, mechanics, and enginemen. It would appear as if this were one of the departments of practical science in which the higher powers of the human mind must bend to mechanical instinct. The steam-engine was but a mere toy, until it was taken in hand by workmen. Savery was originally a working miner, Newcomen a blacksmith, and his partner Cawley a glazier. In the hands of Watt, the instrument maker, who devoted almost a life to the subject, the condensing engine acquired gigantic strength ; and George Stephenson, the colliery engineman, was certainly not the least of those who have assisted to bring the highpressure engine to its present power.
While studying to master the details of his engine, to know its weaknesses, and to quicken its powers, George Stephenson gradually acquired the character of a clever and improving workman. Whatever he was set to do, that he endeavoured to do well and thoroughly ; never neglecting small matters, but aiming at being a complete workman at all points; thus gradually perfecting his own mechanical capacity, and securing at the same time the respect of his fellow workmen and the increased confidence and esteem of his employers.
GEORGE STEPHENSON was eighteen years old before he learnt to read. He was now almost a full-grown workman, earning his twelve shillings a week, and having the charge of an engine, which occupied his time to the extent of twelve hours every day. He had thus very few leisure moments that he could call his own. But the busiest man will find them if he watch for them; and if he be careful in turning these moments to useful account, he will prove them to be the very “gold-dust of time,” as Young has so beautifully described them. To his poor parents George Stephenson owed a sound constitution and vigorous health. They had also set before him an example of sobriety, economy, and patient industry— habits which are in themselves equivalent to principles. For habits are the most inflexible of all things; and principles are, in fact, but the names which we assign to them. If his parents, out of their small earnings and scanty knowledge, were unable to give their son any literary culture, at all events they had trained him well, and furnished him with an excellent substratum of character. Unquestionably, however, he laboured under a very serious disadvantage in having to master, at a comparatively advanced age, those simple rudiments of elementary instruction, which all children in a country calling itself civilised ought to have imparted to them at school. The youth who reaches manhood, and enters, by
chap. 111.] SELF-CULTURE. 17
necessity, upon a career of daily toil, without being able to read his native tongue, does not start on equal terms with others who have received the benefits of such instruction. It is true that he who, by his own voluntary and determined efforts, overcomes the difficulties early thrown in his way, and succeeds in eventually teaching himself, will value the education thus acquired much more than he to whom it has been imparted as a mere matter of duty on the part of parents or of society. What the self-educated man learns, becomes more thoroughly his own, makes a more vivid impression upon his mind, and fixes itself more enduringly there. It usually also exercises a more powerful influence in the formation of his character, by disciplining his spirit of self-help, and accustoming him to patient encounter with, and triumph over, difficulties. We have seen how Stephenson's play hours were occasionally occupied—in a friendly rivalry with his fellows in feats of strength. Much also of his spare time, when he was not actually employed in working the engine, was devoted to cleaning it and taking it to pieces, for the purpose of mastering its details. At this time he was also paying some attention to the art of brakeing, which he had expressed to Coe his desire to learn, in order that he might improve his position, and be advanced to higher wages. Not many of his fellow-workmen had learnt to read; but those who could do so were placed under frequent contribution by George and the other labourers at the pit. It was one of their greatest treats to induce some one to read to them by the engine-fire, out of any book or stray newspaper which might find its way into the village of Newburn. Buonaparte was then overrunning Italy, and astounding Europe by his brilliant succession of victories; and there was no more eager auditor of these exploits, when read from the newspaper accounts, than the young engine-man at the Water-row Pit. C
There were also numerous stray bits of information and intelligence contained in these papers, which excited Stephenson's interest. One of these related to the Egyptian art of hatching birds' eggs by means of artificial heat. Curious about everything relating to birds, he determined to test the art by experiment. It was spring time, and he forthwith went a bird-nesting in the adjoining woods and hedges, where there were few birds' nests of which he did not know. He brought a collection of eggs of all kinds into the enginehouse, set them in flour in a warm place, covering the whole over with wool, and then waited the issue of his experiment. But though the heat was kept as steady as possible, and the eggs were carefully turned every twelve hours, they never hatched. The eggs chipped, and some of them exhibited well-grown chicks; but none of the birds came forth alive, and thus the experiment failed. This incident, however, shows that the inquiring mind of the youth was now fairly at work.
Another of his favourite occupations continued to be the modelling of clay engines. He not only tried to model engines which he had himself seen, but he also attempted to form models in clay of engines which were described to him as being in existence; and doubtless his modelling at this time, imperfect though his knowledge was, exhibited considerable improvement upon his first attempts in the art when a herd-boy in the bog at Dewley Burn. He was told, however, that all the wonderful engines of Watt and Boulton, about which he was so anxious to know, were to be found described in books, and that he must satisfy his curiosity by searching the publications of the day for a more complete description of them. But, alas ! Stephenson could not read; he had not yet learnt even his letters.
Thus he shortly found, when gazing wistfully in the direction of knowledge, that to advance further as a skilled work