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chap. VI.] MEDITATES EMIGRATING TO AMERICA. 39
single-handed against Napoleon, then everywhere victorious. The working people were also liable to be pressed for the navy, or drawn for the militia; and though men could not fail to be discontented under such circumstances, they scarcely dared, in those perilous times, even to mutter their discontent to their neighbours. George Stephenson was one of those drawn at that time for the militia. He must therefore either quit his work and go a-soldiering, or find a substitute. He adopted the latter course, and paid a considerable sum of money to a militiaman to serve in his stead. Thus nearly the whole of his hardwon earnings were swept away at a stroke. He was almost in despair, and contemplated the idea of leaving the country, and emigrating to the United States. A voyage thither was then a more formidable thing for a working man to accomplish than a voyage to Australia is now. But he seriously entertained the project, and had all but made up his mind. His sister Ann with her husband emigrated about that time, but George could not raise the requisite money, and they departed without him. After all, it went sore against his heart to leave his home and his kindred — the scenes of his youth and the friends of his boyhood; but he struggled long with the idea, brooding over it in sorrow. Speaking afterwards to a friend of his thoughts at the time, he said – “You know the road from my house at the West Moor to Killingworth. I remember, when I went along that road I wept bitterly, for I knew not where my lot would be cast.” But Providence had better and greater things in store for George Stephenson than the lot of a settler in the wilds of America. It was well that his poverty prevented him from prosecuting further the idea of emigration, and rooted him to the place where he afterwards worked out his great career so manfully and victoriously. Many years after, when addressing a society of young men at Belper, in Derbyshire, on the necessity of Perseverance,— his favourite text, he said, “Well do I remember the beginning of my career as an engineer, and the great perseverance that was required for me to get on. Not having served an apprenticeship, I had made up my mind to go to America, considering that no one in England would trust me to act as engineer. However, I was trusted in some small matters, and succeeded in giving satisfaction. Greater trusts were reposed in me, in which I also succeeded. Soon after, I commenced making the locomotive engine; and the results of my perseverance you have this day witnessed.” In 1808, Stephenson, with two other brakesmen, named Robert Wedderburn and George Dodds, took a small contract under the colliery lessees, for brakeing the engines at the West Moor Pit. The brakesmen found the oil and tallow ; they divided the work amongst them, and were paid so much per score for their labour. There being two engines working night and day, two of the three men were always at work; the average earnings of each amounting to from 18s. to 20s, a week. But Stephenson resorted to his usual mode of ekeing out his earnings. His son Robert would soon be of an age to be sent to school; and the father, being but too conscious, from his own experience, of the disadvantages arising from the want of instruction, determined that his boy should at least receive the elements of a good education. Stinted as he was for means at the time, maintaining his parents, and struggling with difficulties, this early resolution to afford his son proper culture must be regarded as a noble feature in his character, and strikingly illustrative of his thoughtfulness and conscientiousness. Many years after, speaking of the resolution which he thus early formed, he said, “In the earlier period of my career, when Robert was a little boy, I
* Speech to Mechanics' Institute at Belper, July 6th, 1841, the members of the Chesterfield Institute having travelled thither by railway train over the line constructed by Mr. Stephenson.
chap. vi.] MAKES IMPROVEMENT IN WINDING-MACHINE. 41
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.”* Besides mending clocks and watches at this time, he also continued to make and mend shoes, and to manufacture shoelasts 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.” Perhaps the secret of every man's best success in life is the readiness with which he takes advantage of opportunities. George Stephenson was an eminent illustration of this readiness in turning all his time to profit, and everything that he knew to useful account. Every spare minute was laid under contribution, either for the purpose of adding to his earnings or to his knowledge. The smallest fragments of his time were regarded by him as precious; and he was never so happy as when improving them. He missed no opportunity of extending his observations, more especially in his own immediate department; he was always acquiring new facts, and aiming at improvements in his own calling. Sometimes he failed, but his very failures only served to strengthen his hardy nature, and they eventually conducted him to success. The “small matters” entrusted to George Stephenson, in which he succeeded, as referred to in his speech at Belper, were these:–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 Russia in consequence of the War, and ropes were exceedingly dear (about 1s. 5d. 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.
* Speech at Newcastle, on the 18th June, 1844, on the occasion of celebrating the opening of the Newcastle and Darlington Railway.
He also, about the same time, attempted to effect an 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.
chap. v1.] THE KILLINGWORTH ENGINEERS AT FAULT. 43
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 pit) at the village of Killingworth, now known as the Killingworth High Pit. An atmospheric or 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.”
Good working engineers were then rarely to be met with ; and many even of those who were most in repute, worked very much in the dark, without any knowledge of the principles of mechanics. The tools used in the construction of engines were of the rudest description, the fabrication of the parts being, for the most part, done by hand. A few ill-constructed lathes, with drills and boring-machines of rude construction, constituted the principal tools. The mechanics were also very clumsy, and for the most part illtrained. Indeed, there were only three or four establishments at that time in the kingdom that could turn out a respectable steam-engine. It is not therefore surprising that this engine should have proved a failure, and that neither the master engineer nor any of the workmen in the neighbourhood could set her to rights.
The engine went on fruitlessly pumping for nearly 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