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The Great Western Company, however, would not adopt a similar step; they held by the superiority of their gauge. The Company had invested a vast sum of money in constructing their line, and perhaps thought it was too late to remedy the admitted inconvenience of the want of continuity. The Birmingham manufacturers were the first to experience its evils, in consequence of the break of gauge at Gloucester, which involved great delay and loss from the transfer of goods. In 1844 they held a public meeting on the subject, and protested against it “as a commercial evil of the first magnitude.” This formed the commencement of “The Battle of the Gauges.” In the following session of Parliament, the London and Birmingham and Great Western Companies were competitors for the supply of railroad accommodation to the country between Oxford and Wolverhampton. The Board of Trade reported against the Great Western extensions, on account of the break of gauge. The House of Commons, however, stepped in and reversed the decision, determining nothing. Mr. Cobden then moved for a royal commission to ascertain “whether, in future private acts for the construction of railways, provision ought to be made for securing a uniform gauge; and whether it would be expedient and practicable to take measures to bring railways already constructed, or in progress of construction, into uniformity of gauge.” The address was unanimously voted; and a commission was accordingly appointed, before which the principal engineers and railway men of the day were examined at great length. In 1846, they reported substantially against the broad, and in favour of the narrow, as the future national gauge of British railways. They also expressed their opinion as to the desirableness of adopting some equitable means of producing an entire uniformity of gauge on the lines already constructed. Mr. George Stephenson was not examined before the Gauge Commission, having by that time (1845) in
cIIAp. xxix.] THE ATMOSPHERIC RAILWAY. 405
a great measure retired from the active pursuit of his profession; but he was ably represented by his son, whose evidence in favour of the superiority of the gauge of railways which had been virtually settled by his father, was complete and conclusive. Every day's successive experience has proved that the Stephenson gauge is sufficient for all purposes of public traffic, while it is, unquestionably, the most economical. Foreign engineers, who were not in the slightest degree trammelled by existing lines, laid down the narrow gauge in Belgium, in France, in Germany, and in Italy. Mr. Brunel was the engineer of the Genoa to Turin Railway; and there he had adopted the narrow gauge, with a view to the public convenience, as well as the interests of the undertaking itself. And the same considerations will, doubtless, sooner or later induce the Great Western Company to place itself in connection with the national railway system of England, instead of remaining, as at present, comparatively isolated.* Another favourite idea of the Fast School of Engineers was, as already mentioned the substitution, of atmospheric pressure for locomotive steam power in the working of railways. The idea of obtaining motion by atmospheric pressure originated with Papin, the French engineer; but it slept until revived by Mr. Medhurst in 1810, who published a pamphlet to prove the practicability of conveying letters and goods by air. In 1824, Mr. Wallance of Brighton took out a patent for projecting passengers through a tube large enough to contain a train of carriages; the tube being previously exhausted of its atmospheric air. The same idea was afterwards taken up, in 1835, by Mr. Pinkus, an ingenious American. Scientific gentlemen, Dr. Lardner and Mr. Clegg amongst others, advocated the plan; and an association was formed to carry it into effect. Shares were created, and 18,000l. raised; and a model apparatus was exhibited in London. Mr. Vignolles took his friend Mr. Stephenson to see the model; and after carefully examining it, he observed emphatically, “It won't do : it is only the fixed engines and ropes over again, in another form.” He did not think the principle would stand the test of practice, and he objected to the mode of applying the principle. Would it pay ? He thought not. After all, it was only a modification of the stationary-engine plan; and every day's experience was proving that fixed engines could not compete with locomotives in point of efficiency and economy. He stood by the locomotive engine; and subsequent experience proved that he was right. Messrs. Clegg and Samuda afterwards, in 1840, patented their plan of an atmospheric railway; and they publicly tested its working on an unfinished portion of the West London Railway. The results of the experiment were so satisfactory, that the directors of the Dublin and Kingstown line adopted it between Kingstown and Dalkey. The London and Croydon Company also adopted the atmospheric principle; and their line was opened in 1845. Great was the popularity of the atmospheric system; and still George Stephenson said, “It won't do: it's only a gimcrack.” Engineers of distinction said he was prejudiced, and that he looked upon the locomotive as a pet child of his own.
* In Ireland a peculiar gauge of five feet three inches has been adopted. The Irish Railway Commission did some remarkable things in its day. Amongst others, it recommended a gauge of six feet two inches; how it arrived at that precise width no one can tell. The Ulster Railway was laid down for twenty-five miles on this gauge, whilst the Drogheda line, which ran from Dublin into the Ulster Railway, was laid down five feet two inches in width. General Pasley was appealed to, and after consulting all the leading authorities as to the proper gauge, he struck an average, and arrived at five feet three inches, which is now the Irish gauge.
chap. xxix.] THE ATMOSPHERIC RAILWAY. 407
Mr. Brunel approved of the atmospheric system; and had not his invention of the broad gauge proved him to be a man of genius? Mr. Cubitt, Mr. Vignolles, and Mr. James Walker, also men of great eminence, Dr. Lardner, and many others equally distinguished, approved of the atmospheric railway; and therefore it was becoming pretty clear that the locomotive system was about to be snuffed out. “Not so fast,” said Mr. Stephenson. “Let us wait to see if it will pay.” He never believed it would. It was ingenious, clever, scientific, and all that; but railways were commercial enterprises, not toys; and if the atmospheric railway could not work to a profit, it would not do. Considered in this light, he even went so far as to call it “a great humbug.” No one can say that the atmospheric railway had not a fair trial. The Government engineer, General Pasley, did for it what had never been done for the locomotive — he reported in its favour, whereas a former Government engineer, Mr. Telford, had inferentially reported against the use of locomotive power on railways. The House of Commons had reported in favour of the use of the steam-engine on common roads; and yet the railway locomotive had vitality enough in it to live through all. “Nothing will beat it,” said George Stephenson, “for efficiency in all weathers, for economy in drawing loads of average weight, and for power and speed as occasion may require.” The atmospheric system was fairly and fully tried, and it was found wanting. It was admitted to be an exceedingly elegant mode of applying power; its devices were very skilful, and its mechanism was most ingenious. But it was costly, irregular in action, and, consequently, not to be depended upon. At best, it was but a modification of the stationary-engine system, which experience had proved to be so expensive that it was gradually being abandoned in favour of locomotive power. In fact, Mr. Stephenson's first verdict, “It won't do,” proved correct; and by the end of 1848, the whole of the atmospheric tubes were pulled up—including Mr. Brunel's immense tube on the South Devon Railway” — to make room for the locomotive engine. About the year 1840, the fast school propounded another set of views respecting railways, which were entirely opposed to the practice and experience of Mr. Stephenson. They promulgated the idea that undulating railways of uneven, and even severe gradients, were as favourable for working as flat lines. Mr. Stephenson, throughout his professional career, was the unvarying advocate of level railways, in preference to more direct but uneven lines. His practice was to secure a road as nearly as possible on a level, following the course of the valleys when he could do so, and preferring to go round a difficulty rather than to tunnel through it or run over it, often making a considerable circuit in order to obtain good workable gradients. He studied so to lay out his lines that minerals and merchandise, as well as passengers, could be hauled along them in heavy loads at a comparatively small expenditure of locomotive power. He saw clearly that the longer flat line would eventually beat the shorter line of steep gradients, as respected paying qualities. It was perfectly clear to him that there must necessarily be a great waste of power in overcoming the irregularities of a heavy line. Thus, Mr. Stephenson had ascertained, by experiments made at Killingworth many years before, that the locomotive works at only half its power where it has a rising gradient of 1 in 260 to overcome; and when the gradient is so high as 1 in 100, not less than three-fourths of the propelling power of the engine is sacrificed in ascending the acclivity. Mr. Stephenson urged that, after all, the