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Having been informed of the merits of Stephenson, of his indefatigable industry, and the skill which he had displayed in the repairs of the pumping-engines, they readily acceded to Mr. Dodd's recommendation that he should be appointed the colliery engineer; and, as we shall see, they continued to honour him by distinguished marks of their approval. He was now in a measure relieved from the daily routine of manual labour, and advanced to the grade of a higher class workman. He was no less a worker, but only in a different way. It might be inferred that he had now the command of greater leisure; but his leisure hours were more than ever given to work, either necessary or self-imposed. When the High Pit had been sunk, and the coal was ready for working, Stephenson erected his first winding-engine to draw the coals out of the pit, and also a pumping-engine for Long Benton colliery, both of which proved quite successful. Amongst other works of this time, he projected and laid down a self-acting incline along the declivity which fell towards the coal-loading place near Willington, where he had formerly officiated as brakesman; and he so arranged it, that the full waggons descending drew the empty waggons up the incline. This was one of the first self-acting inclines laid down in that district. Afterwards, in describing his occupations at this period of his life before a Committee of the House of Commons", he said, “After making some improvements in the steam-engines above ground, I was then requested by the manager of the colliery to go underground along with him, to see if any improvements could be made in the mines, by employing machinery as a substitute for manual labour and horse-power in bringing the coals out of the deeper workings of the mine. On my first going down the Killingworth Pit there was a
* Evidence given before the Select Committee on Accidents in Mines, 1835.
chap. vii.] IMPROVES HIMSELF IN MECHANICS. 55
steam-engine underground for the purpose of drawing water from a pit that was sunk at some distance from the first shaft. The Killingworth coal-field is considerably dislocated. After the colliery was opened, at a very short distance from the shaft, one of those dislocations was met with. The coal was thrown down about forty yards. Considerable time was spent in sinking another pit to this depth. And on my going down to examine the work, I proposed making the engine (which had been erected some time previously) to draw the coals up an inclined plane which descended immediately from the place where it was fixed. A considerable change was accordingly made in the mode of working the colliery, not only in applying the machinery, but employing putters instead of horses in bringing the coals from the hewers; and by those changes the number of horses in the pit was reduced from about 100 to 15 or 16. During the time I was engaged in making these important alterations, I went round the workings in the pit with the viewer, almost every time that he went into the mine,—not only at Killingworth, but at Mountmoor, Derwentcrook, Southmoor, all of which collieries belonged to Lord Ravensworth and his partners; and the whole of the machinery in all these collieries was put under my charge.” Mr. Stephenson had now many more opportunities for improving himself in mechanics than he had hitherto possessed. His familiar acquaintance with the steam-engine proved of great value to him. The practical study which he had given to it when a workman, and the patient manner in which he had groped his way through all the details of the machine, gave him the power of a master in dealing with it as applied to colliery purposes. His shrewd insight, together with his intimate practical acquaintance with its mechanism, enabled him to apprehend, as if by intuition, its most abstruse and difficult combinations.
Sir Thomas Liddell was frequently about the works, and he encouraged Stephenson greatly in his efforts after improvement. The subject of the locomotive engine was already closely occupying his attention; although as yet it was regarded very much in the light of a curious and costly toy, of comparatively small practical use. But Stephenson from the first detected the value of the machine,and formed an adequate conception of the gigantic might which as yet slumbered within it; and he was not slow in bending the whole faculties of his mind to the development of its extraordinary powers.
Meanwhile, the education of his son Robert at the Newcastle school proceeded apace, and the father contrived to make his progress instrumental in promoting his own improvement. The youth was entered a member of the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Institution, the subscription to which was 31.3s. a year. He spent much of his leisure time there, reading and studying; and on Saturday afternoons, when he went home to his father's at Killingworth, he usually carried with him a volume of the Repertory of Arts and Sciences, or of the Edinburgh Encyclopaedia, which furnished abundant subjects for interesting and instructive converse during the evening hours. Then John Wigham would come over from the Glebe farm to join the party, and enter into the lively scientific discussions which occurred on the subjects of their mutual reading. But many of the most valuable works belonging to the Newcastle Library were not permitted to be removed from the room; these Robert was instructed to read and study, and bring away with him descriptions and sketches for his father's information. His father also practised him in the reading of plans and drawings without at all referring to the written descriptions. He used to observe to his son, “A good drawing or plan should always explain itself; ” and, placing a drawing of an engine or machine before the youth, he would say, “There, now,
chap. vii.] THE REV. M.R. TURNER. 57
describe that to me — the arrangement and the action.”
Thus he taught him to read a drawing as easily as he would read a page of a book. This practice soon gave to both the greatest facility in apprehending the details of even the most difficult and complicated mechanical drawing. The son, like his father, was very fond of reducing his scientific reading to practice. On one occasion, after reading Franklin's description of the lightning experiment, he expended all his hoarded Saturday's pennies in purchasing about half a mile of copper wire at a brazier's shop in Newcastle. After privily preparing his kite, he sent it up at the cottage door, insulating the wire by means of a few feet of silk cord. His father's pony was standing near, waiting for the master to mount. Bringing the end of the wire just over the pony’s crupper, so smart an electric shock was given it, that the brute was almost knocked down. At this juncture the father issued from the door with riding-whip in hand, and was witness to the scientific trick just played off upon his galloway. “Ah! you mischievous scoundrel !” cried he to the boy, who ran off. But he inwardly chuckled with pride, nevertheless, at his son's successful experiment. The connexion of Robert with the Philosophical and Literary Society of Newcastle brought him into communication with the Rev. William Turner, one of the secretaries of the institution. That gentleman was always ready to assist the inquirer after knowledge, and took an early interest in the studious youth from Killingworth, with whose father also he soon became acquainted. Mr. Turner cheerfully and even zealously helped them in their joint inquiries, and excited while he endeavoured to satisfy their eager thirst for scientific information. Many years afterwards, towards the close of his life, Mr. Stephenson expressed most warmly the gratitude and esteem he felt towards his revered instructor. “Mr. Turner,” he said, “was always ready to assist me with books, with instruments, and with counsel, gratuitously and cheerfully. He gave me the most valuable assistance and instruction, and to my dying day I can never forget the obligations which I owe to my venerable friend.”
Mr. Turner's conduct towards George Stephenson was all the more worthy of admiration, because at that time the object of his friendly instruction and counsel occupied but the position of a comparatively obscure workman, of no means or influence, who had become known to him only through his anxious desire for information on scientific subjects. He could little have dreamt that the object of his almost fatherly attention would achieve a reputation so distinguished as that to which he afterwards reached, and that he would revolutionise by his inventions and improvements the internal communications of the civilised world. The circumstance is encouraging to those who, like Mr. Turner, are still daily devoting themselves with equal disinterestedness to the education of the working-classes in our schools and mechanics' institutes. Though the opportunity of lending a helping hand to such men as George Stephenson may but rarely occur, yet the labours of such teachers are never without excellent results.