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MR. STEPHENSON AND THE NEW SCHOOL OF FAST
The general demand for railways which sprang up shortly after the successful opening of the Liverpool and Manchester line, brought into existence a large number of engineers of great ability, distinguished by their practical skill and their high standing as scientific men. In this country of free industrial competition, no sooner does the demand for a particular class of talent arise, than it is supplied as if by magic. The laissez faire course of action adopted by the Government with reference to railways, though it led to much bungling and enormous expense, nevertheless gave full scope to the genius and enterprise of English engineers. So long as the prospect of dividends ranging from 8 to 15 per cent. was held out, there was to be found a numerous class of private capitalists ready to invest money in iron roads, and to find capital for the construction of new lines. Much rivalry thus arose, the engineers usually appearing as the leaders of the battle on opposing sides, when two or more lines were started between the same points. A considerable amount of personal feeling was occasionally evoked in these engineering contests, which were as often trials of individual ambition as of professional skill. Aspiring juniors sought to supplant their elder brethren at boards of directors, or to defeat their schemes before parliamentary committees ; and many new men laboured to mature and bring out railway projects more striking and original than anything that had before been proposed.
Whilst continental governments, early recognising the great national advantages of railways, were appointing state engineers for the purpose of determining by preliminary surveys the most eligible lines of communication, leaving only the execution of the requisite works open to competition, the English Government left it to joint-stock companies to project and construct our national highways. The first step usually taken was the formation of a provisional committee, which at once proceeded to appoint an engineer to lay out the line, and a solicitor to constitute the company and agitate public opinion on behalf of the scheme. But the chief responsibility unquestionably rested with the engineer, who had to find a practicable road, to survey the line, to plan the necessary works — tunnels, viaducts, bridges, cuttings, and embankments,-to form estimates of the cost, and, above all, to be prepared to stand the cross-examination of his opponents before Parliament.
This keen competition of professional ability tended rapidly to develope the peculiar qualities of the English Railway Engineer. His experience, it will be observed, must necessarily be of an exceedingly varied character, to enable him to stand the test of the parliamentary crucible. He must be conversant with land-surveying and levelling, and have considerable practical knowledge of the strength and qualities of materials, -of iron work, masonry, tunnelling, and earth works. He must be something of an architect, a mathematician, and a geologist. He must also be familiar with the structure of the steam-engine and its application to the purposes of locomotion ; and he must have studied the principles of mechanical science, more especially the laws of gravity, friction, and momentum. Thus, the practical education of
the English Engineer included almost the entire field of natural science. Being often called upon to act in emergencies, he acquired a promptitude of action, and a facility in inventing expedients to meet difficulties as they arose, which gave him a commanding superiority over the engineers of the continent. The works on foreign railways being for the most part under the control of government, their engineers, though possessing the advantages of a much more scientific training, were trammelled and fettered in all that they did ; and in cases of great practical difficulty, which required boldness and skill of contrivance, the English engineers — though they might, like George Stephenson, be entirely self-educated — were found greatly their superiors.
With all the wholesome rivalry and competition to which we have referred, and which tended to stimulate and strengthen their practical ability, there was a considerable admixture of jealousy and heartburning. It was long before Mr. Stephenson, notwithstanding the immense engineering works he had planned and executed, was recognised by the “ regular” professional men as entitled to the status of a Civil Engineer. He had served no apprenticeship, and could show no indentures. Even the mechanical engineers connected with the manufacture of steam-engines regarded him as an interloper, denied him all merit, and pursued him with detraction in the pages of their “ Mechanics' Magazine," long after the world had recognised his claims to distinction. This bitterness of spirit produced a similar spirit in himself; and he occasionally entertained a resentment towards his detractors which he could not and would not conceal.
The railway system, as established by Mr. Stephenson, was too new as yet to command that prestige which belongs to older institutions. It was but in its infancy; and the many able engineers who rose up naturally supposed it to be imperfect, and capable of vast improvement. The scientific professional men employed to survey the numerous new lines of railway which radiated in all directions from the metropolis, exerted themselves to improve upon Mr. Stephenson's plans, and thereby to enhance their own reputation. Indeed, they were sometimes twitted by the press for following so closely in the footsteps of the comparatively uneducated men who had gathered their experience in the Newcastle coalpits. Several of the new engineers therefore determined to be original. About the year 1838, they began to strike out many new lights, and to propound new plans, by way of improvement upon the Stephenson system.
These aspiring engineers did not want followers enough amongst railway speculators. In answer to the objections advanced against their plans, they cited the numerous predictions which had so recently been uttered against the practicability of working the locomotive itself upon railways. Give them an opportunity, and they would prove even the locomotive to be clumsy, and the existing system quite inferior to their own. And, indeed, so many “impracticable” and “impossible" things had within a very few years been proved to be both practicable and possible on railways, that the public became much less sceptical as to the plans of new projectors, and many were found ready to subscribe their capital for the purpose of bringing them into practical use.
Among the many novelties in railway engineering originated by the new school, the proposal of a pneumatic apparatus to supersede entirely the locomotive engine, was probably the most important. It was also proposed to adopt uneven railways, without much regard to gradients, as an improvement upon the flat lines so much insisted upon by Mr. Stephenson: this was scientifically designated “the undulating system.” And some engineers, whilst retaining the locomotive as the tractive power, proposed to propel it at speeds which even Mr. Stephenson himself, sanguine and
practicable as he had so often been pronounced, had never samt of. Another improvement which was much discussed for many ars, and of which, unhappily, we have not yet heard the ist, was the alteration of the gauge of railways from 4 feet 1 inches to a greater width.
As already stated, the original width of the coal tramroads n the North had virtually determined the British gauge. It was the width of the ordinary road-track,- not fixed after any scientific theory, but adopted simply from general use. Mr. Stephenson introduced it without alteration on the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; and the several lines subsequently formed in the same districts were laid down on the same system. Mr. Stephenson from the first anticipated the general adoption of railways throughout England; and one of the principles with which he started was, the essential importance of preserving such a uniformity as would admit of perfect communication between them. All the railways, therefore, laid down by himself and his assistants in the neighbourhood of Manchester, extending from thence to London on the south and to Leeds on the east, were constructed on the Liverpool and Manchester or narrow gauge. While others were declaring that railroads would be effective only for passenger traffic and for the local accommodation of the largest towns, Mr. Stephenson foresaw and foretold that universal adoption of them in all places for the conveyance both of goods and passengers which the iron-road system has since attained; and he accordingly prepared the railways under his control for the eventual receipt of traffic from the cross roads and the by roads, as well as from the main roads of the kingdom.
When Mr. Brunel projected the Great Western line, he fixed upon a broader gauge; but he adopted a narrower view of the subject of railway extension than Mr. Stephenson had