Read CHAPTER XIX.  of Lives of the Engineers The Locomotive. George and Robert Stephenson , free online book, by Samuel Smiles, on


George Stephenson bequeathed to his son his valuable collieries, his share in the engine manufactory at Newcastle, and his large accumulation of savings, which, together with the fortune he had himself amassed by railway work, gave Robert the position of an engineer millionaire ­the first of his order.  He continued, however, to live in a quiet style; and although he bought occasional pictures and statues, and indulged in the luxury of a yacht, he did not live up to his income, which went on rapidly accumulating until his death.

There was no longer the necessity for applying himself to the laborious business of a parliamentary engineer, in which he had now been occupied for some fifteen years.  Shortly after his father’s death, Edward Pease strongly recommended him to give up the more harassing work of his profession; and his reply (15th June, 1850) was as follows: ­“The suggestion which your kind note contains is quite in accordance with my own feelings and intentions respecting retirement; but I find it a very difficult matter to bring to a close so complicated a connexion in business as that which has been established by twenty-five years of active and arduous professional duty.  Comparative retirement is, however, my intention; and I trust that your prayer for the Divine blessing to grant me happiness and quiet comfort will be fulfilled.  I cannot but feel deeply grateful to the Great Disposer of events for the success which has hitherto attended my exertions in life; and I trust that the future will also be marked by a continuance of His mercies.”

Although Robert Stephenson, in conformity with this expressed intention, for the most part declined to undertake new business, he did not altogether lay aside his harness; and he lived to repeat his tubular bridges both in Lower Canada and in Egypt.  The success of the tubular system, as adopted at Menai and Conway, was such as to recommend it for adoption wherever great span was required; and the peculiar circumstances connected with the navigation of the St. Lawrence and the Nile, may be said to have compelled its adoption in carrying railways across those great rivers.

The Victoria Bridge, of which Robert Stephenson was the designer and chief engineer, is, without exception, the greatest work of the kind in the world.  For gigantic proportions and vast length and strength there is nothing to compare with it in ancient or modern times.  The entire bridge, with its approaches, is only about sixty yards short of two miles, being five times longer than the Britannia across the Menai Straits, seven and a half times longer than Waterloo Bridge, and more than ten times longer than the new Chelsea Bridge across the Thames!  It has not less than twenty-four spans of 242 feet each, and one great central span ­itself an immense bridge ­of 330 feet.  The road is carried within iron tubes 60 feet above the level of the St. Lawrence, which runs beneath at a speed of about ten miles an hour, and in winter brings down the ice of two thousand square miles of lakes and rivers, with their numerous tributaries.  The weight of iron in the tubes is about ten thousand tons, supported on massive piers, which contain, some six, and others ten thousand tons of solid masonry.

So gigantic a work, involving so heavy an expenditure ­about 1,300,000 pounds ­was not projected without sufficient cause.  The Grand Trunk Railway of Canada, upwards of 1200 miles in length, traverses British North America from the shores of the Atlantic to the rich prairie country of the Far West.  It opens up a vast extent of fertile territory for future immigration, and provides a ready means for transporting the varied products of the Western States to the seaboard.  So long as the St. Lawrence was relied upon, the inhabitants along the Great Valley were precluded from communication with each other for nearly six months of the year, during which the navigation was closed by the ice.

The Grand Trunk Railway was designed to furnish a line of communication through this great district at all seasons; following the course of the St. Lawrence along its north bank, and uniting the principal towns of Canada.  But stopping short on the north shore, it was still an incomplete work; unconnected, except by a dangerous and often impracticable ferry, with Montreal, the capital of the province, and shut off from connection with the United States, as well as with the coast to which the commerce of Canada naturally tends.  Without a bridge at Montreal, therefore, it was felt that the system of Canadian railway communication would have been incomplete, and the benefits of the Grand Trunk Railway in a great measure nugatory.

As early as 1846 the construction of a bridge across the St. Lawrence at Montreal was strongly advocated by the local press for the purpose of directly connecting that city with the then projected Atlantic and St. Lawrence Railway.  A survey of the bridge was made, and the scheme was reported to be practicable.  A period of colonial depression, however, intervened, and although the project was not lost sight of, it was not until 1852, when the Grand Trunk Railway Company began their operations, that there seemed to be any reasonable prospect of its being carried out.  In that year, Mr. A. M. Ross ­who had superintended, under Robert Stephenson, the construction of the tubular bridge over the Conway ­visited Canada, and inspected the site of the proposed bridge, when he readily arrived at the conclusion that a like structure was suitable for the crossing of the St. Lawrence.  He returned to England to confer with Robert Stephenson on the subject, and the result was the plan of the Victoria Bridge, of which Robert Stephenson was the designer, and Mr. A. M. Ross the joint and resident engineer.

The particular kind of structure to be adopted, however, formed the subject of much preliminary discussion.  Even after the design of a tubular bridge had been adopted, and the piers were commenced, the plan was made the subject of severe criticism, on the ground of its alleged excessive cost.  It therefore became necessary for Mr. Stephenson to vindicate the propriety of his design in a report to the directors of the railway, in which he satisfactorily proved that as respected strength, efficiency, and economy, with a view to permanency, the plan of the Victoria Bridge was unimpeachable.  There were various methods proposed for spanning the St. Lawrence.  The suspension bridge, such as that over the river Niagara, was found inapplicable for several reasons, but chiefly because of its defective rigidity, which greatly limited the speed and weight of the trains, and consequently the amount of traffic which could be passed over such a bridge.  Thus, taking the length of the Victoria Bridge into account, it was found that not more than 20 trains could pass within the 24 hours, a number insufficient for the accommodation of the anticipated traffic.  To introduce such an amount of material into the suspension bridge as would supply increased rigidity, would only be approximating to the original beam, and neutralizing any advantages in point of cheapness which might be derivable from this form of structure, without securing the essential stiffness and strength.  Iron arches were also considered inapplicable, because of the large headway required for the passage of the ice in winter, and the necessity which existed for keeping the springing of the arches clear of the water-line.  This would have involved the raising of the entire road, and a largely increased expenditure on the upper works.  The question was therefore reduced to the consideration of the kind of horizontal beam or girder to be employed.

Horizontal girders are of three kinds.  The Tubular is constructed of riveted rectangular boiler plates.  Where the span is large, the road passes within the tube; where the span is comparatively small, the roadway is supported by two or more rectangular beams.  Next there is the Lattice girder, borrowed from the loose rough timber bridges of the American engineers, consisting of a top and bottom flange connected by a number of flat iron bars, riveted across each other at a certain angle, the roadway resting on the top, or being suspended at the bottom between the lattice on either side.  Bridges on the same construction are now extensively used for crossing the broad rivers of India, and are especially designed with a view to their easy transport and erection.  The Trellis or Warren girder is a modification of the same plan, consisting of a top and bottom flange, with a connecting web of diagonal flat bars, forming a complete system of triangulation ­hence the name of “Triangular girder,” by which it is generally known.  The merit of this form consists in its comparative rigidity, strength, lightness, and economy of material These bridges are also extensively employed in spanning the rivers of India.  One of the best specimens is the Crumlin viaduct, 200 feet high at one point, which spans the river and valley of the Ebbw near the village of Crumlin in South Wales.  This viaduct is about a third of a mile long, divided into two parts by a ridge of hills which runs through the centre of the valley ­each part forming a separate viaduct, the one of seven equal spans of 150 feet, the other of three spans of the same diameter.  The bridge has been very skilfully designed and constructed, and, by reason of its great dimensions and novel arrangements, is entitled to be regarded as one of the most remarkable engineering works of the day.

“In calculating the strength of these different classes of girders,” Mr. Stephenson observed, “one ruling principle appertains, and is common to all of them.  Primarily and essentially, the ultimate strength is considered to exist in the top and bottom, ­the former being exposed to a compression force by the action of the load, and the latter to a force of tension; therefore, whatever be the class or denomination of girders, they must all be alike in amount of effective material in these members, if their spans and depths are the same, and they have to sustain the same amount of load.  Hence, the question of comparative merit amongst the different classes of construction of beams or girders is really narrowed to the method of connecting the top and bottom webs, so called.”  In the tubular system the connexion is effected by continuous boiler plates riveted together; and in the lattice and trellis bridges by flat iron bars, more or less numerous, forming a series of struts and ties.  Those engineers who advocate the employment of the latter form of construction, set forth as its principal advantage the saving of material which is effected by employing bars instead of iron plates; whereas Mr. Stephenson and his followers urge, that in point of economy the boiler plate side is equal to the bars, whilst in point of effective strength and rigidity it is decidedly superior.  To show the comparative economy of material, he contrasted the lattice girder bridge over the river Trent, on the Great Northern Railway near Newark, with the tubes of the Victoria Bridge.  In the former case, where the span is 240.5 feet, and the bridge 13 feet wide, the weight including bearings is 292 tons; in the latter, where the span is 242 feet, the width of the tube 16 feet, the weight including bearings is 275 tons, showing a balance in favour of the Victoria Tube of 17 tons.  The comparison between the Newark Dyke Bridge and the Tubular Bridge over the river Aire is equally favourable to the latter; and no one can have travelled over the Great Northern line to York without noting that, as respects rigidity under the passing train, the Tubular Bridge is decidedly superior.  It is ascertained that the deflection caused by a passing load is considerably greater in the former case; and Mr. Stephenson was also of opinion that the sides of all trellis or lattice girders are useless, except for the purpose of connecting the top and bottom, and keeping them in their position.  They depend upon their connexion with the top and bottom webs for their own support; and since they could not sustain their shape, but would collapse immediately on their being disconnected from their top and bottom members, it is evident that they add to the strain upon them, and consequently to that extent reduce the ultimate strength of the beams.  “I admit,” he added, “that there is no formula for valuing the solid sides for strains, and that at present we only ascribe to them the value or use of connecting the top and bottom; yet we are aware that, from their continuity and solidity, they are of value to resist horizontal and many other strains, independently of the top and bottom, by which they add very much to the stiffness of the beam; and the fact of their containing more material than is necessary to connect the top and bottom webs, has by no means been fairly established.”  Another important advantage of the Tubular bridge over the Trellis or Lattice structure, consists in its greater safety in event of a train running off the line, ­a contingency which has more than once occurred on a tubular bridge without detriment, whereas in event of such an accident occurring on a Trellis or Lattice bridge, it must infallibly be destroyed.  Where the proposed bridge is of the unusual length of a mile and a quarter, it is obvious that this consideration must have had no small weight with the directors, who eventually decided on proceeding with the Tubular Bridge according to Mr. Stephenson’s original design.

From the first projection of the Victoria Bridge, the difficulties of executing such a work across a wide river, down which an avalanche of ice rushes to the sea every spring, were pronounced almost insurmountable by those best acquainted with the locality.  The ice of two thousand miles of inland lakes and upper rivers, besides their tributaries, is then poured down stream, and, in the neighbourhood of Montreal especially, it is often piled up to the height of from forty to fifty feet, placing the surrounding country under water, and doing severe damage to the massive stone buildings along the noble river front of the city.  To resist so prodigious a pressure, it was necessary that the piers of the proposed bridge should be of the most solid and massive description.  Their foundations are placed in the solid rock; for none of the artificial methods of obtaining foundations, suggested by some engineers for cheapness’ sake, were found practicable in this case.  Where the force exercised against the piers was likely to be so great, it was felt that timber ice-breakers, timber or cast-iron piling, or even rubble-work, would have proved but temporary expedients.  The two centre piers are eighteen feet wide, and the remaining twenty-two piers fifteen feet; to arrest and break the ice, an inclined plane, composed of great blocks of stone, was added to the up-river side of each pier ­each block weighing from seven to ten tons, and the whole were firmly clamped together with iron rivets.

To convey some idea of the immense force which these piers are required to resist, we may briefly describe the breaking up of the ice in March, 1858, while the bridge was under construction.  Fourteen out of the twenty-four piers were then finished, together with the formidable abutments and approaches to the bridge.  The ice in the river began to show signs of weakness on the 29th March, but it was not until the 31st that a general movement became observable, which continued for an hour, when it suddenly stopped, and the water rose rapidly.  On the following day, at noon, a grand movement commenced; the waters rose about four feet in two minutes, up to a level with many of the Montreal streets.  The fields of ice at the same time were suddenly elevated to an incredible height; and so overwhelming were they in appearance, that crowds of the townspeople, who had assembled on the quay to watch the progress of the flood, ran for their lives.  This movement lasted about twenty minutes, during which the jammed ice destroyed several portions of the quay-wall, grinding the hardest blocks to atoms.  The embanked approaches to the Victoria Bridge had tremendous forces to resist.  In the full channel of the stream, the ice in its passage between the piers was broken up by the force of the blow immediately on its coming in contact with the cutwaters.  Sometimes thick sheets of ice were seen to rise up and rear on end against the piers, but by the force of the current they were speedily made to roll over into the stream, and in a moment after were out of sight.  For the two next days the river was still high, until on the 4th April the waters seemed suddenly to give way, and by the following day the river was flowing clear and smooth as a millpond, nothing of winter remaining except the masses of bordage ice which were strewn along the shores of the stream.  On examination of the piers of the bridge, it was found that they had admirably resisted the tremendous pressure; and though the timber “cribwork” erected to facilitate the placing of floating pontoons to form the dams, was found considerably disturbed and in some places seriously damaged, the piers, with the exception of one or two heavy stone blocks, which were still unfinished, escaped uninjured.  One heavy block of many tons’ weight was carried to a considerable distance, and must have been torn out of its place by sheer force, as several of the broken fragments were found left in the pier.

The works in connection with the Victoria Bridge were begun on the 22nd July, 1854, when the first stone was laid, and continued uninterruptedly during a period of 5.5 years, until the 17th December, 1859, when the bridge was finished and taken off the contractor’s hands.  It was formally opened for traffic early in 1860; though Robert Stephenson did not live to see its completion.

The tubular system was also applied by the same engineer, in a modified form, in the two bridges across the Nile, near Damietta in Lower Egypt.  That near Benha contains eight spans or openings of 80 feet each, and two centre spans, formed by one of the largest swing bridges ever constructed, ­the total length of the swing-beam being 157 feet, ­a clear water-way of 60 feet being provided on either side of the centre pier.  The only novelty in these bridges consisted in the road being carried upon the tubes instead of within them; their erection being carried out in the usual manner, by means of workmen, materials, and plant sent out from England.

During the later years of his life, Mr. Stephenson took considerable interest in public affairs and in scientific investigations.  In 1847 he entered the House of Commons as member for Whitby; but he does not seem to have been very devoted in his attendance, and only appeared on divisions when there was a “whip” of the party to which he belonged.  He was a member of the Sanitary and Sewage Commissions, and of the Commission which sat on Westminster Bridge.  The last occasions on which he addressed the House were on the Suez Canal and the cleansing of the Serpentine.  He pronounced the Suez Canal to be an impracticable scheme.  “I have surveyed the line,” said he, “I have travelled the whole distance on foot, and I declare there is no fall between the two seas.  Honourable members talk about a canal.  A canal is impossible ­the thing would only be a ditch.”

Besides constructing the railway between Alexandria and Cairo, he was consulted, like his father, by the King of Belgium, as to the railways of that country; and he was made Knight of the Order of Leopold because of the improvements which he had made in locomotive engines, so much to the advantage of the Belgian system of inland transit.  He was consulted by the King of Sweden as to the railway between Christiana and Lake Miosen, and in consideration of his services was decorated with the Grand Cross of the Order of St. Olaf.  He also visited Switzerland, Piedmont, and Denmark, to advise as to the system of railway communication best suited for those countries.  At the Paris Exhibition of 1855 the Emperor of France decorated him with the Legion of Honour in consideration of his public services; and at home the University of Oxford made him a Doctor of Civil Laws.  In 1855 he was elected President of the Institute of Civil Engineers, which office he held with honour and filled with distinguished ability for two years, giving place to his friend Mr. Locke at the end of 1857.

Mr. Stephenson was frequently called upon to act as arbitrator between contractors and railway companies, or between one company and another, ­great value being attached to his opinion on account of his weighty judgment, his great experience, and his upright character, and we believe his decisions were invariably stamped by the qualities of impartiality and justice.  He was always ready to lend a helping hand to a friend, and no petty jealousy stood between him and his rivals in the engineering world.  The author remembers being with Mr. Stephenson one evening at his house in Gloucester Square, when a note was put into his hands from his friend Brunel, then engaged in his first fruitless efforts to launch the Great Eastern.  It was to ask Stephenson to come down to Blackwall early next morning, and give him the benefit of his judgment.  Shortly after six next morning Stephenson was in Scott Russell’s building-yard, and he remained there until dusk.  About midday, while superintending the launching operations, the baulk of timber on which he stood canted up, and he fell up to his middle in the Thames mud.  He was dressed as usual, without great-coat (though the day was bitter cold), and with only thin boots upon his feet.  He was urged to leave the yard, and change his dress, or at least dry himself; but with his usual disregard of health, he replied, “Oh, never mind me ­I’m quite used to this sort of thing;” and he went paddling about in the mud, smoking his cigar, until almost dark, when the day’s work was brought to an end.  The result of this exposure was an attack of inflammation of the lungs, which kept him to his bed for a fortnight.

He was habitually careless of his health, and perhaps he indulged in narcotics to a prejudicial extent.  Hence he often became “hipped” and sometimes ill.  When Mr. Sopwith accompanied him to Egypt in the Titania, in 1856, he succeeded in persuading Mr. Stephenson to limit his indulgence in cigars and stimulants, and the consequence was that by the end of the voyage he felt himself, as he said, “quite a new man.”  Arrived at Marseilles, he telegraphed from thence a message to Great George Street, prescribing certain stringent and salutary rules for observance in the office there on his return.  But he was of a facile, social disposition, and the old associations proved too strong for him.  When he sailed for Norway, in the autumn of 1859, though then ailing in health, he looked a man who had still plenty of life in him.  By the time he returned, his fatal illness had seized him.  He was attacked by congestion of the liver, which first developed itself in jaundice, and then ran into dropsy, of which he died on the 12th October, in the fifty-sixth year of his age. He was buried by the side of Telford in Westminster Abbey, amidst the departed great men of his country, and was attended to his resting-place by many of the intimate friends of his boyhood and his manhood.  Among those who assembled round his grave were some of the greatest men of thought and action in England, who embraced the sad occasion to pay the last mark of their respect to this illustrious son of one of England’s greatest working men.

It would be out of keeping with the subject thus drawn to a conclusion, to pronounce any panegyric on the character and achievements of George and Robert Stephenson.  These for the most part speak for themselves.  Both were emphatically true men, exhibiting in their lives many sterling qualities.  No beginning could have been less promising than that of the elder Stephenson.  Born in a poor condition, yet rich in spirit, he was from the first compelled to rely upon himself; and every step of advance which he made was conquered by patient labour.  Whether working as a brakesman or an engineer, his mind was always full of the work in hand.  He gave himself thoroughly up to it.  Like the painter, he might say that he had become great “by neglecting nothing.”  Whatever he was engaged upon, he was as careful of the details as if each were itself the whole.  He did all thoroughly and honestly.  There was no “scamping” with him.  When a workman he put his brains and labour into his work; and when a master he put his conscience and character into it.  He would have no slop-work executed merely for the sake of profit.  The materials must be as genuine as the workmanship was skilful.  The structures which he designed and executed were distinguished for their thoroughness and solidity; his locomotives were famous for their durability and excellent working qualities.  The engines which he sent to the United States in 1832 are still in good condition; and even the engines built by him for the Killingworth Colliery, upwards of thirty years ago, are working steadily there to this day.  All his work was honest, representing the actual character of the man.

He was ready to turn his hand to anything ­shoes and clocks, railways and locomotives.  He contrived his safety-lamp with the object of saving pitmen’s lives, and perilled his own life in testing it.  Whatever work was nearest him, he turned to and did it.  With him to resolve was to do.  Many men knew far more than he; but none were more ready forthwith to apply what he did know to practical purposes.  It was while working at Willington as a brakes-man, that he first learnt how best to handle a spade in throwing ballast out of the ships’ holds.  This casual employment seems to have left upon his mind the strongest impression of what “hard work” was; and he often used to revert to it, and say to the young men about him, “Ah, ye lads! there’s none o’ ye know what wark is.”  Mr. Gooch says he was proud of the dexterity in handling a spade which he had thus acquired, and that he has frequently seen him take the shovel from a labourer in some railway cutting, and show him how to use it more deftly in filling waggons of earth, gravel, or sand.  Sir Joshua Walmsley has also informed us, that, when examining the works of the Orleans and Tours Railway, Mr. Stephenson, seeing a large number of excavators filling and wheeling sand in a cutting, at a great waste of time and labour, went up to the men and said he would show them how to fill their barrows in half the time.  He showed them the proper position in which to stand so as to exercise the greatest amount of power with the least expenditure of strength; and he filled the barrow with comparative ease again and again in their presence, to the great delight of the workmen.  When passing through his own workshops, he would point out to his men how to save labour, and to get through their work skilfully and with ease.  His energy imparted itself to others, quickening and influencing them as strong characters always do ­flowing down into theirs, and bringing out their best powers.

His deportment towards the workmen employed under him was familiar, yet firm and consistent.  As he respected their manhood, so did they respect his masterhood.  Although he comported himself towards his men as if they occupied very much the same level as himself, he yet possessed that peculiar capacity for governing which enabled him always to preserve among them the strictest discipline, and to secure their cheerful and hearty services.  Mr. Ingham, M.P. for South Shields, on going over the workshops at Newcastle, was particularly struck with this quality of the master in his bearing towards his men.  “There was nothing,” said he, “of undue familiarity in their intercourse, but they spoke to each other as man to man; and nothing seemed to please the master more than to point out illustrations of the ingenuity of his artisans.  He took up a rivet, and expatiated on the skill with which it had been fashioned by the workman’s hand ­its perfectness and truth.  He was always proud of his workmen and his pupils; and, while indifferent and careless as to what might be said of himself, he fired up in a moment if disparagement were thrown upon any one whom he had taught or trained.”

In manner, George Stephenson was simple, modest, and unassuming, but always manly.  He was frank and social in spirit.  When a humble workman, he had carefully preserved his sense of self-respect.  His companions looked up to him, and his example was worth even more to many of them than books or schools.  His devoted love of knowledge made his poverty respectable, and adorned his humble calling.  When he rose to a more elevated station, and associated with men of the highest position and influence in Britain, he took his place amongst them with perfect self-possession.  They wondered at the quiet ease and simple dignity of his deportment; and men in the best ranks of life have said of him that “He was one of Nature’s gentlemen.”

Probably no military chiefs were ever more beloved by their soldiers than were both father and son by the army of men who, under their guidance, worked at labours of profit, made labours of love by their earnest will and purpose.  True leaders of men and lords of industry, they were always ready to recognise and encourage talent in those who worked for and with them.  Thus it was pleasant, at the openings of the Stephenson lines, to hear the chief engineers attributing the successful completion of the works to their able assistants; whilst the assistants, on the other hand, ascribed the glory to their chiefs.

Mr. Stephenson, though a thrifty and frugal man, was essentially unsordid.  His rugged path in early life made him careful of his resources.  He never saved to hoard, but saved for a purpose, such as the maintenance of his parents or the education of his son.  In later years he became a prosperous and even a wealthy man; but riches never closed his heart, nor stole away the elasticity of his soul.  He enjoyed life cheerfully, because hopefully.  When he entered upon a commercial enterprise, whether for others or for himself, he looked carefully at the ways and means.  Unless they would “pay,” he held back.  “He would have nothing to do,” he declared, “with stock-jobbing speculations.”  His refusal to sell his name to the schemes of the railway mania ­his survey of the Spanish lines without remuneration ­his offer to postpone his claim for payment from a poor company until their affairs became more prosperous ­are instances of the unsordid spirit in which he acted.

Another marked feature in Mr. Stephenson’s character was his patience.  Notwithstanding the strength of his convictions as to the great uses to which the locomotive might be applied, he waited long and patiently for the opportunity of bringing it into notice; and for years after he had completed an efficient engine he went on quietly devoting himself to the ordinary work of the colliery.  He made no noise nor stir about his locomotive, but allowed another to take credit for the experiments on velocity and friction made with it by himself upon the Killingworth railroad.

By patient industry and laborious contrivance, he was enabled, with the powerful help of his son, to do for the locomotive what James Watt had done for the condensing engine.  He found it clumsy and inefficient; and he made it powerful, efficient, and useful.  Both have been described as the improvers of their respective engines; but, as to all that is admirable in their structure or vast in their utility, they are rather entitled to be described as their Inventors.  While the invention of Watt increased the power, and at the same time so regulated the action of the steam-engine, as to make it capable of being applied alike to the hardest work and to the finest manufactures, the invention of Stephenson gave an effective power to the locomotive, which enabled it to perform the work of teams of the most powerful horses, and to outstrip the speed of the fleetest.  Watt’s invention exercised a wonderfully quickening influence on every branch of industry, and multiplied a thousand-fold the amount of manufactured productions; and Stephenson’s enabled these to be distributed with an economy and despatch such as had never before been thought possible.  They have both tended to increase indefinitely the mass of human comforts and enjoyments, and to render them cheap and accessible to all.  But Stephenson’s invention, by the influence which it is daily exercising upon the civilisation of the world, is even more remarkable than that of Watt, and is calculated to have still more important consequences.  In this respect, it is to be regarded as the grandest application of steam power that has yet been discovered.

The Locomotive, like the condensing engine, exhibits the realisation of various capital, but wholly distinct, ideas, promulgated by many ingenious inventors.  Stephenson, like Watt, exhibited a power of selection, combination, and invention of his own, by which ­while availing himself of all that had been done before him, and superadding the many skilful contrivances devised by himself ­he was at length enabled to bring his engine into a condition of marvellous power and efficiency.  He gathered together the scattered threads of ingenuity which already existed, and combined them into one firm and complete fabric of his own.  He realised the plans which others had imperfectly formed; and was the first to construct, what so many others had unsuccessfully attempted, the practical and economical working locomotive.

Mr. Stephenson’s close and accurate observation provided him with a fulness of information on many subjects, which often appeared surprising to those who had devoted to them a special study.  On one occasion the accuracy of his knowledge of birds came out in a curious way at a convivial meeting of railway men in London.  The engineers and railway directors present knew each other as railway men and nothing more.  The talk had been all of railways and railway politics.  Mr. Stephenson was a great talker on those subjects, and was generally allowed, from the interest of his conversation and the extent of his experience, to take the lead.  At length one of the party broke in with “Come now, Stephenson, we have had nothing but railways; cannot we have a change and try if we can talk a little about something else?” “Well,” said Mr. Stephenson, “I’ll give you a wide range of subjects; what shall it be about?” “Say birds’ nests!” rejoined the other, who prided himself on his special knowledge of this subject.  “Then birds’ nests be it.”  A long and animated conversation ensued:  the bird-nesting of his boyhood, the blackbird’s nest which his father had held him up in his arms to look at when a child at Wylam, the hedges in which he had found the thrush’s and the linnet’s nests, the mossy bank where the robin built, the cleft in the branch of the young tree where the chaffinch had reared its dwelling ­all rose up clear in his mind’s eye, and led him back to the scenes of his boyhood at Callerton and Dewley Burn.  The colour and number of the bird’s eggs, the period of their incubation, the materials employed by them for the walls and lining of their nests, were described by him so vividly, and illustrated by such graphic anecdotes, that one of the party remarked that, if George Stephenson had not been the greatest engineer of his day, he might have been one of the greatest naturalists.

His powers of conversation were very great.  He was so thoughtful, so original, and so suggestive.  There was scarcely a department of science on which he had not formed some novel and sometimes daring theory.  Thus Mr. Gooch, his pupil, who lived with him when at Liverpool, informs us that when sitting over the fire, he would frequently broach his favourite theory of the sun’s light and heat being the original source of the light and heat given forth by the burning coal.  “It fed the plants of which that coal is made,” he would say, “and has been bottled up in the earth ever since, to be given out again now for the use of man.”  His son Robert once said of him, “My father flashed his bull’s eye full upon a subject, and brought it out in its most vivid light in an instant:  his strong common sense, and his varied experience operating upon a thoughtful mind, were his most powerful illuminators.”

Mr. Stephenson had once a conversation with a watchmaker, whom he astonished by the extent and minuteness of his knowledge as to the parts of a watch.  The watchmaker knew him to be an eminent engineer, and asked him how he had acquired so extensive a knowledge of a branch of business so much out of his sphere.  “It is very easy to be explained,” said Mr. Stephenson; “I worked long at watch-cleaning myself, and when I was at a loss, I was never ashamed to ask for information.”

Towards the close of his life he frequently went down to Newcastle, and visited the scenes of his boyhood.  “I have been to Callerton,” said he one day to a friend, “and seen the fields in which I used to pull turnips at twopence a day; and many a cold finger, I can tell you, I had.”

His hand was open to his former fellow-workmen whom old age had left in poverty.  To poor Robert Gray, of Newburn, who acted as his bridesman on his marriage to Fanny Henderson, he left a pension for life.  He would slip a five-pound note into the hand of a poor man or a widow in such a way as not to offend their delicacy, but to make them feel as if the obligation were all on his side.  When Farmer Paterson, who married a sister of George’s first wife, Fanny Henderson, died and left a large young family fatherless, poverty stared them in the face.  “But ye ken,” said our informant, “George struck in fayther for them.”  And perhaps the providential character of the act could not have been more graphically expressed than in these simple words.

On his visit to Newcastle, he would frequently meet the friends of his early days, occupying very nearly the same station, whilst he had meanwhile risen to almost world-wide fame.  But he was no less hearty in his greeting of them than if their relative position had continued the same.  Thus, one day, after shaking hands with Mr. Brandling on alighting from his carriage, he proceeded to shake hands with his coachman, Anthony Wigham, a still older friend, though he only sat on the box.

Robert Stephenson inherited his father’s kindly spirit and benevolent disposition.  He almost worshipped his father’s memory, and was ever ready to attribute to him the chief merit of his own achievements as an engineer.  “It was his thorough training,” we once heard him say, “his example, and his character, which made me the man I am.”  On a more public occasion he said, “It is my great pride to remember, that whatever may have been done, and however extensive may have been my own connection with railway development, all I know and all I have done is primarily due to the parent whose memory I cherish and revere.” To Mr. Lough, the sculptor, he said he had never had but two loves ­one for his father, the other for his wife.

Like his father, he was eminently practical, and yet always open to the influence and guidance of correct theory.  His main consideration in laying out his lines of railway was what would best answer the intended purpose, or, to use his own words, to secure the maximum of result with the minimum of means.  He was pre-eminently a safe man, because cautious, tentative, and experimental; following closely the lines of conduct trodden by his father, and often quoting his maxims.

In society Robert Stephenson was simple, unobtrusive, and modest; but charming and even fascinating in an eminent degree.  Sir John Lawrence has said of him that he was, of all others, the man he most delighted to meet in England ­he was so manly, yet gentle, and withal so great.  While admired and beloved by men of such calibre, he was equally a favourite with women and children.  He put himself upon the level of all, and charmed them no less by his inexpressible kindliness of manner than by his simple yet impressive conversation.

His great wealth enabled him to perform many generous acts in a right noble and yet modest manner, not letting his right hand know what his left hand did.  Of the numerous kindly acts of his which have been made public, we may mention the graceful manner in which he repaid the obligations which both himself and his father owed to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Institute, when working together as humble experimenters in their cottage at Killingworth.  The Institute was struggling under a debt of 6200 pounds which seriously impaired its usefulness as an educational agency.  Robert Stephenson offered to pay one-half of the sum, provided the local supporters of the Institute would raise the remainder; and conditional also on the annual subscription being reduced from two guineas to one, in order that the usefulness of the institution might be extended.  The generous offer was accepted, and the debt extinguished.

Both father and son were offered knighthood, and both declined it.  During the summer of 1847, George Stephenson was invited to offer himself as a candidate for the representation of South Shields in Parliament.  But his politics were at best of a very undefined sort; indeed his life had been so much occupied with subjects of a practical character, that he had scarcely troubled himself to form any decided opinion on the party political topics of the day, and to stand the cross fire of the electors on the hustings might have been found an even more distressing ordeal than the cross-questioning of the barristers in the Committees of the House of Commons.  “Politics,” he used to say, “are all matters of theory ­there is no stability in them:  they shift about like the sands of the sea:  and I should feel quite out of my element amongst them.”  He had accordingly the good sense respectfully to decline the honour of contesting the representation of South Shields.

We have, however, been informed by Sir Joseph Paxton, that although George Stephenson held no strong opinions on political questions generally, there was one question on which he entertained a decided conviction, and that was the question of Free-trade.  The words used by him on one occasion to Sir Joseph were very strong.  “England,” said he, “is, and must be a shopkeeper; and our docks and harbours are only so many wholesale shops, the doors of which should always be kept wide open.”  It is curious that his son Robert should have taken precisely the opposite view of this question, and acted throughout with the most rigid party amongst the protectionists, supporting the Navigation Laws and opposing Free Trade.

But Robert Stephenson will be judged in after times by his achievements as an engineer, rather than by his acts as a politician; and happily these last were far outweighed in value by the immense practical services which he rendered to trade, commerce, and civilisation, through the facilities which the railways constructed by him afforded for free intercommunication between men in all parts of the world.  Speaking in the midst of his friends at Newcastle, in 1850, he observed: ­

“It seems to me but as yesterday that I was engaged as an assistant in laying out the Stockton and Darlington Railway.  Since then, the Liverpool and Manchester and a hundred other great works have sprung into existence.  As I look back upon these stupendous undertakings, accomplished in so short a time, it seems as though we had realised in our generation the fabled powers of the magician’s wand.  Hills have been cut down and valleys filled up; and when these simple expedients have not sufficed, high and magnificent viaducts have been raised, and if mountains stood in the way, tunnels of unexampled magnitude have pierced them through, bearing their triumphant attestation to the indomitable energy of the nation, and the unrivalled skill of our artisans.”

As respects the immense advantages of railways to mankind, there cannot be two opinions.  They exhibit, probably, the grandest organisation of capital and labour that the world has yet seen.  Although they have unhappily occasioned great loss to many, the loss has been that of individuals; whilst, as a national system, the gain has already been enormous.  As tending to multiply and spread abroad the conveniences of life, opening up new fields of industry, bringing nations nearer to each other, and thus promoting the great ends of civilisation, the founding of the railway system by George Stephenson and his son must be regarded as one of the most important events, if not the very greatest, in the first half of this nineteenth century.