The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer

By SAMUEL SMILES. From the Fourth London Edition. Boston : Ticknor & Fields.

THERE is something sublime about railway engineers. But what shall we say of the pioneer of this almost superhuman profession? The world would give much to know what Vulcan, Hercules, Theseus, and other celebrities of that sort, really did in their mortal lives to win the places they now occupy in our classical dictionaries, and what sort of people they really were. But whatever they did, manifestly somebody, within a generation or two, has done something quite as memorable. Whether the world is quite awake to the fact or not, it has lately entered on a new order of ages. Formerly it hovered about shores, and built its Tyres, Venices, Amsterdam, and London only near navigable waters, because it was easier to traverse a thousand miles of fluid than a hundred miles of solid surface. Now the case is nearly reversed. The iron rail is making the continent all coast, anywhere near neighbor to everywhere, and central cities as populous as seaports. Not only is all the fertility of the earth made available, but fertility itself can be made by our new power of transportation.

Who more than other man or men has done this ? Is there any chance for a new mythology ? Can we make a Saturn of Solomon de Cans, who caught a prophetic glimpse of the locomotive two hundred years ago, and went to a mad-house, without going mad, because a cardinal had the instinct to see that the hierarchy would get into hot water by allowing the French monarch to encourage steam ? Can we make a Jupiter of Mr. Hudson, one bull having been plainly sacrificed to him ? and shall Robert Schuyler serve us for Pluto ? Shall we find Neptune, with his sleeves rolled up, on the North River, commanding the first practical steamboat, under the name of Robert Fulton ? However this may be, we think Mr. Smiles has made out a quite available demigod in his well-sketched Railway Engineer. George Stephenson did not invent the railway or the locomotive, but he did first put the breath of its life into the latter. He built the first locomotive that could work more economically than a horse, and by so doing became the actual father of the railroad system. In 1814, he found out and applied the steam-blast, whereby the waste steam from the cylinders is used to increase the combustion, so that the harder the machine works, the greater is its power to work. From that moment he foresaw what has since happened, and fought like a Titan against the world—the men of land, the men of science, and the men of law—to bring it about.

But before we go farther, who was this George Stephenson ? A collier-boy, —his father fireman to an old pumping engine which drained a Northumbrian coal-mine,—his highest ambition of boyhood to be “taken on” to have something to do about the mine. And he was taken on to pick over the coal, and finally to groom the engine, which he did with the utmost care and veneration, learning how to keep it well and doctor it when ill. He took wonderfully to steam-engines, and finally, for their sake, to his letters, at the age of seventeen ! He became steam-engineer to large mines. Of his own genius and humanity, he studied the nature of fire-damp explosions, and, what is not more wonderful than well proven, invented a miner’s safety-lamp, on the same principle as Sir Humphrey Davy's, and tested it at the risk of his life, a month or two before Sir Humphrey invented his, or published a syllable about it to the world ! He engineered the Stockton and Darlington Railway. He was thereupon appointed engineer of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Though the means of transportation between those cities, some thirty miles, were so inadequate that it took longer to get cotton conveyed from Liverpool to Manchester than from New York to Liverpool, yet it was with the utmost difficulty that a grant of the right to build a railway could be obtained from Parliament. There was little faith in such roads, and still less in steam-traction. The land-owners were opposed to its passage through their domains, and obliged Mr. Stephenson to survey by stealth or at the risk of a broken head. So great was this opposition, that the projectors were fain to lay out their road for four miles across a remarkable Slough of Despond, called Chat Moss, where a scientific civil-engineer testified before Parliament that he did not think it practicable to make a railway, or, if practicable, at not less cost than £270,000 for cutting and embankment. George Stephenson, after being almost hooted out of the witness-box for testifying that it could be done, and that locomotives could draw trains over it and elsewhere at the rate of twelve miles an hour,—for which last extravagance his own friends rebuked him, —carried the road over Chat Moss for £28,000, and his friends over that at the rate of thirty miles an hour. Thus he broke the back of the war, and lived to fill England with railroads as the fruits of his victory; all which, and a great deal more of the same sort, the reader will find admirably told by Mr. Smiles,—albeit we cannot but smile too, that, when addressing the universal English people, he expects them to understand such provincialisms as wage for wages, leading coals for carrying coal, and the like. But, nevertheless, his freedom from literary pretence is really refreshing, and his thoroughness in matters of fact is worthy of almost unlimited commendation. On the important question, Who invented the locomotive steam-blast ? had Mr. Smiles made in his book as good use of his materials as he has since elsewhere, he would have saved some engineers and one or two mechanical editors from putting their feet into unpleasant places. Our Railroad Manuals, that have adopted the error of attributing this great invention to “Timothy Hackworth, in 1827,” should be made to read, “George Stephenson, in 1814.” Their authors, and all others, should read Samuel Smiles, the uppermost, by a whole sky, of all railway biographers.