Industrial Biography: Iron-Workers and Tool-Makers


THE history of iron is the history of civilization. The rough, shapeless ore that lies hidden in the earth folds in its unlovely bosom such fate and fortune as the haughtier sheen of silver, gleam of gold, and sparkle of diamond may illustrate, but are wholly impotent to create. Rising from his undisturbed repose of ages, the giant, unwieldy, swart, aud huge of limb, bends slowly his brawny neck to the yoke of man, and at his bidding becomes a nimble servitor to do his will. Subtile as thought, rejoicing in power, no touch is too delicate for his perception, no service too mighty for his strength. Tales of faërie, feats of magic, pale before the simple story of his every-day labor, or find in his deeds the facts which they but faintly shadowed forth. And waiting upon his transformation, a tribe becomes a nation, a race of savages rises up philosophers, artists, gentlemen.
Commerce, science, warfare have their progress and their vicissitudes; but underneath them all, unnoted, it may be, or treated to a superficial and perhaps supercilious glance, yet mainspring and regulator of all, runs an iron thread, true thread of Fate, coiling around the limbs of man, and impeding all progress, till he shall have untwisted its Gordian knot, but bidding him forward from strength to strength with each successive release. No romance of court or camp surpasses the romance of the forge. A blacksmith at his anvil seems to us a respectable, but not an eminently heroic person ; yet, walking backward along the past by the light which he strikes from the glowing metal beneath his hand, we shall fancy ourselves to be walking in the true heroic age. Kings and warriors have brandished their swords right royally, and such splendor has flashed from Excalibur and Morglay that our dazzled eyes have scarcely discerned the brawny smith who not only stood in the twilight of the background and fashioned with skilful hand the blade which radiates such light, but passed through all the land, changing huts into houses, houses into homes, and transforming into a garden by his skill the wilderness which had been rescued by the sword. Vigorous brains, clear eyes, sturdy arms have wrought out, not without blood, victories more potent, more permanent, more heroic, than those of the battle-field.
Such books as this under consideration give us only materials for the great epic of iron, but with such materials we can make our own rhythm and harmony. From the feeble beginning of the savage, rejoicing in the fortunate possession of two old nails, and deriving a sufficient income from letting them out to his neighbors for the purpose of boring holes, down to the true Thor’s hammer, so tractable to the matter’s hand that it can chip without break ing the end of an egg in a glass on the anvil, crack a nut without touching the kernel, or strike a blow of ten tons eighty times in a minute, we have a steady onward movement. Prejudice builds its solid breakwaters ; ignorance, inability, clumsiness, aud awkwardness raise such obstacles as they can; but the delay of a century is but a moment. Slowly and surely the waters rise till they sweep away all obstacles, overtop all barriers, and plunge forward again with ever accelerating force. The record of iron is at once a record of our glory and of our humiliation,—a record of marvellous, inborn, God-given genius, reaching forth in manifold directions to compass most beneficent ends, but baffled, thwarted, fiercely and persistently resisted by obstinacy, blindness, and stupidity, and gaining its ends, if it gain them at all, only by address the most sagacious, courage the most invincible, and perseverance the most untiring. Every great advance in mechanical skill has been met by the determined hostility of men who fancied their craft to be in danger. An invention which enabled a hand of iron to do the work of fifty hands of flesh and blood was considered guilty of taking the bread from the thrice fifty mouths that depended on those hands’ labor, and was not unfrequently visited with the punishment due to such guilt. No demonstrated fruitlessness of similar fears in the past served to allay fears for the future ; no inefficiency of brute force permanently to stay the enterprise of the mind prevented brute force from making its futile and sometimes fatal attempts. It is no matter that increased facility of production has been attended by an increased demand for the product; it is no matter that ingenuity has never been held permanently back from its carefully conned plans ; there have not been wanting men, numerous, ignorant, and ignoble enough to collect in mobs, raze workshops, destroy machinery, chase away inventors, and fancy, that, so employed, they have been engaged in the work of self-protection.
It is such indirect lessons as may be learned from these and other statements that give this book its chief value. The interesting historical and mechanical information contained in its pages makes it indeed well worthy of perusal; yet for that alone we should not take especial pains to set it before the people. But its incidental teachings ought to be taken to heart by every man, and especially every mechanic, who has any ambition or conscience beyond the exigencies of bread and butter. Lack of ambition is not an American fault, but it is too often an ambition that regards irrelevant and factitious honors rather than those to which it may legitimately and laudably aspire. A mechanic should find in the excellence of his mechanism a greater reward and satisfaction than in the wearing of a badge of office which any fifth-rate lawyer or broken-down man - of - business with influential “ friends ” may obtain, and whose petty duties they may discharge quite as well as the first-rate mechanic. The mechanic who is master of his calling need yield to none. We would not have him like the ironmongers denounced by the old religious writer as “ heathenish in their manners, puffed up with pride, and in dated with worldly prosperity ” ; but we would have him mindful of his true dignity. In the importance of the results which he achieves, in the magnitude of the honors he may win, in the genius he may employ and the skill he may attain, no profession or occupation presents a more inviting field than his ; but it will yield fruits only to the good husbandman. Science and art give up their treasures only to him who is capable of enthusiasm and devotion. He alone who magnifies his office makes it honorable. Whether he work in marble, canvas, or iron, the man who is content simply to follow his occupation, and is not possessed by it, may be an artificer, but will not be an artist, nor ever wear the laurel on his brow. He should be so enamored of his calling as to court it for its own charms. Invention is a capricious mistress, and does not always bestow her favors on the most worthy. Men not a few have died in poverty, and left a golden harvest to their successors ; yet the race is often enough to the swift, and the battle to the strong, to justify men in striving after strength and swiftness, as well for the guerdon which they bring as for the jubilant consciousness which they impart. And this, at least, is sure : though merit may, by some rare mischance, be overlooked, demerit has no opportunity whatever to gain distinction. Sleight of hand cannot long pass muster for skill of hand. Unswerving integrity, unimpeachable sincerity, is the lesson constantly taught by the lives of these renowned mechanics. “ The great secret,” says one, “ is to have the courage to be honest,—a spirit to purchase the best material, and the means and disposition to do justice to it in the manufacture.” Another, remonstrated with for his high charges, which were declared to be six times more than the price his employers had before been paying for the same articles, could safely say, “ That may be, hut mine are more than six times better.” A master of his profession is master of his employers. Maudslay’s works, we are told, came to be regarded as a first-class school for mechanical engineers, the Oxford and Cambridge of mechanics ; nor can Oxford and Cambridge men be any prouder of their connection with their colleges than distinguished engineers of their connection with this famous school of Maudslay. With such an esprit de corps what excellence have we not a right to expect ?
We cannot forbear pointing out the Aids to Humility collected in this book from various quarters, and presented to the consideration of the nineteenth century. Our boasted age of invention turns out, after all, to have been only gathering up what antiquity has let fall,—rediscovering and putting to practical account what the past discovered, hut could not, or, with miscalled dignity, would not, turn to the uses of common life. Steam-carriages, hydraulic engines, diving-bells, which we have regarded with so much complacency as our peculiar property, worked their wonders in the teeming brain of an old monk who lived six hundred years ago. Printing, stereotypes, lithography, gunpowder, Colt’s revolvers and Armstrong guns, Congreve rockets, coal-gas and chloroform, daguerreotypes, reaping-machines, and the electric telegraph are nothing new under the sun. Hundreds of years ago the idea was born, but the world was too young to know its character or prize its service, and so the poor little bantling was left to shiver itself to death while the world stumbled on as aforetime. How many eras of birth there may have been we do not know, but it was reserved for our later age to receive the young stranger with open arms, and nourish his infant limbs to manly strength. Richly are we rewarded in the precision and power with which he performs our tasks, in the comfort with which he enriches, the beauty with which he adorns, and the knowledge with which he ennobles our daily life.