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- Biographies of Working Men - 5/22 -


working of a large engine in some important spinning-works. He remained in this situation for one year only; but during that time he managed to give clear evidence of his native mechanical insight by curing a defect in the pumps which supplied water to his engine, and which had hitherto defied the best endeavours of the local engineers. The young father was not unmindful, either, of his duty to his boy, whom he had left behind with his grandfather on Tyneside; for he saved so large a sum as L28 during his engagement, which he carried back with him in his pocket on his return to England.

A sad disappointment awaited him when at last he arrived at home. Old Robert Stephenson, the father, had met with an accident during George's absence which made him quite blind, and incapacitated him for further work. Helpless and poor, he had no resource to save him from the workhouse except George; but George acted towards him exactly as all men who have in them a possibility of any good thing always do act under similar circumstances. He spent L15 of his hard-earned savings to pay the debts the poor blind old engine-man had necessarily contracted during his absence, and he took a comfortable cottage for his father and mother at Killingworth, where he had worked before his removal to Scotland, and where he now once more obtained employment, still as a brakesman. In that cottage this good and brave son supported his aged parents till their death, in all the simple luxury that his small means would then permit him.

That, however, was not the end of George's misfortunes. Shortly after, he was drawn by lot as a militiaman; and according to the law of that time (for this was in 1807, during the very height of the wars against Napoleon) he must either serve in person or else pay heavily to secure a substitute. George chose regretfully the latter course--the only one open to him if he wished still to support his parents and his infant son. But in order to do so, he had to pay away the whole remainder of his carefully hoarded savings, and even to borrow L6 to make up the payment for the substitute. It must have seemed very hard to him to do this, and many men would have sunk under the blow, become hopeless, or taken to careless rowdy drinking habits. George Stephenson felt it bitterly, and gave way for a while to a natural despondency; he would hardly have been human if he had not; but still, he lived over it, and in the end worked on again with fuller resolution and vigour than ever.

For several years Geordie, as his fellow-colliers affectionately called him, continued to live on at one or other of the Killingworth collieries. In a short time, he entered into a small contract with his employers for "brakeing" the engines; and in the course of this contract, he invented certain improvements in the matter of saving wear and tear of ropes, which were both profitable to himself and also in some small degree pointed the way toward his future plans for the construction of railways. It is true, the two subjects have not, apparently, much in common; but they are connected in this way, that both proceed upon the principle of reducing the friction to the smallest possible quantity. It was this principle that Stephenson was gradually learning to appreciate more and more at its proper value; and it was this which finally led him to the very summit of a great and pre- eminently useful profession. The great advantage, indeed, of a level railway over an up-and-down ordinary road is simply that in the railway the resistance and friction are almost entirely got rid of.

It was in 1810, when Stephenson was twenty-nine, that his first experiment in serious engineering was made. A coal-pit had been sunk at Killingworth, and a rude steam-engine of that time had been set to pump the water out of its shaft; but, somehow, the engine made no headway against the rising springs at the bottom of the mine. For nearly a year the engine worked away in vain, till at last, one Saturday afternoon, Geordie Stephenson went over to examine her. "Well, George," said a pitman, standing by, "what do you think of her?" "Man," said George, boldly, "I could alter her and make her draw. In a week I could let you all go the bottom." The pitman reported this confident speech of the young brakesman to the manager; and the manager, at his wits' end for a remedy, determined to let this fellow Stephenson try his hand at her. After all, if he did no good, he would be much like all the others; and anyhow he seemed to have confidence in himself, which, if well grounded, is always a good thing.

George's confidence _was_ well grounded. It was not the confidence of ignorance, but that of knowledge. He _understood_ the engine now, and he saw at once the root of the evil. He picked the engine to pieces, altered it to suit the requirements of the case, and set it to work to pump without delay. Sure enough, he kept his word; and within the week, the mine was dry, and the men were sent to the bottom. This was a grand job for George's future. The manager, a Mr. Dodds, not only gave him ten pounds at once as a present, in acknowledgment of his practical skill, but also appointed him engine-man of the new pit, another rise in the social scale as well as in the matter of wages. Dodds kept him in mind for the future, too; and a couple of years later, on a vacancy occurring, he promoted the promising hand to be engine- wright of all the collieries under his management, at a salary of L100 a year. When a man's income comes to be reckoned by the year, rather than by the week or month, it is a sign that he is growing into a person of importance. George had now a horse to ride upon, on his visits of inspection to the various engines; and his work was rather one of mechanical engineering than of mere ordinary labouring handicraft.

The next few years of George Stephenson's life were mainly taken up in providing for the education of his boy Robert. He had been a good son, and he was now a good father. Feeling acutely how much he himself had suffered, and how many years he had been put back, by his own want of a good sound rudimentary education, he determined that Robert should not suffer from a similar cause. Indeed, George Stephenson's splendid abilities were kept in the background far too long, owing to his early want of regular instruction. So the good father worked hard to send his boy to school; not to the village teacher's only, but to a school for gentlemen's sons at Newcastle. By mending clocks and watches in spare moments, and by rigid economy in all unnecessary expenses (especially beer), Stephenson had again gathered together a little hoard, which mounted up this time to a hundred guineas. A hundred guineas is a fortune and a capital to a working man. He was therefore rich enough, not only to send little Robert to school, but even to buy him a donkey, on which the boy made the journey every day from Killingworth to Newcastle. This was in 1815, when George was thirty-four, and Robert twelve. Perhaps no man who ever climbed so high as George Stephenson, had ever reached so little of the way at so comparatively late an age. For in spite of his undoubted success, viewed from the point of view of his origin and early prospects, he was as yet after all nothing more than the common engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries--a long way off as yet from the distinguished father of the railway system.

George Stephenson's connection with the locomotive, however, was even now beginning. Already, in 1816, he and his boy had tried a somewhat higher flight of mechanical and scientific skill than usual, in the construction of a sun-dial, which involves a considerable amount of careful mathematical work; and now George found that the subject of locomotive engines was being forced by circumstances upon his attention. From the moment he was appointed engine-wright of the Killingworth collieries, he began to think about all possible means of hauling coal at cheaper rates from the pit's mouth to the shipping place on the river. For that humble object alone--an object that lay wholly within the line of his own special business--did the great railway projector set out upon his investigations into the possibilities of the locomotive. Indeed, in its earliest origin, the locomotive was almost entirely connected with coals and mining; its application to passenger traffic on the large scale was quite a later and secondary consideration. It was only by accident, so to speak, that the true capabilities of railways were finally discovered in the actual course of their practical employment. George Stephenson was not the first person to construct either a locomotive or a tramway. Both were already in use, in more or less rude forms, at several collieries. But he _was_ the first person to bring the two to such a pitch of perfection, that what had been at first a mere clumsy mining contrivance, became developed into a smooth and easy iron highway for the rapid and convenient conveyance of goods and passengers over immense distances. Of course, this great invention, like all other great inventions, was not the work of one day or one man. Many previous heads had helped to prepare the way for George Stephenson; and George Stephenson himself had been working at the subject for many years before he even reached the first stage of realized endeavour. As early as 1814 he constructed his first locomotive at Killingworth colliery; it was not until 1822 that he laid the first rail of his first large line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway.

Stephenson's earliest important improvement in the locomotive consisted in his invention of what is called the steam-blast, by which the steam is made to increase the draught of the fire, and so largely add to the effectiveness of the engine. It was this invention that enabled him at last to make the railway into the great carrier of the world, and to begin the greatest social and commercial upheaval that has ever occurred in the whole history of the human race.

Meanwhile, however, George was not entirely occupied with the consideration of his growing engine. He had the clocks and watches to mend; he had Robert's schooling to look after; and he had another practical matter even nearer home than the locomotive on which to exercise his inventive genius. One day, in 1814, the main gallery of the colliery caught fire. Stephenson at once descended into the burning pit, with a chosen band of volunteers, who displayed the usual heroic courage of colliers in going to the rescue of their comrades; and, at the risk of their lives, these brave men bricked up the burning portion, and so, by excluding the air, put out the dangerous fire. Still, even so, several of the workmen had been suffocated, and one of the pitmen asked Geordie in dismay whether nothing could be done to prevent such terrible disasters in future. "The price of coal-mining now," he said, "is pitmen's lives." Stephenson promised to think the matter over; and he did think it over with good effect. The result of his thought was the apparatus still affectionately known to the pitmen as "the Geordie lamp." It is a lamp so constructed that the flame cannot pass out into the air outside, and so cause explosions in the dangerous fire-damp which is always liable to occur abundantly in the galleries of coal mines. By this invention alone George Stephenson's name and memory might have been kept green for ever; for his lamp has been the means of saving thousands of lives from a sudden, a terrible, and a pitiful death. Most accidents that now occur in mines are due to the neglect of ordinary precautions, and to the perverse habit of carrying a naked lighted candle in the hand (contrary to regulations) instead of a carefully guarded safety lamp. Yet so culpably reckless of their own and other men's lives are a large number of people everywhere, that in spite of the most stringent and salutary rules, explosions from this cause (and, therefore, easily avoidable) take place constantly to the present day, though far less frequently than before the invention of the Geordie lamp.

Curiously enough, at the very time when George Stephenson was busy inventing his lamp at Killingworth, Sir Humphrey Davy was working at just the same matter in London; and the two lamps, though a little different in minor points of construction, are practically the same in general principle. Now, Sir Humphrey was then the great fashionable natural philosopher of the day, the favourite of London society, and the popular lecturer of the Royal Institution. His friends thought it a monstrous idea that his splendid life-saving apparatus should have been independently devised by "an engine-wright of Killingworth of the name of Stephenson--a person not even possessing a knowledge of the elements of chemistry." This sounds very odd reading at the present day, when the engine-wright of the name of Stephenson has altered the whole face of


Biographies of Working Men - 5/22

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