The Evolution of the Engineer

" Since the late Rebellion, England hath abounded in variety of Drinks (as it did lately in variety of Religions) above any Nation in Europe. EDWARD CHAMBERLAYNE.. 1669.

" Before or about the year 1760 a new era in all the arts and sciences, learned and polite, commenced in this country."THE Society or CIVIL ENGINEERS.


The seventeenth century had been one of the liveliest in English history. The Englishman of those days, who was busy laying the foundations of the modern state, was a very different figure from his successor of two hundred years later who built the superstructure and lived in it in peace and security. He still lacked that sobriety and stability of character for which he became famous in the days of Victoria, and those familiar types which later generations learned to regard as the props and pillars of the social order had not yet been evolved. No stern incorruptibles were going out to publish abroad the blessings of British civilization and of the unshakable British constitution, for the constitution was being shaken like dice in a box and the social system was in the melting-pot. The country squire, hatched by the nouveau riche speculative landlord out of the feudal princeling, was as yet barely fledged, and was still trying his wings. The parson, far from being a tower of strength in the village, went anxiously about his work in constant terror lest the hunter of to-day might be the quarry of to-morrow in the giddy chase of the righteous after the heretic and blasphemer. The future " nation of shopkeepers " hardly knew what a shopkeeper was, and the British workman had not been invented.

The seventeenth century therefore was a lively one, and it was full of variety, not only in drinks and religions, but also in political theories, constitutions, sciences, inventions, patents, poetries and every kind of ingenuity. The mind of the race was active, flexible and resilient. It is true that when an Englishman caught Puritanism he caught it badly, but, though gloomy and unbeautiful, the Puritan period was rich in constructive ideas, and once the malady had run its course the nation bounded from her bed in the robustest of health, without any laborious interval of convalescence. There will always be gloomy people as well as gay people, and people with no ideas but their fathers' as well as people with new and revolutionary ideas of their own. But it is one of the blessings of providence that the revolutionaries are generally gloomy while the conservatives are often gay. Consequently, whichever is in power, there will be life and movement of one kind or the other.

In the period that lies between the date of the first quotation at the head of this chapter and the date referred to in the second, the stature of life dwindled and its glamour faded. There was a reaction from the violent experiments of the seventeenth century to a more stable and less eventful kind of existence, while the intellectual vivacity characteristic of Elizabethan and Restoration society, becoming more formal, more artificial, was frozen into a crystalline brilliance, leaving to the highspirited no resource but the elaborate cult of physical pleasures. It was an age of fast living and slow thinking. There were individuals who pressed on into new worlds, but they travelled alone. The mind and the tastes of the people were as a clock that has stopped. The hands still pointed at I690. England became less famous for the variety of her drinks than for the quantity consumed, and for the violence of its effects. The habit of gin-drinking so utterly demoralised the inhabitants of the metropolis that the City of London sent up a petition imploring Parliament to take severe measures to suppress the evil. Society found a congenial form of excitement in the passion for gambling, which culminated in the glorious fatuity of the South Sea Bubble and the fraudulent companies of I720. The coarseness of our manners and the cruelty of our sports were widely denounced by critics both English and foreign, and it is hardly surprising to learn that it was in this generation that journalism for the first time came into its own.

When vitality returned it brought a revival of all those activities which had been characteristic of the seventeenth century. Once more a fertility of invention, both mechanical and artistic, enlivened the industries of the country. The glass-ware of England won so high a reputation in Europe that French craftsmen paid it the flattery of imitation, the English potters enjoyed an unquestioned pre-eminence in their art, and the ingenuity of the makers of scientific instruments was the admiration of all visitors. " Inventing " became the fashionable hobby of learned circles. Once more the nation was stirred and tormented by an access of religious fervour, and the Puritanism of the seventeenth century found a parallel in the Methodism of the eighteenth. John Wesley, who was at the height of his power in I760~~ is said to have preached 800 sermons a year to audiences that often exceeded I0000 in number. Like the Puritans before him, he called on his hearers to renounce the thoughtless life of vicious pleasure and make religion an inspiration instead of, at best, a popular social function. It may be that his teaching was narrow and intolerant, and led as often to religious fanaticism as to religious conviction, but it undoubtedly helped to shake the middle classes of England out of their apathy. And once they were roused they could not fail to see that they held the future of their country in their hands.

Once more the accepted principles of government and the traditional doctrines of political philosophy were questioned and challenged by active minds intent on change. Parliamentary reform was already in the air when Tom Paine, inspired by the example of France, denounced the whole structure of the constitution and preached the virtues of republicanism in a book whose already enormous circulation was increased by the Government's attempts to suppress it. William Blake walked the streets of London wearing the red cap of Liberty, but as he was the greatest genius of the age, he was naturally regarded by most of his contemporaries as a harmless lunatic. Later came Robert Owen, teaching a theory of socialism and co-operation so much in advance of the understanding of his time, that it had to be unearthed a century later from the litter of Marxian dogmas and researches under which it had been buried. A writer, looking back from the calm heights of the Victorian era, described the reign of George III as an " age of excitement, of which those who are now in the meridian of their days can, from the repose which they have enjoyed, form but a feeble idea."

It was in this " age of excitement " that James Watt lived and worked. His genius was one of the manifestations of the age's vigour and drew nourishment from its extraordinary fertility. Watt was a member of that band of builders who were constructing the framework of our material civilisation, setting the stage, as it were, for the drama of modern life. In all these manifestations of the movement of progress, the activity of the closing years of the eighteenth century appears as the revival of a spirit that had first shown itself a hundred or more years earlier. The seed had then been sown, and the first small crop reaped; there followed a spell of inclement weather, and the plant withered. But it did not die. The germ of life had been preserved in the soil, and in due course it put forth a new crop richer and stronger than the first. Other crops have followed, and to-day we are still reaping the fruits of that first sowing. The movement which was born in the seventeenth century and grew to maturity in the days of Watt has created the modern world.

Boswell relates how he once visited the works at Soho where Boulton and Watt were manufacturing their steam-engines. " I shall never forget," he writes, " Mr. Boulton's expression to me when surveying the works. ' I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have, Power."' But the power which Watt invented and Boulton sold was not that which most men lust for, the power to dominate their fellows; it was the power to win the mastery over Nature, to compel her to serve the ends of man, to extract from her treasure-house whatever may add to his comfort. It is to man's success in this struggle with Nature that we owe our houses and our cities, our roads and our railways, our food, our clothes and all the luxuries and conveniences which we are pleased to call the evidences of civilisation.

No one would suggest that this struggle began in the seventeenth century. It is as old as history, and might be traced back to the day when Adam and Eve picked their figleaves. But it falls into well-defined periods. The use of fire, the art of working metals and of building with brick and stone, the loom and the Lough, all these were discovered in antiquity. During the Middle Ages the use of these devices was elaborated, but little was added that was absolutely new, and the only inventions that had a palpable eject on the progress of civilisation were those of the mariner's compass, gunpowder and the printing press. The craftsmen, working generation after generation along the same traditional lines, developed a degree of skill that has never been surpassed, but by I600 there was little room for further advance without some more fundamental change of method. And the change took place; for at that moment there came into play two new forces, which effected so complete a transformation that the material civilisation of the modern world, when compared with the medieval, seems to be a new creation.

Those two forces were Science and Finance. If Nature was to be compelled to render new services she must first be persuaded to yield up her secrets. Before he could advance any further, man had to study the anatomy of the physical world, and as he progressed in that study, which is Science, so civilisation grew under his hands. Every feature that makes the visible shell of our modern life unlike that of the Middle Ages, from the engines in our factories to the flowers in our gardens, is the product of the invention of Science, translated into matter at the bidding of Finance. Although Art and Literature have changed from an impulse not scientific, yet they would play much the same part in our lives to-day as they did in those of our ancestors, had not Science furnished means for the infinite multiplication of the original work of the artist. These twin powers invaded also the world of thought. Everything is good, cries Finance, which yields a profit. Nothing may be believed, says Science, until it has been proved. Between them they had nothing but contempt for the Middle Ages, when men took their beliefs on trust, and were ignorant of the first principles of sanitation. It is in the seventeenth century that we shall find the gulf between old and new, and the earliest signs that these two parents of modernity have begun their work. The first great age of science in England is marked by the foundation of the Royal Society of London in I662 and its early years were made famous by the researches of Isaac Newton. Finance can be represented by two types, the banker and the dealer in stocks and shares. The history of modern banking begins with the foundation of the Bank of England in I694 and of the Bank of Scotland in the following year. The greatest joint-stock enterprise ever launched, the East India Company, received its charter in I600~~ and the first independent Stock Exchange was set up in 'Change Alley in I698.

There had been men of science in the ancient world and in the Middle Ages. Roger Bacon, who died in I 292~~ touched the very essence of the scientific outlook when he wrote, " There are two methods in which we acquire knowledge, argument and experiment." But he stood alone. Some three hundred years later appeared the distinguished pioneers of the coming age, contemporaries of Galileo Galilei.

Gradually the Universities introduced scientific subjects into their curricula, encouraged by the foundation of Professorships in Natural Phil osophy, Mathematics, Botany and so forth. Just before the Civil War the point had been reached at which scattered students began to regard themselves as colleagues, a conscious spirit of co-operatlon appeared, and isolated minds were welded into that most elusive of intellectual phenomena, a "movement." That this movement received its embodiment in the Royal Society at the hands of Charles II shows that influential circles, outside the group of the scientists themselves, had recognised the great value of the work and the eminence of the workers. A Court that wished to rival in brilliance that of Louis XIV must be a patron of the Sciences as well as of the Arts.

The early members were a compact band of enthusiasts. Though the field of study was wide, the available knowledge in each branch was, as yet, small, and a vigorous mind could keep in touch with all that was being done in the world of science. They would meet together of an evening to witness an experiment carried out by one of their number, not to demonstrate some new theory that he claimed to have proved, but in the hope that the observations of the assembled company might lead some one to throw out an idea of value for discussion and investigation. Where all was new, progress was rapid; they were tilling virgin soil and won rich returns for their labour. The excitement was intense, for any day news might come of some discovery that shattered the tradition of centuries. At the same time a great part, probably the main part, of their attention was devoted to practical problems. Chemistry and botany were studied in their relation to medicine, astronomy and meteorology as aids to the science of navigation, and a lively interest was taken in the technical problems of industry and agriculture. This connection between theory and the application of theory, this cooperation between the men of science and the men of business, between the professional and the amateur, was destined to grow closer as time went on, and bore precious fruit in the eighteenth century.

Even the healthy young plant of English science languished in the sunless days of the first two Georges. When the revival came, the centre of life was found to have shifted to the more bracing climate north of the Tweed. The Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow were made famous by a group of scientists who were working and teaching in them during the last forty years of the eighteenth century. More will have to be said of these men later, for it was among them that Watt spent the most crucial years of his early life. They and their successors revolutionised the science of chemistry as completely as Newton had revolutionised that of physics. The story of their discoveries ran quickly throughout Europe, and every learned Society was agog with eagerness to hear the latest results of their inquiries. Every step in advance made scientific work more complex and the need for specialization greater. The average man was no longer able to spread himself over the whole field of knowledge. The pure philosopher, who devoted himself to the pursuit of principles, was inclined to leave to some one else the application of those principles to useful ends. This division of labour resulted in a closer and more effective co-operation between science and business, for new Societies were formed, less purely scientific and more definitely industrial in character, which acted as a connecting link. They were the field of action of a type of man who believed that the true road to economic progress lay in the application of the exact methods of scientific experiment to the problems of industrial technique. By his patronage and his example he tried to turn the captain of industry into a scientist and the craftsman into an engineer. The first and most famous of these bodies was the Royal Society of Arts, founded in 1754. Its objects are made sufficiently plain in its full official title, " The Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce." Its founders were scientists, most of them Fellows of the Royal Society, and it began its work by offering prizes for discoveries and inventions which might prove valuable to the economic life of the country. It had been preceded by a similar association in Dublin and was immediately followed by one in Edinburgh. The members of these Societies were interested not only in industry, but also in agriculture, and on this side the movement was definitely international, having branches in France, Switzerland and Denmark. According to a contemporary writer the scientific spirit had spread even to the Far East, and " the Emperor of China rewards the husbandman who makes the best and greatest improvements in his land with the dignity of a Mandarin of the eighth class."

Simultaneously there were stirrings at the other end of the scale. The craftsmen were advancing along the path of science to meet these scientists who were invading the field of industry. Apart from the blacksmith, there were only two mechanical crafts of any importance in the seventeenth century, those of the clockmaker and the wheelwright. The art of clockmaking was taken up with enthusiasm in England after the Restoration, and by I750 ;4 we beat all Europe in Clocks and Watches of all sorts." The work demanded the most perfect accuracy, and, more significant still, machines were invented by the clockmakers for cutting out the metal parts used in the manufacture. This is probably the first example of machinery being used to make machinery.

The trade through which this particular type of skill was turned to scientific use was that of mathematical instrument maker. He made the instruments used for navigation and surveying. Naturally he was employed by the best scientists of the day to make the apparatus for their experiments. The latest designs, the newest mechanical devices, all passed through his hands, and from the study of these he learned so much of the methods of science that he often became a valued partner in the work of invention. It was in this way that Watt received his early training. A striking example is found in the career of Laurence Earnshaw of Stockport. He got his mechanical education as apprentice to a clockmaker, but his ambitious nature carried him beyond the confines of this narrow trade. He was " a blacksmith, whitesmith, coppersmith, gunsmith, bellfounder and coffin-maker; made and erected sundials; mended fiddles; repaired, tuned and played upon and taught the harpsichord and virginal But this was all craftsman's work; he went further. " He carried so far his theory and practice of clockwork, as to be the inventor of a very curious astronomical and geographical machine, containing a celestial and terrestrial globe, to which different movements were given, representing the diurnal and annual motions of the earth, the position of the moon and stars, the sun's place in the ecliptic, etc., all with the greatest correctness." Finally, we are told, he invented " a machine to spin and reel cotton at one operation," and " a simple and ingenious piece of mechanism for raising water from a coal-mine," thus putting his talents at the service of industry and becoming in the fullest sense an " engineer." The variety of the list might make us incredulous if it were not that we can find an almost exact parallel in the achievements of James Watt himself.

The wheelwright's business consisted in making and repairing all the machinery in mills that were driven by the power of water or of wind. He was generally a man of little ingenuity, who worked by rule of thumb and did exactly what he had been taught to do by his father. But if he had intelligence and curiosity it was always possible for him to discover the mechanical principles on which his machines were based, to master the theory as well as the practice, and so to become, not merely a craftsman, but an engineer, able to create as well as to copy. The story is told of James Brindley, the engineer of the first canal built in England, that when he was apprentice to a wheelwright and was working with his master on a paper-mill at Macclesfield, he suddenly disappeared one Saturday afternoon and was missing for two nights. On Monday morning he was back at work. Being convinced that his master's conservative treatment would never put the mill to rights, he had set out for Manchester to visit the Smedley Mill, twentyfive miles away. He spent Sunday examining the machinery, and having got the details well fixed in his mind, walked back to Macclesfield next morning. His master was so impressed by his story that he handed over to him the control of the work, and Brindley, after changing all the designs, produced a machine that included all the best features of the Smedley Mill and several new devices of his own invention.

The craftsman, in fact, was being educated. In one way or another he was picking up fragments from the store of knowledge that was being accumulated by the scientists, absorbing, almost unconsciously, the scientific atmosphere that emanated from the centres of research. An unusually observant writer noticed what was happening as early as I747. He produced a book in which he gave a description of every trade, craft or profession practised in London. When he came to the engineer, he wrote: " By Engineer I do not mean the Military Engineer, but that Tradesman who is employed in making Engines for raising of Water, etc. We have improved much of late years in this useful Art, and have now Engines moved both by Fire and Water, which our Forefathers knew nothing of. This has been owing to the labour of the Royal Society, and the progress we have made in Experimental Philosophy." The author goes on to explain that the engineer must know the laws of mechanics, and adds, " He requires a large Stock to set up with, and a considerable Acquaintance among the Gentry. The business is at present in few hands." It was, in fact, a new profession, offspring of the union of science with craftsmanship in which the members of the Royal Society of Arts, and others like them, played the part of Pandarus.

Two parents are generally considered to be enough for any child, and, in the metaphors of the historian, one is often made to suffice. The engineer had three. The author just quoted referred to " Military Engineers " as a familiar institution. The history of the Engineers as a branch of the Army goes back into the Middle Ages when they were concerned with fortification, mining, the building of roads and bridges and the whole province of artillery. When the Artillery was split off and established as a separate service in I7I6 it became evident that every branch of military engineering had its counterpart in civil life. Even in the seventeenth century engineers had been employed to drain the Fens and to construct the " New River " which gave London its water-supply, but such men were scarce and did not yet constitute a " trade." Only when the needs of commerce called for the building of canals, bridges, roads, docks, harbours and lighthouses, did the Civil Engineers begin to be conscious of themselves as a professional group. They also realised that their trade was a highly scientific one and that most of its technique had still to be invented. They felt keenly the community of interest that linked them with the engineers of a rather different type, who were inventing and manufacturing scientific instruments for use in surveying and engines for raising water or driving it through canals. In order that they might meet together to discuss the peculiar problems of their trade and share the advantages of their individual experiences they founded the Society of Civil Engineers in I77I. The first list of members reveals clearly the triple origin of the profession. Joseph Priestley represented pure science. James Watt stood for the craftsman whom science converts into a mechanical engineer and inventor of machines. Smeaton, the builder of the Forth and Clyde Canal and the Eddystone Lighthouse, and Rennie, who began as a millwright and afterwards constructed Waterloo Bridge and the East India Docks, won fame by the execution of great public works, the technique for which, so far as it existed, was inherited largely from the military engineers.

The Society united within itself every branch of the trade as known in those days, and it was at once accepted as a learned Society of high standing. Its members shared the respect that was already being paid to eminent scientists; they also won a " considerable Acquaintance among the Gentry," and so gained access, not only to their drawingrooms, but, which was far more important, to their pockets. The process of evolution was complete. The Age of Engineering had begun.

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