The Coal Question

William Stanley Jevons
Jevons, William Stanley
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First Pub. Date
London: Macmillan and Co.
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2nd edition.
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Chapter VI


THE history of discovery and invention, like history in general, can never be the matter of an exact science. The extension of the sciences and arts is the last thing that can be subjected to rigorous laws. But in a long course of progress, like that which marks the rise of civilization in England, we may observe tendencies, not free from exception, of an instructive kind, and bearing powerfully upon the general subject of our inquiry.


The usefulness of Britain greatly depends upon the arts she has contributed for the use of mankind, and her own pre-eminence in the use of those arts. But an Englishman who goes with the current of insular opinion, is too apt to assume that Britain is great in everything. There is no discrimination in popular opinion. As Shakespeare is the acknowledged poet of modern times, so Francis Bacon is supposed to be the philosopher who brought about the revival of knowledge and the arts. Now, though we have poets and philosophers, works and discoveries, which in their own way are unrivalled, we should remember that other nations have their triumphs in their way unrivalled. And if we at present possess a certain leading and world-wide influence, it is not due to any general intellectual superiority, but to the union of certain happy mental qualities with our peculiar material resources.


We may observe, in the first place, that almost all the arts we practised in England, until within the last century, were of continental origin. England, until lately, was young and inferior in the arts.


Secondly, we may observe that almost all the arts and inventions we have of late contributed, spring from our command of coal.


Such generalizations are very subject to exception. Roger Bacon is an illustrious exception, and it seems likely that there were other Englishmen in his days of lofty talents. Still, they drew their education and information from the Continent, and they lived in such a time and place that their works were unappreciated, and left no mark in the creation of the arts. Francis Bacon has usurped much of the fame due to Roger Bacon. No one the least acquainted with the history of science in Europe, can suppose that Francis Bacon gave rise to the sciences and arts which were rising and flourishing in Italy, and France, and Germany, before his time. Great as was Bacon in many ways, we cannot regard him as more than an expounder of the scientific tendency of his age. And after the severe and partially true exposure of his claims by Baron Liebig,*52 it is to be hoped that we shall give up some of our absurd national fallacies concerning him.


How much of the arts we owe to continental nations, may be learnt from a simple enumeration of our principal debts. It is in Mr. Smiles' volumes that the history of the arts in Britain has been brought to our notice. These volumes seem to me a most valuable contribution to our general history, and the facts adduced by him clearly establish that until about the middle of last century we were wholly behindhand in all that relates to skilled industry, and were justly treated by the great advanced nations of the Continent—by Italy, Spain, France, and Holland —as poor, uncultivated, but proud islanders. "England," he says, "was then regarded principally as a magazine for the supply of raw materials, which were carried away in foreign ships, and partly returned to us in manufactures, worked up by foreign artisans. We grew wool for Flanders, as America grows cotton for England now. Even the little manufactured at home was sent to the Low Countries to be dyed."*53


Generalizations on this subject, I have said, are open to exceptions. It is not true that England made no contributions to the arts down to the time of the steam-engine, and the coal-blast furnace; but I know of only one exception, the knitting-frame of William Lee, a truly singular invention of the year 1589. It is favourably mentioned by Sturtevant in his curious treatise on Metallurgy of the year 1612. Its solitary character is shown by the fact that an Act prohibiting the export of stocking-frames was passed as early as 1696, but that no other Act of the same kind was thought needful until 1750. It was not till 1774 that a third Act of the kind made a beginning of our general system of prohibiting the export of machinery, contrived to protect our rising success in the cotton, linen, and other manufactures. In this mistaken and illiberal system we persevered until August, 1843.


Mining is an art in which we are now at least eminent. But a century ago, as most Englishmen will be surprised to learn, our engines and contrivances in common use were only those familiar to the Germans 100 or 200 years before.


The horse-gin, the double reversing water-wheel, the chain-pump, ventilating contrivances, such as bellows, fans, lamps, furnaces, together with the underground wheeled carriage, were introduced from Germany, probably by the German miners brought over in considerable numbers during the reigns of Elizabeth and the Stuarts. These inventions, in fact, were described in the work of Agricola published in 1556, and this writer was acquainted with such valuable contrivances as the fly-wheel, and the crank and beam.*54 Hooson, an early writer on coal-mining, expressly says, "We do not know of anything material or useful that has been found out for the better, than what has been left us by our forefathers; but rather much impaired by neglect and idleness."*55


Gunpowder is an almost indispensable agent in mining, and was used by the Germans as early as 1613. Its use in blasting was introduced into this country in 1665, and, according to Robert Bald,*56 the ancient method of drilling and wedging rocks open by the stook and feathers, without powder, was still used in Scotland at the beginning of last century.


Metallurgy is a kindred art that we now carry out on a vast scale; but, with the exception of the processes depending on the superior abundance and excellence of our coal, both the theory and practice of metallurgy are mainly due to the Germans. Dr. Percy, in the preface to his important work on Metallurgy, has drawn attention to the fact that we have scarcely any literature on the subject, and must draw our information from the two leading works of Agricola in 1556, or Karsten in 1831, or from the large collection of monographs, periodical publications, and complete treatises on Metallurgy, with which the German language abounds. Even the Swedes, Scheele and Berzelius, have made greater contributions to the art than individual Englishmen can boast of.


Many of the arts of working iron were drawn from the Continent. It will be shown in the chapter on the Iron Trade, that the first efforts towards the erection of our great iron manufacture were made by German metallurgists. It was Godfrey Box, of Liège, who erected at Dartford, in 1590, the first iron mill for slitting bars; and from the slitting-mill was no doubt derived the notion of the rolling-mill as used by Cort. Yarranton went to Saxony to learn the process of tinning iron plates, as carried on there with great profit, and he was allowed to engage workmen and inspect all the steps of the manufacture. The making of clasp-knives was introduced into Sheffield in 1650, by Flemish workmen, such knives having been previously known as joctelegs,*57 from Jacques de Liège, a celebrated foreign cutler.*58 The casting of iron cannon was a French invention, introduced into Sussex in 1543, by Peter Baude, a Frenchman, brought over by Ralph Hogge, the Sussex ironmaster, who also employed a Flemish gunsmith, Peter Van Collet, to make his explosive shells.*59


Engineering was taught us by continental nations until we developed our own new modes of engineering with iron. The Dutch, having redeemed their own country from the sea, were masters of the art of embankment, drainage, and inland navigation. The history of the works carried out by them in our fens, of the skill, capital, and labour they expended here, and the precarious profits they carried back, is to be found in Mr. Smiles' volumes.*60 We are reminded of the part which we play in the railways, canals, and public works of the United States and our Colonies. Even as late as 1748, we owed to Labelye, the Swiss architect, the reconstruction of the south level of the Fens, and the building of Westminster Bridge.*61 When a tidal engine was required to pump water from the Thames for the supply of London, Peter Morice, a Dutchman, was employed to erect it.*62


Scotland was even more backward than England. When in 1708 windmills were wanted to try and drain certain Scotch coal-mines, John Young, the millwright of Montrose, was found to be the only man in the country who could erect windmills. He had "been sent at the expense of that town to Holland, in order to inspect the machinery of that country," and "it was suggested that, if this millwright could not be procured, application should be made to the Mechanical Priest in Lancashire for his advice."*63


In maritime enterprise we were always daring, but only of late have we been eminently expert or successful. "At a time," says Mr. Smiles,*64 "when Spain, Holland, France, Genoa, and Venice were great maritime powers, England was almost without a fleet, the little trade which it carried on with other countries being conducted principally by foreigners. Our best ships were also built abroad by the Venetians or the Danes, but they were mostly of small tonnage, little bigger than modern herring boats."


The herring fishery was regarded both by Holland and England as the "chiefest trade and gold-mine," and "the way to winne wealth." It was thought to be a pure creation of riches, and to nourish at the same time a race of hardy seamen that are the pride and safety of the kingdom. But it raised unutterable feelings in English writers of a century or two ago, to observe that the Dutch fished our own seas. Holland, "not exceeded in quantity by Norfolk and Suffolk, hath gotten the sea," bitterly says the author of The Trades' Increase. And when we got herrings, we had to learn from the Flemings how to cure them.


The Dutch, as is well known, were our predecessors in trade. A writer of the year 1615 thus speaks, "Without love or anger, but with admiration of our neighbours, the now Sea Herrs, the nation that get health out of their own sicknesse, whose troubles begot their liberty, brought forth their wealth, and brought up their strength, that have, out of our leavings, gotten themselves a living, out of our wants make their own supply of trade and shipping there; they coming in long after us, equal us in those parts in all respects of privilege and port; that have devanced us so farre in shipping that the Hollanders have more than one hundred saile of shippes that use those ports, continually going and returning, and the chiefest matters they doe lade outward be English commodities, as Tinne, Lead, and Bailes, of such like stuffe, as are made at Norwich."*65


Campbell was aware of their commercial superiority. "By keeping their customs low," he says, "they have their warehouses always full of goods and manufactures of every kind....Rough and raw materials they cleanse and sort; gross and bulky commodities they import in one kind of vessels, divide and export them in others. A low interest keeps the bulk of their cash in trade; working cheap, and selling at a small profit, secures them in continual employment."*66 The Dutch, in short, understood the principles and practice of commerce, and had a free and far-spreading trade when we were yet sunk in poverty and the fallacies of the mercantile and restrictive systems. And it was the Venetians, Jewish, and other foreign merchants of Lombard Street, who laid the foundations of our vast trading and monetary system.


While we were so much inferior to continental nations in the fundamental operations of trade and industry, it is almost needless to observe, that in the more luxurious arts of life we were wholly indebted to them. "Our first cloth-workers, silk-weavers, and lace-workers were French and Flemish refugees. The brothers Elers, Dutchmen, began the pottery manufacture; Spillman, a German, erected the first paper-mill at Dartford; and Boomen, a Dutchman, brought the first coach into England."*67 The name of the fabric, Brown Holland, shows whence we derived it. The arts, indeed, of weaving and whitening linen attained high perfection in Flanders and Harlem especially, while the common processes of dyeing were wholly the work of foreigners, chiefly Germans.*68


France was then, as now, supreme in many little branches of manufacture, such as those of glass, hats, paper, linen, sail-cloth, sword-blades, scissors, and many steel "toys." The "running" of such light articles fortunately could not be prevented. We also drew from them "wine, brandy, linen, fine lace, fine cambricks, and cambrick lawns, to a prodigious value; brocades, velvets, and many other rich silk manufactures, which are either run in upon us, or come by way of Holland."*69


Generally the advanced arts and knowledge of continental nations seem to have been communicated to us without jealousy or reserve. Yarranton, for instance, in his tours of observation in Holland, enjoyed every facility. Sometimes we resorted to deceit; as when Foley, according to one account, gained the art of splitting iron from the Swedes, and Sir Thomas Lombe the use of the water-frame in the silk manufacture. Such achievements, when in our favour, are treated as romantic and courageous adventures; but when foreigners now come prying into our factories, forges, and chemical works, we are apt to treat them as rogues.


Even the steam-engine cannot be claimed as a purely indigenous invention. But before we consider this point, or go on to enumerate the undoubted contributions we have made, it is necessary to discriminate the conditions of invention.


There seem to be three essential conditions, too often confused or overlooked:—First, a distinct PURPOSE, arising from an urgent need of some new means of accomplishing a given end. Secondly, a new PRINCIPLE, or mode, by which it is to be accomplished. Thirdly, the material, power, and skill for embodying this principle in a successful machine,—in short, the CONSTRUCTION.


For instance, as a maritime nation, we felt during last century the most urgent need of some certain method of determining the longitude of a ship at sea: here was a strong purpose. Astronomy pointed out several different principles on which it might be done, the most convenient one involving the use of a good time-keeper. It was Harrison, of Liverpool, who, under the stimulus of a large Government reward, invented the ship's chronometer, and supplied the material construction of the method commonly employed.


Now, as regards the history of the steam-engine, there is no doubt that an urgent need was felt at the beginning of the seventeenth century for a more powerful means of draining our mines. Sir George Selby, in Parliament, said, as early as 1610, that "the coal-mines of Newcastle could not hold out the term of their lease of twenty-one years."*70 This was on account of the cost or impossibility of draining them to any depth. The terms in which the engine was described, and the way in which it was actually used for nearly two centuries, show that the raising of water out of our mines was the all important object aimed at—the first condition—the purpose.


The cheap coal, drawn from the self-same mines, was to prove the material power or third condition of the great invention; but, in the meantime, we needed a new natural principle of action. Now candour obliges us to allow that we owe this principle to science and to France. It is true that the English writer Hugh Platte had, in 1594, shown how the steam of boiling water might be made to issue in a powerful jet, sufficient to blow a fire.*71 But he probably owed this notion to some of the works of practical science and ingenuity which abounded at that time on the Continent. No doubt Arago was right in insisting*72 that Solomon de Caus, a French engineer employed by King Charles, first spread abroad in England scientific notions of raising water by the expansive force of steam. His work, "Les Raisons des Forces Mouvantes," was first published in the year 1615, several years before the era of Bacon's Organum. A print in this work showed a metallic globe, containing water heated by a fire. A long, upright, open pipe passed air-tight through the top of the globe, and terminated in the water near the bottom of the globe. The water, urged by the expansive force of the steam within the globe, is represented as issuing forcibly from the top of the pipe.


A second edition of the work appeared in 1624; and in 1644 was published, at London, by Isaac de Caus, a partial reprint, distinctly entitled, "Nouvelle Invention de lever l' Eau."*73


Now, considering that the earliest patents which apparently refer to a steam-engine are of the years 1627 and 1631;*74 that the Marquis of Worcester's "water-commanding engine" and his almost prophetic statements were of the year 1663; that Sir S. Morland's proposals were made in 1683; and Thomas Savery's success in 1698,—it is hard to deny that we owe the engine, as regards the second or scientific condition, to a French work.


The Marquis of Worcester's engine was the first we know to have been really constructed. Its purpose is clearly stated in the "Exact and True Definition," by "an antient Servant of his Lordship."


"There being, indeed, no place but either wanteth water, or is overburdened therewith, (and) by this engine either defect is remediable." Its principle, there is little doubt, was that enunciated by De Caus, from whom it was in all probability derived. For, as Mr. Dircks admits,*75 the Marquis "evidently availed himself of every suggestion that either reading, accident, experience, or travel, threw into his way." With the construction of Worcester's Engine we are not acquainted, but it seems to have been in part due to his assistant Caspar Kaltoff, a Dutchman and an "unparalleled workman both for trust and skill."


It is in Thomas Savery's description of his engine that we can most clearly discriminate the conditions of the great invention. The purpose was clearly to raise water and drain mines, as indicated by the title of his excellent little publication, "The Miner's Friend," but most explicitly stated within. "I do not doubt," he says,*76 "that, in a few years, it will be a means of making our mining trade, which is no small part of the wealth of this kingdom, double if not treble to what it now is." He continues,*77—"The coals used in this engine are of as little value as the coals commonly burned on the mouths of the coal-pits are;" and "the charge of them is not to be mentioned, when we consider the vast quantity of water raised, by the inconsiderable value of the coals used, and burned in so small a furnace." Here we have the most distinct statement that the purpose of the engine was to use the waste and valueless slack coals to overcome the great obstacle to the progress of our mines. The position which Savery contemplated for his engine was clearly the mouth of a coal-pit.


As to the principle of the invention, it was that of De Caus, with the additional principle of the vacuum, which may have been the discovery of Savery himself.


It is, however, in the construction of the machine that Savery's highest credit seems to lie. "I have met," he says,*78 "with great difficulties and expense to instruct handicraft artificers to forme my engine, according to my design." And whoever examines the picture of his engine, either in the original work or copies, will be struck by the very compact and work-manlike form of the machine, which would be a creditable piece of mechanism even at the present day. There is no doubt that by this time the use of cheap and excellent coal at Wolverhampton, Birmingham, and Sheffield, had enabled our artisans to acquire remarkable skill in the working of metals;*79 and it is to this facility of construction, joined to the principle published by De Caus, but especially to the strong purpose and incitement offered by the condition of our coal-mines, that I should attribute the complete invention of the steam-engine.


Savery's engine was extremely wasteful of heat, because the steam came in actual contact with the cold water to be moved. It was so uneconomical, that, in spite of the cheapness of coals, it could not come into use. Denis Papin, a French refugee, and an engineer of the highest mechanical talents, supplied and published, before the Royal Society, in 1699, the new principle required to perfect the engine, that of a piston intervening between the steam and water. But the Frenchman was deficient in constructive power; and it was reserved for Newcomen to accomplish the atmospheric engine, which proved capable of draining our mines and reviving our industry.


The subsequent steps in the improvement of the engine consisted chiefly in methods of using the steam more economically. They will be considered in the following chapter.


The atmospheric engine, perfected in some mechanical details by Smeaton, was employed throughout the century, not only to drain the coal and Cornish mines, but, in the absence of the crank, or the sun and planet wheels of Watt, to raise water to turn water-wheels where a natural supply of water was deficient, an employment anticipated by Ramsey, Worcester, Morland, and Savery.


The engine, from an early period of its history, turned the tide of the arts. As Briavoinne remarks,*80 it was indispensable that other nations should follow England in adopting this newly found power; and, between 1722 and 1733, the first engine was sent from England to Belgium, and set to work by the aid of English mechanics.*81


Its effect upon the English mines was extraordinary. "The steam-engine produced a new era in the mining and commercial interests of Britain, and, as it were in an instant, put every coal-field, which was considered as lost, within the grasp of its owners. Collieries were opened in every district, and such has been the astonishing effect produced by this machine, that great coal was shipping free on board in the River Forth, in the year 1785, at 4s. 10d. per ton; that is, after a period of seventy years, coals had only advanced 2d. per ton, while the price of labour and all materials was doubled."*82


Of hardly less importance than the steam-engine are the new modes of conveyance, gradually introduced or discovered here, during the last two hundred and fifty years. Common roads, worth, calling such, only began to be made in the middle of last century, when the enterprise of the country was roused by the new influence of steam and iron. Between 1760 and 1774, no fewer than 452 Acts for making or repairing highways passed through Parliament;*83 and it is necessary to read Mr. Smiles' volume to form a notion of the previous wretched state of our communications. Common roads, however, have little further connexion with our subject.


Canals might also seem utterly disconnected from the use of coal. Certainly, both in principle and construction, they have nothing to do with it. Holland, France, Sweden, and Russia had created and developed, on a large scale, the art of making canals long before we had a single canal. Holland enjoyed a magnificent system of artificial water communication. France had connected the Loire and Seine, the Loire and Saône and the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean; Peter the Great had constructed a canal from the Don to the Volga.


But until coal supplied the purpose there was not spirit enough in this country to undertake so formidable a work as a canal. In spite of Yarranton's demonstration of the advantages of inland navigation, the first true canal Act was that passed in 1755 for making the Sankey Brook Cut, to enable the coal of St. Helen's to reach the Mersey. This small work drew the Duke of Bridgewater's attention to the profit to be derived from a more economical mode of conveying coal to Manchester. In getting an Act passed to cut the celebrated canal from his mines at Worsley to Salford, he bound himself not to charge more freight on coal than 2s. 6d., the previous cost of carriage having been 9s. or 10s. The opening of the canal at once reduced the price of coal in Manchester, from 7d. per cwt. (120 lbs.) to 3½d.;*84 and it is impossible to say how much such a reduction may not have contributed to the growth of industry in this great centre. And, while one branch carried fuel, the other branch of this grand work was carried from Manchester to the Mersey, in order that raw materials might be brought into conjunction with the fuel, and the finished products conveyed back. The Duke of Bridgewater's view of the innate power of England was clearly shown in his saying that "a navigation should always have coals at the heels of it."*85


Railroads, however, are perhaps our great, and it would seem, our purely indigenous invention. The principle involved is little more than that of a wheel upon a hard road, but it is surprising how entirely the development of the principle has been connected with our coal trade. The first known use of the rail is due to Beaumont, in the year 1630. This gentleman went to Newcastle at a period of our history when enterprise and ingenuity seemed the rule. But his merits and his reward are summed up in a quaint passage:—"One Master Beaumont, a gentleman of great ingenuity and rare parts, adventured into the mines of Northumberland with his 30,000l. and brought with him many rare engines, not then known in that shire, and waggons with one horse, to carry down coals from the pits to the river; but within a few years he consumed all his money, and rode home upon his light horse."


The early rails were simple bars of wood, laid parallel upon wooden sleepers, or embedded in the ordinary track to diminish friction. They were gradually introduced into the other coal districts of Wales, Cumberland, and Scotland—at Whitehaven as early as 1738. It was soon found that a slip of iron, nailed upon the wooden rail, was economical in preventing wear; and when the abundance of iron had been increased by the coal-blast furnace, rails made entirely of iron were substituted. Such iron rails were first used by Reynolds at the Coalbrookdale works, the birthplace of the smelting furnace, to facilitate the conveyance of coal and ore. In 1776, again, a cast-iron tramway, or plate-way, was introduced into the underground workings of the Duke of Norfolk's colliery, at Sheffield, by John Curr, whose writings prove his perception of the importance of the improvement.*86 It was in 1789 that William Jessop made a railway at Loughborough, with cast-iron edge rails, and a flange transferred to the waggon wheel. Finally, in 1820, nearly two hundred years after the employment of wooden rails, wrought-iron rails, invented by Mr. Birkenshaw, were rolled at the Bedlington iron-works, on the river Blyth, near Newcastle.*87


But the railway was incomplete without steam power. Every one knows the history of the locomotive—that it was brought into successful use by George Stephenson, the colliery engineman, for the purpose of leading coals from the pit to the shipping place; that, after long exertions, it was proved more economical than horse-power, and that when the growing goods traffic between the coal-driven factories of Manchester and the port at Liverpool had altogether exceeded the powers of the canal, a railway was undertaken which led to our present system.


Throughout the history, then, of this great and indigenous invention, we constantly find the purpose and construction alike dependent on the working of coal. The conveyance of great weights of coal was the purpose; the energy that is in coal, and the cheap iron it yields, supplied the constructive means of accomplishing that purpose. Not unnaturally, then, was Newcastle the cradle of the railway system.


Although, in later years, railways have been extended through purely agricultural countries, such as Russia or some of the States of North America, yet we may observe, in many places, and especially in England, that the rapid extension of railways is mainly due to the traffic and wealth occasioned by the use of coal in manufactures. It was long ago observed by a writer on the coal trade, that "the numerous canals, and conveyances from the distant parts of the kingdom, and to local stations, owe their existence to the wealth acquired by the use of coal."*88 Now, if a series of railway-maps of Great Britain, for the last twenty or thirty years, be closely examined, it will be apparent, not only that the railway system was developed on the coal-fields, but that it yet converges upon them, just as the arteries and veins of the animal body converge upon the heart and lungs. The densely crowded lines of railway around Newcastle, Manchester, and Wolverhampton, form the heart of the railway system. There are, indeed, several great aortal lines, which connect the coal-fields with each other or with the metropolis, the head of the body; or the metropolis with the Continent; but, in every other direction, it will be observed that the railway system becomes sluggish in proportion to its distance from a coal-field, the traffic subdividing and dwindling away like the arterial streams of the animal body. The least successful railways are the Great Western, the Great Eastern, and other lines of railway which run into the most purely agricultural parts of the kingdom. Wise and far-seeing, then, were the favourite notions of George Stephenson:—"The strength of Britain," he used to say, "lies in her iron and coal-beds; and the locomotive is destined, above all other agencies, to bring it forth. The Lord Chancellor now sits upon a bag of wool, but wool has long ceased to be emblematical of the staple commodity of England. He ought to sit upon a bag of coals."*89


As regards bridges, the command of iron has given us advantages of construction never before enjoyed. Italian and French engineers were altogether our superiors in bridge-building until near the end of last century; but they failed, as in an instance at Lyons, in 1755, in iron bridges, "chiefly because of the inability of the early founders to cast large masses of iron, and also because the metal was then more expensive than either stone or timber."*90 The first iron bridge was erected at Coalbrookdale, by Messrs. Reynolds and Darby, in 1777; and we know what has since been accomplished, in the construction of iron bridges, when the extension of roads and railways presented an adequate purpose.


Iron presents the necessary material condition of several things, which would not be supposed to be dependent on it. The supply of water depends on the use of iron pipes. When Sir H. Middleton had brought the New River to London, he found the distribution of the water a matter of the greatest difficulty—the old wooden pipes wasting one-fourth of the supply, and being subject to rapid decay.*91 Coal-gas, again, itself an important product of coal, could not be used in its present abundance and economy, without the use of iron distributing-pipes.*92


A more important use of iron is in the development of mechanical engineering in general. Our inventions for spinning and weaving by machinery are not, in their origin, dependent on coal. The early mills were turned by water, and involved but little iron work. The development and perfection of our factory system, however, could never have been carried far without abundance of iron. "The inventions of Arkwright, Crompton, and others," says Mr. Fairbairn,*93 "could not have been executed but for iron; and it is fortunate for the industrial resources of the country, that the manufacture of iron has kept pace with our industrial progress. I am not able to state the amount of consumption of iron in machine-making alone, but taking that for cotton machinery in only one of our largest firms, that of Messrs. Platt and Co. of Oldham, I should average it at 400 or 500 tons per week; and in that of my late brother, Sir Peter Fairbairn, of Leeds, in flax and other machines, at 250 to 300 tons per week."


In some of the old water-mills, yet working in remote country places, we may see ponderous wooden shafts, spindles, and wheels, which seem hardly adapted now-a-days to receive motion, much less to communicate it. Brindley was brought up as a millwright, in the use of wood, and long clung to it-even making wooden-hooped cylinders for engines, which were naturally apt to break down. But having at last discarded brick, stone, and wood, he constructed in 1763 at Coalbrookdale, an engine that was a "complete and noble piece of iron-work."*94 Smeaton carried forward the substitution of iron for wood; but it was Rennie who established its general use, in his celebrated Albion Mills, the whole of his wheels and shafts being made of cast-iron. We find, then, in cast-iron, a material condition which allowed a general advance in the construction of our machines.


A second substitution, however, has taken place, of wrought-iron for cast-iron. It is Mr. Fairbairn who chiefly introduced the use of light wrought-iron shafting for heavy, slow cast-iron work, and thus effected a general economy and advance in the employment of machine power, almost comparable with that of Brindley, Smeaton, and Rennie.*95


It only remains to be added, that the use of steel, could Mr. Bessemer produce it sufficiently cheap, would occasion a third, and as far as we can see, a final substitution of steel for nearly every other material; so that our machines would be carried to an apparent maximum of efficiency, economy, and elegance, as regards the material of our works.


The shaping and moulding of iron, on the large scale, demanded a wholly new set of arrangements. A purpose having arisen for new inventions, the ancient principles of the lathe, the hammer, and the plane were developed by workmen such as Bramah, Maudslay, Clements, Roberts, Whitworth, Nasmyth, and Wilson. Thus there gradually grew up a system of machine-tool labour, the substitution of iron hands for human hands, without which the execution of engines and machines, in their present perfection and size, would be impossible.


"When I first entered this city," said Mr. Fairbairn, in his address to the British Association at Manchester, in 1861, "the whole of the machinery was executed by hand. There were neither planing, slotting, nor shaping machines; and, with the exception of very imperfect lathes, and a few drills, the preparatory operations of construction were effected entirely by the hands of the workmen. Now everything is done by machine tools with a degree of accuracy which the unaided hand could never accomplish."


Any one who reflects upon what has been brought to pass by the use of abundant iron will agree with the remark of Locke, that "he who first made known the uses of iron may be truly styled the Father of Arts, and the Author of Plenty." Such has been our work in recent times.


It would be absurd to try to follow out in detail the mechanical contrivances of the present age. Reflection will show that they are mainly but the completions of a system of machine labour, in which steam is the motive power, and iron the fulcrum and the lever. The principles of science involved are in no way our own property, being quite as successfully studied on the Continent as here. But from the cheapness of coal and iron we have a peculiar advantage in developing their use; and therefore all the details of machine construction are pushed forward in one great system, of which no part can advance far without the rest.


The Britannia Bridge, our truest national monument, "was the result of a vast combination of skill and industry. But for the perfection of our tools, and the ability of our mechanics to use them to the greatest advantage; but for the matured powers of the steam-engine; but for the improvements in the iron manufacture, which enabled blooms to be puddled of sizes before deemed impracticable, and plates and bars of immense size to be rolled and forged; but for these the Britannia Bridge would have been designed in vain. Thus it was not the product of the genius of the railway engineer alone, but of the collective mechanical genius of the English nation;"*96 and Mr. Robert Stephenson himself said, "The locomotive is not the invention of one man, but of a nation of mechanical engineers."*97


There is no better example of what our united inventions can accomplish than the iron or steel screw steam-vessel, the product of coal from truck to keel,—hull, engines, masts, rigging, anchors.


Of this product of our industry, Mr. Porter remarked, that "it was one in which our mineral riches and our great mechanical skill will secure to us a virtual monopoly." And any one who considers the present progress of iron ship-building in this country must see that half a century hence our chief ocean conveyances will be wholly by steam. Sailing vessels will not be entirely discarded, but will occupy a subordinate rank, similar to that of canal boats and coasting vessels. Our world-wide communications will be improved in a degree now perhaps unthought of; but we cannot forget that a steam-vessel is endowed with a constant and voracious appetite for coal, that must fearfully accelerate the drain upon our mines.


There yet remains a whole class of inventions, of a chemical rather than a mechanical nature, where a substance has to be altered in its intimate constitution, instead of its outward form. In these inventions iron is in a very minor degree useful; and accordingly, it can hardly be asserted that in the chemical and experimental sciences and arts we are more than barely equal to the French or Germans. Photography, for instance, presents an instance of equal progress in several different nations.


Many remarkable instances have occurred of the commercial replacement of one chemical substance by another. The progress of commerce often depends on such replacements, as when the palm and cocoa oils are used instead of tallow and linseed oils; silk instead of wool, cotton instead of flax, Spanish grass instead of rags, wheat instead of rye or buckwheat, turnips instead of hay.


So far as such substances are beyond the constructive arts, and of purely organic origin, they are beyond our present subject. But many of the more important substitutions are due to coal. Most chemical processes depend on the use of heat; and our cheap fuel has enabled us to raise many great branches of chemical manufacture. Our Cheshire salt mines, with the aid of cheap coal, give us a supremacy in the salt trade, reversing the import trade which used to be carried on, when salt was made by the natural evaporation of sea-water on the coasts of France, Spain, and the Mediterranean. Cheap salt, again, with abundance of fuel, was made to yield carbonate of soda, which replaced, with a great reduction of price, the soda formerly got from kelp or barilla, the ashes of sea-weed. This cheap supply of alkali is all-important in our soap and glass trades, and in a great variety of minor chemical manufactures. Potash, on the contrary, still continues to be obtained from the ashes of wood, and is accordingly imported at a high price from Canada or Russia. If ever it be extracted from its natural source in felspar, it must be done by an abundant use of fuel.


When the Government of the Two Sicilies placed an exorbitant tax on sulphur, Italy having as it was thought a monopoly of native sulphur, our manufacturers soon had resort to the distillation of iron pyrites, or sulphide of iron; and it has been remarked by Liebig that sulphur could have been extracted, if necessary, from gypsum, or sulphate of lime.*98 Cheap fuel would still be the all-important condition.


Perhaps the most wonderful mode of employing coal is in the ice-machine, two kinds of which, of French and English invention respectively, were at work in the Exhibition of 1862. By such machines, we may make fire, in the hottest climate, produce the cold of the Polar Regions!


With fuel and fire, then, almost anything is easy. By its aid in the smelting furnace or the engine we have effected, for a century past, those successive substitutions of a better for a worse, a cheaper for a dearer, a new for an old process, which advance our material civilization. But when this fuel, our material energy, fails us, whence will come the power to do equal or greater things in the future? A man cannot expect that because he has done much when in stout health and bodily vigour, he will do still more when his strength has departed. Yet such is the position of our national body, unless either the source of our strength be carefully spared, or something can be found better than coal to replace it, and carry on the substitution of the better for the worse. Whether the consumption of coal can be kept down in our free system of industry, or whether in the process of discovery we can expect to find some substitute for coal, must next be considered. The dispassionate conclusion will be far from satisfactory.

Notes for this chapter

Macmillan's Magazine, June, July, 1863.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. i. Pref. p. v.
Taylor's Archæology of the Coal Trade, p. 186, in Memoirs of the British Archæological Association, 1858.
Hooson's Miner's Dictionary, 1747, quoted by Taylor, p. 187.
Scotch Coal Trade, p. 12.
See Burns "On the late Captain Grose's Peregrinations." "A faulding jocteleg." In some parts of Yorkshire a large clasp-knife is still known as a "jack-a-leg's knife."
Smiles' Industrial Biography, p. 68.
Smiles' Industrial Biography, p. 33.
Lives of the Engineers, vol. i. pp. 39, 40.
Ibid. p. 66.
Ibid. Pref. p. vi.
Bald, Scotch Coal Trade, p. 7.
Lives of the Engineers, vol. i. p. 276.
The Trades' Increase, p. 7.
Campbell's Survey, vol. i. p. 15.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. i. Pref. p. vi.
Barlow's Cyclopædia, p. 521.
Joshua Gee, The Trade and Navigation of Great Britain considered. 1738, 4th ed. p. 18.
Taylor's Archæology of the Coal Trade, p. 186.
Jewell House of Art and Nature, No. 21. London.
Life of Watt, 1839, p. 46.
Mr. Dircks in his new Life of the Marquis of Worcester strangely overlooks this work of Isaac de Caus.
Rymer's Fœdera, vol. xviii. p. 992; or, Calendars of the State Paper Office, Domestic Series.
H. Dircks, Life of Worcester, p. 354.
Page 6.
Pages 35, 36
Miner's Friend. Prefatory Address to the Royal Society.
See Dr. Plot's account of the artisans of Wolverhampton, Walsall, and the Neighbourhood, Natural History of Staffordshire, p. 376. Also Smiles' Lives of Boulton and Watt, p. 163.
Briavoinne, De l'Industrie en Belgique, Bruxelles, 1839, p. 201.
Toilliez 'Mémoire sur l'Introduction des Machines à Vapeur dans le Hainaut." Quoted by Briavoinne, p. 226.
Bald on the Scotch Coal Trade, p. 24.
Smiles' Lives of the Engineers, vol. i. p. 206.
Smiles' Lives of the Engineers, vol. i. pp. 344-361.
Ibid. vol. i. p. 401
Coal Viewer's and Engine Builder's Practical Companion, 1797.
Report of British Association, 1863, p. 760.
C. Beaumont, Treatise on the Coal Trade, 1789, p. 2.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. iii. p. 357.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. ii. p. 355.
Ibid. vol. i. p. 126.
Hearn's Plutology, 1864, p. 193.
Two Lectures on Iron and its Applications. Newcastle, 1864, p. 15.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. i. pp. 332, 333.
Fairbairn on Mills and Mill-work.
Smiles' Engineers, vol. iii. p. 440.
Ibid. p. 8.
Liebig's Letters on Chemistry, pp. 152, 153.

Chapter VII

End of Notes

10 of 22

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