The Structural Engineer > Archive > Volume 3 (1925) > Issues > Issue 7 > Great Engineers - 7: Robert Stephenson
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Great Engineers - 7: Robert Stephenson

Of the two famous Stephensons, George and Robert, the younger is perhaps of greater interest to structural engineers. Both were intimately connected with the development of the railway system in Great Britain. The efforts of the father were, as is well known, devoted to the improvement of the locomotive, and it was left to the son to reap the benefits of the popularisation of railways so largely due to his father’s skill as a mechanical inventor, for to him fell the task of designing some of the most important bridges which the new method of transport demanded. It is noteworthy that very great efforts were made to retard the progress of George Stephenson’s schemes for the building of railways, not only by men who might have been excused for adopting an intolerant attitude towards such a novel invention, but by the experts themselves, who used their prestige as engineers to frustrate the projects of perhaps the ablest mechanic whom this country has produced. A writer in an issue of the Fortnightly Review published in 1825 says with reference to the proposed railway from London to Woolwich: “What can be more palpably ridiculous than the prospects held out of locomotives travelling twice as fast as stage coaches? We would as soon expect the people of Woolwich to suffer themselves to be fired off upon one of Congreve’s richochet rockets as trust themselves to the mercy of such a machine going at such a rate. We will back old Father Thames against the Woolwich Railway for any sum. We trust that Parliament will in all Railways it may sanction limit the speed to eight or nine miles an hour, which is as great as can be ventured on with safety.” And this attitude of scepticism was shared by most of the leading engineers, who rejected the notion of a locomotive railway. George Stephenson, however, had faith in his ideas, and by dint of sheer perseverance succeeded in establishing not only the possibility but the commercial soundness of railway construction. Yet clear though the subject was to himself and familiar as he was with the powers of the locomotive, it was no easy task for him to bring home his convictions, for, being without a scholastic training, he laboured under a disadvantage when contending against highly educated lawyers and other professional men who obstructed his schemes. In his strong Northumbrian dialect he would struggle for utterance in the face of the sneers, interruptions and ridicule of his opponents. But great honesty, technical competence and a very strong will enabled him to secure the victory over them. His experience, however, of the handicap suffered by himself owing to lack of scholarship made him determined that his son Robert should not suffer from a similar disadvantage. To give his own words, “In the earlier period of my career, when Robert was a little boy, I saw how deficient I was in education, and I made up my mind that he should not labour under the same defect, but that I would put him to a good school and give hi

Author(s): Edwards, A Trystan

Keywords: biographies;robert stephenson;engineers