Of Safety and Snobbery

George Stephenson was an English engineer who has been called “The Father of the Railways” of the 19th century. He was a brilliant and visionary man, but success wasn’t easy for him.The scientific establishment of his day had difficulty believeing that anything good or important could come from a man who wasn't a "gentleman" and who didn't have the benefit of a univeristy education. 

Stephenson was born in 1781 in Wylam, Northumberland, where his father worked in the coal mines. When he was eight years old, he began working by herding cows. He was soon off to the mines as well, and by the time he was 14 he was his father’s assistant, working on the pump for the mines.

When he was 18, he decided to spend some of his earnings on night classes so that he could learn to read and write. His parents were illiterate, and when he was a child there was no spare money for schooling.

Always fascinated by machinery, Stephenson spent his off hours taking the machines apart to see how they work and then putting them back together. He became so good at repairing them that by 1811 he was the enginewright (chief mechanic) for all the collieries around Killingworth, and shortly thereafter built a locomotive for the mine to haul coal uphill.

Then the Felling mine disaster occurred. Explosions in coal mines were always a risk, since the candles or oil lamps needed to enable the miners to see what they were doing could ignite the gasses—especially the one known as firedamp—that accumulated in the mines. That is what happened on May 25, 1812 at 11:30 in the morning.

The noise from the first explosion could be heard four miles away, and the earth shook for half a mile around the mine. An hour later, a second explosion came, putting an end to any rescue attempts. It wasn’t until July that it was possible to enter the mine and recover the bodies of the 87 men and boys who had been buried by the collapse.

The horror of that mine disaster, one of the worst, prompted Stephenson to start working on a safety lamp, one that would not ignite the gasses in the mine. By November 1815, he had a successful model, demonstrated it to the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Society, and began production.

A month later, Sir Humphrey Davy, the famous chemist and inventor, showed his design for a safety lamp to the Royal Society in London.

Davy was awarded £2000 for his invention. Stephenson got 100 guineas.

People in Newcastle were outraged. (Stephenson was not happy either.) Northumbrian dignitaries, colliery owners and managers raised £1000 pounds for Stephenson, but they could not force the southerners to give Stephenson the credit he deserved.

The battle raged. Davy and his supporters heaped scorn on Stephenson. How dared an ignorant, self-taught miner who had never gone to school, no less to university, claim to have invented such a device. He must have stolen Davy’s ideas.

In the March 13, 1817 issue of The Philosophical Magazine, there was a letter from Stephenson defending himself:

I observe you have thought proper to insert the last number of the Philosophical Magazine your opinion that my attempts at the safety tubes and apertures were borrowed from what I have heard of Sir Humphrey Davy's researches. The principles upon which a safety lamp might be constructed I stated to several persons long before Sir Humphrey Davy came into this part of the country. The plan of such a lamp was seen by several and the lamp itself was in the hands of the manufacturers during the time he was here.

Stephenson was exonerated of that charge, but Davy and his supporters continued to refuse to accept the possibility that an uneducated man had accomplished such an invention. An 1831 biography of Davy by a Dr. Paris includes the following passage:

It will hereafter be scarcely believed that an invention so eminently scientific, and which could never have been derived but from the sterling treasury of science, should have been claimed on behalf of an engine-wright of Killingworth, of the name of Stephenson—a person not even possessing a knowledge of the elements of chemistry.

Snobbery? Well, yes. It’s the same attitude that prompted some 19th century “gentlemen” to declare that someone else—a gentleman of education and breeding—must have written Shakespeare’s plays.

If the gentlemen of the south of England scorned George Stephenson, he returned the favor and never trusted the scientific establishment of his day. He had to tangle with them over railways as well, and that frustrating experience is another tale.

As for the safety lamp, the Davy Lamp was used in coal mines throughout England, except in the northeast. There coal miners used Stephenson’s lamp, called the Geordie Lamp.


Tragic and unfair

In doing your research, do you ever want to go back in time and give some people a shake?! Seriously - how infuriating this is. I'm so glad, though, that he had people to support him and to use his Geordie Lamp.

btw - My grandfather designed a deadbolt. He had all of the sketches, final drawings with details and he created a prototype of it. He submitted it for a patent and never heard back. Not long after, his very design was being marketed. Another example of the "little people" getting the shaft.

Great look into history as always, Lillian. I truly enjoy these posts.

Outrageous but not surprising

I have always counted Stephenson amongst the 'great' Britons along with Davy; but I had no idea Davy probably stole the design and then behaved so shabbily and in a way unbecoming to a gentleman. As Deborah says, how tempting to go back and give some people a good kicking.

I don't think Davy stole

I don't think Davy stole Stephenson's design (they are different), but Stephenson was definitely first.

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