A look back through the archives at The Engineer’s response to the passing of some of the Victorian era’s most celebrated engineering greats
Older issues of The Engineer, when the journal fulfilled more of a role as a newspaper for the sector than it does today, often included obituaries of notable figures from the engineering community. These often make surprising reading, as names still well-known today sometimes left a different impression on their contemporaries than we might suppose; and in other cases, notable personalities have not been remembered.
September 1859 Isambard Kingdom Brunel
A classic example of someone upon whom legendary status has been conferred with hindsight, in Victorian Britain it seems that history’s most famous engineer was not well-regarded. Even praise for his achievements comes with caveats: “Notwithstanding the number and imposing character of his works many of them, often indeed through no fault of his own, have proved unsuccessful.” The obituary notes the high cost of his projects and claims that Brunel did not seek to promote new talent and often argued with contractors.
October 1959 Robert Stephenson
In contrast to Brunel, who died only weeks before, our predecessors’ memorial to the railway pioneer, son of the equally illustrious George Stephenson, is full of admiration, calling him “Our great Captain of Industry” and “the foremost man amongst our engineers.” Stephenson’s heritage runs strong; recently we encountered a descendant of his in training to be a follow in his illustrious footsteps as a railway engineer in the family’s stamping grounds near Darlington.
October 1871 Charles Babbage
Remembered today as the father of computing, the inventor of the Difference Engine was a brilliant eccentric, and it’s his eccentricities that stand out in his obituary, which says he was “devoid of sound judgement in every affair of life without mental perspective”. Incapable of working with others, tactless and sombre of temperament, Babbage achieved the position of Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University, but never completed his most ambitious invention, the Analytical Engine, partly because — The Engineer says — he devoted so much time to acquiring clockmaking skills. “What but failure could attend the man who given national assistance to build a given machine — the Difference Engine — goes a certain length with it and then suddenly proposes to abandon it because he had invented the Analytical Engine, one of enormously greater power?” it laments.
March 1914 George Westinghouse
Our obituary of one of the best-known names in the history of electricity barely mentions this aspect of his career, instead focusing on an earlier invention, the railway air-brake, which was inspired by the use of pneumatic drills to excavate the first large tunnel under the Alps. A famously determined man and an inventor in many fields, Westinghouse recognised the talents of Nicola Tesla and according to our article, had a mind “so quick that he sees the essential point in a complicated situation even before the story can be fully told to him.”
May 1905 Baron Grimthorpe
The name of Edward Beckett Denison is not well-known today, but he was responsible for an icon of not only London but of Britain itself: the clock of the Houses of Parliament, universally and erroneously known as Big Ben. Not only an horologist but also a Cambridge-trained mathematician-turned-barrister, Denison revolutionised the design of large clocks with an innovative pendulum design which improved their accuracy. A dogmatic and argumentative man who was also regarded as the best locksmith in Britain, he was elected to the presidency of the British Horological Institute ever year until his death, puzzlingly on the strict condition that he not attend any of their dinners.
November 1905 Robert Whitehead
Another name not well-remembered today, Whitehead has had a huge influence in the defence industry as the inventor of the first self-propelled and self-steering torpedo, making him arguably the father of drone warfare.”Mr Whitehead is reported to have considered [the torpedo] as a means for ensuring peace rather than bringing war,” the obituary said. “His idea, no doubt, was of the fearful effects of the torpedo, once realised, would be a sufficient deterrent to peoples and nations contemplating war.”