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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 7

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CHAPTER VII. HENRY MAUDSLEY, LONDON.

The chief object of my ambition was now to be taken on at Henry Maudsley's works in London. I had heard so much of his engineering work, of his assortment of machine-making tools, and of the admirable organisation of his manufactory, that I longed to obtain employment there. I was willing to labour, in however humble a capacity, in that far-famed workshop.

I was aware that my father had not the means of paying the large premium required for placing me as an apprentice at Maudsley's firm. I was also informed that Maudsley had ceased to take pupils. After experience, he found that the premium apprentices caused him much annoyance and irritation. They came in "gloves;" their attendance was irregular; they spread a bad example amongst the regular apprentices and workmen; and on the whole they were found to be very disturbing elements in the work of the factory.

It therefore occurred to me that, by showing some specimens of my work and drawings, I might be able to satisfy Mr. Maudsley that I was not an amateur, but a regular working engineer. With this object I set to work, and made with special care, a most complete working model of a high-pressure engine. The cylinder was 2 inches diameter, and the stroke 6 inches. Every part of the engine, including the patterns, the castings, the forgings, were the result of my own individual handiwork. I turned out this sample of my ability as an engineer workman in such a style as even now I should be proud to own.

In like manner I executed several specimens of my ability as a mechanical draughtsman for I knew that Maudsley would thoroughly understand my ability to work after a plan. Mechanical drawing is the alphabet of the engineer. Without this the workman is merely "a hand." with it he indicates the possession of "a head." I also made some samples of my skill in hand-sketching of machines, and parts of machines, in perspective — that is, as such objects really appear when set before us in their natural aspect. I was the more desirous of exhibiting the ability which I possessed in mechanical draughtsmanship, as I knew it to be a somewhat rare and much-valued acquirement. It was a branch of delineative art that my father had carefully taught me. Throughout my professional life I have found this art to be of the utmost practical value.

Having thus provided myself with such visible and tangible evidences of my capabilities as a young engineer, I carefully packed up my working model and drawings, and prepared to start for London. On the 19th of May 1829, accompanied by my father, I set sail by the Leith smack Edinburgh Castle, Captain Orr, master. After a pleasant voyage of four days we reached the mouth of the Thames. We sailed up from the Nore on Saturday afternoon, lifted up, as it were, by the tide, for it was almost a dead calm all the way.

The sight of the banks of the famous river, with the Kent orchards in full blossom, and the frequent passages of steamers with bands of music and their decks crowded with pleasure-seekers, together with the sight of numbers of noble merchant ships in the river, formed a most glorious and exciting scene. It was also enhanced by the thought that I was nearing the great metropolis, around which so many bright but anxious hopes were centred, as the scene of my first important step into the anxious business of life.

The tide, which had lifted us up the river as far as Woolwich, suddenly turned and we remained there during the night. Early next morning the tide rose, and we sailed away again. It was a bright mild morning. The sun came "dancing up the east" as we floated past wharfs and woodyards and old houses on the banks, past wherries and coal boats and merchant ships on the river, until we reached our destination at the Irongate Wharf, nearly opposite the Tower of London. I heard St. Paul's clock strike six just as we reached our mooring ground.

Captain Orr was kind enough to allow us to make the ship our hotel during the Sunday, as it was by no means convenient for us to remove our luggage on that day. My father took me on shore, and we went to Regent's Park. One of my sisters, who was visiting a friend in London, was living in that neighbourhood. My father so planned his route as to include many of the most remarkable streets and buildings and sights of London. He pointed out the principal objects, and gave me much information about their origin and history.

I was much struck with the beautiful freshness and luxuriant growth of the trees and shrubs in the squares for spring was then in its first beauty. The loveliness of Regent's Park surprised me. The extent of the space, the brilliancy of the fresh-leaved trees, and the handsome buildings by which the park was surrounded, made it seem to me more splendid than a picture from the Arabian Nights. Under the happy aspect of a brilliant May forenoon, this first long walk through London, with all its happy attendant circumstances; rendered it one of the most vividly remembered incidents in my life.

After visiting my sister and giving her all the details of the last news from home, she joined us in our walk down to Westminster Abbey. The first view of the interior stands out in my memory as one of the most impressive sights I ever beheld. I had before read, over and over again, the beautiful description of the Abbey given by Washington Irving in the Sketch Boole, one of the most masterly pieces of writing that I know of. I now found my day-dreams realised.

We next proceeded over Westminster Bridge to call upon my brother Patrick. We found him surrounded by paintings from his beautiful sketches of Nature. Some of them were more or less advanced in the form of exquisite pictures, which now hang on many walls, and will long commemorate his artistic life. We closed this ever-memorable day by dining at a tavern at the Surrey end of Waterloo Bridge. We sat at an upper window which commanded a long stretch of the river, and from which we could see the many remarkable buildings, from St. Paul's to Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, which lay on the other side of the Thames.

On the following day my father and I set out in search of lodgings, hotels being at that time beyond our economical method of living. We succeeded in securing a tidy lodging at No. 14 Agnes Place, Waterloo Road. The locality had a special attraction for me, as it was not far from that focus of interest — Maudsley's factory. Our luggage was removed from the ship to the lodgings, and my ponderous cases, containing the examples of my skill as an engineer workman, were deposited in a carpenter's workshop close at hand.

I was now anxious for the interview with Maudsley. My father had been introduced to him by a mutual friend some two or three years before, and that was enough. On the morning of May the 26th we set out together, and reached his house in Westminster Road, Lambeth. It adjoined his factory. Father knocked at the door. My own heart beat fast. Would he be at home? Would he receive us? Yes! he was at home; and we were invited to enter.

Mr. Maudsley received us in the most kind and frank manner. After a little conversation my father explained the object of his visit. "My son," he said, pointing to me, "is very anxious to have the opportunity of acquiring a thorough practical knowledge of mechanical engineering, by serving as an apprentice in some such establishment as yours." "Well," replied Maudsley, "I must frankly confess to you that my experience of pupil apprentices has been so unsatisfactory that my partner and myself have determined to discontinue to receive them — no matter at what premium." This was a very painful blow to myself; for it seemed to put an end to my sanguine expectations.

Mr. Maudsley knew that my father was interested in all matters relating to mechanical engineering, and he courteously invited him to go round the works. Of course I accompanied them. The sight of the workshops astonished me. They excelled all that I had anticipated. The beautiful machine tools, the silent smooth whirl of the machinery, the active movements of the men, the excellent quality of the work in progress, and the admirable order and management that pervaded the whole establishment, rendered me more tremblingly anxious than ever to obtain some employment there, in however humble a capacity.

Mr. Maudsley observed the intense interest which I and my father took in everything going on, and explained the movements of the machinery and the rationale of the proceedings in the most lively and kindly manner. It was while we were passing from one part of the factory to another that I observed the beautiful steam-engine which gave motion to the tools and machinery of the workshops. The man who attended it was engaged in cleaning out the ashes from under the boiler furnace, in order to wheel them away to their place outside. On the spur of the moment I said to Mr. Maudsley, "If you would only permit me to do such a job as that in your service, I should consider myself most fortunate!" I shall never forget the keen but kindly look that he gave me. "So," said he, "you are one of that sort, are you?" I was inwardly delighted at his words.

When our round of the works was concluded, I ventured to say to Mr. Maudsley that "I had brought up with me from Edinburgh some working models of steam-engines and mechanical drawings, and I should feel truly obliged if he would allow me to show them to him." "By all means," said he; "bring them to me tomorrow at twelve o'clock." I need not say how much pleased I was at this permission to exhibit my handiwork, and how anxious I felt as to the result of Mr. Maudsley's inspection of it.

I carefully unpacked my working model of the steam-engine at the carpenter's shop, and had it conveyed, together with my drawings, on a hand-cart to Mr. Maudsley's next morning at the appointed hour. I was allowed to place my work for his inspection in a room next his office and counting-house. I then called at his residence close by, where he kindly received me in his library. He asked me to wait until he and his partner, Joshua Field, had inspected my handiwork.

I waited anxiously. Twenty long minutes passed. At last he entered the room, and from a lively expression in his countenance I observed in a moment that the great object of my long cherished ambition had been attained! He expressed, in good round terms, his satisfaction at my practical ability as a workman engineer and mechanical draughtsman. Then, opening the door which led from his library into his beautiful private workshop, he said, "This is where I wish you to work, beside me, as my assistant workman. From what I have seen there is no need of an apprenticeship in your ease."

He then proceeded to show me the collection of exquisite tools of all sorts with which his private workshop was stored. They mostly bore the impress of his own clear-headedness and common-sense. They were very simple, and quite free from mere traditional forms and arrangements. At the same time they were perfect for the special purposes for which they had been designed. The workshop was surrounded with cabinets and drawers, filled with evidences of the master's skill and industry. Every tool had a purpose. It had been invented for some special reason. Sometimes it struck the keynote, as it were, to many of the important contrivances which enable man to obtain a complete mastery over materials.

There were also hung upon the walls, or placed upon shelves, many treasured relics of the first embodiments of his constructive genius. There were many models explaining, step by step, the gradual progress of his teeming inventions and contrivances. The workshop was thus quite a historical museum of mechanism. It exhibited his characteristic qualities in construction. I afterwards found out that many of the contrivances preserved in his private workshop were treasured as suggestive of some interesting early passage in his useful and active life. They were kept as relics of his progress towards mechanical perfection. When he brought them out from time to time, to serve for the execution of some job in hand, he was sure to dilate upon the occasion that led to their production, as well as upon the happy results that had followed their general employment in mechanical engineering. It was one of his favourite maxims, "First, get a clear notion of what you desire to accomplish, and then in all probability you will succeed in doing it." Another was, "Keep a sharp look-out upon your materials; get rid of every pound of material you can do without; put to yourself the question, 'What business has it to be there?' avoid complexities, and make everything as simple as possible." Mr. Maudsley was full of quaint maxims and remarks, the result of much shrewdness, keen observation, and great experience. They were well worthy of being stored up in the mind, like a set of proverbs, full of the life and experience of men. His thoughts became compressed into pithy expressions exhibiting his force of character and intellect. His quaint remarks on my first visit to his workshop, and on subsequent occasions, proved to me invaluable guides to "right thinking" in regard to all matters connected with mechanical structure.

Mr. Maudsley seemed at once to take me into his confidence. He treated me in the most kindly manner not as a workman or an apprentice, but as a friend. I was an anxious listener to everything that he said and it gave him pleasure to observe that I understood and valued his conversation. The greatest treat of all was in store for me. He showed me his exquisite collection of taps and dies and screw-tackle, which he had made with the utmost care for his own service. They rested in a succession of drawers near to the bench where he worked. There was a place for every one, and every one was in its place. There was a look of tidiness about the collection which was very characteristic of the man. Order was one of the rules which he rigidly observed, and he endeavoured to enforce it upon all who were in his employment.

He proceeded to dilate upon the importance of the uniformity of screws. Some may call it an improvement, but it might almost be called a revolution in mechanical engineering which Mr. Maudsley introduced. Before his time no system had been followed in proportioning the number of threads of screws to their diameter. Every bolt and nut was thus a speciality in itself, and neither possessed nor admitted of any community with its neighbours. To such an extent had this practice been carried that all bolts and their corresponding nuts had to be specially marked as belonging to each other. Any intermixture that occurred between them led to endless trouble and expense, as well as inefficiencv and confusion, especially when parts of complex machines had to be taken to pieces for repairs.

None but those who lived in the comparatively early days of machine manufacture can form an adequate idea of the annoyance, delay, and cost, of this utter want of system, or can appreciate the vast services rendered to mechanical engineering by Mr. Maudsley, who was the first to introduce the practical measures necessary for its remedy. In his system of screw-cutting machinery, and in his taps and dies, and screw-tackle generally, he set the example, and in fact laid the foundation, of all that has since been done in this most essential branch of machine construction. Those who have had the good fortune to work under him, and have experienced the benefits of his practice, have eagerly and ably followed him and thus his admirable system has become established throughout the mechanical world.

Mr. Maudsley kept me with him for about three hours, initiating me into his system, It was with the greatest delight that I listened to his wise instruction. The sight of his excellent tools, which he showed me one by one, filled me with an almost painful feeling of earnest hope that I might be able in any degree to practically express how thankful I was to be admitted to so invaluable a privilege as to be in close communication with this great master in all that was most perfect in practical mechanics.

When he concluded his exposition, he told me in the most kindly manner that it would be well for me to take advantage of my father's presence in London to obtain some general knowledge of the metropolis, to see the most remarkable buildings, and to obtain an introduction to some of my father's friends. He gave me a week for this purpose, and said he should be glad to see me at his workshop on the following Monday week.

It singularly happened that on the first day my father went out with me, he encountered an old friend. He had first known him at Mr. Miller's of Dalswinton, when the first steamboat was tried, and afterwards at Edinburgh while he was walking the courts as an advocate, or writing articles for the Edinburgh Review. This was no other than Henry Brougham. He was descending the steps leading into St. James's Park, from the place where the Duke of York's monument now stands. Brougham immediately recognised my father. There was a hearty shaking of hands, and many inquiries on either side. "And what brings you to London now?" asked Brougham. My father told him that it was about his son here, who had obtained an important position at Maudsley's the engineer. "If I can do anything for you," said Brougham, addressing me, "let me know. It will afford me much pleasure to give you introductions to men of science in London." I ventured to say that "Of all the men of science in London that I most wished to see, was Mr. Faraday of the Royal Institution." "Well," said Brougham, "I will send you a letter of introduction." We then parted.

My father availed himself of the opportunity of introducing me to several of his brother artists. We first went to the house of David Wilkie, in Church Street, Kensington. We found him at home, and he received us most kindly. We next visited Clarkson Stanfield, David Roberts, and some other artists. They were much attached to my father, and had, in the early part of their career, received much kindness from him while living in Edinburgh. They all expressed the desire that I should visit them frequently. I had thus the privilege of entree to a number of pleasant and happy homes, and my visits to them while in London was one of my principal sources of enjoyment.

On returning home to our lodgings that evening we found a note from Brougham, enclosing letters of introduction to Faraday and other scientific men; and stating that if at any time he could be of service to me he hoped that I would at once make use of him. My father was truly gratified with the substantial evidence of Brougham's kindly remembrance of him; and I? how could I be grateful enough? not only for my father's never-failing attention to my growth in knowledge and wisdom, but to his ever-willing readiness to help me onward in the path of scientific working and mechanical engineering. And now I was fortunate in another respect, in being admitted to the school, and I may say the friendship, of the admirable Henry Maudsley. Everything now depended upon myself, and whether I was worthy of all these advantages or not.

One of the days of this most interesting and memorable week was devoted to accompanying Mr. Maudsley in a visit to Somerset House. In the Admiralty Museum, then occupying a portion of the building, was a complete set of the working models of the celebrated block-making machinery. Most of these were the result of Maudsley's own skilful handiwork. He also designed, for the most part, this wonderful and complete series of machines. Sir Samuel Bentham and Mr. Brunel had given the idea, and Maudsley realised it in all its mechanical details. These working models contained the prototypes of nearly all the modern engineer tools which have given us so complete a mastery over materials, and done so much for the age we live in.

It added no little to the enjoyment of this visit to hear Mr. Maudsley narrate, in his quaint and graphic language, the difficulties he had to encounter in solving so many mechanical problems. It occupied him nearly six years to design and complete these working models. They were forty-four in number — all masterly pieces of workmanship. To describe them was to him like living over again the most interesting and eventful part of his life. And no doubt the experience which he had thus obtained formed the foundation of his engineering fortunes.

Mr. Maudsley next conducted us to the Royal Mint on Tower Hill. Here we saw many of his admirable machines at work. He had a happy knack, in his contrivances and inventions, of making "short cuts" to the object in view. He avoided complexities, did away with roundabout processes, however ingenious, and went direct to his point. "Simplicity" was his maxim in every mechanical contrivance. His master mind enabled him to see through and attain the end he sought by the simplest possible means. The reputation which he had acquired by his minting machinery enabled him to supply it in its improved form to the principal Governments of the world.

Some of the other days of the week were occupied by my father in attending to his own professional affairs, more particularly in connection with the Earl of Cassilis — whose noble mansion in London, and whose castle at Colzean, on the coast of Ayrshire, contain some of my father's finest works. The last day was most enjoyable. Mr. Maudsley invited my father, my brother Patrick, and myself, to accompany him in his beautiful small steam yacht, The Endeavour, from Westminster to Richmond Bridge, and afterwards to dine with him at the Star and Garter. I must first, however, say something of the origin of the Endeavour.

Mr. Maudsley's son, Joseph, inherited much of his father's constructive genius. He had made a beautiful arrangement of William Murdoch's original invention of the vibrating cylinder steam-engine, and adapted it for the working of paddle-wheel steamers. He first tried the action of the arrangement in a large working model, and its use was found to be in every respect satisfactory. Mr. Maudsley resolved to give his son's design a full-sized trial. He had a combined pair of vibrating engines constructed, of upwards of 20-horse power, which were placed in a beautiful small steam vessel, appropriately named the Endeavour. The result was perfectly successful. The steamer became a universal favourite. It was used to convey passengers and pleasure parties from Blackfriars Bridge to Richmond. Eventually it became the pioneer of a vast progeny of vessels propelled by similar engines, which still crowd the Thames. All these are the legitimate descendants of the bright and active little Endeavour.

To return to my trip to Richmond. We got on board the boat on the forenoon of May the 29th. It was one of the most beautiful days of the year. The spring was at its loveliest. The bright fresh green of the trees delighted me. I shall never forget the pleasure with which I beheld, for the first time, the beautiful banks of the Thames. There was at that time a noble avenue of elm trees extending along the southern bank of the river, from Westminster Bridge to Lambeth Palace while, on the northern side, many equally fine trees added picturesque grace to the then Houses of Parliament, while behind them were seen the great roof of Westminster Hall and the noble towers of Westminster Abbey. As we sped along we admired the ancient cedars, which gave dignity to the Bishop's grounds, on the one side, and the elms, laburnums, and lilacs, then in full bloom, which partially shaded the quaint old mansions of Cheyne Row, on the other. Alas! the march of improvement and the inevitable extension of the metropolis is rapidly destroying these vestiges of the olden time.

The beautiful views that came into sight, as we glided up the river, kept my father and my brother in a state of constant excitement. There were so many truly picturesque and paintable objects. Patrick's deft pencil was constantly at work, taking graphic notes of "glorious bits." Dilapidated farm-buildings, old windmills, pollarded willows, were rapidly noted, to be afterwards revisited and made immortal by his brush. There were also the fine mansions and cozy villas, partially shrouded by glorious trees, with their bright velvety lawns sloping down towards the river; not forgetting the delicate streams of thin blue smoke rising lazily through the trees in the tranquil summer air, and reminding one of the hospitable preparations then in progress.

We landed at Richmond Bridge, and walked up past the quaint old-fashioned mansions which gave so distinct a character to Richmond at that time. We then passed on to the celebrated Richmond Terrace, at the top of the hill, from which so glorious a view of the windings of the Thames is seen, with the luxuriant happy-looking landscape around. The enjoyment of this glorious day then reached its climax. We dined in the great dining-room, from the large windows of which we observed a view almost unmatched in the world, with the great tower of Windsor seen in the distance. I need not speak of the entertainment, which was everything that the kindest and most genial hospitality could offer. After a pleasant stroll in the Park, amidst the noble and venerable oak trees, which give such a dignity to the place, and after another visit to the Terrace, where we saw the sun set in a blaze of glory beyond the distant scenery, we strolled down the bill to the boat, and descended the Thames in the cool of the summer evening.

I must not, however, omit to mention the lodgings taken for me by my father before he left London. It was necessary that they should be near Maudsley's works for the convenience of going and coming. We therefore looked about in the neighbourhood of Waterloo Road. One of the houses we visited was situated immediately behind the Surrey theatre. It seemed a very nice tidy house, and my father seemed to have a liking for it. But when we were introduced into the room where I was to sleep, he observed an ultra-gay bonnet lying on the bed, with flashy bright ribbons hanging from it. This sight seemed to alter his ideas, and he did not take the lodgings; but took another where there was no such bonnet.

I have no doubt about what passed through his mind at the time. We were in the neighbourhood of the theatre. There was evidently some gay young woman about the house. He thought the position might be dangerous for his son. I afterwards asked him why we had not taken that nice lodging. "Well," he said, "did not you see that ultra-gay bonnet lying on the bed? I think that looks rather suspicious!" Afterwards he added, "At all events, James, you will find that though there are many dirty roads in life, if you use your judgment you may always be able to find a clean crossing!" And so the good man left me. After an affectionate parting he returned to Edinburgh, and I remained in London to work out the plan of my life.

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