Asa Briggs

Asa Briggs is Provost of Worcester College, Oxford. His books include Victorian Cities and volumes in the ‘History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom’ series.

Looking big

Asa Briggs, 12 March 1992

When Samuel Smiles was preparing to write his Lives of the Engineers in 1858, Robert Stephenson was doubtful about whether the subject would prove attractive to readers. He had already been surprised by the success of Smiles’s biography of George Stephenson, his father, which had appeared one year earlier. Robert Stephenson died before the first volume of the Lives of the Engineers appeared in 1861, and Martin Wiener and others have taken his funeral to represent symbolically the end of a great era in cultural as well as in British economic history. As the 20th-century historian of engineering L.T.C. Rolt has put it, ‘never again would a British engineer command so much esteem and attention, never again would the profession stand so high.’ Yet it was after this climacteric that Smiles’s book had an immense success. Indeed, it was a bestseller, and one of its greatest admirers was Gladstone, who told Smiles that his Lives had established a ‘weighty truth’: ‘that the character of our engineers is a most signal and marked expression of British character, and their acts a great pioneer of British history.’

Music as Message

Asa Briggs, 23 May 1991

‘Almost all the greatest composers,’ wrote H.R. Haweis in his Music and Morals (1871), ‘have found in the sacred cantata or oratorio, a form of art capable of expressing the noblest progressions of the religious sentiment in the highest planes of emotion.’ Moreover, ‘by arranging the magnificent episodes of Scripture in a dramatic – not operatic form’, they had succeeded in generating in their audiences ‘new impressions of the depth and sublimity’ of Biblical characters.’

The point of it all

Asa Briggs, 25 April 1991

‘What in its fullest sense is the idea conveyed in the respective words Paper, Pen and Ink?’ asked George Wilson, a future Regius Professor of Technology at Edinburgh University. The subtitle of his article, ‘Paper, Pen and Ink’, published in Macmillans Magazine in 1859, was ‘an excursus in technology’, and he went on to survey all kinds of pens including, by a convenient extension of the word ‘pen’, ‘printer’s type, the pen of civilisation’, ‘the electric telegraph, the world’s shorthand pen’, and the chisel, ‘by which cathedrals and Sebastopols are written in granite, and gods and men in marble’. The pen for Wilson represented ‘every graphic tool by which painting, writing, printing, carving, inscribing or imprising is affected’.

Water, Water

Asa Briggs, 9 November 1989

Water is news in Thatcherite Britain in a way that would have surprised politicians – or economists – a generation ago. In some parts of the world, like California or Colorado, water has always been politics – bitter, tough, even violent politics. On a global scale we divide the world into arid and non-arid zones and probe the oceans. Some of our greatest engineering projects in every generation, back to the ancient world, have been concerned with the movement and control of water. Steam-engines were used to pump water out of mines before they, were used to drive machines. It is arguable whether the best treatises on water since the 18th century have been written by engineers or by doctors. Chemists have been almost as active. It was a landmark when Lavoisier described water as H2O.

Before Wapping

Asa Briggs, 22 May 1986

‘Alas! We are a Press-ridden people,’ one of the Commissioners for the Great Exhibition exclaimed in 1851. He wished to exclude members of the press from the Crystal Palace or at least to make them buy their entrance tickets. Henry Cole, who was prepared to consider all ‘novelties’, was appalled at this reaction, and eventually it was he who won the day. The Exhibition, he felt, above all else needed publicity, and he was relieved not only when the reporters came in dozens but when the artist of the Illustrated London News was allowed to make drawings of the buildings, the objects inside them, and the crowds.

Our Dear Channel Islands

Linda Holt, 25 May 1995

In 1968, when I was five, my parents moved to Jersey as tax exiles and bought a house in the west of the island. During the German Occupation it had been the site of a slave worker camp. Next...

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Radio Fun

Philip Purser, 27 June 1991

When other wells of nostalgia dry up, we bore each other with jokes and catchphrases and signature tunes that have stuck with us. We annotate our lives by reference to fragments seen or heard over the...

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Theodore Zeldin, 26 October 1989

Why does every home not have a whole wall of encyclopedias, now that we supposedly live in the Information Age? Why have they failed to establish themselves as indispensable items of furniture,...

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Victorian Consumers

Michael Mason, 16 February 1989

Christianity, in a literal sense, is not true. And every adult citizen, of either sex, is entitled to a vote. In modern Britain both these views are very widely believed. Our society is a secular...

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The Macaulay of the Welfare State

David Cannadine, 6 June 1985

Asa Briggs has just produced three new books. This piece of information is made even more remarkable by the fact that he has published 26 already. Admittedly, there are some, like How they lived,...

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