Looking big

Asa Briggs

  • Isambard Kingdom Brunel: Engineering Knight-Errant by Adrian Vaughan
    Murray, 285 pp, £19.95, October 1991, ISBN 0 7195 4636 2

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.’

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