A Will And A Way


A LITTLE cottage boy, whose feet pattered upon a clay floor, and whose eyes looked up to bare rafters and unplastered walls, became in due time the inventor of the steam locomotive, originating a speed of travel till that time incredible; and this has made his name famous throughout the world.

George Stephenson, the son of a common laborer, was born in Wylam, a colliery-village about eight miles from Newcastle-on-Tyne, in 1781. 

Here the little fellow used to watch the wagons, laden with coal, as they were drawn from the pit to the quay, while keeping his younger brothers out of the way of the horses.  When he was eight years old, his parents removed to Dewley Burn; and George was hired by a farmer as "cow-boy," much to his delight.

Here he had plenty of leisure, and his active mind led him to employ it in creating mimic mills in little watercourses, and in making clay engines, with imaginary steam-pipes of hemlock-stems. These were the great engineer's first attempts at modeling.

Next he figures as a plowboy, with advanced wages; then he becomes "picker" in a colliery; then driver of a gin-horse; and all this time "the little bare-legged boy" is on the road to wealth and usefulness.

His aim at this period is to be an engineman, which hope he realized when about fourteen years old, receiving a shilling a day for his services; and when, not long after, he received twelve shillings a week, he felt, as he expressed it, "a made man for life."

"His engine becomes a sort of pet with him," says his biographer, Smiles. 

"He studies its working, and masters it perfectly."

And now commences his struggles with and gradual triumph over many difficulties. His father, a hardworking man, could not possibly afford, with the wages of a common laborer, the expense of his schooling, and George could neither read nor write. But he is determined to learn, and his resolute will soon finds a way.

We now find him by the engine fire, listening to anybody who will read to him by its light. The little knowledge he thus gains gives him an insatiable desire for more. He has learned that the wonderful engines of Watt are described in books. He is determined to learn to read, that he may study them; so, at the age of seventeen, a man in size, he goes to a night-school to learn his letters, at three pence a week. He also taught himself to write.

Next he advanced a step higher: he goes to a "Scotch do minie" night school, and learns arithmetic, solving his problems by the light of the engine-fire. At length he has made such "wonderful advances" that his master is outstripped, and can teach him no more.

Still he goes on, improving all his leisure hours, in studying mechanics and the laws, which govern the working of his engine. He makes a little money, and outdoes all the engineers of the vicinity by curing a "wheezy engine." This gave him much repute.

He was the means of saving the lives of many at an explosion in one of the mines. As soon as he knew of the accident, he rushed through a crowd of terrified cottagers, descended the shaft, and, reaching the bottom, cried out, "Are there six men who will follow me?"

All had confidence in Stephenson, and under his direction, a wall was soon raised with the bricks and mortar that were at hand. This prevented the air from entering into the main, and the fire went out.

After this, he went to work to devise a safety lamp; that is, one which will not set fire to the inflammable gases which are common in mines. 

He did not know that Humphrey afterward Sir Humphrey Davy was engaged in the same attempt. However, the lamp of Stephenson was first made public. For this he received a testimonial, and a prize of a thousand guineas. This enabled him to establish a locomotive manufactory at Newcastle, which soon became famous, and brought him great wealth.

Stephenson, when a workman in collier's clothes, gained the respect of his associates, and was as much a gentleman as when in later life, clad in broadcloth and fine linen, he addressed large assemblies with perfect ease and self-possession. In one of these speeches at Newcastle, referring to his early career, he says, speaking of his only child, who also gained honorable distinction:

"When Robert was a little boy, I saw how deficient I was in education, and made up my mind that he should not labor under the same defects, but that I would put him to school, and give him a liberal training. I was, however, a poor man; and how do you think I managed? I betook myself to mending my neighbors' clocks and watches at night, after my daily labor was done, and thus I procured the means for educating my son."

George Stephenson's goodness is seen in his care for his aged father, providing for him when an accident unfitted him for work; and, while still an engineer at Kenilworth, he removed both his parents to a comfortable cottage.

"But were there no engines before Stephenson's?" Yes; James Watt, about whom you have read as watching the steam lift the cover of his mother's tea-kettle, invented the first steam-engine ; but Stephenson was the first successful inventor of a traveling engine. Some had tried and failed; others had constructed engines, but none so perfect as those of Stephenson. Yet many had said,

"Oh! He can never make an engine travel."

But he did it, though, through perseverance and much study.

One day in September, 1825, a great multitude were assembled to witness the trial of two locomotives, the first that had ever traveled. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was the scene. 

George Stephenson won the prize. 

After this, with the aid of his son, he made more perfect engines, and gained much renown.

He was appointed chief engineer in the construction of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. There was a very extensive bog in the way, over which the professional engineers of the day declared "no man in his senses would attempt to build a railroad." But there was no "I can't" with Stephenson. He built over the great bog; and on the 6th of October, 1829, he drove his own engine over this road with wagons containing a weight of about thirteen tons, at the rate of thirty miles an hour.  His history shows us what perseverance and industry will accomplish amidst many obstacles. 


 in Well-Spring

George Stephenson