Samuel Smiles’ Biography of George Stephenson
In 1857, the English author Samuel Smiles introduced the literary world to a new breed of man — the eminent engineer. The occasion was the publication of Smiles’ biography of George Stephenson, the self-taught engineer who played a singular role in creating the railroad industry in England. Smiles’ biography of Stephenson proved to be so successful that he went on to write biographies of several other eminent English engineers. These were later compiled and republished under the title “Lives of the Engineers.”
In writing Stephenson’s biography, Smiles took the approach of telling the story of the man through his works. And so, Smiles filled his book with extensive detail on the development of the steam locomotive and the early history of the building of the railroads. Perhaps more that any other technologic development around the middle of the 19th century, the railroad brought revolutionary changes to the structure of society and to the lives of everyday people. Smiles wrote Stephenson’s biography to inform people of the “origin and progress of the railway system.”
But, Smiles had another, more ambitious goal in mind as well. Smiles was both a technophile and a social progressive. He believed passionately that the industrial revolution was providing great opportunities for people to improve their lives. Smiles used the lives of George Stephenson and other eminent men of his era to exemplify the habits and traits of personal character that Smiles thought would guarantee success in the new, modern era then unfolding.
Smiles presents Stephenson as a promethean figure — inventor, entrepreneur, master of technology, and lord of industry. In doing so Smiles invented a literary archetype for the engineer that was adopted by other writers, such as Jules Verne, Rudyard Kipling, and Ayn Rand, and endures to the present day in the fictional characters of Tony Stark and Elon Musk.
Just Published: My latest article is about a man who success eludes; although he possessed many of the personal characteristics celebrated by Smiles — Frédéric Sauvage, the inventor of the ship’s propeller.
RE: Engineering publishes occasional notes and comment on what it means to be an engineer in a world created by science and technology. Being an engineer requires specialized knowledge, an insatiable interest in how things work, and a knack for solving problems. But, on a personal level, an engineer cannot be anything else. Sign up to receive future issues.