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ContentsMy first schoolmaster , "Preter pluperfect tense" , The "penny pig" , Country picnics , Pupil at the High School , Dislike of Latin , Love of old buildings , Their masonry , Sir Walter Scott , "The Heart of Midlothian" , John Linnell , The collecting period , James Watt , My father's workshop , Make peeries, cannon, and "steels" , School friendships , Paterson's ironfoundry , His foremen , Johnie Syme , Tom Smith and chemical experiments , Kid gloves and technical knowledge
BEFORE I went to school it was my good fortune to be placed under the special care of my eldest sister, jane. She was twenty years older than myself, and had acquired much practical experience in the management of the younger members of the family. I could not have had a more careful teacher. She initiated me into the difficulties of A B C, and by learning me to read she gave me a key to the thoughts of the greatest thinkers who have ever lived.
But all this was accomplished at first in a humdrum and tentative way. About seventy years ago children's books were very uninteresting. In the little stories manufactured for children, the good boy ended in a Coach-and-four, and the bad boy in a ride to Tyburn. The good boys must have been a set of little snobs and prigs, and I could scarcely imagine that they could ever have lived as they were represented in these goody books. If so, they must have been the most tiresome and uninteresting vermin that can possibly be imagined. After my sister had done what she could for me, I was sent to school to learn "English." I was placed under the tuition of a leading teacher called Knight, whose school-room was in the upper storey of a house in George Street. Here I learned to read with ease. But my primitive habit of spelling by ear, in accordance with the simple sound of the letters of the alphabet (phonetically, so to speak) brought me into collision with my teacher. I got many a cuff on the side of the head , and many a "palmy" on my hands with a thick strap of hard leather, which did not give me very inviting views as to the pleasures of learning. The master was vicious and vindictive. I think it a cowardly way to deal with a little boy in so cruel a manner, and to send him home with his back and fingers tingling and sometimes bleeding, because he cannot learn so quickly as his fellows.
On one occasion Knight got out of temper with my stupidity or dulness in not comprehending something about 'a preter-pluperfect tense,' or some mystery of that sort. He seized me by the ears, and beat my head against the wall behind me with such savage violence that when he let me go, stunned and unable to stand, I fell forward on the floor bleeding violently at the nose, and with a terrific headache. The wretch might have ruined my brain for life. I was carried home and put to bed, where I lay helpless for more than a week. My father threatened to summon the teacher before the magistrates for what might have been a fatal assault on poor little me; but on making a humble apology for his brutal usage he was let off. Of course I was not sent back to his school. I have ever since entertained a hatred against grammatical rules.
There was at that time an excellent system of teaching young folks the value of thrift. This consisted in saving for some purpose or another the Saturdays penny -- one penny being our weekly allowance of pocket-money. The feats we could perform in the way of procuring toys, picture-books, or the materials for constructing flying kites, would amaze the youngsters of the present day, who are generally spoiled by extravagance. And yet we obtained far more pleasure from our purchases. We had in my time "penny pigs," or thrift boxes. They were made in a vase form, of brown glazed earthenware, the only entrance to which was a slit -- enough to give entrance to a penny. When the Saturday's penny was not required for any immediate purposes, it was dropped through the slit, and remained there until the box was full. The maximum of pennies it could contain was about forty-eight. When that was accomplished, the penny pig was broken with a hammer, and its rich contents flowed forth. The breaking of the pig was quite an event. The fine fat old George the Third penny pieces looked thoroughly substantial in our eyes. And then there was the spending of the money,-- for some long-looked-for toy, or pencils, or book, or painting materials.
One of the ways in which I used my Saturday pennies was in going with some of my companions into the country to have a picnic. We used to light a fire behind a hedge or a dyke, or in the corner of some ruin, and there roast our potatoes, or broil a red herring on an extempore gridiron we contrived for the purpose. We lit the fire by means of a flint and steel and a tinder-box, which in those days every boy used to possess. The bramble-berries gave us our dessert. We thoroughly enjoyed these glorious Saturday afternoons. It gave us quite a Robinson Crusoe sort of feeling to be thus secluded from the world. Then the beauty of the scenery amidst which we took our repast was such as I cannot attempt to describe. A walk of an hour or so would bring us into the presence of an old castle, or amongst the rocky furze and heather-clad hills, amidst clear rapid streams, so that, but for the distant peeps of the city, one might think that he was far from the busy haunts of men and boys.
To return to my school-days. Shortly after I left the school in George Street, where the schoolmaster had almost split my skull in battering it upon the wall behind me, I was entered as a pupil at the Edinburgh High School, in October 1817. The school was situated near the old Infirmary. Professor Pillans was the rector, and under him were four masters. I was set to study Latin under Mr. Irvine. He was a mere schoolmaster in the narrowest sense of the term. He was not endowed with the best of tempers, and it was often put to the breaking strain by the tricks and negligence of the lower-form portion of his class. It consisted of nearly two hundred boys; the other three masters had about the same number of scholars. They each had a separate class-room.
I began to learn the elementary rudiments of Latin grammar. But not having any natural aptitude for aquiring classic learning so called, I fear I made but little progress during the three years that I remained at the High School. Had the master explained to us how nearly allied many of the Latin and Greek roots were to our familiar English words, I feel assured that so interesting and valuable a department of instruction would not have been neglected. But our memories were strained by being made to say off "by heart," as it was absurdly called, whole batches of grammatical rules, with all the botheration of irregular verbs and suchlike. So far as I was concerned, I derived little benefit from my High School teaching, except that I derived one lesson which is of great use in after life. I mean as regards the performance of duty. I did my tasks punctually and cheerfully, though they were far from agreeable. This is an exercise in early life that is very useful in later years.
In my walks to and from the High School, the usual way was along the North and South Bridges, -- the first over the Nor' Loch, now the railway station, and the second over the Cowgate. That was the main street between the Old Town and the New. But there were numerous wynds and closes (as the narrow streets are called) which led down from the High Street and the upper part of the Canongate to the High School, through which I often preferred to wander. So long as Old Edinburgh was confined within its walls the nobles lived in those narrow streets; and the Old houses are full of historical incident. My father often pointed out these houses to me, and I loved to keep up my recollections. I must have had a little of the antiquarian spirit even then. I got to know the most remarkable of those ancient houses -- many of which were distinguished by the inscriptions on the lintel of the entrance, as well as the arms of the former possessors. Some had mottoes such as this: "BLESIT BE GOD AND HYS GIFTIS. 1584." There was often a tower-shaped projection from the main front of the house, up which a spiral stair proceeded.
This is usually a feature in old Scotch buildings. But in these closes the entrance to the houses was through a ponderous door, studded with great broad-headed nails, with loopholes at each side of the door, as if to present the strongest possible resistance to any attempt at forcible entrance. Indeed, in the old times before the Union the nobles were often as strong as the King, and many a time the High Street was reddened by the blood of the noblest and bravest of the land. In 1588 there was a cry of " A Naesmyth," "A Scott," in the High Street. It was followed by a clash of arms, and two of Sir Michael Naesmyth's sons were killed in that bloody feud. Edinburgh was often the scene of such disasters. Hence the strengthening of their houses, so as to resist the inroads of feudal enemies.
The mason-work of the doors was executed with great care and dexterity. It was chamfered at the edges in a bold manner, and ornamented with an O.G. bordering, which had a fine effect while it rendered the entrance more pleasant by the absence of sharp angles. The same style of ornamentation was generally found round the edges of the stone-work of the windows, most commonly by chamfering off the square angle of the stone-work, This not only added a grim grace to the appearance of the windows, but allowed a more free entrance of light into the apartments, while it permitted the inmates to have a better ranged view up and down the Close. These gloomy-looking mansions were grim in a terrible sense, and they reminded one of the fearful transactions of "the good old times!"
On many occasions, when I was taking a daunder through these historic houses in the wynds and closes of the Old Town, I have met Sir Walter Scott showing them to his visitors, and listened to his deep, earnest voice while narrating to them some terrible incident in regard to their former inhabitants. On other occasions I have frequently met Sir Walter sturdily limping along over the North Bridge, while on his way from the Court of Session (where he acted as Clerk of the Records) to his house in Castle Street. In the same way I saw most of the public characters connected with the Law Courts or the University. Sir Waiter was easily distinguished by his height, as well as his limp or halt in his walk. My father was intimate with most, if not all, of the remarkable Edinburgh characters, and when I had the pleasure of accompanying him in his afternoon walks I could look at them and hear them in the conversations that took place.
I remember, when I was with my father in one of his walks, that a young English artist accompanied us. He had come across the Border to be married at Gretna Green, and he brought his bride onward to Edinburgh. My father wished to show him some of the most remarkable old buildings of the town. It was about the end of 1817, when one of the most interesting buildings in Edinburgh was about to be demolished. This was no less a place than the Old Tolbooth in the High Street, -- a grand but gloomy old building. It had been originally used as the city palace of the Scottish kings. There they held their councils and dispensed justice. But in course of time the King and Court abandoned the place, and it had sunk into a gaol or prison for the most abandoned of malefactors. After their trial the prisoners were kept there waiting for execution, and they were hanged on a flat-roofed portion of the building at its west end.
At one of the strongest parts of the building a strong oak chest, iron-plated, had been built in, held fast by a thick wall of stone and mortar on each side. The iron chest measured about nine feet square, and was closed by a strong iron door with heavy bolts and locks. This was the Heart of Midlothian, the condemned cell of the Tolbooth.[note: Long after the condemned cell had been pulled down, an English Chartist went down to Edinburgh to address a large meeting of his brother politicians. He began by addressing them as "Men of the Heart of Midlothian!" There was a loud guffaw throughout the audience. He addressed them as if they were a body of condemned malefactors.]
The iron chest was so heavy that the large body of workmen could not, with all their might, pull it out. After stripping it of its masonry, they endeavoured by strong levers to tumble it down into the street. At last, with a "Yo! heave ho!" it fell down with a mighty crash.
The iron chest was so strong that it held together, and only the narrow iron door, with its locks, bolts, and bars, was burst open, and jerked off amongst the bystanders.
It was quite a scene. A large crowd had assembled, and amongst them was Sir Walter Scott. Recognising my father, he stood by him, while both awaited the ponderous crash. Sir Walter was still the Great Unknown. When his Heart of Midlothian was published in the course of the following year, it was pretty well known that he was the author of that fascinating novel. Sir Waiter got the door and the key, as relics, for his house at Abbotsford.
There was a rush of people towards the iron chest to look into the dark interior of that veritable chamber of horrors. My father's artist friend went forward with the rest, and endeavoured to pick up some remnant of the demolished structure. As soon as the clouds of dust had been dispersed, he observed, under the place where the iron box had stood, a number of skeletons of rats, as dry as mummies. He selected one of these,[note: I was so much impressed with the events of the day, and also with the fact of the young artist having taken with him so repulsive a memento as a rat's skeleton, that I never forgot it. More than half century later, when I was at a private view of the Royal Academy, I saw sitting on one of the sofas a remarkable and venerable-looking old gentleman. On inquiring of my friend Thomas Webster who he was, he answered, "Why, that's old Linnell!" I then took the liberty of sitting down beside him, and, apologising for my intrusion on his notice, I said it was just fifty-seven years since I had last seen him! I mentioned the circumstance of the rat-skeleton which he had put in his pocket at Edinburgh. He was pleased and astonished to have the facts so vividly recalled to his mind. At last he said, "Well, I have that mummy rat, the relic of the Heart of Midlothian, safe in a cabinet of curiosities in my house at Redhill to this day."]
wrapped it in a newspaper and put it in his pocket as a recollection of his first day in Edinburgh, and of the final destruction of the "Heart of Midlothian." This artist was no other than John Linnell, the afterwards famous landscape painter. He was then a young and unknown man. He brought a letter of introduction to my father. He also brought a landscape as a specimen of his young efforts, and it was so splendidly done that my father augured a brilliant career for this admirable artist.
I had the pleasure of seeing Sir Waiter Scott on another and, to me, a very memorable occasion. From an early period of my schoolboy days I had a great regard for every object that had reference to bygone times. They influenced my imagination, and conjured up in my mind dreamy visions of the people of olden days. It did not matter whether it was an old coin or an old castle. took pleasure in rambling about the old castles near Edinburgh, many of them connected with the times of Mary Queen of Scots. Craigmillar Castle was within a few miles of the city; there was also Crighton Castle, and above all Borthwick Castle. This grand massive old ruin left a deep impression on my mind. the sight of its gloomy interior, with the great hall lighted up only by stray glints of sunshine, as if struggling for access through the small deep-seated windows in its massive walls, together with its connection with the life and times of Queen Mary, had a far greater influence upon my mind than I experienced while standing amidst the Coliseum at Rome.
Like many earnest-minded boys, I had a severe attack at the right time of life, say from 12 to 15, of what I would call "the collecting period." This consisted, in my case, of accumulating old coins, perhaps one of the most salutary forms of this youthful passion. I made exchanges with my school companions. Sometimes my father's friends, seeing my anxiety to improve my collection gave me choice specimens of bronze and other coins of the Roman emperors, usually duplicates from their own collection.
These coins had the effect of promoting my knowledge of Roman history. I read up in order to find out the acts and deeds of the old rulers of the civilised world. Besides collecting the coins, I used to make careful drawings of the obverse and reverse faces of each in an illustrated catalogue which I kept in my little coin cabinet.
I remember one day, when sitting beside my father making a very careful drawing of a fine bronze coin of Augustus, that Sir Walter Scott entered the room. He frequently called upon my father in order to consult him with respect to his architectural arrangements. Sir Walter caught sight of me, and came forward to look over the work I was engaged in. At his request I had the pleasure of showing him my little store of coin treasures, after which he took out of his waistcoat pocket a beautiful silver coin of the reign of Mary Queen of Scots, and gave it to me as being his "young brother antiquarian." I shall never forget the kind fatherly way in which he presented it. I considered it a great honour to be spoken to in so friendly a way by such a man; besides, it vastly enriched my little collection of coins and medals.
It was in the year 1817 that I had the pleasure, never to be forgotten, of seeing the great engineer, James Watt. He was then close upon his eighty-second year. His visit to Edinburgh was welcomed by the most distinguished scientific and literary men of the city. My father had the honour of meeting him at a dinner given by the Earl of Buchan, at his residence in George Street. There were present, Sir James Hall, President of the Royal Society; Francis Jeffrey, Editor of the Edinburgh Review; Walter Scott, still the Great Unknown; and many other distinguished notabilities. The cheerful old man delighted them with his kindly talk, as well as astonished them with the extent and profundity of his information.
On the following day Mr. Watt paid my father a visit he carefully examined his artistic and other works. Having inspected with great pleasure some landscape paintings of various scenes in Scotland executed by my sisters, who were then highly efficient artists, he purchased a specimen of each, as well as three landscapes painted by my father, as a record of his pleasant visit to the capital of his native country. I well remember the sight I then got of the Great Engineer. I had just returned from the High School when he was leaving my father's house. It was but a glimpse I had of him. But his benevolent countenance and his tall but bent figure made an impression on my mind that I can never forget. It was even something to have seen for a few seconds so truly great and noble a man.
I did not long continue my passion for the collection of coins, I felt a greater interest in mechanical pursuits. I have a most cherished and grateful remembrance of the happy hours and days that I spent in my father's workroom. When the weather was cold or wet ,he took refuge with his lathe and tools, and there I followed and watched him. He took the greatest pleasure in instructing me. Even in the most humble mechanical job he was sure to direct my attention to the action of the tools and to the construction of the work he had in hand, and pointed out the manipulative processes requisite for its being effectually carried out. My hearty zeal in assisting him was well rewarded by his implanting in my mind the great fundamental principles on which the practice of engineering in its grandest forms is based. But I did not learn this all at once. It came only gradually, and by dint of constant repetition and inculcation. In the meantime I made a beginning by doing some little mechanical work on my own account.
While attending the High School, from 1817 to 1820, there was the usual rage amongst boys for spinning-tops, "peeries," and "young cannon." By means of my father's excellent foot-lathe I turned out the spinning-tops in capital style, so much so that I be came quite noted amongst my school companions. They all wanted to have specimens of my productions. They would give any price for them. The peeries were turned with perfect accuracy, and the steel shod, or spinning pivot, was centred so as to correspond exactly with the axis of the top. They could spin twice as long as the bought peeries. When at full speed they would "sleep," that is, revolve without the slightest waving. This was considered high art as regarded top-spinning.
Flying-kites and tissue paper balloons were articles that I was somewhat famed for producing. There was a good deal of special skill required for the production of a flying-kite. It must be perfectly still and steady when at its highest flight in the air . Paper messengers were sent up to it along the string which held it to the ground. The top of the Calton Hill was the most favourite place for enjoying this pleasant amusement.
Another article for which I became equally famous was the manufacture of small brass cannon. These I cast and bored, and mounted on their appropriate gun-carriages. They proved very effective, especially in the loudness of the report when fired. I also converted large cellar-keys into a sort of hand-cannon. A touch-hole was bored into the barrel of the key, with a sliding brass collar that allowed the key-guns to be loaded and primed and ready for firing. The principal occasion on which the brass cannon and hand-guns were used was on the 4th of June -- King George the Thirds birthday. This was always celebrated with exuberant and noisy loyalty. The guns of the Castle were fired at noon, and the number of shots corresponded with the number of years that the king had reigned. The grand old Castle was enveloped in smoke, and the discharges reverberated along the streets and among the surrounding hills. Everything was in holiday order. The coaches were hung with garlands, the shops were ornamented, the troops were reviewed on Bruntsfield Links, and the citizens drank the king's health at the Gross, throwing the glasses over their shoulders. The boys fired off gunpowder, or threw squibs or crackers from morning till night. It was one of the greatest schoolboy events of the year. My little brass cannon and hand-guns were very busy during that day. They were fired until they became quite hot. These were the pre-lucifer days. The fire to light the powder at the touch-hole was obtained by the use of a flint, a steel, and a tinder-box. The flint was struck sharply on the steel; a spark of fire fell into the tinderbox, and the match of hemp string, soaked in saltpetre, was readily lit, and fired off the little guns.
I carried on quite a trade in forging beautiful little steels. I forged them out of old files, which proved excellent material for the purpose. I filed them up into neat and correct forms, and then hardened and tempered them, secundum artem, at the little furnace stove in my father's workroom, where of course there were also a suitable anvil, hammer, and tongs. I often made potent use of these steels in escaping from the ordeal of some severe task imposed upon me at school. The schoolmaster often deputed his authority to the monitors to hear us say our lessons. But when I slyly exhibited a beautiful steel the monitor could not maintain his grim sense of duty, and he often let me escape the ordeal of repeating some passage from a Latin school-book by obtaining possession of the article. I thus bought myself off. This system of bribery and corruption was no doubt shockingly improper, but as I was not naturally endowed with the taste for learning Latin and Greek, I continued my little diplomatic tricks until I left school.
As I have said, I did not learn much at the High School. My mind was never opened up by what was taught me there. It was a mere matter of rote and cram. I learnt by heart a number of Latin rules and phrases, but what I learnt soon slipped from my memory. My young mind was tormented by the tasks set before me. At the same time my hungry mind thirsted for knowledge of another kind.
There was one thing, however, that I did learn at the High School. That was the blessings and advantages of friendship. There were several of my schoolfellows of a like disposition with myself, with whom I formed attachments which ended only with life. I may mention two of them in particular -- Jemmy Patterson and Tom Smith. The former was the son of one of the largest iron founders in Edinburgh. He was kind, good, and intelligent. He and I were great cronies. He took me to his father's workshops. Nothing could have been more agreeable to my tastes. For there I saw how iron castings were made. Mill-work and steam-engines were repaired there, and I could see the way in which power was produced and communicated. To me it was a most instructive school of practical mechanics. Although I was only about thirteen at the time, I used to "lend a hand," in which hearty zeal made up for want of strength. I look back to these days, especially to the Saturday afternoons spent in the workshops of this admirably conducted iron foundry, as a most important part of my education as a mechanical engineer. I did not read about such things; for words were of little use. But I saw and handled, and thus all the ideas in connection with them became permanently rooted in my mind.
Each department of the iron foundry was superintended by an able and intelligent man, who was distinguished not only by his ability but for his steadiness and sobriety. The men were for the most part promoted to their fore-manship from the ranks, and had been brought up in the workshop from their boyhood. They possessed a strong individuality of character, and served their employer faithfully and loyally. One of these excellent men, with whom I was frequently brought into contact, was William Watson. He took special charge of all that related to the construction and repairs of steam-engines, water-wheels, and mill-work generally. He was a skilful designer and draughtsman, and an excellent pattern maker. His designs were drawn in a bold and distinct style, on large deal boards, and were passed into the hands of the mechanics to be translated by them into actual work. It was no small privilege to me to stand by, and now and then hold the end of the long straight edge, or by some humble but zealous genuine help of mine contribute to the progress of these substantial and most effective mechanical drawings. Watson explained to me, in the most common-sense manner, his reasons for the various forms, arrangements, and proportions of the details of his designs . He was an enthusiast on the subject of Euclid; and to see the beautiful problems applied by him in working out his excellent drawings was to me a lesson beyond all price.
Watson was effectively assisted by his two sons, who carried out their father's designs in constructing the wood patterns after which the foundry-men or moulders reproduced their forms in cast iron, while the smiths by their craft realised the wrought-iron portions. Those sons of Mr. Watson were of that special class of workmen called millwrights -- a class now almost extinct, though many of the best known engineers originally belonged to them. They could work with equal effectiveness in wood or iron.
Another foreman in Mr. Patterson's foundry was called Lewis. He had special charge of the iron castings designed for architectural and ornamental purposes. He was a man of great taste and artistic feeling, and I was able even at that time to appreciate the beauty of his designs. One of the most original characters about the foundry, however, was Johnie Syme. He took charge of the old Boulton and Watt steam-engine, which gave motion to the machinery of the works. It also produced the blast for the Cupolas, in which the pig and cast iron scrap was daily melted and cast into the various objects produced in the foundry. Johnie was a complete incarnation of technical knowledge. He was the Jack-of-all-trades of the establishment; and the standing counsel in every out-of-the-way case of managing and overcoming mechanical difficulties. He was the superintendent of the boring machines. In those days the boring of a steam-engine cylinder was considered high art in excelsis! Patterson's firm was celebrated for the accuracy of its boring.
I owe Johnie Syme a special debt of gratitude, as it was he who first initiated me into that most important of all technical processes in practical mechanism -- the art of hardening and temperinq steel. It is, perhaps, not saying too much to assert that the successful practice of the mechanical arts, by means of which man rises from the savage to the civilised state, is due to that wonderful change. Man began with wood, and stone, and bone; he proceeded to bronze and iron; but it was only by means of hardened steel that he could accomplish anything in arms, in agriculture, or in architecture. The instant hardening which occurs on plunging a red-hot piece of steel into cold water may well be described as mysterious. Even in these days, when science has defined the causes of so many phenomena, the reason of steel becoming hard on suddenly cooling it down from a red-heat, is a fact that no one has yet explained. The steel may be tempered by modifying the degree of heat to which it is afterwards subjected. It may thus be toughened by slightly reheating the hardened steel; the resoftening course is indicated by certain prismatic tints, which appear in a peculiar order of succession on its surface. The skilful artisan thus knows by experience the exact point at which it is necessary again to plunge it into cold water in order to secure the requisite combination of toughness and hardness to the steel required for his purposes.
In all these matters, my early instructor, Johnie Syme, gave me such information as proved of the greatest use to me in the after progress of my mechanical career. Johnie Syme was also the very incarnation of quaint sly humour; and when communicating some of his most valued arcana of practical mechanical knowledge he always reminded me of some of Ostade's Dutchmen, by an almost indescribable sly humorous twinkle of the eye, which in that droll way stamped his information on my memory.
Tom Smith was another of my attached cronies. Our friendship began at the High School in 1818. Our similarity of disposition bound us together. Smith was the son of an enterprising general merchant at Leith. His father had a special genius for practical chemistry. He had established an extensive colour manufactory at Portobello, near Edinburgh, where he produced white lead, red lead, and a great variety of colours -- in the preparation of which he required a thorough knowledge of chemistry.Tom Smith inherited his father's tastes, and admitted me to share in his experiments, which were carried on in a chemical laboratory situated behind his father's house at the bottom of Leith Walk.
We had a special means of communication. When anything particular was going on at the laboratory, Tom hoisted a white flag on the top of a high pole in his father's garden. Though I was more than a mile apart, I kept a look-out in the direction of the laboratory with a spy-glass. My father's house was at the top of Leith Walk, and Smith's house was at the bottom of it. When the flag was hoisted I could clearly see the invitation to me to "come down." I was only too glad to run down the Walk and join my chum, and take part with him in some interesting chemical process. Mr. Smith, the father, made me heartily welcome. He was pleased to see his son so much attached to me, and he perhaps believed that I was worthy of his friendship. We took zealous part in all the chemical proceedings, and in that way Tom was fitting himself for the business of his life.
Mr. Smith was a most genial tempered man. He was shrewd and quick-witted, like a native of York, as he was. I received the greatest kindness from him as well as from his family. His house was like a museum. It was full of cabinets, in which were placed choice and interesting objects in natural history, geology, mineralogy, and metallurgy. All were represented. Many of these specimens had been brought to him from abroad by his ship captains who transported his colour manufactures and other commodities to foreign parts.
My friend Tom Smith and I made it a rule -- and in this we were encouraged by his father -- that, so far as was possible, we ourselves should actually make the acids and other substances used in our experiments. We were not to buy them ready made, as this would have taken the zest out of our enjoyment. We should have lost the pleasure and instruction of producing them by aid of our own wits and energies. To encounter and overcome a difficulty is the most interesting of all things. Hence, though often baffled , we eventually produced perfect specimens of nitrous, nitric, and muriatic acids. We distilled alcohol from duly fermented sugar and water, and rectified the resultant spirit from fusel oil by passing the alcoholic vapour through animal charcoal before it entered the worm of the still. We converted part of the alcohol into sulphuric ether. We produced phosphorus from bones, and elaborated many of the mysteries of chemistry.
The amount of practical information which we obtained by this system of making our own chemical agents was such as to reward us, in many respects, for the labour we underwent. To outsiders it might appear a very troublesome and roundabout way of getting at the finally desired result. But I feel certain that there is no better method of rooting chemical or any other instruction, deeply in our minds. Indeed, I regret that the same system is not pursued by young men of the present day. They are seldom, if ever, called upon to exert their own wits and industry to obtain the requisites for their instruction. A great deal is now said about "technical education"; but how little there is of technical handiness or head work! Everything is bought ready made to their hands; and hence there is no call for individual ingenuity.
I often observe, in shop-windows, every detail of model ships and model steam-engines, supplied ready made for those who are "said to be" of an ingenious and mechanical turn. Thus the vital uses of resourcefulness are done away with, and a sham exhibition of mechanical genius is paraded before you by the young impostors -- the result, for the most part, of too free a supply of pocket money. I have known too many instances of parents, led by such false evidence of constructive skill, apprenticing their sons to some engineering firm; and, after paying vast sums, finding out that the pretender comes out of the engineering shop with no other practical accomplishment than that of cigar-smoking!
The truth is that the eyes and the fingers -- the bare fingers -- are the two principal inlets to sound practical instruction. They are the chief sources of trustworthy knowledge as to all the materials and operations which the engineer has to deal with, No book knowledge can avail for that purpose. The nature and properties of the materials must come in through the finger ends. Hence, I have no faith in young engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves. Gloves, especially kid gloves, are perfect non-conductors of technical knowledge. This has really more to do with the efficiency of young aspirants for engineering success than most people are aware of!
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