In the pantheon of great men of the 19th Century
there are few engineers. Most of the men
who built the Britain
of that age are forgotten. A few names
are remembered, but mostly in specialist histories rather than the general
There is one notable exception and that is Isambard Kingdom
Brunel who today dominates the documentaries and other media genre almost to
the exclusion of others.
Another known name is Bazalgette, possibly because a
descendant is prominent in the media and of his close association with London’s sewerage system. Then there are the Stephensons and occasional
Joseph Locke (Wikipedia) is rarely mentioned. He is commemorated in Barnsley
by a named park, a school and a block of new offices inhabited by HMRC, the
taxman, an ironic comment on his career.
In his listing in the 1851 Census, which I came across typically when
looking for someone else, he gives as his occupation “Engineer and Member of
Parliament”. I like the “engineer” being
He is living in Lowndes
Square, Knightsbridge, London, about as good as it gets and the
presence there of people associated with the High Raj of India, City men and
others has made me wonder about his role in the promotion of Indian railways.
But Locke was a man who delivered value for money, tried to
stay inside the budget and who avoid expensive engineering works on the
railways if possible. If not, he usually
tried for the most economic solution. He
was not the only engineer with this approach to the work in hand.
It is this context that the obituary for Brunel should be
read, if you are interested. It is found
on the link below. Essentially, it is an
1859 “warts and all” look at his career and achievements.
Apparently, the man who wrote it was a friend. It is clear that Brunel was certainly a man
of immense energy and ideas, but like all of us stood on the shoulders of
others. Also, he had a crop of failures
and was a high cost man to employ.
The writing of history is often, of necessity, on the basis
of major figures. The consequence can be
if care is not taken is that some become virtually “stars” or “celebrities” of
the past. There is a great deal about
King Henry VIII and not much at all about King Henry VII and even less about
his mother, Margaret Beaufort.
But in dealing with the history of the economy and
especially the structures and infrastructure we have inherited this can lead to
a warped view of the reality of the time.
Also it has the danger of limited perspectives and this may have a lot
to do with our modern penchant for the big, the flashy and the expensive way of
dealing with new projects.
Because of the way governments and finance developed over
the 20th Century what we see as a “free market” would have been
alien to the world of Brunel. Major projects
are no longer simply in the hands of entrepreneurs and based on the savings of
small investors or prudent financial establishments. All too often now such projects are in the
hands of government and the finance men.
So when the bills start coming in and the figures mount it
is the assumed bottomless pit of the taxpayers’ money that has to pay and to
carry the debt and the defaults. It is
also assumed that almost nothing can be done without direct government
intervention and political supervision.
This may explain why so little gets done properly at so much
expense; a lot of which cannot be fully accounted for.