Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER IX.: A NOMADIC PERIOD. 1840—41. Æt. 20—21. - An Autobiography, vol. 1
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CHAPTER IX.: A NOMADIC PERIOD. 1840—41. Æt. 20—21. - Herbert Spencer, An Autobiography, vol. 1 
An Autobiography by Herbert Spencer. Illustrated in Two Volumes. Vol. I (New York: D. Appleton and Company 1904).
Part of: An Autobiography
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A NOMADIC PERIOD.
From Bromsgrove, on 27th July, I wrote home describing specifically the nature of the task thus suddenly entered upon.
“I am engaged in superintending the pulling-down and re-erection of a large bridge under the inclined plane at Bromsgrove. It is to be completed within three weeks and four days from the commencement of the pulling-down, and rather more than one week has already passed. I have had to make out the drawings, estimate, &c., and to see to the details of the work during its progress. . . . I believe it will be done in time. The contract is between one and two thousand pounds.”
A subsequent letter, written after the completion of the new bridge, says:—
“You quite mistake as to the usual system of work on railways. The greater proportion of the work done at the bridge was by contract, and I had nothing to do with the men except to see that they did the company justice. All the timber work and fitting and fixing girders was, however, done by day-labour under my own instruction. Perhaps about half the cost of construction was in this case done by me and entirely after my own designs (Capt. Moorsom not interfering in any way); but this was an extreme case and the usual laws were broken through: day-work being strictly prohibited on this railway.”
I had forgotten the fact named in this passage—that the responsibility for the design rested with me. It seems needful to explain how so makeshift a structure originated; lest I should be blamed for bad engineering by any one who, being in the neighbourhood, happens to see the bridge (if it still exists). The time allowed was so small that there was no possibility of designing fit girders and having them cast. Such girders as had been designed for other purposes, and could be obtained forthwith, were consequently used. These were, however, too short to span the width of the road obliquely; and the result was that a framework, partly of these girders and partly of strong timber balks, had to be made. I was a little nervous about it, but it proved strong enough. Possibly it has, during these fifty odd years, been replaced by something more workmanlike.
Here is a passage written home on the 23rd August, indicating another impending change.
“I left Bromsgrove yesterday, having so far completed my work as to allow of my return to Powick. I do not however remain here. I go to-morrow to join Mr. Hughes to assist him in finishing up the work of the G. division, and to complete sundry works which the Subs have left undone. [Some little time before, the works having been mainly completed, the sub-engineers on the G. division had ended their engagements.] I do not expect to have a very pleasant time of it. . . . I expect, however, it will be a great benefit to me in one respect. I have always had a great horror of confusion, and never could bear anything that was not clear and straightforward; but if I go through all that I believe is before me, I imagine that I shall pretty well get over this failing.”
The prospect of this confusion so perturbed me that I thought resignation of my post might be needful. But my alarm was groundless.
Among the various small extra works, completions, and repairs, between Bromsgrove and Gloucester, which I had to see executed—making contracts, and having the works properly done—the only one which I remember as of considerable importance, resulted from the imperfect construction of the bridge over the Avon at Defford. Capt. Moorsom had no doubt originally made rather an underestimate of the cost of the line, as engineers ordinarily do; but he was creditably anxious to keep within the estimate, and hence was over-prone to economy of construction. In some cases the effects were disastrous; and, among the mischiefs, was the giving way of one of the wing-walls of the Defford bridge. Pulling-down and re-building of this had to be achieved without interruption of the traffic: one of the lines being closed and the trains diverted on to the other. A large gap in the embankment was necessitated; and the available line of rails was shored up. The proceeding was somewhat risky, and entailed on me considerable anxiety. No accident happened, however.
My miscellaneous activities during the autumn had their disciplinary effects. Much business devolved on me, and probably the experience then obtained in carrying out many transactions, and dealing with many men, was permanently advantageous. Here is an extract relating to this period:—
“I have been doing a good deal of surveying lately and rather like it as a variety in my usual drudgery. My time is come to a close—I have been writing whilst waiting for a contractor, and he is now come.”
Walks hither and thither about the line were of course necessitated; and these usually had castle-building as their concomitant. Already an early chapter has shown how much given I was to this tempting form of mental activity, commonly thought so dissipating; and the habit established in boyhood was still strong.
It goes without saying that the air-castles built at this time were of a different style of architecture from those built in early days—no longer took the form of Robinson Crusoe adventures, or incidents such as those which the reading of novels of the Mrs. Radcliff type had in early days suggested. Naturally day-dreams now took a certain colour from the actualities of my life and the possibilities of its future. As the foregoing pages show, inventions of one or other kind were commonly in my thoughts; and the almost necessary result was that making a fortune by successful inventions mostly formed the subject-matter of my imaginations. Whether I became so absorbed in these imaginations as to talk to myself in the way that I did during boyhood, must remain an unanswered question; for since, on the line between stations, there were no passers by to show their surprise by staring at me, as sometimes happened in the streets in earlier years, I may have soliloquized without being made aware of it. Probably, however, the increased reticence of approaching manhood checked this habit of unconscious speech.
While referring to this castle-building as at that time habitual, it is worth remarking that there was no approach made to any such ambition as the writing of books. In those days there had not arisen the faintest idea of becoming an author, still less of undertaking such a task as that which I commenced when forty.
Part of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway passes through the blue lias clay, which is rich in fossils. There were always lying about in the Worcester Office, samples of ammonites and other forms of secondary molluscs, which it had yielded; and on these I had gazed with interest. Marvellous remains of ammonites some of them were; or, rather, not of ammonites at all, but preserved casts of their successive chambers, curiously inter-locked. Now that rambles about the line gave me facilities, I was gradually led into the study of Geology—a very superficial study, however. Writing on the 26th September, I said:—
“I have been taking a good deal of interest in fossil-remains lately, and have been collecting a few specimens. I saw portions of several Plesiosauri in a lias quarry yesterday. One specimen was covered with what I believe to have been a portion of skin. It followed the outline of the bones beneath and had a rough, irregular surface such as you would suppose the covering of such a creature would have. It was too large to bring away, and too much mutilated to be worth it. I carried off several vertebræ, however. I was much pleased in discovering the other day what I believe to have been the intention [!] of the transverse ribs in the shell of the ammonite.”
This gathering of fossils was a resumption, in a new form, of my habits as a boy. Making a collection is, indeed, the proper commencement of any natural history study; since, in the first place, it conduces to a concrete knowledge which gives definiteness to the general ideas subsequently reached, and, further, it creates an indirect stimulus by giving gratification to that love of acquisition which exists in all.
One result was the purchase of Lyell’s Principles ofGeology,—a work then recently published. I name this purchase chiefly as serving to introduce a fact of considerable significance. I had during previous years been cognizant of the hypothesis that the human race has been developed from some lower race; though what degree of acceptance it had from me memory does not say. But my reading of Lyell, one of whose chapters was devoted to a refutation of Lamarck’s views concerning the origin of species, had the effect of giving me a decided leaning to them. Why Lyell’s arguments produced the opposite effect of that intended, I cannot say. Probably it was that the discussion presented, more clearly than had been done previously, the conception of the natural genesis of organic forms. The question whether it was or was not true was more distinctly raised. My inclination to accept it as true, in spite of Lyell’s adverse criticisms, was, doubtless, chiefly due to its harmony with that general idea of the order of Nature towards which I had, throughout life, been growing. Supernaturalism, in whatever form, had never commended itself. From boyhood there was in me a need to see, in a more or less distinct way, how phenomena, no matter of what kind, are to be naturally explained. Hence, when my attention was drawn to the question whether organic forms have been specially created, or whether they have arisen by progressive modifications, physically caused and inherited, I adopted the last supposition; inadequate as was the evidence, and great as were the difficulties in the way. Its congruity with the course of procedure throughout things at large, gave it an irresistible attraction; and my belief in it never afterwards wavered, much as I was, in after years, ridiculed for entertaining it.
The incident illustrates the general truth that the acceptance of this or that particular belief, is in part a question of the type of mind. There are some minds to which the marvellous and the unaccountable strongly appeal, and which even resent any attempt to bring the genesis of them within comprehension. There are other minds which, partly by nature and partly by culture, have been led to dislike a quiescent acceptance of the unintelligible; and which push their explorations until causation has been carried to its confines. To this last order of minds mine, from the beginning, belonged.
During all this time, though moving about on the line, I was stationed at Powick; so as to be able to receive instructions from Capt. Moorsom. In the autumn there arrived a youth, E. A. B———, brother of the gentleman to whom Miss———was engaged, with the hope of getting some knowledge of engineering. We became friends and remained so for years; carrying on a correspondence. With a plodding nature, but nothing brilliant about him, he succeeded well in life: better, indeed, than many of greater capacity—as often happens, for the world wants chiefly mechanical services. Our intercourse was pleasant, and led to much discussion: that, indeed, being a usual result whoever might be my companion. There were plenty of points of difference between us, and these continued to manifest themselves during the correspondence of subsequent years.
This mention of E. A. B——— is in part suggested by remembrance of the circumstances which led to his departure. Capt. Moorsom, about to finish very soon his work on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway, had found something to do in Cornwall. He was employed, by gentlemen locally interested, to make a survey of a line which was to be called the Exeter and Falmouth Railway. This survey was in course of execution during the latter part of 1840. Among others, E. A. B——— was drafted on to the staff; and my old friend Jackson, who had resigned his post at Worcester early in the year, came from London to aid in this new scheme, which promised to furnish posts to sundry of those who were shortly to receive their congés at Worcester. Being detained by Birmingham and Gloucester work, I had nothing to do with the survey; and, except at the last, did little beyond volunteering a design for a species of bridge, which it occurred to me would be desirable for spanning the many narrow and deep ravines to be passed over by the line. The capital obtainable for the projected railway was not likely to be large, and this type of bridge was specially designed with a view to cheapness. It was taken by Capt. Moorsom to Cornwall, and, I believe, was adopted in making the estimates. An account of it, with drawings, was published in The Civil Engineer and Architect’s Journal for July, 1841. Reproduction of this among the appendices, is undesirable, because it is of too exclusively professional an interest.
During his stay in Cornwall my friend Jackson wrote me a letter, of which some passages have interest.
“I have to apologise to you about the sketch [to be given to me as a remembrance]. It was very nearly completed when Capt. M.’s letter came requiring my attendance. I can assure you I have not forgotten you and yours and the many pleasant hours we have spent together. I wonder whether we shall ever meet again. It is a word full of meaning, and when I think of it it dullens me. However, the future is wisely hid and time alone can reveal it. I have heard much news from E. A. B——— about your innocent flirtations, your philosophic theories, your varied improvements, and lastly, not least, your everlasting grumblings. . . .
“I suppose that as you are away from Worcester and Powick you will look out for some one else upon whom to bestow your smiles. How different from what you were when first I knew you. Shall I call it an improvement? Never mind, I won’t bother you any more. . . .
“How is your collection of fossils? I hear that they are all confined in a large box big enough to contain yourself when you choose to make it into a travelling bedstead.”
At a later date, as above hinted, I took a considerable share in getting up the plans of this Cornish line at the office at Worcester. Whether the scheme went before Parliament and was thrown out on Standing Orders, or whether it never got so far as that, I cannot remember. But, whatever may have been the cause, the line was not made; and there was disappointment for those who had hoped to be employed on it.
In strict chronological order there should before have been named the fact that during the summer, while still acting as engineering-secretary to Capt. Moorsom, I saw something of the testing of locomotives. Commencing at Bromsgrove, and descending some two or more miles towards Birmingham, there is a portion of the line called the Lickey Incline, having an inclination of 1 in 37. For the drawing up of trains, special locomotives had been imported from America—locomotives of great power considering their small size; and, on various occasions, we had trials of them at which I was present. Towards the close of the year, there hence resulted another change in my occupation. A letter of 8th December says:—
“I am very doubtful, now, whether I shall be able to come to see you at Christmas, and if I do come it will be only for a day or two. This change in my anticipations is caused by my having to take the place of Mr. Bishopp in the superintendence of the trials of engines. He has just been transferred to the permanent service, and will not have time to attend to this in conjunction with his other duties. I believe there will be three more American engines and four English ones to try, each of them taking from a week to a fortnight. Several of them are now ready, and there will be no excuse for delay, so you must make up your minds to see me for a very short time, if at all.”
Some of these testings were commenced while the engines were being brought up to Birmingham from the works of the makers. Hence the following sentence dated January 18:—
“I have been twice into Lancashire since I wrote to you. . . . The first of the above trips terminated in a most complete catalogue of disasters. We were detained about four hours on the coldest day of the whole frost, in the middle of Chat Moss, in consequence of a trifling accident to the engine boiler, and on the next day, shortly after leaving Warrington, the engine burst a tube, which terminated the second day’s adventures.”
The engine which thus came to grief had been made by Mr. James Nasmyth. Before setting out with it, I had been over his works at Patricroft, near Manchester, and had seen various of his labour-saving machines. I think the steam-hammer had at that time been invented, and have a vague recollection of seeing one at work; but this is a case in which I really cannot distinguish between memory and imagination. Mr. Nasmyth was then known only in the engineering world, but subsequently became known as an amateur astronomer, and some thirty years ago created a sensation in the scientific world by his supposed discovery of the willow-leaf-like structure of the Sun’s surface. Subsequent observations, however, proved that he had been under an illusion.
I am reminded by letter that during this occupation with the testing of engines, or rather during the intervals from time to time spent in reducing my observations to tabular form, the little instrument before named, the velocimeter, proved of service in economizing the time and labour of calculations which I had to make.
This change of occupation entailed a change of residence. Bromsgrove, the locomotive centre, was a more convenient place for me. Hence to that place I removed from Powick before the 10th December, and remained there until the middle of March: not, however, being continuously occupied in making trials of locomotives. This is shown by the following passage written on February 4, 1841. The first line refers to the alarm felt at home.
“There is no more danger of my being hurt by the engine trials. The directors have decided that in consequence of the urgent want of train-engines on the line the new engines shall be at once handed over to Mr. Creuze, and have notes taken of their performances during the ordinary service. The whole affair is therefore now out of my hands, and I am about to employ my time in making drawings of the “Philadelphia” engine [one of the American engines] for the Institution of Civil Engineers.”
My new residence proved otherwise convenient. Bromsgrove was better adapted than Worcester for getting made some parts of an apparatus which I had devised. Already, at the close of the last chapter, was named the fact that my father had suggested a mode of utilizing electro-magnetic action; and, during the latter part of 1840 and beginning of 1841, letters contain discussions concerning the details of an engine to be made in purusance of it. It was, I believe, the action of a muscle which suggested to my father the thought of this engine: the action of a muscle being one in which a large motion is obtained by the accumulation of many small motions. Electro-magnets, placed at short distances from one another, were to be so mounted that when excited they would severally move, each towards its neighbour: the result being that a series of them fixed at one end, would produce a movement at the other end made up of all these small movements united. It was manifest that the magnets must be numerous and at short distances; and the difficulty was to get a sufficient number of them in a moderate space. I proposed circular disks; each being made of a form somewhat like that of the bobbins used in lace machines for containing the threads of cotton: the space which in them is occupied by threads of cotton being, in these disks, occupied by the exciting wires. Various difficulties were thought of, and various plans for overcoming them—plans which, on now contemplating them, it seems to me would have been futile.
I was so far sanguine, however, that while at Bromsgrove I superintended at leisure the making of a considerable number of these disks; prompted by the thought that, when the leisure time came, we should be enabled to make the experiment with less delay.
I say “when the leisure time came,” for there was approaching the termination of my engagement. The greater number of those who had been employed on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway had gone; and now I, too, had received a notice that after April 25 my services would no longer be required. Concerning this notice, a letter home dated 4th February says:—
“I was really quite pleased when the chief told me that he was about to send it; so much so, that I could not help showing it—rather to his astonishment I fancy.”
Clearly, part of the satisfaction thus displayed was due to my hopes concerning the electro-magnetic engine, for the next paragraph says:—
“This last fortnight I have been getting together the necessary apparatus for the electro-magnetic experiment, and I expect to be able to make it in a few days”;
an expectation, however, which was not fulfilled. Another paragraph of this same letter, treating of a totally different matter, may not unfitly be quoted:—
“I was much pleased the other day to find how much I had increased in weight lately—actually gained 15 pounds since last August: my total weight now being 150 pounds. I feel pretty well convinced that this is the cause of my having been so stupid for the last half year.”
Leading an outdoor life, free from any considerable mental strain, and living chiefly at hotels on abundant and varied fare, probably caused me to reach this weight—a weight which I never again reached until quite the close of life. The change of appearance which accompanied this increase of weight, was, like the mental change, not to my advantage; as the remarks of my friends proved.
Returning to the matter of my engagement, or rather disengagement, it should be added that I declined a permanent post which was offered to me. After giving some particulars of an accident by which the engineer of locomotives (Mr. Creuze, a Cambridge man, who narrowly missed the Senior-Wranglership) was scalded to death, a letter of April 11 says:—
“It was in consequence of this occurrence that the chief the day before yesterday offered me a situation in the permanent Loco. service. I refused it, however, without even inquiring what it was, and I have plenty of reasons for having done so. Although I did not inquire the particulars, there is no doubt as to these. The office would be that of assistant Loco. engineer in place of Bishopp [also a Cambridge man], who will now be promoted to Creuze’s place. I should, however, consider this, were I to take it, a loss of time, and detrimental to my future progress in that respect. The chief was rather astonished at my calmly refusing the offer.”
I did not much like the position to be filled; but beyond this, and beyond the cause already intimated, there was another cause operating—a cause which, as a matter of policy, I ought not to have been influenced by.
Some feeling of alienation from Capt. Moorsom had been produced in me by certain recent incidents. My friend Jackson, who was one of those employed in making the survey of the Cornish line, had not been, as he considered, well used; and since he was by nature an uncomplaining man, I concluded that there were good grounds for the feeling he displayed. The sum available for making the survey had been small, and those who took part in it were no doubt stinted in the payments they received. Probably Capt. Moorsom’s idea was that, were the Act obtained, and the line made, those who had aided would receive compensations by their subsequent engagements. Beyond the unsatisfactory treatment of my friend, which I somewhat resented, there were, I thought, some proceedings not altogether equitable in the getting up of the survey; and letters show that my views about them were expressed somewhat openly. But some facts overlooked ought to have greatly qualified these views.
It is a trite observation that, at the time of their occurrence, one’s feelings and acts are often not seen in their proper proportions; and that it remains for subsequent years to bring right estimates of them. Whenever, in later life, I have looked back on those days, it has been clear that the alienation then displayed, and which afterwards influenced me, was not altogether defensible. Even supposing that I was entirely right in my judgments on the transactions referred to, the sentiment caused overrode too much the other sentiments which should have been dominant. Remembering the kindness Capt. Moorsom had shown all through our relations, which was great considering the absence of any claim on him, such disapprobation as I felt for what did not seem equitable but which after all may have been well warranted, should not have been allowed to outbalance the feeling of gratitude. In this case, as in other cases, was shown the predominance of that most abstract of the sentiments—the sentiment of justice. Its supremacy over the other moral feelings, is such that when it has been offended there results almost an obliteration of what good opinion I otherwise have had reason to form of the offender. This seems to be one of the results of a mental constitution which has largely influenced my life and thought, and shows itself in my writings; but which, however needful in one who has to do a certain kind of work, is not the most desirable otherwise considered. In most men, personal considerations conquer impersonal ones: in me the contrary happens. And this sway of the impersonal ones caused, in the present instance, judgments and feelings which were too unsympathetic. In later years I have never ceased to regret the error thus committed.
There remains little more to be said concerning my last days on the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway. Part of February was spent at Worcester. A letter of the 24th says.
“I have been absent from Bromsgrove ever since Monday the 14th, helping with the completion of the Cornish Parliamentary plans. We have been so overworked that I have had no time to attend to private affairs. We were at work on Tuesday last from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. next morning, and every other day in the week from the same hour to 12 at night, and even Sunday was not exempt from its portion. All the rest worked the whole day, but I would not continue beyond mid-day. I found my eyes beginning to be affected, and I was determined not to injure them on any account. However, it is now all over, and I am not much the worse for it.”
I was led to take this peremptory course by experience gained when under Mr. Fox on the L. & B. Railway. Exhausting physical exertion, continued there for several days, had produced a very marked effect on my eyes. For the first time in my life they began to ache when used for some hours in drawing; and a considerable time elapsed before they recovered their tone. The warning had not been thrown away, as is shown by the paragraph succeeding the one above quoted:
“If the chief were to make any remark on my absenting myself on Sunday when others remained, I should tell him plainly that I considered he had no right to work his officers so hardly, and that he had the injury of their constitutions to answer for.”
That the course taken was not unjustified is shown by the fact that my friend Jackson suffered severely from having yielded to the pressure put upon him. A letter written to me from London six weeks later, and which begins with the sentence:—“If ever a man began to feel ruin it is I,” describes how his eyes had failed so completely that not only was work interdicted but he was forbidden to look at a book; and it was long after the date of this letter before he recovered: one curative measure being a tour in Scotland. This fact should be a warning to those who think they may trespass upon their powers, and disobey their sensations, with impunity.
Miscellaneous occupations of various kinds, which it is needless to specify, occupied March and the greater part of April; and then, on the 26th April, having squared all details and visited Powick to say good-bye to my friends, I took my departure for Derby; where, with the aid of the considerable sum I had laid by, I hoped to carry out my plans.