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The rise and fall of UK engineering.

Title: Victorian Engineering

Author:LTC Rolt

Publisher: The History Press

Date of Publication: June 2009

ISBN: 978-0-7509-4657-5

Number of Pages: 256 pages

Format: Paperback

Price: [pounds sterling]9.99

Reviewer: Graham Jeffery

'Victorian Engineering', by LTC Rolt, which was originally published in 1970, is one of several titles that have recently been reprinted to coincide with the centenary of their author's birth in 1910. In offering to review this book without first opening it, I had assumed that I would be reading a straightforward history in summary of the great Victorian engineers and their works. Indeed, Rolt's own introduction acknowledges that some readers might find his work somewhat superficial, in terms of engineering detail, as he provides a bibliography for further reading.


The author's underlying purpose is, however, also revealed in his introduction: he is effectively cataloguing the almost explosive growth, followed by the gradual decline of the status of engineering in Britain through the 19th Century. In nine of his ten chapters, Rolt covers the whole range of Victorian engineering, from railways, through steam power on land and sea, to civil engineering and electrical engineering in the latter part of the century: he names and gives credit to the numerous engineers, some famous, others less well-known, who made Great Britain the "Workshop of the World".

Rolt describes the major engineering achievements of the early part of Victoria's reign, the culmination of which was exemplified by the Great Exhibition of 1851, housed in the Crystal Palace in Hyde Park, itself an engineering wonder. He goes on to describe the continuing developments of the second half of the century: in doing so, however, he also demonstrates that Britain was already losing its engineering pre-eminence to Europe and then the United States, as mass production superseded the craft and workshop ethos that persisted in this country. In his final chapter, the author moves on to highlight and analyse this decline.

In Chapter 10, Rolt refers to the seldom-acknowledged fact that the progenitor of the modern high-speed compression-ignition engine was Herbert Akroyd Stuart's 'solid injection' machine: Akroyd Stuart's patents preceded those of Rudolph Diesel and his 'blast injection' engine by several years. Despite this, the development of the modern diesel engine in the early twentieth century proceeded primarily in Germany and Hornsby-Akroyd stationary engines, with their 'hot bulb' arrangement, were characterised as 'semi-diesels'. Had the development of the compression-ignition engine been pursued in this country, perhaps I might now be driving an Akroyd-engined car.

Rolt also highlights the decline by referring to Frederick Lanchester's development of, on the one hand, advanced aeronautical theory and, on the other, of motor cars that were years ahead of their time, both of which were effectively ignored in Britain. In Chapter 10, I discovered that Lanchester experimented by launching model gliders from his bedroom window in Olton, near Birmingham: as a Midlander by birth and engineering education, I am ashamed to say that I was unaware of this fact. Had Lanchester been recognised and encouraged, then perhaps the first powered heavier-than-air flight might have taken place somewhere near that city, rather than on sand dunes in North Carolina.

The author closes his final chapter, 'The Shape of Things to Come', with a somewhat philosophical examination of the sociological effects that the application of the principle of the division of labour, both manual and intellectual, have had on society. In particular, he bemoans the increasing specialisation and separation of the branches of the engineering profession that developed in the latter part of the 19th Century: he argues that there is an urgent need for a reversal of this trend and a synthesis of knowledge, invention and creativity. He acknowledges that this may be extremely difficult, but does not suggest how it might be achieved.

In reading Rolfs work, it occurred to me that, just as the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries saw Britain relinquishing its engineering and industrial pre-eminence to Europe and then the United States, history is now repeating itself. The end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st centuries has seen the USA, Europe and Britain being overtaken, if not actually being taken over, by the emerging industrial might of, first, Japan and now China and India. Perhaps this is another lesson from history: all too often, it seems to me that the most salutary lesson we can learn from history is that we do not learn from history.

Having mentioned Japan, readers may be interested to know that I re-read much of 'Victorian Engineering' on a London-Tokyo flight: the first draft of this review was then started, as an antidote to jet lag, after waking up unreasonably early the next day. Those who read my previous review of Rolt's 'Red for Danger' may recall my comments about 'proof reading' that book on outward and return train journeys between Bristol and Manchester: I commented on the trains being on time, as if this were unusual. I must contrast this with my typical experience in Japan, where the trains depart and arrive to the minute and the Shinkansen (the 'Bullet Train'), in particular, almost to the second.

In conclusion, although I found this book interesting, I have to say that it was rather less absorbing than 'Red for Danger'. Nevertheless, I thought it worth reading for its thought-provoking final chapter. And finally, those who read my previous review of 'Red for Danger' may recall that I was critical of the number of typographical errors I found: unfortunately, this reprint also has similar, albeit fewer, errors.
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Title Annotation:Victorian Engineering
Author:Jeffery, Graham
Publication:Engineering Designer
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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