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Ch. 9 - Thomas Stevenson

CIVIL ENGINEER


THE death of Thomas Stevenson will mean not very much to the
general reader. His service to mankind took on forms of which the
public knows little and understands less. He came seldom to
London, and then only as a task, remaining always a stranger and a
convinced provincial; putting up for years at the same hotel where
his father had gone before him; faithful for long to the same
restaurant, the same church, and the same theatre, chosen simply
for propinquity; steadfastly refusing to dine out. He had a circle
of his own, indeed, at home; few men were more beloved in
Edinburgh, where he breathed an air that pleased him; and wherever
he went, in railway carriages or hotel smoking-rooms, his strange,
humorous vein of talk, and his transparent honesty, raised him up
friends and admirers. But to the general public and the world of
London, except about the parliamentary committee-rooms, he remained
unknown. All the time, his lights were in every part of the world,
guiding the mariner; his firm were consulting engineers to the
Indian, the New Zealand, and the Japanese Lighthouse Boards, so
that Edinburgh was a world centre for that branch of applied
science; in Germany, he had been called "the Nestor of lighthouse
illumination"; even in France, where his claims were long denied,
he was at last, on the occasion of the late Exposition, recognised
and medalled. And to show by one instance the inverted nature of
his reputation, comparatively small at home, yet filling the world,
a friend of mine was this winter on a visit to the Spanish main,
and was asked by a Peruvian if he "knew Mr. Stevenson the author,
because his works were much esteemed in Peru?" My friend supposed
the reference was to the writer of tales; but the Peruvian had
never heard of DR. JEKYLL; what he had in his eye, what was
esteemed in Peru, where the volumes of the engineer.

Thomas Stevenson was born at Edinburgh in the year 1818, the
grandson of Thomas Smith, first engineer to the Board of Northern
Lights, son of Robert Stevenson, brother of Alan and David; so that
his nephew, David Alan Stevenson, joined with him at the time of
his death in the engineership, is the sixth of the family who has
held, successively or conjointly, that office. The Bell Rock, his
father's great triumph, was finished before he was born; but he
served under his brother Alan in the building of Skerryvore, the
noblest of all extant deep-sea lights; and, in conjunction with his
brother David, he added two - the Chickens and Dhu Heartach - to
that small number of man's extreme outposts in the ocean. Of shore
lights, the two brothers last named erected no fewer than twenty-
seven; of beacons, (4) about twenty-five. Many harbours were
successfully carried out: one, the harbour of Wick, the chief
disaster of my father's life, was a failure; the sea proved too
strong for man's arts; and after expedients hitherto unthought of,
and on a scale hyper-cyclopean, the work must be deserted, and now
stands a ruin in that bleak, God-forsaken bay, ten miles from John-
o'-Groat's. In the improvement of rivers the brothers were
likewise in a large way of practice over both England and Scotland,
nor had any British engineer anything approaching their experience.

It was about this nucleus of his professional labours that all my
father's scientific inquiries and inventions centred; these
proceeded from, and acted back upon, his daily business. Thus it
was as a harbour engineer that he became interested in the
propagation and reduction of waves; a difficult subject in regard
to which he has left behind him much suggestive matter and some
valuable approximate results. Storms were his sworn adversaries,
and it was through the study of storms that he approached that of
meteorology at large. Many who knew him not otherwise, knew -
perhaps have in their gardens - his louvre-boarded screen for
instruments. But the great achievement of his life was, of course,
in optics as applied to lighthouse illumination. Fresnel had done
much; Fresnel had settled the fixed light apparatus on a principle
that still seems unimprovable; and when Thomas Stevenson stepped in
and brought to a comparable perfection the revolving light, a not
unnatural jealousy and much painful controversy rose in France. It
had its hour; and, as I have told already, even in France it has
blown by. Had it not, it would have mattered the less, since all
through his life my father continued to justify his claim by fresh
advances. New apparatus for lights in new situations was
continually being designed with the same unwearied search after
perfection, the same nice ingenuity of means; and though the
holophotal revolving light perhaps still remains his most elegant
contrivance, it is difficult to give it the palm over the much
later condensing system, with its thousand possible modifications.
The number and the value of these improvements entitle their author
to the name of one of mankind's benefactors. In all parts of the
world a safer landfall awaits the mariner. Two things must be
said: and, first, that Thomas Stevenson was no mathematician.
Natural shrewdness, a sentiment of optical laws, and a great
intensity of consideration led him to just conclusions; but to
calculate the necessary formulae for the instruments he had
conceived was often beyond him, and he must fall back on the help
of others, notably on that of his cousin and lifelong intimate
friend, EMERITUS Professor Swan, of St. Andrews, and his later
friend, Professor P. G. Tait. It is a curious enough circumstance,
and a great encouragement to others, that a man so ill equipped
should have succeeded in one of the most abstract and arduous walks
of applied science. The second remark is one that applies to the
whole family, and only particularly to Thomas Stevenson from the
great number and importance of his inventions: holding as the
Stevensons did a Government appointment they regarded their
original work as something due already to the nation, and none of
them has ever taken out a patent. It is another cause of the
comparative obscurity of the name: for a patent not only brings in
money, it infallibly spreads reputation; and my father's
instruments enter anonymously into a hundred light-rooms, and are
passed anonymously over in a hundred reports, where the least
considerable patent would stand out and tell its author's story.

But the life-work of Thomas Stevenson remains; what we have lost,
what we now rather try to recall, is the friend and companion. He
was a man of a somewhat antique strain: with a blended sternness
and softness that was wholly Scottish and at first somewhat
bewildering; with a profound essential melancholy of disposition
and (what often accompanies it) the most humorous geniality in
company; shrewd and childish; passionately attached, passionately
prejudiced; a man of many extremes, many faults of temper, and no
very stable foothold for himself among life's troubles. Yet he was
a wise adviser; many men, and these not inconsiderable, took
counsel with him habitually. "I sat at his feet," writes one of
these, "when I asked his advice, and when the broad brow was set in
thought and the firm mouth said his say, I always knew that no man
could add to the worth of the conclusion." He had excellent taste,
though whimsical and partial; collected old furniture and delighted
specially in sunflowers long before the days of Mr. Wilde; took a
lasting pleasure in prints and pictures; was a devout admirer of
Thomson of Duddingston at a time when few shared the taste; and
though he read little, was constant to his favourite books. He had
never any Greek; Latin he happily re-taught himself after he had
left school, where he was a mere consistent idler: happily, I say,
for Lactantius, Vossius, and Cardinal Bona were his chief authors.
The first he must have read for twenty years uninterruptedly,
keeping it near him in his study, and carrying it in his bag on
journeys. Another old theologian, Brown of Wamphray, was often in
his hands. When he was indisposed, he had two books, GUY MANNERING
and THE PARENT'S ASSISTANT, of which he never wearied. He was a
strong Conservative, or, as he preferred to call himself, a Tory;
except in so far as his views were modified by a hot-headed
chivalrous sentiment for women. He was actually in favour of a
marriage law under which any woman might have a divorce for the
asking, and no man on any ground whatever; and the same sentiment
found another expression in a Magdalen Mission in Edinburgh,
founded and largely supported by himself. This was but one of the
many channels of his public generosity; his private was equally
unstrained. The Church of Scotland, of which he held the doctrines
(though in a sense of his own) and to which he bore a clansman's
loyalty, profited often by his time and money; and though, from a
morbid sense of his own unworthiness, he would never consent to be
an office-bearer, his advice was often sought, and he served the
Church on many committees. What he perhaps valued highest in his
work were his contributions to the defence of Christianity; one of
which, in particular, was praised by Hutchinson Stirling and
reprinted at the request of Professor Crawford.

His sense of his own unworthiness I have called morbid; morbid,
too, were his sense of the fleetingness of life and his concern for
death. He had never accepted the conditions of man's life or his
own character; and his inmost thoughts were ever tinged with the
Celtic melancholy. Cases of conscience were sometimes grievous to
him, and that delicate employment of a scientific witness cost him
many qualms. But he found respite from these troublesome humours
in his work, in his lifelong study of natural science, in the
society of those he loved, and in his daily walks, which now would
carry him far into the country with some congenial friend, and now
keep him dangling about the town from one old book-shop to another,
and scraping romantic acquaintance with every dog that passed. His
talk, compounded of so much sterling sense and so much freakish
humour, and clothed in language so apt, droll, and emphatic, was a
perpetual delight to all who knew him before the clouds began to
settle on his mind. His use of language was both just and
picturesque; and when at the beginning of his illness he began to
feel the ebbing of this power, it was strange and painful to hear
him reject one word after another as inadequate, and at length
desist from the search and leave his phrase unfinished rather than
finish it without propriety. It was perhaps another Celtic trait
that his affections and emotions, passionate as these were, and
liable to passionate ups and downs, found the most eloquent
expression both in words and gestures. Love, anger, and
indignation shone through him and broke forth in imagery, like what
we read of Southern races. For all these emotional extremes, and
in spite of the melancholy ground of his character, he had upon the
whole a happy life; nor was he less fortunate in his death, which
at the last came to him unaware.

Robert Louis Stevenson