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THE FOUNDER OF CANAL-NAVIGATION IN BRITAIN.
N this stirring nineteenth century of ours, with
the death-knells of Stephenson and Brunel ringing in our ears, and the results of their stupendous labours, ever present to the sight of the humblest among us, we are, perhaps, apt to forget the great names of those few who, a century earlier, preceded them, in the same paths of science; and were as eager to turn their hard-earned knowledge to practical use, for the benefit of their fellow-men.
Flying along the 'iron roads' of George Stephenson, at a rate
Swifter than the swallow's flight, we look down with something like contempt on the heavy-laden barge and its inhabitants, which, with almost noiseless motion, glides languidly forward, scarcely rippling the calm deep water upon which it lies. We fancy that the dwellers in that big black coffin-the swarthy men smoking their pipes of peace-the woman, with her invariable red or yellow kerchief-the very dog, basking in the sun at the helm-must sometimes long to 'push on,' as we are doing; and that they have as much too much time for reflection, as we have too little. It seems quite
an idle luxury, to watch the big boat's entry into, and escape from, the well-contrived lock; and few among us know, or care to enquire, from whose brain first sprung the idea of Canal-Navigation in this country.
And yet, surely, the name of such a man as James Brindley, the day-labourer, the self-taught mechanician, deserves a grateful remembrance from his countrymen, and a place among those who have striven to turn their one talent to public advantage.
His story, certainly, cannot be without interest; affording, as it does, so remarkable an instance of what wonders may be effected, what difficulties surmounted, by the mind of genius, aided by untiring energy and determination of character.
Brindley had not even the advantage enjoyed by many self-raised men, of having respectable though humble parentage. He was born in 1716, in the village of Tunsted, in Derbyshire. His father was a reckless, dissipated man, who cared little for the welfare of his children, and spent too much on his own idle pleasures, to have anything to spare for even a scanty village-school education for his son. Consequently, it was with difficulty that James Brindley learnt to read; and, during his whole life, scarcely ever accomplished more writing than sufficed for the bare signature of his name. Earning his daily bread by the sweat of his brow, he dug in the fields or followed the plough until he was nearly seventeen years of age. The employment which fostered the poetical nature of Burns, and was even pursued by Cook, the navigator, in his boyish days, could have afforded little else to the mechanical genius of James Brindley, save time for reflection, It is difficult, therefore, to imagine what first disclosed the natural bias of his mind, until the opportunity-invariably given to men of real genius-occurred which settled his destiny. It was only about the year 1734 that he bound himself apprentice to a millwright, named Bennet, who resided in the town of Macclesfield, not many miles distant from Brindley's native place.
Here the youth, who is described as boorish and awkward,' and who, in appearance at least, answered so well to the old country saying
Derbyshire born, and Derbyshire bred,
astonished his master by his ingenuity and application; and became, indeed, the person to keep up the reputation of his employer, as well as to secure good profits from the trade. Mr. Bennet was, indeed, little able to instruct Brindley in more than the mere rudiments of his business; but what the master failed to teach, the apprentice learnt for himself by repeated experiments and earnest observation. When left by Bennet' to execute an order, often without any instructions at all as to the way of doing it, Brindley not only finished the work in his own way, but did his best to make that way perfect. His genius was unsatisfied, as long as he could discover any mechanical failing in the object of his labour ; and what the brain suggested, the hands were prompt to accomplish ; his strong will urging him to overcome apparent impossibilities.
One day his master received an order to build the machinery of a paper-mill. Bennet, ignorant even of various branches of the trade he professed to understand, was greatly at a loss how to execute this commission, and yet feared to lose the profit arising from so extensive an order. He started, therefore, on a journey of some length, that he might inspect a mill, which he hoped might serve him as a model.
Wanting, however, that closeness of observation and thoroughness which alone insure perfect success to a man, Bennet returned almost as ignorant as when he set out. His ideas were so confused, and his illustration to his apprentice so meagre, that a stranger happening to pass by his workshop, and to observe how he was blundering on, openly remarked that Bennet was wasting his employer's money, and understood nothing of his business. Of course, such remarks, in the neighbourhood, were greatly calculated to do both master and man serious injury; and Brindley was not one to rest satisfied when any doubt existed of his working in the right direction. He could gather no knowledge from books, even had they fallen in his way; therefore his own observation must supply this deficiency. Saying nothing, however, to his master, he determined to judge for himself how far the stranger's remarks were founded on truth. He waited patiently till the week's work was over on Saturday; and then, with the same energy of spirit which he gave to the employment of the hammer and the anvil, he started on foot to see the mill, already visited by Bennet.
The journey, there and back, is one of fifty miles, a hard pull for Brindley; for he must be at Macclesfield again on Monday morning. The mill, however, is reached; it is examined carefully, even critically; it will serve as a model to begin upon; but its machinery has its failings; and a few hours' inspection has shown to Brindley where the errors lie. Memory and invention must aid each other to make James Brindley's work more perfect, if done at all. Another long walk, and he is at home again, and soon at work. He is quite contented, now that he has added to his scanty store of self-acquired knowledge; and hopefully sees his way to surpassing the model which the less gifted Bennet had failed even to copy
No wonder, therefore, that when the machinery for the new-paper-mill was complete, Brindley's reputation for industry and intelligence was established in his own county, and when there was work of the same kind to be done, no wonder that orders came, thick and oft, to Mr. Bennet.
With the latter, Brindley remained some years, working industriously, and ever ready to turn his one talent to account. He was thus enabled, not only to add to the confort of his master in his old age, but eventually to start for himself in the same line of business; a fair field before him and a local reputation to sustain him. It was not, therefore, likely that he would be long satisfied to remain a simple apprentice, or confine his attention solely to one branch of science. In short, in proportion as his reputation grew, his ambition increased ; and it was not long before he determined to undertake civil engineering, in all its bearings, on his own account.
Nor had he long to wait for employment of a much more important character than that which had occupied him as Bennet's apprentice. In 1752, it was found necessary to drain a large coal mine at Clifton, in Lancashire, and to effect this a new water engine of improved construction was required. The want of