THE LATE SIR JOHN RENNIE.*
NOTHING shows more plainly the great strides made by practical science in the course of the century than the comparison of the present state of civil engineering with its position before that * Autobiography of Sir John Rennie, ke. London: E. and F. N. Spun.
period when the introduction of railways, giving to it a powerful impetus, caused it to make a sudden advance, and speedily to take rank in England as a profession. At the time of the forma- tion of the Smeatonian Society, which was established by Smeaton, Mylne, and the father of Sir John Rennie, there scarcely existed more than a dozen men who were really entitled to be considered
civil engineers, the remainder scarcely rising above the grade of a higher kind of mechanic. In our day, men of this profession count by thousands, although, as in most other walks of
life, comparatively few amongst them attain to eminence, and fewer still accomplish anything like the amount of useful work effected by the man whose autobiography lies before us. Sir John Rennie, indeed, complains with some bitterness of the de- fective education which is deemed sufficient to qualify a man for entering a profession of which he scarcely overrates the importance, when he says that its object is to promote the civilisation of the world; and justly observes that public works will never be satisfac- torily carried out until engineers are, as a rule, men who are tho- roughly versed in their profession, both theoretically and practically, able to take high positions as scientific men, wholly independent of contractors and all sinister influences, and obliged to consider nothing but their duty to the public and to posterity. In his autobiography, which, although only now published, was written so far back as 1867, Sir John gives us an interesting account of the thorough and somewhat severe training to which he him- self was submitted by his father, the result of which was that he not merely worthily followed in his footsteps, but even, although the modesty of the writer would be far from admitting such a thing, attained to a higher degree of skill and renown. The
narrative, which is given wholly from memory, is extremelyinter- eating, and is that of a man who has seen much of the world,
both professionally and in journeys undertaken at once for study and relaxation, and it is given in a frank and unpretending manner. Born in London in 1794, Sir John Rennie tells us that he was early sent to Dr. Greenlaw's school at Isleworth, and was the school-mate of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Of the poet, who at that time was about thirteen years of age, he relates that he was even then remarkable for poetic talent, accompanied, however, by an excitable and violent temper. He says of him :-
" The least circumstance that thwarted him produced the most violent paroxysms of rago ; and when irritated by other boys, which they, knowing his infirmity, very often did, by way of teasing him, he- would take up anything, or even any little boy near him, to throw at his tormentors. His imagination was always roving upon something romantic and extraordinary, such as spirits, fairies, fighting, volcanoes, and he not unfrequently astonished his school-fellows by blowing-up the boundary-palings of the playground with gunpowder, also the lid of his desk in the middle of school-time, to the great surprise of Dr. Greenlaw himself and the whole school. In fact, at times he was con- sidered to be almost upon the borders of insanity; yet with all this,. when treated with kindness, he was very amiable, noble, high-spirited, and generous."
Rennie was removed from this school in 1807, and placed for a couple of years with Dr. Burney at Greenwich ; but he speaks of this period as having been one of discomfort, and deficient in everything save the acquisition of classical knowledge, science and physics being then esteemed of little or no importance. It next became a question whether the youth should go to Oxford or Cambridge, his own leanings being, however, entirely towards the Army, as was natural at a time of war, when almost every young man in England desired to distinguish himself as a soldier. Mr. Rennie, however, being resolved that his son should embrace the profession he himself had chosen, repressed his military ardour, and having at that period one department of his busi- ness entirely devoted to practical mechanics, sent him into it, to learn at least so much as should enable him to be a good judge of workmanship. After having laboured, therefore, for some time with the plane, the saw, and the turning-lathe, young Rennie next passed into the drawing-office, where he learned to copy geometrical plans. These practical studies were combined with the acquisition of modern languages, and a competent knowledge of geometry, algebra, and other cognate subjects, until the time arrived when the young man was considered fit to engage in engineering work, which he first commenced under Mr. Hollingsworth, the resident engineer of Waterloo Bridge, and was gradually employed by his father in situations of in- creasing responsibility. Although, in the first instance, civil engineering was not his choice, it must have been a pursuit for which he was singularly adapted, and this proves the correctness of Mr. Rennie's judgment in coercing to a certain extent his son's natural inclination. He seems to have entered upon his career with ardour and with a steady determination to excel, and he very soon gave proof of his high capabilities when employed
upon the construction of Southwark Bridge. After the death of his father, which occurred in 1821, Mr. Rennie was appointed to succeed him in several of his great works. Although only seven-and-twenty, he was made Engineer to the Admiralty, and took in hand the completion of the Plymouth Breakwater and-the Chatham and Woolwich Dockyards ; he also became drainage engineer to the Eau Brink Commissioners, and succeeded his father at Ramsgate, Sunderland, Donaghadee, Port Patrick, and Kingstown harbours, the West India Docks, and other places.
London Bridge was the first great work which Sir John Rennie took in hand from the commencement, Mr. Rennie having only lived long enough to contribute a design for it, without being able to furnish working drawings, specifications, or estimate, and the original plan was also considerably diverged from when the
work was actually undertaken. In the Autobiography, we have a
detailed account of the undertaking and its successful accom- plishment, as also of Rennie's great drainage works in the Fens, both of which are extremely interesting.
We now come to that period of his life which connects him with steamships and with railways. With regard to the former, Sir John Claims to have been the means of introducing oscillating engines into the Navy, as also to have advocated (although unsuccessfully) the use of high-pressure condensing engines ; and he did actually construct the first screw steam-vessel used in this
country, and also the first screw vessel used in the Navy ; in the latter case, only succeeding by means of a promise made.to the Admiralty that should the ' Dwarf ' not come up to the required
conditions, he would take her back, with all her machinery ; and should she fulfil what was expected of her, the Admiralty officers should themselves settle the price to be paid. It is needless to remark that the vessel was a complete suocess. The writer describes his labours during the Railway mania as extremely arduous, for he not only worked night and day, but had to -employ above three hundred assistants, and had he been paid for his exertions might have made a very large fortune ; but unfortu- nately for him, as for many others, the bubble burst, company after company collapsed, and Sir John found himself, in many instances, alone responsible for the heavy liabilities of others.
But Rennie's great works were by no means confined to Eng- land ; he laid down lines of railway in Sweden and Portugal, designed harbours for the latter country and for Russia, and made the one at Ponta Delgada, in the Azores. The little episode of the sojourn at St. Michael's is pleasantly told, and there is a good description of the productive little island and its various industries. Sir John was, as might be expected, an intelligent and observing traveller ; his two years' journey through Italy, Greece, Egypt, and Asia Minor, as well as his subsequent shorter excursions. to Spain, Portugal, and Tunis, are so freshly and brightly narrated, that we read even his accounts of well-known places with pleasure, and sympathise with the delight with- which he gazed upon the classical scenes which he had long desired to visit, but scarcely hoped to behold. In Greece he had some stirring adventures with brigands, and was introduced to "the Maid of Athens," then "a handsome and elegant young woman about twenty, with a very pleasing manner, and lively and intelligent in conversation." He was at Smyrna in the fig season, and re- marks with pleasure upon the activity which everywhere pre- vailed:—
" The producers selling, the merchants buying, the packing-case makers splitting the wood and making up the boxes, the packers care- fully stowing the age, the men loading them into lighters, by which they are transported to the fast-sailing vessels waiting for them, which are generally clipper schooners of about 120 to 170 tons; the Consuls' offices besieged with numerous applicants for their clearance-papers ; the whole combined to form a most active and industrious scene, not omitting the numberless dinners and social parties at the different hotels and coffee-houses, which are thronged with natives of all nations."
In the early part of 1859, Sir John Rennie was asked to go to Tunis with one of Messrs. Pao and Betts' agents to examine into the feasibility of laying down a line of rails between Goletta and the city, and he took advantage of the opportunity to examine the ruins of Carthage and those of Utica. All preliminaries for
the railway were easily adjusted with the Bey, and the concession would have been granted and the work carried out, but for the
obstinacy of Sir John Rennie's companion, who persisted in taking levels, and thus discovering their object to the French
Consul, whose suspicions regarding-the travellers had been almost
set at rest. As soon as this functionary discovered their object he demanded an audience of the Bey, threatened him with the vengeance of France if a concession were granted to any other Power, and thus ended the whole affair, which would otherwise
have been very successful. In 1866, Sir John Rennie retired from London: Williams and Norgate. business, at the age of 72. At that time he had, however, de- signed to write a history of engineering, and a life of his father, as well as to complete a work already in progress on the drainage of the fens and lowlands of Great Britain, and hydraulics gener- ally. Whether he was able to leave any of these works in such a state of completeness as to fit them for publication is not men- tioned by the editor of the Autobiography, but there is little doubt that should he have done so, they would prove of considerable interest, as although the writer's literary ability is not equal to his other talents, he writes with clearness and honesty of purpose, and brings to his work an exceptional amount of special knowledge.