22 JULY 1876, Page 7

THE EXPLOSION IN 'rut, THUNDEBER.' E VERY calamity which befalls our

Navy,—and very few years now elapse without some calamity of greater or less magnitude,—makes it more and more evident that the chief difficulty with which we have to deal is that we are using great magazines of force, of enormous costliness whether we look at the number of lives or at the money-cost hazarded in them, the proper administration of which needs the utmost scientific pre- cision and delicacy, without fully securing the kind of scientific administration which can adequately command that precision and delicacy. The Thunderer' had engines, taken together, of 800 horse-power, and no fewer, as the Times says, than twenty-six other engines for minor purposes, heated by thirty-two furnaces, and so was, in fact, a vast storehouse of force of the most tremendous character, where a mistake of the slightest kind in turning or failing to turn any one valve, or in loading a valve too heavily, or in adopting any other of the minute precautions which science has devised, but which practical science too often does not administer, might at any moment end in a huge disaster. There can be no doubt, we suppose, that nothing in the world which undergoes anything like so much rough usage as a modern ship-of-war of the first class, ever was one-tenth part so complicated, so beset with danger, so full of wild forces which it is most necessary and most difficult to restrain to their special work, and so much in need of a perfect co-ordination of all the various powers con- tained, to prevent any one of them from breaking loose and wreaking destruction on all around. The truth is that all the elaborate securities against mishap which are taken in a great factory have to be taken in the great ships-of-war, under circumstances which are necessarily far less favourable to efficiency. As the story of the sinking of the ' Vanguard' showed, a great number of minute contrivances, such as those for properly closing the bulkheads between one cellular com- partment and another, or those for getting the various systems of pumps to work efficiently, or those for securing the proper working of the steam-whistles by which signals are made, are all of the first importance in any critical moment, and all very liable to be found deficient in that moment. We do not yet know what the real cause of the disaster on board the Thunderer ' was, but there is no doubt but that it was due to some sudden production of steam which either ought not to have occurred at all, or might to have been produced under conditions which would hive rendered it both useful and innocuous, instead of a source of the most frightful suffering and injury. Who was in fault, or whether anybody was in fault, we do not yet know. Of course it is hard to believe that no one can have been in fault, either at the time, or during the past, for such a calamity, though it is barely con- ceivable. But in all probability, it will turn out that owing to the complicated character of the machinery, either some de- fect in it remained unnoticed, or some omission of duty occurred, which was the cause of the catastrophe. Whichever of these alter- natives be verified, there can be no doubt but that pretty much the same lesson as the loss of the 'Vanguard' taught us will be illustrated again,—that we are trying to work machines which need almost super-excellent thoughtfulness, precision, and sense of responsibility, by the help of a class of agents who are not qualified for such exquisitely difficult and dangerous work. Such store-houses of tremendous force as the Thunderer ' cannot be driven at high speed through the ocean without risks to the machinery against which it takes more than ordinary scientific care to guard,—and this, of course, both in constructing the more important parts of the work originally, and again, in manipulating them after they have been made. Yet we sub- mit the superintendence of these delicate mechanical con- trivances to a class of men who are probably but very seldom even the most skilful and educated of their class, for if they were, they would hardly tie themselves to a ship, in which high mechanical ability or inventiveness is never likely to find so full a reward as it would in the shipbuilders' or constructors' works on shore. The men who look after the engines of a great war-ship must mostly have something of the love of adventure and the love of roving which naturally belong to seamen, but if they are to do their work efficiently, they must have all the scientific discipline and sense of responsibility which belongs to the overseers of a great organisation. It is by no means easy to combine in perfection the two classes of requirements, and no doubt, while we have still but half-realised how groat a change has come over the English Navy, how much more of exquisitely-balanced scientific instruments, than of the sturdy sailor's playthings, these great engines of destruction are, we shall not even make the attempt to insist on the sort of quali- fication which should belong to the men who work these ships. For one reason, no doubt, a great deal must depend on the caution and capacity of subordinates who do very rough physical work indeed,, and whom it would be very difficult to replace by highly edu- cated artificers or operatives. The picture of the stoke-holes of the thirty-two furnaces, crowded with "half- naked forms," busily engaged in working up the heat to the proper point for trying the full power of the engines over the measured mile, is not a picture at all likely to fascinate the kind of men in whom the scientific mind would be most in- clined to place confidence. Undoubtedly, the work needed in these great repositories of steam-engines is very hard and very repulsive, as well as being, in many cases at least, very respon- sible and very difficult. You want much of the physique of the mere day-labourer, with that full knowledge of the steam-engine and of its dangers which can only belong to a very care- fully and highly-educated workman, and this is not easy to combine. And we suspect that calamities like those which have happened to the ' Vanguard,' and now to the 'Thunderer,' will occur again and again, till we recognise frilly how many of the qualities which we expect, say, in an Observatory or a chemist's Laboratory, we want also in all the artisans who belong to the engine-rooms of her Majesty's ships ; and how much, too, of high organising power and fine scientific skill is needed in the men who direct this work, and who by their perfect co-opera- tion can alone secure it perfect efficiency and success. The heavy loss to the nation in the ' Vanguard' did not teach us this. The far more horrible sufferings of the seventy odd persons who have been either scalded to death or more or less frightfully injured in this ' Thunderer' accident will hardly teach it us. But doubtless we shall have lesson after lesson of the same kind, till we recognise how necessary it is to con- fide these wonderful machines to guidance as careful and as elaborately organised as that of the factories where they were originally devised and constructed.