Stephenson's letter, side 1

STEPHENSON & IMECHE: FACT & FICTION

As with many foundation stories, myths have arisen around the founding of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE). Perhaps the most potent is that George Stephenson decided to set up IMechE due to the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) rebutting his membership application on the grounds that he was not a real engineer. On re-cataloguing all the Stephenson archives (George and Robert, and their companies) we have unearthed a letter which puts pay to this myth. Discover what archives we have relating to George and Robert Stephenson, and their companies.

Writing on the 27th Feb 1847 Stephenson states that he is to become President to a “highly respectable mechanics institution at Birmingham”. He is of course, conveying that he is to be the first President of IMechE. Mr Bell has written to ask him what honours he has to his name: Stephenson replies that he has no flourishes but is just plain Geo Stephenson. He also states that he has been asked to become a Fellow of the Royal Society and “also of the Civil engineers Society” (ICE) but that he objected because he felt those accolades would be empty additions to his name.

The popular story, it seems, was started by Stephenson’s early biographer Samuel Smiles. It would appear that it is not true, at least if Stephenson himself is to be believed. Also, ICE have no record of Stephenson ever seeking membership. The second myth relates to the first; that Stephenson founded IMechE.

The first act of perhaps the true founders, was to send out a circular to prospective members. In it the signatories write that IMechE is to enable “Mechanics and Engineers engaged in different Manufactories, Railways, and other Establishments in the Kingdom, to meet, correspond, and by mutual interchange of ideas….to increase their knowledge and give an impulse to inventions likely to be useful to the world”. The recipients were invited to a meeting on the 7th Oct 1846 in Birmingham. The signatories were Edward Humphreys, Archibald Slate, James McConnell and Charles Beyer.

On 18th Nov 1846 a meeting of the founders and committee approved the rules and regulations of the Institution. The backgrounds of these committee members reflect the disciplines the institution was set-up to serve: Richard Peacock, Manchester and Sheffield Railway; James McConnell, Bristol and Birmingham Railway; Archibald Slate, Birmingham Patent Tube Co; Edward Humphreys, J & G Rennie; William Buckle, James Watt & Co; John Edward Clift, Staffordshire and Birmingham Gas Works; and Edward Cowper, Fox and Henderson. Charles Beyer was not named on the committee (although he took an active role), at the time he worked for Sharp Brothers and Co but he would go on to co-found Beyer-Peacock.

It was at a General Meeting on 27 Jan 1847 that Stephenson was asked to be President, following a proposal by Charles Beyer and then a vote on the matter. He was at the meeting and gave an address, he also proposed that the provisional rules be adopted and he was seconded by Beyer. In his address he praised the talent of the assembled engineers and gives a record of his own career and achievements. However, he states that if they pool this talent then England can compete on the world stage: otherwise it is not “unlikely that some of the Continental talented men might take part in the business of this Country”; he recalls that he has already seen superior locomotive building on the Continent. Perhaps this gives a clue as to why he thought the Institution was needed. Stephenson is listed as one of the 70 original members. Therefore, Stephenson was an inaugural member but not, strictly speaking, a founder of the Institution.

The formal minutes start at the next meeting on 20th Feb 1847; these and all those up to 1982 can be viewed online via the Virtual Archive, IMechE website. The minutes show that the Institution immediately set to their aim of exchanging ideas: requesting papers on a range of topics; from marine boilers to the railway axles and wheels. They also record how from the off members supported the Institution financially: Stephenson made a gift of £100, in 2005 this would have had the same spending worth as £5,853.00.

George Stephenson died on 12 Aug 1848. At the first meeting following this (2nd Sep) it was resolved to send a letter of condolence to his widow and to apply to Robert Stephenson to succeed his father. Letters were exchanged and Robert accepted on the 13th Sep 1848 because of the “deep sense of the compliment” at having been asked and due to a feeling that being President would perform a duty to the memory of his father.

Archives, Institution of Mechanical Engineering

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