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Henry Winram Dickinson

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1952.
1953.
1954. The Henry Winram Dickinson Memorial Medal. Presented to Charles Singer.

Henry Winram Dickinson (1870-1952) of the London Science Museum and the Newcomen Society


1952 Obituary [1]

IN the study of the history of engineering and technology, Dr. H. W. Dickinson has d occupied an eminent place for many years. His death, which occurred at his home, at 20, St. James's Road, Purley, Surrey, on Thursday, February 21st, after some months of failing health, will be mourned by numerous engineers and historians in this country, in the U.S.A., and in many other countries overseas. He was in his eighty-second year.

Henry Winram Dickinson was born at Ulverston, Lancashire, on August 28, 1870, and received his general education at Manchester Grammar School. He studied engineering at Owens College, Manchester, and subsequently served an apprenticeship with William Beardmore and Co., Ltd., Parkhead, Glasgow.

His first job was in Leeds, where he spent a year or so in a consulting engineer's drawing office, after which he joined the drawing office of the Glasgow Iron and Steel Company. Ltd., Wishaw.

Dickinson remained with that firm for two years, in the second of which he served as an assistant engineer in the laying down of new plant at the works of the Frodingham Iron and Steel Company.

In 1895 Dickinson came to London and secured an appointment as a junior assistant at the Science Museum. That was the beginning of a distinguished period of office at the Museum, which extended over thirty-five years, until his retirement in 1930.

After two years as a junior assistant, he became assistant keeper of the mechanical engineering collections, and early in 1914 was appointed assistant to the director and secretary to the Advisory Council of the Museum. Dr. Dickinson's long teem of service to the Museum was interrupted for three years during the first world war, when he acted as secretary of the Munitions Invention Panel set up by the Ministry of Munitions. He resumed his duties at South Kensington at the beginning of 1919, shortly afterwards becoming keeper of the mechanical engineering collections.


In that year, the James Watt centenary commemoration took place in Birmingham. Dr. Dickinson represented the Board of Education on the memorial committee which was set up to organise the commemoration, and also collaborated with Mr. Rhys Jenkins in the preparation of the excellent memorial volume entitled 'James Watt and the Steam Engine', which appeared a few years later.

One outcome of the Watt commemoration was the foundation of the Newcomen Society for the study of the History of Engineering and Technology. The world-wide reputation which that society now enjoys has undoubtedly been achieved largely by Dr. Dickinson's energy and enthusiasm for its work.

Early in 1920 a few engineers in and around Birmingham, who had taken an active part in the Watt commemoration, held a meeting under the chairmanship of Mr. Arthur Titley, to discuss the formation of an engineering historical society. The idea was cordially received and was taken up in London with enthusiasm by Dr. Dickinson and other gentlemen, who formed a London committee.

The committee held its first meeting - in the office of this journal - early in June, 1920, and the Newcomen Society was founded, with H. W. Dickinson as its first honorary secretary. The principal aim of the Society was declared to be·"to encourage and foster the study of the history of engineering and industrial technology." Those who were the pioneers of the Newcomen Society felt, quite justifiably, that the history of engineering had been and was being neglected; their object was to remedy such a situation, and in the years that have followed no one has sought the fulfilment of that object with greater zeal than H . W. Dickinson.

Ten years after the formation of the Newcomen Society Dr. Dickinson, having reached the age of sixty, retired from his office as keeper of the Science Museum. He had served under four successive directors - General Festing, Mr. Isaac Last, Sir Francis Ogilvie and Sir Henry Lyons - and in all his work for the Museum had revealed not only his profound knowledge of the history of engineering but also his characteristic enthusiasm, his inexhaustible willingness to help, and his unfailing courtesy.

Two years after his retirement, Dickinson succeeded to the presidential chair of the Newcomen Society. His presidential address, delivered in October, 1933, was appropriately entitled "Museums and Their Relation to the History of Engineering and Technology." It contained a wealth of detailed information garnered during his years at South Kensington.

It is extremely doubtful if any man has spent a more energetic and industrious retirement than H. W. Dickinson. He undertook numerous journeys in this country and overseas, all of which were directly concerned with the fulfilment of the objects of the Newcomen Society. The results of investigations which he initiated and the historical discoveries that he made were always readily made available, and nothing delighted him more than to find those who shared his appreciation of technological history. Under Dickinson's guidance the Newcomen Society has become much more than a forum for the reading and discussion of papers of historical interest and value. It has taken part regularly in various ways, in commemorating the lives and work of those who in days now far past have made worthy and lasting contributions to the progress of engineering science.

Although the Newcomen Society was born in this country, it quickly became international in character and outlook. In France and Germany and other Continental countries there were soon discovered those who took a lively interest in its work, whilst in the United States of America there has been revealed, almost from tho Society's inception, continually increasing enthusiasm for its activities. For furthering the aims of the Newcomen Society, H. W. Dickinson proved himself an excellent ambassador. Wherever he went he received a cordial welcome. Twice in 1938, for example, Dickinson visited the U.S.A., travelling, it is estimated, about 13,000 miles, on lecture tours, and attending meetings of the vigorous North American society, which is affiliated to t he parent Newcomen Society in this country. It was during the second of t hose tours that the honorary degree of Eng. D. was conferred upon him by Lehigh University.

But no account of Dr. Dickinson's life and work could be complete without reference to his many excellent writings. We have already mentioned his joint authorship of 'James Watt and the Steam Engine'. Among other books which came from his pen were 'Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist'; 'John Wilkinson, Ironmaster'; 'Richard Trevithick, the Engineer and the Man'; 'James Watt, Craftsman and Engineer', and 'Matthew Boulton'.

Then, in addition to his secretarial work and the preparation of frequent papers for the Newcomen Society, Dr. Dickinson was the editor of the Transactions, every volume of which has reached a high technical and literary standard. For the Institution of Mechanical Engineers - of which he had been a member for over fifty years - he prepared papers on "The Unpublished Letters of James Watt," and on "The Evolution of Invention."

Dr. Dickinson had long been a valued contributor to THE ENGINEER, and always it was a delight to deal with him and his work. His last long series of articles, which appeared in these pages in 1948, dealt with the "History of the Water Supply of Greater London." The research involved in the preparation of those articles was no small task, but the patience and care with which it was carried out emphasised over and over again the painstaking thoroughness of Dr. Dickinson.

It commonly happens when several men are working together that one of them, showing more zeal or acumen than his fellows, takes the lead amongst them. Others may hold higher offices but it is he that inspires the whole body. Thus it was with Dr. Dickinson and the Newcomen Society. He was the honorary secretary from the first, and was ceaseless in his efforts at home and abroad to lead it to success. He was always to be found at its general meetings and its council meetings, alert to everything that was happening and ready with advice from his deep experience, with suggestions for further research, or to propound some question that provoked consideration. But it was at the Society's summer meetings that he was at his best, or happiest; here, there and everywhere, keeping his party interested and entertained and quick to respond to a touch of humour with merry laughter. But above all he was ever master of his subjects. He knew exactly what were the important details to observe and he could draw out the guides with knowledgeable questions. How much the Society owes to h1m and how much it has lost losing him no one can say. But whatever good fortune may lie in store for it, it is true that its first secretary will be remembered with great affection by all who knew him and will be respected by future members' who carry on the work which owes so much to his knowledge and energy.


1953 Obituary [2]

Dr. HENRY WINRAM DICKINSON who joined the staff of the Science Museum, South Kensington, in 1895, and retired in 1930 as senior keeper and secretary of the Advisory Council, died at his home at Purley, Surrey, on 21st February 1952 at the age of eighty-one.

He will be remembered as being the first to set the history of technology on a firm basis, his particular field of study being the evolution and application of steam power, in which he established a very wide reputation as the foremost authority. Dr. Dickinson was born at Ulverston, Lancashire, and was the eldest son of John Dickinson, in whose memory the John Dickinson Lecture was founded. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and at Owens College, Manchester, where he took a two-year engineering course.

His practical training was obtained with William Beardmore and Company, Ltd., Glasgow, from 1888 to 1892, after which he spent a year in the office of a consulting engineer in Leeds as a junior draughtsman.

An engagement in a similar capacity then followed in the Wishaw works of the Glasgow Iron and Steel Company during 1893 and 1894. He was employed by the Frodingham Iron and Steel Company, Ltd., as an assistant engineer on the erection of new plant, before going to South Kensington where his progress was rapid. In 1897 he was made an assistant keeper and in addition, in 1914, he was appointed assistant to the director and secretary of the Advisory Council.

During the 1914-18 war his services were lent for three years as secretary to the Munitions Inventions Panel. Shortly afterwards he was promoted to be senior keeper with charge of the mechanical engineering collections, with the acquisition and arrangement of which, and more particularly the most important historical exhibits, he was closely concerned. He also took a prominent part in the planning of the new eastern block of the Museum which was opened in 1928.

Dr. Dickinson was the author or co-author of a number of books, all of which are accepted as classics in their respective fields. His first, published in 1913, was "Robert Fulton, Engineer and Artist". This was followed a year later by "John Wilkinson, Ironmaster". His next work was "James Watt and the Steam Engine", of which he was joint author with Mr. Rhys Jenkins. In this connexion it is of interest that Dr. Dickinson was selected to represent the Science Museum at the centenary commemoration, held in 1919, of Watt's death. In 1933 he collaborated with Mr. Arthur Titley (Member), in producing the centenary volume "Richard Trevithick, the Engineer and the Man"; and in 1936 he published a similar biography entitled "James Watt, Craftsman and Engineer". A year later he completed the tale of Watt and his partner with "Matthew Boulton". His latest work was his "Short History of the Steam Engine" published in 1939, but he also wrote a history of the water supply of London which appeared serially in The Engineer and is to be published in book form by the Newcomen Society. The voluminous collection of his papers, which he presented to that Society shortly before his death, is a striking testimony to his untiring energy and the depth of his researches.

Dr. Dickinson was a Member of the Institution for over fifty years, having been elected to Associate Membership in 1901 and transferred to Membership in 1919. He was also a founder member of the Newcomen Society and had been its honorary secretary and editor of the Transactions, a dual post he filled with great distinction for thirty-one years, interrupted only partially by his tenure of the presidency from 1932 to 1934. On his retirement in 1951 he became secretary emeritus in recognition of these valuable services to the Society. He was also vice-president of the Cornish Engines Preservation Society. During the second International Congress of Science and Technology, held in London in 1931, he acted as honorary secretary, and he was chairman of a section of the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology held in Amsterdam in 1949. The American University of Lehigh conferred upon him an honorary doctorate of engineering in 1939.


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