Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,469 pages of information and 245,911 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 14

From Graces Guide
A Monk on board.
Distant view of Vesuvius.
Sketch of the crater.


I have already referred to my visit to Creuzot, in France. I must explain how it was that I was induced to travel abroad. The French Government had ordered from our firm some powerful machine tools, which were manufactured, delivered, and found to give every satisfaction. Shortly after, I received a letter from M. Bouchier, the Minister of Marine, inviting me to make a personal visit to the French naval arsenals for the purpose of conferring with the directing officials as to the mechanical equipments of their respective workshops.

I accordingly proceeded to Paris, and was received most cordially by the Minister of Marine. After conferring with him, I was furnished with letters of introduction to the directing officers at Cherbourg, Brest, Rochefort, In Bret, and Toulon. While in Paris I visited some of the principal manufacturing establishments, the proprietors of which had done business with our firm. I also visited Arago at the Observatory, and saw his fine array of astronomical instruments. The magnificent collections of antiquities at the Louvre and Hotel Cluny occupied two days out of the four I spent in Paris; after which I proceeded on my mission. Rouen lay in my way, and I could not fail to stay there and indulge my love for Gothic architecture. I visited the magnificent Cathedral and the Church of St. Ouen, so exquisite in its beauty, together with the refined Gothic architectural remains scattered about in that interesting and picturesque city. I was delighted beyond measure with all that I saw. With an eye to business, however, I paid a visit to the works which had been established by the late Joseph Locke in the neighbourhood of Rouen for the supply of locomotives to the Havre, Rouen, and Paris Railway. The works were then under the direction of Mr. Buddicom.

I went onward through Caen to Bayeux. There I rested for a few hours for the purpose of visiting the superb Norman Cathedral, and also to inspect the celebrated Bayeux tapestry. I saw the needlework of Queen Matilda and her handmaidens, which so graphically commemorates the history of the Norman Conquest. In the evening I reached Cherbourg. I was cordially received by the directing officer of the dockyard, which is of very large extent and surrounded by fortifications. My business was with the smithy or atelier des forges, and the workshops or ateliers des machines. There I recognised many of the machine-tools manufactured at the Bridgewater Foundry, doing excellent work.

My next visit was to Brest, the chief naval arsenal of France. It combines a dockyard, arsenal, and fortress of the first class. Everything has been done to make the place impregnable. The harbour is situated on the north side of one of the finest havens in the world, and is almost land-locked. Around the harbour run quays of great extent, alongside of which the largest ships can lie — five artificial basins being excavated out of the solid rock. The whole of the harbour is defended by tier above tier of batteries. Foreigners are not permitted to enter the dockyard without special permission; but as I was armed with my letter of introduction from the Minister of Marine, I was admitted and cordially received, as at Cherbourg. I went through the Government foundry and steam-factory, for which I had supplied many of my machine tools. I found the establishment to be the largest and most complete that I had seen.

From Brest I went to Rochefort, an excellent naval arsenal, though much smaller than those at Cherbourg and Brest. Next, to Indret on the Loire. Here is the large factory where marine engines are made for the royal steamers. The works were superintended by M. Rosine, a most able man. I was so much pleased with him that I spent two days in his society. I have rarely met with a more perfect union of the sound practical mechanic, of strong common sense, and yet with a vivid imagination, which threw a light upon every subject that he touched. It was delightful to see the perfect manner in which he had arranged all the details of the engine factory under his superintendence, and to observe the pride which he took in the accuracy of the work turned out by his excellent machinery. It was a treat to see the magnificent and intricate iron castings produced there.

As M. Rosine spoke English fluently, we had discussions on a vast variety of topics, not only relating to technical subjects, but on other matters relating to art and mechanical drawing. He was one of the few men I have met who had in perfection the happy accomplishment of sketching with true artistic spirit any object that he desired to bring before you. His pencil far outstripped language in conveying distinct ideas on constructive and material objects. The time that I spent in the company of this most interesting man will ever remain vivid in my memory. It grieved me greatly to hear of his premature death about two years after the date of my visit. He must have been a sad loss to his deeply attached friends, [1] as well as to the nation whom he so faithfully served.

On my way to Toulon I passed through Bordeaux, and by Avignon to Nismes. At the latter city I was delighted by the sight of the exquisite Roman temple, the Maison Carrie. It is almost perfect. But the most interesting of the Roman remains at Nismes is the magnificent Amphitheatre. In viewing this grand specimen of architecture, as well as the old temples, cathedrals, and castles, I felt that we moderns are comparative pigmies. Our architecture wants breadth, grandeur, sublimity.

It appears to me that one of the chief causes of the inferiority and defects of Modern Architecture is, that our designers are so anxious to display their taste in ornamentation. They first design the exterior, and then fit the interiors of their buildings into it. The purpose of the building is thus regarded as a secondary consideration. In short, they utilise ornament instead of ornamenting utility — a total inversion, as it appears to me, of the fundamental principle which ought to govern all classes of architectural structures. This is, unfortunately, too evident in most of our public buildings.

One thing I was especially struck with at Nismes — the ease with which some thousands of people might issue, with- out hindrance, from the Amphitheatre. The wedge-shaped passages radiate from the centre, and, widening outwards, would facilitate the egress of an immense crowd. Contrast this with the difficulty of getting out of any modern theatre or church in case of alarm or fire. Another thing is remarkable — the care with which the huge blocks of magnesian limestone [2] have been selected. Some of the stone slabs are eighteen feet long they roof over the corridors yet they still retain the marks of the Roman chisel. Every individual chip is as crisp as on the day on which it was made even the delicate "scribe" marks, by which the mason, some 1900 years ago lined out his work on the blocks of stone he was about to chip into its required form, are still perfectly distinct.

This wonderfully durable stone is of the same material as that employed by lithographers. Though magnesian, it is of a different quality from that employed in building our Houses of Parliament. As this was carefully selected, the latter was carelessly unselected. Most probably it was the result of a job. It was quarried at random, in the most ignorant way; some of it proved little better than chalk; and though all sorts of nostrums have been tried, nothing will cure the radical defect. This, however, is a wide digression from my subject of the admirable mason work, and the wonderful skill and forethought employed in erecting that superb arena and the other Roman buildings at Nismes.

I proceeded to Marseilles, where I had some business to transact with Philip Taylor and Company, the engineering firm. They were most kind and attentive to me while there, and greatly added to the enjoyment of my visit to that remarkable city. From Marseilles I proceeded to Toulon, the last of the marine dockyards I had to visit. There was no railway between the places at that time, and it was accordingly necessary that I should drive along the usual road. In the course of my journey to Toulon I went through the Pass of Col d'Ollioulles. It was awfully impressive. The Pass appeared to consist of a mighty cleft between two mountains; made during some convulsion of Nature. There was only room for the carriage road to pass between the cliffs. The ruins of a Saracenic castle stood on the heights to guard the passage. It was certainly the most romantic scene I had ever beheld.

Looking down into the deep cleft below me, at the bottom of which ran a turbulent stream, I saw the narrow road along which our carriage was to pass. And then suddenly I emerged in full sight of the Mediterranean, with the calm blue heavens resting over the deep blue sea. There were palms, cactuses, and orange trees, mixed with olive groves. The fields were full of tulips and narcissuses, and the rocks by the roadside were covered with boxwood and lavender. Everything gave evidence of the sunny South. I had got a glimpse of the Mediterranean a few days before but now I saw it in its glory.

I arrived in due time at Toulon. The town is not very striking in itself. It is surrounded by an amphitheatre of mountains of hard magnesian limestone. These are almost devoid of vegetation. This it is which gives so peculiar an arid aspect to this part of the coast. Facing the south, the sun's rays reflected from the bare surface of the rocks, places one at mid-day as if in the focus of a great burning mirror, and sends every one in quest of shade. This intense temperature has its due effect upon the workers in the dock-yard. I found the place far inferior to the others which I had visited. The heat seemed to engender a sort of listlessness over the entire place. The people seemed to be falling asleep. Though we complain of cold in our northern hemisphere, it is a great incentive to work. Even our east wind is au invigorator; it braces us up, and strengthens our nerves and muscles.

It is quite possible that the workmen of the Toulon dockyard might fire up and work with energy provided an occasion arose to call forth their dormant energy. But without the aid of an almost universal introduction of self- acting machinery in this sleepy establishment, to break, with the busy hum of active working machinery, the spell of indolence that seemed to pervade it, there appeared to me no hope of anything like continuous and effective industry or useful results. The docks looked like one vast knacker's yard of broken-down obsolete ships and wretched old paraphernalia — unfortunately a characteristic of other establishments nearer home than Toulon.

After transacting my business with the directing officers of this vast dockyard I returned to Marseilles. There I found letters requiring me to proceed to Naples, in order to complete some business arrangements in that city. I was exceedingly rejoiced to have an opportunity of visiting the south of Italy. I set out at once. A fine new steamer of the Messageries Imperiales, the Ercolana, was ready to sail from the harbour. I took my place on board. I found that the engines had been made by Maudsley, Sons and Field; they were of their latest improved double-cylinder construction. When I went down into the engine-room I felt myself in a sense at home; for the style of the engines brought to my mind many a pleasant remembrance of the days gone by.

We steamed out of the harbour, and passed in succession the beautiful little islands which gem the bay of Marseilles. Amongst others, the isle of If, crowned by its castle, once a State prison, and the Chateau d'If, immortalised by Dumas. Then Pomegne, Ratoneau, and other islands. We were now on the deep blue Mediterranean, watching the graceful curves of the coast as we steamed along. Soon after, we came in sight of the snow-capped maritime Alps behind Nice. The evening was calm and clear, and a bright moon shone overhead. Next morning I awoke in the harbour of Genoa, with a splendid panoramic view of the city before me. I shall never forget the glorious sight of that clear bright morning as long as I live.

As the steamer was to remain in the harbour until two o'clock, I landed with the other passengers and saw the wonders of the city. I felt as if I were in a new world. On every side and all around me were objects of art lighted up by glorious sunshine. The picturesque narrow streets, with the blue sky overhead and the bright sunshine lighting up the beautiful architecture of the palatial houses, relieved by masses of clear shade, together with the picturesque dresses of the people, and the baskets of oranges and lemons with the leaves on the boughs on which they had been born and reared, the brilliant greenery of the inner courts into which you peeped while passing along the Strada Nuova, literally a street of palaces, threw me into a fervency of delight. Here, indeed, was architecture to be proud of — grand, imposing, and massive — chastely yet gloriously ornamented. There was nothing of the gingerbread order here!

The plan of these palaces is admirable. They are open to the street, so that all the inner arrangements may be seen. There is the court, surrounded by arcades, the arches of which rest upon columns; the flights of marble steps on each side, leading to the great hall or to the principal apartments ; and inside the court, the pink daphnes and Tangerine orange trees, surrounded by greenery, with which the splendour of the marble admirably contrasts; — the whole producing a magnificent effect. I remembered that Genoa ‘la superba’ was one of my father's pet subjects when talking of his first visit to Italy; and now I could confirm all that he had said about the splendour of its palaces.

I do not know of anything more delightful than to grope one's way through a foreign city, especially such a city as Genoa, and come unexpectedly upon some building that one has heard of — that has dimly lived in the mind like a dream — and now to see it realised in fact. It suddenly starts into life, as it were, surrounded by its natural associations. I hate your professional guides and their constant chatter. Much better to come with a mind prepared with some history to fall back upon, and thus be enabled to compare the present with the past, the living with the dead. I climbed up some of the hills surrounding Genoa — for it is a city of ups and downs. I wandered about the terraced palaces surrounded by orange groves, and surveyed the fortified heights by which the place is surrounded. What exquisite bits of scenery there were to sketch; what a rich combination of nature and art! And what a world of colour, with the clear blue sea in the distance! Altogether, that one day at Genoa — though but a succession of glimpses — formed a bright spot in my life, that neither time nor distance can dim or tarnish.

I returned to the harbour two hours before the steamer was to leave. To commemorate my visit, I mounted the top of the paddle-box, took out my sketch book, and made a panoramic view of Genoa as seen from the harbour. I did it in pencil at the time, and afterwards filled it up with ink. When the pages of the sketch book had been joined together the panoramic view extended to about eight feet long. The accuracy of the detail, as well as the speed with which the drawing was done, were perhaps rather creditable to the draughtsman — at least so my artistic friends were pleased to tell me. Indeed, many years after, a friend at court desired to submit it to the highest Lady in the land, and, being herself an artist, she expressed herself as highly gratified with the performance.

The next station the steamer touched at was Leghorn. As the vessel was not to start until next day, there was sufficient time for me to run up to Pisa. There I spent a delightful day, principally in wandering about that glorious group of buildings situated so near to each other the Cathedral, the Baptistery, the Campo Santo, and the Campanile or Leaning Tower. What interested me most at the Cathedral was the fine bronze lamp suspended at the end of the nave, which initiated in the mind of Galileo the invention of the pendulum. Thousands had seen the lamp swinging before him, but he alone would know "the reason why." Then followed the discovery which paved the way for Newton's law of gravitation — one of the grandest laws of the universe. Some of the finest works of Andrea del Sarto, son of the Tailor, are found here. Indeed, the works of that great painter are little known out of Pisa and Florence. I was reluctant to tear myself away from Pisa but the Ercolina could not wait, and I was back in good time, and soon under weigh.

The next port we touched at was Civita Vecchia, one of the most dreary places that can be imagined, though at one time an Etruscan city, and afterwards the port of Trajan. I did not land, as there were some difficulties in the way of passports. We steamed on; and next morning when I awoke we were passing the coast of Ischia. We could scarcely see the island, for a thick mist had overspread the sea. Naples was still hidden from our sight, but over the mist I could observe the summit of Vesuvius vomiting forth dense clouds of white smoke. The black summit of the crater appeared floating in the clear blue sky. But the heat of the sun shortly warmed the mist, and it floated away like a curtain.

A grand panorama then lay before us. Naples looked bright and magnificent under the sunlight. The sea was so smooth that the buildings and towers and convents and spires were reflected in the water. On our left lay the Bay of Baiae, with its castles and temples and baths, dating from the days of the Roman Republic.

To the right lay Castellamare, Sorrento, and the island of Capri. But the most prominent object was Vesuvius in front, with its expanding cloud of white smoke over the landscape.

On landing, I took up my quarters at the Hotel Victoria. I sallied forth to take my first hasty view of the Chiaia, the streets, and the principal buildings. But, in accordance with my motto of "Duty first, pleasure second," I proceeded to attend to the business respecting which I had visited Naples.

That, however, was soon disposed of. In a few days 1 was able to attend to pleasure. I made my way to the Museo Borbonico, now called the National Museum. I found it a rich mine of precious treasures, consisting of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities of every description. Not the least interesting part of the Museum is the collection of marbles, pictures, and articles of daily use, dug up from the ruins of the buried city of Pompeii. Every spare hour that I could command; was occupied in visiting and revisiting this wonderful Museum.

Herculaneum and Pompeii were also visited, but, more than all, the crater of Vesuvius. During my visit the mountain was in its normal state. I mounted the volcanic ashes with which it is strewn, and got to the top. There I could look down into the pit from which the clouds of steam are vomited forth. I went down to the very edge of the crater, stood close to its mouth, and watched the intermittent up-rushing of the blasts of vapour and sulphureous gases. To keep clear of these I stood to the windward side, and was thus out of harm's way.

What struck me most was the wonderfully brilliant colours of the rugged lava rocks forming the precipitous cliffs of the interior walls of the crater. These brilliant colours were the result of the sublimation and condensation on their surfaces of the combinations of sulphur and chloride of iron, quite as bright as if they had been painted with bright red, chrome, and all the most brilliant tints. Columns of all manner of chemical vapours ascended from the clefts and deep cracks, at the bottom of which I clearly saw the bright hot lava.

I rolled as big a mass of cool lava as I could, to the edge of the crater and heaved it down; but I heard no sound. Doubtless the depth was vast, or it might probably have fallen into the molten lava, and thus make no noise. On leaving this horrible pit edge, I tied the card of the Bridgewater Foundry to a bit of lava and threw it in, as a token of respectful civility to Vulcan, the head of our craft.

I had considerably more difficulty in clambering up to the top edge of the crater than I had in coming down. Once or twice, indeed, I was half choked by the swirls of sulphureous and muriatic acid vapour that environed me before I could reach the upper edge. I sat down in a nook, though it was a very hot one, and made a sketch or two of the appearance of the crater, which may perhaps interest my readers. But I feel that it is quite beyond my power either by pen or pencil, to convey an idea of the weird unearthly aspect which the funnel-shaped crater of Vesuvius presented at that time. An eruption of unusual violence had occurred shortly before I saw it. Great rounded blocks of lava had been thrown high into the air again and again, and had fallen back into the terrible focus of volcanic violence. Vast portions of the rugged and precipitous sides of the crater had fallen in, and were left in a state of the wildest confusion. When I visited the place the eruption had comparatively subsided. The throat of the crater was a rugged opening of more than forty feet diameter, leading down to Where? Echo answers, "Where? "

And yet there is no doubt but that the great mass of materials which lay around me as I made my sketch, had been shot up from inconceivable depths beneath the solid crust of the earth. There still remains an enormous mass of molten materials that has been shut up beneath that crust, since the surface of the globe assumed its present condition. The mineral matter had converged towards its centre of gravity, and the arrestment of the momentum of the coalescing particles resulted in intense heat, and the molten lava of the volcano.

This seems to me to be the true origin of volcanic heat. It has played a great part in the physical history of the globe. Volcanic action has been, as it were, the universal plough! It has given us mountains, hills, and valleys. It has given us picturesque scenery, gorges, precipices, waterfalls. The upheaving agent has displayed the mineral treasures of the earth, and enabled man, by intelligent industry, to use them as mines of material blessings. This is indeed a great and sublime subject.

I had remained near the mouth of the crater for about five hours. Evening was approaching. My drawings were finished, and I prepared to leave. My descent from the summit of the crater edge was comparatively rapid, though every footstep went down some fifteen inches through the volcanic ashes. I descended by the eastern side, and was soon at the base of the great cone. I made my way by tortuous walking round the erupted masses of lava, and also by portions of the lava streams, which, on losing their original fluidity, had become piled up and contorted into gigantic masses.

At the extreme edges of the flow, where the lava had become viscid, these folds and contortions were very remarkable. They were piled fold over fold, — the result of the mighty pressure from behind. It was sad to see so many olive gardens burnt and destroyed the trees were as black as charcoal. It is singular to see the numbers of orange and olive growers who choose to live so near to the "fiery element." But the heat presses forward the growth of vegetation. To be there is like living in a hothouse; and the soil is extraordinarily fertile. Hence the number of vineyards quite close to the base of Vesuvius. The cultivators endeavour to enclose their gardens with hard masses of lava, so as to turn off the flow of the molten streams in other directions; but the lava bursts through the walls again and again, and the gardens are often utterly burnt up and ruined. Almost every field at the base of Vesuvius contains a neat little oratory, with a statue of the Virgin and Child, to which the cultivators repair in times of peril and calamity. But chapel, statue, and gardens are alike swept away by the tremendous descent of the molten lava.

As the night was growing dark, I made my way from these riskful farms to Rosina, a little village on the way back to Naples. As I had had nothing to eat or drink during this thirst-producing journey, I went into a wine shop and asked for some refreshment. The wine shop was a sort of vault, with a door like that of a coach-house, but with a bench and narrow table. The good woman brought me a great green glass bottle like a vitriol carboy! It contained more than six gallons of wine, and she left me with a big glass to satisfy my wants. The wine was the veritable Lachryma Christi — a delightful light claret — for producing which the vineyards at the base of Vesuvius are famous. After some most glorious swigs from this generous and jovial carboy, accompanied with some delightful fresh-made bread, I felt myself up to anything. After washing down the dust that I had swallowed during the day, I settled with my liberal landlady (indeed she was mightily pleased with only ten-pence), and started for Naples.

I had still an eight-mile walk before me, but that was nothing to my vigorous powers at that time. The moon had risen during my stay in the wine house, and it shone with a bright clear light. After a few miles walking I felt a little tired, for the day's exercise had been rather toilsome. A fine carriage passed me on the road with a most tempting platform behind. I hailed the driver, and was allowed to mount. I was soon bowling along the lava-paved road, and in a short time I arrived at Naples. I made another excursion to the crater of Vesuvius before I left, as well as visits to Herculaneum and Pompeii, which exceedingly interested me. But these I need not attempt to relate. I refer my readers to Murray's Guide Book, where both are admirably described.

After completing my business affairs at Naples, and sowing the seeds of several orders, which afterwards bore substantial results, I left the city by the same line of steamers. I passed again Civita Vecchia, Leghorn, Genoa, and Marseilles. On passing through the south of France I visited the works of several of our employers, and carried back with me many orders. It was when at Creuzot that I saw the child of my own brain, the steam hammer, in full and efficient work. But this I have referred to in a previous chapter.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. The only man I ever met, to whom I might compare Rosine, was my lamented friend Francis Humphries, engineer of the Great Western Steamship Company. Both were men of the same type, though Rosine was several octaves higher in the compass and vividness of his intellect.
  2. I believe Dolomite is the proper geological term. This fine material abounds in this part of France, and has materially contributed to the durability of the Roman mason work.