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Robert Cowen

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Robert Cowen (1787-1862)

1863 Obituary [1]

Robert Cowen was born at Biglands, near Wigton, Cumberland, in 1787.

He received the rudiments of his education at the village school, and from youth onwards he was a diligent self-instructor. At the early age of fifteen he was associated with his father in the management of the cotton-mill carried on in Carlisle by the firm of Cowen, Heysham, and Co. In a short time he was found capable of taking upon himself the entire direction of the machinery department, and few young men, at their entrance into life, ever more closely attended to the duties of their allotted position than Mr. Cowen did.

Although the long hours and rigid rules of a cotton-spinning establishment leave the persons engaged in it but little leisure, Mr. Cowen contrived, by systematic application, to extend his knowledge of scientific subjects. Mechanics were especially his delight, and his proficiency was shown by improvements in the spinning and carding machinery, which essentially contributed to the success which attended the house.

In process of time the style of the firm was altered to Jacob Cowen and Sons, and Mr. Robert Cowen became a partner in the concern with which he continued to be connected for so many years.

Without neglecting the business, he found time for pursuing his studies, and there were few men who better understood the principles and practice of mechanics. His knowledge, in fact, extended to most of the sciences and the useful arts: and, amidst his active engagements, he was still able to cultivate the arts of drawing, painting, sculpture, and engraving: but this stringent taxing of the mental powers produced their natural effects upon the body, and up to his fortieth year Mr. Cowen was an ailing man, and very reluctantly mixed with society.

He was, however, hospitable in an eminent degree, but he was not a demonstrative man, and he was never heard to boast of what he had done or intended to do. He shrank from display, save in the matter of the fine arts, and his love for and patronage of them was demonstrated by the possession of an unusually large collection of paintings and sculpture, a well-selected library of sterling books, and a great number of valuable engravings and drawings. Few private residences contained more or better selected attractions,

At a somewhat early period of his career, in 1824, Mr. Cowen had conferred on him by the Society of Arts the Gold Vulcan Medal 'for his improved method of carrying off the Dust produced in grinding Cotton Cards,' which, up to that date, the workmen of Sheffield and elsewhere were compelled to inhale at the terrible cost of lung-disease and premature death.

In ?, he received a second gold medal from the same Society for his raining Syphon; a practical and useful invention for the extraction of liquids from large vessels, and water from pools, lakes, &C., below the ordinary level, or for raising water from lower to higher levels.

In due time Mr. Cowen, having to some extent retired from the active management of the mills, determined to gratify the natural bent of his inclinations, and to adopt the profession of a Civil Engineer, for which he was technically qualified by his mechanical knowledge and practice, and theoretically by his intimate acquaintance with t,he applied sciences.

He took a very active and useful part in the improvement of the City of Carlisle, promoted the establishment of water and gas works, of which latter he became the Chairman, and by his influence enabled the Company to avoid expensive litigation. He held the office of Government Inspector of Steam Boat Machinery for a part of the Solway. He was in the Commission of the Peace for the County of Northumberland and the City of Carlisle, of which also he, for some time, was an alderman and town-councillor; and there was scarcely a charitable institution in the town that had not the benefit of his pecuniary support.

To several young men who have since risen to honourable positions he afforded timely and effectual aid, and among them must be especially mentioned the late Joseph Miller, F.R.S., (M. Inst.C.E., &C.), to whom the advice and assistance he rendered in early life was most valuable, and it was always gratefully acknowledged. In later years, when Mr. Miller had attained his deservedly high reputation as an Engineer, he delighted to recall the advantages he received from the precepts and example of Mr. Cowen, and they remained fast friends through life.

Mr. Cowen joined the Institution of Civil Engineers as an Associate in the year 1844, and always took much interest in its welfare.

He died on Sunday afternoon, 27th April, 1862, at his house in Devonshire Street, Carlisle, in the 75th year of his age, after a long course of sickness and suffering; but, in the closing stages of his decline, although his bodily strength failed, and his form became greatly attenuated, his mental powers and memory were mercifully preserved to him in perfection, and enabled him to direct all that a man must wish to have done who is conscious that he is on the point of yielding up his breath to Him who gave it. His complaint was hereditary gout of great severity, involving a complication of ills and acute pains. He, however, bore his affliction with fortitude and resignation. He had no desire to live; he looked beyond this world. He said, in reply to the inquiries of a friend, that ‘he had made his peace.’ The troubles and cares of life at an end, he sleeps soundly. Those who well knew him and appreciated his worth will never cease to cherish and honour his memory.”

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