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Zerah Colburn

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Zerah Colburn (1833-1870)

1862 patent to Zerah Colburn, of Number 15, Tavistock-street, Bedford-square, in the county of Middlesex, Mechanical Engineer, for the invention of "improvements in steam pumping engines."[1]

1864 Zerah Colburn, Engineer, 163 Strand, London.[2]

1870 April 26th. Died.


1871 Obituary [3]

ZERAH COLBURN was born at Saratoga, New York, in 1832, and began life on a farm in New Hampshire.

His professional career commenced on the Concord Railway at Boston, and he was afterwards engaged in the locomotive works of Mr. Souther at Boston, and for a short time superintended the New Jersey Locomotive Works at Patterson.

He subsequently entered upon professional literature, and became connected with railway journals in New York, and in 1857 visited Europe for the purpose of examining into rail way construction and locomotive working.

1858 he came to London and became ultimately editor of "The Engineer"; he returned for a time to America, and then settled again in London, where in 1866 he started the journal "Engineering", with which he was connected up to nearly the time of his death.

He was distinguished by the activity, vigour, and intelligence of his numerous professional writings.

He died at Belmont, Massachusetts, on the 26th April 1870 at the age of thirty-seven, his mental powers having rapidly given way towards the last.

He became a Member of the Institution in 1864.


1871 Obituary [4]

MR. ZERAH COLBURN was born at Saratoga, in the State of New York, in 1833, and was named after his uncle, the celebrated mathematician. His father died soon after, and his mother, very poor and infirm, removed to Hillsborough, New Hampshire, where, during his boyhood, young Colburn earned his living on a farm.

His early means and opportunities for acquiring an education were limited to a few months’ attendance at a district school, generally a week at a time, a short clerkship in a factory, and such books as he could find in a remote country village. But his industry and his wonderful memory more than made up then, and throughout life, for the want of early advantages. From an odd volume of the old Penny Magazine he gained a knowledge of the world and an inspiration to see and figure in it.

From May to December, 1845, at the age of twelve, he was engaged in keeping the monthly accounts, invoices, pay rolls, &C., in the office of the Sugar River Manufacturing Co, at Claremont, New Hampshire, and in paying the hands, two hundred in number. His first sight of a city, and, what was a greater thing to him, a locomotive, was at Concord. The strong but hitherto in him undeveloped mechanical talent at that sight asserted its proper place, and the locomotive was ever after his chief study, and the subject of his best conclusions and ablest writings.

At the age of thirteen he found his way to Lowell, Massachusetts, and was brought to the machine shop of Mr. L. B. Tyng, by Mr. Lovejoy, overseer of the Middlesex Corporation. In Mr. Tyng he found a friend for life. From that shop he passed in September, 1846, into the employment of Mr. A. L. Brooks, an extensive lumber manufacturer and dealer in Lowell, in the capacity of clerk. Here the intelligence and eagerness with which he studied machinery of all kinds, but especially stationary and locomotive steam engines, attracted the attention of his employer, who brought him to the notice of Mr. William A. Burke, at that time and for many years superintendent of the Lowell machine shop. The pen-and-ink sketches of young Colburn seemed to Mr. Burke so meritorious, that he at once employed the lad, then hardly fifteen years of age, in his drawing-office.

Mr. Burke says of him at this period: 'His entrance into a large machine shop, where a great diversity of machinery was being constructed, was to him like finding a new world, and a close attendance to his particular duties could hardly be expected in one of his genius, and certainly was not realised. But with this exception he was a favourite with us all, and the ease and readiness with which he comprehended and apprehended all the principles and details of machinery, were very unusual - I might say remarkable.'

In May, June, and July, 1850, it appears by his letters that he was employed by Mr. Tyng and Mr. Calvert, both well-known mechanics of Lowell, for occasional work, probably drawing.

In March, 1852, he was engaged in designing machinists’ tools for Mr. Tyng, and in May, 1853, accompanied his employer to Alexandria, Virginia, and was for a short time connected with the locomotive works there.

While his head-quarters were at Lowell, he was frequently resident in Boston. His first literary attempt was in verse for the Boston Carpet Bag.

His railway career commenced on the Boston and Maine railroad, under the late Mr. Charles Minot, then its manager, who was attracted by his brightness and practical ideas. He was also, about this time, engaged on various other railways leading out of Boston, especially the Boston and Lowell, in tabulating the particulars of their locomotives. In a few months Mr. Colburn had mastered the details of the locomotive engine, tabulated the dimensions and proportions of those under his observation, and published a small, but excellent and still useful, treatise on the subject. He then got a subordinate position, and soon rose to the superintendence of the locomotive works of Mr. Souther, in Boston. Here he tabulated and committed to memory the dimensions of all parts of the then standard locomotive, and the cost of all the materials and labour employed in its construction.

With the exception of a few months at the Tredegar Works, at Richmond, where, in connection with Mr. Souther, he started the manufacture of locomotives, Mr. Colburn now made New York his head-quarters until 1858. His more important professional work at this time was his superintendence, for a year or more, of the New Jersey locomotive works at Paterson, during which engagement he made some improvements, still standard, in the machinery of freight engines.

Although eminently fitted for the management of practical construction, Mr. Colburn had already found that the literature of engineering was his true calling. As early as March, 1847, some small pamphlets appeared from his pen, entitled, Monthly Mechanical Tracts, which were published at Lowell.

In 1850 these were followed by 'The Locomotive Engine, theoretically and practically considered,' published at Boston, and republished at Philadelphia in 1853.

From 1851 to 1853 he contributed to The American Railway Times, at Boston, including a serial treatise on the locomotive engine. And in the latter year he was introduced by Mr. Tyng to Mr. Poor, editor and proprietor of the Railroad Journal, then the leading American publication in this department. Mr. Colburn immediately commenced writing for it, and in fact soon edited the mechanical department of it; and professional readers, recognizing the hand of a master, began to look for a new era in technical journalism. They were not disappointed.

In November, 1854, Mr. Colburn started, in New York, the Railroad Advocate, a weekly journal, devoted especially to the machinery of railroads, and addressed chiefly to the master mechanics and the more intelligent operatives.

The next year he enlarged the Advocate, and it is worthy of mention, as illustrating Mr. Colburn’s extraordinary power of memory, that he kept no books for many months, but simply remembered when every subscription and advertisement fell due, and made no mistakes.

In the summer of 1855 Mr. Colburn thought he saw, in his large acquaintance with railroad men, the way to a fortune in the business of railroad supplies. He therefore, in March, 1856, sold the Advocate to Mr. A. L. Holley, then draughtsman at the New York Locomotive Works, bought land warrants with the money, journeyed to Iowa and located his lands, and then returned to New York - but with another scheme. The frontier life had temporarily charmed him, and he got together an engine and machinery to set up a steam saw-mill in the far West. However, before his plans were completed, literature had resumed the mastery, and he again became a contributor to the Advocate and at the same time arranged his supply business.

He engaged with Mr. Horatio Ames to introduce the Ames’ tires; and with his knowledge, industry, and shrewdness, he assisted to build up a business which, unfortunately, the character of the tires did not maintain. But Mr. Colburn was not made for a merchant. He pined for larger professional observation and knowledge, and for a wider field. As suddenly as he went into trade he left it, and sailed for Europe. During a flying visit among the machine and iron works of England and France, whereof the story is recorded in the The Railroad Advocate, he had become again and finally wedded to literature.

Returning to New York, he resumed a half share of this periodical, which was then enlarged and entitled the American Engineer.

In the autumn of 1857, Messrs. Colburn and Holley were commissioned by several leading railroad presidents to visit Europe, to report on the railway system and machinery abroad; and in view of the financial troubles of 1857, they were advised to stop, at least temporarily, the publication of their paper, which was never resumed. Permanent way and coal-burning locomotives were found to be the most important subjects of the period, and in 1858 their report on these subjects, 'The Permanent Way, and Coal-burning Locomotive Boilers of European Railways,' was published, and circulated among American railway managers. Mr. Colburn wrote the report entirely while Mr. Holley, besides sharing the expense, assisted in collecting information and in preparing drawings.

Mr. Colburn’s thorough and, to American readers, entirely new and startling analysis of the cost and economy of British railways was the foundation of many of the reforms that have since, although slowly, become standard in America, especially in the matter of improved road-bed and superstructure. The success of this book was such that its authors determined to continue their researches, and in the autumn of 1858 Mr. Colburn again visited London. Here his abilities attracted the attention of the founder and editor of The Engineer, and, at that gentleman’s request, Mr. Colburn wrote several articles, which were of so high a character that he was ultimately appointed to an influential position on the staff of that paper; eventually, for a time, occupying the post of editor in charge, while the responsible editor and proprietor was absent on the Continent through ill health.

The leading articles written by Mr. Colburn during this period have never been excelled in vigour, accuracy, and elegance of style, in any scientific journal. He at this time wrote the chapters - devoted to American locomotives for Mr. D. K. Clark‘s ‘Recent Practice in the Locomotive Engine;' and in 1860 an essay on Steam Boiler Explosions, working out the theory now known as the 'percussive theory.’

Mr. Colburn then resolved to start another engineering paper in America. He left England in the Great Eastern steamship, on her first passage in 1860, and soon selected Philadelphia, the principal seat of mechanical engineering in America, as the birthplace of his own ‘Engineer,' which was commenced in August, 1860; but the time was not ripe, in America, for a publication of this kind, and in a moment of despondency he dropped his new enterprise, and sailed for England.

In January, 1861, he again became the editor of the London 'Engineer,' which position he continued to occupy till November, 1864, and till the spring of 1865 he was an occasional contributor to its pages.

About this time he wrote several pamphlets on professional subjects. On the 5th of May, 1863, he preaented a Paper to The Institution of Civil Engineers 'On American Iron Bridges,' for which he was awarded a Telford medal and a Telford Premium of books.

In the same year he was the author of ‘An Inquiry into the nature of Heat,' and commenced, and subsequently completed, the first eight parts of Locomotive Engineering; and he also contributed a paper 'On the relation between the Safe Load and the ultimate Strength of Iron,' to the Society of Engineers, of which Society he was President in 1865, when he read a further paper 'On certain Methods of treating Cast Iron in the Foundry.'

In 1864 Mr. Colburn wrote a treatise on 'The Gasworks of London,' and gave a 'Description of Harrison’s Steam Boiler,' to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

On the 7th of February, 1865, Mr. Colburn was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and later in the spring of the same year read two papers before the Society of Arts, one 'On the Ginning of Cotton,' the other, 'The Manufacture of Encaustic Tiles and Ceramic Ornamentation by Machinery.' A paper 'On American Locomotives and Rolling Stock,' read before the institution on the 9th of March, 1869, and for which he was awarded a Watt Medal and Telford Premium of books, and a paper 'On Anglo-French Communication,' read before the Society of Arts on the 1st of December, 1869, complete the catalogue of his contributions to learned Societies.

In January, 1866, Mr. Colburn started as his own property the well-known journal ‘Engineering' and he continued its active management, and gave it the full benefit of his journalistic experience and of his talents as a writer until its success was firmly established. This done, however, his editorship became a nominal one, and at length, at the end of February, 1870, he ceased to be connected with that periodical in any way.

Naturally restless and exceedingly impulsive he went to greater extremes both in work and relaxation than most men, and his irregularities were attended with melancholy results. On his giving up the proprietorship of Engineering, he proceeded to Paris, and subsequently to America, where he avoided all his old friends.

They tried to follow him, but on the 25th of April he was found lying in an orchard at Belmont, near Boston, whither he had wandered a day or two before from New York, mortally wounded by a pistol-shot, fired by his own hand. He was taken in a dying state to the county hospital, where he expired a few hours afterwards. He was buried on the 4th of May at Lowell, Massachusetts; his funeral being attended by his family connections resident there, and by many members of the profession; among them Mr. Tyng and Mr. Burke, his early friends and instructors in mechanics.

Mr. Zerah Colburn was a man whom the profession could ill afford to lose. His thoroughly practical education in the workshop, his extended observation of engineering works, his intimate acquaintance with professional literature, his remarkable quickness of comprehension, his more remarkable memory, and his mechanical talent and inborn engineering ideas, combined to give him the distinction of being the best general writer in the profession.



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