“A friend of science”: the first Duke of Wellington

In honour of Southampton Science and Engineering Week at the University (10-19 March), in conjunction with British Science Week, and the anniversary of the arrival of the Wellington Papers at the University on 17 March 1983, this blog will look at science and technology material within the Wellington Archive (MS 61).

The victory at Waterloo raised the first Duke of Wellington to a level of fame and prominence that ensured a tidal wave of correspondence, elements of which came from those discussing new discoveries or inventions, or seeking Wellington’s patronage and support. The material relating to scientific developments within the Wellington Archive ranges from a copy of the minutes of the council of the Royal Society relating to Charles Babbage’s calculating machine [MS 61 WP1/996/3]; correspondence regarding the discovery of the cause of magnetic variation in the compass and a law to predict the variation [MS 61 WP1/814/16]; to material on new medical apparatus to treat complaints such as headaches, gout or rheumatism [MS 61 WP2/110/52].

Lorenzo Giordano medical apparatus to treat rheumatism

Lorenzo Giordano medical apparatus to treat rheumatism [MS 61 WP2/110/52]

As a career soldier who rose to be the Commander in Chief of the army, Wellington had a interest in developments in military technology. He served as Master General of the Ordnance in the 1820s, a department that he described as being specially charged with “all military equipments, machines, inventions thereof and their improvement”. The archive includes correspondence with Colonel Shrapnel, the inventor of the shrapnel shell, and with Sir William Congreve, together with material relating to improvements in artillery. In a letter of August 1822, Congreve describes the results of experiments of his rockets and concludes that “under Your Grace’s patronage and protection, I feel confident of giving complete perfection to the rocket system in a very short time and making it not only the most powerful but also the most economical weapon that can be used”. [MS 61 WP1/718/6]

Not all inventions, however, were considered to have such potential. An artificial hill, suggested by a Captain of Marines in 1812, “which was nothing more than a high pole” on which Wellington might be hoisted to overlook the movement of the enemy forces, elicited the objection from Wellington: “Damn me, sir, I may tumble down to break my neck”. [MS 61 WP1/361 f. 1]  A steam war chariot designed by John George and Sons, although fascinating and frightening, does not seem to have progressed beyond the design stage.

John George steam war chariot

John George’s steam war chariot [MS 61 WP2/40/119]

Developments in steam and steam transportation in the early part of the nineteenth century are represented in the archive. There is material relating to the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway in September 1830 which Wellington, as Prime Minister, attended. The event was sadly overshadowed by the tragic death of William Huskisson, the popular Member of Parliament for Liverpool, an occurrence that shocked the other dignitaries present and potentially coloured Wellington’s opinion of trains henceforth. His archive also contains correspondence relating to the development of steam coaching as an alternative to steam trains, and includes correspondence from Sir James Caleb Anderson, first Baronet, an inventor much interested in the development of steam coaching [MS 61 WP1/1003/21], as well as material on the journey made by one of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney’s steam carriages.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875) was a surgeon and chemist as well as an inventor. During the period 1825 to 1829, Gurney built a number of steam-powered carriages intended to commercialise steam road transport. Whilst the earlier versions were not a success, a version designed to provide a separate carriage hauled by an engine made the journey from London to Bath in July 1829. Reaching an average speed of 15 mph, the journey is reputed to be the first undertaken by a mechanised vehicle at a sustained speed and pre-dated the journey of the Stephenson’s Rocket.

Steam carriage journey from London to Bath

Journey of Gurney’s steam carriage from London to Bath [MS 61 WP1/1034/29]

Wellington had connections with the engineer and inventor Marc Isambard Brunel (1769-1849), the father of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, from the period of the Peninsular War, when Brunel undertook contracts for the government, including the supply of soldiers’ boots. Brunel was subsequently to suffer imprisonment for debt due to several unsuccessful projects and Wellington was one of those who pressed the government to secure his release. Brunel’s designs included the Île de Bourbon Suspension Bridge and the operation to build a tunnel under the River Thames. Work on the Thames Tunnel began in 1825 and was eventually completed in 1842.

Drawing of the elevation of a chain bridge over the River Tweed, and of a chain bridge designed by Brunel for the Île de Bourbon

Chain bridge over the River Tweed and a chain bridge designed by Brunel for the Île de Bourbon [MS 61 WP1/679/8]

For anyone wishing to explore a more modern take on science and technology the University of Southampton Science and Engineering Day, is on Saturday 18 March and will be a fitting finale to the week’s events. We hope you enjoy the day.

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