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Queen Victoria (1837-1901)
Burning Daylight : George Stephenson argued that his steam engines were solar-powered.
Burning Daylight

Abridged from The Lives of the Engineers by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

Today’s enthusiasts for ‘renewable energy’ have brought Britain’s once-mighty coal industry to an end. Yet judging by George Stephenson’s exchange with William Buckland, the eccentric but brilliant Oxford geologist, there may have been a serious misunderstanding...

ONE Sunday, when the party had just returned from church, they were standing together on the terrace near the Hall, and observed in the distance a railway-train flashing along, tossing behind its long white plume of steam. “Now, Buckland,” said Stephenson, “Can you tell me what is the power that is driving that train?”

“Well,” said the other, “I suppose it is one of your big engines.”

“But what drives the engine?”

“Oh, very likely a canny Newcastle driver.”*

“What do you say to the light of the sun?”

“How can that be?” asked the doctor.

“It is nothing else,” said the engineer, “it is light bottled up in the earth for tens of thousands of years, — light, absorbed by plants and vegetables, — and now, after being buried in the earth for long ages in fields of coal, that latent light is again brought forth and liberated, made to work as in that locomotive, for great human purposes.”

* This was a little joke at Stephenson’s expense, a proud son of Northumberland. (They were actually in Derbyshire, guests of Sir Robert Peel, the former Prime Minister.) In the North East, ‘canny’ doesn’t mean ‘shrewd’ as it does elsewhere; it means ‘likeable, good company’.

Abridged from The Lives of the Engineers by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

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Samuel Smiles (22) Discovery and Invention (66) Victorian Era (61) George Stephenson (12) Railways (22) Northumberland (26) History (405)

Picture: © Stephen Daglish, Geograph. Licence: CC-BY-SA 2.0. View original
“Let’s go, we’re burnin’ daylight!” was the catchphrase of Wil Andersen, played by John Wayne, in ‘The Cowboys’ (1972), though it goes back to Mercutio in William Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’. The picture shows the Tanfield Railway in County Durham, one of the oldest railways still in operation anywhere in the world. The railway was itself built to carry coal to the Tyne, for shipping to London. Stephenson lived and worked in the area most of his life.

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