Magazine article History Today

Birthday Mechanics

Magazine article History Today

Birthday Mechanics

Article excerpt

One hundred and fifty years ago this month a group of engineers working on the new railway at Lickey Incline near Birmingham sought shelter from the rain. While the builders of the rail system that would revolutionise transport and travel around the world were huddled under a rock, an idea was mooted: surely they, as mechanical engineers, the creators of the actual engines, were different from civil engineers currently engaged on laying track?

The proposal for distinguishing a separate profession appealed strongly and plans were quickly laid alongside those early rails for an organisation dedicated to developing the independent interests of the mechanics, and to informing and educating the public.

The formal creation of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers took place on January 27th, 1847, when the new organisation was born and premises were set up at Birmingham's Curzon Street Station.

In 1846, in their euphoric state eager members were not about to be shunted into a siding, for they were doers and not dreamers. They had convened at the Queen's Hotel in Birmingham and elected the bluff George Stephenson to be their first president. The second was his equally successful son, Robert, while Isambard Kingdom Brunel, his friend and greatest competitor was another member. Robert Stephenson, had shown that a steam engine could be mobile and draw carriages along rails, where before, strange as it now seems, it had been thought engines would be stationery objects pulling carriages with a chain.

Stephenson's commercial instincts were for rail transport - mostly taking coal to the ports for fuelling ships and for new factories springing up, about to smoke out much of Britain. There was little interest in passenger travel; now the engine's wheels have come full circle as rail transport has such small importance in the UK today. Still, mechanical engineering figures strongly in ship and car construction, also in factory machines and the new fields of robot construction, despite the importance of computers. They may control machines but they are really the equivalent of a stoker shovelling coal or opening a valve', is a predictable observation. …

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