While I was AWOL and not posting these last several weeks, the 94 year-old Harry Confusio (HC) continued sending me his portraits. The last one from March is of Robert Stephenson (1803-59).
Stephenson’s dad, George, was known as the “father of railroads” partly because his railroad gauge, at 4’8”, is the standard, conventional one around the world. It is sometimes referred to as Stephenson gauge.
George’s son carried on the the family tradition of excellent engineering by building some of England’s most important bridges of the 19th Century. His earliest bridge is the High Level Bridge in Newcastle, England. Watchers of the BBC crime detective tv series Vera can sometimes see the High Level Bridge in the background. Here’s a 19th century depiction of it.
Stephenson’s Royal Border Bridge is misnamed since it does not cross from England into Scotland; it ends about 15,000 feet short of reaching the border. It has 28 arches, and I believe it is a fine example of human stamina in the face of bewildering tediousness. Those poor stone workers! But a view from the Tweed River makes it an example of architectural tranquility and fortitude.
Stephenson completed many other projects, and he is often called the greatest engineer of the 19th century. That judgment is premature. But that is another story.
Wikipedia tells us:
The Croton Aqueduct or Old Croton Aqueduct was a large and complex water distribution system constructed for New York City between 1837 and 1842. It brought water by the force of gravity along 41 miles (66 km) from the Croton River in Westchester County into reservoirs in Manhattan, where local water resources had become polluted and inadequate for the growing population of the city. Although the aqueduct was supplemented and largely superseded by the New Croton Aqueduct, which was built in 1890, the Old Croton Aqueduct remained in service until 1955.
The man who designed and built the Croton Aqueduct was John B. Jervis (1795-1885), who is the subject of Harry Confusio’s portrait. HC told me, via email, that he just admires persons who work themselves up from laborers to leading engineers. Jervis was such a man. Whilst working as an axeman on the Erie Canal, Jervis studied on his own the principles of engineering. He later designed bridges and railroads and the steam engines that ran on the railroad.
HC says, in another email, that Jervis was the epitome of the great tradition of American exceptionalism–HC’s idea here is that Jervis never expiated upon exceptionalism:; he merely exemplified it. Jervis’s last words before he expired were “Water is life.”
Here is HC’s portrait of John B. Jervis:
When Harry Confusio sent me the original of his portrait of Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, he cautioned me to be aware that Eiffel’s fame does not rest on bridge design, but on, of course, his famous tower. But Eiffel’s career encompassed many disparate projects. Eiffel designed the interior structure of the Statue of Liberty and a variety of bridges including the Garabit Viaduct, pictured above. Eiffel also designed a series of locks for the Panama Canal. These designs were never used because the company Eiffel worked for had to declare bankruptcy. A huge scandal encircled the administrators of the company, and even though eiffel was a hired designer, he was implicated in the scandal. He was innocent, however, but felt to the time of his death that he had never cleared his name.
Confusio, or HC, has spent most of his lifetime as an amateur student of engineering. He admits to not knowing the mathematics of design, but he does love the “frozen music” of architecture (Goethe). HC says that one can see in Eiffel’s bridges and other work the very themes and motifs that make the Eiffel Tower so wonderful.
I sent HC an email saying not everyone quite agrees that the Eiffel Tower is so wonderful, however. Here’s the opening passage of Roland Barthes essay on the Eiffel Tower:
Maupassant often lunched at the restaurant in the tower, though he didn’t care much for the food: It’s the only place in Paris, he used to say, where I don’t have to see it. And it’s true that you must take endless precautions, in Paris, not to see the Eiffel Tower; whatever the season, through mist and cloud, on overcast days or in sunshine, in rain–wherever you are, whatever the landscape of roofs, domes, or branches separating you from it, the Tower is there; incorporated into daily life until you can no longer grant it any specific attribute, determined merely to persist, like a rock or the river, it is as literal as a phenomenon of nature whose meaning can be questioned to infinity but whose existence is incontestable. There is virtually no Parisian glance it fails to touch at some time of day; at the moment I begin writing these lines about it, the Tower is there, in front of me, framed by my window; and at the very moment the January night blurs it, apparently trying to make it invisible, to deny its presence, two little lights come on, winking gently as they revolve at its very tip: all this night, too, it will be there, connecting me above Paris to each of my friends that I know are seeing it: with it we all comprise a shifting figure of which it is the steady center: the Tower is friendly.
In any case, the Eiffel Tower is what it is, the icon of France and the spot on maps where Paris lies. And here is HC’s portrait of the man who designed it: Gustave Eiffel.
A Clerihew For Eiffel
Alexandre Gustave Eiffel,
as a boy, loved to trifle
with metal doodads by the hour.
Then, as an adult, he built a tower
Photo of Garabit Viaduct by Graeme Churchard; drawing of Statue of Liberty originally published in Scientic American, June 13, 1885.