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Rereading the Smiles

By Henry Petroski

Biographies of engineers are not nearly as common as those of politicians and other public figures, and perhaps this paucity accounts in part for the stereotype of the engineer as a technician without a personality. But engineers are, of course, human beings first, and, like all human beings, not only do they have personalities, but also some of them have very endearing and exemplary ones indeed.

A model for the engineering biography was provided in the 19th century by Samuel Smiles. Smiles, born in Scotland in 1812, grew up among the fruits of the Industrial Revolution and lived in the midst of the age of the heroic Victorian engineers. Trained as a medical doctor, Smiles soon abandoned his practice to become a journalist who zealously advocated individual initiative. In 1845, in the midst of the railway boom in Britain, Smiles began a two-decade-long involvement with railway administration, which inspired him.

In 1857, Smiles published The Life of George Stephenson, Railway Engineer, which is as much a history of the entrepreneurial adventure as of a man inseparably associated with its early development. The “characters of such men” as Stephenson, wrote Smiles, “are almost equivalent to institutions” and he believed them to be models of individual initiative. Smiles soon wrote Self-Help, which, as its subtitle asserted, contained Illustrations of Character, Conduct, and Perspective taken from his lectures on the topic.

The brief biographies in Self-Help represented fields ranging from the arts to the sciences, but Smiles soon returned to longer biographies—of engineers. In 1861 his Lives of the Engineers appeared in two volumes. It included biographies of: Cornelius Vermuyden, the Dutchman who drained the English Fens and thus recovered land long lost to the sea; Hugh Myddelton, who developed a system of water supply for London; John Metcalf, who, though blind, built roads over bogs; and James Brindley, who laid out canals. Also included were lives of the now more familiar John Smeaton, John Rennie, and Thomas Telford.

Subsequent editions of the Lives included a revised edition of The Life of George Stephenson, which was later revised further to include the life of his distinguished engineer son, Robert. Smiles soon added a volume on Matthew Boulton and James Watt, and their partnership in developing the steam engine. By 1874, the set of Lives had grown to five volumes, and it stayed in print until the early part of the 20th century. In 1966, MIT Press published a one-volume Selections from Lives of the Engineers, edited by Thomas Hughes, whose introduction provides concise background information on the author and his works.

The Vesic Engineering Library at Duke has a five-volume popular edition of the Lives that was published in 1904. Over the years, I have checked out various volumes of this set, being at the same time pleased that it was available when I wanted and needed it and disappointed that no one else seemed to be reading these classic biographies of engineers.

I have often thought how nice it would be to have a set of Smiles in my own personal library, but the ready availability of the volumes at Duke always kept me from following up on my thought. Now, thanks to two great-grandchildren of Othniel Foster Nichols, who wanted to find a receptive home for their great-grandfather’s four-volume set of Smiles, a Lives of the Engineers with a provenance sits on my bookshelf. I am able to read and reread the same biographies that once graced the bookshelves of an eminent engineer who worked on the elevated railways of New York and Brooklyn, as well as on the Manhattan and Williamsburg suspension bridges, the latter the longest in the world when it was completed in 1903. That Nichols owned a set of Lives gives his own life and work a broader dimension and reveals him to be one who respected the tradition as well as the practice of engineering.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book is Small Things Considered: Why There Is No Perfect Design. He is grateful to Margaret B. Johnson and Philip N. Baker for wanting their great-grandfather’s set of Smiles to be used.


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