This section is from "Scientific American Supplement Volumes 275, 286, 288, 299, 303, 312, 315, 324, 344 and 358". Also available from Amazon: Scientific American Reference Book.
The thirty-fourth annual summer meeting of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers began on Aug. 2, at Newcastle-on-Tyne. The following is an abstract from the address of the president, Mr. E. A. Cowper.
He began by stating that as members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, on revisiting their brother members and friends here in Newcastle, after an interval of twelve years, they came as it were to one of their natural homes; certainly to the home of one of the greatest engineers that England has ever produced, and the birthplace of the locomotive, which has done more than any other improvement, of our age to lessen the cost of materials to the men who have to use them, and therefore to cheapen and extend production in the most wonderful manner. He then went on to say that it seems but a few years ago since George Stephenson, at a meeting in 1847, proposed the resolution that the Institution of Mechanical Engineers be formed. He was strongly supported by a large number of the mechanical engineers of the country, and the speaker had the honor of seconding the resolution that he be first president. The intention was that engineers from all parts of the country should join to form a compact body capable of discussing and judging of all mechanical subjects and appliances. In this the institution had been eminently successful, and it numbered among its members mechanical engineers in every large town in the country, and has increased in strength and importance.
The last twelve years have been marked by many very important changes, while low prices have generally ruled. Among other causes of fluctuations in demand and supply (and consequently in values) must be mentioned the occurrence and the threatening of foreign wars, which disturbed the course of commerce greatly for some years. Such causes must be considered as extraneous to the sphere of influence possessed by good or bad manufacturing or engineering. Mr. Cowper does not look upon the very great expense of improved war material and implements as an unmixed evil for this country; for it so happens that we can better meet such outlay than any other nation, and thus our wealth gives rise to greater power and security than our neighbors possess; while, seeing that we are not an aggressive nation, such power tends materially at once to the progress of this country, and to the peace of the world. Having referred briefly to one cause of disturbance to the progress of mechanical engineering, he named another, which at the present moment is occupying thoughtful men to a considerable extent, namely, the arbitrary imposition of duties and bounties for the professed object of protecting manufactures, while in fact they constitute taxes on a nation for the benefit of a few individuals. In some countries excessive duties have been imposed, as against our manufactures, and it is even proposed to increase them; while in other cases bounties are actually paid out of the public purse to men engaged in a particular manufacture, on their exporting to this county certain of their wares, as, for instance, beet-root sugar.
One extremely significant lesson, resulting from high duties--which it may be hoped will not be thrown away upon the American public--is, that whereas our cousins on the other side of the water used to build almost all the American "liners" of wood, they now find that, with their excessive duties against the importation of iron and steel from England, they cannot compete with English iron and steel ship-builders and marine engineers. This is one of those damaging effects naturally produced by excessive protective duties; which, while they enable American ironmasters quickly to realize enormous fortunes, drive the American merchants to purchase English ships, or intrust their merchandise in English bottoms, as it is impossible to maintain protective duties at sea.
Whatever fluctuations have occurred, it is now pretty clear that several foreign nations have settled down to cultivate and extend their manufactures, and we are brought face to face with the fact--which has now been for some years growing to its present importance--that many articles which in years gone by we thought it to be our especial province to supply, are now produced in the very countries requiring them. Even Spain is awakening to the advantage of producing hematite iron from her own excellent ores, with English and Welsh coke carried out in the same ships that bring Spanish ores to this country.
Now with regard to the possibility of any foreign nation eclipsing us in our manufactures, he would say at once that any such successful rivalry on their part is far worse than the effect of any duties, even if they be prohibitive; for it means rivalry in the markets of the world, and possibly in our own markets here at home. Therefore it behooves us to put our house in order, and see in what way we may be enabled to manufacture better and with greater economy. Mechanical engineering is of such extreme importance in advancing civilization, that it is most essential that its progress should be rapid and unimpeded.
Perhaps the very large increase in steam shipping, and the change from sailing ships and paddle steamers to screw steamers, has been one of the greatest improvements of recent times, and it is none the less real or important from having been gradual, while the result to this neighborhood has been most beneficial. This change has been due in great measure to the introduction of very economical marine engines, chiefly of the compound type, together with better boilers carrying a higher pressure.
The speed and regularity of ocean steamers has also greatly improved, and one small scientific improvement has added much to the safety of traversing such seas as the Atlantic at a high speed--namely, the careful and continual use of a good thermometer, to ascertain constantly the temperature of the sea-water at the surface. For if an iceberg is floating within a quarter of a mile--or even half a mile, if the sea is pretty smooth--the surface water will be several degrees colder than the rest of the sea; since the very cold fresh water, resulting from the melting iceberg, floats on the top of the sea water for some distance.