In the days of Brindley and of Smeaton, and of the other fathers of our profession, whose portraits are on these walls, canals and canalized rivers formed the only mode of internal transit which was less costly than horse traction, and, thanks to their labors, the country has been very well provided with canals; but the introduction of railways proved, in the first instance, a practical bar to the extension of the canal system, and, eventually, a too successful competitor with the canals already made. Frequently the route that had been selected by the canal engineer was found (as was to be expected) a favorable one for the competing railway, and the result was, the towns that had been served by the canal were served by the railway, which was thus in a position to take away even the local traffic of the canal. For some time it looked as though canal and canalized river navigations must come to an end; for although heavy goods could be carried very cheaply on canals, and with respect to the many works and factories erected on the canal banks, or on bases connected therewith, there was with canal navigation no item of expense corresponding to the cost of cartage to the railway stations, yet the smallness of the railway rates for heavy goods, and the greater speed of transit, were found to be more than countervailing advantages.
But when private individuals have embarked their capital in an undertaking, they do not calmly see that capital made unproductive, nor do they refrain from efforts to preserve their dividends, and thus canal companies set themselves to work to add to their position of mere owners of water highways, entitled to take toll for the use of those highways, the function of common carriers, thus putting themselves on a par with the railway companies, who, as no doubt is within the recollection of our older members, were in the outset legalized only as mere owners of iron highways, and as the receivers of toll from any persons who might choose to run engines and trains thereon, a condition of things which was altered as soon as it was pointed out that it was utterly incompatible either with punctuality or with safe working. This addition to the legal powers of the canal companies, made by the acts of 1845 and 1847, has had a very beneficial effect upon the value of their property, and has assisted to preserve a mode of transport competing with that afforded by the railways.
Further, the canal proprietors have from time to time endeavored to improve the rate of transport, and with this object have introduced steam in lieu of horse haulage, and by structural improvements have diminished the number of lockages. Many years before the period we are considering, there was employed, to save time in the lockages and to economize water, the system of inclined planes, where, either water-borne in a traveling caisson, as on the Monklands incline, or supported on a cradle, as in the incline at Newark, in the State of New Jersey, the barges were transferred from one level to another; but an important improvement on either of these modes of overcoming a great difference of level is the application of direct vertically lifting hydraulic power. A notable instance of this system was brought before the Institution in a paper read on the "Hydraulic Canal Lift at Anderton, on the River Weaver," by S. Duer,2 and another instance exists on the Canal de New Fosse, at Fontinettes, in France, the engineers being Messrs. Clark and Standfield, who have other lifts in progress.
This system reduces the consumption of water and the expenditure of time to a minimum.
With respect to canalized rivers, the difficulty that must always have existed when these rivers (as was mostly the case) were provided with weirs to dam up the water for giving power to mills has been augmented of late years by the change in the character of floods. It has frequently been suggested that in these days of steam motors in lieu of water power, and of railways in lieu of water carriage, the injury done by obstructing the delivery of floods is by no means compensated by the otherwise all but costless power obtained, or by the preservation of a mode of transport competing with railways. It has thereupon been suggested that it would be in the interests of the community to purchase and extinguish both the manufacturing and the navigating rights, so as to enable the weirs to be removed, and free course to be provided for floods. It need hardly be said, however, that if means could be devised for giving full effect to the river channels for flood purposes, while maintaining them for the provision of motive power and of navigation, it is desirable that this should be done. The great step in this direction appears to be the employment of readily or, it may be, of automatically movable weirs.
Two very interesting papers on this subject by Messrs. Vernon-Harcourt and E. B. Buckley were read and discussed in the session 1879-1880. These dealt, I fear exclusively, with foreign, notably with French and Indian, examples. I say I fear, not in the way of imputing blame to the authors for not having noticed English weirs, but because the absence of such notice amounts to a confession of backwardness in the adoption of remedial measures on English rivers. An instance, however, of improvement since then has been the construction by Mr. Wiswall, the engineer to the Bridgewater Navigation Company (on the Mersey and Irwell section of that navigation), of the movable Throstle Nest weir at Manchester. It does seem to me that by the adoption of movable weirs, rivers in ordinary times may be dammed up to retain sufficient water to admit of a paying navigation and water for the mills on their banks; while in time of flood they shall allow channels as efficient for relief as if every weir had been swept away.
But the great feature of late years in canal engineering is not the preservation or improvement of the ordinary internal canal, but the provision of canals, such as the completed Suez canal, the Panama canal in course of construction, the contemplated Isthmus of Corinth canal - all for saving circuitous journeys in passing from one sea to another; or in the case nearer home of the Manchester ship canal, for taking ocean steamers many miles inland.
But the old fight between the canal engineer and the railway engineer, or, more properly speaking, between the engineer when he had his canal "stop" on and the same individual when he has his railway "stop" - you will see that I am borrowing a figure, either from Dombey & Son, where Mr. Feeder, B.A., is shown to us with his Herodotus "stop" on, or, as is more likely, I am thinking of the organs to be exhibited in the Second division, "Music," of that exhibition of which I have the honor to be chairman - I am afraid this is a long parenthesis breaking the continuity of my observations, which related to the old rivalry between canal and railway engineering. I was about to say that this rivalry was revived, even in the case of the transporting of ocean vessels from sea to sea, for we know that our distinguished member, Mr. Eads, is proposing to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by means of a ship railway across the Isthmus of Panama. He suggests that the largest vessels should be raised out of the water, in the manner commonly employed in floating docks, and should then be transferred to a truck-like cradle on wheels, fitted with hydraulic bearing blocks (this being, however, not a new proposition as applied to graving docks), so as to obtain practical equality of support for the ship, notwithstanding slight irregularities in the roadway, while he proposes to deal with the question of changes of direction by the avoidance of curves and by the substitution of angles, having at the point of junction of the two sides turntables on which the cradle and ship will be drawn; these can be moved with perfect ease, notwithstanding the heavy load, because the turntable will be floating in water carried in circular tanks.
The question of preserving the level of the turntable, whether unloaded, partially loaded, or loaded, is happily met by an arrangement of water ballast and pumping. I cannot pass away from the mention of Mr. Eads' work without just reminding you of the successful manner in which he has dealt with the mouth of the Mississippi, by which he has caused that river to scour and maintain a channel 30 feet deep at low water, instead of that 8 feet deep which prevailed there before his skillful treatment. Neither can I refrain from mentioning the successful labors of our friend Sir Charles Hartley, in improving the navigation of that great European river, the Danube. I am sure we are all rejoiced to see that one of the lectures of the forthcoming series, that on "Inland Navigation," is to be delivered by him, and I do earnestly trust he will remember it is his duty to the Institution not to leave important and successful works unreferred to because those works happen to be his own.
I regret that time does not admit of my noticing the many improved machines for excavating, to be used either below water or on dry land. I also regret, for similar reasons, I must omit all mention of ship construction, whether for the purpose of commerce or of war, a subject that would naturally follow that of rivers and of ship railways and canals, and would have enabled me to speak of the great debt this branch of civil engineering owes to the labors of our late member, William Froude, and would have enabled me also to deal with the question of material for ships, and with the question of armor plating, in which, and in the construction of ordnance, our past president, Mr. Barlow, and myself, as the two lay members of the Ordnance Committee, are so specially interested.