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HOME > Biographical > Life of Robert Stevenson > CHAPTER XVIII. RETROSPECT OF MR. STEVENSON’S LIFE.
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The unconnected sketches which form this Memoir extend over a period of about forty years. They have, as already stated, been selected from among a large mass of documents, in order to convey to the reader, not only some idea of the great variety of subjects Mr. Stevenson was called on to consider, but also to show his happy power of dealing with engineering questions in the several aspects under which they were presented to him. In perusing them, the reader can hardly have failed to remark in how many instances the views Mr. Stevenson expressed were forecasts either of great fundamental social changes, such as the substitution of the railway for the road, or of smaller though important matters of detail, as, for example, the signal lights of our railways and steamers, without which the “night traffic”—so popular a feature of modern travelling—could not possibly be conducted. These and many other instances must have satisfied the professional reader that foresight and originality were remarkable features of Mr. Stevenson’s character.
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In the department of Lighthouses, he had experiences265 which, it may be safely said, none of his compeers possessed, and I think it will be admitted that in his general practice he displayed powers of observation of a high order. Acting as he did with Rennie, Telford, Nimmo, and afterwards with Walker, George Rennie, and Cubitt, with all of whom he ever remained in friendly intercourse, his experience was both large and varied, and the whole of his practice as an Engineer was distinguished by full preliminary investigation of his subject—great caution in forming his conclusions—elaborate preparation of his reports and designs, and, as specially called forth at the Bell Rock Lighthouse, masterly skill, indomitable energy, and unwavering fortitude in carrying his designs into execution.
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My father was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1815, and soon after joined the Antiquarian and Wernerian Natural History Societies, taking an active part at their meetings and communicating papers to their proceedings. He was a Fellow of the Geological and Astronomical Societies of London, a Member of the Smeatonian Society, and of the Institution of Civil Engineers.

He was also one of the original promoters of the Astronomical Institution, out of which has grown the present establishment of the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh, and the following account of the early origin of the Institution was drawn up some years before Mr. Stevenson’s death at the request of Professor Piazzi Smyth, the Astronomer-Royal of Scotland:—

266 “There was a young man named Kerr—an optician—in Edinburgh, who, on commencing business, brought about the formation of a Club, somewhat like a Book Club, for procuring philosophical instruments for the use of its members. These were more particularly optical instruments and theodolites, etc., for surveyors, which were also to have been lent out for hire. I think the subscription was a guinea. The meetings were, perhaps, monthly; they were held in the office of Mr. James Ogilvy, Accountant, Parliament Square.

“I attended two, or perhaps three, meetings in the year. The Club was formed before I was invited to become a member. At the first meeting I found present Mr. James Bonar, treasurer of the Royal Society; Mr. Christison, mathematician; Mr. Brown, bookseller, opposite the college; Mr. Ogilvy, and Mr. Kerr.

“After attending one or two meetings of this very modest Society for the advancement of science, Mr. Bonar and I had some conversation upon its prospects, and the difficulties attending such a scheme of procuring philosophical instruments, and systematising the lending out, and keeping in efficient order theodolites, levels, telescopes, etc.; and we concurred in opinion that the scheme could not succeed. We deemed it advisable rather to endeavour to get Short’s observatory on the Calton Hill occupied as a ‘Popular Observatory.’ We spoke to some of the magistrates on this subject, who, on the part of the town, were quite favourable to the idea. We also applied to Mr. Thomas Allan, then an active member of the Royal Society, and he joined us in a communication to Sir267 George Mackenzie of Coul, who warmly entered into our views; and ultimately we had an interview with Professor Playfair, who, in his mild and placid manner, agreed to consider the subject, but felt some difficulty on account of his colleague, the Professor of Practical Astronomy. After a time Professor Playfair undertook to draw up a statement for the public, which he did in his usual elegant and concise style. Thus, step by step, we succeeded in obtaining subscribers, and under the countenance and support of Playfair, many were found who patronised the proposal of establishing an observatory on the Calton Hill.

“Our idea was that we might look forward to a Popular Observatory which would not interfere with the existing Professorship of Astronomy, but have an establishment to which, with our families, we might resort in an evening with the advantage of oral and ocular demonstrations in the science of Astronomy, treated after a popular form.

“The present characteristic and beautiful building was then erected, and with the aid of Government, it was furnished with some of the chief instruments; but much to my regret the establishment has been exclusively limited to the purposes of a scientific observatory, without any provision of a popular description for which it was originally intended.

“Unfortunately there was nothing to keep our constitution alive in the minds of the public—nothing to allure additional subscribers to our funds, so as to extend the building, and fit it with a theatre and apparatus for popular purposes—no Lecture was established, and, in short, the original object fell dead in the hands of the268 Directors. I thus personally lost my object in this establishment, and in all my uphill journeys and manifold meetings, I had chiefly in view the pleasure of interviews with my excellent friend the late Thomas Henderson, the Professor of Astronomy in the University.”
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Passing from what may be regarded as Mr. Stevenson’s public character as an engineer, it is only natural that I should conclude this Memoir by adding a few paragraphs descriptive of his social bearing as a man.

In politics my father was a decided conservative, but he never took a prominent part in political or municipal affairs. He was, however, from his earliest days a loyal subject of the king; and, as we find from his Journal, a zealous supporter of the Government. He says:—“After my return from the Pentland Skerries in 1794, I enrolled myself as a private in the 1st Regiment of Edinburgh Volunteers raised as the local Defenders of our Firesides against the threatened invasion by the French, and served about five years in the ranks of that corps. However, when the war became hot, and invasion was fully expected, other corps of Volunteers were embodied, when I was promoted to be a Lieutenant in the ‘Princess (Charlotte’s) Royals,’ and afterwards Captain of the Grenadier Company.”

His connection with the volunteers seems to have been of a very agreeable and satisfactory character, proving that such loyal and patriotic services were not then and are not now incompatible with the most ardent pursuit of those studies and duties which are to qualify a269 man for the business of life. On his promotion to the Royals he received the following friendly letter from his Colonel, Charles Hope, Lord Advocate, and afterwards Lord President of the Court of Session:—

    “24th January 1804.

    “Sir,—I always part with any of my friends in the Regiment with great regret, especially such as belonged to the old Blues. But I cannot object to your leaving m............
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