James Nasmyth: Engineer, An Autobiography.
Part 8 out of 8
With a view to remove all such causes of uncertainty in the action of
this vitally important part of a steam boiler I designed a Safety Valve,
having a spherical valve and corresponding seat, as seen in B C,
Fig. 2. This form of Safety Valve had the important property of fitting
to its bearing-seat in all positions, requiring no other guide than its
own spherical seat to effect that essential purpose. And as the weight
required to keep the valve closed until the exact desired maximum
pressure of steam has been attained, is directly attached to the under
side of the valve by the rod, the weight, by being inside the boiler,
is placed out of reach from any attempt to tamper with it.
The entire arrangement of this Safety Valve is quite simple. It is free
from all Lever Joints and other parts which might become clogged;
and as there is always a slight pendulous motion in the weight by the
action of the water in the boiler, the spherical surfaces of the valve
and its seat are thus ever kept in perfect order. As soon as the
desired pressure of steam has been reached, and the gravity of the
weight overcome, the valve rises from its seat, and gives perfectly
free egress to any farther accumulation of steam. It is really quite a
treat, in its way, to observe this truly simple and effective Safety
Valve in action. After I had contrived and introduced this Safety
Valve, its valuable properties were speedily acknowledged, and. its
employment has now become very general.
1847. A Machine for cutting out Cottar Slots and Key-Groove Recesses in
Parts of Machinery by a Traversing Drill.
One of the most tedious and costly processes in the execution of the
detail parts of machinery is the cutting out of Cottar Slots in piston
rods, connecting rods, and key recesses in shafts. This operation used
to be performed by drilling a row of holes through the solid body of
the object, and then chipping away the intermediate metal between the
holes, and filing the rude slot, so produced, into its required form.
The whole operation, as thus conducted, was one of the most tedious and
irksome jobs that an engineer workman could be set to, and could only
be performed by those possessed of the highest skill.
What with broken chisels and files, and the tedious nature of the work,
it was a most severe task to the very best men, not to speak of the
heavy cost in wages.
In order to obviate all these disadvantages, I contrived an arrangement
of a drilling machine, with a specially formed drill, which at once
reduced the process to one of the easiest conducted in an engineer's
The. "special" form of the Drill consisted in the removal of the centre
portion of its flat cutting face by making it with a notch O.
This enabled it to cut sideways, as well as downwards, and thus to cut
a slit or oblong hole. No labour, as such, was required; but only the
intelligent superintendence of a lad to place the work in the machine,
and remove it for the next piece in its turn. The machine did the
labour, and by its self-action did the work in the most perfect manner.
I may further mention that the arrangement of the machine consisted in
causing the object to traverse to and fro in a straight line, of any
required length, under the action of the drill. The traversing action
was obtained by the employment of an adjustable crank, which gave the
requisite motion to a slide table, on which the work was fastened.
The "feed" downwards of the drill was effected by the crank at the
moment of its reversing the slide, as the drill reached the end of the
traverse; and, as there is a slight pause of the traverse at each end
of it, the "feed" for the next cutting taking place at that time,
the drill has the opportunity given to perfect its cut ere it commences
the next cutting traverse in succession. This action continues in
regular course until the drill makes its way right through the piece of
work under its action; or can be arrested at any required depth
according to the requirements of the work. Soap and water as a
lubricator continues to drop into the recess of the slot, and is always
in its right place to assist the cutting of the drill.
As before said, the entire function of this most effective machine tool
is self-acting. It only required an intelligent lad or labourer to
attend to it; and, as there was ample time to spare, the
superintendence of two of these machines was quite within his ability.
The rates of the productive powers of this machine, as compared with
the former employment of hand labour, was at least ten to one;
to say nothing of the superior quality of the work executed.
Such were the manifold advantages of this machine, that its merits soon
became known and appreciated; and although I had taken out no patent
for it, we always had an abundance of orders, as it was its own best
1848. A Steam Hammer Form of Steam-Engine.
This engine is of great simplicity and get-at-ability of parts.
It is specially adapted for screw-propelled steamships, and many other
purposes. It is now in very general use. The outline is given above.
1848. Application of Hydraulic Power to the Punching of Large Holes in
Iron Bars, and Plates of Great Thickness.
Dr. Faraday having applied to me to furnish him, for one of his
lectures at the Royal Institution, with some striking example of the
Power of Machinery in overcoming the resistance to penetration in the
case of some such material as cold malleable iron, it occurred to me to
apply the tranquil but vast power of a hydraulic press to punch out a
large hole in a thick cake of malleable iron. Knowing that my excellent
friend John Rick had in his works at Bolton one of the most powerful
hydraulic presses then existing, contrived and constructed by his
ingenious father, the late Benjamin Hick, I proceeded to Bolton, and
explained Dr. Faraday's requirement, when, with his usual liberal zeal,
Mr. Hick at once placed the use of his great hydraulic press at my
Having had a suitable cake of steam-hammered malleable iron given to me
for the purpose in question, by my valued friend Thomas Lever Rushton
of the Bolton Ironworks, we soon had the cake of iron placed in the
great press. It was 5 inches thick,18 inches long, and 15 inches wide.
Placing a cylindrical coupling box of cast-iron on the table of the
press, and then placing the thick cake of iron on it, and a short
cylindrical mass of iron (somewhat of the size and form of a Stilton
Cheese) on the iron cake, the coupling box acting as the Bolster of the
extemporised punching machine,--the press was then set to work.
We soon saw the Stilton Cheese-like punch begin to sink slowly and
quietly through the 5-inch thick cake of iron, as if it had been stiff
clay. The only sound heard was when the punched-out mass dropped into
the recess of the coupling below. Such a demonstration of tranquil but
almost resistless power of a hydraulic press had never, so far as we
were aware, been seen before. The punched of iron, together with the
punched-out disc, were then packed off to Faraday; and great was his
delight in having his request so promptly complied with. Great also was
the wonder of his audience when the punched plate was placed upon the
lecture table. This feat of Benjamin Hick's great hydraulic press set
me a-thinking. I conceived the idea that the application of hydraulic
press power might serve many similar purposes in dealing with ultra
thick plates or bar iron,--such as the punching out of holes,
and cutting thick bars and plates into definite shapes, as might be
required. I suggested the subject to my friend Charles Fox, head of the
firm of Fox, Henderson, and Co. He had taken a large contract for a
chain bridge, the links of which were to be of thick flat iron bars,
with the ends broadened out for the link-pins to pass through.
He had described to me the trouble and cost they had occasioned him in
drilling the holes, and in cropping the rude-shaped ends of the bars
into the required form. I advised him to try the use of the hydraulic
press as a punching-machine, and also as a cutting-machine to dress the
ends of the great links. He did so in due time, and found the
suggestion of great service and value to him in this, and in other
cases of a similar kind. The saving of cost was very great,
and the work was much more perfect than under the former system.
1848. An Alternately-pegged "Shive" or Pulley for Rope Band Power
1848. A Turn-table "Trunnion Vision" Reflecting Telescope.
This is so arranged that the observer can direct the Telescope and view
an object in any part of the heavens without moving from his seat,
which is attached to the turn-table. For explanations, see text, p. 337.
1850. A Double or Ambidexter Self-acting Turning-Lathe,
with "Dead Gutters," specially adapted for turning Bolts and
suchlike detail Parts of Machinery.
This is a very valuable tool. It requires only one attendant.
It is especially useful as regards efficiency and economy. It will be
sufficiently understood by mechanical engineers from the annexed
1852. A Solid-bar "Link-Valve Motion," especially valuable for the
larger class of Marine Steam-Engines.
1854. Steam Puddling Patent.
This was the "pioneer" of the Bessemer process. See Bessemer
correspondence, p. 354
1854. A Reversible Rolling Mill without Fly-wheel.
This Rolling Mill consists of two combined steam-engines, acting on
cranks at right angles, the reversing of the rolls being effected by
the link motion. The requisite rolling power is obtained by suitable
wheel and pinion gear, so as to be entirely independent of the momentum
of a fly-wheel, which is entirely dispensed with.
I did not patent the invention. As usual in such cases, I made no
secret of it, but sent sketches explanatory of the arrangement to many
professional friends interested in mechanical improvements.
It was adopted by many, especially for rolling long and heavy bars and
plates. It enabled the workmen to "see-saw" these ponderous objects,
and pass them to and fro through the rolls with the utmost case,--
to the great saving of heat, time, and labour. The invention was first
brought into use by Mr. Ramsbotham at the Crewe works of the London and
North-Western Railway. On the 4th December 1866 I received the
following letter from him:
"DEAR SIR--I must crave your forgiveness for my great delay in
acknowledging the receipt of your kind letter of the 29th August,
in which you refer to the successful carrying out at these works of
your idea of a 'Reversible Rolling Mill without a Fly-wheel.'
It has long been to me a matter of astonishment that your idea has not
been reduced to practice years ago, particularly when it is considered
how well the arrangement is adapted to the rolling of Armour Plates, or
other work requiring a sustained effort, whilst it is at the same time
more effective than the ordinary mill arrangement for very light work.
So much is this latter true, that the men who are left to their own
choice in the matter, will reverse the mill rather than pass a light
sheet of 8 or 10 lbs. weight over the upper roll. This country is much
indebted to you for so valuable a suggestion; and now that it has been
brought to a successful issue, I have no doubt but it will be widely
acted upon. I need not add that it will afford me much pleasure to show
you the mill, and also what we are doing generally, if you should at
any time visit Crewe.--
Believe me very faithfully yours, " J. RAMSBOTHAM."
I also communicated the invention to Mr. Thomas Gillott of the Farnley
Ironworks, Yorkshire, and received from him the following letter, dated
the 2d January 1877:
" DEAR SIR--I was much gratified to see by your letter in Engineering
the interest you have shown with respect to the large Reversing Plate
Mill erected by me at these works, and drawn on the plan suggested by
you. Allow me to thank you for the complimentary manner in which you
have mentioned my work. Since the notice appeared, we have done a deal
of heavy work in this mill; and a plate large enough to shear 11' 0"
and 10' 2" and 1/2" thick has been rolled in five minutes. The slab
went through the roll 17 times before being rolled to the width and
turned round, and 18 times after turning and of the full width;
making a total of 35 passes--the turning occupying 20 seconds.
When it is remembered how rapidly a thin plate cools, this performance
will sufficiently indicate the severe work this mill is capable of
doing; notwithstanding the many predictions that such large plates
could not be rolled without a fly-wheel. As to repairs, none have been
required; so I cannot compare this with the Clutch systems. In respect
of steam used, the direct acting engines compare favourably with an
expansion beam condensing engine doing similar but lighter work.
Should it ever be your wish to see this mill at work, I should be much
pleased to have the opportunity of showing it to you.--
I am, dear sir, your obedient servant,
1854. Drilling Tunnels through Hard Rock.
Besides these contrivances and methods of accomplishing mechanical
objects, I have on several occasions read papers, prepared drawings,
and given suggestions, out of which have come so-called "inventions"
made by others. For instance, at the meeting of the British Association
in Liverpool in 1854, I read a paper and exhibited drawings before the
Mechanical Science Section, on my method of drilling tunnels through
hard rock. The paper and drawings excited considerable interest among
the railway engineers who were present. I afterwards met Mr. George
Newmann, C.E., who consulted me on the same subject. Several years
after (21st April 1863) I received the following letter from him:
"DEAR Sir--Some few years ago, I had the pleasure of spending an
evening in your company at my relative's (Mr. G. Withington) house at
Pendleton. As I was then Engineer to the Victor Emmanuel Railway, and
had made a survey of the Mout Cenis for the purpose of the Tunnel,
I consulted you as to the application of the machinery for that work.
You suggested the driving of drills in a manner similar to a piston-rod,
with other details. On my return to Savoy, I communicated these ideas
to Mr. Bartlett, the contractor's agent, and I recommended him to get a
small trial machine made. This he had done in a few months, and then he
claimed the whole idea as his own. The system has since been carried
out (see Times, 4th April 1863) by compressed air instead of steam.
I call your attention to this, as you may contradict, if you think
proper, the assertion in the article above mentioned, that the idea
originated with Bartlett."
I did not, however, contradict the assertion. I am glad that my
description and drawings proved in any way useful towards the
completion of that magnificent work, the seven-mile tunnel under
1862. Chilled Cast-iron Shot.
In like manner, I proposed the use of Chilled Cast-Iron Shot at a
meeting of the Mechanical Science Section of the British Association,
held at Cambridge in October 1862. Up to that time hardened steel shot
had been used to penetrate thick iron plates, but the cost was
excessive, about #30 a ton. I proposed that Chilled Cast-Iron should be
substituted; it was more simple and inexpensive. Considerable
discussion took place on the subject; and Sir William Fairbairn,
who was President of the Section, said that "he would have experiments
made, and he hoped that before the next meeting of the Association, the
matter would be proved experimentally. A brief report of the discussion
is given in the Times of the 7th October, and in the Athenaeum of the
18th October, 1862. Before, however, the matter could be put to the
test of experiment, Major Palliser had taken out his Patent for the
invention of Chilled Cast-Iron Shot, in May 1863, for which he was
afterwards handsomely rewarded.
I do not wish to "grasp" at any man's inventions, but it is right to
claim my own, and to state the facts. The discussion above mentioned
took place upon a paper read by J. Aston, Esq., Q.C., who thus refers
to the subject in his letter to me, dated the 7th January 1867:
"I perfectly remember the discussion which took place at the meeting of
the British Association at Cambridge in 1862, upon the material proper
to be used as projectiles. The discussion arose after a paper had been
read by me in the Mechanical Section upon 'Rifled guns and projectiles
adapted for attacking armour plates.' The paper was, I think, printed
by the Association in their Report for 1862. You spoke, I believe,
at some length on the occasion; and I recollect that you surprised and
much interested all who were present, by strenuously urging the use of
Chilled Cast-iron for shot and shell, intended for penetrating armour
"Having embraced all opportunities, and I had many at that time,
of ascertaining all that was done in the way of improving rifled
projectiles, I entertained a very strong opinion that experiments had
shown that ordinary cast-iron was, as compared with steel, of very
little value for shot and shell to be used against iron plates.
For that reason, I remember I took an opportunity, after the
termination of the discussion, in which you held your own against all
comers in favour of chilled cast-iron, of questioning you closely on
the subject, and you gave me, I admitted, good reason for the opinion
you expressed. You also urged me to cause a trial to be made of chilled
cast-iron for shell, such as I had shown to the section, and which (in
hardened steel shot) had been fired by Mr. Whitworth through thick iron
plates. This I had not an opportunity of doing. Term began soon after,
and Temple occupations then took up all my time. "There can be no doubt
whatever that any one who may claim to have been before you in teaching
the public the use of Chilled Cast Iron for projectiles intended to
penetrate iron plates, must give proof of having so done prior to your
vigorous advocacy of that material at the Cambridge Meeting in 1862.--
Yours very sincerely, "J.Aston."
In another letter Mr. Aston says--"It is quite right of you to assert
your claim to that which in fact belongs to you." I did not, however,
assert my claim; and, with these observations and extracts, I leave the
matter, stating again the fact that my public communication of the
invention was made in October 1862; and that the patent for the
invention was taken out by Major Palliser in May 1863.
Mr Nasmyth's final comments on his inventions and contrivances.
I have only mentioned the more prominent of my inventions and
contrivances. Had I described them fully I should have required another
volume. I have the satisfaction to know that many of them have greatly
advanced the progress of the mechanical arts, though they may not be
acknowledged as mine. I patented very few of my inventions. The others
I sowed broadcast over the world of practical mechanics. My reward is
in the knowledge that these "children of my brain" are doing, and will
continue to do, good service in time present and in time to come.
In mechanical structures and contrivances, I have always endeavoured to
attain the desired purpose by the employment of the Fewest Parts,
casting aside every detail not absolutely necessary, and guarding
carefully against the intrusion of mere traditional forms and
arrangements. The latter are apt to insinuate themselves,
and to interfere with that simplicity and directness of action
which is in all cases so desirable a quality in mechanical structures.
PLAIN COMMON SENSE should be apparent in the general design,
as in the form and arrangement of the details; and a general character
of severe utility pervade the whole, accompanied with as much attention
to gracefulness of form as is consistent with the nature and purpose of
THE SUN-RAY ORIGIN OF THE PYRAMIDS AND CUNEIFORM CHARACTER.
Before I take my leave of the public, I wish to put on record my
speculations as to the origin of two subjects of remote antiquity, viz.
the Sun-ray origin of the Pyramids, and the origin of the Arrow-head
or Cuneiform Character.
First, with respect to the Sun-ray origin of the Egyptian Pyramids.
In pursuing a very favourite subject of inquiry, namely the origin of
forms, no portion of it appears to me to be invested with so deep an
interest as that of the Worship of the Sun, one of the most primitive
and sacred foundations of adorative religion,--affecting as it has
done, architectural structures and numerous habits and customs which
have come clown to us from remote antiquity, and which owe their origin
to its influence.
On many occasions, while beholding the sublime effects of the Sun's
Rays streaming down on the earth through openings in the clouds near
the horizon, I have been forcibly impressed with the analogy they
appear to suggest as to the form of the Pyramid, while the single
vertical ray suggests that of the Obelisk.
In following up this subject, I was fortunate enough to find what
appears to me a strong confirmation of my views, namely, that the
Pyramid, as such, was a sacred form. I met with many examples of this
in the Egyptian Collection at the Louvre at Paris; especially in small
pyramids, which were probably the objects of household worship.
In one case I found a small pyramid, on the upper part of which
appeared the disc of the Sun, with pyramidal rays descending from it on
to figures in the Egyptian attitude of adoration. This consists in the
hands held up before the eyes--an attitude expressive of the brightness
of the object adored. It is associated with the brightness of the Sun,
and it still survives in the Salaam, which expresses profound reverence
and respect among Eastern nations. It also survives in the disc of the
Sun, which has for ages been placed like a halo behind the heads of
sacred and exalted personages, as may be seen in Eastern and early
paintings, as well as in church windows at the present day.
This is also intimately connected with lighted lamps and candles, which
latter may often be met with in Continental churches, as well as in
English Ritualist Churches at the present day. In Romish Continental
churches they are stuck on to pyramidal stands, and placed before
pictures and images of sacred personages. All such lighted lamps or
candles are survivals of that most ancient form of worship,--
that of THE SUN!
The accompanying illustrations will serve in some degree to confirm the
correctness of my views as to this very. interesting subject.
[Image] Fig. 1 is from a "rubbing" of one of the many small or
"Household" pyramids in the Louvre Collection at Paris;
[Image] while Fig. 2 is an attempt to illustrate in a graphic manner
the derivation of the form of the Pyramid and Obelisk from the
In connection with the worship of the Sun and other heavenly bodies, as
practised in ancient times by Eastern nations, it may be mentioned that
their want of knowledge of the vast distances that separate them from
the earth led them to the belief that these bodies were so near as to
exert a direct influence upon man and his affairs. Hence the origin of
Astrology, with all its accompanying mystifications; this was practised
under the impression that the Sun, Moon, and planets were near to the
earth. The summits of mountains and "High Places" thus became "sacred,"
and were for this reason resorted to for the performance of the most
important religious ceremonies.
As the "High Places" could not be transported to the Temples,
the cone-bearing trees, which were naturally associated with these
elevated places, in a manner partook of their sacred character, and the
fruit of the trees became in a like manner sacred. Hence the Fir Cone
became a portable emblem of their sacredness; and, accordingly in the
Assyrian Worship, so clearly represented to us in the Assyrian
Sculptures in our Museums, we find the Fir Cone being presented by the
priests towards the head of their kings as a high function of
Beatification. So sacred was the Fir Cone, as the fruit of the sacred
tree, that the priest who presents it has a reticule-shaped bag in
which, no doubt, the sacred emblem was reverently deposited when not in
use for the performance of these high religious ceremonies.
The same emblem "survived" in the Greek worship. I annex a tracing
from a wood engraving in Fellows's Researches in Asia Minor, 1852
(p. 175), showing the Fir Cone as the finial to the staff of office of
the Wine-god Bacchus.
To this day it is employed to stir the juice of the grape previous to
fermentation, and so sanctifying it by contact with the fruit of the
Sacred Tree. This is still practised by the Greeks in Asia Minor and
in Greece, though introduced in times of remote antiquity.
The Fir Cone communicates to most of the Greek wines that peculiar
turpentine or resinous flavour which is found in them. Although the
sanctification motive has departed, the resinous flavour is all that
survives of a once most sacred ceremony, as having so close a relation
to the worship of the Sun and the heavenly bodies.
In like manner, it appears to me highly probable that "The Christmas Tree"
with its lighted tapers, which is introduced at that sacred season for
the entertainment of our young people, is "a survival" of the worship
of the sacred tree and of the Sun. The toys which are hung on the twigs
of the tree may also be "survivals" of the offerings which were usually
made to the Sun and the heavenly bodies. If I am correct in my
conjecture on this subject, it throws a very interesting light on
what is considered as a mere agent for the amusement of children.
Next, with respect to the Cuneiform Character. When I first went to
reside in London, in 1829, I often visited the British Museum.
It was the most instructive and interesting of all the public
institutions which I had yet seen. I eagerly seized every opportunity
I could spare to spend as many hours as possible in wandering through
its extensive galleries, especially those which contained the Assyrian,
Egyptian, and Greek antiquities. By careful and repeated examination
of the objects arranged in them, I acquired many ideas that afforded me
subjects for thought and reflection.
Amongst these objects, I was specially impressed and interested with
the so-called "Arrow-head" or "Cuneiform Inscriptions" in the Assyrian
Department. These remarkable inscriptions were on large tablets of
burnt clay. They formed the chief portion of the then comparatively
limited collection of Assyrian antiquities in the British Museum.
[Image] Fig 1.
I was particularly impressed with the precision and simple beauty of
these cuneiform inscriptions,--especially with the strikingly
distinctive nature of what I may term the fundamental or elementary
wedge-like form, of which the vast variety of letters or words of these
inscriptions were composed. The triangular or three-sided indentation
will be observed in the above engraving (Fig. 1). This elementary
form, placed in various positions with respect to each other, appeared
to be capable of yielding an infinite variety of letters and words,
as seen in Fig. 2.
[Image] Fig 2.
I may here mention that I entered upon this interesting subject with no
pretensions as a linguist, nor with any idea of investigating the
meaning of these remarkable inscriptions; but only as a Mechanic, to
ascertain the manner in which the striking characters were produced, so
as to convey words and ideas through their variety of combinations.
I soon perceived that the simple but distinctive characters shown in
the above representations were essentially connected with the
employment of plastic clay; this being the material most suitable for
their impression, by means of a three-sided instrument or stylus.
The angular extremity of this instrument, when depressed into the
surface of a tablet of plastic clay in different positions and
directions, would leave these cuneiform impressions in all their
beautifully distinct and characteristic forms. And thus, after the
tablets had been subjected to fire and made into hard brick,
the impressions have come down to us, after the lapse of thousands of
years, as fresh and distinct as if they had been produced but
I was so fortunate as to have my conjectures confirmed with respect to
the exact form of the instrument by which these remarkable characters
are produced, observing, in what appeared to be a hastily-formed
inscription on the edge of a large brick, that the inscriber had
apparently used rather more pressure on his stylus than was requisite.
In consequence of which, the end of it had been so deeply depressed
into the soft clay as to leave an exact counterpart of its size and
form. I secured a cast of this over-deep impression of the stylus,
from which Fig. 3 is taken, after a photograph.
[Image] Fig 3.
In order further to illustrate the simple mode of producing
inscriptions on tablets of clay, I give in Fig. 4 a tablet inscription
produced by means of the stylus which is seen laid over the tablet.
[Image] Fig 4.
The next illustration (Fig.5) is intended to convey an idea of the
manner in which the stylus was held and applied to the surface of the
clay when a cuneiform inscription was being produced. The upper, flat,
or third side of the stylus enabled the inscriber to keep it in correct
relative position in respect to the tablet, yielding at the same time a
convenient flat surface upon which to rest the end of his finger when
indenting the angular end into the clay.
[Image] Fig 5.
Refer back to Fig. 2, and it will be found that any variety in the
size of the cuneiform inscriptions may be produced by the same stylus,
by simply depressing the angular end of it to a greater or less depth
into the surface of the clay. In many of the most elaborate
inscriptions, a certain lob-sidedness of the cuneiform character may be
observed. This is due to the inscriber having held his stylus somewhat
askew, as we do a pen in ordinary writing. Referring to my remark that
the distinctive shape of the cuneiform character was essentially due to
the use of plastic clay as the most suitable material for its
production, I think it highly probable that the origin of these
inscriptions took its rise not only from the facility with which the
characters could be indented on the material, but from the abundance of
plastic mud which forms the natural soil of the lands adjoining the
great Assyrian rivers. This when made into bricks, became the chief
building material of the energetic people of Babylon and the other
great cities of the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. The laborious work
of brickmaking was generally assigned to captives as taskwork, and it
appears to me highly probable that "the tale" of the brickmaker or his
taskmaster might be most readily marked by simply indenting the side of
the soft tale brick with the corner angle of a dry one; and that thus
the strikingly peculiar character of the cuneiform character was
produced (see Fig. 6).
[Image] Fig 6.
In course of time the elementary form was expanded into this most
beautifully simple mode of communicating ideas through the agency of
conventional signs or letters; being also especially suited for making
historical or other records on tablets of moist clay, which, when
"fired", became absolutely indestructible, so far as time is concerned.
This is abundantly proved by those marvellously perfect burnt clay
tablets, covered with exquisitely minute and perfect inscriptions,
which, after having remained hid in mounds of rubbish for thousands of
years, among the ruins of the Assyrian cities, are brought to light as
fresh and perfect as on the day on which they were executed.
These tablets now excite the wonder and admiration of all who are able
to appreciate the beauty of the inscriptions, as well as of those who
are speculatively curious as to the origin of written language.
This attempt to explain the probable origin of the cuneiform character
may to some appear fanciful. But whether or not, it is certain that
this simple and impressive character can be readily produced by the
primitive means which I have ventured to suggest. I give a cuneiform
inscription (Fig. 7), which I have produced by simply employing the
corner angle of an ordinary brick as the stylus for indenting the
inscription on the tablet of soft clay. This might have been extended
to any length, in longer as well as minuter impressions.
[Image] Fig 7.
As soon as the capability of the cuneiform impression was adopted as
the Assyrian character, it was in due time employed for inscriptions on
stone or other materials, such as marble or alabaster. The chisel was
then substituted for the stylus; but the characters remained in a great
measure the same. In some cases a slight modification was observable,
being naturally due to the change of material and the method of carving
it; but in most respects the departure from the clay prototype is very
slight, and the original is adhered to with remarkable integrity.
When examining some early Greek inscriptions in marble, in the British
Museum, in the year 1837, I was much interested to observe the
appearance of a cuneiform element in the limbs of several Greek
letters, especially in the terminals, as illustrated in Fig. 8,
each limb of the letter being in itself a perfect cuneiform;
and as such the terminal of each limb is at right angles to the axis,
and not as now (in our modern capital letters) parallel to the line of
[Image] Fig 8.
This apparent presence of the cuneiform element in these early Greek
inscriptions suggests some very interesting historic causes which led
to their introduction, and so passed from the Greek into the Roman,
and eventually into the capital letters of our own alphabet. To give
one instance,--though many might be cited,--take the capital letter T,
and it will be found that it went from the Cuneiform into the Greek,
then into the Roman, and lastly into our own letter, thus presenting a
remarkable instance of the survival of a form from remote antiquity
down to the present day.
[Image] Fig 9.
The letters A K H I K M N Y X have the distinct remains of their
Babylonian origin in the top and bottom stroke, which is nothing more
nor less than a corruption of the original or primitive arrow-headed
impression of the stylus in the moist clay, begun thousands of years
In a lecture which I gave at the Royal Institution in London, in 1839,
and in another at the British Association at Cheltenham, in 1856,
I referred to this presence of the cuneiform element in the Greek
letters, illustrating the subject by actual casts from the inscriptions
themselves. At Cheltenham the question gave rise to a most animated
and interesting discussion, in which Dr. Whewell and Sir Thomas
Phillips (the great antiquarian) took a prominent part. I understood
that Sir Thomas Phillips assigned that the intermixture of cuneiform
with the Greek alphabet proceeded from the Samaritans, who were
originally an Assyrian colony. I find that many Greek inscriptions
exhibit the cuneiform element in nearly all the letters composing them.
This is a subject well worthy of the attention of our antiquarian Greek
scholars, as pointing to an intimate intercourse with the Assyrians at
some remote age. The distinctive character of the cuneiform in the
Greek inscriptional letters could not have arisen from chance.
Some intercommunication with the Assyrians must have taken place.
This subject is all the more interesting, as the cuneiform element
appears to have passed from the Greek inscriptional letters into those
of the Romans, and from thence into our own capital letters.
This affords a very remarkable instance of the "survival" of a form,
which, however naturally due to the plastic material in connection with
which it originated, nevertheless led to its use for ages after the
circumstances which led to its adoption had passed away. This tendency
in mankind to cling to shapes and forms through mere traditional
influences is widely observable, especially in connection with
architectural forms, arrangements, and decorative details. It offers a
subject of great interest to those who have a natural aptitude to
investigate what I may term the etymology of form, a subject of the
most attractive nature, especially to those who enjoy thinking and
reflecting upon what they have specially observed.
[Image] Assyrian roller-seal.
Before concluding this subject I may mention that the Assyrians
employed a cylindrical roller-seal in order to produce impressions in a
wholesale way. This is exemplified in the above engraving.
The mechanical principles inherent in this beautifully simple form of
roller-seal, indicate a high order of ingenuity, well worthy of the
originators of the arrow-headed character. In fact it is the prototype
not only of the modern system of calico-printing but of the Waiter
Printing Press, by which the Times and many other newspapers are now
printed--a remarkable instance of the survival or restoration of a
very old method of impression.
[Image] His Autograph and Thumb Mark.
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