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Chrimes watch: Peter Barlow, British engineering pioneer

1 March marked the 150th anniversary of the death of Professor Peter Barlow (1776-1862). Father of William Henry Barlow, ICE President and designer of St Pancras train shed roof, Barlow can be regarded as the pioneer of modern British engineering science.

Although he taught at the Royal Military Academy and wrote on a range of mathematical and scientific topics, he was an honorary member of ICE.

His interaction with the civil engineering profession seems to have dated from 1801 when Thomas Telford wrote to him, and many other scientists and engineers, about the feasibility of Telford’s project of a 600ft single arch cast iron span for a new London Bridge.

Barlow became interested in the strength of timber and the value of various engineering theories for the proportioning of beams and columns, initially of timber.

He devised a testing machine and produced the first British test book on the strength of materials in 1817: An essay on the strength and stress of timber.

Telford was able to enlarge the scope of the book by offering Barlow the results of his tests of iron made for a proposed suspension bridge at Runcorn. He subsequently sought Barlow’s advice on the Menai suspension bridge
design. Barlow’s book was the subject of discussion at the inaugural meeting of the ICE in 1818.

Enlarged, largely by tests carried out in the railway era, the book remained in print as a standard textbook into the 1860s.

Unfortunately, Barlow never really revisited the work in the light of developing ideas for structural analysis. It was, however, the first textbook to explore ideas of stress in a modern manner.

Barlow also presented a paper to the ICE on hydraulic pressure in the Bramah (hydraulic) press and produced design rules. In the railway era he tested railway bars for the London-Birmingham Railway, and with the Royal Engineer, Colonel Frederick Smith, reported on the strategic railway routes from Chester to Holyhead, and London to Edinburgh and Glasgow. He investigated locomotive performance in another paper to ICE. He also reported on the atmospheric railway system often associated with IK Brunel.

More generally Barlow investigated the variation of navigational compasses, electromagnetism - including the phenomenon that could have pioneered the use of the electric telegraph. He contributed to leading encyclopedia of the day, including Rees Cyclopaedia, and the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana for which he compiled a major overview of manufactures and machinery.

A small exhibition of Barlow’s writings are displayed at One Great George Street on the first floor, until the end of May.

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