When the cortège of the great railway engineer Robert Stephenson passed through London to his funeral in Westminster Abbey, crowds lined the whole route. In his homeland on Tyneside the towns fell silent at noon. On the Thames, Tyne, Wear and Tees, all shipping lay still, with flags at half-mast.
That event in 1859 showed the enormous impact of the great engineering projects on the Victorian imagination. The works of the engineers were dramatic and visible. They had imprinted railways and canals on the landscape, changed the organisation of cities and had linked continents by means of the telegraph. Steam power and new machinery for production had transformed the world of work, especially manufacturing.
It was a time when talented and energetic engineers could make enormous personal contributions, and when human welfare and technological progress were often assumed to walk hand in hand. The biographer Samuel Smiles, who celebrated these great feats of engineering and the ‘industrial heroes’, could at that time describe the steam-engine pioneer James Watt as one of the ‘real benefactors of the world’. For a while, Watt and his successors were the superstars of their age. Busts and statues of them were made for public display, with miniature versions produced that were designed to be kept in the home. The start and completion of construction works were marked by ceremonies that were watched by crowds who were eager customers for a great variety of commemorative souvenirs.