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Doing The Locomotion

Iggy McGovern

Villain of Steam: A Life of Dionysius Lardner, by AL Martin, Tyndall Scientific, 456 pp, £13.99, ISBN: 978-0993242007

My limited knowledge of nineteenth century Dublin is centred on Trinity College. That knowledge is further confined to the cast of family and friends, poets and priests, mathematicians and matriarchs and patriots and performers whose personae I borrowed to create a poetic biography of the mathematical genius William Rowan Hamilton.

Mathematically, with a one-third share of a sonnet, the very least of these is Dr Dionysius Lardner. He appears as one of the three referees appointed by the Royal Irish Academy to assess the scientific merit of the paper “On Caustics”, submitted by the undergraduate Hamilton. The referees rejected the paper and while there is some suspicion that they could not understand it, that may have been the fault of Hamilton’s exposition, which was never the clearest. I was also vaguely aware that Lardner had been a candidate for the chair of astronomy two years later, and I may have wanted to raise a faint touché when my man gets the job. Beyond that, Lardner was a mere footnote.

Villain of Steam: A Life of Dionysius Lardner, by AL Martin has forced me into a radical rethink. Not only did I find that Hamilton and Lardner have much more in common but I also had to acknowledge that Lardner’s lifetime circle of connections was considerably larger and much more diverse than that of Hamilton. Equally, although Hamilton was a frequent visitor to Britain, he was largely domiciled in Dublin, living on the job at Dunsink Observatory, and indeed dying in that house. Lardner by contrast was mostly London-based, until scandal forced him abroad, in the first instance to America, and latterly to Paris and then to Naples, where he died.

Lardner, born in 1793, was some twelve years older than Hamilton. He had already taken his BA at Trinity College seven years before Hamilton entered in 1823. But they still had considerable overlap in college: not only was Hamilton visiting his soon-to-be college tutor Charles Boyton well before entry; Lardner was still around the place until the late 1820s. The exact nature of his connection with the college is vague; certainly, he had duties as a “grinder”, a self-employed tutor allied to the official course. But Lardner had already demonstrated a talent that would certainly set him apart from Hamilton, namely, the ability to write with the sort of clarity that the student badly needs to see. Encouraged by Bartholomew Lloyd, he produced a number of what we might call textbooks, complete with worked examples. Perhaps Hamilton would have scorned them but the great majority of students would have been grateful. It was a talent that he would exploit for the rest of his career.

Lardner was already married with three children when he completed his BA. He badly needed employment, especially after the death of his father. He found temporary work in the newly established Dublin Mechanics’ Institute, where his audience was a mix of learned gentlemen founders and craftsmen and factory workers. Lardner’s clear and understandable lecturing style reflected that of his writing and he soon attracted large audiences; the highlight of the series was a lecture on the (as yet stationary) steam engine, where he introduced the novelty of a sectional (or cutaway) model that showed the internal mechanisms. Again, the content and style of these lectures were early pointers to later career elements.

However, the work was not full-time and Lardner was unsuccessful in obtaining a professorship, both in astronomy at Trinity College and in natural philosophy (now physics) at the Royal Dublin Society ‑ although the latter did award him a gold medal for his lectures at the Mechanics’ Institute. Following his ordination in the Church of Ireland he was sometime chaplain in the college but he also found the time to lay one further foundation before taking the boat to England: together with an apothecary friend, Lardner founded The Dublin Philosophical Journal and Scientific Review, a publication that attracted the praise of the English scientist Humphrey Davy, but which did not apparently succeed in make much money. However, Lardner’s fortunes were about to change. A diverse grouping of prominent non-Anglicans set up London University in opposition to the sectarian establishment universities at Oxford and Cambridge; Lardner, already well connected with the same grouping, was appointed the first professor of natural philosophy and astronomy in 1827.

His tenure, however, was short-lived; the fledgling institution was soon in financial difficulty, exacerbated by Lardner’s spending on laboratory equipment. There were also disputes over his other income stream from editing and publishing and probably a general conflict between his very individual personality and the college authorities. But although Lardner resigned, his influence remained in his textbooks and in the equipment he had purchased, with the latter still in use more than a century later in the successor institution, the successful University College London.

If Lardner were taking honest stock of his life at this juncture, he might have noted some negatives. He had no university position, nor would he again aspire to one. His marriage had failed in 1820; his wife Cecilia left him, claiming that Lardner had been unfaithful with a married woman called Anne Boursiquot, with Lardner the likely father of Dion Boucicault (sic), the author of The Colleen Bawn and other melodramas. The hypocrisy of the age had no difficulty in ignoring this claim; however, a decade later, when it was revealed that Cecilia had subsequently had a child with a married man, Lardner used the full force of the law to sue for divorce. He won and little of Cecilia’s counter claims tainted his standing. He would not be so lucky the next time.

But for now the issue was how to earn a living. It seems that Lardner was an expert recycler; he had already reused his Mechanics’ Institute lectures at equivalent institutes in England; now he was poised to build on his publishing experience to exploit the growing public thirst for general knowledge. With a couple of partners he devised the concept of a hundred-volume encyclopedia with contributions by the acknowledged experts of the day (at least initially) and to be sold cheaply and in volume. The Cabinet Cyclopedia was a high-risk enterprise financially as the starter authors would have to be well-paid; Lardner succeeded in attracting the high-flying trio of Sir Walter Scott (a history of Scotland), Sir James Mackintosh (a history of England) and the poet Thomas Moore (a history of Ireland) and thereby secured the services of lesser names at considerably less cost. He also may have been involved in less savoury ways of advertising the product that AL Martin labels “guerrilla marketing”, including anonymous letter-writing to newspapers to ignite controversy about the authenticity of the authors. Volumes of the cyclopedia continued to be sold long after Lardner’s departure from England, and specific volumes on science were highly regarded.

Lardner was an active member of a dizzying array of scientific societies, from The Royal Society to The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, the latter probably the target of the Hamilton-Wordsworth jibe that “useful knowledge only can debase”. Among many other contacts, the networking Lardner became a close friend of Charles Babbage and a vocal advocate of the latter’s calculating “difference engine”. But it was a different kind of engine that would launch Lardner’s next enterprise: having lectured on stationary steam engines for many years, Lardner was finally introduced to the advancing world of the railways in 1832. The Liverpool-Manchester Railway, opened two years earlier, had established the principal of passenger travel and even Hamilton was enticed to visit it – although he would dismiss the newspapers’ description of the system as “the wonder of the age”. Within a short time, Lardner had become something of an expert, updating his book Popular Lectures on the Steam Engine to include details of railway engineering, together with the results of recent speed trials and of his own experiments in this area. By 1835 he was being summoned to testify before a House of Commons committee on a bill to establish the London-Bristol “Great Western” railway. The same year finds him back in Dublin for the British Association meeting, commenting on the newly built Dublin-Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) railway; the same meeting where Hamilton, the principal organiser, is knighted by the lord lieutenant.

Villain of Steam addresses the complex to-and-fro of Lardner’s views of the railways. Was his evidence less than even-handed or did he get the science of speed wrong? Certainly, he has been labelled as somehow anti-railway. He seems to have been genuinely fearful of the potential for accidents ‑ he is credited with the first English language usage of the word “derailed” ‑ and found himself in conflict with the then young engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Something of the same negativity attaches to Lardner’s views on transatlantic steam travel: he calculated that the amount of coal needed would limit sea voyage to two thousand miles. In 1838, a steamship, the Sirius, left Cork on April 4th and arrived in New York after a voyage of eighteen days, four hours and twenty-two minutes ‑ the normal westbound passage by sailing packet was forty days. Lardner’s reputation was further damaged following a series of experiments on the effects of air resistance on the speed of trains, and his adverse comments on a proposal to increase the gauge. But it was also about to take a more precipitous dive because of events in his private life.

Although Hamilton retained a lifelong obsession about his first love, Catherine Disney, his subsequent marriage to Helen Bayly survived this and other pressures, viz Helen’s frequent absences due to illness, and Hamilton’s depression and alcohol problems. Lardner, the new-minted bachelor, enjoyed the London party scene and there seems to have been another child born out of wedlock. But events in 1840 were of a different order, and bound to set him at odds with Victorian mores. Appropriately, there was a railway connection, so to speak. While Lardner was examining the proposed routes of the London-Brighton track, he became friends with Richard Heaviside, a director of the railway. Following a fall at the East Cliff, it is suggested that Lardner was taken to the Heaviside home to recuperate. Reminiscent of an episode from a Jane Austen novel, this was a happy or unhappy accident, depending on one’s point of view. Four months later, Heaviside arrived home to find that his beautiful (and wealthy) wife, Mary, had eloped with Lardner.

AL Martin describes the furore that ensued, both in the satirical press and in the courts, with an intervening denouement of the tracing of the runaways to a Paris hotel. A former captain in the guards, Heaviside, despite his position as a magistrate, gave Lardner a sound thrashing. But, Mary Heaviside was not willing to return to her husband and children. In the subsequent suit filed by Heaviside, the £13,000 compensation he had demanded was reduced to £8,000 to take account of the physical assault. Lardner was condemned on all sides and the less savoury facts of his divorce case were raked over; among the milder of newspaper quips, The Satirist held “If a man is free [by divorce] to take a wife, it does not follow that he must take the wife of his neighbor.”

Lardner and Mary Heaviside, now styled “Mr and Mrs Bennett” then proceeded to New York, where any hopes of anonymity were soon dashed. Attempts to gain employment in the newspaper business led to a saucy “outing”, the author musing on the irony of Lardner’s arrival by the mode of transport he had once denigrated, and of his bringing Mrs Heaviside for ballast! The couple soon moved on to Philadelphia, where Lardner began planning a grand lecture tour of the United States.

Once again, the mode and topics of these lectures would be the well-worn territory of science and beyond, suitably updated, of course, but with two significant differences: first, in the matter of venues, Lardner reversed his negative opinion of theatres as against lecture halls; the negative connotations of populist entertainment yielding to the positive benefits of larger seating capacity. Secondly, he engaged in a mutually beneficial relationship with the emerging newspaper proprietor Howard Greeley; his reporter Henry James Raymond (who would go on to found The New York Times) wrote up versions of Lardner’s lectures that gradually moved from inside article to encompass most of the Tribune front page. Raymond’s rapid note-taking resulted in near verbatim accounts of the lectures, which could then be later collated in book form as Popular Lectures on Science and Art: Delivered in the Principal Cities and Towns of the United States. In this win-win situation, Greeley’s paper flourished and Lardner’s lectures benefited from the publicity.

The grand tour lived up to its name, with a dizzying roll call of venues across the eastern half of the land mass, from Boston to New Orleans and from Nashville to Havana, mostly by railroad, with some east coast steamship travel. Audiences of up to two thousand were recorded and The New York Herald claimed that in the ten-week tour he had addressed fifty thousand persons in total. The same article remarked that he had also been attacked by over one hundred newspapers, so the whiff of scandal had not entirely evaporated. Back in England there was no forgiveness, with articles suggesting that Lardner was starving in Philadelphia and that Mary Heaviside had left him.

In 1845, Lardner and Mary, and their child, returned to Paris. Initially, he found employment as the Paris correspondent of the London-based Daily News but then moved to the equivalent post at Greeley’s New York Tribune, succeeding one Karl Marx. Now married to Mary, he was not so financially reliant on journalism and could afford to devote himself to book publication. His illustrated Museum of Science and Art found admirers throughout the English-speaking world. He also refocused his energies on the book that would be his masterpiece. And once again, the railways would be its theme.

By then, the railways in Britain had experienced a severe boom-and-bust cycle. Published in 1849, Lardner’s Railway Economy examined the financial and management issues that the railways project presented; one twentieth century economist described it as “the first exposition in England of what approximates to the modern theory of the firm”; Marx quoted from it in Das Kapital. In large measure the book was a synthesis of other writers’ ideas that Lardner’s editing and analytical skills brought together in a significant whole. Among its celebrated contributions was “Lardner’s Law of Squares”, which held that the increase in the market would be in the square of the radius of transport.

Lardner lived for a further decade but this last triumph seems a fair place to conclude. In a final contrast with Hamilton (the sesquicentenary of whose death occurred in 2015) Lardner received gentle obituaries in both The Times and The New York Times; Hamilton got a tepid mention in The Irish Times. But what of Villain of Steam itself, the book, that is? Author AL Martin is, like her subject, an enthusiast and she leaves no stone unturned in poking out Lardnerian connections. This is both the strength and weakness of the book. To parallel Lardner’s railway obsession, she is likely to turn into any available siding, and even manage the occasional derailing, leaving the reader briefly lost in time and space. Against that, the book is freighted with wonderful illustrations, unforgettable quotations, satiric ballads and cartoons (see the Appendix for Thackeray on Dionysius Diddler) but don’t presume on complete historical accuracy – and be prepared to suffer an excess of typos, for which the publisher must share the blame.

Perhaps you should think of it as a time travel device with occasionally wonky controls. Strap yourself in and set the dial for nineteenth century Dublin, maybe Dominick Street, where Hamilton was born or Lardner’s birthplace of Marlborough Street. Better still, get yourself into the 1835 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science in Trinity’s Long Room Library that featured these two Dubs, both geniuses, in their very different ways. And, bearing in mind that the same association revoked Lardner’s membership for his sins, think carefully about whose path you choose then to follow.


Iggy McGovern is the author of A Mystic Dream of 4, a sonnet sequence based on the life of William Rowan Hamilton (Quaternia Press 2013).