George Stephenson's other rocket

The story of George Stephenson's little known and strictly non-engineering passion

'George Stephenson? That's not very eccentric,' I hear you grumble. Indeed, were I to write about Stephenson's famous locomotive to a readership of engineers, you'd be quite right.

But I'm talking vegetables. Not the peppery salad leaf 'rocket' (that was just to get your attention), but a nevertheless extraordinary piece of vegetable engineering for which one this great engineer can claim credit.

When George Stephenson retired from the railway business to his Tapton House estate in Chesterfield he determined to set his mind to new problems. One such problem was an area of the Victorian world that needed 'improving' – horticulture.

Stephenson brought an engineer's mind to bettering what was, in these pre-Darwinian days, generally considered to be God's creation. His enthusiasm for growing vegetables had been kindled during his years at Killingworth where he had been appointed as brakesman to the West Moor colliery engine in 1804. Here he had delighted in growing enormous cauliflowers and cabbages to win horticultural competitions.

Now rich and retired he looked to tame more exotic fruits, in particular melons and pineapples. The problem of growing large and perfectly formed melons was solved by a wire basket to hold the fruit suspended with the stalk not under tension, ensuring the melon was not choked of nourishment from the strain it put on its own stalk.

Pineapples also benefited, thanks to the construction of ten hot-water heated forcing houses and a range of pineries, one 140ft in length. If his pineapples never quite lived up to his boast that he would grow them 'as large as pumpkins' he did at least eventually beat his arch rival, the Duke of Devonshire, in competition.

However, Stephenson's most vexatious vegetable was an altogether humbler thing – the cucumber. Not that Stephenson had any trouble growing them to a magnificent size in his greenhouses, aided by his careful selection of manure and the lavish attentions of his legion of gardeners. What bothered Stephenson was their shape. Cucumbers, he discovered, would not grow straight and, being an engineer who was fond of straight lines, this bothered him.

Fixing the problem was no simple matter, however, and even he was at first bemused. Initially he tried his melon trick, suspending the cucumbers on wires in the hope that gravity could play a steadying hand in their development. When this failed he tried growing them on trays using various mechanical props to counter any emerging curve before it became too severe. This also failed.

Never a man to give up, he next turned to the application of heat and light in the hope that the cucumbers were bending towards or away from the source of one or the other and so by applying the same to the other side, the curve could be corrected. Had this been successful there might today be a whole career in manoeuvring paraffin lamps and torches around individual cucumbers. Fortunately it did not.

In the end it was not science that would tame Stephenson's cucumbers, but the application of brute force. If they would not grow straight in any natural environment, he reasoned, then perhaps he could grow them in some kind of mechanical mould that would prevent them growing any other way. Having dashed off a quick design he sent his idea to a glassworks in Newcastle where they produced for him a series of thick-walled glass tubes open at both ends and tapered towards one. When the young cucumber was placed inside one of these straight tubes it could do nothing but grow straight, or so Stephenson hoped.

And indeed the application of this exceptional engineering mind to this most peculiar of problems did indeed work. That other great improver Samuel Smiles notes in his 'Life of George Stephenson' that one afternoon the great man finally returned triumphant from the garden wielding one of his dead-straight cucumbers and announced to his gathered house guests 'I think I have bothered them now!'

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