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The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney: Gentleman Scientist and Inventor, 1793-1875 (review)

From: Victorian Studies
Volume 42, Number 4, Summer 1999/2000
pp. 688-690 | 10.1353/vic.1999.0020

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Victorian Studies 42.4 (1999) 688-690

Book Review

The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney: Gentleman Scientist and Inventor, 1793- 1875

The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney: Gentleman Scientist and Inventor, 1793- 1875, by Dale H. Porter; pp. 285. Bethlehem: Lehigh University Press, PA; London: Associated University Presses, 1998, $43.50, £34.50.

Dale Porter begins his book with a justification of its old-fashioned title. Although he provides a thorough biographical study of the "life" of Goldsworthy Gurney, a colorful and versatile "gentleman scientist and inventor," Porter emphasizes Gurney's "times," that is, the political, scientific, and environmental context surrounding his research and inventions. The result is a well-written and informative study of Victorian science and scientific culture.

Gurney's failures are at least as interesting as his successes. Porter accurately labels him a "scientist-inventor of the second rank" (230), whose undeniable brilliance and checkered scientific career earned him a knighthood, but not lasting public recognition. His career defies simple categorization, as he studied medicine and natural history, but spent most of his time attempting to perfect (and, in some cases, market) various inventions. However, he was not a skilled salesman, accountant, or administrator, and often lost support when he tried to sell his products or ideas to the public. Porter's mastery of his subject material allows the reader to understand the complexity of Victorian society, and see, as Gurney did not, many of the consequences of his actions.

Gurney's early life story fits the stereotypical pattern for a heroic scientist. He explored various agricultural, atmospheric, and mechanical scientific interests while still a child in an upper-class Cornwall household, and started writing papers for scientific societies during his apprenticeship to a doctor. After moving to London in 1820, he delivered a series of lectures about chemistry to a public that considered this an extremely fashionable subject. As a result, the young man attracted favorable attention while earning lucrative speaking fees.

Gurney never achieved distinction as a lecturer or theoretician, however, because he was more interested in practical applications of science than in scientific theories. Porter's study reveals the interconnectedness of science and technology during the Victorian period, when gentlemen amateurs such as Gurney perfected devices that allowed them to test new theories. Many of these investigators (including Gurney) proceeded in a trial-and-error manner instead of systematically. Always drawn to topics requiring both scientific knowledge and mechanical implementation, Gurney soon became fascinated with steam power. The largest section of the book deals with his attempt to perfect steam carriages and found a company to produce them for passenger and freight transportation.

An early alternative to the railroad, the steam carriage consisted of a coal- fueled steam engine driving a large coach. Gurney was probably the most prominent of several inventors in the 1820s who produced functional vehicles that solved such technical problems as safety, speed, traction, and power. However, he was unable to anticipate or overcome non-technical impediments. His revolutionary technology threatened to overturn the entire traditional English transportation network, and could have driven stagecoach drivers, horse breeders, feed growers, and turnpike operators out of business. At the same time, the neophyte railroad interests offered tremendous resistance in spite of the similarity between railroad and steam carriage technology. Unlike the railroad operators, who were already organizing huge quantities of capital, labor, and political power, Gurney retained a provincial outlook, focusing on personal contacts and over-tolerant of haphazard organization and financial planning. He was far from the only inventor to face this difficulty; administrative, lobbying, and accounting skills were hard to find, especially among the gentlemen amateurs of England. Porter contends that a new generation of industrialists was being trained in factories and larger businesses during this time, while the amateur scientist headed toward extinction. His analysis of the genesis of "networks," or allied interests able to mobilize capital, political power, and scientific expertise to achieve their ends, convincingly explains why Gurney was unable to succeed.

The steam carriage company eventually went bankrupt, and the remainder of Gurney's life was an informative mix of successes and failures. He was at his best when conducting scientific experiments...

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