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Technology and Culture 42.1 (2001) 170-171

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Book Review

A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and the Birth of Electrical Engineering

A Victorian Scientist and Engineer: Fleeming Jenkin and the Birth of Electrical Engineering. By Gillian Cookson and Colin A. Hempstead. Aldershot and Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Pp. xii+217. $79.95.

Although less well known than his contemporaries James Clerk Maxwell and William Thomson, the subject of this biography by Gillian Cookson and Colin Hempstead made important contributions to submarine telegraph engineering, measurement science, and engineering education. The only child of Charles Jenkin, an officer in the Royal Navy, Fleeming Jenkin was born near Dungeness in March 1833. He enrolled in 1843 at the Edinburgh Academy, a preparatory school also attended by Maxwell, who later collaborated with Jenkin in research related to electrical standards. Jenkin continued his education in Germany, France, and Italy, graduating from the University of Genoa in 1850. Subsequently, he served an engineering apprenticeship of about three years under William Fairbairn in Manchester, following which he held various engineering positions before becoming chief engineer and electrician in 1857 with the R. S. Newall Company, a firm engaged in the manufacture and laying of submarine telegraph cable.

Jenkin met William Thomson in 1858 and was invited to join him in a consulting engineering partnership two years later. Thomson excelled in cable theory and instrumentation, while Jenkin's forte was more the commercial and problem-solving aspects of the partnership. Cromwell F. Varley joined Thomson and Jenkin in 1865, and they were rewarded with a good income from patent-license agreements and consulting fees by the mid-1870s.

For several years Jenkin served on the British Association's Committee on Electrical Standards, and he devoted a great deal of time and energy to preparing reports and carrying out related experiments. His book Electricity and Magnetism was published in 1873, and his influential paper "On the Application of Graphic Methods to the Determination of the Efficiency of Machinery" appeared in the Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1876-78. Jenkin also used graphic methods in papers dealing with trade unions, supply and demand, and taxation. He took a keen interest in drama and literature, wrote a play in 1881, and produced and acted in plays performed in his home and elsewhere by a group including his wife, Anne Jenkin, and a former student and family friend, Robert Louis Stevenson. Stimulated by an interest in the authenticity of costumes worn in plays, Jenkin did research and wrote a paper on clothing worn by women in ancient Greece.

During the last few years of his life, Jenkin worked to develop a system of transportation known as telpherage, which moved materials in containers [End Page 170] suspended from an electrical cable. Before it achieved commercial success, however, Jenkin died in June 1885, his death being attributed to blood poisoning contracted during minor foot surgery. A two-volume collection of his technical and literary papers, which included a biographical memoir by Robert Louis Stevenson, appeared in 1887.

Intended for the general reader, this biography provides a fairly effective treatment of the social and cultural context of Jenkin's activities, but does not delve as deeply into his engineering work as many readers of T&C might wish. This reader, for one, would have preferred seeing more equations, graphs, and patent drawings and fewer long quotations, especially obituaries.

James E. Brittain

Dr. Brittain is professor emeritus at the Georgia Institute of Technology. His most recent book, Scanning the Past, was published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers in 1999.

Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.



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