The Autocrat and the Engineer (Part I)

The Joseph Harrison Jr. residence at 221 S.18th Street. c.1900.

In view of the interest and importance at the present time of everything which relates to the development of railroading, it is well to remember what has been done in America to lay the foundations of the locomotive industry, and, therefore, we feel that it is desirable to recall the extent to which the design of the modern locomotive is indebted to the work of Joseph Harrison, Jr., although it is now more than thirty years since he passed away. 

Cassier’s Magazine, November-April 1910

The son of a Philadelphia grocer, Joseph Harrison Jr. (1810-1874) received his early training the old fashioned way: learning-by-doing.  After cutting his teeth as an apprentice machinist, at age 25 Harrison got a job with the locomotive builder Andrew McCalla Eastwick.  While in Eastwick’s employ, Harrison came up with the solution to a problem that had long befuddled early locomotive designers. The first locomotives, such as George Stephens’ “Rocket” of 1829, were propelled by only a single pair of driving wheels.  If engineers could add additional pairs of wheels, the locomotive’s pulling capacity, especially on steep grades, would be greatly increased. But no one seemed to be able to come up with a way to evenly distribute the energy from the steam pistons to more than two driving wheels.

In 1838, Harrison patented his so-called “equalizing lever,” which, according to Cassier’s Magazine, ensured “the equal division of the load upon the two axles.”

Eastwick and Harrison’s “Hercules” engine of 1837-38. Catskill Archive.

Footage of a replica of George Stephenson’s “The Rocket” locomotive of 1829. Note the diagonal pistons that power the single pair of drive wheels. 

This invention made Harrison, and his now-partner Andrew McCalla Eastwick, very much in demand as locomotive designers.  Thanks to Harrison’s equalizing lever, locomotives could now have 4 leading wheels and 4 driving wheels (4-4-0), a configuration known as the “American type.”  By the end of the 19th century, locomotives with  as many as ten driving wheels (known as “decapods”) wold be pulling heavily-loaded freight and passenger cars over the Allegheny Mountains and into the burgeoning interior of the United States. A large percentage of the freight carried by the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroads was coal, which powered the factories and heated the homes of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and other eastern cities.

Joseph Harrison Jr. Photograph from Cassier’s Magazine.

In 1843, the thirty-three year old Joseph Harrison received a summons from the richest and most powerful man on earth: Czar Nicholas I of Russia (r.1825-1855).  The czar’s mission for Harrison: to design locomotives suited to carry freight and passengers between St. Petersburg and Moscow, a distance of four hundred miles.

Czar Nicholas could not have had a more different upbringing than Harrison’s hardscrabble one. He had been raised in the splendor of the Winter Palace, surrounded by tutors and servants. Nicholas had been taught from a very young age that the Romanov family’s “Divine Right” to rule came directly from God.  Because he was the third son of the erratic Czar Paul I, few thought that Nicholas a chance of becoming the ruler of the largest kingdom on earth. 8.6 million square miles, to be exact.  As a result, he was trained as a military engineer and army officer.  Yet when his eldest brother Alexander I died childless in 1825 and another brother, Constantine, refused the throne shortly after that, Nicholas had no choice but to accept the crown.  After his mother Catherine the Great’s death in 1796, Czar Paul I forbade women from inheriting the throne. Many in Russia, especially reform-minded members of the gentry, feared Nicholas as a reactionary autocrat who sought to undo the liberal reforms of his predecessors.

Czar Nicholas I of Russia. Portrait by Horace Vernet. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Almost immediately after Nicholas became Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, a cadre of military officers refused to swear allegiance to the new monarch.  On December 26, 1825, About 3,000 of them assembled in Senate Square, St. Petersburg.  Their plea to the czar: the creation of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of Great Britain’s, complete with an elected, representative body that curbed the absolute power of the czar.

Nicholas I was incensed by this challenge to his authority. He ordered his loyal soldiers to open fire on the demonstrators.  The leaders of the so-called Decembrists were captured and executed. Others were exiled to Siberia.  During the next thirty years, Nicholas attempted to squash all liberal thought from his realm by promulgating a new educational curriculum based on the trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”  According to his educational minister Sergey Uvarov:

“It is our common obligation to ensure that the education of the people be conducted, according to Supreme intention of our August Monarch, in the joint spirit of Orthodoxy, Autocracy and Nationality. I am convinced that every professor and teacher, being permeated by one and the same feeling of devotion to the throne and fatherland, will use all his resources to become a worthy tool for the government and to earn its complete confidence.”

In addition to stepping up censorship and the powers of the secret police, the czar embarked on a series of military adventures that alienated Russia’s allies, most notably Great Britain. He also had the 1,500 room Winter Palace rebuilt following its total destruction by fire in 1837. The czar demanded his official residence be restored to its former grandeur within a year. One observer of the project noted: “During the great frosts 6000 workmen were continually employed; of these a considerable number died daily, but the victims were instantly replaced by other champions brought forward to perish.”

“Fire in the Winter Palace” by Boris Green. Built in the 1760s by the Empress Elizabeth, the Winter Palace was the official residence of the Russian czars, and boasted 1,500 rooms.  Nicholas I ordered the mammoth structure rebuilt within a year.  Wikipedia Commons.

Prospects for Russia’s millions of serfs–laboring peasants who were bought, sold and mortgaged by wealthy landowners–were bleak, as well.

Harrison may have heard about Czar Nicholas’s repressive governing tactics, but when presented with such a lucrative business opportunity as the Moscow to St. Petersburg railroad, he could not say no.  In 1843, Harrison and his young family set sail for Russia.  Shortly before doing so, he and Andrew Eastwick sold their firm’s “equalizing lever” patent to Matthias Baldwin, founder of Philadelphia’s Baldwin Locomotive Company, for a tremendous sum of money.

In Russia, Harrison not only showed the czar how to run a railroad, but also would also dream up his own palace back in Philadelphia, one that would have fit right along side the shimmering pastel confections lining the canals of St. Petersburg.

Sources: 

“Joseph Harrison Jr. A Biographical Sketch,” Cassier’s Magazine, An Engineering Monthly, Volume XXXVII, November 1909-April 1910, http://himedo.net/TheHopkinThomasProject/TimeLine/Philadelphia/LocomotiveWorks/CassierBioJosHarrison.htm, accessed April 17, 2018.

Joseph Harrison Jr. Papers, MS.024, Hoang Tran, ed., Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, January 2016. https://www.pafa.org/sites/default/files/media-assets/MS.024_JosephHarrisonJr.pdf, accessed April 17, 2018.

Richard Mowbray Hayward, Russia Enters the Railway Age, 1842-1855 (Boulder, CO: East European Monographs), 1998, pp.42-47. 

Geoffrey Hosking, Russia and the Russians(Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University), 2001, p. 146.

 

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