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Durham University

Institute of Advanced Study

Past Events

‘History of the Water Molecule’, R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).

Reflections on Water Public Lecture - The Incredible Story of the Guiting Stone Pipe Company 1805-1815, and its operations in London, Manchester and Dublin

18th November 2009, 17:30 to 18:30, Room 202, The Calman Learning Centre, Professor Hugh Torrens (University of Keele)

This is the third lecture in the 'Reflections on Water' public lecture series.

This Stone Pipe Company (SPC) was set up to supply these three, rapidly enlarging, British cities with drinking, and every other sort of, water, through pipes of clean, solid, and 'pure', stone. Previously, elm pipes had proved both to leak and be all too short-lived. Cast iron pipes were instead more expensive, and worse, thought quite unsuitable, since, all too often, they produced an evil-looking, iron-stained, water. When SPC production targets shot up, Guiting Stone was chosen as the company's single source of stone, at least in England. This was because of the large-sized blocks which Guiting Stone could uniquely yield. Here, deep in the Cotswolds, in the South of England, for a few frantic years, a massive manufacturing enterprise operated, with more than 30 tons of bored pipes leaving the works /each day/. Expensive plans soon followed to run first a major canal, and then a long tram road, into the SPC works to further facilitate the creation and transport of even more pipes.

Then, suddenly in July 1812, the pipes failed, at first in London, on a massive and terminal scale. They had simply proved incapable of withstanding the higher, now steam-engine driven, water pressures being demanded. These were needed to provide 'high service', to the tops of the fashionable houses it was hoped could now be supplied in these cities. Many of Britain's most famous engineers had been deeply involved; James Watt senior (the steam engineer), William Murdoch (the pioneer of gas lighting), John Rennie (the famous civil engineer, and SPC chief engineer and share-holder) with tramroad wagons supplied (but never fully paid for!) by the famous Butterley Company in Derbyshire.

But none of their failed activities here ever entered the considerable hagiography by which their memories have since been 'served'.
Back-biting and bankruptcy, including of one major London bank, then followed, in one of the first cases of "systems failure" in British engineering history. This lecture will explore the complex story of this amazing enterprise, in hopes of raising interest in one of the most remarkable industrial undertakings ever to have happened in this country. Previous, and continuing, claims that this whole enterprise was 'fraudulent', simply ignore the abundant historical record, which cannot simply be 'googled', in these newly idle days. Critically, this failure soon yielded one major advance, since it helped to initiate the systematic testing of engineering materials for a first time in these islands. But, ever since the transmutation of polytechnics into 'mere' universities, the study of such history of technology has been simply marginalised, and so this story still remains untold.

This series of public lectures will bring together eminent scientists, historians, theologians and philosophers, stimulating speakers involved in current research, to shed new light on the nature and cultural significance of a very familiar substance.

The level of the talks will be aimed at a general audience to encourage everyone from students and the interested general public to attend.


Image credit: 'History of the Water Module', R. Hayward, reproduced from L. Pauling and R. Hayward, The Architecture of Molecules (San Francisco: W H Freeman and Co., 1964).

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