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Science and Technology

Technological change was rapid in this period. Soon they were making soda water.  The McKie lemonade business required new machines and knowledge.   In addition to a good supply of potable water, water filtration and heating required a knowledge of chemistry and biology for water purification and blending syrups and added salts and sugars. 

Carbon dioxide, required to put the bubbles in soda water, could not be extracted in large volumes from air or made as a by-product of fertiliser manufacture as it is today. 

It's always been a natural by-product of beer and wine making and puts the little bubbles in cakes and bread. It could be pressurised with a suitable pump from the head space above wine or beer fermentation but entrapped nitrogen would limit its compression or it could be manufactured in a pressure vessel using the method suggested by Joseph Priestley and used in Dublin: by applying strong acid (sulphuric was most available) to chalk or crushed limestone.  .   

Over the next century these processes would change dramatically.  Compressors would be built that could compress CO2 produced by calcining lime [CaCO3→ CaO + CO2] and later to cool air to the point that dry ice (solid CO2) forms.

There was no shortage of modern scientific knowledge in Newcastle.

From 1793 the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle (the Lit and Phil) had been a hub of scientific discussion in the north of England. In 1825 the current building that houses it was completed, providing meeting rooms and a library. 

At the time the McKies were establishing their business Newcastle was abuzz with the new discoveries.   The first platypus seen in England was sent not to London but to Newcastle.  John Hunter, governor of NSW Australia, was a member of the Lit and Phil and had one sent to the members for their consternation and consideration. 

As I imagine everyone knows, a platypus is an amphibious mammal that lays eggs and has a duck bill, one of the few remaining monotremes on earth.  As my great great great grandparents were setting up their factory Charles Darwin was in Sydney Town grappling with one in a local creek and discovering the poisonous spur on the hind legs of the male. 

Soon the discoveries of Lyle and Darwin and Wallace would overthrow many old scientific paradigms in addition to making nonsense of religious dogma. 

The platypus would soon demonstrate that mammalian ancestry dates from a relatively recent hundred million years or so and a little further back they have a common ancestor with the McKie family - well, with your family too. But it would take until my generation to discover that the Universe is breathtakingly larger than any one then dared to imagine and is now thought to be 13.8 billion years old.

The Lit and Phil had close associations with similar societies across Britain and Europe, particularly France. In 1834 Benoît Clapeyron stated the Ideal Gas equation and in 1857 Carl Wilhelm Siemens would patent the Siemens cycle, cooling gasses by repeated compression heat removal and decompression as used in most refrigerators and air conditioners today.

As Richardson notes, the population of Newcastle was growing rapidly, passing 53,000 in 1831, and the Centre of the city was under reconstruction, the origin of the many fine buildings we see today around Gray's monument as evidence of its wealth.  For the first time a police force had been formed, charged with keeping the new streets safe.  Gas lamps were already being used as street lights in parts of the city, these would soon be replaced by advanced gas lamps using a mantle to provide brilliant white light. 

As Newcastle expanded in the 1850's new suburbs spread out beyond the city walls and town moor. Science, technology and engineering dominated the thriving city.

In 1835, when William and Margaret McKie were founding their lemonade manufacturing business, Newcastle was giving birth to the industry that would dominate the next century -  the passenger railway. 

Less than a mile from McKie's lemonade factory, in Forth Street, George Stephenson and his son Robert were at work. 

A decade earlier Robert Stephenson and Company had been established by the Stephensons to manufacture locomotives for the Stockton and Darlington Railway. 

Soon the world's first passenger railways were spreading out around Newcastle like roots from a bulb.  Part way to Carlisle in 1838, then to Darlington in 1844 and to Berwick in 1847.  No doubt some workers at the factory, and then passengers on the trains, were washing away the dust with a McKie lemonade.

Might Newcastle's 'golden period' have been a result of 'something in the water'?

Around the world huge fortunes would soon be made by 'railway barons', more often through associated land development and constructing new towns in the Americas and the Empire, than by the fares charged to travel.  With railways came the electric telegraph and the first opening-up of communications. 

Now even time changed.  It had to be unified where the trains ran, instead of being set locally, by the midday sun, in each town.  Greenwich Mean Time or 'railway time' as it was called, was adopted across Britain in 1847-8. And one hour 'Time Zones' soon divided the entire planet, giving us an International Date Line.

George Stephenson had developed the first successful miner's safety lamp and the first practical steam locomotives for passenger trains, based on the experience gained around the city moving coal, first with steam run mine elevators and cable cars and then with self-powered locomotives.

He is, justifiably, called the 'Father of Railways'.  He was very rough around the edges and plain speaking and was not liked in London. 

As a younger man he had been an engineman at Killingworth Colliery, responsible for all the machinery: pumps; lift engines and so on.  The mine was subject to repeated explosions due to 'firedamp' and in 1814 responsibility fell to him deal with yet another explosion and fire, resulting from a naked flame.  So he began experimenting with designs for a mine safety lamp using local sources of  'fire damp' directly to test his designs. 

Meanwhile the problem had attracted Sir Humphry Davy, the aristocratic scientist who's achievements are too long to list here but included isolating the elements: Barium; Calcium; Potassium; Sodium and Boron; and identifying Chlorine as an element.  Davy was also at first the employer and then the mentor of physicist and electrical pioneer Michael Faraday and was later President of the Royal Society.  He was famed for his scientific demonstrations to the upper classes and he was responsible for a ground-breaking electrical demonstration discussed later.

Davy approached the problem scientifically, first analysing 'fire damp' to discover that it was mostly methane and then devising a screen sufficiently fine to prevent a flame passing though it.  The resulting Davy Lamp won prizes totalling £3,000.  But Stevenson had already demonstrated his, practically superior, lamp at the Lit and Phil in Newcastle.  When this was pointed out the colliery owners, who had already recognised Davy with £2,000, awarded a measly one hundred guineas (a guinea is £1/1/-) to Stephenson in consolation.  The people of Newcastle were outraged at this insult.   A local committee raised £1,000 by subscription and awarded it to Stephenson.

Stephenson called his miner's lamp the 'Geordie' after the Newcastle patriots who had defended the city during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 on behalf of George II and were despised as 'Geordies' in a popular song supporting the rebellion.  Probably thanks to him, the name was soon attached to the people of Newcastle and the Tyne Valley in general. 

It was that local prize that allowed Stephenson to go on to his greatest achievements.

The incident also helped to reinforce the Newcastle culture of independence and suspicion of those from the South.  This still existed as recently as the late 1970's, when my Grandmother's elderly neighbours proudly announced that they had been to Spain but had never been south of York in the UK.  How did we survive in that dangerous den of iniquity: London? 

George's son Robert Stephenson, on the other hand had no such prejudice. He was well educated, in leading schools and university, and was quite at home in society.   Together the Stephensons combined modern scientific and engineering knowledge and a wealth of practical experience as well as business acumen and political nous.  


Stephenson's Innovative 'Rocket' - designed in 1829 for the Liverpool & Manchester Railway
This was the prototype for locomotives to come with:  large driving wheels, directly connected to (nearly) horizontal cylinders;
a separate firebox with multiple boiler fire-tubes, and a blastpipe to draw the fire.
It could not be a lot bigger/heavier or it would have broken the old iron rails of the day.   Science Museum,  London (my photo)



By 1847 the practice of pulling goods trains by steam and passenger trains by horse had pretty well disappeared but there was still some nostalgia for the horse, as this little piece shows.  No prizes for guessing how I came to see it.


Carlisle Patriot 24 September 1847

Horse or Steam



In 1847 Robert Stevenson designed and supervised the construction of the innovative High Level Bridge across the Tyne that is still in use today. It is a truly remarkable achievement, exploiting the most advanced technology of the day.  Wendy and I recently travelled over it on our way from London to Edinburgh.


High Level Bridge
The High Level Rail Bridge Newcastle to Gateshead with the Swing Bridge in the foreground (my photo)


It was but one of half a dozen equally innovative bridges he would design.  He was personally responsible for dozens of railways across the world with ever improving locomotives.  He was one of the people, who through his inventiveness and industry, put the 'Great' before Britain.  He is buried in Westminster Abby.

In Australia, the first locomotive on the Sydney to Parramatta railway was built by the Stephensons in Newcastle upon Tyne.


Locomotive No1
Locomotive No1, built by Stephenson & Company for the Sydney to Parramatta Railway
less than a mile from William and Margaret McKie's lemonade factory
The little girl in the foreground is their great great great great granddaughter, Emily (my photo)


The Stephensons weren't alone,  another locally born engineer George William Armstrong had taken an interest in hydraulics, designing innovative cranes.  He set up a manufacturing facility on the banks of the Tyne at Elswick in 1847.  The business was very successful, contributing significantly to the town's population growth.  By 1870 the company premises stretched for three-quarters of a mile along the riverside.  

It's nice to think of them all drinking McKie lemonade as they worked on their drawings, like today's computer nerds and their soft-drink.

Armstrong designed the first modern, rifled, breech loading, field gun.  This was used around the world and by both sides in the American Civil War and soon adopted by the Navy, initially for long range targets. 

Remember that up until then warships were still wooden sailing vessels with a gun-deck and muzzle loading cannon to deliver broadsides.


USS Constitution
USS Constitution - still the flagship of the US Navy
One of the most powerful warships afloat in 1816
She thrashed several British ships in the War of 1812 (my photo)


Soon the first ironclad wooden ships would replace these, followed by all-steel, steam driven battleships with gun turrets. 

To fit their guns warships needed to navigate up the Tyne and the old multi-arch masonry 'new bridge' (that you can see in the early woodblock picture above) was in the way.  So in 1876 Armstrong’s company paid for its demolition and the new Swing Bridge that you can see in the photograph above to be built, allowing their passage. 

In the 1880 Armstrong's Elswick works would begin building the new style of warship from the keel up.  They soon became the most innovative heavy engineering business in the world.  It was they that built and installed the steam-driven pumping engines, hydraulic accumulators and hydraulic pumping engines to operate London’s Tower Bridge.   Armstrong was knighted in 1859 after giving his gun patents to the government. In 1887, in Queen Victoria's golden jubilee year, he was raised to the peerage as Baron Armstrong of Cragside.

Both steam-power and shipbuilding were to play an important part later in the McKie saga but for the moment the family was focussed on soft-drink production.

The railways also heralded significant developments in the iron industry.  Early trains had to be small and relatively light like the Rocket or they broke the brittle cast iron rails.  In 1820 another local man, John Birkinshaw, had gained a patent for rolling wrought-iron rails. The Stephensons immediately saw the potential and took him in as partner. Wrought-iron was a much more malleable and less brittle material than cast iron and the industry scaled up production, facilitating the manufacture of rails that did not break so that locomotives, wagons and carriages could grow to their now familiar size. 


In June 1842 the new railways were endorsed and adopted by royalty
when Queen Victoria was 'charmed' by her first experience of train travel
Each Monarch since has been incomplete without a Royal Train - not just in Britain
This is her Diamond Jubilee locomotive from 1897 - National Railway Museum, York (my photo)


The invention of rolled wrought-iron in Newcastle made the railways possible and soon facilitated the construction of innovative new bridges and ships and the first skyscraper buildings and what would be mankind's tallest structure: the Eiffel Tower in 1889.

By the 1850's puddling furnaces, already used to make thousands of tons of wrought iron, were evolving, using regenerative reheating, (the Siemens-Martin process) into open hearth furnaces and Bessemer was trialling his bottom-blown iron conversion furnace, using air, in Sheffield, 130 miles to the South.  The new product was steel.  The Bessemer process was faster and cheaper but suffered from nitrogen embrittlement, a problem not fully resolved until the mid 20th century when tonnage oxygen plants became available.

Steel that once took a skilled blacksmith days to make in small quantities, by repeatedly folding wrought iron, could now be made in thousands of tons in a matter of hours, revolutionising engineering. It was a new 'miracle material' - increasingly alloyed to other metals like: manganese; nickel; chromium; lead; and copper.   These new materials would change the fortunes of the McKie family for generations. 

In the next century and a half this new steel industry would provide the means of making electricity, building ships, and constructing modern guns and bombs and aircraft.  Great fortunes would be made. Steel technology would revolutionise everything, including the kitchen sink, helping mankind to reach the Moon, and provide a career opportunity to at least one McKie descendent.  Enormous iron ore and metallurgical coal exports would help to keep Australia 'the lucky country'.

All this had its genesis in the endeavours of those few men, with the support of their wives and daughters, who thrived in Newcastle upon Tyne in the mid 19th century.



jas mckie soda bottle
A soda water bottle marked Jas. McKie and Son




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In October 2016 we flew from southern England to Romania.

Romania is a big country by European standards and not one to see by public transport if time is limited.  So to travel beyond Bucharest we hired a car and drove northwest to Brașov and on to Sighisiora, before looping southwest to Sibiu (European capital of culture 2007) and southeast through the Transylvanian Alps to Curtea de Arges on our way back to Bucharest. 

Driving in Romania was interesting.  There are some quite good motorways once out of the suburbs of Bucharest, where traffic lights are interminable trams rumble noisily, trolley-busses stop and start and progress can be slow.  In the countryside road surfaces are variable and the roads mostly narrow. This does not slow the locals who seem to ignore speed limits making it necessary to keep up to avoid holding up traffic. 

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Fiction, Recollections & News

Are we the same person we once were?




I was initially motivated to write this cautionary note by the controversy surrounding the United States Senate hearing into the appointment of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court that was briefly called into question by Dr Christine Blasey Ford's testimony that Kavanaugh sexually assaulted her when they were both in their teens.

Kavanaugh is but one of many men who have come to the attention of the '#MeToo' movement, some of whom are now cooling their heels in jail.

Like the Kavanaugh example number of these cases, as reported in the media, seem to rely on someone's memory of events long past.  Yet as I will argue below after a decade or so our memories are anything but reliable.  After that time we should be respecting the accused's legal right to be presumed innocent, unless there is contemporary immutable evidence (diaries photographs and so on) or a number of non-colluding witnesses or others who have suffered a similar assault. 

Now in the news another high profile person has been convicted of historical sexual assault.  Cardinal George Pell has appealed his conviction on several charges relating to historical paedophilia.

There is just one accuser, the alleged victim.  A second alleged victim took his own life some time ago. The case was heard twice and in total 22 of the 24 jurors decided in favour of the alleged victim, despite the best defence money could buy.  Yet, as with the '#MeToo' movement in respect of powerful men, there is currently worldwide revulsion (see my Ireland Travel Notes) at sexual crimes committed within the Roman Catholic Church, such that a Cardinal is likely to be disbelieved, just as at one time a choir boy's accusations against a bishop or a priest would have been, and were, dismissed.

Both trials were held in closed court and the proceedings are secret so we have no knowledge of any supporting evidence. We do know that the two alleged victims were members of the Cathedral Choir and at least one other ex-choir boy also gave evidence. So justice may have been served. 

Yet I'm just a little concerned about the historical nature of the charges.  How reliable is anyone's memory? 

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Opinions and Philosophy

The Chemistry of Life


What you should know

Most of us already know: that an atom is the smallest division of matter that can take part in a chemical reaction; that a molecule is a structure of two or more atoms; and that life on Earth is based on organic molecules: defined as those molecules that contain carbon, often in combination with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, and may include other elements like sodium, calcium, phosphorous and iron.  

Organic molecules can be extremely large.  Familiar extremely large organic molecules include plastics like polyethylene and many proteins, like spider web.

Chromosomes are structures within the cells of animals and plants consisting of very large molecules of  DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid).   DNA stores and replicates information. It encodes the genes used by all complex living organisms on Earth to reproduce and function. 

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