The Minutes of the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1901

William Pole was born in Birmingham on the 22nd April, 1814, his father being Thomas Pole, of that town.

At the age of fifteen he was articled for six years to Mr. Charles H. Capper, an Engineer in Birmingham who represented the Horseley Company, at whose extensive works the pupil was enabled to lay the foundation of the extensive knowledge of engineering which he afterwards attained.

One of his early experiences was a visit paid to the Horseley Company by the Princess Victoria, then eleven years of age, who was much interested in seeing one of the old copper coins, weighing an ounce, forged to an ingot and then rolled out to a strip nearly 25 feet long, with a thickness of about inch. In 1836, a year before the Princess became Queen, young Pole came from Birmingham to London, and, as he died three weeks before Her Majesty, there was a marked coincidence in the duration of their life-work.

In London his first practical work was done as Manager of a Gasworks; this was followed by other employment in the warming and ventilation of buildings, which included the arrangement of warming apparatus for H.M.SS. Erebus and Terror on their Arctic voyage.

In 1841 his attention was drawn to the subject of pumping-engines in the mines of Cornwall, with the result that, after some years of study and research on the spot, he published in 1844 his classical work on the Cornish Pumping Engine.

During the first gears of life in London he felt the uncertainty of engineering occupation, and sought, but without success, to obtain the Assistant Secretaryship of the Royal Society, and also the post of Assistant Surveyor to the Westminster Commission of Sewers. The time to come opened out far larger prospects.

At the beginning of 1844, when nearly thirty years of age, he was appointed the first Professor of Engineering in the Elphinstone College at Bombay, where he arrived in the following July. At that time such a position was an entirely new thing; there was but one other such appointment in existence, and the new Professor had to originate everything in dealing with the Parsee and Brahmin youths who formed his pupils. They were instructed in surveying, levelling and mensuration, to such good effect that the first survey made for what afterwards became the Great Indian Peninsular Railway was carried out by them in 1846, under their Professor’s guidance.

In November of that year Professor Pole was married in Bombay to Matilda, daughter of the Reverend Henry Gauntlett, Vicar of Olney, in Buckinghamshire. For nearly fifty-four years she was his devoted partner, and from the shock of her death in October, 1900, he never rallied.

Early in 1847 he was warned that his health would no longer stand the climate of India, so his career there ended after a stay of less than three years. With his usual industry he had acquired a knowledge of Italian, which he improved by spending four months in Italy on the return journey to England.

At the beginning of 1848 be resumed work in London. His first occupation was under Mr. James Simpson, Past-President, and afterwards with Mr. J. M. Rendel, Past-President; and when in 1854 he was sent by Mr. Rendel to give explanations to Count Cavour, that statesman was surprised at Italian being preferred for use by the English engineer.

It may be said of Professor Pole that his position in Westminster was made and secured, not only by his great scientific ability, but by his scientific knowledge being in advance of his time. When the application of higher mathematics to practical purposes, now a usual feature in the training of an engineer, was quite new, he was one of the few who could thus use mathematical science. Hence his services were in constant request by men whose names, as associated with great undertakings, were far more before the public than his was, but it, was on him that they leaned for the scientific investigation of their designs.

So long ago as 1860 he was addressing the Institution on the subject of Tubular Girder Bridges, and applying the calculus to the investigation of the Torksey Bridge, as to which some difference had arisen between the engineer responsible for the design and the Government inspector. At the same time he was engaged by Robert Stephenson in the calculations for the Britannia Bridge over the Menai Straits, and always retained and highly valued a letter written to him by Stephenson relative to it, which ran as follows :-

’14th June, 1851.

‘MY Dear Sir, – May I beg your acceptance of the accompanying print of a work, the principles of whose structure you have contributed so much to elucidate. Yours faithfully, ‘ROBT. STEPHENSON.”

Having joined the Institution as an Associate on the 7th April, 1840, he was transferred to the class of Members on the 12th February, 1856, and, his position now becoming assured, he felt justified in beginning practice on his own account, at No. 3 Storey’s Gate, in 1858. His office there, and subsequently in Parliament Street, was on a small scale – a couple of rooms sufficed him. His work was never delegated to subordinates; his staff consisted of a clerk or two. He not only thought out but almost always himself wrote out the mass of information whicb it is the purpose of this notice to show that he gave to the profession and to science generally.

Although he had no patrons in official life, his services were from the first retained by Government in connection with several subjects of remarkably varied nature. His first work for the Government was the making of calculations on scientific questions for a Commission on the Main Drainage of the Metropolis; then came an engagement as Lecturer on Engineering to the Royal Engineer officers studying at Chatham.

In 1861, in recognition of his elaborate researches into the subject of colour-blindness, he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and soon afterwards his name, with that of Sir William Fairbairn, was placed on the list of a Select Committee, otherwise of naval and military officers, for the investigation of the then new question of the application of armour to warships and fortifications. On the completion of this task in 1865, Dr. Pole became Secretary to a Royal Commission, presided over by the then Duke of Devonshire, on the Railways of Great Britain and Ireland, and he prepared the report, which was submitted in May, 1867.

Having thus passed from armour plates to railways, he next turned to the water supply of the Metropolis, acting as Secretary to a Royal Commission under the presidency of the Duke of Richmond, and it was again almost entirely by the Secretary that the report was drawn up. This led to his appointment, again under Government, to investigate the system of constant service in the water-supply of London, and he aided in that being established by Act of Parliament in 1871. While busy with the last-named occupation he was helping the War Office by reporting on the construction of the Martini-Henry rifle, arranging for the India Office the terms of examination of candidates for engineering appointments in that country, and taking up a position, which he held till 1899, as one of the three Gas Referees for the Metropolis.

From 1882 to 1884 Dr. Pole was Secretary to yet another Royal Commission on the Disposal of the Sewage of London, and in 1884 he acted in the same capacity for a departmental committee, with Sir Frederick Bramwell as President, on the Scientific Museums at South Kensington. Such a record of work for the Government would seem enough in itself to fully tax the energies of a man of more than average capacity; but,, far from that being the case, Dr. Pole was all the while engaged in other engineering work, in literature, in music, in the revival and establishment on its present basis of the game of whist, besides some few other outlying hobbies, such as modern languages, physiology, and the study of jewels and of colour-blindness.

Dr. Pole was from 1859 to 1867 the Professor of Civil Engineering in University College, London. In 1859 he was busy with the investigation of steam traction on canals, and a few years later with iron lighthouses for the colonies; in 1865 he proposed a light mountain railway at Malvern to ascend the Worcestershire Beacon. The subject of mountain railways was always an attractive one for him he described that over the Brenner Pass to the Institution,’ and in 1873 he presented a Paper on the Rigi Railway, which was read before the Institution2 and was awarded a Telford Medal.

From 1871, two years after the introduction of railways in Japan, till 1883, he acted as Consulting Engineer in England for the Japanese Government, taking a most important part in the inception of those lines; for all designs for the chief works of construction, etc., were prepared by him, and his reports and letters of advice, almost all in manuscript from his own pen, really laid the foundation of the railway system in Japan ; though, of course, the selection of routes and matters dependent on local conditions were determined by the engineers on the spot.

In 1873 he was engaged with Mr. W. H. Barlow, Past-President, in the calculations for the bridge first proposed over the Forth at Queen’s Perry. In 1880, after the collapse of the first Tay Bridge, he was associated with Messrs. Law and Stewart in giving scientific evidence before the Court of Enquiry appointed by the Board of Trade to report on the causes of the disaster. He was frequently occupied with questions relating to the water supply of towns, and took part in the promotion of the Thirlmere and Vyrnwy schemes, as also in 1877 and 1878 in the water supplies of Stockton and Middlesbrough.

When beginning life Dr. Pole’s first inclinations were rather in the direction of literature than of engineering, and in order to aid him in his studies he acquired, when quite young,a good knowledge of French, to which he afterwards added German. Then, on his return from India, came Italian, which was followed by Spanish. At school his mathematical training did not go beyond arithmetic; but, in later life, he read for himself the higher mathematics, and, as already mentioned, was one of the first to apply them to practical purposes. Besides his manifold engineering occupations he found time to devote a good deal of attention to literature, and wrote for the Times, the Quarterly Review, the Fortnightly Review, and the Philosophical Magazine; indeed, while in India he conducted a newspaper, taking charge of one of the Bombay journals during the absence of the editor in England.

He took an important part in writing the life of Robert Stephenson, Past-President, which was published by Messrs. Longmans in 1864, and he also assisted in preparing the biography of I. K. Brunel, which appeared in 1870. At the request of the family, he next wrote the life of Sir William Fairbairn, Bart., which was published in 1877, and was so popular that an abridged edition was shortly afterwards called for.

In 1883 he wrote the obituary notice of Sir William Siemens for the Proceedings of the Institution, and this was followed by his writing Sir William’s life, which was published in October, 1888.

He also wrote for the Institution the obituary notices of M. de Lesseps, Sir R. M. Stephenson, Sir Thomas Bouch, Sir Joseph Bazalgette, and Mr. Charles Manby.

His first Paper printed by the Institution in the Proceedings appeared in 1843 and dealt with the ‘Comparative loss by friction in beam and direct-action engines,’ and this was quickly followed by one on the ‘Pressure and density of steam.’

On his return from India in 1847, he presented another Paper on the same subject. He described the Rigi Railway, and the ventilation of the Mont Cenis Tunne1, and in 1881 and 1884 he attacked the problem of Aerial Navigation, while in February, 1885, at the request of the Council, he gave one of a special set of lectures on Hydro-mechanics, taking Water Supply as his topic.

In 1891 he contributed an interesting Paper on the gift of mental calculation possessed by his friend Mr. Bidder, Past- President, and in his last Paper, published in 1896, he reverted to Aeronautics, dealing with the development of that science as shown at the Chicago Exhibition.

Besides the Papers which he wrote on the above subjects he constantly addressed the meetings on matters brought forward in the Papers of other members, and was for many years a very regular attendant at the Institution, in which he always took great interest.

In 1873, having been thirty-three years a member of the Institution, he was elected to the Council, on which he served for twelve years, till, in 1885, he succeeded Mr. Charles Manby as Honorary Secretary. That position he held till November, 1896, when, ‘on account of his eminent and varied attainments, and the important services he had rendered to the Institution for many years as a Member of the Council and latterly as Honorary Secretary,’ he attained the distinction, very exceptional for one who has passed through the usual grades of the Institution, of being placed on the list of Honorary Members.

The Library of the Institution contains books from his pen on ‘Memoranda on the Comet of 1841-5,’ ‘Familiar Essay on the Errors of Time-keepers,’ 1846, ‘Musical Instruments in the Exhibition of 1851,’ ‘The Motion of Fluids in Pipes,’ 1852, ‘Diamonds, with a Note on the Imperial State Crown,’ 1861, ‘Iron as a Material of Construction,’ 1872, ‘Manufacture and Use of Gas,’ 1873, ‘Notes on the Early History of the Railway Gauge,’ 1875.

From his childhood Dr. Pole was attracted to music, a study in which his mathematical knowledge stood him in good stead. At the age of seventeen he became organist of a Wesleyan Chapel in Birmingham, and, when he came to London in 1836, the appointment of Organist at St. Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, was vacant. There were about fifty applicants, seventeen of whom were selected to play in competition; of these two were selected by the judges, who left the authorities (the Vestry of the Parish of St. George’s, Hanover Square) to decide between them. These were Mr. Edward John Hopkins, afterwards Dr. Hopkins, Organist of the Temple, and the subject of this memoir, who obtained the position. Both these candidates died in the last year of the century, sixty-four years after the competition.

In 1860, he took the degree of Bachelor of Music at Oxford, which was followed in 1867 by his obtaining the Oxford degree of Mus. Doc., and from that time he was generally known as Dr. Pole.

In 1860, at the request of the Astronomer Royal, he examined, and reported on, the tuning of the great bells at Westminster, and he was Secretary for the Jury on Musical Instruments at the Exhibition of 1862.

In 1867, he lectured at the London Institution on the construction of the pianoforte. At the Royal Institution in 1877, Dr. Pole gave a course of lectures on the Theory of Music, afterwards published in 1879, in a volume called ‘The Philosophy of Music,’ based on the acoustical views and discoveries of Helmholtz. This led to Dr. Pole’s being requested by the University of London to draw up the regulations to be complied with by candidates for their degrees in Music, which were accordingly prepared. Dr. Pole became one of the first examiners for these degrees in 1878, and continued to hold that position till 1891.

In 1879 he produced a book on the history of Mozart’s Requiem.

In 1881 he was offered the Professorship of Acoustics at the Royal Academy of Music, which, however, he was obliged to decline.

In the following year the University of Cambridge appointed him to be one of their board, which, in case of a vacancy of a Professor of Music, had to make the election to that office.

In 1889, he became a Vice-President of the Royal College of Organists.

Throughout his life he was always in touch with the most distinguished musicians; when he met Wagner at dinner in London in 1877, and was asked by the master if his Mus. Doc. was an honorary degree, he was able to reply that he had to write for it a vocal fugue in eight real parts, with full orchestral accompaniments, upon which Wagner clasped him by the hand and claimed him as a ‘brother.’

Dr. Pole was elected a member of the Athenaeum Club under Rule 2, which provides for the election by the Committee ‘of a certain number of persons of distinguished eminence in Science, Literature or the Arts, or for public services. . . . .’ It will be seen from the words of this rule that the members elected thereunder are chosen from a wide field ; their number is limited to nine annually, and to be included among them is in itself a recognition of high intellectual attainment. That Dr. Pole was among those thus honoured so long ago as 1864 was due, not only to the distinguished position as an Engineer which he had attained, but to the musical gifts which he had cultivated with such success.

So early in the history of photography as the year 1853 Dr. Pole acquired a knowledge of that art, which he afterwards found useful in his foreign travels, and the article on the subject published in Mr. Francis Galton’s well-known handbook of ‘Notes for Travellers’ was written by Dr. Pole.

His attention was also occupied with Astronomy, and in 1860 he joined the Government expedition sent to the North of Spain to observe the total eclipse of the sun on the 18th July in that year. The result of his observations was published at the time in Macmillan’s Magazine.

Although of high standing as an Engineer, and of distinction in the science of music, he was perhaps even more widely known to the general community as a great authority on the subject of whist, in which, as in music, his mathematical ability and insight, and his full acquaintance with the theory of probabilities, largely aided him. His first introduction to the game was by accident about the year 1860, when he was engaged at Sittingbourne in Kent on professional work with some of his pupils. One of the party writes that they were all, more or less, novices, but that Dr. Pole would often point out mistakes which he thought had been made, at the same time explaining his reasons.

At the end of 1861 he made a chance reference to whist in an article written for Macmillan’s Magazine, and this led to the late Mr. Henry Jones, well known as ‘Cavendish,’ writing to him, the result being co-operation between them. In 1864 Dr. Pole brought out his first book on this topic, called ‘The Theory of Whist,’ which has gone through more than twenty editions in England. besides those in America. It was intended to explain to the general public the scientific principles of the game, and to increase interest in it.

Finding large scope for the application of the mathematical theory of probabilities, Dr. Pole wrote for the Field many articles on the game from this aspect, and in 1883 he brought those together in another book called ‘The Philosophy of Whist,’ which was again followed in 1895 by a third and larger book entitled, ‘The Evolution of Whist.’ It may be said of Dr. Pole that he even preceded ‘Cavendish’ as a pioneer in the principles of whist as in practice for the last forty years, and as an authority he is as fully and widely recognised in the United States as in this country.

Enough has perhaps been said to describe the wide range of Dr. Pole’s studies and knowledge, as also the leading position which he occupied in each and all of them. A man of the highest principle, caring nothing for the amassing of money as such, of strong character, doing always what he believed to be right without flinching, he was perhaps in earlier years, with his time so much occupied as it was, not very easy of access, nor prone to brook contradiction, but, as often happens with such natures, the lapse of time brought softening influences.

He died at the ripe age of 86 on the 30th December, 1900, leaving behind him the name of an upright man, a sincere and warm-hearted friend to those whom he honoured with his friendship.

On hearing of his death the following resolution was passed by the Council of the Institution, and concurred in by the members on January 8th, 1901 :-

‘That the Council deeply regret the death of Dr. Pole, F.R.S., Honorary Member, who devoted his life to the advancement of science, and more than sixty years to the service of this Institution, whose interests he served successively as Member of Council, Honorary Secretary and Honorary Member, and in all capacities earned the warm personal esteem of every member of Council and of the Institution, who desire to convey to his family an expressian of sympathy in their bereavement.’

In juxtaposition to this official recognition of his career may be placed his own modest words at the end of a short autobiography printed for private circulation:-

‘My work has been earnest and I hope on the whole creditable and useful. I have had no ambition for special distinction. In everything I have done I have been only one of the working multitude, and the modest objects of my exertions have been reasonably attained.’