Monday, 6 September 2010

More about James Kennedy, mechanical engineer extraordinary

The website of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers has an obituary of James Kennedy, who was one of their founding members and their President in 1860, and it can be found here:- Biography of James Kennedy

I have traced the ancestry of this illustrious Kennedy and he was not related to our ancestors, unless very remotely. He was born in Liberton on 13 January 1797 to James Kennady, a wright, and Anne Hamilton, his parents having married in Edinburgh on 16 October 1795. This James was born in Gilmerton on 10 December 1765 to another James and his wife Ainsley Hume, who were married in Liberton on 28 September 1765 (oops!). This last James was born on 24 January 1726 in Nether Liberton to John Kennedy and Margaret Meggat.

It can thus be seen that these Kennedys were well established in the Edinburgh area when our direct ancestors were still in the Great Glen.

This history throws some light on the social turbulence that resulted from the Industrial Revolution. The pioneers of mechanical engineering obviously had no access to university courses in subjects that they themselves were just inventing, but were often without the benefits of any other form of higher education. That a man who left a village school at thirteen could end up as a master of complicated technology and president of an important institution would be unthinkable today. It says a lot not just for James Kennedy but also for George Stephenson, who had the intuition to select him as the head of his most important workshop.

In general it is clear that the rapid industrial development and associated growth of cities in the early Eighteenth Century gave rise not only to the enormous poverty and overcrowding that we all know about but also to huge opportunities for social mobility. Technological innovation requires radical free-thinking, which may have been easier for those not hidebound by a higher educational system which had only recently abandoned Latin as the means of instruction in many subjects (e.g. Adam Smith was, I believe, the first professor to deliver lectures in English at Glasgow University).

Also the enormous financial risks involved in any type of new enterprise were perhaps easier to contemplate for those who came from a background where they had very little worldly wealth originally. The Industrial Revolution started in the British Isles and the subsequent decline of industry there in the Twentieth Century was at least in part due to the fact that many of the major engineering businesses had passed by inheritance into the ownership of persons who were no longer innovative and only sought to preserve their personal wealth. This was especially true of Scottish shipbuilding, which eventually collapsed due to a complete failure to modernise in the good times, coupled with a state of war between blinkered family owners and powerful intransigent unions.

One has to hope that with the emergence of new technologies talented people are coming forward, regardless of social status. There are signs that this is beginning to happen.

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