Among the Railway Folk, by Rudyard Kipling

Chapter 3

Vulcan’s Forge

IN the wilderness of the railway shops — and machinery that planes and shaves, and bevels and stamps, and punches and hoists and nips — the first idea that occurs to an outsider, when he has seen the men who people the place, is that it must be the birthplace of inventions — a pasture-ground of fat patents. If a writing-man, who plays with shadows and dresses dolls that others may laugh at their antics, draws help and comfort and new methods of working old ideas from the stored shelves of a library, how, in the name of Commonsense, his god, can a doing-man, whose mind is set upon things that snatch a few moments from flying Time or put power into weak hands, refrain from going forward and adding new inventions to the hundreds among which he daily moves?

Appealed to on this subject, Experience, who had served the E.I.R. loyally for many years, held his peace. ‘We don’t go in much for patents; but,’ he added, with a praiseworthy attempt to turn the conversation, ‘we can build you any mortal thing you like. We’ve got the Bradford Leslie steamer for the Sahibgunge ferry. Come and see the brass-work for her bows. It’s in the casting-shed.’

It would have been cruel to have pressed Experience further, and Ignorance, to foredate matters a little, went about to discover why Experience shied off this question, and why the men of Jamalpur had not each and all invented and patented something. He won his information in the end, but it did not come from Jamalpur. That must be clearly understood. It was found anywhere you please between Howrah and Hoti Mardan; and here it is that all the world may admire a prudent and far-sighted Board of Directors. Once upon a time, as every one in the profession knows, two men invented the D. and O. sleeper — cast-iron, of five pieces, very serviceable. The men were in the Company’s employ, and their masters said: ‘Your brains are ours. Hand us over those sleepers.’ Being of pay and position, D. and O. made some sort of resistance and got a royalty or a bonus. At any rate, the Company had to pay for its sleepers. But thereafter, and the condition exists to this day, they caused it to be written in each servant’s covenant, that if by chance he invented aught, his invention was to belong to the Company. Providence has mercifully arranged that no man or syndicate of men can buy the ‘holy spirit of man’ outright without suffering in some way or another just as much as the purchase. America fully, and Germany in part, recognises this law. The E.I. Railway’s breach of it is thoroughly English. They say, or it is said of them that they say, ‘We are afraid of our men, who belong to us, wasting their time on trying to invent.’

Is it wholly impossible, then, for men of mechanical experience and large sympathies to check the mere patent-hunter and bring forward the man with an idea? Is there no supervision in the ‘shops,’ or have the men who play tennis and billiards at the institute not a minute which they can rightly call their very own? Would it ruin the richest Company in India to lend their model-shop and their lathes to half a dozen, or, for the matter of that, half a hundred, abortive experiments? A Massachusetts organ factory, a Racine buggy shop, an Oregon lumber-yard, would laugh at the notion. An American toy-maker might swindle an employe after the invention, but he would in his own interests help the man to ‘see what comes of the thing.’ Surely a wealthy, a powerful and, as all Jamalpur bears witness, a considerate Company might cut that clause out of the covenant and await the issue. There would be quite enough jealousy between man and man, grade and grade, to keep down all but the keenest souls; and, with due respect to the steam-hammer and the rolling-mill, we have not yet made machinery perfect. The ‘shops’ are not likely to spawn unmanageable Stephensons or grasping Brunels; but in the minor turns of mechanical thought that find concrete expressions in links, axle-boxes, joint packings, valves and spring-stirrups something might — something would — be done were the practical prohibition removed. Will a North-countryman give you anything but warm hospitality for nothing? Or if you claim from him overtime service as a right, will he work zealously? ‘Onything but t’ brass,’ is his motto, and his ideas are his ‘brass.’

Gentlemen in authority, if this should meet your august eyes, spare it a minute’s thought, and, clearing away the floridity, get to the heart of the mistake and see if it cannot be rationally put right. Above all, remember that Jamalpur supplied no information. It was as mute as an oyster. There is no one within your jurisdiction to — ahem — ‘drop upon.’

Let us, after this excursion into the offices, return to the shops and only ask Experience such questions as he can without disloyalty answer.

‘We used once,’ says he, leading to the foundry, ‘to sell our old rails and import new ones. Even when we used ’em for roof beams and so on, we had more than we knew what to do with. Now we have got rolling-mills, and we use the rails to make tie-bars for the D. and O. sleepers and all sorts of things. We turn out five hundred D. and O. sleepers a day. Altogether, we use about seventy-five tons of our own iron a month here. Iron in Calcutta costs about five-eight a hundredweight; ours costs between three-four and three-eight, and on that item alone we save three thousand a month. Don’t ask me how many miles of rails we own. There are fifteen hundred miles of line, and you can make your own calculation. All those things like babies’ graves, down in that shed, are the moulds for the D. and O. sleepers. We test them by dropping three hundredweight and three hundred quarters of iron on top of them from a height of seven feet, or eleven sometimes. They don’t often smash. We have a notion here that our iron is as good as the Home stuff.’

A sleek white and brindled pariah thrusts himself into the conversation. His house appears to be on the warm ashes of the bolt-maker. This is a horrible machine, which chews red-hot iron bars and spits them out perfect bolts. Its manners are disgusting, and it gobbles over its food.

‘Hi, Jack!’ says Experience, stroking the interloper, ‘you’ve been trying to break your leg again. That’s the dog of the works. At least he makes believe that the works belong to him. He’ll follow any one of us about the shops as far as the gate, but never a step further. You can see he’s in first-class condition. The boys give him his ticket, and, one of these days, he’ll try to get on to the Company’s books as a regular worker. He’s too clever to live.’ Jack heads the procession as far as the walls of the rolling-shed and then returns to his machinery room. He waddles with fatness and despises strangers.

‘How would you like to be hot-potted there?’ says Experience, who has read and who is enthusiastic over She, as he points to the great furnaces whence the slag is being dragged out by hooks. ‘Here is the old material going into the furnace in that big iron bucket. Look at the scraps of iron. There’s an old D. and O. sleeper, there’s a lot of clips from a cylinder, there’s a lot of snipped-up rails, there’s a driving-wheel block, there’s an old hook, and a sprinkling of boilerplates and rivets.’

The bucket is tipped into the furnace with a thunderous roar and the slag below pours forth more quickly. ‘An engine,’ says Experience reflectively, ‘can run over herself so to say. After she’s broken up she is made into sleepers for the line. You’ll see how she’s broken up later.’ A few paces further on, semi-nude demons are capering over strips of glowing hot iron which are put into a mill as rails and emerge as thin, shapely tie-bars. The natives wear rough sandals and some pretence of aprons, but the greater part of them is ‘all face.’ ‘As I said before,’ says Experience, ‘a native’s cuteness when he’s working on ticket is something startling. Beyond occasionally hanging on to a red-hot bar too long and so letting their pincers be drawn through the mills, these men take precious good care not to go wrong. Our machinery is fenced and guardrailed as much as possible, and these men don’t get caught up in the belting. In the first place, they’re careful — the father warns the son and so on — and in the second, there’s nothing about ’em for the belting to catch on unless the man shoves his hand in. Oh, a native’s no fool! He knows that it doesn’t do to be foolish when he’s dealing with a crane or a driving-wheel. You’re looking at all those chopped rails? We make our iron as they blend baccy. We mix up all sorts to get the required quality. Those rails have just been chopped by this tobacco-cutter thing.’ Experience bends down and sets a vicious-looking, parrot-headed beam to work. There is a quiver — a snap — and a dull smash and a heavy rail is nipped in two like a stick of barley-sugar.

Elsewhere, a bull-nosed hydraulic cutter is railcutting as if it enjoyed the fun. In another shed stand the steam-hammers; the unemployed ones murmuring and muttering to themselves, as is the uncanny custom of all steam-souled machinery. Experience, with his hand on a long lever, makes one of the monsters perform and though Ignorance knows that a man designed and men do continually build steam-hammers, the effect is as though Experience were maddening a chained beast. The massive block slides down the guides, only to pause hungrily an inch above the anvil, or restlessly throb through a foot and a half of space, each motion being controlled by an almost imperceptible handling of the levers. ‘When these things are newly overhauled, you can regulate your blow to within an eighth of an inch,’ says Experience. ‘We had a foreman here once who could work ’em beautifully. He had the touch. One day a visitor, no end of a swell in a tall, white hat, came round the works, and our foreman borrowed the hat and brought the hammer down just enough to press the nap and no more. “How wonderful!” said the visitor, putting his hand carelessly upon this lever rod here.’ Experience suits the action to the word and the hammer thunders on the anvil. ‘Well, you can guess for yourself. Next minute there wasn’t enough left of that tall, white hat to make a postage-stamp of. Steam-hammers aren’t things to play with. Now we’ll go over to the stores . . . .

Whatever apparent disorder there might have been in the works, the store department is as clean as a new pin, and stupefying in its naval order. Copper plates, bar, angle, and rod iron, duplicate cranks and slide bars, the piston rods of the Bradford Leslie steamer, engine grease, files, and hammerheads — every conceivable article, from leather laces of beltings to head-lamps, necessary for the due and proper working of a long line, is stocked, stacked, piled, and put away in appropriate compartments. In the midst of it all, neck deep in ledgers and indent forms, stands the many-handed Babu, the steam of the engine whose power extends from Howrah to Ghaziabad.

The Company does everything, and knows everything. The gallant apprentice may be a wild youth with an earnest desire to go occasionally ‘upon the bend.’ But three times a week, between 7 and 8 P.M., he must attend the night-school and sit at the feet of M. Bonnaud, who teaches him mechanics and statics so thoroughly that even the awful Government Inspector is pleased. And when there is no night-school the Company will by no means wash its hands of its men out of working-hours. No man can be violently restrained from going to the bad if he insists upon it, but in the service of the Company a man has every warning; his escapades are known, and a judiciously arranged transfer sometimes keeps a good fellow clear of the down-grade. No one can flatter himself that in the multitude he is overlooked, or believe that between 4. P.M. and 9 A.M. he is at liberty to misdemean himself. Sooner or later, but generally sooner, his goings-on are known, and he is reminded that ‘Britons never shall be slaves’— to things that destroy good work as well as souls. Maybe the Company acts only in its own interest, but the result is good.

Best and prettiest of the many good and pretty things in Jamalpur is the institute of a Saturday when the Volunteer Band is playing and the tennis courts are full and the babydom of Jamalpur — fat, sturdy children — frolic round the band-stand. The people dance — but big as the institute is, it is getting too small for their dances — they act, they play billiards, they study their newspapers, they play cards and everything else, and they flirt in a sumptuous building, and in the hot weather the gallant apprentice ducks his friend in the big swimming-bath. Decidedly the railway folk make their lives pleasant.

Let us go down southward to the big Giridih collieries and see the coal that feeds the furnace that smelts the iron that makes the sleeper that bears the loco. that pulls the carriage that holds the freight that comes from the country that is made richer by the Great Company Bahadur, the East Indian Railway.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38