Sunday, 1 June 2008

Dead Eccentric no. 1

I thought I'd start with an eccentric who's in the news right now. Even if he never existed. He's an imaginary eccentric Victorian inventor - constructed by artist Paul St George as part of his Telectroscope installation that opened recently on the banks of the Thames.

The fact that he never was makes him doubly interesting for me, as he becomes an amalgam of the different things we want an English eccentric to be.

Alexander Stanhope St George 1848-1917

...was a little-known eccentric Victorian engineer. The first of seven children (it's interesting how eccentrics are almost always the first of their siblings) he was born to a British father and a Sierra Leonian mother. Aged nine, he went to see the attempted launch of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Great Eastern steamship. This is where this photograph was taken. Although he was cropped out of the image we routinely associate with this great inventor, St George never forgot this moment and would claim Brunel as his greatest inspiration.

After university St George went to work with some of the great engineers of the time, including Joseph Bazalgette (Chelsea Embankment), John Wolfe-Barry (man behind the the District Line) and Sir John Hawkshaw (Severn Tunnel).

In 1884 he went to New York to see the newly completed Brooklyn Bridge. Again, he was wowed. On his way back there was an unscheduled stop at a mid-Atlantic island. This would go on to provide the inspiration for his greatest invention: the telectroscope. It was to be a transatlantic tunnel in which you could travel without moving. His contraption would be a “device for the suppression of absence”: an optical machine which allowed you to see from one end of the tunnel to the other.

So he returned to the mid-Atlantic island and had a shaft sunk. Teams of men dug in opposite directions, one lot heading to London, the rest to New York.

But the project was bedeviled with delays and accidents. Meanwhile St George began to lose his mind.

Four years after it began his workforce mutinied and forced St George to take them back to England.

He never recovered from the sense of disappointment that followed. His mental health continued to deteriorate and in 1917, resident in a Bethnal Green asylum, he died. His family tried to suppress his papers and pretend that he didn’t exist until recently when his great-grandson, Paul St. George, found them.

Where? In an attic of course.

Here’s the Brooklyn end of the telectroscope he was able to build having got his hands on Alexander Stanhope St George’s designs.

I really wish he had existed. He feels at least half-real.

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