Patrick Matthew: Originator of Natural Selection, Solver of the Problem of Species and Proven Influencer of Darwin and Wallace
Three days after Christmas day, on 28thDecember 1869, Patrick Matthew, the polymath, farmer, botanist and laird of Gourdiehill, sat at his desk in Gourdiehill House to pen a most horrific letter of warning to his local newspaper, the Dundee Advertiser, to alert everyone that he had quite reasonably foreseen that if it were to be built, the Tay Railway Bridge to Dundee would collapse into the estuary it spanned.
The Advertiser published his letter on 4thJanuary 1870. Matthew was predicting a technological Gothic horror (Matthew 1870b):
‘In the case of the Dundee Bridge, where from such a length and height liability to accident is so great, the highly possible accident of a drowned train would damn the Bridge for ever, and subject the Bridge Company to enormous damages, besides the lost principal. Nothing could exceed the horror of an islet in the Firth formed of iron, stones and wood fragments, and of mangled human bodies, amongst which eels peered out, collected from all parts of the Firth, by the carrion smell of which they are so very sensible. The eels (water-serpents) according to our Christian creed, might every one of them be demon possessed, come to gloat in delight the horrible wreck and banquet. What more likely than an accident?’
Gourdiehill in the Carse of Gowrie, Scotland, the seat of Patrick Matthew esquire - the originator of the theory of natural slection
On 28th December 1879, the tenth anniversary of the very day Matthew penned that letter, disaster struck. During the worst storm in years, the Beautiful Tay Bridge fell into the river. Along with the bridge went the 17.20 train from Burntisland, all the passengers and crew, at least 59 people, were killed.
The storm that destroyed the bridge wrecked large swathes of what had once been Matthew’s cherished Gourdiehill Orchard, and it decimated others in the surrounding area. Thousands of ancient trees were ripped from the ground that night, including the famous Abernethy Pear, a gloriously tall tree that had for centuries produced an abundance of small hard pears, of the kind used for making alcoholic perry. Local legend was that the perry loving monks of Lindores had planted it centuries before (Jeffrey and Howie 1879). Trees of other orchards were destroyed that night. Gone too were so many of Matthew’s beloved wild specimens; ancient trees, claimed to be so mysteriously old they had (Edwards 1991):
‘…seen Britain become an island, the great civilisations of the Middle East, Greece and Rome rise and fall, the birth of Christ and the whole painful history of modern humankind. According to local tradition, the last sudden event which shook the pines was the storm which destroyed the Tay Bridge on 28 December 1879. The great old trees uprooted that night can still be seen lying along the ground in Glen Derry and nearby Glen Quoich.’
The Tay Bridge collapsed in a great 19th century storm
From his Demonic Eels letter, we learn that Matthew had foreseen the possibility of several possible mishaps causing the bridge to fail - including the rapid flow of the river scouring the bridge’s foundations; collapse of its supports if hit by a ship; loss of centrifugal force causing a train to become derailed on the sharp curve at the bridge's northern end; and even destruction by earthquake tremors (Pinsdorf 1997). Matthew was also worried about lightning strikes. He noted too the ease with which an enemy of the nation could blow the bridge with floating explosives - its location being so close to the mouth of the Firth. But more than any other cause Matthew feared that the unreliable qualities of cast iron made it the wrong material for a railway bridge of such length and in that location.
Unlike the conveniently obtuse ramblings of the likes of Nostradamus, Matthew was certainly precise in his predictions. But he was no seer of any one particular cause. If anything was going to go wrong with the Tay Bridge, be it by wind or lightening, shipping collision, structural defect, design defect, poor foundations, or even an act of war. Matthew had every possible angle covered - so that if anything that could go wrong did go wrong, he would have predicted it.
Despite the fact that famous bridges had collapsed before (see Pinsdorf 1997), the editor of the Advertiser mocked Matthew as a crank on the grounds that his list of potential dangers could be matched with something similar to dissuade a person from walking along a street. Understandable as the Editors reasoning is, I think he was wrong to have so quickly rushed to mock and dismiss all of Matthew’s warnings. Any such simple reading of Matthew’s scattergun approach misses the most crucial factor of his highly-informed-intuition when it came to structures; their location, components, design, and necessary maintenance under various impending circumstances (see Rothery 1880 for further information). Moreover, in 1847 Matthew was on the committee of the joint stock Ayrshire Malleable Iron Company (see The Railway Times 1847, p 35), which was the year before he was made bankrupt when the joint stock Scottish New Zealand company collapsed after many of its land deals failed to be validated by the British Government.
Why was it that Matthew, who was not ordinarily inclined to predict disasters (although years earlier he claimed to have predicted the Irish potato famine), took umbrage with the Tay Bridge?
Perhaps the answer lies in Pinsdorf’s explanation of the problem being the general, yet dangerous, mood of incurable engineering optimism in Britain at that particular point in time: (Pinsdorf 1997 pp.492-493):
[in] ‘….a roughly 30 year cycle; bridge types proceed from inception to maturity to overconfidence. Designers are pushed to dangerous limits of simplicity to ever greater feats of daring to create longer and larger spans. Times of unalloyed progress are the most dangerous progress… Confidence in materials and men looms so great that supervision by shoeleather, constant quality tests, and controls are treated cavalierly or just ignored. The Tay Bridge suffered from both. The only naysayer was dismissed as an agent of doom. One need only study NASA’s dismissal of the O-Ring warnings – cause of the Challenger 10 explosion – to see the problem lives today.’
What actually caused the Tay Bridge to collapse were the combined forces of 90 mph gales, the worst in six years, its height and its reduced structural supports, its air-holed castings – particularly in the cast iron lugs, and a lack of maintenance and safety checks. Matthew, quite naturally, got the whole lot right in his knowledge-loaded blunderbuss.
Matthew got the storm and problem of the Bridge’s exposed location right (Matthew 1870a) 11th February:
‘To carry out that which every thinking man must regard as a wild and dangerous scheme – a Rainbow Bridge, unprecedented in height, in so stormy a position, and about three miles in length, over an arm of the sea.’
His arboricultural naval timber knowledge, like that of Buffon’s before him, correctly alerted him to the engineering problem of the unknown strength of non standardised construction materials (Matthew 1870b) 4th January:
‘Being chiefly an iron structure, there is a difficulty – an impossibility – of knowing the strength of an iron beam or tie as you can that of a beam of timber. Iron is also of a different strength at different temperatures. Cracks and inequalities of crystallization and extension of crystallisation in cast iron, and what is termed brunt, burned, in malleable iron, are often imperceptible to the eye and cannot be tested.’
And he got the foreseeable lack of necessary maintenance right:
‘Should the Bridge Company have to keep the bridge in repairs, the great amount of repairs which such a length an height of bridge would in probability require, would go far to consume its revenue.’
I recommend Grothe (1878, pp: 38-39) for some interesting Victorian mockery of our hero.Indeed it is here that we see Matthew mocked as "The Seer of Gourdie Hill" in the year before the bridge actually did fall. One cannot help wondering what Grothe thought then of "The Seer!"
For my fellow rational dysologists there is a simple rational explanation for Matthew’s otherwise amazing demonic eels prediction. And it is that Matthew wrote his letter predicting disaster on a dour Scottish mid-winter’s day exactly ten years before it happened, to the very day. Perhaps 26th December 1869, the day he penned his prediction - or perhaps the night before. or one other day in his recent memory that winter - was a stormy affair of sufficient power to bring down a bridge. And perhaps that was enough to make Matthew worry about the blueprints for another not yet built?
The above true story is taken from my book Nullius in Verba(where you will find every fact is independently verifiable and fully referenced) .
‘Nullius’ will subject you to a significant bombardment of new Big Data discovered, previously hidden book evidence, to uniquely 'prove' two things far more likely than not:
1. That Patrick Matthew's 1831 book - containing what Darwinists such as Richard Dawkins (in Bryson 2010 ) admit was the first and only pre-1858 complete hypothesis of natural selection - influenced the pre-1859 published work of both Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace on the topic of organic evolution and natural selection theory.
2. That Charles Darwin and Alfred Wallace each, independently, plagiarized the theory of natural selection from Patrick Matthew and then lied when each claimed no prior knowledge of it.