The blog and me

This blog will be erratic and seldom follow themes. It will make no claims to being structured or logical. It will, I hope, be fun and occasionally insightful. I do still publish more coherent work (though in economics, and in very strange places) but that may take some believing after reading these pages. I've a PhD in economics/economic history from Cambridge, I've taught in several universities (and still do, when I get the chance) but now focus energy and attention on commercialization for a large London university, and dealing with the daily commute.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Scottish genius and Chilean water: Copland & Foulis and the Tarapaca Waterworks

Scots, it has often been said, made a conspicuous mark on the world in two vital domains of the British Empire and British trade in the Victorian era – organisation and administration on the one hand, and engineering on the other. This note reviews the experience of one engineering company (and in particular one family who worked for it) which, far from home, had a profound effect on the lives of others and benefitted their own country not inconsiderably.

William Alexander Parker 1879-1943

Born on April 27th 1879 at 158, Hill Street, Glasgow, William Alexander Parker was born to be an engineer and something of an adventurer, while his father, John Dunlop Parker (1844-1916) shaped not only his career but engineering practice in Chile. In 1862, aged only 18, John Dunlop (hereafter JD) entered the service of the North British Railway Company where he worked under James Bell, the ‘Engineer in Chief’. Headquartered in Edinburgh, the Company expanded rapidly after the 1846 opening and, following a series of amalgamations and take-overs, it became the largest of the Scottish railways by the mid-1860s.  By that time, it had opened a number of branch lines, built a new main line from Edinburgh to Carlisle, taken over the Edinburgh, Perth & Dundee and Edinburgh & Glasgow railway Companies, and absorbed numerous smaller railway operations.  In the 1880s, it built the (replacement) Tay Bridge and the massive Forth Bridge in a joint venture with its partner railway companies and, by the end of the 19th century, it had built the West Highland Railway from Glasgow to Fort William.  In fact, by the beginning of the 20th century, the Company’s rail services stretched from Newcastle to Aberdeen on the east and from Silloth in Cumbria to Fort William and Mallaig in the west. 

Logo of the NBRC

In 1871 JD joined the staff of the Clyde Trust, carrying out, during 12 years service important dock extensions and other works as Resident Engineer and Manager. By 1875-6 he is listed as a member of the  ‘Assistant Engineers’ Department’ while residing at 16 Robertson Street, Glasgow in the Post Office Directory for Glasgow, working hard no doubt on many of the dock projects of the Trust. In 1883 he joined the consulting practice of Sir William Robertson Copland, M. Inst. C.E., (Copland & Foulis, gas, water & sewerage engineers, 146 West Regent Street and, earlier, of 83 West Regent Street) and was associated with many of the water supply, drainage and other undertakings carried out by the company.

Sir William Copland (1838-1907)

Experience with Copland’s firm was clearly valuable for more aspiring engineers than just John Dunlop Parker. For example Professor William Aitken Miller (1886-1958), the doyen of Australian work in experimental stress analysis and Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Sydney, began his working life in the same engineering office and many other Scottish engineers traced their practice development to the firm of Copland & Foulis.

Among other things it was Copland & Foulis that designed the infrastructure for Glasgow’s gas supply in 1868, so that the mark they left on their own city was lasting. Many of the ‘Copland graduates’ went on to establish their own consulting practices. “After Sir William Copland's death in 1907 [says his IMechE. Obituary], J.D. Parker carried on an extensive practice in Glasgow with his son and Captain P. I. Whitton”. J.D. Parker was elected a Member of the Institute of Civil Engineers on the 2nd March, 1886 and elected a member of the Philosophical Society of Glasgow on 6th November 1889 – signs of his being recognized as a one of the professional engineers in a city thriving on engineering know-how at the time.

Copland must have introduced J.D. (and later his son) to the particular problems of water and waste engineering. George Eyre-Todd’s ‘Who’s Who In Glasgow in 1909’ described Copland thus:

From 1862 to 1866 he [Copland] was Burgh Engineer for Paisley: then he began business in Glasgow as a civil engineer on his own account. Here he made special study of drainage and water supply, and designed and superintended the construction of water supply and drainage schemes for many Scottish districts. Among his larger works was a great water-supply system for the province of Tarapaca in Chile, which includes the important town of Iquique. Upon these subjects he was a recognised authority, and a frequent witness before Parliamentary Committees and Royal Commissions.

It was Copland, then, that introduced the Parkers (father and son) to the problems of water supply in the Tarapaca region of Chile. Tarapaca was then, as now, a semi-arid, semi-desolate place. Water and the supply of it to towns such as Iquique was a lucrative business, dominated by an entrepreneurial Yorkshiremen called John Thomas North. North carried water, expensively, by carrier overland to the cities.

John Thomas North

Mid-nineteenth century Iquique had been supplied with water transported from other parts of the coast or from the interior of the country and was obtained from so-called "hangovers" or brackish water distillers. From 1880 several projects to provide drinking water to the increasingly prosperous city of Iquique were suggested. These initiatives, however, did not succeed, either through lack of resources or by open or covert opposition of the Tarapaca Water Company, owned by John North, who operated a shuttle water tanker from Arica.

In open opposition to North, Thomas Hart formed a corporation in Britain to bring water to Iquique by pipe from the interior. North organized a media campaign to discredit it, thus preventing the scheme from immediate implementation. Hart in 1888 organized the Tarapacá North Waterworks Company, which obtained permission from the Municipality of Iquique to establish water service in the city.

North was not going to leave Hart a free hand. According to Howard Blakemore’s economic history of the nitrate trade of the region in the late nineteenth century, "At the end of September 1888 there was registered in London [North’s] Tarapaca Waterworks Company Limited, with an authorized share-capital of £400,000 in 40000 shares of £10 each". The subscribers to the company originally set their business in motion in Glasgow with, the Banker Magazine in 1894 noted, “the object of supplying water to the town of Iquique, in the Republic of Chili. The syndicate incurred preliminary expenses to the extent of £3000".

It remains to be established whether Copland (or indeed J.D. Parker) was a subscriber, but it seems that Copland staff were involved in the original, and ongoing, work in connection with the project to establish water supply throughout the Tarapaca region. As if proof were needed of that, the picture below shows the name of Coplands on one of the great water storage tanks constructed during the 1880s:

One of the water storage wells in Iquique
to the left is clearly seen ‘W.R. Copland, Engineer’

Iquique was probably the first exposure of J.D. Parker to the problems of extreme engineering. We know for certain, thanks to the researches of the Chilean historian Luis Castro, that John Dunlop Parker was early on the scene, although apparently first engaged as a Copland consultant by North’s great rival, the Glaswegian Thomas Hart:

At the end of 1884 Thomas Hart returned to his idea, aborted two years earlier, of piping water from Pica. As a result of this, his license was approved on January 23, 1885, entailing a new concession from the recognition of the rights he had acquired in June 1882. In March 1885 the engineer J. Parker arrived in Iquique.

In this port he met with the engineer William Sterling who came from Tacna, and they prepared drawings and cost studies on the ground for almost two months.

In 1886 [Hart] returned to Scotland and created, in the city of Glasgow, the Iquique Water Company with a nominal capital of £350,000, leaving the majority of shares unallocated. In January 21st of that year the engineer John Inckwell [John Tuckwell?] began preparatory levelling in order to begin the laying of the pipes and [the Chilean] Congress authorised charges of 2 cents per decalitre.[1]

J.D. was working in good company. William Stirling (1822-1900) was appointed Engineer with the responsibility of building the railways that sustained North’s nitrate companies. He was the son of the Rev. Robert Stirling, D.D. (1790-1878), the inventor of the Stirling Hot Air Engine and the brother of Patrick Stirling (1820-1895), successively Locomotive Superintendent of the Glasgow & South Western and Great Northern Railways, and of James Stirling (1835-1917), successively Locomotive Superintendent of the Glasgow & South Western and South Eastern Railways in Great Britain. (The Chilean nitrate rail lines were completed in 1890).

But it was North’s company that the Copland engineers ended up assisting. We know, from later evidence, that it was the Tarapaca Waterworks Company for which William, certainly, also worked.

Desolate and arid, the interior from which the water would be sourced from springs at places such as Pica is unforgiving to the mechanical engineer. One contemporary description of the engineering problems facing the railway engineers gives a sense of the challenges faced:

The interior of the Tarapaca region

“The original concessionaires transferred the lines in 1873 to a company known as the National Nitrate Railways of Peru, which was later, in 1882, reconstituted as the Nitrate Railways Co., Ltd. The system is worked under four separate concessions, the principal terminus being at Iquique, one of the chief ports of Northern Chile, with a population of over 37,000. It hardly ever rains in Iquique, and water has to be brought sixty miles from the oasis of Pica. The railway company has a condensing plant at Iquique capable of supplying distilled water from sea water at a rate of 200 tons in twenty-four hours. Water for the locomotives is also supplied by the Tarapaca Waterworks through a pipe-line about fifty-seven miles in length from the Andes Mountains.

If water transportation was important for the engines in the marshalling yards of southern Chile, how much more significant was the supply of fresh water to the towns? Schemes came and went at the end of the nineteenth century; after the death of North and the political machinations he seems to have engineered in Chile, commonsense seems to have prevailed. In 1905 the Board of Trade Journal reported,

The ‘Diario Oficial’ of Chile of 7th June contains a Decree authorising the construction of waterworks in Iquique, at a cost of 3,000,000 pesos (about £250,000).

For the Parkers, this was likely to have been the unique opportunity they were looking for. With the advantage of earlier experience via Copland & Foulis, and with the freedom after 1907 to establish a separate business based on those connections, it is likely that this was the point at which the father and son partnership took the step into the unknown. Waterworks engineering contracts would have been in the offing in Tarapaca, and the triumvirate had the connections and experience to make the most of them. 

That they did so was in no small part due to a number of circumstances. First, the training and experience afforded by Coplands - and not least the connections - made entering the business of engineering consulting in Chile entirely possible. Secondly, the hard work on the Tarapaca Water Works had proven capability and determination in the face of almost overwhelming odds. Above all, perhaps, a schooling in engineering which supposed a fluency of technical command that come from engineering education grounded in practice in fields as varied as locomotive and rail engineering, drainage, water supply and storage engineering. Arguably it was the very British, or peculiarly Scottish, attitude to this fluency of skill that made it possible for the Parkers to succeed. 

[1] Luis Castro. (2009), ‘Visión histórica del manejo de los recursos hídricos en el Norte Grande de Chile (fines del siglo XIX y comienzos del XX)’ , Simposio “El acceso al agua en América: historia, actualidad y perspectivas”  53 Congreso Internacional de Americanistas, México, July 2009, p. 12. [My translation]

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