APRIL 9TH - A BIRTHDAY FOR ENGINEERS?

April 9th was Alex Moulton’s birthday, and 2019 marks 99 years since his birth.  Whatever one might think of astrology, the zodiac tells us that those born on this day are daring and enterprising, with a great talent for pursuing opportunities and achieving greatness.  Those who knew Alex Moulton, or those who are familiar with his life and works, may recognise these characteristics in the man himself.

Of course, nobody knew this when Alexander Eric Moulton was born on April 9th 1920.  However, as time passed it became apparent that the young Alec (as he was known as a boy) had inherited much of the drive, dedication and entrepreneurial spirit of his forefathers – the most prominent being his great-grandfather, the rubber pioneer Stephen Moulton, who brought vulcanised rubber to Europe in the 1840s.  In later life Alex Moulton was often referred to as the last of the great Victorian engineers, despite being born at the beginning of the 1920s.

By coincidence, one of those great Victorian engineers – perhaps the greatest of them all – was also born on April 9th.   The year was 1806, and his name was Isambard Kingdom Brunel.  Possessing courage, determination and engineering talent in abundance, Brunel’s work – both mechanical and civil engineering, most notably in railways and shipping - changed transportation forever.  Much of this was associated with the west of England and Alex Moulton cannot have failed to be impressed and inspired by the living monuments to Brunel including the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the railway tunnel at Box.

But these two legendary engineers are linked somewhat closer than merely by geography and date of birth.  Whilst Stephen Moulton’s rubber manufactory in Bradford on Avon would become world leaders in the supply of rubber ‘mechanicals’ (chiefly springs but also hoses, gaskets, seals etc.), in the 1850s his business was more general and principally concerned with the supply of waterproof rubberised fabrics.  Moulton’s early forays into supplying mouldings and mechanicals did not go unnoticed by the nascent railway industry and his reputation for quality grew rapidly.  Brunel did not approve of the use of rubber for primary springs but on the 21st of March 1859 he wrote directly to Stephen Moulton requesting the moulding of rubber rings for resilient mast mountings on his Great Eastern steamship.  These letters still hang on the wall at The Hall; Alex Moulton often used them as an example of how a simple sketch can convey more information than any number of words.

Brunel noted in his journal “I know of nobody but Moulton of Bradford, Wilts., who makes the right sort of material”.  Many others would follow his example, with their faith in Moulton’s products being matched by the latter’s guarantee that “nothing but the best must leave the factory”.

Alex Moulton enjoyed his birthday parties, the last one celebrated in great style being his 90th.  When asked the inevitable question “What is it like being ninety years old?”, Alex paused and mulled over his response.  Insightful and incisive as ever, his answer came back: “It’s something of an achievement, but I wouldn’t recommend it”.  

Happy Birthday, AEM and IKB; and Many Happy Returns to all those who share their birthday.

Letter from Isambard Kingdom Brunel to Stephen Moulton, 1859