George Parker Bidder. [Obituary]
Trans. Devon. Assoc., 1879, Vol XI, pp. 48-52
Prepared by Michael Steer
As a child, Bidder had an extraordinary ability to handle numbers without writing them down, and his father, a stonemason, exhibited him widely as a 'calculating boy'. In 1824, he began work in the Ordnance Survey but left the following year to become an assistant to Henry Robinson Palmer, engineer of the London Dock Company. This was the start of a varied and successful career as a civil engineer. He was a friend of Robert Stephenson, and contributed to the planning and construction of railways including the London & Birmingham Railway. He was also one of the founders of the Electric Telegraph Company where he worked on the development of transatlantic cables.The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.
George Parker Bidder was a native of Moretonhampstead, in this county, and was brought into public notice at a very early age through the wonderful power of mental calculation which he developed without having received any instruction. He was born in very humble circumstances, his father being a stonemason ; and at the age of seven, when his talent first became apparent, he did not know the meaning of the word "multiplication," nor could he read the common numerical symbols.
An elder brother had taught him to count up to one hundred, and he had some treasures, such as marbles, shot, &c., which it was his favourite amusement to arrange in rows of different numbers, such as nine rows of nine, seven of five; then counting them, he fixed in a singularly retentive memory the results of these combinations, and in this way, numbers being his playthings, he acquired a marvellous facility in realizing and dealing with them, and was unconsciously led on to the most complicated arithmetical processes. He was a great favourite with the kindly old village blacksmith, in whose workshop the neighbours would gather to hear little George solve the most difficult questions they could devise, as he sat perched by the forge fire.
His father now took him all over the country to exhibit his wonderful powers. In 1815 he was presented to Queen Charlotte by the Bishop of Salisbury, and on one occasion was brought into competition with Zerub Colburn, when he far surpassed the young American. George Bidder is said to have been a singularly bright and prepossessing boy, and when visiting Edinburgh he attracted the notice of Sir Henry Jardine, who long held the office of King's Remembrancer for Scotland, and who was so much struck by the lad's talents, and altogether taken with him, that, with the aid of some friends, he undertook to have him properly educated. In 1819, when in his fourteenth year, George was accordingly placed at the University of Edinburgh, where he remained till the beginning of 1824, fully realizing by his industry and success the hopes formed by his friends.
When first asked to extract the square root, he did not know what the term meant; but when this was explained by saying, as 400=20 x 20 that 20 is the square root of 400; and similarly, as 8=2 x 2 x 2 that 8 is the cube of 2, and 2 the cube root of 8, he at once devised his own system for performing the operation, with a rapidity and accuracy which astonished his questioners. With equal ease he mastered the difficulties of compound interest; but although the original processes by which he arrived at these results are interesting, their details would exceed our limits.
Mr. Bidder never forgot the deep debt of gratitude then incurred, and in after years he connected a grateful tribute to his Alma Mater with the name of his venerable friend and benefactor, by founding a bursary or scholarship of £40 per annum for the aid of poor students at Edinburgh University, to be called "the Jardine Bursary." On leaving Edinburgh, a post was obtained for him in the Ordnance Survey, where he soon obtained promotion, and assisted in making the trigonometrical survey of his native county. In April, 1825, he quitted the Ordnance Survey, and was engaged as assistant to Mr. H. R Palmer, civil engineer, thus entering the profession of which he became a distinguished member. It is worthy of remembrance that George Bidder's first care when starting in the world was to provide for the education of his two younger brothers, and for that purpose this lad of eighteen stinted and saved, denying himself all but the barest necessaries; and at one time undertaking the duties of an insurance clerk (1) besides his daily employment, in order to supplement the scanty means which were all he could at first command. In 1833, under Messrs. Walker and Burgess, he superintended the construction of the Brunswick Wharf, Blackwall; and in 1834 he joined the staff of Messrs. George and Robert Stephenson, with whom he was engaged for many years, taking part in the construction of the London and Birmingham, the South Eastern, North Kent, London and Blackwall, Norwich and Yarmouth, Northampton and Peterborough, Trent Valley, North Staffordshire, and many other railways.
The most implicit confidence existed between the two Stephensons and Mr. Bidder. Robert had been his classmate at Edinburgh, and their close and unbroken friendship is well known. Mr. Bidder was the engineer of the Norwegian Trunk Railway; and, with Robert Stephenson, was engineer to the Danish State Railway. He was also for many years consulting engineer to the Delhi, Scinde, and Punjaub lines. He was connected with most of the lines in the Eastern Counties, and was the originator of the system of swing bridges, now so largely used for crossing rivers, &c, where sufficient headway cannot be given, having erected the first of the kind over the river Wensum, near Norwich.
Long experience with railways enabled him to see the value of electric communication between stations. He introduced it on the Blackwall and Yarmouth Railways, and his belief in its capabilities caused him to be one of the principal founders of the original Electric Telegraph Company. He continued to be the engineering adviser of the Company until the Government purchase of the telegraph system in 1870.
In hydraulic engineering his chief works were the construction of Lowestoft Harbour and the magnificent Victoria Docks at North Woolwich. The latter, and indeed the whole of the now populous district adjoining, were the creations of his mind. He was called mad for proposing to construct docks away from London, in what were then marshes and water meadows; but he bad formed a just estimate of the capabilities of the position, and not only carried out his ideas by the construction of the docks (a work of great engineering skill), but had such confidence in their future that he persuaded the Dock Company to buy at the time sufficient land to treble their original size, which extension is now being carried out
Mr. Bidder was consulted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer upon certain very ingenious alterations in taxation, and as one of a committee by the Admiralty with reference to the best types of ships of war. In connection with the latter subject, he took a warm interest in the experiments of his valued friend, the late Mr. W. Froude.
He was also a member of the Government Committee on Explosives, and was Lieut-Colonel Commandant of the Engineer and Railway Volunteer Staff Corps, a body of considerable importance for the transport of troops and for the aid of the reserve forces of the kingdom. Space will not allow more than this brief mention of his principal engagements; but his advice was frequently in request, and he has been well described as one whose memory nothing escaped, and from whom a valuable opinion could always be obtained.
Mr. Bidder took a distinguished part in the great parliamentary contests which attended the establishment of railways. His wonderful memory, his power of instantaneous calculation, his quick perception and readiness at repartee, caused him to be dreaded by hostile lawyers, one of whom made a fruitless application before a committee in the House of Lords that Mr. Bidder should not be allowed to remain in the room, because " Nature," he said, "had endowed him with qualities that did not place his opponents on a fair footing."
A remarkable instance of Mr. Bidder's wonderful readiness and power of mental numeration occurred in connection with the passing of the Act for the North Staffordshire Railway.
There were several competing lines, and the object of Mr. Bidder's party was to get rid of as many as possible on Standing Orders. They had challenged the accuracy of the levels of one of the rival lines; but upon the examination before the Committee on Standing Orders, their opponents witnesses were as positive as those for the North Staffordshire, and apparently were likely to command greater credence.
Fortunately Mr. Bidder was present, and when the surveyors of the opposing lines were called to prove the levels at various points, he asked to see their field books, which he looked at apparently in the most cursory manner, and quietly put down without making a note or any observation, and as though he had seen nothing worthy of notice. When the surveyors had completed their proofs, Mr. Bidder, who had carried on in his own mind a calculation of the heights noted in all the books, not merely of the salient points upon which the witnesses had been examined, but also of the intermediate rises and falls noted in the several books, suddenly exclaimed that he would demonstrate to the Conmittee that the section was wrong. He then went rapidly through a calculation which took all by surprise, and clearly proved that, if the levels were as represented at one point they could not possibly be as represented at another and distant point.
The result was that the errors in the levels were reported, and the Bill was not allowed to proceed.
But if adversaries in public life have shrunk before his outspoken frankness and ready wit, no one who enjoyed his intimacy could fail to appreciate the simplicity of his character, his warmth of heart, and superiority to all narrow feeling; and there are many who can bear witness to the disinterested zeal with which he threw himself into the affairs of others, and who know that in him is lost a faithful counsellor, a steadfast friend. Mr. Bidder joined the Devonshire Association in 1868, and presided at the meeting held at Dartmouth in 1869, Always retaining a warm affection for his native county, it was to Devonshire that he returned when compelled by failing strength to relinquish all professional engagements.
For the last twelve months his life hung on the frailest tenure, though his mental powers remained in full vigour to the last, and he accepted his growing infirmities and the restrictions they imposed with a cheerful serenity which the near approach of death could not disturb.
He was always a great lover of nature, and an earnest enquirer after truth, both in science and religion; nor did he shrink from encountering the difficulties raised by modem scepticism. But his acute intellect and clear judgment found no incompatibility between the revelations of Scripture and those of Science; it was his happiness to recognize in both the hand of a merciful God, and with humble confidence to repose a sure hope for all men on the merits of their Saviour.
He died rather suddenly, from disease of the heart, on September 20th, 1878, aged 72.
References (1) At the Royal Exchange.