What better way to begin a journey through the library collections at MIT than with Samuel Smiles’ Lives of the Engineers? Smiles himself had no background in engineering; he trained as a physician, and retained a lifelong interest in social reform. As he contemplated the feats of civil engineering that had transformed his native England during the previous 100 years, he saw hope for the betterment of all humankind. And in the engineers who’d designed the canals, highways, bridges, and railroads that erased distance between places as well as between societies, he saw not mere builders and problem-solvers. He saw individuals of heroic stature whose great works might lead to a better, fairer life for the poor and working classes around the world. In Lives of the Engineers he hailed such pioneers as Smeaton, Telford, George and Robert Stephenson, Boulton, and Watt.
The reading public shared Smiles’ admiration for those individuals: his 4-volume Lives was hugely popular and appeared in multiple editions, several of them owned by MIT, where they’ve seen heavy use over the past 150 years. As recently as the 1960s the MIT Press itself issued a hardcover volume of selections from Smiles’ original multivolume work. The set featured here is the 1861 first edition. Handsomely bound in half-calf over marbled boards, it was a gift from David L. Hixon, class of 1941.