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Research across the Channel

TÜV’s first engineer, Carl Isambert, reports on his instructional trip to England

Carl Isambert, Germany’s first TÜV engineer, took a research trip to England for several weeks in 1869 – and compiled an interesting report afterward.
Photos: Getty Images, TÜV SÜD

An extract of Carl Isambert´s report on his research trip to England.
Photo: Timefab

An instructional trip abroad for professional continuing education: What´s become standard for many companies today was something of a rarity 150 years ago. Nevertheless, the members of the “Baden Steam Boiler Inspection Association” sent their first engineer, Carl Isambert, on an extensive research trip to England. By then, independent testing of steam boilers was already well-established in Britain. 

“In September of 1869, the Grand Ducal Ministry of Commerce undertook to offer the Mannheim Steam Boiler Inspection Association a significant sum provided they were willing to send their engineer to England in order to learn about the British way of overseeing marine and land-based boilers by way of personal inspection. Naturally, the board of my association was happy to accept such an estimable offer, and I was accorded the honor of undertaking this mission.” With these words, Carl Isambert, the first permanently employed inspection engineer of the “Association for Inspection and Insuring Steam Boilers with headquarters in Mannheim,” which was established in 1866, opens his report on an “instructional trip undertaken in October 1869.” 

At that point, then 29-year-old Carl Isambert had only been working at the Mannheim association for a year. His task was to regularly inspect the steam boilers of all association members in the Grand Duchy of Baden to prevent steam boiler explosions and injuries. The association bylaws list another goal as well, namely, to “guarantee that all technical progress in the production and use of steam would benefit the members of the association.” And where better to study the newest innovations regarding steam power in the second half of the 19th century than in the mother country of industrialization?

In 2016, anyone wanting to experience firsthand which innovations will shape the world of the future will usually travel to the epicenter of digitalization: Silicon Valley in California. Carl Isambert was equally clear on his destination in 1869: Liverpool, then the largest seaport in the world, as well as Manchester and Birmingham. Here, factory owners and others who were in possession of steam boilers had established “Steam User Associations” as early as 1855. Thus, a large part of Isambert’s travel report focused on how these associations operated, how they performed steam boiler inspections, and how boiler inspectors were paid. His conclusion: A more professional approach, similar to what he had seen in Britain, could help prevent numerous disasters in Germany. He was also impressed by the research results in Britain, where his colleagues were conducting experimental tests to find out what exactly was causing steam boilers to explode.

As a matter of fact, the efforts of the British “Steam User Associations” would soon produce results that spoke for themselves: Until the middle of the 19th century, there were “about 1,500 steam boiler explosions, which killed approximately 5,000 people and injured a similar number, about 4,000,” Isambert reports. But since the associations were founded, the tide had turned. Of the roughly 17,500 boilers that had been monitored over the previous 13 years, merely 26 had exploded.

Isambert’s conclusion: Adopting the British associations’ methods would help prevent numerous disasters in Germany as well.

Isambert’s most important insights, however, stemmed from his conversations with the boiler operators themselves. Training them to have “a proper understanding of their duties” was at least as important as regular inspections. “When it comes to rational operation of boilers and machines, the British businessman is more reasonable than his German counterpart,” his travel report reads. “He does not employ people of the bottommost classes as stokers or machine operators, whose physical strength he exploits for low pay for some years. The Englishman has no such human machines. His workers, namely stokers and machine operators on steamships, are capable people, mostly machinists, who know how to utilize their intelligence at work. The productivity of the English workers is enormous in comparison to our own, but they are also well-paid and live better, and they are not required to do excessively strenuous work.”

After his return from England, Carl Isambert lobbied extensively for better pay for boiler operators. Until his death in 1899, he demanded that they must be well-qualified and allowed to work under reasonable conditions.

Download the original report in german as PDF.