On 14th June, 1806 a son was born to William and Elizabeth
Bidder and christened George Parker, the name Parker being his
mother's maiden name. The Bidder's lived in Moretonhampstead, a
small town on the edge of Dartmoor where William plied his trade
as a stonemason. Little did the parents know that George, their
sixth child, would become known as 'The Calculating Boy' and one
of the most famous civil engineers of the nineteenth century and
would bring prosperity to himself and his family.
As a child George gave little indication of his mental capabilities, tending to avoid school and preferring to amuse himself by playing games with marbles and conkers, working out in his head, the various combinations and sequences that arose from those games. His brother John had taught him to count and as a result, he acquired a fascination with numbers that led him to develop mental skills that would prove so beneficial in later life.
The school George attended was run by a local minister who reported that although George experienced difficulty with his writing, he had no problem understanding numbers and doing calculations. He frequently displayed his mental agility by encouraging local people to ask him complex arithmetical problems that he would then solve with remarkable rapidity.
George's father soon realised that he had a child prodigy on his hands and that his son's talent could be of financial benefit to the family. He started to exhibit the boy at local fairs and shows where he was advertised as 'The Calculating Boy' and in due course he travelled further afield, appearing in many towns across the country including London. Charges for admission were made and George's father quickly appreciated the rewards to be derived from these appearances. In the winter of 1816-17 George was invited to display has talents to Queen Charlotte who put to him a several numerical questions, no doubt prepared for her in advance of the meeting, which he answered accurately and in record time.
In 1816, two gentlemen from Cambridge who had witnessed one of George's performances, persuaded his reluctant father to allow the boy to attend a school in Camberwell but after a year, his father, unwilling to accept the loss of income, withdrew George from the school. George does not appear to have resented the change and the tours he subsequently undertook no doubt helped to broaden his horizons. He remained cheerful and enjoyed joking with the questioners.
While exhibiting in Edinburgh in 1819, he caught the attention of Sir Henry Jardine, a prosperous Hong Kong businessman who, together with a group of friends, arranged for George to receive private tutoring and later, for his attendance at Edinburgh University. There he established a great friendship with Robert Stephenson, the son of George Stephenson the eminent railway engineer, which was to last throughout their lives and played an important part in influencing George to pursue a career in civil engineering. George was always grateful to his mentor and repaid his debt to him and Edinburgh by establishing the Jardine Bursary at the university for the benefit of students of limited means.
On leaving university and with the help of Sir Henry, George obtained an appointment as a trainee surveyor with the Ordnance Survey that involving extensive work in Scotland but after two years he moved to Cardiff and then to London. Here he took the next step in his professional career and moved into civil engineering, working as an engineering pupil with Henry Palmer, a well-known consulting engineer and former assistant to Thomas Telford. During this period he worked on surveys for the London Docks and various harbour, railway and canal projects but in order to help support his younger brothers, he also worked as a part-time clerk in the offices of Royal Exchange Life Assurance where his calculating skills were of great benefit to the company.
Following a short period with another firm of engineers where he worked on other schemes in the London area, he joined the practice of his friend Robert Stephenson. This was at the start of 'the railway era' and initially George worked on the London & Birmingham railway gaining valuable experience at a time of great activity when the rail network was being developed throughout the country.
In order that a proposed railway scheme could receive the approval of Parliament, it was necessary to prepare and submit accurate surveys of the intended route together with estimated construction costs for consideration by the appropriate Parliamentary Committee. Such schemes called for careful examination and involved cross-examining the promoters and expert witnesses and it was here that George's talents made their greatest impact. His practical knowledge of surveying, coupled with his prodigious memory and mental skills made him a most effective force when appearing before the Committees. His ability to spot weaknesses and errors in his opponents submission and to present counter-arguments made him such a formidable witness that on one occasion, opposing Counsel objected to his presence stating that 'nature had endowed him with particular qualities that placed his opponents on an unfair footing'.
This was the type of work in which he excelled and he loved the cut and thrust of argument and the analysis of technical problems. Consequently, his main contribution to the expansion of the railway network in this country was through the promotion of schemes rather than their construction and perhaps it is for this reason, that his name is not as well known as those of other famous railway men such as Brunel, Stephenson and Locke. It is a measure of his standing however, that he is portrayed with his contemporaries in the famous painting by John Lucas of 'Conference of Engineers at Britannia Bridge' that hangs in the Institution of Civil Engineers.
Bidder's entrepreneurial flair led him into other fields of development and as his wealth increased, he invested in land as well as a variety of businesses in which he took an active interest. One development with which he became associated was the electric telegraph, a new invention still in the early stages of its commercial development. By introducing it on the London & Blackwall Railway and later on the Norwich & Yarmouth line, he was able to effect economies by introducing single line operation with safe and reliable communication between stations. As the demand for this type of communication increased, he helped to promote and finance the Electric Telegraph Company and the subsequent development of transatlantic cables.
Bidder was responsible for many overseas projects including railway schemes in Norway, Denmark, Switzerland and India and as his reputation grew, he came into contact with many leading dignitaries and Heads of State. He reached the pinnacle of his professional career when he was elected President of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1860-61.
Although Bidder's main home was in Surrey, he always had great affection for his native County of Devon and having bought a house in Dartmouth his wife Georgina and family of eight children gradually began to spend more time there. He became a member of the Town Council and took an active interest in local affairs, but felt unable to accept the office of Mayor due to his many commitments in London. In 1869 he became the President of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and the Arts, a position later held by one of his grandsons. In fact the immediate Bidder family tree contains many distinguished individuals.
The nature of his work meant that he spent long periods away from home but he kept in regular touch with his family. Hard work and dedication were always a feature of Bidder's life and they brought their just rewards so that he and his family were able to enjoy a standard of living his parents could never have envisaged. Together with Robert Stephenson, he made many business and social trips on Stephenson's yacht and at Dartmouth he acquired his own yacht, the equivalent to a personal jet aircraft these days. Always the engineer, his interest in boats and water led to him to assist William Froude, another famous engineer, on experimental work associated with the design of ships' hulls. He was a founder member of the Dart Yacht Club and played an important role in the Club obtaining a Royal Warrant.
Just prior to his death he purchased Stoke House, Stoke Fleming which he planned to enlarge but he died there on 28th September 1878 before the work could be completed. He was buried in the churchyard at Stoke Fleming.
Bidder's prodigious memory and mental agility remained with him until the end and even during the last few days of his life, he was still able to enjoy philosophical discussion and debate with his friends. Bidder's name frequently occurs in the nineteenth century annals of civil engineering and he is remembered in the town of his birth where a mosaic has been laid in the road approaching the parish church that illustrates some of the mathematical problems he resolved as a child. A lithograph of Bidder together with a marble bust can be found in the town's Bowring Library and on 29th May 2003 the Retired Chartered Engineers' Club, Exeter placed a commemorative plaque on the wall of the Parish Council Office in The Square that was unveiled in the presence of his grandson and great-grandson.
Blessed with a wonderful brain, Bidder developed his own method of mental calculation that he explained in a lecture to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1856. This was complemented by a memory that retained basic information on which he relied when performing complicated calculations and which was probably the result of the games he had taught himself as a child. There is little doubt that his speed of mental computation would compare favourably with today's electronic devices that appear so indispensable for even the simplest of calculations.
A G Banks