The Pattern Impulse: Thomas Walter Barber’s “scheming and devising”

Comprising a bloggy sort of essay on patterns, structures and designing, together with a biographical and bibliographic investigation.


Sally Fincher

Second Edition
Revised and Enlarged
6th August 2007

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First Encounter

I first encountered a copy of The Engineer's Sketch-Book around 2000. I was lucky that it was a late edition because, on idly browsing through it, I was struck by the expression of the author as he described "how to use this book" (this description was not inserted until the 7th edition, in 1934). And I was struck by it because it forcibly reminded me of an analogous description at the start of Christopher Alexander's A Pattern Language. (Compare descriptions)

The complementary nature of these two visions - that both conceived the process of design in an holistic manner, and both supported it (in themselves and for others) with a collection of small instantiations of practice which were to be drawn together and combined by the skill and taste of the designer, interpreted with absolute regard for local and specific context - captured my imagination.

So I started to investigate the history of this work. First, I purchased my own copy (7th Edition). Then I consulted the British Library to locate earlier editions, and some bibliographic history. The book was astonishingly successful: first published in 1889 it was continuously in print for at least the following 50 years. It was "revised and enlarged" in the second, third and fifth editions - for the fifth edition this enlargement was so profound as to necessitate the inclusion of a note:

In this Edition, the Author has revised the original matter and added a large number of new devices, incorporating these, with the Appendix to the previous edition, in the body of the work. The numbers in this edition are therefore not the same as in previous issues, and in some instances the titles of the sections have been also amended.

But, enlarging and re-arranging aside, the content of the work remained substantially the same. It is, in and of itself, a fascinating and engaging work for those of a certain cast of mind. It is a catalogue of devices, all carefully and beautifully illustrated with steel plate engravings. (See Sample Page) The book is arranged in thematic "sections" (108 in my 7th edition copy): the sections are, broadly speaking, in alphabetical order. That is to say Section 1 is Anchoring and Section 96 is Winding Apparatus, with the intervening sections falling in line. However, as the 5th edition note suggests, the sections after 96 are not obviously ordered, and cover miscellaneous areas such as Apparatus for Drawing Curves, Sound and Doors, Manholes and Covers

Thematic Classification

At first blush, the way the book is classified seems obvious: similar things are grouped together. If you want to include an anchor in your design, you turn to "Anchors" and choose one, or let perusal of the devices stimulate your inventiveness. But, on looking more closely at the drawings that are actually included on the page, the dawning realization creeps over you that things are not as obvious as they seem. The section comprises: not only anchors for use at sea (as suggested by the title)—mushroom anchor, double fluke anchor, Martin's patent anchor (with swivelling flukes) and rock anchor—but also fencing posts, wall eyes, a rope pulley anchor (a car which grips by sinking its wheels into the soil; employed for ploughing tackle) an anchor plate, a screw mooring and, even, a heavy stone. The selection and grouping of the contents of this section would be quite baffling to someone unfamiliar with the mechanical concept, which underlies them all (and which is not itself explicated in the text).

I became very interested in this relationship between structuring principle and the components classified by it as it was worked out and exemplified in patterns (and other, more or less similar, endeavours) and wrote about it in 2002 and 2003 (follow the link to "position papers"). It's also worth noting that this sort of arrangement has been taken as an indication of expertise in other arenas. Michelene Chi (with colleagues Feltovich and Glaser) noted that physics teachers organised a selection of physics problems by underlying principles (e.g. friction or gravity) whilst students used surface features of the representations (e.g. pulleys or inclined planes) [1].

TWB: The Man

Reading and following this work, I got interested in TWB himself. This book had a remarkable success - how did he come to write it? What else did he do? Was he rich? I tried to track down material from the publishers: sadly E. & F.N. Spon was taken over, and there is no material surviving in the Routledge Archives (held at Reading University which relates to TWB or his long association with the company.

Consequently, I initiated genealogical investigations into his life and works. On the early editions of The Engineer's Sketch-Book the title pages have "Thomas Walter Barber, Engineer". However, from the fourth edition on the post-nominals "M.Inst.C.E." (Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers) are added. An enquiry there revealed that he was elected a member on the 10th of January 1899, at the age of 52.

Professional associations often have a wealth of material on their members, and TWB proved no exception. Following his career through their records, I was able to plot jobs, addresses and movements for almost his entire professional life until he was erased from their rolls on the 18th of November 1924. As the Sketch-Book was resolutely mechanical, I was hopeful that he might also have been a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. This was not to be, although I did locate a small bonus in finding details of his son TWB junior.

Compiling information from all the sources together, supplemented with details from the General Register Office and from the census records, provides an impressive picture of TWB's life and career. He undertook many and varied engineering jobs in his career. He designed bridges, tram-trucks, railways and wrote at least three books: the Repair & Maintenance of Machinery 1895, The Engineer's Sketch-Book 1889, and Civil Engineering Types & Devices 1915. In this last, he applied the same design and formula of the Sketch-Book to civil engineering problems. ("It is hoped that this index may be of the same service to the active civil engineer as the Engineer's Sketch-book has proved to be to the mechanical engineer"). It remained in print until well after his death, with the last (fourth) edition being posthumously "revised and updated by Rolt Hammond" in 1955.

Puzzling anomalies

TWB died on the 21st of April 1917 at the age of 70, and his son, TWB jnr. was present at his death. He had made a will on the 18th of April 1879, leaving everything to his wife Sarah, and probate was granted to her on the 18th of October 1918. This left a rather anomalous picture. There was no doubt that TWB was dead, but the Institution of Civil Engineers continued to believe he was alive at least until 1924 (there was no record of death or obituary lodged with them, he simply stopped paying his dues) and they had three addresses for him in India between 1918 and 1922. In the hope of sorting this out, I extended my search to find the death of his wife.

Sarah died on the 27th of February 1936: again TWB jnr was present at the death. Probate was granted to TWB jnr on the 15th of April 1936. Sarah's will was rather more interesting than her husband's as it detailed several properties. She also left "my grave No 11578 in Highgate Cemetery to my son Thomas Walter Barber, his heirs and assigns"

The records of Highgate Cemetery are well preserved, and grave no.11578 is clearly marked "Barber" on the plans. However, reality is (as always) rather different from plans and section 102 is not neatly laid out. The plan may have been accurate at one point, but since then many more people have been buried there, and many of the graves don't have markers - or if there are stones, then they've been washed smooth. In February 2007, I couldn't find any trace of TWB or his wife or TWB junior. However, as I left, I (almost literally) stumbled over a gravestone - in surprisingly good condition - recording the burial of TWB's parents, brother, sister-in-law and nephew (See 1, 2, 3 and transcript).

This didn't really sort out the puzzle though. Because I suspected a confusion between father and son (for after all, they shared the same name) I double-checked with the Institution of Civil Engineers. The Archivist there (Mrs Carol Morgan) was quite clear that the records related to only one man throughout, and also added that it was quite common for there to be two members of the same name (often, although not always, father and son) and that when this happened, a distinction was always made in the records. Having drawn a blank there, I returned to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. On my first visit I had principally been looking for TWB senior and had only noted TWB junior's membership details more-or-less in passing. A more thorough examination of the records revealed a continuous run of addresses, from 1902 to 1927. Most surprising was that his addresses for 1919-1922 were exactly the same as for his deceased father. It would seem that TWB junior simply assumed his father's membership of the Institution of Civil Engineers. It also explained the only death record for a Thomas Walter Barber previously located, as this now fit perfectly with TWB's known date of birth. TWB junior died in Bruges, in Belgium, on the 16th of January 1938. He had made his will a year earlier, leaving everything to his widow, Angele Pelagie Duyvewaardt. Probate was granted (in the UK) to Angele on 5th of October 1938 to the value of £1094 5s 9d.

For me, the strange thing about this set of circumstances was that it meant that anything written after 1917, although attributed to TWB senior must actually have been written by TWB junior - and that would include the preface to the 7th edition that first caught my eye. For others, the strangeness lay elsewhere. After the first edition of this essay, I was contacted by a descendent of TWB who confirmed much of the detail, but also opened the door to new anomalies.

The Pattern Impulse

I remain interested in Thomas Walter Barber senior, and his work, because of his vision of what it meant to design, and what it meant to support design. Here is what he says in the Sketch-Book preface.

Every successful engineer is a born inventor; indeed the daily work of an engineer in practice largely consists in scheming and devising from previous experience new and improved processes, methods, and details for accomplishing them, and for simplifying or cheapening old forms of machinery and the work they produce, to enable him to successfully compete with others, who are perhaps as ingenious and enterprising as himself.

In the work of designing machinery the draughtsman has to rely mainly on his memory for inspiration; and, for lack of an idea, has frequently to wade through numerous volumes to find a detail or movement to effect a particular purpose. Hence, as a rule, every man's work runs in a groove, his productions generally having the stamp of his particular experience and training clearly marked upon them. [TWB snr]

TWB was a prolific and expert designer: and it seems to have been that expertise, and the experience of it, that led him to the realisation of the important points that underlie the construction of the Sketch-Book. I believe that these are very close to the important points that underlie the construction of patterns and pattern languages:

  1. It is of no help to provide whole designs

    "A little reflection will show that a Sketch Book of Designs is almost an impossible ideal, since it would be out of date as soon as published.
    To deal with designs in a diagrammatic matter a large book would be needed to treat of each subject-such as Boilers, Cranes, Steam Engines, Pumps, etc. On the other hand, the details on which these constantly changing designs are built up remain fundamentally the same. It is surprising to realise how few really new basic elements are invented." [TWB jnr]

  2. It is important to develop an appropriate form for the presentation of the material.

    "[providing] side by side suggestive sketches of the various methods in use for accomplishing any particular mechanical movement or work, in a form easily referred to, and devoid of needless detail and elaboration. A sketch, properly executed, is—to a practical man—worth a folio of description" [TWB snr] and "The sketches given in this work are practical drawings intended for Engineers, by an Engineer, showing just what is needed and no more. They will give him the inspiration he requires, the guidance he wants-in fact a "lead" in the right direction-and he will not waste his time wading through a lot of "pictures" that have no analytical value." [TBW jnr]

  3. It is important to divine a structuring principle that matches the domain of the designer.

    "In the course of twenty-five years of such experience, I have found the want of such a volume as the present, and endeavoured to supply the deficiency in my own practice by private notes and sketches, gathered promiscuously, until the difficulty of selection and arrangement became so apparent that I began to classify them, as they exist in the following pages ... presented in the hope that it will be of service to others engaged in the head-splitting, exhausting work of scheming and devising machinery, than which I can conceive of no head-work more wearing and anxious" [TWB snr]

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