Tay Bridge Disaster

Three days after Christmas day, on 28th December 1869, Matthew sat down at his desk in Gourdiehill House and penned a most horrific letter of warning to his local newspaper, the Dundee Advertiser, to alert everyone that he had quite reasonably foreseen that if it were to be built, the Tay Railway Bridge to Dundee would collapse into the estuary it spanned.

The Advertiser published his letter on 4th January 1870. Matthew was predicting a technological Gothic horror.

To find out what happened 10 years to the very day Ma\tthew penned that letter please click here

The Seer of Goudie Hill (from Nullius In Verba: Darwin's greatest secret (2014)

If Matthew had not discovered the theory of natural selection, which solved the problem of species, it would be most odd to write about his skill at predicting the future. As it is, Matthew was curiously accurate in several predictions. And so, it would be odd to not pay them at least some cursory examination, if only to seek to understand how he did it.

Incredible as it is, we saw in Chapter Two that Matthew appears to be the originator of both the term and concept of the US Peace Corps. Furthermore, Chapter Four reveals an unusually large number of what appear to be remarkable coincidences between what Matthew wrote in NTA, and the lives and work of Darwin and Wallace.

Perhaps Matthew had some great gift of emotionally-intelligent insight into how the world operated. Perhaps such intuition is in some way a trait of the deductively gifted. I have no idea. Whatever the case, there can be no question that Patrick Matthew had more deductive powers than anyone else who ever lived before or since.

The Demonic Eels Letter

Three days after Christmas Day, on December 28, 1869, Matthew sat down at his desk in Gourdiehill House and penned a most horrific letter of warning to his local newspaper, the Dundee Advertiser, to alert everyone that he had quite reasonably foreseen that if it were to be built, the Tay Railway Bridge to Dundee would collapse into the estuary it spanned.

The Advertiser published his letter on January 4, 1870. Matthew was predicting a technological Gothic horror (Matthew 1870b):

"In the case of the Dundee Bridge, where from such a length and height liability to accident is so great, the highly possible accident of a drowned train would damn the Bridge for ever, and subject the Bridge Company to enormous damages, besides the lost principal. Nothing could exceed the horror of an islet in the Firth formed of iron, stones and wood fragments, and of mangled human bodies, amongst which eels peered out, collected from all parts of the Firth, by the carrion smell of which they are so very sensible. The eels (water-serpents) according to our Christian[199] creed, might every one of them be demon possessed, come to gloat in delight the horrible wreck and banquet. What more likely than an accident?"

On December 28, 1879, the tenth anniversary of the very day Matthew penned that letter, disaster struck. During the worst storm in years, the beautiful Tay Bridge fell into the river. Along with the bridge went the 17.20 train from Burntisland, all the passengers and crew. At least 59 people were killed.

The storm that destroyed the bridge wrecked large swathes of what had once been Matthew's cherished Gourdiehill orchard, and it decimated others in the surrounding area. Thousands of ancient trees were ripped from the ground that night, including the famous Abernethy Pear, a gloriously tall tree that had for centuries produced an abundance of small hard pears, the kind used for making alcoholic perry. Local legend was that the perry-loving monks of Lindores had planted it centuries before (Jeffrey and Howie 1879). Trees of other orchards were destroyed that night. Gone too were so many of Matthew's beloved wild specimens; ancient trees claimed to be so mysteriously old that they had (Edwards 1991):

"...seen Britain become an island, the great civilisations of the Middle East, Greece and Rome rise and fall, the birth of Christ and the whole painful history of modern humankind. According to local tradition, the last sudden event which shook the pines was the storm which destroyed the Tay Bridge on 28 December 1879. The great old trees uprooted that night can still be seen lying along the ground in Glen Derry and nearby Glen Quoich."

From his Demonic Eels letter, we learn that Matthew had foreseen the possibility of several possible mishaps that could have caused the bridge to fail, including the rapid flow of the river scouring the bridge's foundations; collapse of its supports if hit by a ship; loss of centrifugal force, causing a train to become derailed on the sharp curve at the bridge's northern end and even destruction by earthquake tremors (Pinsdorf 1997). Matthew was also worried about lightning strikes. He noted, too, the ease with which an enemy of the nation could blow the bridge with floating explosives, its location being so close to the mouth of the Firth. But more than any other cause, Matthew feared that the unreliable qualities of cast iron made it the wrong material for a railway bridge of such length in that location.

Unlike the conveniently obtuse ramblings of the likes of Nostradamus, Matthew was certainly precise in his predictions. But he was no seer of any one particular cause. If anything was going to go wrong with the Tay Bridge, be it by wind or lightning, shipping collision, structural defect, design defect, poor foundations or even an act of war, Matthew had every possible angle covered, so that if anything that could go wrong did go wrong, he would have predicted it.

Despite the fact that famous bridges had collapsed before (see Pinsdorf 1997), the editor of the Advertiser mocked Matthew as a crank, on the grounds that his list of potential dangers could be matched with something similar to dissuade a person from walking along a street. Understandable as the editor's reasoning is, I think he was wrong to have so quickly rushed to mock and dismiss all of Matthew's warnings. Any such simple reading of Matthew's scattergun approach misses the most crucial factor of his highly-informed intuition when it came to structures, their location, components, design, and necessary maintenance under various impending circumstances (see Rothery 1880 for further information).

Why was it that Matthew, who was not ordinarily inclined to predict disasters (although years earlier he claimed to have predicted the Irish potato famine), took umbrage with the Tay Bridge?

Perhaps the answer lies in Pinsdorf's explanation of the problem being the general, yet dangerous, mood of incurable engineering optimism in Britain at that particular point in time (Pinsdorf 1997 pp. 492-493):

"[In] a roughly 30 year cycle; bridge types proceed from inception to maturity to overconfidence. Designers are pushed to dangerous limits of simplicity to ever greater feats of daring to create longer and larger spans. Times of unalloyed progress are the most dangerous progress... Confidence in materials and men looms so great that supervision by shoe leather, constant quality tests, and controls are treated cavalierly or just ignored. The Tay Bridge suffered from both. The only naysayer[200] was dismissed as an agent of doom. One need only study NASA's dismissal of the O-Ring warnings—cause of the Challenger 10 explosion – to see the problem lives today."

What actually caused the Tay Bridge to collapse were the combined forces of 90 mph gales, the worst in six years, the bridge's height and reduced structural supports, its air-holed castings—particularly in the cast iron lugs[201]—and a lack of maintenance and safety checks. Matthew, quite naturally, got the whole lot right in his knowledge-loaded blunderbuss.

Matthew got the storm and problem of the Bridge's exposed location right (Matthew 1870a) on February 11:

"To carry out that which every thinking man must regard as a wild and dangerous scheme—a Rainbow Bridge, unprecedented in height, in so stormy a position, and about three miles in length, over an arm of the sea."

His arboricultural naval timber knowledge, like that of Buffon's before him, correctly alerted him to the engineering problem of the unknown strength of nonstandardized construction materials (Matthew 1870b) on January 4:

"Being chiefly an iron structure, there is a difficulty—an impossibility—of knowing the strength of an iron beam or tie as you can that of a beam of timber. Iron is also of a different strength at different temperatures. Cracks and inequalities of crystallization and extension of crystallisation in cast iron, and what is termed brunt, burned, in malleable iron, are often imperceptible to the eye and cannot be tested."

And he got the foreseeable lack of necessary maintenance right:

"Should the Bridge Company have to keep the bridge in repairs, the great amount of repairs which such a length an height of bridge would in probability require, would go far to consume its revenue."

I recommend Grothe (1878, pp: 38-39) for some interesting Victorian mockery of our hero. However, for my fellow students of dysology, there is a simple and rational explanation for Matthew's otherwise amazing Demonic Eels prediction. It is that Matthew wrote his letter predicting disaster on a mid-winter's day exactly ten years before it happened, to the very day. Perhaps December 26, 1869, the day he penned his prediction, or perhaps the night before, was a stormy affair of sufficient power to bring down a bridge. Perhaps that was enough to make Matthew worry about the blueprints for another not yet built.

Anticipating Darwin?

Matthew predicted in NTA that an English naturalist, looking like and having the plodding character of Darwin, would test his hypothesis and prove it correct by gathering many supporting evidences (Matthew 1831, p. 374):

"The placid looking Englishman, more under the control of animal enjoyment, though perhaps not so readily acute, excels in the no less valuable qualities of constancy and bodily powers of exertion; and when properly taught under high division of labour, becomes a better operative in his particular employment, and even will sometimes extend scientific discovery further, than his more mercurial northern neighbour, who from his quick wits being generally in advance of his manual practice, seldom attains to the dexterity which results from the combination of continued bodily action and restricted mental application."

However, once again this is not, as it might seem, supernatural. Matthew is not as prescient with regards to anticipating Darwin as he might first appear. Look carefully. If we want to claim that Matthew nailed it about Darwin coming along and finding evidences for his hypothesis, why was Matthew not more specific? If we wish to claim he was predicting that an English scientist would do just that, then Matthew would have needed to have said precisely and specifically that exact thing. Only he never did.

There is no supernatural clairvoyance here, not even so much as a very lucky guess. All Matthew is actually doing in the above paragraph is stereotyping his fellow Scots as men of action with a low attention threshold, and the English as more meticulous.

There seems to be nothing more to Matthew's mercurial Scot paragraph than daft national stereotyping. On the other hand, the paragraph might be of some small curiosity value to evolutionary biologists, now that it has been hypothesized that the gene for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) might just have been an evolutionary adaptation for human migration. In effect, the hypothesis is that those with lots of get up and go actually got up and went, their DRD4 7R allele being more present in populations with a history of migration (Eisenberg and Campbell 2011). But I've no idea, yet, whether Scots have higher levels of ADHD genes than the population of the English. Somehow I really doubt it. But you just never know, there is always that Viking connection.

We have seen in the preceding chapters a fair amount of evidence to support the proposition that any 19th century gentleman of science, on finding Matthew's hypothesis, would be highly reluctant to cite its source. Secord (2000, p. 64), for example, sums up the extent to which such deductive reasoning was a scientific taboo in the realm of natural selection:

"The dangers of being tarred with the brush of speculation were more apparent in presenting a systematic account of living beings. Any treatise that discussed the mechanism of creation was in danger of being accused of infidelity."

Arguably, Darwin, for the 19 years before Wallace published his Sarawak paper, was doing what Matthew must surely have wished a renowned naturalist would do—namely, proving the natural process of selection hypothesis by induction to take it towards theory level. The problem is, Matthew only later learned that two such plodding Victorian gentlemen of science would not only plagiarize his discovery, but were simultaneously opposed by ego and convenient convention to publishing any genuine recognition of its influence on their own work.

Was Matthew the first to deduce the existence of DNA?

Dempster (1995, p. xiii) claims that Matthew was the first to deduce the existence of DNA. Quoting Matthew's thoughts on the topic:

"Does organised existence, and perhaps all material existence, consist of one protean principle of life capable of gradual circumstance-suited modifications and aggregations, without bound under solvent or motion-giving principle, heat or light?"

It does rather look like we might have to chalk that extremely broad conception up to Matthew, along with his much more precise origination of the US Peace Corps.

Was Matthew the First to Propose the European Economic Union?

I tentatively wonder whether Matthew might have been the first proposer of current European Economic Union when he wrote (Matthew 1831, p. 369):

"This period might perhaps be accelerated throughout Europe did the merchants and capitalists only know their own strength. Let them as citizens of the world hold annual congress in some central place and deliberate on the interests of man which is their own and throw the whole of their influence to support liberal and just governments and to repress slavery crime bigotry tyranny in all shapes."

It is perhaps going too far to wonder, had this one piece of Matthew's advice been heeded, might the first and second World Wars and the Holocaust have been avoided? Furthermore, it is likewise perhaps too far fetched to wonder, had Darwin and Wallace been honest and paid due tribute to their greatest influencer, would Matthew's other ideas have been taken seriously and many lives saved?

Did Matthew Deduce that Contaminated Water Spread Cholera?

We saw in Chapter Four how in 1828, Roget failed to make the connection between contaminated water and cholera, and how 30 years later Dr. John Snow had a hypothesis that the disease was spread in drinking water. How did Snow deduce that water was the likely culprit? Had others made the same guess before him? Was there open speculation on the water and cholera in question?

If Matthew were not the greatest deducer of all time, it would be naïve speculation worthy of ridicule to hazard the guess that he might have deduced the theory of water-born cholera contagion before Snow, but a paragraph from his great granddaughter's book might just be worthy of further investigation, if only to refute this most preposterous possibility.

Errol Jones (2010, p. 6) writes:

"Although the Matthew family belonged to the upper crust of Scottish society, Patrick abhorred the slothful life of the upper classes, believing in equality, and never afraid to expound his views. He was greatly interested in Chartism—a system of one man, one vote, and considered himself an atheist. With such radical thinking for the times, it is not surprising that he was held at arms length by his peers. The villagers of Errol and surrounds did not understand how the Laird could take his wife and children to join a gypsy caravan, heading for the clear sweet waters of the Highlands during a cholera epidemic—away from the slow running water of the Carse. Gypsies were 'poachers and thieves'. How could the Laird consort with such people?"

Was Matthew an atheist?

Matthew's words suggest that in fact he believed in intelligent design and may have been Christian in 1839, but later in life abandoned the teachings of all formal religions. Evidence of his possible earlier post-NTA Christian sympathies can be seen in Emigration Fields, where he wrote (Matthew 1839, p. 146):

"By means of this peace corps, a great well combined, effort should be made to christianize and civilize the whole native population of the group; forming normal schools, and even colleges, for the instruction of native teachers, as well clergymen as schoolmasters, and especially instructing the rising generation in the English language."

But in the last known letter he sent to Darwin, Matthew, who was then in his 80s, wrote of his belief in intelligent design and of his belief that altruism[ in the human and animal kingdom is proof of it. Note, however, that he dismisses all belief in divine revelations of an afterlife. With a parable he criticizes the reasoning of the Christian notion that we must believe in the Abrahamic God and work hard against our competitive natures in order to gain entry to an afterlife (Matthew 1871):

"There cannot be a doubt that in the scheme of nature there exists high design & constructive power carried out by general Laws, And the great probability is that these laws are everlasting, as Nature itself is, tho' under these laws subject to revolution. It is also probable that the spark of life, like light, & heat &c., is radiated from the sun & has a power of building up to itself a domicile suited to existing circumstances & disseminating sparks of its own kind, but possessed of a variation power. That there is a principle of beneficence operating here the dual parentage and family affection pervading all the higher animal kingdom affords proof. A sentiment of beauty pervading Nature, with only some few exceptions affords evidence of intellect & benevolence in the scheme of Nature. This principle of beauty is clearly from design & cannot be accounted for by natural selection. Could any fitness of things contrive a rose, a lily, or the perfume of the violet. There is no doubt man is left purposely in ignorance of a future existence. Their pretended revelations are wretched nonsense.

"It is a beautiful parable, the woman walking through the City of Damascus bearing fire in the one hand & water in the other, crying, with this fire I will burn heaven & with this water extinguish hell that man may worship God for his own sake & not as mercenary labourers. We are gifted with a moral sense & it is delightful to do good. It is a pleasure to me to wish you & yours the enjoyment of doing good. I regret I cannot do more than wish it."

I cannot help wondering whether Matthew's very last known words to Darwin are perhaps an invocation to go and do the right thing and admit that it was in truth Matthew's discovery, hypothesis and explanatory examples that primarily influenced him in all his subsequent labors on the same idea.


Had Matthew's warnings about the dangers of high winds and the inconsistencies in the strength of cast iron, leading to his foreseeable collapse of the Tay Bridge, been heeded rather than gleefully mocked by the ignorant (e.g., Grothe 1878, pp. 38-39), the lives of some 59 people would have been saved from an untimely death. Also, a less expensive bridge would have been built at a narrower crossing, and some of the money saved might have been spent on alleviating the enormous misery of the poor.

It is probably worth investigating Matthew's (1860) seemingly outlandish claims to have been the first proposer of heavy gun boats with sloping slides and naval steam driven rams. He claims also to have predicted and warned against the potato famine of Ireland, and to have unsuccessfully lobbied an unheeding Parliament on that issue (Matthew 1862, p. 412).

Whatever else he did, besides discovering the process of natural selection, one thing is certain: Patrick Matthew is the greatest deductive thinker who ever lived. We do ourselves a great disservice by allowing biased Darwinists to keep him, his original and influential ideas and what led to their discovery, buried under their namesake's great fraud and lies.

Patrick Matthew