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Nobody Tips a Scandiscope

By February 13, 2019 No Comments
Nobody Tips a Scandiscope

I climb’d, and climb’d, and climb’d in vain,
No light at top appear’d;
No end to darkness, toil, and pain,
While worse and worse I fear’d.

“The Climbing-Boy’s Soliloquies”
The Chimney-Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing-Boy’s Album

The simplest things can sometimes teach us the most. That’s why I want to tell you a story about chimneys.

A chimney is simple enough: it’s a hollow column made of bricks, stone or cement that vents out gases from the fuels we burn. But within those flues lurk eye-opening lessons about the influences on, and implications of, our energy choices.

To get in the mood for this story, do what I’m doing as I write it: settle into a comfy chair by a crackling fire late at night. Absorb the heat and let your mind wander. Imagine you’re in England’s north country, where it’s damp and cold. Now imagine it’s January 1857.

Henry Haworth was nervous.

He was standing at the gates of a 16th-century school, looking up at the roof of a large three-story stone building. The glint of the early morning moon backlit four cylindrical pots, grouped in a row on top of the chimney.

Only seven years old, Henry already knew his chimneys. He knew them inside and out. Literally. You see, Henry was a chimney sweep, although that was a benign description of what he did for a living.

In mid-19th-century Britain, most people would have referred to Henry as a climbing boy, which in my mind was a more fitting handle. That’s because he didn’t really sweep much. Instead, he spent his long days climbing inside fireplace flues, removing layers of soot with his head, hands and a scruffy straw brush.

Before the end of this January work shift, Henry would have to squeeze through each of those four suffocating chimneys.

Like any child, he’d learned quickly from experience: the first stack usually vented the main-floor fireplace — he dreaded that one the most. Filthy stone flues that snaked through walls for 20 meters were common. Add to that 90-degree kinks jammed with dregs still hot from the previous night’s fire, and a flue seemed to go on forever, all the way up to the clay pot’s narrow opening at the end of the stack.

Henry kept staring at the top of the building.

Having never gone to school, he could neither read nor write. But he could add up what scared him. Four, he thought, four of the scariest tall-pot chimneys. All to be cleaned before noon!

The boy’s worrying was interrupted by his foul-tempered chimney master.

“Stop starin’ and git a move on!” barked Nigel. “We got a lot to do this morning.” His snarl revealed a mouth full of rotten teeth.

Henry took a deep breath of crisp winter air. It would be his last pleasure of the day. Head hanging, he limped behind Nigel through the school gates. No one cared that his left ankle was sporting a bloody scrape, inflicted by one of yesterday’s merciless chimneys.

Henry was a chimney sweep, although that was a benign description of what he did for a living.


Most people don’t notice chimneys, but I do. As an energy tourist, I take pictures of them, especially when I travel to old European cities with rich crops of chimneys sprouting out of urban landscapes. Why? Because chimneys have been fundamental to the evolution of our energy needs.

By the 15th century, chimneys were gaining popularity in Europe as a way to separate smoke from the warmth of an indoor fireplace. Soon after, steam engines started pulling, pushing and turning, and it wasn’t long before mechanization led to electric power generation. All these fuel-hungry contraptions needed a stack for blowing out the energy we didn’t use in the process of creating economic prosperity and comfort. With the Industrial Revolution, chimneys came to signify productivity and industrial might. Now, they symbolize two of society’s great energy ills: inefficiency and environmental degradation.

Related Vignettes

I admit I hadn’t given chimney sweeping much thought until I bought a rare 1825 book titled The Chimney-Sweeper’s Friend, and Climbing-Boy’s Album, edited by James Montgomery. By 1825, the practice had already been in play for over 150 years and Montgomery, a poet, newspaper publisher and tireless advocate for the helpless children, documented much of the horrific history. Intrigued and appalled by what I read, I looked for more materials on the climbing boys’ plight. My hunt yielded “Climbing Boys,” an 1857 article by an unknown author. It opens with a quote that’s ominously on point: “They die in their youth, and their life is among the unclean.”

Between this short essay and Montgomery’s 500-page treatise, I’d added to my library two of the most depressing pieces of literature I own. Their pages are filled with heartbreaking stories of climbing boys being burned, beaten or suffocated to death. Like John Anderson. At five years old, he’d already been working for a year and a half. One day, he was sent up a flue still hot from the night before. Within five minutes, people could hear him groaning, but they couldn’t reach him in time and the poor boy suffocated.

And so, I added ethics to the list of energy ills symbolized by a chimney.

Chimneys symbolize two of society’s great energy ills: inefficiency and environmental degradation.

Once you’ve heard the stories of the climbing children, you never look at chimneys the same way.

Henry was the middle child of three, born to an impoverished family that desperately needed money to survive. Six months earlier, his mother had made the unimaginable decision to sell her son, a perfectly aged and physically able boy, into Nigel’s apprenticeship.

“Here’s three shillings fer ya,” Nigel had sneered, dropping coins into her shaking hands.

“Come here, boy.” The sweep grabbed Henry’s arm, claiming his newly acquired asset.

“Please, Mum, please! Don’t let him take me away,” Henry had whimpered, straining his free arm out to his mother. But it was too late. The deal was done, and she was already retreating into the shadows of a narrow street.

With that, Nigel became Henry’s chimney master or, more bluntly, his slave master.


Dig in deeper with Energyphile Sessions. You’ll get this story, related Q&As and a facilitator’s guide. Find out more.


Not all climbing boys were sold into slavery by their parents. Many in England were orphans offered up by workhouses, state-run dwellings for the destitute. In fact, chimney masters were often paid to take children away — for as little as $20 in today’s terms — to ease the state’s burden of caring for the neglected.

During the transaction, a child would have to sign an indenture, usually with an X, in front of witnesses, pledging seven years to his new vocation. In return, the boy’s master was responsible for feeding, clothing and sheltering his new charge.

Many good masters fulfilled their end of the bargain, but it’s well documented that plenty of unscrupulous ones fell short of delivering on their basic responsibilities. In fact, undernourished boys were desirable because they were better able to climb narrow passages. How narrow? Open a magazine. That 11-by-17-inch spread is larger than the standard flue child workers had to squeeze through.

Thinking about such conditions reminds me of Oliver Twist, in which Mr. Gamfield, a master sweep, discusses how stuffing burning straw up a flue motivates climbing boys: “… even if they’ve stuck in the chimbley, roasting their feet makes ’em struggle to hextricate theirselves.” The chair-squirming truth is that Dickens’ fiction is based on facts openly published at the time.

Girls weren’t exempt either. Some were pressed into service if their chimney master parents didn’t have sons to support the business. Their slighter frames also made them better able to fit into those tiny flues.

Undernourished boys were desirable because they were better able to climb narrow passages.

Nigel led Henry to the fireplace, still oblivious to the young one’s limp. Before the boy got started, he took off his shoes and brought out his climbing cap. He pulled the improvised balaclava over his head and below his chin, to prevent ingesting the toxic residue.

Henry hated this part — preparing for the dark unknown. He wished his mother was by his side, to kiss his ankle better, to soften his fears. But she wasn’t. Hoping to rid himself of memories of her, he gave his head a shake and grabbed a small straw brush. He launched himself up off the hearth’s grate and pushed into the impossibly tight flue by pressing the sides with his back, elbows and knees, articulating his body like a caterpillar.

Scraping, brushing and squirming, Henry loosened soft and hard soot for the first nine meters, allowing the residue to freely fall into the fireplace. Later, Nigel would put the pitch-black soot in sacks and take it to the afternoon market, where he sold it to farmers as fertilizer.

Henry kept plodding skyward until he poked his head up to a horizontal stretch. Pulling himself around the corner on to the ledge, he found momentary relief from the force of gravity. But now he had to scrape forward, channel the soot underneath his belly, then push it back with his feet. This repetitive forward-reverse motion gradually thrust all the residue to the free-fall of the vertical segment he’d just cleared.

After a few meters, Henry’s head touched a wall. Catching his breath, he sensed open space above. From experience, he knew he was about to bend upward into the final vertical section. Relief set in. Soon he would be done this first flue.

Suffocation was the most common cause of death for climbing boys. Squeezed in a flue no larger than 11 by 17 inches, a child had no hope of escape should soot collapse, dying in “an agony of suffocation.”


While the energy geek in me has always been interested in European chimneys, I look at them differently now. Examining them inside and out, I imagine those poor climbing children and reflect on what their horrors mean to us today.

The obvious takeaway is that we must be mindful of the ethical issues associated with our energy systems. I’m not naive to what goes on behind the scenes of our Western comforts. Nor should you be. The gasoline you put in your tank may have originated from an authoritarian state that tortures its citizens. The battery in your phone, weed whacker or electric car may contain scarce metals from Africa, chipped out of a mine by a child. These are 21st-century realities.

But as I sit in front of my fireplace, I’m thinking about a bigger issue. The first ban on the use of climbing boys came in 1788. Mechanical chimney-sweeping devices were around as early as 1789. Why did society continue to push innocent children up chimneys for another hundred years?

From a callous business perspective, cost and implementation were two big reasons. Early chimney-sweeping innovations were expensive and complicated. It took until the 1870s for the cost of mechanical brushing systems to come down. Many master sweeps couldn’t afford the upfront cost of a mechanical contraption. If they could, they argued it took too long to figure out how to use the device properly, especially in hard-to-sweep areas like horizontal sections.

So, basically, it was cheaper and more effective to use youngsters.

In 1803, the Society for Superseding the Necessity of Climbing Boys was founded. Dedicated to saving climbing boys from slavery, the organization also promoted the use of mechanical technologies. Encouraged by the society’s formation, the Royal Society of Arts revived its languishing design competition for chimney-sweeping machines. In 1805, George Smart’s “Scandiscope” won. The Scandiscope was a series of hollow rods held together by a long cord that ran down the inside. The chimney sweep connected the rods one by one, creating a long-handled straw brush he pushed up the flue, scrubbing the chimney.

Other innovations followed. In 1828 Joseph Glass introduced a similar kit that used screw-together brass rods to extend the long handle. Considered superior to the Scandiscope, Glass’s tool began penetrating the sweeping market in earnest, but there were still many years to go before climbing boys were eliminated.

These innovations were paralleled by legislation that went largely ignored. Adherence to the 1788 ban was minimal, especially in rural England and Wales, where child laborers were cheapest. Authorities notionally accepted the master sweeps’ arguments against the chimney-sweeping contraptions, turning a blind eye to the legislation.

The rapidly increasing use of coal during the Industrial Revolution was another compelling reason to let the practice go unchecked. Chimneys were being built at a frenzied pace, and sweeping was an essential service for fueling prosperity.

But basic economics wasn’t the primary headwind against the adoption of mechanical cleaning. As I read more about climbing boys, I realized that the persistence of entrenched interests was the greatest source of friction — the slow pace of change wasn’t due to a lack of technology, it was thanks to selfish, human fixations.

Take social status, for example. In many 19th-century cultures, the privileged class didn’t have much interest in changing its standing in life. Society’s bottom rung, represented by individuals like climbing boys, was necessary to the preservation of class distinctions.

In thinking about this, I pause to look at the illustrations in Montgomery’s book: top-hatted gentry point at and disparage climbing boys. Social status is important to egos, and because technology can flatten hierarchy, it isn’t always desirable.

Because technology can flatten hierarchy, it isn’t always desirable.

The social strata of the sweeping economy collide: the upper class looks on as a chimney master acquires a new apprentice. Resistance to change has many sources. In the case of climbing children, maintaining class distinction was one.

When analyzing the potential for change, I think about the phrase “Money talks.” Recognizing entrenched financial interests means knowing where the talking, or whispering, is going on.

In the business of climbing boys, there was a small underground economy of perquisites that were massive barriers to change. Housekeepers, the primary decision makers about cleaning chimneys, would receive tips and perks when their homeowner’s chimney was kept in good order. If a chimney master sullied carpets and furniture with a new contraption, no tips were forthcoming. So their resistance was financially motivated, for fear their perks would be jeopardized by this disruptive technology.

Similarly, master sweeps had perks at stake. Servants and homeowners would often sympathize with pathetic-looking climbing boys, giving them tips and food at the end of a job. Both dividends inevitably ended up in the master’s hands. Bottom line: nobody tipped a Scandiscope, a fact every master took into the calculus of adopting new technology — or not.

Some wooden tubes, a brush, and rope
Are all you need employ;
Pray order, maids, the Scandiscope,
And not the climbing boy.

The Every-Day Book; or, Everlasting Calendar of Popular Amusements, Sports, Pastimes, Ceremonies, Manners, Customs, and Events, Incident to Each of the Three Hundred and Sixty-Five Days, in Past and Present Times

Henry began contorting his body upward into the next vertical section, but he still couldn’t see any light above him. Relief turned to worry. No light almost always meant a blockage.

He was right.

Suddenly, a rush of soot collapsed, enveloping his head and shoulders.

Panic overtook the child. He couldn’t move. Breathing was difficult. “Help!” he gasped. But it was futile — no one could hear him.

Within minutes, this seven-year-old suffocated to death, his body entombed as a wasted life, cleaning waste from an appliance that emitted wasted energy.

Although this May 1826 handbill dubbed the Scandiscope “the Last Chimney Sweeper” and exhorted housekeepers to use the new tool, it was another 50 years before people ceased sending children up chimneys.


The crackling fire beside me underscores the silence in my mind.

Think about it: it took five parliamentary edicts and a hundred years before the Chimney Sweepers Act of 1875 ended the era of climbing boys for good.

Looking up at the stone stack, I wonder how to end this story.

The obvious conclusion is that child labor is despicable. Or that unethical practices in the supply and use of energy are ill-advised. Both are vital lessons, but the primary business lesson lies in the troubling longevity of climbing boys: deeply rooted institutions in our society don’t change as fast as technology.

A century and a half later, we’re still trying to displace chimneys, stacks and exhaust pipes — the conduits of combusting fossil fuels. This despite the fact that more efficient energy processes are readily available. Climbing boys are a testament to the difficulty of uprooting entrenched interests and low-cost processes. When thinking about our energy future, across all energy systems, do we understand those ingrained interests?

Reflecting on my own experiences in the business world, I realize we talk far too much about the potential of new technologies — how new product A will clobber old-school product B — and too little about matters related to people, especially the hardiness of entrenched interests at a raw, human level.

In fact, technology and “know-how” are rarely the limiting factors in a successful business plan, or in making the world a better place. This tale of Henry Haworth and his climbing peers should remind us that self-interest can be so rigid, so strong, that it can seriously hinder the adoption of superior solutions — and abet even the worst human practices.

Climbing boys are a testament to the difficulty of uprooting entrenched interests and low-cost processes.


The practice of employing climbing boys may be long gone, but today’s energy choices can still have unsettling consequences. The questions in this Energyphile Session will help you:

  • Understand there are behind-the-scenes consequences to your energy use
  • Appreciate that your everyday comforts are often accompanied by ethical issues
  • Realize the power of self-interest in overcoming government policy