(1693-1776): ENGLISH CLOCK-MAKER.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
INVENTOR OF THE MARINE CHRONOMETER.
"No man knows who invented the mariner's
compass, or who first hollowed out a canoe from a log.
The power to observe accurately the sun, moon, and
planets, so as to fix a vessel's actual position when
far out of sight of land, enabling long voyages to be
safely made; the marvellous improvements in
ship-building, which shortened passages by sailing
vessels, and vastly reduced freights even before steam
gave an independent force to the carrier—each and all
were done by small advances, which together contributed
to the general movement of mankind. . . . Each owes all
to the others. The forgotten inventors live for ever in
the usefulness of the work they have done and the
progress they have striven for."—H. M. HYNDMAN.
ONE of the most
extraordinary things connected with Applied Science is the method by
which the Navigator is enabled to find the exact spot of sea on
which his ship rides. There may be nothing but water and sky within
his view; he may be in the midst of the ocean, or gradually nearing
the land; the curvature of the globe baffles the search of his
telescope; but if he have a correct chronometer, and can make an
astronomical observation, he may readily ascertain his longitude,
and know his approximate position—how far he is from home, as well
as from his intended destination. He is even enabled, at some
special place, to send down his grappling-irons into the sea, and
pick up an electrical cable for examination and repair.
This is the result of a knowledge of Practical Astronomy.
"Place an astronomer," says Mr. Newcomb, "on board a ship; blindfold
him; carry him by any route to any ocean on the globe, whether under
the tropics or in one of the frigid zones; land him on the wildest
rock that can be found; remove his bandage, and give him a
chronometer regulated to Greenwich or Washington time, a transit
instrument with the proper appliances, and the necessary books and
tables, and in a single clear night he can tell his position within
a hundred yards by observations of the stars. This, from a
utilitarian point of view, is one of the most important operations
of Practical Astronomy." [p.74]
The Marine Chronometer was the outcome of the crying want of
the sixteenth century for an instrument that should assist the
navigator to find his longitude on the pathless ocean. Spain
was then the principal naval power; she was the most potent monarchy
in Europe, and held half America under her sway. Philip III.
offered 100,000 crowns for any discovery by means of which the
longitude might be determined by a better method than by the log,
which was found very defective. Holland next became a great
naval power, and followed the example of Spain in offering 30,000
florins for a similar discovery. But though some efforts were
made, nothing practical was done, principally through the defective
state of astronomical instruments. England succeeded Spain and
Holland as a naval power; and when Charles II established the
Greenwich Observatory, it was made a special point that Flamsteed,
the Astronomer-Royal, should direct his best energies to the
perfecting of a method for finding the longitude by astronomical
observations. But though Flamsteed, together with Hallay and
Newton, made some progress, they were prevented from obtaining
ultimate success by the want of efficient chronometers and the
defective nature of astronomical instruments.
Nothing was done until the reign of Queen Anne, when a
petition was presented to the Legislature on the 25th of May, 1714,
by "several captains of Her Majesty's ships, merchants in London,
and commanders of merchantmen, in behalf of themselves, and of all
others concerned in the navigation of Great Britain," setting forth
the importance of the accurate discovery of the longitude, and the
inconvenience and danger to which ships were subjected from the want
of some suitable method of discovering it. The petition was
referred to a committee, which took evidence on the subject.
It appears that Sir Isaac Newton, with his extraordinary sagacity,
hit the mark in his report. "One is," he said, "by a watch
to keep time exactly; but, by reason of the motion of a ship,
and the variation of heat and cold, wet and dry, and the
difference of gravity in different latitudes, such a watch hath
not yet been made."
An Act was however passed in the Session of 1714, offering a
very large public reward to inventors: £10,000, to any one who
should discover a method of determining the longitude to one degree
of a great circle, or 60 geographical miles; £15,000 if it
determined the same to two-thirds of that distance, or 40
geographical miles; and £20,000, if it determined the same to
one-half of the same distance, or 30 geographical miles.
Commissioners were appointed by the same Act, who were instructed
that "one moiety or half part of such reward shall be due and paid
when the said commissioners, or the major part of them, do agree
that any such method extends to the security of ships within 80
geographical miles of the shore, which are places of the greatest
danger; and the other moiety or half part when a ship, by the
appointment of the said commissioners, or the major part of them,
shall actually sail over the ocean, from Great Britain to any such
port in the West Indies as those commissioners, or the major part of
them, shall choose or nominate for the experiment, without losing
the longitude beyond the limits before mentioned."
The terms of this offer indicate how great must have been the
risk and inconvenience which it was desired to remedy. Indeed,
it is almost inconceivable that a reward so great could be held out
for a method which would merely afford security within eighty
This splendid reward for a method of discovering the
longitude was offered to the world—to inventors and scientific men
of all countries—without restriction of race, or nation, or
language. As might naturally be expected, the prospect of
obtaining it stimulated many ingenious men to make suggestions and
contrive experiments but for many years the successful construction
of a marine time-keeper seemed almost hopeless. At length, to
the surprise of every one, the prize was won by a village
carpenter—a person of no school, or university, or college whatever.
Even so distinguished an artist and philosopher as Sir
Christopher Wren was engaged, as late in his life as the year 1720,
in attempting to solve this important problem. As has been
observed, in the memoir of him contained in the 'Biographia
Britannica,' [p.77] "This noble
invention, like some others of the most useful ones to human life,
seems to be reserved for the peculiar glory of an ordinary mechanic,
who, by indefatigable industry, under the guidance of no ordinary
sagacity, hath seemingly at last surmounted all difficulties, and
brought it to a most unexpected degree of perfection." Where
learning and science failed, natural genius seems to have triumphed.
The truth is, that the great mechanic, like the great poet,
is born, not made; and John Harrison, the winner of the famous
prize, was a born mechanic. He did not, however, accomplish
his object without the exercise of the greatest skill, patience, and
perseverance. His efforts were long, laborious, and sometimes
apparently hopeless. Indeed, his life, so far as we can
ascertain the facts, affords one of the finest examples of
difficulties encountered and triumphantly overcome, and of undaunted
perseverance eventually crowned by success, which is to be found in
the whole range of biography.
No complete narrative of Harrison's career was ever written.
Only a short notice of him appears in the 'Biographia Britannica,'
published in 1766, during his lifetime,—the facts of which were
obtained from himself. A few notices of him appear in the
'Annual Register,' also published during his lifetime. The
final notice appeared in the volume published in 1777, the year
after his death. No Life of him has since appeared. Had
he been a destructive hero, and fought battles by land or sea, we
should have had biographies of him without end. But he pursued
a more peaceful and industrious course. His discovery
conferred an incalculable advantage on navigation, and enabled
innumerable lives to be saved at sea; it also added to the domains
of science by its more exact measurement of time. But his
memory has been suffered to pass silently away, without any record
being left for the benefit and advantage of those who have succeeded
him. The following memoir includes nearly all that is known of
the life and labours of John Harrison.
He was born at Foulby, in the parish of Wragby, near
Pontefract, Yorkshire, in May 1693. His father, Henry
Harrison, was carpenter and joiner to Sir Rowland Wynne, owner of
the Nostel Priory estate. The present house was built by the
baronet on the site of the ancient priory. Henry Harrison was
a sort of retainer of the family, and long continued in their
Little is known of the boy's education. It was
certainly of a very inferior description. Like George
Stephenson, Harrison always had a great difficulty in making himself
understood, either by speech or writing. Indeed, every
board-school boy now receives a better education than John Harrison
did a hundred and eighty years ago. But education does not
altogether come by reading and writing. The boy was possessed
of vigorous natural abilities. He was especially attracted by
every machine that moved upon wheels. The boy was
'father to the man.' When six years old, and lying sick of
small-pox, a going watch was placed upon his pillow, which afforded
him infinite delight.
When seven years old he was taken by his father to Barrow,
near Barton-on-Humber, where Sir Rowland Wynne had another residence
and estate. Henry Harrison was still acting as the baronet's
carpenter and joiner. In course of time young Harrison joined
his father in the workshop, and proved of great use to him.
His opportunities for acquiring knowledge were still very few, but
he applied his powers of observation and his workmanship upon the
things which were nearest him. He worked in wood, and to wood
he first turned his attention.
He was still fond of machines going upon wheels. He had
enjoyed the sight of the big watch going upon brass wheels when he
was a boy; but, now that he was a workman in wood, he proposed to
make an eight-day clock, with wheels of this material. He made
the clock when he was only twenty-two years old, so that he must
have made diligent use of his opportunities. He had of course
difficulties to encounter, and nothing can be accomplished without
them; for it is difficulties that train the habits of application
and perseverance. But he succeeded in making an effective
clock, which counted the time with regularity. This clock is
still in existence. It is to be seen at the Museum of Patents,
South Kensington; and when we visited it a few months ago it was
going, and still marking the moments as they passed. It is
contained in a case about six feet high, with a glass front, showing
a pendulum and two weights. Over the clock is the following
"This clock was made at Barrow,
Lincolnshire, in the year 1715, by John Harrison, celebrated as the
inventor of a nautical timepiece, or chronometer, which gained the
reward of £20,000, offered by the Board of Longitude, A.D. 1767. [p.79]
"This clock strikes the hour, indicates the day of the month,
and with one exception (the escapement) the wheels are entirely made
This, however, was only a beginning. Harrison proceeded
to make better clocks; and then he found it necessary to introduce
metal, which was more lasting. He made pivots of brass, which
moved more conveniently in sockets of wood with the use of oil.
He also caused the teeth of his wheels to run against cylindrical
rollers of wood, fixed by brass pins, at a proper distance from the
axis of the pinions; and thus to a considerable extent removed the
inconveniences of friction.
In the meantime Harrison eagerly improved every incident from
which he might derive further information. There was a
clergyman who came every Sunday to the village to officiate in the
neighbourhood; and having heard of the sedulous application of the
young carpenter, he lent him a manuscript copy of Professor
Saunderson's discourses. That blind professor had prepared
several lectures on natural philosophy for the use of his students,
though they were not intended for publication. Young Harrison
now proceeded to copy them out, together with the diagrams.
Sometimes, indeed, he spent the greater part of the night in writing
As part of his business, he undertook to survey land, and to
repair clocks and watches, besides carrying on his trade of a
carpenter. He soon obtained a considerable knowledge of what
had been done in clocks and watches, and was able to do not only
what the best professional workers had done, but to strike out
entirely new lights in the clock and watch-making business. He
found out a method of diminishing friction by adding a joint to the
pallets of the pendulum, whereby they were made to work in the
nature of rollers of a large radius, without any sliding, as usual,
upon the teeth of the wheel. He constructed a clock on the
recoiling principle, which went perfectly, and never lost a minute
within fourteen years. Sir Edmund Denison Beckett says that he
invented this method in order to save himself the trouble of going
so frequently to oil the escapement of a turret clock, of which he
had charge; though there were other influences at work besides this.
But his most important invention, at this early period of his
life, was his compensation pendulum. Every one knows that
metals expand with heat and contract by cold. The pendulum of
the clock therefore expanded in summer and contracted in winter,
thereby interfering with the regular going of the clock.
Huygens had by his cylindrical checks removed the great irregularity
arising from the unequal lengths of the oscillations; but the
pendulum was affected by the tossing of a ship at sea, and was also
subject to a variation in weight, depending on the parallel of
latitude. Graham, the well-known clockmaker, invented the
mercurial compensation pendulum, consisting of a glass or iron jar
filled with quicksilver and fixed to the end of the pendulum rod.
When the rod was lengthened by heat, the quicksilver and the jar
which contained it were simultaneously expanded and elevated, and
the centre of oscillation was thus continued at the same distance
from the point of suspension.
But the difficulty, to a certain extent, remained unconquered
until Harrison took the matter in hand. He observed that all
rods of metal do not alter their lengths equally by heat, or, on the
contrary, become shorter by cold, but some more sensibly than
others. After innumerable experiments Harrison at length
composed a frame somewhat resembling a gridiron, in which the
alternate bars were of steel and of brass, and so arranged that
those which expanded the most were counteracted by those which
expanded the least. By this means the pendulum contained the
power of equalising its own action, and the centre of oscillation
continued at the same absolute distance from the point of suspension
through all the variations of heat and cold during the year. [p.82-1]
Gridiron Pendulum: A: general external
appearance of pendulum; B: schematic at normal temperature; C:
schematic at higher temperature. [p.82-2]
Thus by the year 1726, when he was only thirty-three years
old, Harrison had furnished himself with two compensation clocks, in
which all the irregularities to which these machines were subject,
were either removed or so happily balanced, one metal against the
other, that the two clocks kept time together in different parts of
his house, without the variation of more than a single second in the
month. One of them, indeed, which he kept by him for his own
use, and constantly compared with a fixed star, did not vary so much
as one whole minute during the ten years that he continued in the
country after finishing the machine. [p.82-3]
Living, as he did, not far from the sea, Harrison next
endeavoured to arrange his timekeeper for purposes of navigation.
He tried his clock in a vessel belonging to Barton-on-Humber; but
his compensating pendulum could there be of comparatively little
use; for it was liable to be tossed hither or thither by the sudden
motions of the ship. He found it necessary, therefore, to
mount a chronometer, or portable time-keeper, which might be taken
from place to place, and subjected to the violent and irregular
motion of a ship at sea, without affecting its rate of going.
It was evident to him that the first mover must be changed from a
weight and pendulum to a spring wound up and a compensating balance.
He now applied his genius in this direction. After
pondering over the subject, he proceeded to London in 1728, and
exhibited his drawings to Dr. Halley, then Astronomer-Royal.
The Doctor referred him to Mr. George Graham, the distinguished
horologer, inventor of the dead-beat escapement and the mercurial
pendulum. After examining the drawings and holding some
converse with Harrison, Graham perceived him to be a man of uncommon
merit, and gave him every encouragement. He recommended him,
however, to make his machine before again applying to the Board of
Harrison returned home to Barrow to complete his task, and many
years elapsed before he again appeared in London to present his
The remarkable success which Harrison had achieved in his
compensating pendulum could not but urge him on to further
experiments. He was no doubt to a certain extent influenced by
the reward of £20,000 which the English Government had offered for
an instrument that should enable the longitude to be more accurately
determined by navigators at sea than was then possible; and it was
with the object of obtaining pecuniary assistance to assist him in
completing his chronometer that Harrison had, in 1728, made his
first visit to London to exhibit his drawings.
The Act of Parliament offering the superb reward was passed
in 1714, fourteen years before, but no attempt had been made to
claim it. It was right that England, then rapidly advancing to
the first position as a commercial nation, should make every effort
to render navigation less hazardous. Before correct
chronometers were invented, or good lunar tables were prepared, [p.84-1]
the ship, when fairly at sea, out of sight of land, and battling
with the winds and tides, was in a measure lost. No method
existed for accurately ascertaining the longitude. The ship
might be out of its course for one or two hundred miles, for
anything that the navigator knew; and only the wreck of his ship on
some unknown coast told of the mistake that he had made in his
It may here be mentioned that it was comparatively easy to
determine the latitude of a ship at sea every day when the sun was
visible. The latitude—that is, the distance of any spot from
the equator and the pole—might be found by a simple observation with
the sextant. The altitude of the sun at noon is found, and by
a short calculation the position of the ship can be ascertained.
Marine sextant. [p.84-2]
Picture: Wikipedia (created by Joaquim Alves Gaspar).
The Sextant, which is the instrument universally used at sea,
was gradually evolved from similar instruments used from the
earliest times. The object of this instrument has always been
to find the angular distance between two bodies—that is to say, the
angle of two straight lines which are drawn from those bodies to
meet in the observer's eye. The simplest instrument of this kind may
be well represented by a pair of compasses. If the hinge is
held to the eye, one leg pointed to the distant horizon, and the
other leg pointed to the sun, the two legs will be the angular
distance of the sun from the horizon at the moment of observation.
Until the end of the seventeenth century, the instrument used
was of this simple kind. It was generally a large quadrant,
with one or two bars moving on a hinge,—to all intents and purposes
a huge pair of compasses. The direction of the sight was fixed
by the use of a slit and a pointer, much as in the ordinary rifle.
This instrument was vastly improved by the use of a telescope, which
not only allowed fainter objects to be seen, but especially enabled
the sight to be accurately directed to the object observed.
The instruments of the pre-telescopic age reached their glory
in the bands of Tycho Brahe. He used magnificent instruments
of the simple "pair of compasses" kind—circles, quadrants, and
sextants. These were for the most part ponderous fixed
instruments—of little or no use for the purposes of navigation.
But Tycho Brahe's sextant proved the forerunner of the modern
instrument. The general structure is the same; but the vast
improvement of the modern sextant is due, firstly, to the use of the
reflecting mirror, and, secondly, to the use of the telescope for
accurate sighting. These improvements were due to many
scientific men—to William Gascoigne, who first used the telescope,
about 1640; to Robert Hooke, who, in 1660, proposed to apply it to
the quadrant; to Sir Isaac Newton, who designed a reflecting
quadrant; [p.85] and to John
Hadley, who introduced it. The modern sextant is merely a
modification of Newton's or Hadley's quadrant, and its present
construction seems to be perfect.
It therefore became possible accurately to determine the
position of a ship at sea as regarded its latitude [p.86-1].
But it was quite different as regarded the longitude—that is, the
distance of any place from a given meridian, eastward or westward.
In the case of longitude there is no fixed spot to which reference
can be made. The rotation of the earth makes the existence of
such a spot impossible. The question of longitude is purely a
question of TIME. The circuit of the
globe, east and west, is simply represented by twenty-four hours.
Each place has its own time. It is very easy to determine the
local time at any spot by observations made at that spot. But,
as time is always changing, the knowledge of the local time gives no
idea of the actual position; and still less of a moving object—say,
of a ship at sea. But if, in any locality, we know the local
time, and also the local time of some other locality at that
moment—say, of the Observatory at Greenwich—we can, by comparing the
two local times, determine the difference of local times, or, what
is the same thing, the difference of longitude between the two
places. It was necessary therefore for the navigator to be in
possession of a first-rate watch or chronometer, to enable
him to determine accurately the position of his ship at sea, as
respected the longitude.
Before the middle of the eighteenth century good watches were
comparatively unknown. The navigator mainly relied, for his
approximate longitude, upon his Dead Reckoning, [p.86-2]
without any observation of the heavenly bodies. He depended
upon the accuracy of the course which he had steered by the compass,
and the mensuration of the ship's velocity by an instrument called
the Log, as well as by combining and rectifying all the allowances
for drift, lee-way, and so on, according to the trim of the ship;
but all of these were liable to much uncertainty, especially when
the sea was in a boisterous condition. There was another and
independent course which might have been adopted—that is, by
observation of the moon, which is constantly moving amongst the
stars from west to east. But until the middle of the
eighteenth century good lunar tables were as much unknown as good
Hence a method of ascertaining the longitude, with the same
degree of accuracy which is attainable in respect of latitude, had
for ages been the grand desideratum for men "who go down to the sea
in ships." Mr. Macpherson, in his important work entitled 'The
Annals of Commerce,' observes, "Since the year 1714; when Parliament
offered a reward of £20,000 for the best method of ascertaining the
longitude at sea, many schemes have been devised, but all to little
or no purpose, as going generally upon wrong principles, till that
heaven-taught artist Mr. John Harrison arose;" and by him, as Mr.
Macpherson goes on to say, the difficulty was conquered, having
devoted to it "the assiduous studies of a long life."
The preamble of the Act of Parliament in question runs as
follows: "Whereas it is well known by all that are acquainted with
the art of navigation that nothing is so much wanted and desired at
sea as the discovery of the longitude, for the safety and quickness
of voyages, the preservation of ships and the lives of men," and so
on. The Act proceeds to constitute certain persons
commissioners for the discovery of the longitude, with power to
receive and experiment upon proposals for that purpose, and to grant
sums of money not exceeding £2,000 to aid in such experiments.
It will be remembered from what has been above stated, that a reward
of £10,000 was to be given to the person who should contrive a
method of determining the longitude within one degree of a great
circle, or 60 geographical miles; £15,000 within 40 geographical
miles; and £20,000 within 80 geographical miles.
It will, in these days, be scarcely believed that little more
than a hundred and fifty years ago a prize of not less than ten
thousand pounds should have been offered for a method of determining
the longitude within sixty miles, and that double the amount should
have been offered for a method of determining it within thirty
miles! The amount of these rewards is sufficient proof of the
fearful necessity for improvement which then existed in the methods
of navigation. And yet, from the date of the passing of the
Act in 1714 until the year 1736, when Harrison finished his first
timepiece, nothing had been done towards ascertaining the longitude
more accurately, even within the wide limits specified by the Act of
Parliament. Although several schemes had been projected, none
of them had proved successful, and the offered rewards therefore
still remained unclaimed.
To return to Harrison. After reaching his home at
Barrow, after his visit to London in 1728, he began his experiments
for the construction of a marine chronometer. The task was one
of no small difficulty. It was necessary to provide against
irregularities arising from the motion of a ship at sea, and to
obviate the effect of alternations of temperature in the machine
itself, as well as the oil with which it was lubricated. A
thousand obstacles presented themselves, but they were not enough to
deter Harrison from grappling with the work he had set himself to
Every one knows the beautiful machinery of a timepiece, and
the perfect tools required to produce such a machine. Some of
these tools Harrison procured in London, but the greater number he
provided for himself; and many entirely new adaptations were
required for his chronometer. As wood could no longer be
exclusively employed, as in his first clock, he had to teach himself
to work accurately and minutely in brass and other metals.
Having been unable to obtain any assistance from the Board of
Longitude, he was under the necessity, while carrying forward his
experiments, of maintaining himself by still working at his trade of
a carpenter and joiner. This will account for the very long
period that elapsed before he could bring his chronometer to such a
state as that it might be tried with any approach to certainty in
Harrison, besides his intentness and earnestness, was a
cheerful and hopeful man. He had a fine taste for music, and
organised and led the choir of the village church, which attained a
high degree of perfection. He invented a curious monochord,
which was not less accurate than his clocks in the mensuration of
time. His ear was distressed by the ringing of bells out of
tune, and he set himself to remedy them. At the parish church
of Hull, for instance, the bells were harsh and disagreeable, and by
the authority of the vicar and churchwardens he was allowed to put
them into a state of exact tune, so that they proved entirely
But the great work of his life was his marine chronometer.
He found it necessary, in the first place, to alter the first mover
of his clock to a spring wound up, so that the regularity of the
motion might be derived from the vibrations of balances, instead of
those of a pendulum as in a standing clock. Mr. Folkes,
President of the Royal Society, when presenting the gold medal to
Harrison in 1749, thus describes the arrangement of his new machine.
The details were obtained from Harrison himself, who was present.
He had made use of two balances situated in the same plane, but
vibrating in contrary directions, so that the one of these being
either way assisted by the tossing of the ship, the other might
constantly be just so much impeded by it at the same time. As
the equality of the times of the vibrations of the balance of a
pocket-watch is in a great measure owing to the spiral spring that
lies under it, so the same was here performed by the like elasticity
of four cylindrical springs or worms, applied near the upper and
lower extremities of the two balances above described.
Then came in the question of compensation. Harrison's
experience with the compensation pendulum of his clock now proved of
service to him. He had proceeded to introduce a similar
expedient in his proposed chronometer. As is well known to
those who are acquainted with the nature of springs moved by
balances, the stronger those springs are, the quicker the vibrations
of the balances are performed, and vice versâ; hence it
follows that those springs, when braced by cold, or when relaxed by
heat, must of necessity cause the timekeeper to go either faster or
slower, unless some method could be found to remedy the
The method adopted by Harrison was his compensation balance,
doubtless the backbone of his invention. His "thermometer kirb,"
he himself says, "is composed of two thin plates of brass and steel,
riveted together in several places, which, by the greater expansion
of brass than steel by heat and contraction by cold, becomes convex
on the brass side in hot weather and convex on the steel side in
cold weather; whence, one end being fixed, the other end obtains a
motion corresponding with the changes of heat and cold, and the two
pins at the end, between which the balance spring passes, and which
it alternately touches as the spring bends and unbends itself, will
shorten or lengthen the spring, as the change of heat or cold would
otherwise require to be done by hand in the manner used for
regulating a common watch." Although the method has since been
improved upon by Leroy, Arnold, and Earnshaw, it was the beginning
of all that has since been done in the perfection of marine
chronometers. Indeed, it is amazing to think of the number of
clever, skilful, and industrious men who have been engaged for many
hundred years in the production of that exquisite fabric—so useful
to everybody, whether scientific or otherwise, on land or sea—the
It is unnecessary here to mention in detail the particulars
of Harrison's invention. These were published by himself in
his 'Principles of Mr. Harrison's Timekeeper.' It may,
however, be mentioned that he invented a method by which the
chronometer might be kept going without losing any portion of time.
This was during the process of winding up, which was done once in a
day. While the mainspring was being wound up, a secondary one
preserved the motion of the wheels and kept the machine going.
After seven years' labour, during which Harrison encountered
and overcame numerous difficulties, he at last completed his
first marine chronometer. He placed it in a sort of
moveable frame, somewhat resembling what the sailors call a 'compass
jumble,' but much more artificially and curiously made and arranged.
In this state the chronometer was tried from time to time in a large
barge on the river Humber, in rough as well as in smooth weather,
and it was found to go perfectly, without losing a moment of time.
Harrison H1 Chronometer, 1735.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
Such was the condition of Harrison's chronometer when he
arrived with it in London in 1735, in order to apply to the
commissioners appointed for providing a public reward for the
discovery of the longitude at sea. He first showed it to
several members of the Royal Society, who cordially approved of it.
Five of the most prominent members—Dr. Halley, Dr. Smith, Dr.
Bradley, Mr. John Machin, and Mr. George Graham—furnished Harrison
with a certificate, stating that the principles of his machine for
measuring time promised a very great and sufficient degree of
exactness. In consequence of this certificate, the machine, at
the request of the inventor, and at the recommendation of the Lords
of the Admiralty, was placed on board a man-of-war.
Sir Charles Wager, then first Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to
the captain of the Centurion, stating that the instrument had
been approved by mathematicians as the best that had been made for
measuring time; and requesting his kind treatment of Mr. Harrison,
who was to accompany it to Lisbon. Captain Proctor answered
the First Lord from Spithead, dated May 17th, 1736, promising his
attention to Harrison's comfort, but intimating his fear that he had
attempted impossibilities. It is always so with a new thing.
The first steam-engine, the first gaslight, the first locomotive,
the first steamboat to America, the first electric telegraph, were
This first chronometer behaved very well on the outward
voyage in the Centurion. It was not affected by the
roughest weather, or by the working of the ship through the rolling
waves of the Bay of Biscay. It was brought back, with
Harrison, in the Orford man-of-war, when its great utility
was proved in a remarkable manner, although, from the voyage being
nearly on a meridian, the risk of losing the longitude was
comparatively small. Yet the following was the certificate of
the captain of the ship, dated the 24th June, 1737: "When we made
the land, the said land, according to my reckoning (and others),
ought to have been the Start; but, before we knew what land it was,
John Harrison declared to me and the rest of the ship's company
that, according to his observations with his machine, it ought to be
the Lizard—the which, indeed, it was found to be, his observation
showing the ship to be more west than my reckoning, above one degree
and twenty-six miles,"—that is, nearly ninety miles out of
Six days later—that is, on the 30th June—the Board of
Longitude met, when Harrison was present, and produced the
chronometer with which he had made the voyage to Lisbon and back.
The minute states: "Mr. John Harrison produced a new invented
machine, in the nature of clockwork, whereby he proposes to keep
time at sea with more exactness than by any other instrument or
method hitherto contrived, in order to the discovery of the
longitude at sea; and proposes to make another machine of smaller
dimensions within the space of two years, whereby he will endeavour
to correct some defects which he hath found in that already
prepared, so as to render the same more perfect; which machine, when
completed, he is desirous of having tried in one of His Majesty's
ships that shall be bound to the West Indies; but at the same time
represented that he should not be able, by reason of his necessitous
circumstances, to go on and finish his said machine without
assistance, and requested that he may be furnished with the sum of
£500, to put him in a capacity to perform the same, and to make a
perfect experiment thereof."
The result of the meeting was that £500 was ordered to be
paid to Harrison, one moiety as soon as convenient, and the other
when he has produced a certificate from the captain of one of His
Majesty's ships that he has put the machine on board into the
captain's possession. Mr. George Graham, who was consulted,
urged that the Commissioners should grant Harrison at least £1,000,
but they only awarded him half the sum, and at first only a moiety
of the amount voted. At the recommendation of Lord Monson, who
was present, Harrison accepted the £250 as a help towards the heavy
expenses which he had already incurred, and was again about to
incur, in perfecting the invention. He was instructed to make
his new chronometer of less dimensions, as the one exhibited was
cumbersome and heavy, and occupied too much space on board.
He accordingly proceeded to make his second chronometer.
It occupied a space of only about half the size of the first.
He introduced several improvements. He lessened the number of
the wheels, and thereby diminished friction. But the general
arrangement remained the same. This second machine was
finished in 1739. It was more simple in its arrangement, and
less cumbrous in its dimensions. It answered even better than
the first, and though it was not tried at sea its motions were
sufficiently exact for finding the longitude within the nearest
limits proposed by Act of Parliament.
Harrison H2 Chronometer, 1741.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
Not satisfied with his two machines, Harrison proceeded to
make a third. This was of an improved construction, and
occupied still less space, the whole of the machine and its
apparatus standing upon an area of only four square feet. It
was in such forwardness in January, 1741, that it was exhibited
before the Royal Society, and twelve of the most prominent members
signed a certificate of "its great and excellent use, as well for
determining the longitude at sea as for correcting the charts of the
coasts." The testimonial concluded: "We do recommend Mr.
Harrison to the favour of the Commissioners appointed by Act of
Parliament as a person highly deserving of such further
encouragement and assistance as they shall judge proper and
sufficient to finish his third machine." The Commissioners
granted him a further sum of £500 Harrison was already reduced to
necessitous circumstances by his continuous application to the
improvement of the timekeepers. He had also got into debt, and
required further assistance to enable him to proceed with their
construction; but the Commissioners would only help him by driblets.
Although Harrison had promised that the third machine would
be ready for trial on August 1, 1743, it was not finished for some
years later. In June, 1746, we find him again appearing before
the Board, asking for further assistance. While proceeding
with his work he found it necessary to add a new spring, "having
spent much time and thought in tempering them." Another £500
was voted to enable him to pay his debts, to maintain himself and
family, and to complete his chronometer.
Three years later he exhibited his third machine to
the Royal Society, and on the 30th of November, 1749, he was awarded
the Gold Medal for the year. In presenting it, Mr. Folkes, the
President, said to Mr. Harrison, "do here, by the authority and in
the name of the Royal Society of London for the improving of natural
knowledge, present you with this small but faithful token of their
regard and esteem. I do, in their name congratulate you upon
the successes you have already had, and most sincerely wish that all
your future trials may in every way prove answerable to these
beginnings, and that the full accomplishment of your great
undertaking may at last be crowned with all the reputation and
advantage to yourself that your warmest wishes may suggest, and to
which so many years so laudably and so diligently spent in the
improvement of those talents which God Almighty has bestowed upon
you, will so justly entitle your constant and unwearied
Mr. Folkes, in his speech, spoke of Mr. Harrison as "one of
the most modest persons he had ever known. In speaking," he
continued, "of his own performances, he has assured me that, from
the immense number of diligent and accurate experiments he has made,
and from the severe tests to which he has in many ways put his
instrument, he expects he shall be able with sufficient certainty,
through all the greatest variety of seasons and the most irregular
motions of the sea, to keep time constantly, without the variation
of so much as three seconds in a week,—a degree of exactness
that is astonishing and even stupendous, considering the immense
number of difficulties, and those of very different sorts, which the
author of these inventions must have had to encounter and struggle
Harrison H3 Chronometer, 1758.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
Although it is common enough now to make first-rate
chronometers—sufficient to determine the longitude with almost
perfect accuracy in every clime of the world — it was very different
at that time, when Harrison was occupied with his laborious
experiments. Although he considered his third machine to be
the ne plus ultra of scientific mechanism, he nevertheless
proceeded to construct a fourth timepiece, in the form of a
pocket watch about five inches in diameter. He found the
principles which he had adopted in his larger machines applied
equally well in the smaller, and the performances of the last
surpassed his utmost expectations. But in the meantime, as his
third timekeeper was, in his opinion, sufficient to supply
the requirements of the Board of Longitude as respected the highest
reward offered, he applied to the Commissioners for leave to try
that instrument on board a royal ship to some port in the West
Indies, as directed by the statute of Queen Anne.
Though Harrison's third timekeeper was finished about
the year 1758, it was not until March 12, 1761, that he received
orders for his son William to proceed to Portsmouth, and go on board
the Dorsetshire man-of-war, to proceed to Jamaica. But
another tedious delay occurred. The ship was ordered
elsewhere, and William Harrison, after remaining five months at
Portsmouth, returned to London. By this time, John Harrison
had finished his fourth timepiece—the small one, in the form
of a watch. At length William Harrison set sail with this
timekeeper from Portsmouth for Jamaica, on November 18th, 1761, in
the Deptford man-of-war. The Deptford had
forty-three ships in convoy, and arrived at Jamaica on the 19th of
January, 1762, three days before the Beaver, another of His
Majesty's ships-of-war, which had sailed from Portsmouth ten clays
before the Deptford, but had lost her reckoning and been
deceived in her longitude, having trusted entirely to the log.
Harrison's timepiece had corrected the log of the Deptford to
the extent of three degrees of longitude, whilst several of the
ships in the fleet lost as much as five degrees! This shows
the haphazard way in which navigation was conducted previous to the
invention of the marine chronometer.
Harrison H4 Chronometer, 1761.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
When the Deptford arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica, the
timekeepers was found to be only five and one-tenth seconds in
error; and during the voyage of four months, on its return to
Portsmouth on March 26th, 1762, it was found (after allowing for the
rate of gain or loss) to have erred only one minute fifty-four and a
half seconds. In the latitude of Portsmouth this only amounted
to eighteen geographical miles, whereas the Act had awarded that the
prize should be given where the longitude was determined within the
distance of thirty geographical miles. One would have thought
that Harrison was now clearly entitled to his reward of £20,000.
Not at all! The delays interposed by Government are
long and tedious, and sometimes insufferable. Harrison had
accomplished more than was needful to obtain the highest reward
which the Board of Longitude had publicly offered. But they
would not certify that he had won the prize. On the contrary,
they started numerous objections, and continued for years to subject
him to vexatious delays and disappointments. They pleaded that
the previous determination of the longitude of Jamaica by
astronomical observation was unsatisfactory; that there was no proof
of the chronometer having maintained a uniform rate during the
voyage; and on the 17th of August, 1762, they passed a resolution,
stating that they "were of opinion that the experiments made of the
watch had not been sufficient to determine the longitude at sea."
It was accordingly necessary for Harrison to petition
Parliament on the subject. Three reigns had come and gone
since the Act of Parliament offering the reward had been passed.
Anne had died; George I. and George II had reigned and died; and
now, in the reign of George III.—thirty-five years after Harrison
had begun his labours, and after he had constructed four several
marine chronometers, each of which was entitled to win the full
prize,—an Act of Parliament was passed enabling the inventor to
obtain the sum of £5,000 as part of the reward. But the
Commissioners still hesitated. They differed about the
tempering of the springs. They must have another trial of the
timekeeper, or anything with which to put off a settlement of the
claim. Harrison was ready for any further number of trials;
and in the meantime the Commissioners merely paid him a further sum
Two more dreary years passed. Nothing was done in 1763
except a quantity of interminable talk at the Board of
Commissioners. At length, on the 28th of March, 1764,
Harrison's son again departed with the timekeeper on board the ship
Tartar for Barbadoes. He returned in about four months,
during which time the instrument enabled the longitude to be
ascertained within ten miles, or one-third of the required
geographical distance. Harrison memorialised the Commissioners
again and again, in order that he might obtain the reward publicly
offered by the Government.
At length the Commissioners could no longer conceal the
truth. In September, 1764, they virtually recognised
Harrison's claim by paying him £1,000 on account; and, on the 9th of
February, 1765, they passed a resolution setting forth that they
were "unanimously of opinion that the said timekeeper has kept its
time with sufficient correctness, without losing its longitude in
the voyage from Portsmouth to Barbadoes beyond the nearest limit
required by the Act 12th of Queen Anne, but even considerably within
the same." Yet they would not give Harrison the necessary
certificate, though they were of opinion that he was entitled to be
paid the full reward!
It is pleasant to contrast the generous conduct of the King
of Sardinia with the procrastinating and illiberal spirit which
Harrison met with in his own country. During the same year in
which the above resolution was passed, the Sardinian minister
ordered four of Harrison's timekeepers at the price of £1,000 each,
at the special instance of the King of Sardinia, "as an
acknowledgement of Mr. Harrison's ingenuity, and as some recompense
for the time spent by him for the general good of mankind."
This grateful attention was all the more praiseworthy, as Sardinia
could not in any way be regarded as a great maritime power.
Harrison was now becoming old and feeble. He had
attained the age of seventy-four. He had spent forty long
years in working out his invention. He was losing his
eyesight, and could not afford to wait much longer. Still he
had to wait.
"Full little knowest thou, who hast not
What hell it is in suing long to bide;
To lose good days, that might be better spent;
To waste long nights in pensive discontent;
To spend to-day, to be put back to-morrow,
To feed on hope, to pine with fear and sorrow."
But Harrison had not lost his spirit. On May 30th,
1765, he addressed another remonstrance to the Board, containing
much stronger language than he had yet used. "I cannot help
thinking," he said, "that I am extremely ill-used by gentlemen from
whom might have expected a different treatment; for, if the Act of
the 12th of Queen Anne be deficient, why have so long been
encouraged under it, in order to bring my invention to perfection?
And, after the completion, why was my son sent twice to the West
Indies? Had it been said to my son, when he received the last
instruction, 'There will, in case you succeed, be a new Act on your
return, in order to lay you under new restrictions, which were not
thought of in the Act of the 12th of Queen Anne,'—I say, had this
been the case, might have expected some such treatment as that now
"It must be owned that my case is very hard; but I hope I am
the first, and for my country's sake I hope shall be the last, to
suffer by pinning my faith upon an English Act of Parliament. Had I
received my just reward—for certainly it may be so called after
forty years' close application of the talent which it has pleased
God to give me—then my invention would have taken the course which
all improvements in this world do; that is, I must have instructed
workmen in its principles and execution, which I should have been
glad of an opportunity of doing. But how widely different this
is from what is now proposed, viz., for me to instruct people that I
know nothing of, and such as may know nothing of mechanics; and, if
I do not make them understand to their satisfaction, I may then have
"Hard fate indeed to me, but still harder to the world, which
may be deprived of this my invention, which must be the case, except
by my open and free manner in describing all the principles of it to
gentlemen and noblemen who almost at all times have had free
recourse to my instruments. And if any of these workmen have
been so ingenious as to have got my invention, how far you may
please to reward them for their piracy must be left for you to
determine; and I must set myself down in old age, and thank God I
can be more easy in that I have the conquest, and though I have no
reward, than if I had come short of the matter and by some delusion
had the reward!"
The Right Honourable the Earl of Egmont was in the chair of
the Board of Longitude on the day when this letter was read—June 13,
1765. The Commissioners were somewhat startled by the tone
which the inventor had taken. Indeed, they were rather angry.
Mr. Harrison, who was in waiting, was called in. After some
rather hot speaking, and after a proposal was made to Harrison which
he said he would decline to accede to "so long as a drop of English
blood remained in his body," he left the room. Matters were at
length arranged. The Act of Parliament (5 Geo. III. cap. 20)
awarded him, upon a full discovery of the principles of his
time-keeper, the payment of such a sum, as with the £2,500 he had
already received, would make one half of the reward; and the
remaining half was to be paid when other chronometers had been made
after his design, and their capabilities fully proved. He was
also required to assign his four chronometers—one of which was
styled a watch—to the use of the public.
Harrison at once proceeded to give full explanations of the
principles of his chronometer to Dr. Maskelyne, and six other
gentlemen, who had been appointed to receive them. He took his
timekeeper to pieces in their presence, and deposited in their hands
correct drawings of the same, with the parts, so that other skilful
makers might construct similar chronometers on the same principles.
Indeed, there was no difficulty in making them, after his
explanations and drawings had been published. An exact copy of
his last watch was made by the ingenious Mr. Kendal; and was used by
Captain Cook in his three years' circumnavigation of the world, to
his perfect satisfaction.
England had already inaugurated that series of scientific
expeditions which were to prove so fruitful of results, and to raise
her naval reputation to so great a height. In these
expeditions, the officers, the sailors, and the scientific men, were
constantly brought face to face with unforeseen difficulties and
dangers, which brought forth their highest qualities as men.
There was, however, some intermixture of narrowness in the minds of
those who sent them forth. For instance, while Dr. Priestly
was at Leeds, he was asked by Sir Joseph Banks to join Captain
Cook's second expedition to the Southern Seas, as an astronomer.
Priestly gave his assent, and made arrangements to set out.
But some weeks later, Banks informed him that his appointment bad
been cancelled, as the Board of Longitude objected to his theology.
Priestley's otherwise gentle nature was roused. "What I am,
and what they are, in respect of religion," he wrote to Banks, in
December, 1771, "might easily have been known before the thing was
proposed to me at all. Besides, I thought that this had been a
business of philosophy, and not of divinity. If, however, this
be the case, I shall hold the Board of Longitude in extreme
Captain Cook was appointed to the command of the Resolution,
and Captain Wallis to the command of the Adventure, in
November,1771. They proceeded to equip the ships; and amongst
the other instruments taken on board Captain Cook's ship, were two
timekeepers, one made by Mr. Larcum Kendal, on Mr. Harrison's
principles, and the other by Mr. John Arnold, on his own. The
expedition left Deptford in April, 1772; and shortly afterwards
sailed for the South Seas. "Mr. Kendal's watch" is the subject
of frequent notices in Captain Cook's account. At the Cape of
Good Hope, it is said to have "answered beyond all expectation."
Further south, in the neighbourhood of Cape Circumcision, he says,
"the use of the telescope is found difficult at first, but a little
practice will make it familiar. By the assistance of the watch
we shall be able to discover the greatest error this method of
observing the longitude at sea is liable to." It was found
that Harrison's watch was more correct than Arnold's, and when near
Cape Palliser in New Zealand, Cook says, "this day at noon, when we
attended the winding-up of the watches, the fusee of Mr. Arnold's
would not turn round, so that after several unsuccessful trials we
were obliged to let it go down." From this time, complete
reliance was placed upon Harrison's chronometer. Some time
later, Cook says, "I must here take notice that our longitude can
never be erroneous while we have so good a guide as Mr. Kendal's
watch." It may be observed, that at the beginning of the
voyage, observations were made by the lunar tables; but these, being
found unreliable, were eventually discontinued.
To return to Harrison. He continued to be worried by
official opposition. His claims were still unsatisfied.
His watch at home underwent many more trials. Dr. Maskelyne,
the Royal Astronomer, was charged with being unfavourable to the
success of chronometers, being deeply interested in finding the
longitude by lunar tables; although this method is now almost
entirely superseded by the chronometer. Harrison accordingly
could not get the certificate of what was due to him under the Act
of Parliament. Years passed before he could obtain the
remaining amount of his reward. It was not until the year
1773, or forty-five years after the commencement of his experiments,
that he succeeded in obtaining it. The following is an entry
in the list of supplies granted by Parliament in that year: "June
14. To John Harrison, as a further reward and encouragement
over and above the sums already received by him, for his invention
of a time-keeper for ascertaining the longitude at sea, and his
discovery of the principles upon which the same was constructed,
£8,570 0s. 0d."
John Harrison did not long survive the settlement of his
claims; for he died on the 24th of March, 1776, at the age of
eighty-three. He was buried at the south-west corner of
Hampstead parish churchyard, where a tombstone was erected to his
memory, and an inscription placed upon it commemorating his
services. His wife survived him only a year; she died at
seventy-two, and was buried in the same tomb. His son, William
Harrison, F.R.S., a deputy-lieutenant of the counties of Monmouth
and Middlesex, died in 1815, at the ripe age of eighty-eight, and
was also interred there. The tomb having stood for more than a
century, became somewhat dilapidated, when the Clock-makers' Company
of the City of London took steps in 1879 to reconstruct it, and
recut the inscriptions. An appropriate ceremony took place at
the final uncovering of the tomb.
But perhaps the most interesting works connected with John
Harrison and the great labour of his life, are the wooden clock at
the South Kensington Museum, and the four chronometers made by him
for the Government, which are still preserved at the Royal
Observatory, Greenwich. The three early ones are of great
weight, and can scarcely be moved without some bodily labour.
But the fourth, the marine chronometer or watch, is of small
dimensions, and is easily handled. It still possesses the
power of going accurately; as does "Mr. Kendal's watch," which was
made exactly after it. These will always prove the best
memorials of this distinguished workman.
Harrison H5 Chronometer, 1772.
Picture: Internet Text Archive.
Before concluding this brief notice of the life and labours
of John Harrison, it becomes me to thank most cordially Mr.
Christie, Astronomer-Royal, for his kindness in exhibiting the
various chronometers deposited at the Greenwich Observatory, and for
his permission to inspect the minutes of the Board of Longitude,
where the various interviews between the inventor and the
commissioners, extending over many years, are faithfully but too
procrastinatingly recorded. It may be finally said of John
Harrison, that by his invention of the chronometer—the
ever-sleepless and ever-trusty friend of the mariner—he conferred an
incalculable benefit on science and navigation, and established his
claim to be regarded as one of the greatest benefactors of mankind.
INTRODUCER OF THE SILK INDUSTRY
"By Commerce are acquired the two things which wise
men accompt of all others the most necessary to the well-being of a
Commonwealth: That is to say, a general Industry of Mind and
Hardiness of Body, which never fail to be accompanyed with Honour
and Plenty. So that, questionless, when Commerce does not flourish,
as well as other Professions, and when Particular Persons out of a
habit of Laziness neglect at once the noblest way of employing their
time and the fairest occasion for advancing their fortunes, that
Kingdom, though otherwise never so glorious, wants something of
being compleatly happy."—A Treatise touching the East India Trade
INDUSTRY puts an
entirely new face upon the productions of nature. By labour man has
subjugated the world, reduced it to his dominion, and clothed the
earth with a new garment. The first rude plough that man thrust into
the soil, the first rude axe of stone with which he felled the pine,
the first rude canoe scooped by him from its trunk to cross the
river and reach the greener fields beyond, were each the outcome of
a human faculty which brought within his reach some physical comfort
he had never enjoyed before.
Material things became subject to the influence of labour. From the
clay of the ground, man manufactured the vessels which were to
contain his food. Out of the fleecy covering of sheep, he made
clothes for himself of many kinds; from the flax plant he drew its
fibres, and made linen and cambric; from the hemp plant he made
ropes and fishing nets; from the cotton pod he fabricated fustians,
dimities, and calicoes. From the rags of these, or from weed
and the shavings of wood, he made paper on which books and
newspapers were printed. Lead was formed by him into printer's
type, for the communication of knowledge without end.
But the most extraordinary changes of all were made in a
heavy stone containing metal, dug out of the ground. With
this, when smelted by wood or coal, and manipulated by experienced
skill, iron was produced. From this extraordinary metal, the
soul of every manufacture, and the mainspring perhaps of civilised
society—arms, hammers, and axes were made; then knives, scissors,
and needles; then machinery to hold and control the prodigious force
of steam; and eventually railroads and locomotives, ironclads
propelled by the screw, and iron and steel bridges miles in length.
The silk manufacture, though originating in the secretion of
a tiny caterpillar, is perhaps equally extraordinary. Hundreds
of thousands of pounds weight of this slender thread, no thicker
than the filaments spun by a spider, give employment to millions of
workers throughout the world. Silk, and the many textures
wrought from this beautiful material, had long been known in the
East; but the period cannot be fixed when man first divested the
chrysalis of its dwelling, and discovered that the little yellow
ball which adhered to the leaf or the mulberry tree, could be
evolved into a slender filament, from which tissues of endless
variety and beauty could be made. The Chinese were doubtless
among the first who used the thread spun by the silkworm for the
purposes of clothing. The manufacture went westward from China
to India and Persia, and from thence to Europe. Alexander the
Great brought home with him a store of rich silks from Persia.
Aristotle and Pliny give descriptions of the industrious
little worm and its productions. Virgil is the first of the
Roman writers who alludes to the production of silk in China; and
the terms he employs show how little was then known about the
article. It was introduced at Rome about the time of Julius
Cæsar, who displayed a profusion of silks in some of his magnificent
theatrical spectacles. Silk was so valuable that it was then
sold for an equal weight of gold. Indeed, a law was passed
that no man should disgrace himself by wearing a silken garment.
The Emperor Heliogabalus despised the law, and wore a dress composed
wholly of silk. The example thus set was followed by wealthy
citizens. A demand for silk from the East soon became general.
It was not until about the middle of the sixth century that
two Persian monks, who had long resided in China, and made
themselves acquainted with the mode of rearing the silkworm,
succeeded in carrying the eggs of the insect to Constantinople.
Under their direction they were hatched and fed. A sufficient
number of butterflies were saved to propagate the race, and mulberry
trees were planted to afford nourishment to the rising generations
of caterpillars. Thus the industry was propagated. It
spread into the Italian peninsula; and eventually manufactures of
silk velvet, damask, and satin became established in Venice, Milan,
Florence, Lucca, and other places.
Indeed, for several centuries the manufacture of silk in
Europe was for the most part confined to Italy. The rearing of
silkworms was of great importance in Modena, and yielded a
considerable revenue to the State. The silk produced there was
esteemed the best in Lombardy. Until the beginning of the
sixteenth century, Bologna was the only city which possessed proper
"throwing" mills, or the machinery requisite for twisting and
preparing silken fibres for the weaver. Thousands of people
were employed at Florence and Genoa about the same time in the silk
manufacture. And at Venice it was held in such high esteem,
that the business of a silk factory was considered a noble
It was long before the use of silk became general in England.
"Silk," said an old writer, "does not immediately come hither from
the Worm that spins and makes it, but passes many a Climate, travels
many a Desert, employs many a Hand, loads many a Camel, and freights
many a Ship before it arrives here; and when at last it comes, it is
in return for other manufactures or in exchange for our money." [p.110-2]
It is said that the first pair of silk stockings was brought into
England from Spain, and presented to Henry VIII. He had before
worn hose of cloth. In the third year of Queen Elizabeth's
reign, her tiring woman, Mrs. Montagu, presented her with a pair of
black silk stockings as a New Year's gift; whereupon her Majesty
asked if she could have any more, in which case she would wear no
more cloth stockings. When James VI. of Scotland received the
ambassadors sent to congratulate him upon his accession to the
throne of Great Britain, he asked one of his lords to lend him his
pair of silken hose, that he "might not appear a scrub before
strangers." From these circumstances it will be observed how
rare the wearing of silk was in England.
Shortly after becoming king, James I. endeavoured to
establish the silk manufacture in England, as had already been
successfully done in France. He gave every encouragement to
the breeding of silkworms. He sent circular letters to all the
counties of England, strongly recommending the inhabitants to plant
mulberry trees. The trees were planted in many places, but the
leaves did not ripen in sufficient time for the sustenance of the
silkworms. The same attempt was made at Inneshannon, near
Bandon, in Ireland, by the Huguenot refugees, but proved abortive.
The climate proved too cold or damp for the rearing of silkworms
with advantage. All that remains is "The Mulberry Field,"
which still retains its name. Nevertheless the Huguenots
successfully established the silk manufacture at London and Dublin,
obtaining the spun silk from abroad.
Down to the beginning of last century, the Italians were the
principal producers of organzine or thrown silk; and for a long time
they succeeded in keeping their art a secret. Although the
silk manufacture, as we have seen, was introduced into this country
by the Huguenot artizans, the price of thrown silk was so great that
it interfered very considerably with its progress. Organzine
was principally made within the dominions of Savoy, by means of a
large and curious engine, the like of which did not exist elsewhere.
The Italians, by the most severe laws, long preserved the mystery of
the invention. The punishment prescribed by one of their laws
to be inflicted upon anyone who discovered the secret, or attempted
to carry it out of the Sardinian dominions, was death, with the
forfeiture of all the goods the delinquent possessed; and the
culprit was "to be afterwards painted on the outside of the prison
walls, hanging to the gallows by one foot, with an inscription
denoting the name and crime of the person, there to be continued for
a perpetual mark of infamy." [p.112-1]
Nevertheless, a bold and ingenious man was found ready to
brave all this danger in the endeavour to discover the secret.
It may be remembered with what courage and determination the founder
of the Foley family introduced the manufacture of nails into
England. He went into the Danemora mine district, near Upsala
in Sweden, fiddling his way among the miners; and after making two
voyages, he at last wrested from them the secret of making nails,
and introduced the new industry into the Staffordshire district. [p.112-2]
The courage of John Lombe, who introduced the thrown-silk industry
into England, was equally notable. He was a native of Norwich.
Playfair, in his 'Family Antiquity' (vii. 312), says his name "may
have been taken from the French Lolme, or de Lolme," as there were
many persons of French and Flemish origin settled at Norwich towards
the close of the sixteenth century; but there is no further
information as to his special origin.
John Lombe's father, Henry Lombe, was a worsted weaver, and
was twice married. By his first wife he had two sons, Thomas
and Henry; and by his second, he had also two sons, Benjamin and
John. At his death in 1695, he left his two brothers his
"supervisors," or trustees, and directed them to educate his
children in due time to some useful trade. Thomas, the eldest
son, went to London. He was apprenticed to a trade, and
succeeded in business, as we find him Sheriff of London and
Middlesex in 1727, when in his forty-second year. He was also
knighted in the same year, most probably on the accession of George
II. to the throne.
John, the youngest son of the family, and half-brother of
Thomas, was put an apprentice to a trade. In 1702, we find him
at Derby, working as a mechanic with one Mr. Crotchet. This
unfortunate gentleman started a small silk-mill at Derby, with the
object of participating in the profits derived from the manufacture.
"The wear of silks," says Hutton, in his 'History of Derby,' "was
the taste of the ladies, and the British merchant was obliged to
apply to the Italian with ready money for the article at an
exorbitant price." Crotchet did not succeed in his
undertaking. "Three engines were found necessary for the
process: he had but one. An untoward trade is a dreadful sink
for money; and an imprudent tradesman is still more dreadful.
We often see instances where a fortune would last a man much longer
if he lived upon his capital, than if he sent it into trade.
Crotchet soon became insolvent."
John Lombe, who had been a mechanic in Crotchet's silk mill,
lost his situation accordingly. But he seems to have been
possessed by an intense desire to ascertain the Italian method of
silk-throwing. He could not learn it in England. There
was no other method but going to Italy, getting into a silk mill,
and learning the secret of the Italian art. He was a good
mechanic and a clever draughtsman, besides being intelligent and
fearless. But he had not the necessary money wherewith to
proceed to Italy. His half-brother Thomas, however, was doing
well in London, and was willing to help him with the requisite
means. Accordingly, John set out for Italy, not long after the
failure of Crotchet.
John Lombe succeeded in getting employment in a silk mill in
Piedmont, where the art of silk-throwing was kept a secret. He
was employed as a mechanic, and had thus an opportunity, in course
of time, of becoming familiar with the operation of the engine.
Hutton says that he bribed the workmen; but this would have been a
dangerous step, and would probably have led to his expulsion, if not
to his execution. Hutton had a great detestation of the first
silk factory at Derby, where he was employed when a boy; and
everything that he says about it must be taken cum grand salis.
When the subject of renewing the patent was before Parliament in
1731, Mr. Perry, who supported the petition of Sir Thomas Lombe,
said that "the art had been kept so secret in Piedmont, that no
other nation could ever yet come at the invention, and that Sir
Thomas and his brother resolved to make an attempt for the bringing
of this invention into their own country. They knew that there
would be great difficulty and danger in the undertaking, because the
king of Sardinia had made it death for any man to discover this
invention, or attempt to carry it out of his dominions. The
petitioner's brother, however, resolved to venture his person for
the benefit and advantage of his native country, and Sir Thomas was
resolved to venture his money, and to furnish his brother with
whatever sums should be necessary for executing so bold and so
generous a design. His brother went accordingly over to Italy;
and after a long stay and a great expense in that country, he found
means to see this engine so often, and to pry into the nature of it
so narrowly, that he made himself master of the whole invention and
of all the different parts and motions belonging to it."
John Lombe was absent from England for several years.
While occupied with his investigations and making his drawings, it
is said that it began to be rumoured that the Englishman was prying
into the secret of the silk mill, and that he had to fly for his
life. However this may be, he got on board an English ship,
and returned to England in safety. He brought two Italian
workmen with him, accustomed to the secrets of the silk trade.
He arrived in London in 1716, when, after conferring with his
brother, a specification was prepared and a patent for the
organzining of raw silk was taken out in 1718. The patent was
granted for fourteen years.
In the meantime, John Lombe arranged with the Corporation of
the town of Derby for taking a lease of the island or swamp on the
river Derwent, at a ground rental of £8 a year. The island,
which was well situated for water-power, was 500 feet long and 52
feet wide. Arrangements were at once made for erecting a silk
mill thereon, the first large factory in England. It was
constructed entirely at the expense of his brother Thomas.
While the building was in progress, John Lombe hired various rooms
in Derby, and particularly the Town Hall, where he erected temporary
engines turned by hand, and gave employment to a large number of
At length, after about three years' labour, the great silk
mill was completed. It was founded upon huge piles of oak,
from 16 to 20 feet long, driven into the swamp close to each other
by an engine made for the purpose. The building was five
stories high, contained eight large apartments, and had no fewer
than 468 windows. The Lombes must have had great confidence in
their speculation, as the building and the great engine for making
the organzine silk, together with the other fittings, cost them
Lombe's Silk Mill at Derby, now the Derby Industrial Museum.
One effect of the working of the mill was greatly to reduce
the price of the thrown-silk, and to bring it below the cost of the
Italian production. The King of Sardinia, having heard of the
success of the Lombe's undertaking, prohibited the exportation of
Piedmontese raw silk, which interrupted the course of their
prosperity, until means were taken to find a renewed supply
And now comes the tragic part of the story, for which Mr.
Hutton, the author of the 'History of Derby,' is responsible.
As he worked in the silk mill when a boy, from 1730 to 1737, he
doubtless heard it from the mill-hands, and there may be some truth
in it, though mixed with a little romance. It is this: Hutton
says of John Lombe, that he "had not pursued this lucrative commerce
more than three or four years when the Italians, who felt the
effects from their want of trade, determined his destruction, and
hoped that that of his works would follow. An artful woman
came over in the character of a friend, associated with the parties,
and assisted in the business. She attempted to gain both the
Italian workmen, and succeeded with one. By these two slow
poison was supposed, and perhaps justly, to have been administered
to John Lombe, who lingered two or three years in agony, and
departed. The Italian ran away to his own country; and Madam
was interrogated, but nothing transpired, except what strengthened
suspicion." A strange story, if true.
Lombe's Silk Mill at Derby, now the Derby Industrial Museum.
Tony Bacon and licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence.
Of the funeral, Hutton says:—"John Lombe's was the most
superb ever known in Derby. A man of peaceable deportment, who
had brought a beneficial manufactory into the place, employed the
poor, and at advanced wages, could not fail meeting with respect,
and his melancholy end with pity. Exclusive of the gentlemen
who attended, all the people concerned in the works were invited.
The procession marched in pairs, and extended the length of Full
Street, the market-place, and Iron-gate; so that when the corpse
entered All Saints, at St. Mary's Gate, the last couple left the
house of the deceased, at the corner of Silk-mill Lane."
Thus John Lombe died and was buried at the early age of
twenty-nine; and Thomas, the capitalist, continued the owner of the
Derby silk mill. Hutton erroneously states that William
succeeded, and that he shot himself. The Lombes had no brother
of the name of William, and this part of Hutton's story is a
The affairs of the Derby silk mill went on prosperously.
Enough thrown silk was manufactured to supply the trade, and the
weaving of silk became a thriving business. Indeed, English
silk began to have a European reputation. In olden times it
was said that "the stranger buys of the Englishman the case of the
fox for a groat, and sells him the tail again for a shilling."
But now the matter was reversed, and the saying was, "The Englishman
buys silk of the stranger for twenty marks, and sells him the same
again for one hundred pounds."
But the patent was about to expire. It had been granted
for only fourteen years; and a long time had elapsed before the
engine could be put in operation, and the organzine manufactured.
It was the only engine in the kingdom. Joshua Gee, writing in
1731, says: "As we have but one Water Engine in the kingdom for
throwing silk, if that should be destroyed by fire or any other
accident, it would make the continuance of throwing fine silk very
precarious; and it is very much to be doubted whether all the men
now living in the kingdom could make another." Gee accordingly
recommended that three or four more should be erected at the public
expense, "according to the model of that at Derby." [p.118]
The patent expired in 1732. The year before, Sir Thomas
Lombe, who had been by this time knighted, applied to Parliament for
a prolongation of the patent. The reasons for his appeal were
principally these: that before he could provide for the full supply
of other silk proper for his purpose (the Italians having prohibited
the exportation of raw silk), and before he could alter his engine,
train up a sufficient number of workpeople, and bring the
manufacture to perfection, almost all the fourteen years of his
patent right would have expired. "Therefore," the petition to
Parliament concluded, "as he has not hitherto received the intended
benefit of the aforesaid patent, and in consideration of the
extraordinary nature of this undertaking, the very great expense,
hazard, and difficulty he has undergone, as well as the advantage he
has thereby procured to the nation at his own expense, the said Sir
Thomas Lombe humbly hopes that Parliament will grant him a further
term for the sole making and using his engines, or such other
recompense as in their wisdom shall seem meet." [p.119]
The petition was referred to a Committee. After
consideration, they recommended the House of Commons to grant a
further term of years to Sir Thomas Lombe. The advisers of the
King, however, thought it better that the patent should not be
renewed, but that the trade in silk should be thrown free to all.
Accordingly the Chancellor of the Exchequer acquainted the House
(14th March, 1731) that "His Majesty having been informed of the
case of Sir Thomas Lombe, with respect to his engine for making
organzine silk, had commanded him to acquaint this House, that His
Majesty recommended to their consideration the making such provision
for a recompense to Sir Thomas Lombe as they shall think proper."
The result was, that the sum of £14,000 was voted and paid to
Sir Thomas Lombe as "a reward for his eminent services done to the
nation, in discovering with the greatest hazard and difficulty the
capital Italian engines, and introducing and bringing the same to
full perfection in this kingdom, at his own great expense." [p.120]
The trade was accordingly thrown open. Silk mills were erected
at Stockport and elsewhere; Hutton says that divers additional mills
were erected in Derby; and a large and thriving trade was
established. In 1850, the number employed in the silk
manufacture exceeded a million persons. The Old mill has
recently become disused. Although supported by strong wooden
supports, it showed signs of falling; and it was replaced by a
larger mill, more suitable to modern requirements.
HIS LIFE AND INVENTIONS.
WILLIAM MURDOCK (1754-1839):
Scottish engineer and inventor
"Justice exacts, that
those by whom we are most benefited should be most
"The beginning of civilization is the discovery of some
useful arts, by which men acquire property, comforts, or
luxuries. The necessity or desire of preserving
them leads to laws and social institutions. . . . In
reality, the origin as well as the social progress and
improvement of civil society is founded on mechanical
and chemical inventions."—SIR
AT the middle of
last century, Scotland was a very poor country. It consisted
mostly of mountain and moorland; and the little arable land it
contained was badly cultivated. Agriculture was almost a lost
art. "Except in a few instances," says a writer in the
'Farmers' Magazine' of 1803, "Scotland was little better than a
barren waste." Cattle could with difficulty be kept alive; and
the people in some parts of the country were often on the brink of
starvation. The people were hopeless, miserable, and without
spirit, like the Irish in their very worst times. After the
wreck of the Darien expedition, there seemed to be neither skill,
enterprise, nor money left in the country. What resources it
contained were altogether undeveloped. There was little
communication between one place and another, and such roads as
existed were for the greater part of the year simply impassable.
There were various opinions as to the causes of this
frightful state of things. Some thought it was the Union
between England and Scotland; and Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, "The
Patriot," as he was called, urged its Repeal. In one of his
publications, he endeavoured to show that about one-sixth of the
population of Scotland was in a state of beggary—two hundred
thousand vagabonds begging from door to door, or robbing and
plundering people as poor as themselves. [p.122]
Fletcher was accordingly as great a repealer as Daniel O'Connell in
after times. But he could not get the people to combine.
There were others who held a different opinion. They thought
that something might be done by the people themselves to extricate
the country from its miserable condition. It still possessed
some important elements of prosperity. The inhabitants of
Scotland, though poor, were strong and able to work. The land,
though cold and sterile, was capable of cultivation.
Accordingly, about the middle of last century, some important
steps were taken to improve the general condition of things. A
few public-spirited landowners led the way, and formed themselves
into a society for carrying out improvements in agriculture.
They granted long leases of farms as a stimulus to the most skilled
and industrious, and found it to their interest to give the farmer a
more permanent interest in his improvements than he had before
enjoyed. Thus stimulated and encouraged, farming made rapid
progress, especially in the Lothians and the example spread into
other districts. Banks were established for the storage of
capital. Roads were improved, and communications increased
between one part of the country and another. Hence trade and
commerce arose, by reason of the facilities afforded for the
interchange of traffic. The people, being fairly educated by
the parish schools, were able to take advantage of these
improvements. Sloth and idleness gradually disappeared, before
the energy, activity, and industry which were called into life by
the improved communications.
At the same time, active and powerful minds were occupied in
extending the domain of knowledge. Black and Robison, of
Glasgow, were the precursors of
James Watt, whose invention of the condensing steam-engine was
yet to produce a revolution in industrial operations, the like of
which had never before been known. Watt had hit upon his great
idea while experimenting with an old Newcomen model which belonged
to the University of Glasgow. He was invited by Mr. Roebuck of
Kinneil to make a working steam-engine for the purpose of pumping
water from the coal-pits at Boroughstoness; but his progress was
stopped by want of capital, as well as by want of experience.
It was not until the brave and generous Matthew Boulton of
Birmingham took up the machine, and backed Watt with his capital and
his spirit, that Watt's enterprise had the remotest chance of
success. Even after about twelve years' effort, the condensing
steam-engine was only beginning, though half-heartedly, to be taken
up and employed by colliery proprietors and cotton manufacturers.
In developing its powers, and extending its uses, the great merits
of William Murdock can never be forgotten. Watt stands first
in its history, as the inventor; Boulton second, as its promoter and
supporter; and Murdock third, as its developer and improver.
William Murdock was born on the 21st of August, 1754, at
Bellow Mill, in the parish of Auchinleck, Ayrshire. His
father, John, was a miller and millwright, as well as a farmer.
His mother's maiden name was Bruce, and she used to boast of being
descended from Robert Bruce, the deliverer of Scotland. The
Murdocks, or Murdochs—for the name was spelt in either way—were
numerous in the neighbourhood, and they were nearly all related to
each other. They are supposed to have originally come into the
district from Flanders, between which country and Scotland a
considerable intercourse existed in the middle ages. Some of
the Murdocks took a leading part in the construction of the abbeys
and cathedrals of the North; [p.124]
others were known as mechanics; but the greater number were farmers.
One of the best known members of the family was John Murdock,
the poet Burns' first teacher. Burns went to his school at
Alloway Mill, when he was six years old. There he learnt to
read and write. When Murdock afterwards set up a school at
Ayr, Burns, who was then fifteen, went to board with him. In a
letter to a correspondent, Murdock said: "In 1773, Robert Burns came
to board and lodge with me, for the purpose of revising his English
grammar, that he might be better qualified to instruct his brothers
and sisters at home. He was now with me day and night, in
school, at all meals, and in all my walks." The pupil even
shared the teacher's bed at night. Murdock lent the boy books,
and helped the cultivation of his mind in many ways. Burns
soon revised his English grammar, and learnt French, as well as a
little Latin. Some time after, Murdock removed to London, and
had the honour of teaching Talleyrand English during his residence
as an emigrant in this country. He continued to have the
greatest respect for his former pupil, whose poetry commemorated the
beauties of his native district.
It may be mentioned that Bellow Mill is situated on the
Bellow Water, near where it joins the river Lugar. One of
Burns' finest songs begins:
"Behind yon hills where Lugar flows."
That was the scene of William Murdock's boyhood. When a boy,
he herded his father's cows along the banks of the Bellow; and as
there were then no hedges, it was necessary to have some one to
watch the cattle while grazing. The spot is still pointed out
where the boy, in the intervals of his herding, hewed a square
compartment out of the rock by the water side, and there burnt the
splint coal found on the top of the Black Band ironstone. That
was one of the undeveloped industries of Scotland; for the Scotch
iron trade did not arrive at any considerable importance until about
a century later. [p.125]
The little cavern in which Murdock burnt the splint coal was
provided with a fireplace and vent, all complete. It is
possible that he may have there derived, from his experiments, the
first idea of Gas as an illuminant.
Murdock is also said to have made a wooden horse, worked by
mechanical power, which was the wonder of the district. On
this mechanical horse he rode to the village of Cumnock, about two
miles distant. His father's name is, however, associated with
his own in the production of this machine. Old John Murdock
had a reputation for intelligence and skill of no ordinary kind.
When at Carron ironworks, in 1760, he had a pinion cast after a
pattern which he had prepared. This is said to have been the
first piece of iron-toothed gearing ever used in mill work.
When I last saw it, the pinion was placed on the lawn in front of
William Murdock's villa at Handsworth.
The young man helped his father in many ways. He worked
in the mill, worked on the farm, and assisted in the preparation of
mill machinery. In this way he obtained a considerable amount
of general technical knowledge. He even designed and
constructed bridges. He was employed to build a bridge over
the river Nith, near Dumfries, and it stands there to this day, a
solid and handsome structure. But he had an ambition to be
something more than a country mason. He had heard a great deal
about the inventions of James Watt; and he determined to try whether
he could not get "a job" at the famous manufactory at Soho. He
accordingly left his native place in the year 1777, in the
twenty-third year of his age; and migrated southward. He left
plenty of Murdocks behind him. There was a famous staff in the
family, originally owned by William Murdock's grandfather, which
bore the following inscription: "This staff I leave in pedigree to
the oldest Murdock after me, in the parish of Auchenleck, 1745."
This staff was lately held by Joan Murdock, daughter of the late
William Murdock, joiner, cousin of the subject of this biography.
When William arrived at Soho in 1777 he called at the works
to ask for employment. Watt was then in Cornwall, looking
after his pumping engines; but he saw Boulton, who was usually
accessible to callers of every rank. In answer to Murdock's
enquiry whether he could have a job, Boulton replied that work was
very slack with them, and that every place was filled up.
During the brief conversation that took place, the blate young
Scotchman, like most country lads in the presence of strangers, had
some difficulty in knowing what to do with his hands, and
unconsciously kept twirling his hat with them. Boulton's
attention was attracted to the twirling hat, which seemed to be of a
peculiar make. It was not a felt hat, nor a cloth hat, nor a
glazed hat: but it seemed to be painted, and composed of some
unusual material. "That seems to be a curious sort of hat,"
said Boulton, looking at it more closely; "what is it made of?"
"Timmer, sir," said Murdock, modestly. "Timmer? Do you
mean to say that it is made of wood?" "'Deed it is, sir." "And
pray how was it made?" "I made it mysel, sir, in a bit laithey
of my own contrivin'." "Indeed!"
Statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch,
Centenary Square, Birmingham.
Boulton looked at the young man again. He
had risen a hundred degrees in his estimation. William was a
good-looking fellow—tall, strong, and handsome—with an open
intelligent countenance. Besides, he had been able to turn a
hat for himself with a lathe of his own construction. This, of
itself, was a sufficient proof that he was a mechanic of no mean
skill. "Well!" said Boulton, at last, "I will enquire at the
works, and see if there is anything we can set you to. Call
again, my man." "Thank you, sir," said Murdock, giving a final
twirl to his hat.
Such was the beginning of William Murdock's connection with
the firm of Boulton and Watt. When he called again he was put
upon a trial job, and then, as he was found satisfactory, he was
engaged for two years at 15s. a week when at home, 17s.
when in the country, and 18s. when in London. Boulton's
engagement of Murdock was amply justified by the result.
Beginning as an ordinary mechanic, he applied himself diligently and
conscientiously to his work, and gradually became trusted.
More responsible duties were confided to him, and he strove to
perform them to the best of his power. His industry,
skilfulness, and steady sobriety, soon marked him for promotion, and
he rose from grade to grade until he became Boulton and Watt's most
trusted co-worker and adviser in all their mechanical undertakings
Watt himself had little confidence in Scotchmen as mechanics.
He told Sir Walter Scott that though many of them sought employment
at his works, he could never get any of them to become first-rate
workmen. They might be valuable as clerks and book-keepers,
but they had an insuperable aversion to toiling long at any point of
mechanism, so as to earn the highest wages paid to the workmen. [p.128]
The reason no doubt was, that the working-people of Scotland were
then only in course of education as practical mechanics; and now
that they have had a century's discipline of work and technical
training, the result is altogether different, as the engine-shops
and shipbuilding-yards of the Clyde abundantly prove.
Mechanical power and technical ability are the result of training,
like many other things.
When Boulton engaged Murdock, as we have said, Watt was
absent in Cornwall, looking after the pumping-engines which had been
erected at several of the mines throughout that county. The
partnership had only been in existence for three years, and Watt was
still struggling with the difficulties which he had to surmount in
getting the steam engine into practical use. His health was
bad, and he was oppressed with frightful headaches. He was not
the man to fight the selfishness of the Cornish adventurers.
"A little more of this hurrying and vexation," he said, "will knock
me up altogether." Boulton went to his help occasionally, and
gave him hope and courage. And at length William Murdock,
after he had acquired sufficient knowledge of the business, was able
to undertake the principal management of the engines in Cornwall.
We find that in 1779, when he was only twenty-five years old,
he was placed in important position. When he went into
Cornwall, he gave himself no rest until he had conquered the defects
of the engines, and put them into thorough working order. He
devoted himself to his duties with a zeal and ability that
completely won Watt's heart. When he had an important job in
hand, he could scarcely sleep. One night at his lodgings at
Redruth, the people were disturbed by a strange noise in his room.
Several heavy blows were heard upon the floor. They started
from their beds, rushed to Murdock's room, and found him standing in
his shirt, heaving at the bedpost in his sleep, shouting "Now she
goes, lads! now she goes!"
Murdock became a most popular man with the mine owners.
He also became friendly with the Cornish workmen and engineers.
Indeed, he fought his way to their affections. One day, some
half-dozen of the mining captains came into his engine room at
Chacewater, and began to bully him. This he could not stand.
He stript, selected the biggest, and put himself into a fighting
attitude. They set to, and in a few minutes Murdock's powerful
bones and muscles enabled him to achieve the victory. The
other men, who had looked on fairly, without interfering, seeing the
temper and vigour of the man they had bullied, made overtures of
reconciliation. William was quite willing to be friendly.
Accordingly they shook hands all round, and parted the best of
friends. It is also said that Murdock afterwards fought a duel
with Captain Trevethick, because of a quarrel between Watt and the
mining engineer, in which Murdock conceived his master to have been
unfairly and harshly treated. [p.130-1]
The uses of Watt's steam-engine began to be recognised as
available for manufacturing purposes. It was then found
necessary to invent some method by which continuous rotary motion
should be secured, so as to turn round the moving machinery of
mills. With this object Watt had invented his original
wheel-engine. But no steps were taken to introduce it into
practical use. At length he prepared a model, in which he made
use of a crank connected with the working beam of the engine, so as
to produce the necessary rotary motion.
There was no originality in this application. The crank
was one of the most common of mechanical appliances. It was in
daily use in every spinning wheel, and in every turner's and
knife-grinder's foot-lathe. Watt did not take out a patent for
the crank, not believing it to be patentable. But another
person did so, thereby anticipating Watt in the application of the
crank for producing rotary motion. He had therefore to employ
some other method, and in the new contrivance he had the valuable
help of William Murdock. Watt devised five different methods
of securing rotary motion without using the crank, but eventually he
adopted the "Sun-and-planet motion," the invention of Murdock.
This had the singular property of going twice round for every stroke
of the engine, and might be made to go round much oftener without
additional machinery. The invention was patented in February,
1782, five years after Murdock had entered the service of Boulton
Murdoch's "Sun and Planet" gears. [p.130-2]
Murdock continued for many years busily occupied in
superintending the Cornish steam-engines. We find him
described by his employers as "flying from mine to mine," putting
the engines to rights. If anything went wrong, he was
immediately sent for. He was active, quick-sighted, shrewd,
sober, and thoroughly trustworthy. Down to the year 1780, his
wages were only a pound a week; but Boulton made him a present of
ten guineas, to which the owners of the United Mines added another
ten, in acknowledgment of the admirable manner in which he had
erected their new engine, the chairman of the company declaring that
he was "the most obliging and industrious workman he had ever
known." That he secured the admiration of the Cornish
engineers may be obvious from the fact of Mr. Boaze having invited
him to join in an engineering partnership; but Murdock remained
loyal to the Birmingham firm, and in due time he had his reward.
He continued to be the "right hand man" of the concern in
Cornwall. Boulton wrote to Watt, towards the end of 1782:
"Murdock hath been indefatigable ever since he began. He has
scarcely been in bed or taken necessary food. After slaving
night and day on Thursday and Friday, a letter came from Wheal
Virgin that he must go instantly to set their engine to work, or
they would let out the fire. He went and set the engine to
work; it worked well for the five or six hours he remained. He
left it, and returned to the Consolidated Mines about eleven at
night, and was employed about the engines till four this morning,
and then went to bed. I found him at ten this morning in
Poldice Cistern, seeking for pins and castors that had jumped out,
when I insisted on his going home to bed."
On one occasion, when an engine superintended by Murdock
stopped through some accident, the water rose in the mine, and the
workmen were "drowned out." Upon this occurring, the miners
went "roaring at him" for throwing them out of work, and threatened
to tear him to pieces. Nothing daunted, he went through the
midst of the men, repaired the invalided engine, and started it
afresh. When he came out of the engine-house, the miners
cheered him vociferously and insisted upon carrying him home upon
their shoulders in triumph!
Steam was now asserting its power everywhere. It was
pumping water from the mines in Cornwall and driving the mills of
the manufacturers in Lancashire. Speculative mechanics began
to consider whether it might not be employed as a means of land
locomotion. The comprehensive mind of Sir Isaac Newton had
long before, in his 'Explanation of the Newtonian Philosophy,'
thrown out the idea of employing steam for this purpose; but no
practical experiment was made. Benjamin Franklin, while agent
in London for the United Provinces of America, had a correspondence
with Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham, and Dr. Darwin, of Lichfield,
on the same subject. Boulton sent a model of a fire-engine to
London for Franklin's inspection; but Franklin was too much occupied
at the time by grave political questions to pursue the subject
further. Erasmus Darwin's speculative mind was inflamed by the
idea of a "fiery chariot," and he urged his friend Boulton to
prosecute the contrivance of the necessary steam machinery. [p.133]
Other minds were at work. Watt, when only twenty-three
years old, at the instigation of his friend Robison, made a model
locomotive, provided with two cylinders of tin plate; but the
project was laid aside, and was never again taken up by the
inventor. Yet, in his patent of 1784, Watt included an
arrangement by means: of which steam-power might be employed for the
purposes of locomotion. But no further model of the
contrivance was made.
Cugnot's road engine, 1769.
Meanwhile, Cugnot, of Paris, had already made a road engine
worked by steam power. It was first tried at the Arsenal in
1769; and, being set in motion, it ran against a stone wall in its
way and threw it down. The engine was afterwards tried in the
streets of Paris. In one of the experiments it fell over with
a crash, and was thenceforward locked up in the Arsenal to prevent
its doing further mischief. This first locomotive is now to be
seen at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers at Paris.
Murdock had doubtless heard of Watt's original speculations,
and proceeded, while at Redruth, during his leisure hours, to
construct a model locomotive after a design of his own. This
model was of small dimensions, standing little more than a foot and
a half high, though it was sufficiently large to demonstrate the
soundness of the principle on which it was constructed. It was
supported on three wheels, and carried a small copper boiler, heated
by a spirit lamp, with a flue passing obliquely through it.
The cylinder, of ¾-inch diameter and 2-inch stroke, was fixed in the
top of the boiler, the piston-rod being connected with the vibratory
beam attached to the connecting-rod which worked the crank of the
driving-wheel. This little engine worked by the expansive
force of steam only, which was discharged into the atmosphere after
it had clone its work of alternately raising and depressing the
piston in the cylinder.
Murdoch's model road engine, 1784.
Mr. Murdock's son, while living at Handsworth, informed the
present writer that this model was invented and constructed in 1781;
but, after perusing the correspondence of Boulton and Watt, we infer
that it was not ready for trial until 1784. The first
experiment was made in Murdoch's own house at Redruth, when the
little engine successfully hauled a model waggon round the room,—the
single wheel, placed in front of the engine and working in a swivel
frame, enabling it to run round in a circle.
Another experiment was made out of doors, on which occasion,
small though the engine was, it fairly outran the speed of its
inventor. One night, after returning from his duties at the
mine at Redruth, Murdock went with his model locomotive to the
avenue leading to the church, about a mile from the town. The
walk was narrow, straight, and level. Having lit the lamp, the
water soon boiled, and off started the engine with the inventor
after it. Shortly after he heard distant shouts of terror.
It was too dark to perceive objects, but he found, on following up
the machine, that the cries had proceeded from the worthy vicar,
who, while going along the walk, had met the hissing and fiery
little monster, which he declared he took to be the Evil One in
When Watt was informed of Murdock's experiments, he feared
that they might interfere with his regular duties, and advised their
discontinuance. Should Murdock still resolve to continue them,
Watt urged his partner Boulton, then in Cornwall, that, rather than
lose Murdock's services, they should advance him £100; and, if he
succeeded within a year in making an engine capable of drawing a
post-chaise carrying two passengers and the driver, at the rate of
four miles an hour, that a locomotive engine business should be
established, with Murdock as a partner. The arrangement,
however, never proceeded any further. Perhaps a different
attraction withdrew Murdock from his locomotive experiments.
He was then paying attention to a young lady, the daughter of
Captain Painter; and in 1785 he married her, and brought her home to
his house in Cross Street, Redruth.
In the following year,—September, 1786—Watt says, in a letter
to Boulton, "I have still the same opinion concerning the steam
carriage, but, to prevent more fruitless argument about it, I have
one of some size under hand. In the meantime, I wish William
could be brought to do as we do, to mind the business in hand, and
let such as Symington and Sadler throw away their time and money in
hunting shadows." In a subsequent letter Watt expressed his
gratification at finding "that William applies to his business."
From that time forward, Murdock as well as Watt, dropped all further
speculation on the subject, and left it to others to work out the
problem of the locomotive engine. Murdock's model remained but
a curious toy, which he took pleasure in exhibiting to his intimate
friends; and, though he long continued to speculate about road
locomotion, and was persuaded of its practicability, he abstained
from embodying his ideas of the necessary engine in any complete
Murdock nevertheless continued inventing, for the man who is
given to invent, and who possesses the gift of insight, cannot rest.
He lived in the midst of inventors. Watt and Boulton were
constantly suggesting new things, and Murdock became possessed by
the same spirit. In 1791 he took out his first patent.
It was for a method of preserving ships' bottoms from foulness by
the use of a certain kind of chemical paint. Mr. Murdock's
grandson informs us that it was recently re-patented and was the
cause of a lawsuit, and that Hislop's patent for revivifying
gas-lime would have been an infringement, if it had not expired.
Murdock is still better known by his invention of Gas for
lighting purposes. Several independent inquirers into the
constituents of Newcastle coal had arrived at the conclusion that
nearly one-third of the substance was driven off in vapour by the
application of heat, and that the vapour so driven off was
inflammable. But no suggestion had been made to apply this
vapour for lighting purposes until Murdock took the matter in hand.
Mr. M. S. Pearse has sent us the following interesting reminiscence:
"Some time since, when in the West
of Cornwall, I was anxious to find out whether any one remembered
Murdock. I discovered one of the most respectable and
intelligent men in Camborne, Mr. William Symons, who not only
distinctly remembered Murdock, but had actually been present on one
of the first occasions when gas was used. Murdock, he says,
was very fond of children, and not unfrequently took them into his
workshop to show them what he was doing. Hence it happened
that on one occasion this gentleman, then a boy of seven or eight,
was standing outside Murdock's door with some other boys, trying to
catch sight of some special mystery inside,—for Dr. Boaze, the chief
doctor of the place, and Murdock had been busy all the afternoon.
Murdock came out, and asked my informant to run down to a shop near
by for a thimble. On returning with the thimble, the boy
pretended to have lost it, and, whilst searching in every pocket, he
managed to slip inside the door of the workshop, and then produced
the thimble. He found Dr. Boaze and Murdock with a kettle
filled with coal. The gas issuing from it had been burnt in a
large metal case, such as was used for blasting purposes. Now,
however, they had applied a much smaller tube, and at the end of it
fastened the thimble, through the small perforations made in which
they burned a continuous jet for some time." [p.137-1]
After numerous experiments, Murdock had his house in Cross
Street fitted up in 1792 for being lit by gas. The coal was
subjected to heat in an iron retort, and the gas was conveyed in
pipes to the offices and the different rooms of the house, where it
was burned at proper apertures or burners. [p.137-2]
Portions of the gas were also confined in portable vessels of tinned
iron, from which it was burned when required, thus forming a
moveable gas-light. Murdock had a gas lantern in regular use, for
the purpose of lighting himself home at night across the moors, from
the mines where he was working, to his home at Redruth. This lantern
was formed by filling a bladder with gas and fixing a jet to the
mouthpiece at the bottom of a glass lantern, with the bladder
Murdoch's house, Redruth, Cornwall.
In 1792 William Murdoch used piped coal gas to light his house.
The first gas lit house in the world.
Tony Atkin and licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence.
Having satisfied himself as to the superior economy of coal
gas, as compared with oils and tallow, for the purposes of
artificial illumination, Murdock mentioned the subject to Mr. James
Watt, jun., during a brief visit to Soho in 1794, and urged the
propriety of taking out a patent. Watt was, however,
indifferent to taking out any further patents, being still engaged
in contesting with the Cornish mine-owners his father's rights to
the user of the condensing steam-engine. Nothing definite was
done at the time. Murdock returned to Cornwall and continued
his experiments. At the end of the same year he exhibited to
Mr. Phillips and others, at the Polgooth mine, his apparatus for
extracting gases from coal and other substances, showed it in use,
lit the gas which issued from the burner, and showed its "strong and
beautiful light." He afterwards exhibited the same apparatus
to Tregelles and others at the Neath Abbey Company's ironworks in
Murdock returned to Soho in 1798, to take up his permanent
residence in the neighbourhood. When the mine owners heard of
his intention to leave Cornwall, they combined in offering him a
handsome salary provided he would remain in the county; but his
attachment to his friends at Soho would not allow him to comply with
their request. He again urged the firm of Boulton and Watt to
take out a patent for the use of gas for lighting purposes.
But being still embroiled in their tedious and costly lawsuit, they
were naturally averse to risk connection with any other patent.
Watt the younger, with whom Murdock communicated on the subject, was
aware that the current of gas obtained from the distillation of coal
in Lord Dundonald's tar-ovens had been occasionally set fire to, and
also that Bishop Watson and others had burned gas from coal, after
conducting it through tubes, or after it had issued from the retort.
Mr. Watt was, however, quite satisfied that Murdock was the first
person who had suggested its economical application for public and
private uses. But he was not clear, after the legal
difficulties which had been raised as to his father's patent rights,
that it would be safe to risk a further patent for gas.
Mr. Murdock's suggestion, accordingly, was not acted upon.
But he went on inventing in other directions. He thenceforward
devoted himself entirely to mechanical pursuits. Mr. Buckle
has said of him:—"The rising sun often found him, after a night
spent in incessant labour, still at the anvil or turning-lathe; for
with his own hands he would make such articles as he would not
intrust to unskilful ones." In 1799 he took out a patent (No.
2340), embodying some very important inventions. First, it
included the endless screw working into a toothed-wheel, for boring
steam-cylinders, which is still in use. Second, the casting of
a steam-jacket in one cylinder, instead of being made in separate
segments bolted together with caulked joints, as was previously
done. Third, the new double-D slide-valve, [p.139]
by which the construction and working of the steam-engine was
simplified, and the loss of steam saved, as well as the cylindrical
valve for the same purpose. And fourth, improved rotary
engines. One of the latter was set to drive the machines in
his private workshop, and continued in nearly constant work and in
perfect use for about thirty years.
In 1801, Murdock sent his two sons William and John to the
Ayr Academy, for the benefit of Scotch education. In the
summer-time they spent their vacation at Bellow Mill, which their
grandfather still continued to occupy. They fished in the
river, and "caught a good many trout." The boys corresponded
regularly with their father at Birmingham. In 1804, they seem
to have been in a state of great excitement about the expected
landing of the French in Scotland. The volunteers of Ayr
amounted to 300 men, the cavalry to 150, and the riflemen to 50.
"The riflemen," says John, "go to the seashore every Saturday to
shoot at a target. They stand at 70 paces distant, and out of
100 shots they often put in 60 bullets!" William says, "Great
preparations are still making for the reception of the French.
Several thousand of pikes are carried through the town every week;
and all the volunteers and riflemen have received orders to march at
a moment's warning." The alarm, however, passed away. At
the end of 1804, the two boys received prizes; William got one in
arithmetic and another in the Rector's composition class; and John
also obtained two, one in the mathematical class, and the other in
To return to the application of gas for lighting purposes.
In 1801, a plan was proposed by a M. Le Blond for lighting a part of
the streets of Paris with gas. Murdock actively resumed his
experiments; and on the occasion of the Peace of Amiens in March,
1802, he made the first public exhibition of his invention.
The whole of the works at Soho were brilliantly illuminated with
gas. The sight was received with immense enthusiasm.
There could now be no doubt as to the enormous advantages of this
method of producing artificial light, compared with that from oil or
tallow. In the following year the manufacture of gas-making
apparatus was added to the other branches of Boulton and Watts'
business, with which Murdock was now associated,—and as much as from
£4,000 to £5,000 of capital were invested in the new works.
The new method of lighting speedily became popular amongst
manufacturers, from its superior safety, cheapness, and illuminating
power. The mills of Phillips and Lee of Manchester were fitted
up in 1805; and those of Burley and Kennedy, also of Manchester, and
of Messrs. Gott, of Leeds, in subsequent years.
Though Murdock had made the uses of gas-lighting perfectly
clear, it was some time before it was proposed to light the streets
by the new method. The idea was ridiculed by Sir Humphrey
Davy, who asked one of the projectors if he intended to take the
dome of St. Paul's for a gasometer! Sir Walter Scott made many
clever jokes about those who proposed to "send light through the
streets in pipes;" and even Wollaston, a well-known man of science,
declared that they "might as well attempt to light London with a
slice from the moon." It has been so with all new
projects—with the steamboat, the locomotive, and the electric
telegraph. As John Wilkinson said of the first vessel of iron
which he introduced, "it will be only a nine days' wonder, and
afterwards a Columbus's egg."
On the 25th of February, 1808, Murdock read a paper before
the Royal Society "On the Application of Gas from Coal to economical
purposes." He gave a history of the origin and progress
of his experiments, down to the time when he had satisfactorily lit
up the premises of Phillips and Lee at Manchester. The paper
was modest and unassuming, like everything he did. It
concluded:—"I believe I may, without presuming too much, claim both
the first idea of applying, and the first application of this gas to
economical purposes." The Royal Society awarded Murdock their
large Rumford Gold Medal for his communication.
In the following year a German named Wintzer, or Winsor,
appeared as the promoter of a scheme for obtaining a royal charter
with extensive privileges, and applied for powers to form a
joint-stock company to light part of London and Westminster with
gas. Winsor claimed for his method of gas manufacture that it
was more efficacious and profitable than any then known or
practised. The profits, indeed, were to be prodigious.
Winsor made an elaborate calculation in his pamphlet entitled 'The
New Patriotic Imperial and National Light and Heat Company,' from
which it appeared that the nett annual profits "agreeable to the
official experiments" would amount to over two hundred and
twenty-nine millions of pounds!—and that, giving over nine-tenths of
that sum towards the redemption of the National Debt, there would
still remain a total profit of £570 to be paid to the subscribers
for every £5 of deposit! Winsor took out a patent for the
invention, and the company, of which he was a member, proceeded to
Parliament for an Act. Boulton and Watt petitioned against the
Bill, and James Watt, junior, gave evidence on the subject.
Henry Brougham, who was the counsel for the petitioners, made great
fun of Winsor's absurd speculations, [p.142-2]
and the Bill was thrown out.
In the following year the London and Westminster Chartered
Gas Light and Coke Company succeeded in obtaining their Act.
They were not very successful at first. Many prejudices
existed against the employment of the new light. It was
popularly supposed that the gas was carried along the pipes on fire,
and that the pipes must necessarily be intensely hot. When it
was proposed to light the House of Commons with gas, the architect
insisted on the pipes being placed several inches from the walls,
for fear of fire; and, after the pipes had been fixed, the members
might be seen applying their gloved hands to them to ascertain their
temperature, and afterwards expressing the greatest surprise on
finding that they were as cool as the adjoining walls.
Victorian Gasometer, Macclesfield.
Jonathan Billinger and licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence.
The Gas Company was on the point of dissolution when Mr.
Samuel Clegg came to their aid. Clegg had been a pupil of
Murdock's, at Soho. He knew all the arrangements which Murdock
had invented. He had assisted in fitting up the gas machinery
at the mills of Phillips & Lee, Manchester, as well as at Lodge's
Mill, Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax. He was afterwards employed
to fix the apparatus at the Catholic College of Stoneyhurst, in
Lancashire, at the manufactory of Mr. Harris at Coventry, and at
other places. In 1813 the London and Westminster Gas Company
secured the services of Mr. Clegg, and from that time forwards their
career was one of prosperity. In 1814 Westminster Bridge was
first lighted with gas, and shortly after the streets of St.
Margaret's, Westminster. Crowds of people followed the
lamplighter on his rounds to watch the sudden effect of his flame
applied to the invisible stream of gas which issued from the burner.
The lamplighters became so disgusted with the new light that they
struck work, and Clegg himself had for a time to act as lamplighter.
The advantages of the new light, however, soon became
generally recognised, and gas companies were established in most of
the large towns. Glasgow was lit up by gas in 1817, and
Liverpool and Dublin in the following year. Had Murdock in the
first instance taken out a patent for his invention, it could not
fail to have proved exceedingly remunerative to him; but he derived
no advantage from the extended use of the new system of lighting
except the honour of having invented it. [p.144]
He left the benefits of his invention to the public, and returned to
his labours at Soho, which more than ever completely engrossed him.
Gas lighting in the Honourable Society of Lincoln's
Murdock now became completely identified with the firm of Boulton &
Watt. He assigned to them his patent for the slide-valve, the rotary
engine, and other inventions "for a good and valuable
consideration." Indeed his able management was almost indispensable
to the continued success of the Soho foundry. Mr. Nasmyth, when
visiting the works about thirty years after Murdock had taken their
complete management in hand, recalled to mind the valuable services
of that truly admirable yet modest mechanic. He observed the
admirable system, which he had invented, of transmitting power from
one central engine to other small vacuum engines attached to the
several machines which they were employed to work.
method," he says, "of transmitting power dates from the time of Papin;
but it remained a dead contrivance for about a century until it
received the masterly touch of Murdock.
"The sight which I obtained" (Mr. Nasmyth proceeds) "of the vast
series of workshops of that celebrated establishment, fitted with
evidences of the presence and results of such master minds in design
and execution, and the special machine tools which I believe were
chiefly to be ascribed to the admirable inventive power and
common-sense genius of William Murdock, made me feel that I was
indeed on classic ground in regard to everything connected with the
construction of steam-engine machinery. The interest was in no small
degree enhanced by coming every now and then upon some machine that
had every historical claim to be regarded as the prototype of many
of our modern machine tools. All these had William Murdock's genius
stamped upon them, by reason of their common-sense arrangements,
which showed that he was one of those original thinkers who had the
courage to break away from the trammels of traditional methods, and
take short cuts to accomplish his objects by direct and simple
We have another recollection of William Murdock, from one who knew
him when a boy. This is the venerable Charles Manby, F.R.S., still
honorary secretary of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He says
(writing to us in September 1883),
"I see from the public prints
that you have been presiding at a meeting intended to do honour to
the memory of William Murdock—a most worthy man and an old friend of
mine. When he found me working the first slide valve ever introduced
into an engine-building establishment at Horsley, he patted me on
the head, and said to my father, 'Neighbour Manby, this is not the
way to bring up a good workman—merely turning a handle, without any
shoulder work.' He evidently did not anticipate any great results
from my engineering education. But we all know what machine tools
are doing now,—and where should we be without them?"
Watt withdrew from the firm in 1800, on the expiry of his patent for
the condensing steam-engine; but Boulton continued until the year
1809, when he died full of years and honours. Watt lived on until
1819. The last part of his life was the happiest. During the time
that he was in the throes of his invention, he was very miserable,
weighed down with dyspepsia and sick headaches. But after his patent
had expired, he was able to retire with a moderate fortune, and
began to enjoy life. Before, he had "cursed his inventions," now he
could bless them. He was able to survey them, and find out what was
right and what was wrong. He employed his head and his hands in his
private workshop, and found many means of enjoying both pleasantly. Murdock continued to be his fast friend, and they spent many
agreeable hours together. They made experiments and devised
improvements in machines. Watt wished to make things more simple. He
said to Murdock, "it is a great thing to know what to do without. We must have a book of
blots—things to be scratched out." One of the
most interesting schemes of Watt towards the end of his life was the
contrivance of a sculpture-making machine; and he proceeded so far
with it as to to able to present copies of busts to his friends as
"the productions of a young artist just entering his eighty-third
year." The machine, however, remained unfinished at his death, and
the remarkable fact is that it was Watt's only unfinished work.
The principle of the machine was to carry a guide-point at one side
over the bust or alto-relievo to be copied, and at the other side to
carry a corresponding cutting-tool or drill over the alabaster,
ivory, jet, or plaster of Paris to be executed. The machine worked,
as it were, with two hands, the one feeling the pattern, the other
cutting the material into the required form. Many new alterations
were necessary for carrying out this ingenious apparatus, and
Murdock was always at hand to give his old friend and master his
best assistance. We have seen many original letters from Watt to
Murdock, asking for counsel and help. In one of these, written in
1808, Watt says: "I have revived an idea which, if it answers, will
supersede the frame and upright spindle of the reducing machine, but
more of this, when we meet. Meanwhile it will be proper to adhere to
the frame, etc., at present, until we see how the other alterations
answer." In another he says: "I have done a Cicero without any
plaits—the different segments meeting exactly. The fitting the
drills into the spindle by a taper of 1 in 6 will do. They are
perfectly stiff and will not unscrew easily. Four guide-pullies
answer, but there must be a pair for the other end, and to work with
a single hand, for the returning part is always cut upon some part
or other of the frame."
These letters are written sometimes in the morning, sometimes at
noon, sometimes at night. There was a great deal of correspondence
about "pullies," which did not seem to answer at first. "I have made
the tablets," said Watt on one occasion, "slide more easily, and can
counterbalance any part of their weight which may be necessary; but
the first thing to try is the solidity of the machine, which cannot
be done till the pullies are mounted." Then again: "The bust-making
must be given up until we get a more solid frame. I have worked two
days at one and spoiled it, principally from the want of
steadiness." For Watt, it must be remembered, was now a very old
He then proceeded to send Murdock the drawing of a "parallel motion
for the machine," to be executed by the workmen at Soho. The truss
braces and the crosses were to be executed of steel, according to
the details he enclosed. "I have warmed up," he concludes, "an old
idea, and can make a machine in which the pentagraph and the leading
screw will all be contained in the beam, and the pattern and piece
to be cut will remain at rest fixed upon a lath of cast iron or
stout steel." Watt is very particular in all his details: "I am
sorry," he says in one note, "to trouble you with so many things;
but the alterations on this spindle and socket [he annexes a
drawing] may wait your convenience." In a further note, Watt says:
"The drawing for the parallel lathe is ready; but I have been sadly
puzzled about the application of the leading screws to the cranes in
the other. I think, however, I have now got the better of the
difficulties, and made it more certain, as well as more simple, than
it was. I have done an excellent head of John Hunterin hard white in
shorter time than usual. I want to show it you before I repair it."
At last Watt seems to have become satisfied: "The lathe," he says,
"is very much improved, and you seem to have given the finishing
blow to the roofed frame, which appears perfectly stiff. I had some
hours' intense thinking upon the machine last night, and have made
up my mind on it at last. The great difficulty was about the
application of the band, but I have settled it to be much as at
Watt's letters to Murdock are most particular in details, especially
as to screws, nuts, and tubes, with strengths and dimensions, always
illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. And yet all this was done
merely for mechanical amusement, and not for any personal pecuniary
advantage. While Watt was making experiments as to the proper
substances to be carved and drilled, he also desired Murdock to make
similar experiments. "The nitre," he said in one note, "seems to do
harm; the fluor composition seems the best and hardest. Query, what
would some calcined pipe-clay do? If you will calcine some fire-clay
by a red heat and pound it,—about a pound,—and send it to me, I
shall try to make you a mould or two in Henning's manner to cast
this and the sulphur acid iron in. I have made a screwing tool for
wood that seems to answer; also one of a one-tenth diameter for
marble, which does very well." In another note, Watt says: "I find
my drill readily makes 2,400 turns per minute, even with the large
drill you sent last; if I bear lightly, a three-quarter ferril would
run about 3,000, and by an engine that might be doubled."
The materials to be drilled into medallions also required much
consideration. "I am much obliged to you," said Watt, "for the
balls, etc., which answer as well as can be expected. They make
great progress in cutting the crust (Ridgways) or alabaster, and
also cut marble, but the harder sorts soon blunt them. At any rate,
marble does not do for the medallions, as its grain prevents its
being cut smooth, and its semi-transparence hurts the effect. I
think Bristol lime, or shell lime, pressed in your manner, would
have a good effect. When you are at leisure, I shall thank you for a
few pieces, and if some of them are made pink or flesh colour, they
will look well. I used the ball quite perpendicular, and it cut
well, as most of the cutting is sideways. I tried a fine whirling
point, but it made little progress; another with a chisel edge did
almost as well as the balls, but did not work so pleasantly. I find
a triangular scraping point the best, and I think from some trials
it should be quite a sharp point. The wheel runs easier than it did,
but has still too much friction. I wished to have had an hour's
consultation with you, but have been prevented by sundry matters,
among others by that plaguey stove, which is now in your hands."
Watt was most grateful to Murdock for his unvarying assistance. In
January, 1813, when Watt was in his seventy-seventh year, he wrote
to Murdock, asking him to accept a present of a lathe. "I have not
heard from you," he says, "in reply to my letter about the lathe;
and, presuming you are not otherwise provided, I have bought it, and
request your acceptance of it. At present, an alteration for the
better is making in the oval chuck, and a few additional chucks,
rest, etc., are making to the lathe. When these are finished, I
shall have it at Billinger's until you return, or as you otherwise
direct. I am going on with my drawings for a complete machine, and
shall be glad to see you here to judge of them."
The drawings were made, but the machine was never finished.
"Invention," said Watt, "goes on very slowly with me now." Four
years later, he was still at work; but death put a stop to his
"diminishing-machine." It is a remarkable testimony to the skill and
perseverance of a man who had already accomplished so much, that it
is almost his only unfinished work. Watt died in 1819, in the
eighty-third year of his age, to the great grief of Murdock, his
oldest and most attached friend and correspondent.
Meanwhile, the firm of Boulton and Watt continued. The sons of the
two partners carried it on, with Murdock as their Mentor. He was
still full of work and inventive power. In 1802, he applied the
compressed air of the Blast Engine employed to blow the cupolas of
the Soho Foundry, for the purpose of driving the lathe in the
pattern shop. It worked a small engine, with a 12-inch cylinder and
18-inch stroke, connected with the lathe, the speed being regulated
as required by varying the admission of the blast. This engine
continued in use for about thirty-five years. In 1803 Murdock
experimented on the power of high-pressure steam in propelling shot,
and contrived a steam-engine with which he made many trials at Soho,
thereby anticipating the apparatus contrived by Mr. Perkins many
In 1810 Murdock took out a patent for boring Steam-pipes for water,
and cutting Columns out of solid blocks of stone, by means of a
cylindrical crown saw. The first machine was used at Soho, and
afterwards at Mr. Rennie's Works in London, and proved quite
successful. Among his other inventions were a Lift worked by
compressed air, which raised and lowered the castings from the
boring-mill to the level of the foundry and the canal bank. He used
the same kind of power to ring the bells in his house at Sycamore
Hill, and the contrivance was afterwards adopted by Sir Walter Scott
in his house at Abbotsford.
Murdock was also the inventor of the well-known cast-iron cement, so
extensively used in engine and machine work. The manner in which he
was led to this invention affords a striking illustration of his
quickness of observation. Finding that some iron-borings and sal-ammoniac
had got accidently mixed together in his tool-chest, and rusted his
saw-blade nearly through, he took note of the circumstance, mixed
the articles in various proportions, and at length arrived at the
famous cement, which eventually became an article of extensive
manufacture at the Soho Works.
Murdock's ingenuity was constantly at work, even upon matters which
lay entirely outside his special vocation. The late Sir William
Fairbairn informed us that he contrived a variety of curious
machines for consolidating Peat Moss, finely ground and pulverised,
under immense pressure, and which, when consolidated, could be
moulded into beautiful medals, armlets, and necklaces. The material
took the most brilliant polish and had the appearance of the finest
Observing that fish-skins might be used as an economical substitute
for isinglass, he went up to London on one occasion in order to
explain to brewers the best method of preparing and using them. He
occupied handsome apartments, and, little regarding the splendour of
the drawing-room, he hung the fish-skins up against the walls. His
landlady caught him one day when he was about to hang up a wet cod's
skin! He was turned out at once, with all his fish.
While in town on this errand, it occurred to him that a great deal
of power was wasted in treading streets of London! He conceived the
idea of using the streets and roadways as a grand tread-mill, under
which the waste power might be stored up by mechanical methods and
turned to account. He had also an idea of storing up the power of
the tides, and of running water, in the same way. The late Sir
Charles Babbage entertained a similar idea about using the hot
springs of Ischia or of the Geysers of Iceland as a power necessary
for condensing gases, or perhaps for the storage of electricity. [p.153] The latter, when perfected, will probably be the greatest invention
of the next half century.
Another of Murdoch's ingenious schemes, was his proposed method of
transmitting letters and packages through a tube exhausted by an
air-pump. This project led to the Atmospheric Railway, the success
of which, so far as it went, was due to the practical ability of
Murdock's pupil, Samuel Clegg. Although the atmospheric railway was
eventually abandoned, it is remarkable that the original idea was
afterwards revived and practised with success by the London
Pneumatic Dispatch Company.
In 1815, while Murdock was engaged in erecting an
apparatus of his own invention for heating the water for the baths
at Leamington, a ponderous cast-iron plate fell upon his leg above
his ankle, and severely injured him. He remained a long while
at Leamington, and when it was thought safe to remove him, the
Birmingham Canal Company kindly placed their excursion boat at his
disposal, and he was conveyed safely homeward. So soon as he
was able, he was at work again at the Soho factory.
Although the elder Watt had to a certain extent
ignored the uses of steam as applied to navigation, being too much
occupied with developing the powers of the pumping and rotary
engine, the young partners, with the stout aid of Murdock, took up
the question. They supplied Fulton in 1807 with his first
engine, by means of which the Clermont made her first voyage
along the Hudson river. They also supplied Fulton and
Livingston with the next two engines for the Car of Neptune
and the Paragon. From that time forward, Boulton and
Watt devoted themselves to the manufacture of engines for
steamboats. Up to the year 1814, marine engines had been all
applied singly in the vessel; but in this year Boulton and Watt
first applied two condensing engines, connected by cranks set at
right angles on the shaft, to propel a steamer on the Clyde.
Since then, nearly all steamers are fitted with two engines.
In making this important improvement, the firm were materially aided
by the mechanical genius of William Murdock, and also of Mr. Brown,
then an assistant, but afterwards a member of the firm.
In order to carry on a set of experiments with
respect to the most improved form of marine engine, Boulton and Watt
purchased the Caledonia, a Scotch boat built on the Clyde by
James Wood and Co., of Port Glasgow. The engines and boilers
were taken out. The vessel was fitted with two side lever
engines, and many successive experiments were made with her down to
August, 1817, at an expense of about £10,000. This led to a
settled plan of construction, by which marine engines were greatly
improved. James Watt, junior, accompanied the Caledonia
to Holland and up the Rhine. The vessel was eventually sold to
the Danish Government, and used for carrying the mails between Kiel
and Copenhagen. It is, however, unnecessary here to venture
upon the further history of steam navigation.
In the midst of these repeated inventions and
experiments, Murdock was becoming an old man. Yet he never
ceased to take an interest in the works at Soho. At length his
faculties experienced a gradual decay, and he died peacefully at his
house at Sycamore Hill, on the 15th of November, 1839, in his
eighty-fifth year. He was buried near the remains of the great
Boulton and Watt; and a bust by Chantrey served to perpetuate the
remembrance of his manly and intelligent countenance.
Plaque on the wall of Murdoch's house, Redruth, Cornwall.