Watt’s Predecessors—The Great Invention of James Watt, and how It led to Further Discoveries—The First Road Locomotive— Steamships—The Birth of the Railway.

THE steam engine invented by the Marquis of Worcester raised a column of water to a height of forty feet and was on view at Vauxhall from 1663 to 1670. But so far as I am aware, this engine was never used for pumping water out of a well nor for any other such purpose. In 1688 a Frenchman, Denis Papin, built a model engine in which a piston was moved in a cylinder by the expansive force of steam. Papin fitted this engine into a boat; but the river boatmen, being afraid that, if successful, it would ruin their business, seized and destroyed it.

It was a Devonshire blacksmith who first used steam to aid man in his work. Thomas Newcomen was born at Dartmouth in 1663, and in the year 1705 he and a glazier named Cawley, together with Savery, who was manager of a Cornish tin mine, obtained a patent for a steam pump which a few years later was being used for pumping water out of the deep Cornish mines. This engine had no piston, was very slow in working, and wasted four fifths of the steam at every stroke. Yet in spite of all this it did good work, and for nearly seventy years was the only steam pumping engine in use.

The first great improvement in Newcomen’s steampump was the invention of a small boy. The engine, as first made, required an attendant who had to open and shut two taps in turn, one to introduce steam into the cylinder, the other to throw in a dash of cold water for the purpose of condensing the steam. The work, being so simple, was generally done by a boy.

One day a lad named Humphrey Potter was told off to attend to the taps, and as he stood there horribly bored by the monotonous job of turning first one tap and then another, he could see his chums having a great game in the field below. He simply longed to go and join them, but knew too well what a thrashing he would get if he deserted his post. He stood glaring at the hated taps, and then suddenly he saw something which he had seen a hundred times before, but never noticed. Of the two taps one had to be opened just as the beam of the engine had dropped to its lowest point on one side, and shut exactly as the beam rose to its highest point on the other side. The management of the second tap was the exact reverse of the first.

Humphrey, if young, was quick-witted, and through his brain flashed a brilliant idea. Why not make the beam do the work? Out came a coil of string from his pocket, and he started in to experiment. He fastened cords to the handles of the taps, tying the loose ends to the beam itself. In a very short time he had solved the problem, and to his intense delight saw that the engine was doing its own work. He at once rushed off to find his friends.

We have no record of what the manager said when he found the engine running by itself and no Humphrey in sight, but at any rate he had sense enough to see that the boy had made a big discovery, and at once fixed rods instead of strings to the beams. Humphrey’s invention was soon applied to all the other steam pumps in existence.

After that it was not until the year 1763 that any great improvement was made in the steam engine, and this was the work of the famous James Watt. Watt was born at Greenock on the Clyde in 1736, and was a lover of machinery from a child. Various stories are told of how his great idea concerning the utilization of the power of steam was born. One of these is illustrated in a fine picture by Marcus Stone, R.A. We see Watt as a small boy at his parents’ table apparently toying idly with a spoon upon the spout of a kettle. According to this story, the boy was reproved by his father for not interesting himself in something more useful. Whether the story be true or not, it is of such stuff that the dreams of the inventor are made, and Watt was more than merely amused by noticing that the steam from the kettle could lift a weight placed upon it. He must have asked himself the great question "Why?" and in trying to answer it was led to see that the heat of the fire was turning the water into something which took up more room than the water, something very hot and very elastic. You can think of him making experiments, putting a weight upon the kettle lid to see what happened, perhaps trying to stop the spout. No doubt he burned his fingers, no doubt he got well scalded; but the boy kept on watching steam, thinking steam, until by degrees he came to a point when he resolved to capture and make use of this force.

When Watt grew up he became an instrument maker at Glasgow University, and it was here that a model of Newcomen’s steam pump was brought to him one day for repair. This engine, as I have pointed out, wasted steam in shocking fashion, for since at every stroke cold water was driven into the cylinder to condense the steam, most of the energy of each fresh inrush of steam was wasted in reheating the cylinder. Watt resolved to find some way of preventing this waste, and for two whole years spent nearly all his spare time in puzzling out the problem.

Now it is a curious fact that if you struggle long enough and hard enough to solve a problem the solution usually comes like a flash of lightning. This is exactly what happened in Watt’s case. As he was taking a walk one fine Sunday in 1765, suddenly, as he says himself, "the whole thing was arranged in my mind." His great idea was to connect to the working cylinder a vessel into which the steam could be exhausted for condensation so that it would be possible to keep the cylinder itself constantly hot.

Next morning he started to make a model, and when finished, rough as it was, he was overjoyed to find that it would work. A certain Dr. Roebuck put up money for Watt to build a working model, and presently a patent was granted. But, as has been the case with many inventors, this was not the end of his troubles, for when he came to build a big engine his workmen made such a mess of it that it was not very successful. Then Dr. Roebuck lost all his money, and Watt was left penniless and in debt.

But brighter days were in store. Matthew Boulton of Birmingham saw the model, and realized the value of the new invention. He was able to find money, and with this help Watt produced his first modern, double-acting steam engine. It had a governor to control its speed and a device to make the piston turn a flywheel. I am happy to say that the firm of Boulton and Watt flourished greatly and that both partners made fortunes.

It is truly said that one invention invariably leads to another, and once the steam engine had arrived it could only be a question of time before it was adapted not merely, in its stationary form, for driving machinery, but for purposes of locomotion. Numbers of people believed that both ships and carriages would sooner or later be driven by the power of steam, but the three men to whom the world owes these inventions are William Murdoch, Robert Fulton, and George Stephenson.

William Murdoch was the son of an Ayrshire millwright, who settled at Birmingham and went into the works of Messrs. Boulton and Watt. His employers thought so highly of him that they sent him to take charge of their new winding engines at Redruth in Cornwall at a salary of £1000 a year, an immense one in those days.

In his spare time Murdoch amused himself by building a small road locomotive which was really the first motor car. He finished this in the year 1784, and decided to try it on a piece of level road about a mile out of the town. He waited until night to make the experiment, then lit the lamp under the boiler. Steam was generated much more rapidly than he had supposed possible, with the result that suddenly off went the engine, so fast that Murdoch, though he followed as hard as he could run, could not catch up. Presently he heard a great outcry, and a few moments later came upon the village clergyman in the hedge, his teeth chattering, and shaking all over with terror.

"It was the evil one—the evil one himself!" groaned the parson. The poor man had met Murdoch’s new monster roaring along and puffing out fire, and was fully convinced that he had encountered the father of all evil.

Murdoch’s road engine went up a hill almost as well as it traveled on the level, and from it was afterward evolved the steam coach which was so great a success some eighty or ninety years ago. It is sad to think that had it not been for short-sighted laws made by the English Parliament, the world might have had motor cars fifty or sixty years before they actually came into use. Murdoch’s model locomotive was exhibited in London before the Institute of Mechanical Engineers in 1850, sixty-six years after the date of its construction.

Oddly enough it was also in Cornwall that another inventor produced a road locomotive. This was Richard Trevithick of Camborne, who, in the year 1801, ran his crude but powerful machine up Beacon Hill, Camborne. Trevithick deserves all credit for his ingenuity, and there is to-day a window in Westminster Abbey to his memory.

The inventor of the modern steamboat was an American, Robert Fulton by name. Paddle boats worked by man power or horse power had already been tried without success, and as early as the seventeenth century David Ramsay, Dr. Grant, and the Marquis of Worcester had each suggested the use of steam to drive ships. The Frenchman, Papin, actually made a steamboat, and in 1736 Jonathan Hulls, a Gloucestershire man, built a large boat which he tried to drive on the river Avon by means of a Newcomen engine. This was not a success, and the following doggerel lines commemorate his failure:

Jonathan Hull
With his paper skull
Tried hard to make a machine
That should go against wind and tide.
But he, like an ass,
Couldn’t bring it to pass,
So at last was ashamed to be seen.

So it was left for Robert Fulton to build the first real steamship. Fulton was a native of the town of Lancaster in Pennsylvania, and was known as "Quicksilver Bob." He was an architect, a painter, and, above all, an inventor.

In 1786 he went to England, and there invented a new machine for spinning flax, another for twisting hemp rope, and a third,—a great shovel for scooping up earth in making canals. It was his friend the Earl of Stanhope who started him upon the idea of propelling boats by steam. Fulton went to Birmingham, and after studying Watt’s double-acting steam engine had a large model built to his own order and shipped to America. He himself followed, and on arrival entered into partnership with Chancellor Livingstone, who provided money for the building of the Clermont, a good-sized craft of one hundred and fifty tons burden. In it was Fulton’s English-made engine, which was fitted to drive paddle wheels.

On August 17, 1807, Fulton went aboard at New York, started up his engine, and began his historic journey to Albany, the capital of New York State. The excitement

The Clermont

was terrific at sight of this vessel, the first in the world’s history to defy wind and tide. Unlike that of most inventors, Fulton’s success was instant and amazing, and before he died, at the early age of fifty-one, he had built seventeen steamers which plied from town to town up and down the great Hudson River.

Fulton has another claim to fame. It was he who built the first submarine boat. This he constructed in France before his invention of the steamboat, and tried in the harbor of Brest in July, 1801. He descended to a depth of twenty-five feet below the surface, and on a second trial traveled for five hundred yards under water, using compressed air to enable himself and his crew to breathe. On another occasion he stayed under water for no less than one hour and forty minutes.

If the great Napoleon had made the most of Robert Fulton’s inventions, Waterloo might never have been fought, and the whole history of the modern world might have been changed. But Napoleon disliked the brilliant American, and refused to allow the French Academy of Sciences to investigate his new devices. So Fulton returned to England, with the results which I have already described.

A very great man was Robert Fulton and was, with his friend the great Benjamin Franklin, the first of the long series of brilliant inventors produced by the New World.

Some years before Fulton’s great success with the Clermont—namely, on October 14, 1788—a little steamer engined by a man named Symington had been tried in Scotland with some success. A second, called the Charlotte Dundas, was built and used on the Forth and Clyde Canal for towing barges; but the canal owners complained that the swell damaged the banks, the boat was withdrawn from use, and her inventor died in poverty. Fulton, it should be mentioned, had seen the Charlotte Dundas and got some of his ideas from her.

As soon as Fulton’s Clermont was proved a success the building of similar craft was started in Great Britain, and in 1812 one constructed by Andrew Bell ran on the Clyde. Three years later the Thames saw her first steamer, the Richmond Packet, which plied between London and Richmond. In the same year, 1815, a steamer named the Argyle came round to London from the Clyde, and in spite of high winds and rough seas made the voyage of seven hundred miles in just over five days.

All these early steamers were driven by paddles, but the idea of the screw as a means of propulsion is much older than is generally supposed. So long ago as 1770 James Watt wrote to his friend Dr. Small a letter in which he says, "Have you ever considered a spiral oar for the purpose of propulsion, or are you for two wheels?" Before the end of the eighteenth century several patents were taken out for screw propellers, one by Joseph Brainak of lock fame, another by an Austrian named Joseph Ressel, a third by W. Lyttleton, in 1794. But nothing practical was done in this direction until a Hythe man, Francis Pettitt Smith, began to experiment

"Screw-Smith", as he was afterward called, was a farmer who grazed sheep on Romney Marshes, and how and why he became an inventor is one of those puzzles that one is always finding when studying the subject of inventors and inventing. His first model was made in 1834, when Smith was twenty-six years old. The screw in this little boat was worked by a powerful spring.

Two years later he took out a patent for propelling vessels by means of a screw revolving beneath the water at the stern, and in the autumn of that year a small steam vessel of ten tons with an engine of six horse power was built to test Smith’s invention. The screw was made of wood and had two whole turns. The little vessel was tried on the Thames, and ran well but slowly. As she went up the river the screw struck some floating timber and was broken in halves, when, to every one’s amazement, she shot forward more rapidly than before. Smith took the hint, and fitted a new screw with only one turn, with which his vessel worked much better. The modern screw propeller with which all ships are fitted is of this one-turn shape.

A little later Captain Ericsson, the famous Swedish inventor, built the Francis B. Ogden, fitted with two—or twin—screws in which he took the Lords of the British Admiralty for a trial trip. Her speed was no less than ten miles an hour, and she was extremely seaworthy. The Sea Lords were not convinced that the screw was superior to the paddle, and many years passed before British war vessels were fitted with screws. So Ericsson went to the United States, where he found his talents better appreciated. Years later he built the famous Monitor, the first real ironclad, and he also invented the first torpedo boat. He lived to be more than eighty years of age.

Screw-Smith stuck to his guns, or rather his screw, and in 1839 produced the Archimedes, a wooden vessel of 237 tons fitted with his patent screw. The builders said she could not do more than five knots, but when tried it was found that her speed was no less than nine and a half knots. In 1840 she made a tour of all the principal ports of Great Britain, and it was through seeing and examining the Archimedes that the great engineer Brunel, son of the inventor we shall meet in Chapter VIII, had his fine ship, the Great Britain, fitted with a screw. The Great Britain, built in 1843, was 274 feet in length, and much the largest steamer which had been launched up to that date.

The first British warship to be fitted with a screw was the Rattler, of 888 tons. Tried against the Alecto, a paddle ship of similar power, the Rattler simply ran away.

Smith ended by forcing his invention on the shipping world; yet in 1856, when his patent expired, he had not only made nothing, but had spent every penny of his own money. It is pleasant to be able to tell you that he was not left to starve, like so many other inventors. The Civil Engineers subscribed £2000 as a testimonial, the Queen gave him a Civil List pension of £200 a year, he was made curator of the Patent Museum at South Kensington, and in 1871, three years before he died, was knighted.

Having told you something about the first road locomotive and the first steamships, I must now speak of the third great invention which arose from Watt’s perfected steam engine. George Stephenson was born at Wylam, a village near Newcastle, on June 9, 1781. His father was a fireman in a colliery. George was a sturdy, vigorous youngster, and as soon as he was old enough became "picker" in the colliery; that is, he picked the

Stephenson's Railway Train
Stephenson's Railway Train

coal from the stones and dross, working all day for a few pence. In his spare time he learned to read and write and studied hard. He rose to be fireman, then engineman, and presently was given the job at Willington Quay of managing a fixed engine which drew coal trucks up a hill. Here he invented a way of making the full wagons running down an incline pull up the empty ones by their weight.

Rough locomotive engines were already at work, hauling coal at the Killingworth Colliery. These had been built by a Mr. Blackett on the model of a road engine produced by the Cornish inventor, Trevithick. Stephenson frequently examined these and also another primitive locomotive known as Blenkinsop’s Leeds engine, which drew a chain of colliery trucks at the modest pace of three miles an hour.

Stephenson made up his mind that he could build something better than either of these engines, and in 1813 went to the owners of the mine and told them he had plans for a new traveling engine. The principal partner, Lord Ravensworth, was so interested that he agreed to supply means for the experiment, and Stephenson built his first engine in the workshops at the West Moor mine.

This engine had two vertical cylinders, the power of which was carried by spur wheels to the driving wheels. It was called the "Blutcher", and when tried was found capable of pulling eight loaded wagons up a slight slope at the rate of four miles an hour. The chief novelty about this engine was that the wheels were smooth like those of a modern engine. All the locomotives built before the "Blutcher" had cogged wheels.

But Stephenson’s first engine had no springs and jolted so badly that it damaged the rails and knocked itself to pieces. Also the steam escaped with such a hissing that it frightened horses. Stephenson saw its faults and set to work to correct them, and the first thing he did was to carry the waste steam into the chimney. This, he found, increased the draught and improved the combustion. The second engine was much better than the first, yet, curiously enough, very few people took much notice of it.

Stephenson with his son Robert went on building new engines, but these were only used in collieries. In 1822 the owners of the Hetton Collieries opened a railway eight miles long and had five of Stephenson’s engines for use upon it. But the line was only for hauling coal. Meantime, Mr. Edward Pease of Darlington had made a plan to build a railway from Stockton to Darlington. Stephenson went to see him, and Pease went to see Stephenson’s engines, and was so interested, both in the engines and their builder, that he gave him the job of building the railway. All the mail-coach owners were against the plan, and fought it desperately, but Stephenson carried on, and on September 27, 1825, the new line was opened for traffic.

A newspaper of the time gives the following account: "The signal being given, the engine started off with the immense train of carriages, and such was its velocity that the speed was in some parts twelve miles an hour. At that time the number of passengers was computed to be four hundred and fifty, which, together with the coals, merchandise, and carriages, would amount to nearly ninety tons."

This railway was originally meant to carry goods only, but later Stephenson built a passenger coach called "The Experiment", and within a few weeks this was packed at every journey. The Stockton and Darlington was the first real railway and Stephenson’s engines the first real locomotives. It was thus that the way was paved for the line between Liverpool and Manchester and for Stephenson’s famous "Rocket", which won the historic prize for the best locomotive. I should like to tell you of Stephenson’s triumph when he himself drove the first train on the new Liverpool and Manchester Railway on September 15, 1830. But such a story belongs to engineering rather than invention.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman