Murdock, William (DNB00)
|←Murdoch, Thomas William Clinton||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39
|Mure, William (1594-1657)→|
MURDOCK, WILLIAM (1754–1839), engineer, and inventor of coal-gas lighting, second son of John Murdoch, millwright, was born at Bellow Mill, near Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, on 21 Aug. 1754. His father and grandfather had been gunners in the royal artillery, and pay-sheets bearing their signatures are still preserved in the royal artillery records at Woolwich. He altered the spelling of his name after his arrival in England, on account of the inability of the Englishmen to give it the true guttural pronunciation, and this practice is continued by his descendants. Brought up to his father's trade, he obtained in 1777 employment under Boulton & Watt at Soho. According to a well-known story, Boulton was struck on his first interview with Murdock by the peculiar hat which he was wearing, and Murdock stated, in answer to Boulton's questions, that it was made of wood, and that he had turned it on a lathe of his own making. It appears that Murdock in his nervousness let the hat fall on the floor, and it was the unusual noise produced that attracted Boulton's attention. He was engaged by Boul- ton, and about 1779 he was sent to Cornwall to look after the numerous pumping-engines erected by the firm in that county. He proved an invaluable help to Watt, and the references to him in the Soho correspondence are very numerous. He lived at Redruth, and is stated by Smiles to have returned to Soho in 1798; but in a patent which he took out on 25 Aug. 1799 he is described as 'of Redruth.' The specification of this patent, which was executed a month afterwards, was witnessed by Gregory Watt, James Watt's son, the declaration being made before a master-extraordinary in chancery who carried on business in Birmingham. According to documents at Soho, he signed an agreement on 30 March 1800 to act as an engineer and superintendent of the Soho foundry for a period of five years. He was, however, constantly despatched to different parts of the country, and he frequently visited Cornwall after he ceased to reside there permanently. His connection with Boulton & Watt's firm continued until 1830, when he practically retired, and died on 15 Nov. 1839, within sight of the Soho foundry, at his house at Sycamore Hill, which he built for himself in 1816. He was buried in Handsworth Church, where there is a bust of him by Chantrey.
Murdock married Miss Paynter, daughter of a mine captain residing at Redruth, and had two sons, William (1788-1831) and John (1790-1862) ; the former was employed by Boulton & Watt. Mrs. Murdock died in 1790, at the early age of twenty-four.
Murdock's unambitious career was entirely devoted to the interests of his employers, and his fame has been somewhat over-shadowed by the great names of Boulton & Watt. About 1792, while residing at Redruth, he commenced making experiments on the illuminating properties of gases produced by distilling coal, wood, peat, &c. (Phil. Trans. 1808, p. 124). He lighted up his house at Redruth, and Mr. Francis Trevithick wrote in 1872: 'Those still live who saw the gas-pipes conveying gas from the retort in the little yard to near the ceiling of the room, just over the table. A hole for the pipe was made in the window-frame' (Life of Trevithick, i. 64). The house is still standing, and a commemorative tablet was recently placed upon it by Mr. Richard Tangye of Birmingham. The year 1792 has been fixed upon as the date when gas-lighting was first introduced, and the centenary of that event was celebrated in 1892, but it seems certain that 1792 is much too early. Among the documents preserved at Soho are two letters from Thomas Wilson (Boulton & Watt's agent in Cornwall), dated 27 Jan. and 29 Jan. 1808, in which he gives the results of his attempts to obtain evidence for the purpose of opposing the Gas Light and Coke Company's Bill before the House of Commons. Murdock's mother-in-law, then still resident at Redruth, told Wilson that 'the gas was never set fire to' at Murdock's house 'at a greater distance than the length of a gun-barrel fixed to the retort.' The only certain piece of evidence which Wilson could obtain was that Murdock had shown some experiments at Neath Abbey Iron Works in November 1795 and February 1796, when gas was made in 'an iron retort with an iron tube of from three to four feet in length, and through which the gas from coal then used in the retort issued, and at the end thereof was set fire to, and gave a strong and beautiful light, which continued burning a considerable time.' This date agrees very closely with a statement made by James Watt the younger in his evidence before a parliamentary committee in 1809, when he said that Murdock commnnicated to him in 1794 or 1795 the results of some experiments with coal-gas. In his letter of 29 Jan. Wilson says : 'It is strange how all who have seen it disagree on one point or the other . . . On the whole I am afraid we shall be able to do little satisfactory.' These facts, now published for the first time, show that up to the date when he left Cornwall Murdock had done much less to advance the art of gas-lighting than is generally supposed.
Upon his return to Soho about 1799 he put up an apparatus, which was, however, only of an experimental character, for the purpose of demonstrating the capabilities of the new method of obtaining light. James Watt was doubtless interested in Murdock's experiments, as he had been at work for some time, in conjunction with Dr. Beddoes, the founder of the Pneumatic Institution at Bristol, in investigating the curative properties of oxygen and hydrogen gases when inhaled. In 1795 Watt issued a tract, illustrated with plates, describing the various retorts and purifiers manufactured by Boulton & Watt for preparing oxygen and hydrogen (cf. Considerations on the Medicinal Use and on the Production of Factitious Airs, pt. i. by Thomas Beddoes, M.D. ; pt. ii. by James Watt, engineer. Bristol, 1795). The question of taking out a patent was then considered ; but it was decided to await the result of certain litigation then pending, as it was somewhat doubtful whether a valid patent could be obtained. The experiments were accordingly suspended until about the end of 1801, when Gregory Watt wrote to his father from Paris, giving an account of Lebon's experiments, and urging that if anything was to be done about the patent it must be done at once. The matter was taken up again, and on the occasion of the rejoicings at the peace of Amiens, in March 1802, gas was used to a small extent in the extensive illuminations at Soho, but not in a manner to attract much attention. The earliest reference to the use of gas at Soho in 1802 is contained in an editorial postscript to an article by Professor Henry in Nicholson's 'Journal of Natural Philosophy,' June 1805, xi. 74.
Samuel Clegg [q. v.], who was then an apprentice at Soho, and who assisted Murdock in his experiments, states in his son's book on 'Coal-gas,' 1841, p. 6: 'In March 1802 . . . Mr. Murdock first publicly exhibited the gas-light by placing at each end of the Soho manufactory what was termed a Bengal light. The operation was simply effected by fixing a retort in the fireplace of the house below, and then conducting the gas issuing from thence into a copper vase. This was the only gas used on that occasion.' As some misconception has arisen, it should be explained that there were at that time two buildings, situated at some distance apart : one was the Soho factory, now destroyed, and the other, the Soho foundry which still exists. It was the factory which was illuminated.
In 1803 apparatus was erected by which a part of the Soho foundry was regularly lighted with gas, and the manufacture of gas-making plant seems to have been commenced about this period, in connection no doubt with the business of supplying apparatus for producing oxygen and hydrogen for medical purposes. In 1804 George Augustus Lee, of the firm of Phillips & Lee, cotton-spinners, of Manchester, ordered an apparatus for lighting his house with gas [see under Lee, John, d. 1781]. About the end of the year Messrs. Phillips & Lee decided to light their mills with gas, and on 1 Jan. 1806 Murdock wrote informing Boulton & Watt that 'fifty lamps of the different kinds 'were lighted that night, with satisfactory results. There was, Murdock stated,' no Soho stink 'an expression which seems to show that the method of purification in use at Soho was of a somewhat primitive nature. The work was not finished for some time afterwards, as the Soho books contain entries of charges to Phillips & Lee extending over the next year, and even later. From 30 Sept. 1805 to 1807 3,674l. was charged to Phillips & Lee's account. The early forms of gas apparatus made at Soho are fully described in the supplement to the fourth and fifth editions of the 'Encyclopædia Britannica,' article 'Gas,' which was written by Creighton, one of the Soho managers.
In February 1808 Murdock read a paper before the Royal Society (Phil. Trans. xcviii. 124), in which he gave a full account of his investigations, and also of the saving effected by the adoption of gas-lighting at Phillips & Lee's mill. This paper is the earliest practical essay on the subject. The Rumford gold medal, bearing the inscription 'ex fumo dare lucem,' was awarded to Murdock for this paper, which concludes with these- words : 'I believe I may, without presuming too much, claim both the first idea of applying and the first actual application of this gas to economical purposes.' As to the justice of this claim there can be no doubt.
By this time gas-lighting had fallen into the hands of the company promoters, and in 1809 application was made to parliament for a bill to incorporate the Gas Light and Coke Company. It was opposed by James Watt the younger on behalf of Boulton & Watt, who feared that their trade might be interfered with. The evidence given by James Watt and George Lee (of Phillips & Lee) before the committee to which the bill was referred contains valuable information concerning the history of Murdock's early efforts. Boulton & Watt were represented before the committee by Henry Brougham, and his speech was printed separately. It has been incorrectly stated that Murdock himself gave evidence. In answer to a statement put forth by the promoters of the bill, charging Murdock with plagiarism, he issued on 4 May 1809 'A Letter to a Member of Parliament ... in Vindication of his Character and Claims.' This tract and the paper in the 'Philosophical Transactions' comprise the whole of Murdock's literary efforts. Only two or three copies of the tract seem to have survived, but it was reprinted for private distribution by the writer of this notice on the occasion of the Murdock centenary in 1892. Murdock's connection with gas-lighting seems to have come to an end in 1809. The 'Monthly Magazine' for November 1814, p. 357, refers to a gas company established in Water Lane, Fleet Street, by Messrs. Grant, Knight, & Murdoch, but the relationship (if any) of the Murdoch there named to the subject of this notice has not been established. Murdock lighted up the house which he built for himself in 1816 at Sycamore Hill, Handsworth, by gas supplied from the Soho foundry, probably when he first went to reside there. Some remains of the apparatus are still in existence (cf. Birmingham Faces and Places, December 1889, p. 125). Claims have been put forward by various writers that Murdock ought to be regarded as one of the inventors of the locomotive ; but from a strictly practical point of view this can hardly be conceded, as his experiments led to no results, and those who followed him worked on different, lines. His attention seems to have been directed to the subject of locomotion by steam in 1784 (cf. Muirhead, Life of Watt, pp. 443-5). On 9 Aug. 1786 Thomas Wilson, Boulton & Watt's agent in Cornwall, wrote to Soho : 'Wm. Murdock desires me to inform you that he has made a small engine of ¾ dia. and 1½-inch stroke, that he has apply'd to a small carriage, which answers amazingly.' In all probability this is the well-known model which was purchased a few years ago from the Murdock family by Messrs. Tangye Brothers, and by them presented to the Birmingham Art Gallery, where it is now exhibited, although the dimensions do not quite correspond with those given by Wilson. The true date of its construction is probably 1786. An exact reproduction of the Birmingham model may be seen in the machinery and inventions department of the South Kensington Museum. A section of the engine, carefully drawn to scale, appeared in 'The Engineer,' 10 June 1881, p. 432.
Writing to Watt from Truro on 2 Sept. 1786, Boulton stated that near Exeter he had met a coach in which was William Murdock. 'He got out, and we had a parley for some time. He said he was going to London to get men ; but I soon found he was going there with his steam carriage to show it, and take out a patent, he having been told by Mr. Wm. Wilkinson what Sadler has said, and he has likewise read in the newspaper Symington's puff, which has rekindled all Wm.'s fire and impatience to make steam carriages. However, I prevailed upon him to return to Cornwall by the next day's diligence, and he accordingly arrived here this day at noon, since which he hath unpacked his carriage and made travil a mile or two in Bivers's great room, making it carry the fire-shovel, poker, and tongs. I think it fortunate that I met him, as I am persuaded I can either cure him of the disorder or turn the evil to good. At least I shall prevent a mischief that would have been the consequence of his journey to London.' On the 8th of the same month Boulton again writes to Watt : ' Murdock seems in good spirits and good humour, and has neither thought upon nor done anything about the wheel carriage since his return, because he hath so much to do about the mines.' On the 17th he writes : ' Send all the engines as soon as possible, and he will be better employed than about wheel carriages. He hath made a very pretty working model, which keeps him in good humour, and that is a matter of great consequence to us. He says he has contrived, or rather is contriving, to save the power ariseing from the descent of the carriage when going down hill, and applying that power to assist it in its ascent up hill, and thus balance y e acct. up and down. How he means to accomplish it I know not . . . Wm. uses no separate valves, but uses ye valve piston, something like the 12-inch little engine at Soho, but not quite.'
The originals of these letters hitherto unnoticed are at Soho. They are of considerable importance, as they not only fix the date of the model, but they also go to prove that Murdock made another and larger engine, the Birmingham locomotive being quite incapable of carrying the weight of a set of fire-irons. There is a passage in Trevithick's 'Life of Trevithick,' i. 150, which may possibly refer to the larger model, or perhaps even to a third engine. Writing to Davies Giddy, under date 10 Oct. 1803, Trevithick says : ' I have desired Captain A. Vivian to wait on you to give you every information respecting Murdock's carriage, whether the large one at Mr. Budge's foundry [at Tuckingmill] was to be a condensing engine or not.' As Mr. Trevithick observes, 'this opens up a curious question in the history of the locomotive,' and there appears to be good ground for believing that Murdock made three locomotives : (1) the model now at Birmingham ; (2) the model mentioned by Boulton in his letter of 2 'Sept. 1786 ; and (3) the engine referred to in Trevithick's 'Life,' which, as the context shows, was certainly of considerable size. No. 2 is in all probability the engine which alarmed the vicar of Redruth when Murdock was trying it one night on the path leading to the church (Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt, 1874, p. 367). Both Watt and Boulton did all they could to discourage and hinder Murdock from pursuing his experiments, and in a letter from Watt to his partner, dated 12 Sept. 1786, probably in answer to one of those just referred to, he says : 'I am extremely sorry that W. M. still busies himself with the steam carriage. ... I wish W. 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 ; hunting shadows' (Muirhead, Life of Watt, 2nd ed. p. 445; Mechanical Inventions of Watt. ii. 210).
Apart from the locomotive, Murdock was the author of several improvements in the steam-engine, many of which, however, probably became merged in the general work of the establishment, and cannot now be identified. The well-known 'sun and planet motion,' which is included in Watt's patent of 1781, was contrived by Murdock, as Smiles indubitably shows (Lives of Boulton and Watt, 1874, p. 245). In 1784 or 1785 he made a wooden model of an oscillating engine (now exhibited at South Kensington on loan from its owner, the inventor's great grandson, William Murdock of Govilon, near Abergavenny), and it is figured and described in Muirhead's 'Mechanical Inventions of Watt,' vol. i. p. ccxvii, and vol. iii. plate 34; and also in the same author's 'Life of Watt,' 2nd ed. p. 438. He does not appear to have 'proceeded any further in the matter, but he is entitled to the credit of the first suggestion of this form of engine. His patent of 1799 (No. 2340) includes a method of driving machines for boring cylinders, a method of casting jacketed cylinders in one piece, and a 'sliding eduction pipe,' which was afterwards modified and became the long D slide-valve, eventually displacing the complicated gear of Watt's earlier engines. A particular form of rotary engine is also described in the specification; but, like many other similar projects, it was not a practical success, though Murdock used it in his experimental workshop for many years. In conjunction with John Southern, another of Watt's assistants at Soho, he designed what was probably the earliest form of independent or self-contained engine, adapted to stand on the ground without requiring support from the walls of a building. From the shape of one of the parts it was called a 'bell-crank engine,' and, according to Farey (Steam Engine, p. 677, and plate 16), it was brought out in 1802. These engines were well adapted for purposes where a small power only was required, and where space was an object. Some engines of this type were still at work in Birmingham until within the last thirty years. In the later form of these engines the valve was worked by an eccentric, the invention of which Farey (op. cit.) attributes to Murdock.
Murdock's miscellaneous inventions comprise a method of treating mundic to obtain paint for protecting ships' bottoms, for which he obtained a patent in 1791 (No. 1802). In 1810 he took out a patent (No. 3292) for making stone pipes, which he sold to the Manchester Stone Pipe Company, a company established in Manchester for the purpose of supplying that city with water, he also devised apparatus for utilising the force of compressed air; the bells in his house at Sycamore Hill were rung by that method, and it was afterwards adopted by Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford (Lockhart, Life of Scott, p. 500). As early as 1803 he made a steam gun, which was tried at Soho. The invention of ' iron cement,' which consists of a mixture of sal-ammoniac and iron filings, largely used by engineers to this day, is also attributed to him.
In 1883 a proposal, which came to nothing, was made to purchase Murdock's house at Handsworth, and to convert it into an international gas museum. On 29 July 1892 the centenary of gas-lighting was celebrated, and Lord Kelvin unveiled a bust of Murdock, by D. W. Stevenson, in the 1882 the Wallace Monument at Stirling. In National Gas Institute founded the Murdock medal, which is awarded periodically to the authors of useful inventions connected with gas-making.
A portrait of Murdock in oil, by John Graham-Gilbert, is in the possession of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and there is another by the same artist in the Art Gallery, Birmingham. The bust by Chantrey in Handsworth Church is said to be an admirable likeness. A copy of this bust, by Papworth, is in the Art Gallery, Birmingham. It has been frequently engraved.
[Muirhead's Mechanical Inventions of Watt, vol. i. pp. ccxiv-ccxviii; Buckle's memoir in Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 23 Oct. 1850, p. 16, written from personal knowledge; Smiles's Lives of Boulton and Watt, ed. 1874; lecture by M. Macfie in Gas Engineer, 1 Oct. 1883, p. 461; Times, 11 and 15 Sept. 1883; A. Murdock's Light without a Wick, Glasgow, 1892. A view of Murdock's birthplace is given in the Pictorial World, 28 July 1883.]