Smith, James (1789-1850) (DNB00)

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SMITH, JAMES (1789–1850), of Deanston, agricultural engineer, born in Glasgow on 3 Jan. 1789, was son of a merchant of that city, a native of Galloway by birth, who died two months after James's birth. He was brought up by his maternal uncle, Archibald Buchanan, a pupil of Arkwright, and managing partner of the cotton works at Deanston, Perthshire, till his removal to the factory of Catrine in Ayrshire. After studying at the Glasgow University, Smith was, at the age of eighteen, put in charge of the Deanston works. He quickly improved and reorganised the factory, which had become dilapidated since the departure of his uncle. He was also at this time planning a reaping-machine, and in 1811 he had a working model made. Next year he competed unsuccessfully for a premium of 500l. offered by the Dalkeith Farmers' Club for an effective one-horse machine. Smith's reaper differed in principle from the type in use at present. It was not pulled but pushed from behind, and the corn was cut by means of a cylinder revolving horizontally (see illustrative plate, frontispiece, Farmer's Magazine, xvii. 1816). In 1813 Smith made a second attempt with a two-horse machine. Again the judges refused to award him the premium; but the ingenuity of his invention was acknowledged, and it attracted much attention from agricultural societies at home and abroad, including the Highland Society of Scotland and the Imperial Agricultural Society of St. Petersburg. Considerable discussion took place as to its merits and the priority of invention, which was also claimed by Archibald Kerr, a mathematical instrument maker in Edinburgh.

Smith had devoted his attention at a very early period to land draining. When, in 1823, he came into possession of the farm at Deanston, he at once set to work to experiment upon it with a system of deep and thorough drainage. He drained the farm throughout the whole of its extent by means of parallel trenches placed from sixteen to twenty-one feet apart, and thirty inches deep, which were filled up with broken stones to a depth of one foot. A coating of thin turf was then laid over the stones, and the remaining eighteen inches were filled in with earth to permit of the working of the plough.

The partial failure of this system led Smith to his second and supplementary invention of the subsoil plough, by means of which the barren lower strata of the land were broken up and fertilised without being intermixed with the richer surface soil. By these methods the unproductive Deanston farm, formerly overgrown with rushes, furze, and broom, was in a few years brought into a state of garden cultivation. The word ‘Deanstonising’ passed into common use to signify deep ploughing and thorough draining. The farm was visited by a large number of agriculturists from all parts of the kingdom, as well as from the continent of Europe and America. Especially was this the case after 1831, when Smith published a paper on ‘Thorough Drain- ing and Deep Working.’ In 1834 he was examined before a committee of the House of Commons on agricultural depression, on the subject of his system of cultivation, which in the opinion of Mr. Shaw Lefevre, chairman of the committee, was ‘the only thing likely to promote the general improvement of agriculture.’ Another high authority, John Claudius Loudon [q. v.], referred to it in the ‘Gardener's Magazine’ as ‘the most extraordinary agricultural improvement of modern times.’

In addition to the subsoil plough, Smith invented a turn-wrest plough and the web-chain harrow. He also experimented in manures, and devoted much attention to engineering operations, mechanism, and manufactures. He constructed the water-wheel at the Shawswater cotton mill, Greenock, and the bridge at Gargunnock on the Carse of Stirling. He also invented and patented an improved self-acting mule. But it was in connection with the factory of Deanston that his talent for invention and organisation found greatest scope. He increased the water-power at the command of the factory by constructing a weir on the river Teith. This weir was of such height as to prevent the passage of the salmon up the river. Smith removed the difficulty by the invention and construction of the ‘salmon ladder,’ which deserves a prominent place among his inventions (see Edinb. Rev. 1873, cxxxvii. 172). The factory itself he enlarged, and built a model village for the accommodation of his workpeople.

Suddenly, in 1842, he abandoned his employment at Deanston, and, coming to London, established himself there as an ‘agricultural engineer’ (Quarterly Rev. 1844, lxxiii. 490 sq.). Soon afterwards he was appointed one of the commissioners for the inquiry into the sanitary condition of large towns. He was an advocate of the use of sewage water for agricultural purposes, and his paper on this subject was published in the appendix to the ‘Report’ of the health of towns commission. After two years of investigation and experiment to determine the practicability of his scheme for the utilisation of London sewage, parliament was approached on the subject, but nothing was done.

Smith was about this time largely employed, especially during the railway mania of 1844, in the examination and valuation of land intended to be used in the construction of railroads.

He died unmarried, on 10 June 1850, when on a visit to his cousin, Archibald Buchanan, at Kingencleuch in Ayrshire. He had many inventions in view at the time, and was taking out a patent for a sheep dip of a new composition intended to supersede the system of ‘tarring.’ He had also extensive plans for improvements in farmsteadings, for the better housing of cattle, and for watering the fields in time of drought.

There is a small full-length portrait of him by Ansdell in the possession of the Royal Agricultural Society of England, and a life-size half-length portrait now in the South Kensington Museum. The latter is reproduced in the ‘Farmer's Magazine’ for September 1846 (facing page 191).

[Farmer's Magazine, Edinburgh, 1812 xiii. 441, 1813 xiv. 397, 1814 xv. 10, xvii. 1, 94, 160, 261, 318, 450; London, (1846) (2nd ser.), xiv. 191, (1850) xxii. 66; Quarterly Journal of Agriculture, xvii. 457; Mark Lane Express, 17 June 1850.]

E. C.-e.