Bell, Henry (1767-1830) (DNB00)

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BELL, HENRY (1767–1830), the builder of the Comet steamship, and therefore the introducer of practical steam navigation in England, was born at Torphichen Mill, near Linlithgow. His father, Patrick Bell, was a millwright, and, according to an account given by himself, his relations both on the father's and mother's side were engaged in mechanical businesses. He was first intended to be a mason, but, at the age of sixteen, he was apprenticed to the millwright's trade. After serving under several engineers he went to London, and spent some time under Rennie. It appears to have been while he was with Shaw and Hart, shipbuilders of Borrowstounness, in 1786, that he conceived the idea of applying steam to navigation, an idea that was at that time filling the minds of many inventors and engineers. In 1790 he settled in Glasgow, and in the following year he entered into partnership with a Mr. Paterson, forming the firm of Bell & Paterson, builders. In 1798 he is said to have turned his attention specially to the steamboat, and in 1800 he began experimenting with an engine placed in a small vessel. An application the same year to the admiralty was unsuccessful, as was a second appeal in 1803, though on the latter occasion Lord Nelson is stated to have spoken strongly in favour of the scheme. There is evidence to show that Fulton, who started a steamer on the Hudson in 1807, had obtained his ideas from Bell in the previous year, and that therefore Bell has a fair claim to be considered, not the inventor of the steamboat–Papin (1707), Jouffroy (1776), Miller of Dalswinton (1787), and many others (some, indeed, only on paper) anticipated him but the first to realise practically the proposals then in the minds of many for applying the steam-engine to the propulsion of vessels. He certainly was the originator of steam navigation in Europe, and in America he was only preceded by Fulton, who, if the above statement is correct, was his pupil.

In January 1812 the Comet, a thirty-ton boat, built by Wood & Co., of Glasgow, and driven by an engine of three-horse power made by Bell, commenced to ply from Glasgow to Greenock; she continued running till 1820, when she was wrecked. Many erroneous statements have been made about this vessel. She was by far from being the first vessel moved by steam, but she was the first practical steamship which regularly worked on any European river.

Though Bell's claims were generally acknowledged, he reaped but little reward. The river Clyde trustees gave him a pension of 50l., afterwards increased to 100l.; Mr. Canning gave him 200l.; and a subscription was got up for him at Glasgow and elsewhere near the close of his life.

Besides his efforts in the cause of steam navigation he was interested in several other engineering enterprises, and is credited with the invention of an important improvement in the process of calico printing, the 'discharging machine.' He died at Helensburgh in 1830, and was buried in the churchyard of Row parish, two miles from Helensburgh.

[There is a life of Bell by Edward Morris (Glasgow, 1844), but the information it gives is meagre. An account of him also appears in Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen.]

H. T. W.