Brunton, William (DNB00)

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BRUNTON, WILLIAM (1777–1861), engineer and inventor, was eldest son of Robert Brunton, a watch and clock maker at Dalkeith, where he was born on 26 May 1777. He studied mechanics in his father’s shop and engineering under his grandfather, who was a colliery viewer in the neighbourhood. In 1790 he commenced work in the fitting shops of the New Lanark cotton mills belonging to David Dale and Sir Richard Arkwright; but after five years, being attracted by the fame of the great works at Soho, he migrated to the south, and obtained emgoyment in 1796 with Boulton and Watt. He remained at Soho until he was mode foreman and superintendent of the engine manufactory. Leaving Soho in 1818 he joined Mr. Jessop’s Butterley Works, and being deputed to represent his master in many important missions he made the acquaintance of John Rennie, Thomas Telford, and other eminent engineers. In 1815 he became a partner in and the mechanical manager of the Eagle Foundry, Birmingham, where he remained ten years, during which time he designed and executed a great variety of important works. From 1825 to 1835 he appears to have been practising in London as a civil engineer, but quitting the metropolis at the latter date he took a share in the Cwm Avon Tin Works, Glamorganshire, where be erected copper smelting furnaces and rolling mills. He became connected with the Maesteg Works in the same county, and with a brewery at Neath in 1838; here a total failure ensued, and the savings of his life were lost. After this he occasionally reappeared in his profession, but was never again fully embarked in business. He was a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, but the date of his admission has not been found. As a mechanical engineer his works were various and important; many of them were in the adaptation of original and ingenious modes of reducing and manufacturing metals, and the improvement of the machinery connected therewith. In the introduction of steam navigation he had a large share; he made some of the original engines used on the Humber and the Trent, and some of the earliest on the Mersey, including those for the vessel which first plied on the Liverpool ferries in 1814. He fitted out the Sir Francis Drake at Plymouth in 1824, the first steamer that ever took a man-of-war in tow. His calciner was used on the works of most of the tin mines in Cornwall, as well as at the silver ore works in Mexico, and his fan regulator was also found to be a most useful invention. At the Butterley works he applied the principle of a rapid rotation of the mould in casting iron pipes, and incurred great expense in securing a patent, only to find that a foreigner, who used the same process in casting terra cotta, had recited in his specifications that the same mode might be applied to metals. The most novel and ingenious of his inventions was the walking machine called the Steam Horse, which he made at Butterley in 1813, and which worked with a load up a gradient of 1 in 36 during all the winter of 1814 at the Newbottle colliery. Early in 1815, through some carelessness, this machine exploded, and most unfortunately killed thirteen persons (Wood, Treatise on Rail Roads, 1825, pp. 131–5, with a plate).

In the course of his career he obtained many patents, but derived little remuneration from them, although several of them came into general use. Latterly he turned his attention to the subject of improved ventilation for collieries, and sent models of his inventions to the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park. He was intimate with all the engineers of the older school, and was almost the last of that celebrated set of men. He died at the residence of his son, William Brunton, at Camborne, Cornwall, 5 Oct. 1851, having married, 30 Oct. 1810, Anne Elizabeth Button, adopted daughter of John and Rebecca Dickinson of Summer Hill, Birmingham. She died at Eaglesbush, Neath, Glamorganshire, 1845, leaving sons, who have become well known as engineers.

[Minutes of Proceedings of Institution of Civil Engineers, xi. 95–99 (1852).]

G. C. B.