Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forsyth, Alexander John

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FORSYTH, ALEXANDER JOHN, LL.D. (1769–1843), inventor, son of James Forsyth, minister of Belhelvie in Aberdeenshire, by Isabella, youngest daughter of Walter Syme, minister of Tullynessle, was born on 28 Dec. 1769 in his father's manse. He graduated at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1786, and in 1791 was licensed as a preacher. His father died suddenly (1 Dec. 1790) at the presbytery meeting which granted the son's license, and John Alexander was chosen his successor. He devoted to chemistry and mechanics the time which he could spare from his duties as minister. One of his favourite amusements was to make knives from ironstone. He was fond of wild-fowl shooting, and as the birds often escaped by diving at the flash of his flint-locked fowling-piece, he constructed a hood over the lock of his gun, with a sight along the barrel. He took an interest in inventions, especially those connected with steam and electricity. His want of thorough training was shown in some crude notions about galvanism and magnetism, which he believed to be capable of generating a new sense. His ingenuity found a more appropriate sphere in developing firearms. The French were unsuccessfully attempting to substitute chloride of potash for nitrate in gunpowder; Forsyth began experiments on the known detonating compounds. He hit upon various methods of obtaining increased inflammability and strength, but the mixtures were too dangerous for use. His next attempt was to improve the inflammability of the priming in flint-locks, and he found that the least spark of a flint ignited detonating mercury or powder made in chloride of potash. But it frequently happened that the inflammation from the pan was not carried through the touchhole to the charge of gunpowder in the barrel, and that, even when gunpowder was mixed in the pan with detonating powder, this compound was inflamed without acting on the gunpowder. He at last hit upon the employment of a cylindrical piece of iron with a touchhole just able to admit a cambric needle struck by a small hammer, and a pan to hold detonating powder on the outer end of the touchhole. The loose gunpowder placed in the tube was not regularly ignited, but this difficulty was surmounted by wadding. He then constructed a suitable lock, and during the season of 1805 shot with a fowling-piece made on his plan. In the spring of 1806 he took it to London and showed it to some sporting friends. Lord Moira, then master-general of ordnance, saw the gun and invited Forsyth to make some experiments at the Tower. Here he remained for some time, Moira providing for the discharge of his pastoral duties meanwhile, and after patient effort a lock that answered all requirements was produced. He had to undertake the dangerous task of preparing the detonating powder for himself, the workmen being ignorant and unwilling. The new principle was then applied to a carbine, and to a 3-pounder, which were approved by the master-general of ordnance. Forsyth then returned home, Moira proposing that he should receive as remuneration an amount equivalent to the saving of gunpowder effected. When Lord Chatham soon afterwards succeeded Lord Moira as master-general of ordnance, he intimated to Forsyth that ‘his services were no longer required,’ and asked him to send in an account of expenses incurred. The board of ordnance ordered him to deliver up all possessions of the department then in his use and to remove from the Tower the ‘rubbish’ he had left. The ‘rubbish’ consisted of ingenious applications of the percussion principle afterwards generally adopted. Forsyth lived on quietly and cheerfully, apportioning his time, as before, among his various pursuits. After many years, some of his friends, learning that the government were actually introducing the percussion lock into the army, persuaded him to draw up a statement of claim for recompense. Lord Brougham, to whom he was related, took up the case, and a small pension was ultimately awarded him. On the morning that the first instalment of the long-delayed pension arrived (11 June 1843), Forsyth was found dead in his study chair. Napoleon offered the inventor 20,000l. to divulge the secret of his discovery, but the offer was patriotically declined. Forsyth was unmarried. Glasgow University created him LL.D.

[Dr. Forsyth's Statement, hitherto unpublished; Hew Scott's Fasti Eccles. Scoticanæ, pt. vi. pp. 495–6; local newspapers.]

J. B-y.