Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Muir, William (1806-1888)

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1340987Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39 — Muir, William (1806-1888)1894Richard Bissell Prosser

MUIR, WILLIAM (1806–1888), engineer, second son of Andrew Muir, farmer, was born at Catrine, Ayrshire, 17 Jan. 1806. The father was a cousin of William Murdock [q. v.], the introducer of gas-lighting. After serving an apprenticeship at Kilmarnock to Thomas Morton, whose principal business was that of repairing carpet looms, Muir obtained employment at Glasgow with Girdwood & Co., makers of cotton machinery. In September 1830 he left home for Liverpool, and was present at the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. Hearing of the illness of his brother Andrew at Truro, he proceeded thither, and after working for a time at Hayle Foundry he went to London and commenced work in April 1831 at Maudslay & Field's engineering factory. During his stay there he made the acquaintance of James Nasmyth, who was Henry Maudslay's draughtsman, and Joseph Whitworth, then working as a fitter in the shop. Whitworth, it is said, cultivated Muir's acquaintance, but they never became intimate. In March 1836 Muir left Maudslay's to act as traveller for Holtzapffel, the well-known tool-maker of Long Acre and Charing Cross, but the engagement only lasted a few months, and in November he became foreman at Bramah & Robinson's foundry at Pimlico. He left in June 1840 to join Whitworth, who had then established a business at Manchester, and he assisted in working out his scheme for a universal system of screw threads, and made all the drawings and a working model of his road-sweeping machine. A strict Sabbatarian, he disagreed with Whitworth, who encouraged working on Sundays, and quitting his employ in June 1842, he started in business on his own account in Berwick Street, Manchester, his first important commission being a railway ticket-printing machine for Thomas Edmondson [q. v.] He subsequently took larger premises in Miller's Lane, Salford, Edmondson occupying the upper part as a railway-ticket printing office. His business increasing, he erected the Britannia Works at Strange ways, which have been increased from time to time, and are still carried on by his sons. He achieved a great reputation as a maker of lathes and machine tools. He supplied machinery to the royal gun factory at Woolwich and also to Enfield, for the manufacture of sights for rifles on the interchangeable principle.

Between 1853 and 1867 Muir took out eleven patents, but they are not on the whole of much importance. Some have reference to the details of the lathe, a machine in which he always took great interest. Two relate to letter-copying presses. A model of his grindstone, patented in 1853 (No. 621), may be seen at South Kensington Museum. This consists of two stones running in contact, one being caused to traverse longitudinally, with a very slow motion. In this manner each stone corrects the defects of the other, and both are maintained accurately cylindrical in form. His sugar-cutting machine, patented in 1863 (No. 1307), consists of an arrangement of circular saws by which the loaf is first cut into slices and then into cubes. This machine has come into considerable use of late years.

Muir took much interest in social questions and was a strong temperance advocate. This was manifested in a curious way in a patent which he took out in 1865 (No. 1), which consists in constructing 'the fronts of public-houses and other houses of entertainment, where men and women mix indiscriminately, of plate-glass, to enable persons outside to see those within,' while 'to impede as far as possible the entrance of females wearing steel crinolines,' the entrances were made very narrow.

He married in 1832 Eliza Wellbank Dickinson of Drypool, Hull, by whom he had five sons, most of whom became engineers. She died 5 Jan. 1882. Muir died 15 June 1888, and was buried in Brockley cemetery.

[Robert Smiles's Brief Memoir of William Muir, 1888, pp. 26. partly reprinted in The Engineer, 24 Aug. 1888.]

R. B. P.