Nasmyth, James (1808-1890) (DNB00)

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NASMYTH, JAMES (1808–1890), engineer, son of Alexander Nasmyth [q. v.], artist, and of his wife Barbara Foulis, was born at 47 York Place, Edinburgh, on 19 Aug. 1808. After being for a short time under a private tutor he was sent to the Edinburgh high school, which he left in 1820 to pursue his studies at private classes. His education seems to have been acquired in a very desultory way, much of his spare time being spent in a large iron-foundry owned by the father of one of his schoolfellows, or in the chemical laboratory of another school friend. His father taught him drawing, in which he attained great proficiency. By the age of seventeen he had acquired so much skill in handling tools that he was able to construct a small steam-engine, which he used for the purpose of grinding his father's colours. He also made models of steam-engines to illustrate the lectures given at mechanics' institutions. The making of one of these models brought him into communication with Professor Leslie, of the Edinburgh University, who gave him a free ticket for his lectures on natural philosophy. In 1821 he became a student at the Edinburgh school of arts, and, his model-making business proving very remunerative, he was able to attend some of the classes at the university. When only nineteen he was commissioned by the Scottish Society of Arts to build a steam-carriage capable of carrying half a dozen persons. This was successfully accomplished, and in 1827–8 it was tried many times on the roads in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. Hearing from some of his acquaintances of the fame of Henry Maudslay [q. v.], he determined to seek employment with him at Lambeth, and in May 1829 he became assistant to Maudslay in his private workshop. On Maudslay's death, in February 1831, he passed into the service of Joshua Field, Maudslay's partner, with whom he remained until the following August. Nasmyth's engagement with Maudslay was of great service to him, and he always spoke in the highest terms of his ‘dear old master.’

Returning to Edinburgh, he spent two years in making a stock of tools and machines, and at the same time he executed any small orders which came in his way. In 1834 he started in business on his own account in Dale Street, Manchester, his total capital amounting to only 63l. He received much help from friends there, among others from the brothers Grant, the originals of the ‘Brothers Cheeryble’ of Dickens. His business increasing, he took a lease in 1836 of six acres of land at Patricroft, near Manchester, and commenced to lay the foundations of what eventually became the Bridgewater foundry. In 1836 also he gave evidence on the arts and principles of design (see Report, p. 28) before a select committee of the House of Commons. A few years afterwards he took into partnership Holbrook Gaskell; and the firm acquired a very high reputation as constructors of machinery of all kinds, steam-engines, and especially of improved machine-tools.

The invention with which Nasmyth's name is most closely associated, and of which he himself seems to have been most proud, is that of the steam-hammer. This was called forth in 1839 by an order for a large paddle-shaft for the Great Britain steamship, then being built at Bristol. He at once applied his mind to the question, and ‘in little more than half an hour I had the whole contrivance in all its executant details before me, in a page of my scheme-book’ (Autobiography, p. 240). A reduced photographic copy of the sketch, dated 24 Nov. 1839, is given in his ‘Autobiography.’ There is probably no instance of an invention of equal importance being planned out with such rapidity. The paddle-shaft was eventually not required, the proprietors having decided to adopt the screw-propeller, and, as there was no inducement to go to the expense of making a steam-hammer, the matter remained in abeyance. The sketches seem to have been freely shown, and in 1840 they were seen by Schneider, the proprietor of the great ironworks at Creuzot, during a visit to Patricroft. He appears to have immediately grasped the importance of the invention, and the information which he and his manager obtained was sufficient to enable them to construct a steam-hammer, which was set to work about 1841. Nasmyth first became aware of this in April 1842, when he saw his own hammer at work on the occasion of a chance visit to Creuzot. Upon his return to England he lost no time in securing his invention by taking out a patent (No. 9382, 9 June 1842), but Schneider had anticipated him in France by patenting the hammer in his own name on 19 April.

The first steam-hammer set up in this country was erected at Patricroft in the early part of 1843, and, after working for some time, it was sold to Muspratt & Sons of Newton-le-Willows for breaking stones (cf. Rowlandson, History of the Steam Hammer, Manchester, 1875, p. 9). The valves of the early hammers were worked by hand, and much time was spent in making the machine self-acting, so that immediately upon the delivery of the blow steam should be admitted below the piston to raise the hammer up again. This self-acting gear was patented by Nasmyth in 1843 (No. 9850), but the invention is claimed for Robert Wilson, one of the managers at Patricroft (op. cit. p. 6). Self-acting gear is now generally discarded, except in small hammers, where straightforward work is executed. Large hammers are now universally worked by hand, according to Nasmyth's original plan, the introduction of balanced valves giving the hammer-man perfect control, even over the most ponderous machines (Pract. Mech. Journ. July 1848 p. 77, November 1855 p. 174). The patent of 1843 contained a claim for the application of the invention as a pile-driver, and the first steam pile-driver was used in the Hamoaze in July 1845. In that year Nasmyth took out a further patent for a special form of steam-hammer for working and dressing stone. So much was the machine in his mind that he designed a steam-engine in which the parts were arranged as in a steam-hammer, the cylinder being inverted. For this engine he received a prize medal at the exhibition of 1851, and the design has since been largely adopted for marine engines (cf. Engineer, 3 May 1867, p. 392).

Attempts have been made to deprive Nasmyth of the credit of the invention of the steam-hammer, and it has been pointed out that James Watt in his patent of 1784 (No. 1432), and William Deverell in 1806 (No. 2939), had both suggested a direct-acting steam-hammer. In 1871 Schneider gave evidence before a select committee of the House of Commons, in the course of which he stated that the first idea of a steam-hammer was due to his chief manager. Thereupon Nasmyth obtained leave to be heard by the committee for the purpose of placing his version of the matter before them. The question of priority is fully discussed in the ‘Engineer,’ 16 May 1890 p. 407. A working model of the hammer, with the self-acting gear, made at Patricroft, may be seen at South Kensington, together with an oil-painting by Nasmyth himself, representing the forging of a large shaft.

The fame of Nasmyth's great invention has tended to obscure his merits as a contriver of machine-tools. Though he was not the discoverer of what is known as the self-acting principle, in which the tool is held by an iron hand or vice while it is constrained to move in a definite direction by means of a slide, he saw very early in his career the importance of this principle. While in the employment of Maudslay he invented the nut-shaping machine, and in later years the Bridgewater foundry became famous for machine-tools of all kinds, of excellent workmanship and elegant design. He used to say that the artistic perception which he inherited from his father was of singular service to him. Many of these are figured and described in George Rennie's edition of Buchanan's ‘Essays on Millwork’ (1841), to which Nasmyth contributed a section on the introduction of the slide principle in tools and machines. Most of his workshop contrivances are included in the appendix to his ‘Autobiography.’ As far back as 1829 he invented a flexible shaft, consisting of a close-coiled spiral wire, for driving small drills. This has been re-invented several times since, and is now in general use by dentists as a supposed American contrivance. He seems also to have been the first to suggest the use of a submerged chain for towing boats on rivers and canals. He proposed the use of chilled cast-iron shot at a meeting of the British Association at Cambridge in 1862, some months before Palliser took out his patent in May 1863. Having been requested by Faraday to furnish some striking example of the power of machinery in overcoming resistance to penetration, he contrived a rough hydraulic punching-machine, by which he was enabled to punch a hole through a block of iron five inches thick. This was exhibited by Faraday at one of his lectures at the Royal Institution. Subsequently Nasmyth communicated his ideas to Sir Charles Fox, of Fox, Henderson, & Co., and a machine was constructed for punching by hydraulic power the holes in the links of a chain bridge then being constructed by the firm.

From a very early age he took great interest in astronomy, and in 1827 he constructed with his own hands a very effective reflecting telescope of six inches diameter. His first appearance as a writer on the subject was in 1843, when he contributed a paper on the train of the great comet to the ‘Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society’ (v. 270). This was followed in 1846 by one on the telescopic appearance of the moon (Mem. Royal Astron. Soc. xv. 147). The instrument with which most of his work was done was a telescope with a speculum of twenty inches diameter, mounted on a turntable according to a plan of his own invention, the object being viewed through one of the trunnions, which was made hollow for that purpose. He devoted himself more particularly to a study of the moon's surface, and made a series of careful drawings, which he sent to the exhibition of 1851, and for which he received a prize medal. In 1874 he published, in conjunction with James Carpenter, an elaborate work under the title of ‘The Moon considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite.’ This work embodied the results of many years' observations, and its object was to give ‘a rational explanation of the surface details of the moon which should be in accordance with the generally received theory of planetary formation.’ The illustrations consist of photographs taken from carefully constructed models placed in strong sunlight, which give a better idea of the telescopic aspect of the moon than photographs taken direct. He was the first to observe in June 1860 a peculiar mottled appearance of the sun's surface, to which he gave the name of ‘willow leaves,’ but which other observers prefer to call ‘rice grains.’ He communicated an account of this phenomenon to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester in 1861 (Memoirs, 3rd ser. i. 407). The discovery attracted much attention at the time, and gave rise to considerable discussion; but no satisfactory explanation of the willow leaves has yet been propounded.

In 1856 he retired from business, and settled at Penshurst, Kent, where he purchased the house formerly belonging to F. R. Lee, R.A. This he named Hammerfield, from his ‘hereditary regard for hammers, two broken hammer-shafts having been the crest of the family for hundreds of years.’ He died at Bailey's Hotel, South Kensington, on 7 May 1890. Nasmyth married, on 16 June 1840, Miss Hartop, daughter of the manager of Earl Fitzwilliam's ironworks near Barnsley.

[James Nasmyth: an Autobiography, ed. Smiles, 1883; Griffin's Contemporary Biog. in Addit. MS. 28511, f. 212. A list of his scientific papers is given in the Royal Soc. Cat., and his various patents are described in the Engineer, 16 and 23 May 1890.]

R. B. P.