Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/A few words on steam navigation

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
A few words on steam navigation
by Thomas Richard Guppy


To those who take an interest in observing the gigantic improvements which have taken place during the last eighty years in the history of steam navigation, no more favourable opportunity could be afforded than a visit to the department of the South Kensington Museum known as the “Museum of Patents,” in the centre of which are placed two steam engines, one being called “the parent engine of steam navigation,” the other being a model of the paddle engines of the Great Eastern. There they stand, side by side, the first and the last, the alpha and omega of this great branch of science, the model in the latter case being as large as the original engine in the former. There are other models around them showing the gradual march that has taken place in steam engine building; but these in no degree diminish the extraordinary contrast apparent between the two before-named machines, one of which was constructed in 1788, the other in 1857; the former rough, dirty, and with every mark of age and wear about it, but as a relic invaluable; the latter bright and new, and probably the finest specimen of modelling ever exhibited. Well, indeed, may each be placed (as they are) under a handsome damp-proof glass case, for well is each worthy of it.

The history of “the parent engine of steam navigation” is as follows.

About the year 1780 Patrick Miller, Esq., of Dalswinton, made a large number of experiments, the object of which was to demonstrate the value of his theory that double vessels or boats, having a paddle or paddles in the centre between the boats (which were connected) which should be worked by hand labour, could be propelled at a higher rate of speed than ordinary vessels with sails. At the time he was making these experiments, a gentleman named Mr. James Taylor was paying him a visit, and took great interest in them, and it is unquestionably to him that we are indebted for the application of the steam engine to navigation. The following account from the pen of Mr. Taylor himself will show how the idea first had its origin.

In the summer of 1786 I attended Mr. Miller repeatedly in his experiments with the double boat at Leith, which I then viewed as parties of pleasure and amusement. But, in the spring of 1787, a circumstance occurred which gave me a different opinion. Mr. Miller had engaged in a sailing-match with some gentlemen at Leith against a custom-house boat (a wherry), which was reckoned a first-rate sailer. A day was appointed, and I attended Mr. Miller. His was a double vessel, sixty feet deck, propelled by two wheels, turned by two men each. We left the harbour in the forenoon, and sailed about for some hours in the Frith; but the day falling calm, the custom-house boat could make but little way. We landed on Inchcolm, where we remained for some hours waiting for a breeze to spring up. This accordingly happened in the afternoon, and a very fine breeze from the west, and fair for the harbour of Leith, and we started at the same time for a fair run to the harbour. The double vessel beat by a few minutes. Being then young and stout, I took my share of the labour of the wheels, which I found very severe exercise; but it satisfied me that a proper power only was wanting to produce much utility from the invention. I was now led to converse with Mr. Miller on the subject, and I observed to him that unless he could apply a more commanding power than that of men I was afraid the invention would be of little use. He answered, “I am of the same opinion, and that power is just what I am in search of. My object is to add mechanical aid to the natural force of the wind, to enable vessels to avoid or extricate themselves from dangerous positions when they cannot do it on their present construction, and I wish also to give them powers of motion in a calm.” It became the daily subject of our conversation during leisure hours. We talked of many plans, but none of them satisfactory. At last, after beating over the whole system of mechanics, I said, “Mr. Miller, I can suggest no power equal to the steam engine, or so applicable to your purpose.” He expressed some surprise, and said, “That is a powerful agent, I allow, but will not answer my purpose, for when I wish chiefly to give aid—namely, in a heavy sea—the fires would be extinguished.” We continued our conversations, and frequently reverted to the steam engine. The more I thought of the business the more I became satisfied of the propriety of applying the steam engine, and in various conversations urged it, as at least worthy of attention for inland navigation, rivers, canals, &c., if not for the purposes of general navigation.[1]

Mr. Miller was at last induced to consider seriously Mr. Taylor’s plan, and they went together to Edinburgh, and applied to an operative engineer, and took an estimate for a small engine, Mr. Taylor taking on himself to see that it was constructed with the greatest care.

The maker of the engine was William Symington, a name well known, and much respected to this day. He had just invented a new kind of steam engine, for which he had taken letters patent, as “his new invented steam engine, on principles entirely new.” Of this Mr. Taylor saw a model, with which he was much pleased, and he accordingly introduced both Symington and his model to Mr. Miller, who at once engaged him to plan an engine for his double boat. This he shortly accomplished, and an engine was constructed (the castings being made by George Watt, founder, Edinburgh), and was mounted in a frame and placed on the deck of the boat. And now, after months of anxiety, the moment of triumph had arrived. The vessel moved delightfully, and although the cylinders were but four inches in diameter (those of the paddle-engines of the Great Eastern are 74), it was propelled at the rate of five miles an hour. That engine is the one now in the Museum of Patents. Its identity has been proved beyond the shadow of a doubt. It has been traced from the possession of Mr. Miller to that of his eldest son, who received it at his father’s death. In 1828 it was packed by him in a deal case, and sent to Messrs. Coutts and Co., bankers. Here it was kept till 1837, when it was removed to the warehouse of Messrs. Tilbury, High Street, Marylebone. Thence it was sent to Mr. Kenneth Mackenzie, of Queen Street, Edinburgh, who kept it for some time, and finally instructed his agent, Mr. Fraser, to sell it. It was accordingly sold by Mr. Fraser to the late Mr. William Kirkwood, of Edinburgh, who removed it from its framing, and threw it on one side, intending to melt it up for the sake of the metal. The death of Mr. Kirkwood, however, rescued this most interesting relic from its untimely fate, and it came into possession of the succeeding firm, Messrs. Kirkwood and Sons, from whom it was purchased for a small sum, and transferred to the Great Seal Patent Office in 1853. Being, however, in a somewhat dilapidated state, it was reinstated in a frame by Messrs. John Penn and Sons, and in January, 1857, was finally removed to its present home. There it stands in its integrity, a monument of anxiety rewarded and difficulties overcome. It has found a resting-place worthy of its great origin, and will doubtless prove an object of even greater interest to the generations which succeed us than it does to ourselves. All honour to those who have preserved it to the nation.

Turn we now our back upon it, and look on its neighbour. Can this magnificent and perfect piece of machinery be a descendant of the crude engine we but now beheld? Do they belong to the same family? Even so it is, though the mere model of the child is larger than the “parent engine” itself, and cost in making eleven hundred and seventy pounds! Nearly twelve hundred pounds for a mere model! Examine it closely, however, and the conviction will come that it might well have cost more. Not a nut, not a screw, is wanting. It is indeed the perfection of model making, and is the work of Mr. Jabez James, the engineer, the engines being designed, as is well known, by Mr. Scott Russell. About the merits of the engines themselves there is still some discussion as to whether they have done all that was expected of them—but this is an open question which we leave to be discussed by others.

  1. From Woodcroft’s History of Steam Navigation.