Penn, John (1805-1878) (DNB00)

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PENN, JOHN (1805–1878), engineer, son of John Penn (1770–1843), was born at Greenwich in 1805, and was apprenticed to his father.

The father was born near Taunton in 1770, and was apprenticed to a millwright at Bridgwater. He afterwards found employment at Bristol, and removed to London about 1793. In 1800 he started in business as a millwright at Greenwich, where he soon acquired a reputation for the construction of flour-mills, in which he made many improvements, chief among them being the introduction of cast iron in place of wood as a material for the framing. The first treadmill, designed by William Cubitt, was made at Greenwich by Penn about 1817 [see Cubitt, William]. He was employed about 1824 by Jacob Perkins in carrying out his plans for the construction of a steam gun. In 1825 he began to turn his attention to marine engines, for which he and his successors subsequently obtained a high reputation. The first marine engine made by him was that for the Ipswich, a steamer running from London to Norwich. In 1838 he directed his attention to the oscillating engine, patented by Aaron Manby in 1821 [see Manby, Aaron], which he greatly improved. A boat running between London and Richmond was fitted with a pair of oscillating engines in 1821, and a large number of engines of that type have since been employed. He was very fond of horticulture, and was the inventor of many improvements in conservatories and forcing-houses. He died suddenly, at Lewisham, on 6 June 1843.

The son, John Penn, became an excellent workman, and when quite young seems to have taken a leading part in his father's manufactory, so that it is sometimes difficult to determine the share of the father and son in the many improvements introduced by the firm of John Penn & Sons, as it eventually became. When scarcely of age he was entrusted with the construction of Perkins's steam gun, which he exhibited in action to the Duke of Wellington and a number of officers of the ordnance. Penn afterwards took the gun to Paris, where he remained for three months. Prior to the death of his father he had practically assumed charge of the manufactory, and in 1844 he fitted the admiralty yacht Black Eagle with the improved oscillating engines mentioned above, which were afterwards fitted in warships. The introduction of the screw-propeller brought a large increase in business, and up to the time of Penn's death the firm had engined 735 vessels, including many line-of-battle ships. His method of lining the sea-bearings of screw-propellers with lignum-vitæ, patented in 1854 (No. 2114), was of the greatest importance, and is in constant use at the present time.

He was elected associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1826, member in 1845, and he was a member of the council from 1853 to 1856. He was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1858–1859, and again in 1867–8. He contributed several papers to the ‘Proceedings’ of the last-named society. In 1859 he was elected fellow of the Royal Society.

He retired from business in 1875, and died at the Cedars, Lee, Kent, on 23 Sept. 1878. Penn married, in 1847, Ellen, daughter of William English of Enfield. His eldest son, John (1848–1903), was M.P. for Lewisham from 1891.

[Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, iii. 13, lix. 298; Engineer, 27 Sept. 1878, pp. 229, 242; Engineering, 11 Oct. 1878, p. 300.]

R. B. P.