Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Brindley, James
BRINDLEY, JAMES (1716–1772), one of the earliest English engineers, was the son of a cottier, or small farmer, of Derbyshire. Dr. Smiles, from whose biographical notice much of the following account is taken, describes Brindley the elder as an idle, dissolute fellow, who neglected his children, and passed his time at bull-baiting and such-like amusements when he ought to have been at work. Like many other remarkable men, however, James Brindley had a wise and careful mother. At the age of seventeen he was apprenticed to one Abraham Bennett, a millwright, or as he would now be termed an engineer, of Sutton, near Macclesfield. Strangely enough, he seems for some time to have had the credit of being but a poor workman, so much so that his master even threatened to cancel his indentures and send him back to the field-work for which alone he was fitted. His talents were, however, called out by some special jobs of repairing machinery, and the occasion of the erection of a paper-mill with certain novel arrangements gave him an opportunity of exercising the mechanical skill he was not suspected of possessing, and led to his being placed in charge of his master's shop. On Bennett's death Brindley, whose apprenticeship had previously been completed, wound up the business and in 1742 moved from Macclesfield to Leek. Here he obtained before long a good business in repairing old machinery of all kinds and setting up new. The Wedgwoods, then small potters, employed him to construct flint-mills for grinding the calcined flint employed for glazing pottery, and, like all the engineers of his time, he tried his hand at the solution of the great problem of clearing mines from water, a problem not to be solved till the perfected steam-engine provided the power alone able to meet the difficulty. His attempts (patented in 1758) to improve Newcomen's steam-engine met with but small success, but he introduced numerous and important improvements in the various sorts of machinery he had to repair or to construct.
The great reputation of Brindley, however, was gained in civil, not in mechanical, engineering. Having been called in by the Duke of Bridgewater in 1759 to advise upon the project for forming a canal by which the produce of the Worsley coal-mines could be cheaply transported to Manchester, he produced a plan of striking originality, including the construction of an aqueduct by which the canal was to be carried over the river Irwell. This canal, suggested to the Duke of Bridgewater by the Grand Canal of Languedoc, was the first of any importance in England, and formed the commencement of the system of inland navigation in this country. Brindley's next work was the Bridgewater Canal connecting Manchester and Liverpool, and this was soon followed by numerous others, a full account of which will be found in Dr. Smiles's biography, as well as in other lives of Brindley to which reference is made below. In all he seems to have laid out, or superintended, the construction of over 365 miles of canals. The most important of these was the Trent and Mersey canal, known as the Grand Trunk. He remained to the last illiterate, hardly able to write and quite unable to spell. He did most of his work in his head, without written calculations or drawings, and when he had a puzzling bit of work he would go to bed and think it out. He had wonderful powers of observation, and a sort of intuitive perception which enabled him at once to grasp both the difficulties and the possibilities of an engineering project, before a survey was made or an estimate prepared.
[Smiles's Lives of the Engineers, 1861-2, vol. i.; J. Brindley and the Early Engineers, 1864; Memoir of Brindley by Samuel Hughes in Weale's Quarterly Papers on Engineering, 1844, i. 50; Kippis's Biog. Brit. art. 'Brindley.']