Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Symington, William (1763-1831)

647336Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 55 — Symington, William (1763-1831)1898Thomas Hudson Beare

SYMINGTON, WILLIAM (1763–1831), engineer, son of a miller who took charge of the machinery at Wanlockhead colliery, was born at Leadhills in October 1763. He was educated at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh, being intended for the ministry. His own inclinations, however, led him to adopt the profession of civil engineer. In conjunction with his brother he constructed in 1786 a working model of a steam road carriage. So much interest was aroused by this that young Symington proceeded to Edinburgh to try and develop it. On 5 June 1787 he took out a patent (No. 1610) for an improved form of steam engine, in which he obtained rotary motion by chains and ratchet wheels, and claimed a considerable economy as compared with Watt's engines. At this time Patrick Miller [q. v.] of Dalswinton was engaged on his scheme for propelling vessels by paddle-wheels. Acting on the suggestion of James Taylor (1753–1825) [q. v.], then tutor in his family, Miller determined to substitute steam power for the manual power of his early attempt. Taylor, who knew Symington, suggested that he should be employed to design a steam engine for this purpose. Miller consented, and it was arranged that the first attempt should be made on a small pleasure boat on Dalswinton loch. Symington got out his designs, and the small engines were made in Edinburgh by a brass-founder named Wall. The engine was on the lines of Symington's patent of 1787, and had cylinders four inches in diameter. The boat was tried on the loch with these engines propelling her paddles in October 1788, and was so far a success that Miller decided to carry out an experiment on a larger scale on the Forth and Clyde Canal.

Accordingly, under Symington's supervision, a larger set of engines, with eighteen-inch cylinders, was made by the Carron Company, and fitted to a boat which was tested in November 1789, and again in December 1789. A speed of seven miles an hour was attained. Miller, however, feeling convinced that Symington's engine was totally unfit for the purpose of driving paddles, on account of the clumsiness of the chain and ratchet-wheel system, and not meeting with any encouragement from James Watt, who was consulted, abandoned his experiments, and the boat was dismantled. In 1801 Lord Dundas, governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal Company, determined to make experiments on the possibility of using steam traction on that canal, and employed Symington to work out a scheme. Symington now realised that his engine of the patent of 1787 was quite unsuitable for the purpose; he accordingly, on 14 Oct. 1801, took out a second patent (No. 2544). In this patent he employed a piston-rod guided by rollers in a straight path, connected by a connecting rod to a crank attached directly to the paddle-wheel shaft, thus devising the system of working the paddle-wheel shaft which has been used ever since that date.

The engines were fitted to a tug-boat on the canal, the Charlotte Dundas, and were tried in March 1802. The boat travelled from Lock 20 to Port Dundas, a distance of nineteen and a half miles, against a strong head wind, in six hours, towing two barges. All her trials were in fact successful. Symington was then introduced to Francis Egerton, third duke of Bridgewater [q. v.], who was so impressed with the value of steam navigation that he ordered eight boats of similar design to the Charlotte Dundas.

The success of the Charlotte Dundas entitles Symington to the credit of devising the first steamboat fitted for practical use. It is possible that Jonathan Hulls [q. v.] constructed a working model before 1737. But if he did, his boat, like that of Patrick Miller, was nothing more than a curiosity, while the Charlotte Dundas was constructed on the same principles as the present-day steamship.

Symington returned to Scotland full of enthusiasm; but all his hopes and projects were destroyed by the death of his patron, the Duke of Bridgewater, on 8 March 1803, and the cancelling of the order for the eight steamboats. The Forth and Clyde Company also, alarmed at the risk of damage to the canal banks, laid up the Charlotte Dundas, and abandoned all further idea of employing steam power on their canal.

Symington was unable to obtain the necessary financial support to proceed with the venture. But although the invention found no favour in England at the time, it was taken up in America by Robert Fulton, who was on board the Charlotte Dundas in 1801. His vessel, the Clermont, was launched on the Hudson in 1807. In January 1812 Henry Bell's Comet began to ply on the Clyde, and from that time the success of steam navigation in Britain was assured. Meanwhile Symington drifted to London, a disappointed man. In 1825 he was given a grant of 100l. from the privy purse, and later on another of 50l., in recognition of his services to the cause of steam navigation; but his attempts to obtain an annuity were unavailing. He was subsequently given a small grant by the London steamboat proprietors.

He died on 22 March 1831, and was buried at St. Botolph in Aldgate. His first engine, made for the Dalswinton loch boat, is now in the South Kensington Museum.

[The Invention and Practice of Steam-Navigation by the late Patrick Miller, drawn up by his eldest son, Edinb. Phil. Mag. 1825; Woodcroft's Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation; Walker's Memoirs of Distinguished Men of Science, 1862.]

T. H. B.