Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Lowe, James (d.1866)

LOWE, JAMES (d. 1866), a claimant to the invention of the screw-propeller, was apprenticed on 2 Nov. 1813 to Edward Shorter, a master mechanic and a freeman of the city of London, who had in 1800 taken out a patent for propelling vessels, which he had named ‘the perpetual sculling machine.’ In 1816 Lowe ran away and joined a whaling ship named the Amelia Wilson, but after three voyages returned to his master. Later on he commenced business as mechanist and a smoke-jack maker, and henceforth occupied his spare time in experimenting on screw-propellers for ships. On 24 March 1838 he took out a patent, No. 7599, for ‘improvements in propelling vessels’ by means of one or more curved blades, set or fixed on a revolving shaft below the water-line of the vessel. His propeller was first practically used in the Wizard in 1838, and then in her majesty's steamships the Rattler and the Phœnix. On 16 Dec. 1844 he brought an action in the court of queen's bench against Penn & Co., engineers at Greenwich, for infringement of the patent. The evidence was contradictory, but it was shown that Lowe, although not the original inventor of propellers, was the inventor of a combination never before applied to the propulsion of vessels. This combination consisted of three parts, (1) a segment of a screw, (2) a segment of a screw applied below the watermark, so as to be totally immersed, (3) a segment of a screw applied on an axis below the water. The jury gave a verdict in his favour. On 19 Aug. 1852 he took out another patent, No. 14263, for his propeller. Lowe spent his wife's fortune of 3,000l. in his experiments, reduced himself to poverty, and never succeeded in obtaining any compensation for the use of his invention. On 12 Oct. 1866 he was run over by a wagon in the Blackfriars Road, London, and killed. He married, on 30 May 1825, the eldest daughter of Mr. Barnes of Ewell, Surrey. She died in 1872. Her daughter, Henrietta, who in July 1855 married Frederick Vansittart, of the 14th light dragoons, continued her father's experiments, and on 18 Sept. 1868 took out a patent, No. 2877, for a further improvement, which she called ‘the Lowe-Vansittart propeller.’ This was fitted to many government ships, and was found to be a valuable invention.

[Lowe v. Penn, in the Times, 17 Dec. 1844, p. 5; Mechanic's Mag. 1844, xli. 443, 461; Times, 24 Dec. 1869, p. 10; Morning Advertiser, 16 Oct. 1886, p. 3; Gent. Mag. November 1866, p. 705; History of the Lowe-Vansittart Propeller, by Mrs. H. Vansittart, 1882.]

G. C. B.