Men of Invention and Industry/Chapter II

Men of Invention and Industry
by Samuel Smiles
(Chapter II: Francis Pettit Smith: Practical Introducer of the Screw Propeller)
29592Men of Invention and Industry — (Chapter II: Francis Pettit Smith: Practical Introducer of the Screw Propeller)Samuel Smiles

"The spirit of Paley's maxim that 'he alone discovers who proves,' is applicable to the history of inventions and discoveries; for certainly he alone invents to any good purpose, who satisfies the world that the means he may have devised have been found competent to the end proposed." — Dr. Samuel Brown.

"Too often the real worker and discoverer remains unknown, and an invention, beautiful but useless in one age or country, can be applied only in a remote generation, or in a distant land. Mankind hangs together from generation to generation; easy labour is but inherited skill; great discoveries and inventions are worked up to by the efforts of myriads ere the goal is reached." — H. M. Hyndman.

Though a long period elapsed between the times of Phineas Pett and "Screw" Smith, comparatively little improvement had been effected in the art of shipbuilding. The Sovereign of the Seas had not been excelled by any ship of war built down to the end of last century.[1] At a comparatively recent date, ships continued to be built of timber and plank, and impelled by sails and oars, as they had been for thousands of years before.

But this century has witnessed many marvellous changes. A new material of construction has been introduced into shipbuilding, with entirely new methods of propulsion. Old things have been displaced by new; and the magnitude of the results has been extraordinary. The most important changes have been in the use of iron and steel instead of wood, and in the employment of the steam-engine in impelling ships by the paddle or the screw.

So long as timber was used for the construction of ships, the number of vessels built annually, especially in so small an island as Britain, must necessarily have continued very limited. Indeed, so little had the cultivation of oak in Great Britain been attended to, that all the royal forests could not have supplied sufficient timber to build one line-of-battle ship annually; while for the mercantile marine, the world had to be ransacked for wood, often of a very inferior quality.

Take, for instance, the seventy-eight gun ship, the Hindostan, launched a few years ago. It would have required 4200 loads of timber to build a ship of that description, and the growth of the timber would have occupied seventy acres of ground during eighty years.[2] It would have needed something like 800,000 acres of land on which to grow the timber for the ships annually built in this country for commercial purposes. And timber ships are by no means lasting. The average durability of ships of war employed in active service, has been calculated to be about thirteen years, even when built of British oak.

Indeed, years ago, the building of shipping in this country was much hindered by the want of materials. The trade was being rapidly transferred to Canada and the United States. Some years since, an American captain said to an Englishman, Captain Hall, when in China, "You will soon have to come to our country for your ships: your little island cannot grow wood enough for a large marine." "Oh!" said the Englishman, "we can build ships of iron!" "Iron?" replied the American in surprise, "why, iron sinks; only wood can float!" "Well! you will find I am right." The prophecy was correct. The Englishman in question has now a fleet of splendid iron steamers at sea.

The use of iron in shipbuilding had small beginnings, like everything else. The established prejudice — that iron must necessarily sink in water — long continued to prevail against its employment. The first iron vessel was built and launched about a hundred years since by John Wilkinson, of Bradley Forge, in Staffordshire. In a letter of his, dated the 14th July, 1787, the original of which we have seen, he writes: "Yesterday week my iron boat was launched. It answers all my expectations, and has convinced the unbelievers, who were 999 in 1000. It will be only a nine days' wonder, and afterwards a Columbus's egg." It was, however, more than a nine days' wonder; for wood long continued to be thought the only material capable of floating.

Although Wilkinson's iron vessels continued to ply upon the Severn, more than twenty years elapsed before another shipbuilder ventured to follow his example. But in 1810, Onions and Son, of Brosely, built several iron vessels, also for use upon the Severn. Then, in 1815, Mr. Jervons, of Liverpool, built a small iron boat for use on the Mersey. Six years later, in 1821, Mr. Aaron Manby designed an iron steam vessel, which was built at the Horsley Company's Works, in Staffordshire. She sailed from London to Havre a few years later, under the command of Captain (afterwards Sir Charles) Napier, RN. She was freighted with a cargo of linseed and iron castings, and went up the Seine to Paris. It was some time, however, before iron came into general use. Ten years later, in 1832, Maudslay and Field built four iron vessels for the East India Company. In the course of about twenty years, the use of iron became general, not only for ships of war, but for merchant ships plying to all parts of the world.

When ships began to be built of iron, it was found that they could be increased without limit, so long as coal, iron, machinery, and strong men full of skill and industry, were procurable. The trade in shipbuilding returned to Britain, where iron ships are now made and exported in large numbers; the mercantile marine of this country exceeding in amount and tonnage that of all the other countries of the world put together. The "wooden walls"[3] of England exist no more, for iron has superseded wood. Instead of constructing vessels from the forest, we are now digging new navies out of the bowels of the earth, and our "walls," instead of wood, are now of iron and steel.

The attempt to propel ships by other means than sails and oars went on from century to century, and did not succeed until almost within our own time. It is said that the Roman army under Claudius Codex was transported into Sicily in boats propelled by wheels moved by oxen. Galleys, propelled by wheels in paddles, were afterwards attempted. The Harleian MS. contains an Italian book of sketches, attributed to the 15th century, in which there appears a drawing of a paddle-boat, evidently intended to be worked by men. Paddle-boats, worked by horse-power, were also tried. Blasco Garay made a supreme effort at Barcelona in 1543. His vessel was propelled by a paddle-wheel on each side, worked by forty men. But nothing came of the experiment.

Many other efforts of a similar kind were made, — by Savery among others,[4] — until we come down to Patrick Miller, of Dalswinton, who, in 1787, invented a double-hulled boat, which he caused to be propelled on the Firth of Forth by men working a capstan which drove the paddles on each side. The men soon became exhausted, and on Miller mentioning the subject to William Symington, who was then exhibiting his road locomotive in Edinburgh, Symington at once said, "Why don't you employ steam-power?"

There were many speculations in early times as to the application of steam-power for propelling vessels through the water. David Ramsay in 1618, Dr. Grant in 1632, the Marquis of Worcester in 1661, were among the first in England to publish their views upon the subject. But it is probable that Denis Papin, the banished Hugnenot physician, for some time Curator of the Royal Society, was the first who made a model steam-boat. Daring his residence in England, he was elected Professor of Mathematics in the University of Marburg. It was while at that city that he constructed, in 1707, a small steam-engine, which he fitted in a boat — une petite machine d'un, vaisseau à roues — and despatched it to England for the purpose of being tried upon the Thames. The little vessel never reached England. At Munden, the boatmen on the River Weser, thinking that, if successful, it would destroy their occupation, seized the boat, with its machine, and barbarously destroyed it. Papin did not repeat his experiment, and died a few years later.

The next inventor was Jonathan Hulls, of Campden, in Gloucestershire. He patented a steamboat in 1736, and worked the paddle-wheel placed at the stern of the vessel by means of a Newcomen engine. He tried his boat on the River Avon, at Evesham, but it did not succeed, and the engine was taken on shore again. A local poet commemorated his failure in the following lines, which were remembered long after his steamboat experiment had been forgotten: —

"Jonathan Hull,
With his paper skull,

Tried hard to make a machine

That should go against wind and tide;

But he, like an ass,
Couldn't bring it to pass,

So at last was ashamed to be seen."

Nothing of importance was done in the direction of a steam-engine able to drive paddles, until the invention by James Watt, in 1769, of his double-acting engine — the first step by which steam was rendered capable of being successfully used to impel a vessel. But Watt was indifferent to taking up the subject of steam navigation, as well as of steam locomotion. He refused many invitations to make steam-engines for the propulsion of ships, preferring to confine himself to his "regular established trade and manufacture," that of making condensing steam-engines, which had become of great importance towards the close of his life.

Two records exist of paddle-wheel steamboats having been early tried in France — one by the Comte d'Auxiron and M. Perrier in 1774, the other by the Comte de Jouffroy in 1783 — but the notices of their experiments are very vague, and rest on somewhat doubtful authority.

The idea, however, had been born, and was not allowed to die. When Mr. Miller of Dalswinton had revived the notion of propelling vessels by means of paddle-wheels, worked, as Savery had before worked them, by means of a capstan placed in the centre of the vessel, and when he complained to Symington of the fatigue caused to the men by working the capstan, and Symington had suggested the use of steam, Mr. Miller was impressed by the idea, and proceeded to order a steam-engine for the purpose of trying the experiment. The boat was built at Edinburgh, and removed to Dalswinton Lake. It was there fitted with Symington's steam-engine, and first tried with success on the 14th of October, 1788, as has been related at length in Mr. Nasmyth's 'Autobiography.' The experiment was repeated with even greater success in the Charlotte Dundas in 1801, which was used to tow vessels along the Forth and Clyde Canal, and to bring ships up the Firth of Forth to the canal entrance at Grangemouth.

The progress of steam navigation was nevertheless very slow. Symington's experiments were not renewed. The Charlotte Dundas was withdrawn from use, because of the supposed injury to the banks of the Canal, caused by the swell from the wheel. The steamboat was laid up in a creek at Bainsford, where it went to ruin, and the inventor himself died in poverty. Among those who inspected the vessel while at work were Fulton, the American artist, and Henry Bell, the Glasgow engineer. The former had already occupied himself with model steamboats, both at Paris and in London; and in 1805 he obtained from Boulton and Watt, of Birmingham, the steam-engine required for propelling his paddle steamboat on the Hudson. The Clermont was first started in August, 1807, and attained a speed of nearly five miles an hour. Five years later, Henry Bell constructed and tried his first steamer on the Clyde.

It was not until 1815 that the first steamboat was seen on the Thames. This was the Richmond packet, which plied between London and Richmond. The vessel was fitted with the first marine engine Henry Maudslay ever made. During the same year, the Margery, formerly employed on the Firth of Forth, began plying between Gravesend and London; and the Thames, formerly the Argyll, came round from the Clyde, encountering rough seas, and making the voyage of 758 miles in five days and two hours. This was thought extraordinarily rapid — though the voyage of about 3000 miles, from Liverpool to New York, can now be made in only about two days' more time.

In nearly all seagoing vessels, the Paddle has now almost entirely given place to the Screw. It was long before this invention was perfected and brought into general use. It was not the production of one man, but of several generations of mechanical inventors. A perfected invention does not burst forth from the brain like a poetic thought or a fine resolve. It has to be initiated, laboured over, and pursued in the face of disappointments, difficulties, and discouragements.

Sometimes the idea is born in one generation, followed out in the next, and perhaps perfected in the third. In an age of progress, one invention merely paves the way for another. What was the wonder of yesterday, becomes the common and unnoticed thing of to-day.

The first idea of the screw was thrown out by James Watt more than a century ago. Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham, had proposed to move canal boats by means of the steam-engine; and Dr. Small, his friend, was in communication with James Watt, then residing at Glasgow, on the subject. In a letter from Watt to Small, dated the 30th September, 1770, the former, after speaking of the condenser, and saying that it cannot be dispensed with, proceeds: "Have you ever considered a spiral oar for that purpose [propulsion of canal boats], or are you for two wheels?" Watt added a pen-and-ink drawing of his spiral oar, greatly resembling the form of screw afterwards patented. Nothing, however, was actually done, and the idea slept.

It was revived again in 1785, by Joseph Bramah, a wonderful projector and inventor.[5] He took out a patent, which included a rotatory steam-engine, and a mode of propelling vessels by means either of a paddle-wheel or a "screw propeller." This propeller was "similar to the fly of a smoke-jack"; but there is no account of Bramah having practically tried this method of propulsion.

Austria, also, claims the honour of the invention of the screw steamer. At Trieste and Vienna are statues erected to Joseph Ressel, on whose behalf his countrymen lay claim to the invention; and patents for some sort of a screw date back as far as 1794.

Patents were also taken out in England and America--by W. Lyttleton in 1794; by E. Shorter in 1799; by J. C. Stevens, of New Jersey, in 1804; by Henry James in 1811 — but nothing practical was accomplished. Richard Trevethick, the anticipator of many things, also took out a patent in 1815, and in it he describes the screw propeller with considerable minuteness. Millington, Whytock, Perkins, Marestier, and Brown followed, with no better results.

The late Dr. Birkbeck, in a letter addressed to the 'Mechanics' Register,' in the year 1824, claimed that John Swan, of 82, Mansfield Street, Kingsland Road, London, was the practical inventor of the screw propeller. John Swan was a native of Coldingham, Berwickshire. He had removed to London, and entered the employment of Messrs. Gordon, of Deptford. Swan fitted up a boat with his propeller, and tried it on a sheet of water in the grounds of Charles Gordon, Esq., of Dulwich Hill. "The velocity and steadiness of the motion," said Dr. Birkbeck in his letter, "so far exceeded that of the same model when impelled by paddle-wheels driven by the same spring, that I could not doubt its superiority; and the stillness of the water was such as to give the vessel the appearance of being moved by some magical power."

Then comes another claimant — Mr. Robert Wilson, then of Dunbar (not far from Coldingham), but afterwards of the Bridgewater Foundry, Patricroft. In his pamphlet, published a few years ago, he states that he had long considered the subject, and in 1827 he made a small model, fitted with "revolving skulls," which he tried on a sheet of water in the presence of the Hon. Capt. Anthony Maitland, son of the Earl of Lauderdale. The experiment was successful — so successful, that when the "stern paddles" were in 1828 used at Leith in a boat twenty-five feet long, with two men to work the machinery, the boat was propelled at an average speed of about ten miles an hour; and the Society of Arts afterwards, in October, 1882, awarded Mr. Wilson their silver medal for the "description, drawing, and models of stern paddles for propelling steamboats, invented by him." The subject was, in 1833, brought by Sir John Sinclair under the consideration of the Board of Admiralty; but the report of the officials (Oliver Lang, Abethell, Lloyd, and Kingston) was to the effect that "the plan proposed (independent of practical difficulties) is objectionable, as it involves a greater loss of power than the common mode of applying the wheels to the side." And here ended the experiment, so far as Mr. Wilson's "stern paddles" were concerned.

It will be observed, from what has been said, that the idea of a screw propeller is a very old one. Watt, Bramah, Trevethick, and many more, had given descriptions of the screw. Trevethick schemed a number of its forms and applications, which have been the subject of many subsequent patents. It has been so with many inventions. It is not the man who gives the first idea of a machine who is entitled to the merit of its introduction, or the man who repeats the idea, and re-repeats it, but the man who is so deeply impressed with the importance of the discovery, that he insists upon its adoption, will take no denial, and at the risk of fame and fortune, pushes through all opposition, and is determined that what he thinks he has discovered shall not perish for want of a fair trial. And that this was the case with the practical introducer of the screw propeller will be obvious from the following statement.

Francis Pettit Smith was born at Hythe, in the county of Kent, in 1808. His father was postmaster of the town, and a person of much zeal and integrity. The boy was sent to school at Ashford, and there received a fair amount of education, under the Rev. Alexander Power. Young Smith displayed no special characteristic except a passion for constructing models of boats. When he reached manhood, he adopted the business of a grazing farmer on Romney Marsh. He afterwards removed to Hendon, north of London, where he had plenty of water on which to try his model boats. The reservoir of the Old Welsh Harp was close at hand — a place famous for its water-birds and wild fowl.

Smith made many models of boats, his experiments extending over many years. In 1834, he constructed a boat propelled by a wooden screw driven by a spring, the performance of which was thought extraordinary. Where he had got his original idea is not known. It was floating about in many minds, and was no special secret. Smith, however, arrived at the conclusion that his method of propelling steam vessels by means of a screw was much superior to paddles — at that time exclusively employed. In the following year, 1835, he constructed a superior model, with which he performed a number of experiments at Hendon. In May 1836, he took out a patent for propelling vessels by means of a screw revolving beneath the water at the stern. He then openly exhibited his invention at the Adelaide Gallery in London. Sir John Barrow, Secretary to the Admiralty, inspected the model, and was much impressed by its action. During the time it was publicly exhibited, an offer was made to purchase the invention for the Pacha of Egypt; but the offer was declined.

At this stage of his operations, Smith was joined by Mr. Wright, banker, and Mr. C. A. Caldwell, who had the penetration to perceive that the invention was one of much promise, and were desirous of helping its introduction to general use. They furnished Smith with the means of constructing a more complete model. In the autumn of 1836, a small steam vessel of 10 tons burthen and six horse-power was built, further to test the advantages of the invention. This boat was fitted with a wooden screw of two whole turns. On the 1st of November the vessel was exhibited to the public on the Paddington Canal, as well as on the Thames, where she continued to ply until the month of September 1837.

During the trips upon the Thames, a happy accident occurred, which first suggested the advantage of reducing the length of the screw. The propeller having struck upon some obstacle in the water, about one-half of the length of the screw was broken off, and it was found that; the vessel immediately shot ahead and attained a much greater speed than before. In consequence of this discovery, a new screw of a single turn was fitted to her, after which she was found to work much better.

Having satisfied himself as to the eligibility of the propeller in smooth water, Mr. Smith then resolved to take his little vessel to the open sea, and breast the winds and the waves. Accordingly, one Saturday in the month of September 1837, he proceeded in his miniature boat, down the river, from Blackwall to Gravesend. There he took a pilot on board, and went on to Ramsgate. He passed through the Downs, and reached Dover in safety. A trial of the vessel's performance was made there in the presence of Mr. Wright, the banker, and Mr. Peake, the civil engineer. From Dover the vessel went on to Folkestone and Hythe, encountering severe weather. Nevertheless, the boat behaved admirably, and attained a speed of over seven miles an hour.

Though the weather had become stormy and boisterous, the little vessel nevertheless set out on her return voyage to London. Crowds of people assembled to witness her departure, and many nautical men watched her progress with solicitude as she steamed through the waves under the steep cliffs of the South Foreland. The courage of the undertaking, and the unexpected good performance of the little vessel, rendered her an object of great interest and excitement as she "screwed" her way along the coast.

The tiny vessel reached her destination in safety. Surely the difficulty of a testing trial, although with a model screw, had at length been overcome. But no! The paddle still possessed the ascendency; and a thousand interests — invested capital, use and wont, and conservative instincts — all stood in the way.

Some years before — indeed, about the time that Smith took out his patent — Captain Ericsson, the Swede, invented a screw propeller. Smith took out his patent in May, 1836; and Ericsson in the following July. Ericsson was a born inventor. While a boy in Sweden, he made saw mills and pumping engines, with tools invented by himself. He learnt to draw, and his mechanical career began. When only twelve years old, he was appointed a cadet in the Swedish corps of mechanical engineers, and in the following year he was put in charge of a section of the Gotha Ship Canal, then under construction. Arrived at manhood, Ericsson went over to England, the great centre of mechanical industry. He was then twenty-three years old. He entered into partnership with John Braithwaite, and with him constructed the Novelty, which took part in the locomotive competition at Rainhill on the 6th October, 1829. The prize was awarded to Stephenson's Rocket on the 14th; but it was acknowledged by The Times of the day that the Novelty was Stephenson's sharpest competitor.

Ericsson had a wonderfully inventive brain, a determined purpose, and a great capacity for work. When a want was felt, he was immediately ready with an invention. The records of the Patent Office show his incessant activity. He invented pumping engines, steam engines, fire engines, and caloric engines. His first patent for a "reciprocating propeller" was taken out in October 1834. To exhibit its action, he had a small boat constructed of only about two feet long. It was propelled by means of a screw; and was shown at work in a circular bath in London. It performed its voyage round the basin at the rate of about three miles an hour. His patent for a "spiral propeller," was taken out in July 1836. This was the invention, to exhibit which he had a vessel constructed, of about 40 feet long, with two propellers, each of 5 feet 3 inches diameter.

This boat, the Francis B. Ogden, proved extremely successful. She moved at a speed of about ten miles an hour. She was able to tow vessels of 140 tons burthen at the rate of seven miles an hour. Perceiving the peculiar and admirable fitness of the screw-propeller for ships of war, Ericsson invited the Lords of the Admiralty to take an excursion in tow of his experimental boat. "My Lords" consented; and the Admiralty barge contained on this occasion, Sir Charles Adam, senior Lord, Sir William Symonds, surveyor, Sir Edward Parry, of Polar fame, Captain Beaufort, hydrographer, and other men of celebrity. This distinguished company embarked at Somerset House, and the little steamer, with her precious charge, proceeded down the river to Limehouse at the rate of about ten miles an hour. After visiting the steam-engine manufactory of Messrs. Seawood, where their Lordships' favourite apparatus, the Morgan paddle-wheel, was in course of construction, they re-embarked, and returned in safety to Somerset House.

The experiment was perfectly successful, and yet the result was disappointment. A few days later, a letter from Captain Beaufort informed Mr. Ericsson that their Lordships had certainly been "very much disappointed with the result of the experiment." The reason for the disappointment was altogether inexplicable to the inventor. It afterwards appeared, however, that Sir William Symonds, then Surveyor to the Navy, had expressed the opinion that "even if the propeller had the power of propelling a vessel, it would be found altogether useless in practice, because the power being applied at the stern, it would be absolutely impossible to make the vessel steer!" It will be remembered that Francis Pettit Smith's screw vessel went to sea in the course of the same year; and not only faced the waves, but was made to steer in a perfectly successful manner.

Although the Lords of the Admiralty would not further encourage the screw propeller of Ericsson, an officer of the United States Navy, Capt. R. F. Stockton, was so satisfied of its success, that after making a single trip in the experimental steamboat from London Bridge to Greenwich, he ordered the inventor to build for him forthwith two iron boats for the United States, with steam machinery and a propeller on the same plan. One of these vessels — the Robert F. Stockton — seventy feet in length, was constructed by Laird and Co., of Birkenhead, in 1838, and left England for America in April 1839. Capt. Stockton so fully persuaded Ericsson of his probable success in America, that the inventor at once abandoned his professional engagements in England, and set out for the United States. It is unnecessary to mention the further important works of this great engineer.

We may, however, briefly mention that in 1844, Ericsson constructed for the United States Government the Princeton screw steamer — though he was never paid for his time, labour, and expenditure.[6] Undeterred by their ingratitude, Ericsson nevertheless constructed for the same government, when in the throes of civil war, the famous Monitor, the iron-clad cupola vessel, and was similarly rewarded! He afterwards invented the torpedo ship — the Destroyer — the use of which has fortunately not yet been required in sea warfare. Ericsson still lives — constantly planning and scheming--in his house in Beach Street, New York. He is now over eighty years old having been born in 1803. He is strong and healthy. How has he preserved his vigorous constitution? The editor of Scribner gives the answer: "The hall windows of his house are open, winter and summer, and none but open grate-fires are allowed. Insomnia never troubles him, for he falls asleep as soon as his head touches the pillow. His appetite and digestion are always good, and he has not lost a meal in ten years. What an example to the men who imagine it is hard work that is killing them in this career of unremitting industry!"

To return to "Screw" Smith, after the successful trial of his little vessel at sea in the autumn of 1837. He had many difficulties yet to contend with. There was, first, the difficulty of a new invention, and the fact that the paddle-boat had established itself in public estimation. The engineering and shipbuilding world were dead against him. They regarded the project of propelling a vessel by means of a screw as visionary and preposterous. There was also the official unwillingness to undertake anything novel, untried, and contrary to routine. There was the usual shaking of the head and the shrugging of the shoulders, as if the inventor were either a mere dreamer or a projector eager to lay his hands upon the public purse. The surveyor of the navy was opposed to the plan, because of the impossibility of making a vessel steer which was impelled from the stern. "Screw" Smith bided his time; he continued undaunted, and was determined to succeed. He laboured steadily onward, maintaining his own faith unshaken, and upholding the faith of the gentlemen who had become associated with him in the prosecution of the invention.

At the beginning of 1838 the Lords of the Admiralty requested Mr. Smith to allow his vessel to be tried under their inspection. Two trials were accordingly made, and they gave so much satisfaction that the adoption of the propeller for naval purposes was considered as a not improbable contingency. Before deciding finally upon its adoption, the Lords of the Admiralty were anxious to see an experiment made with a vessel of not less than 200 tons. Mr. Smith had not the means of accomplishing this by himself, but with the improved prospects of the invention, capitalists now came to his aid. One of the most effective and energetic of these was Mr. Henry Currie, banker; and, with the assistance of others, the "Ship Propeller Company" was formed, and proceeded to erect the test ship proposed by the Admiralty.

The result was the Archimedes, a wooden vessel of 237 tons burthen. She was designed by Mr. Pasco, laid down by Mr. Wimshurst in the spring of 1838, was launched on the 18th of October following, and made her first trip in May 1839. She was fitted with a screw of one turn placed in the dead wood, and propelled by a pair of engines of 80-horse power. The vessel was built under the persuasion that her performance would be considered satisfactory if a speed was attained of four or five knots an hour, where as her actual speed was nine and a half knots. The Lords of the Admiralty were invited to inspect the ship. At the second trial Sir Edward Parry, Sir William Symonds, Captain Basil Hall, and other distinguished persons were present. The results were again satisfactory. The success of the Archimedes astonished the engineering world. Even the Surveyor of the Royal Navy found that the vessel could steer! The Lords of the Admiralty could no longer shut their eyes. But the invention could not at once be adopted. It must be tested by the best judges. The vessel was sent to Dover to be tried with the best packets between Dover and Calais. Mr. Lloyd, the chief engineer of the Navy, conducted the investigation, and reported most favourably as to the manner of her performance. Yet several years elapsed before the screw was introduced into the service.

In 1840 the Archimedes was placed at the disposal of Captain Chappell, of the Royal Navy, who, accompanied by Mr. Smith, visited every principal port in Great Britain. She was thus seen by shipowners, marine engineers, and shipbuilders in every part of the kingdom. They regarded her with wonder and admiration; yet the new mode of navigation was not speedily adopted. The paddle-wheel still held its own. The sentiment, if not the plant and capital, of the engineering world, were against the introduction of the screw. After the vessel had returned from her circumnavigation of Great Britain, she was sent to Oporto, and performed the voyage in sixty-eight and a half hours, then held to be the quickest voyage on record. She was then sent to the Texel at the request of the Dutch Government. She went through the North Holland Canal, visited Amsterdam, Antwerp, and other ports; and everywhere left the impression that the screw was an efficient and reliable power in the propulsion of vessels at sea.

Shipbuilders, however, continued to "fight shy" of the screw. The late Isambard Kingdon Brunel is entitled to the credit of having first directed the attention of shipbuilders to this important invention. He was himself a man of original views, free from bias, and always ready to strike out a fresh path in engineering works. He was building a large new iron steamer at Bristol, the Great Britain, for passenger traffic between England and America. He had intended to construct her as a paddle steamer; but hearing of the success of the Archimedes, he inspected the vessel, and was so satisfied with the performance of the screw that he recommended his directors to adopt this method for propelling the Great Britain. His advice was adopted, and the vessel was altered so as to adapt her for the reception of the screw. The vessel was found perfectly successful, and on her first voyage to London she attained the speed of ten knots an hour, though the wind and balance of tides were against her. A few other merchant ships were built and fitted with the screw; the Princess Royal at Newcastle in 1840, the Margaret and Senator at Hull, and the Great Northern at Londonderry, in 1841.

The Lords of the Admiralty made slow progress in adapting the screw for the Royal Navy. Sir William Symonds, the surveyor and principal designer of Her Majesty's ships, was opposed to all new projects. He hated steam power, and was utterly opposed to iron ships. He speaks of them in his journal as "monstrous."[7] So long as he remained in office everything was done in a perfunctory way. A small vessel named the Bee was built at Chatham in 1841, and fitted with both paddles and the screw for the purposes of experiment. In the same year the Rattier, the first screw vessel built for the navy, was laid down at Sheerness. Although of only 888 tons burthen, she was not launched until the spring of 1843. She was then fitted with the same kind of screw as the Archimedes, that is, a double-headed screw of half a convolution. Experiments went on for about three years, so as to determine the best proportions of the screw, and the proportions then ascertained have since been the principal guides of engineering practice.

The Rattler was at length tried in a water tournament with the paddle-steamer Alecto, and signally defeated her. Francis Pettit Smith, like Gulliver, may be said to have dragged the whole British fleet after him. Were the paddle our only means of propulsion, our whole naval force would be reduced to a nullity. Hostile gunners would wing a paddle-steamer as effectually as a sportsman wings a bird, and all the plating in the world would render such a ship a mere helpless log on the water.

The Admiralty could no longer defer the use of this important invention. Like all good things, it made its way slowly and by degrees. The royal naval authorities, who in 1833 backed the side paddles, have since adopted the screw in most of the ships-of-war. In all long sea-going voyages, also, the screw is now the favourite mode of propulsion. Screw ships of prodigious size are now built and launched in all the ship-building ports of Britain, and are sent out to navigate in every part of the world.

The introduction of iron as the material for shipbuilding has immensely advanced the interests of steam navigation, as it enables the builders to construct vessels of great size with the finest lines, so as to attain the highest rates of speed.

One might have supposed that Francis Pettit Smith would derive some substantial benefit from his invention, or at least that the Ship Propeller Company would distribute large dividends among their proprietors. Nothing of the kind. Smith spent his money, his labour, and his ingenuity in conferring a great public benefit without receiving any adequate reward; and the company, instead of distributing dividends, lost about 50,000L. in introducing this great invention; after which, in 1856, the patent-right expired. Three hundred and twenty-seven ships and vessels of all classes in the Royal Navy had then been fitted with the screw propeller, and a much larger number in the merchant service; but since that time the number of screw propellers constructed is to be counted by thousands.

In his comparatively impoverished condition it was found necessary to do something for the inventor. The Civil Engineers, with Robert Stephenson, M.P., in the chair, entertained him at a dinner and presented him with a handsome salver and claret jug. And that he might have something to put upon his salver and into his claret jug, a number of his friends and admirers subscribed over 2000L. as a testimonial. The Government appointed him Curator of the Patent Museum at South Kensington; the Queen granted him a pension on the Civil List for 200L. a year; he was raised to the honour of knighthood in l87l, and three years later he died.

Francis Pettit Smith was not a great inventor. He had, like many others, invented a screw propeller. But, while those others had given up the idea of prosecuting it to its completion, Smith stuck to his invention with determined tenacity, and never let it go until he had secured for it a complete triumph. As Mr. Stephenson observed at the engineer's meeting: "Mr. Smith had worked from a platform which might have been raised by others, as Watt had done, and as other great men had done; but he had made a stride in advance which was almost tantamount to a new invention.

It was impossible to overrate the advantages which this and other countries had derived from his untiring and devoted patience in prosecuting the invention to a successful issue." Baron Charles Dupin compared the farmer Smith with the barber Arkwright: "He had the same perseverance and the same indomitable courage. These two moral qualities enabled him to triumph over every obstacle." This was the merit of "Screw" Smith — that he was determined to realize what his predecessors had dreamt of achieving; and he eventually accomplished his great purpose.

Footnotes for Chapter II.

[1]  In the Transactions of the Institution of Naval Architects for 1860, it was pointed out that the general dimensions and form of bottom of this ship were very similar to the most famous line-of-battle ships built down to the end of last century, some of which were then in existence.

[2]  According to the calculation of Mr. Chatfield, of Her Majesty's dockyard at Plymouth, in a paper read before the British Association in 1841 on shipbuilding.

[3]  The phrase "wooden walls" is derived from the Greek. When the city of Athens was once in danger of being attacked and destroyed, the oracle of Delphi was consulted. The inhabitants were told that there was no safety for them but in their "wooden walls," — that is their shipping. As they had then a powerful fleet, the oracle gave them rational advice, which had the effect of saving the Athenian people.

[4]  An account of these is given by Bennet Woodcraft in his Sketch of the Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation, London, 1848.

[5]  See Industrial Biography, pp. 183-197,

[6]  The story is told in Scribner's Monthly Illustrated Magazine, for April 1879. Ericsson's modest bill was only $15,000 for two years' labour. He was put off from year to year, and at length the Government refused to pay the amount. "The American Government," says the editor of Scribner, "will not appropriate the money to pay it, and that is all. It is said to be the nature of republics to be ungrateful; but must they also be dishonest?"

[7]   Memoirs of the Life and Services of Rear-Admiral Sir William Symonds, Kt, p. 332.