Men of Invention and Industry
by Samuel Smiles
(Chapter 5: William Murdock: His Life and Inventions)
29604Men of Invention and Industry — (Chapter 5: William Murdock: His Life and Inventions)Samuel Smiles

"Justice exacts, that those by whom we are most benefited Should be most admired." — Dr. Johnson.

"The beginning of civilization is the discovery of some useful arts, by which men acquire property, comforts, or luxuries. The necessity or desire of preserving them leads to laws and social institutions... In reality, the origin as well as the progress and improvement of civil society is founded on mechanical and chemical inventions." — Sir Humphry Davy.

At the middle of last century, Scotland was a very poor country. It consisted mostly of mountain and moorland; and the little arable land it contained was badly cultivated. Agriculture was almost a lost art. "Except in a few instances," says a writer in the 'Farmers' Magazine' of 1803, "Scotland was little better than a barren waste." Cattle could with difficulty be kept alive; and the people in some parts of the country were often on the brink of starvation. The people were hopeless, miserable, and without spirit, like the Irish in their very worst times. After the wreck of the Darien expedition, there seemed to be neither skill, enterprise, nor money left in the country. What resources it contained were altogether undeveloped. There was little communication between one place and another, and such roads as existed were for the greater part of the year simply impassable.

There were various opinions as to the causes of this frightful state of things. Some thought it was the Union between England and Scotland; and Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, "The Patriot," as he was called, urged its Repeal. In one of his publications, he endeavoured to show that about one-sixth of the population of Scotland was in a state of beggary-- two hundred thousand vagabonds begging from door to door, or robbing and plundering people as poor as themselves.[1] Fletcher was accordingly as great a repealer as Daniel O'Connell in after times. But he could not get the people to combine. There were others who held a different opinion. They thought that something might be done by the people themselves to extricate the country from its miserable condition. It still possessed some important elements of prosperity. The inhabitants of Scotland, though poor, were strong and able to work. The land, though cold and sterile, was capable of cultivation.

Accordingly, about the middle of last century, some important steps were taken to improve the general condition of things. A few public-spirited landowners led the way, and formed themselves into a society for carrying out improvements in agriculture. They granted long leases of farms as a stimulus to the most skilled and industrious, and found it to their interest to give the farmer a more permanent interest in his improvements than he had before enjoyed. Thus stimulated and encouraged, farming made rapid progress, especially in the Lothians; and the example spread into other districts. Banks were established for the storage of capital. Roads were improved, and communications increased between one part of the country and another. Hence trade and commerce arose, by reason of the facilities afforded for the interchange of traffic. The people, being fairly educated by the parish schools, were able to take advantage of these improvements. Sloth and idleness gradually disappeared, before the energy, activity, and industry which were called into life by the improved communications.

At the same time, active and powerful minds were occupied in extending the domain of knowledge. Black and Robison, of Glasgow, were the precursors of James Watt, whose invention of the condensing steam-engine was yet to produce a revolution in industrial operations, the like of which had never before been known. Watt had hit upon his great idea while experimenting with an old Newcomen model which belonged to the University of Glasgow. He was invited by Mr. Roebuck of Kinneil to make a working steam-engine for the purpose of pumping water from the coal-pits at Boroughstoness; but his progress was stopped by want of capital, as well as by want of experience. It was not until the brave and generous Matthew Boulton of Birmingham took up the machine, and backed Watt with his capital and his spirit, that Watt's enterprise had the remotest chance of success. Even after about twelve years' effort, the condensing steam-engine was only beginning, though half-heartedly, to be taken up and employed by colliery proprietors and cotton manufacturers. In developing its powers, and extending its uses, the great merits of William Murdock can never be forgotten. Watt stands first in its history, as the inventor; Boulton second, as its promoter and supporter; and Murdock third, as its developer and improver.

William Murdock was born on the 21st of August, 1754, at Bellow Mill, in the parish of Auchinleck, Ayrshire. His father, John, was a miller and millwright, as well as a farmer. His mother's maiden name was Bruce, and she used to boast of being descended from Robert Bruce, the deliverer of Scotland. The Murdocks, or Murdochs — for the name was spelt in either way — were numerous in the neighbourhood, and they were nearly all related to each other. They are supposed to have originally come into the district from Flanders, between which country and Scotland a considerable intercourse existed in the middle ages. Some of the Murdocks took a leading part in the construction of the abbeys and cathedrals of the North;[2]others were known as mechanics; but the greater number were farmers.

One of the best known members of the family was John Murdock, the poet Burns' first teacher. Burns went to his school at Alloway Mill, when he was six years old. There he learnt to read and write. When Murdock afterwards set up a school at Ayr, Burns, who was then fifteen, went to board with him. In a letter to a correspondent, Murdock said: "In 1773, Robert Burns came to board and lodge with me, for the purpose of revising his English grammar, that he might be better qualified to instruct his brothers and sisters at home. He was now with me day and night, in school, at all meals, and in all my walks." The pupil even shared the teacher's bed at night. Murdock lent the boy books, and helped the cultivation of his mind in many ways. Burns soon revised his English grammar, and learnt French, as well as a little Latin. Some time after, Murdock removed to London, and had the honour of teaching Talleyrand English during his residence as an emigrant in this country. He continued to have the greatest respect for his former pupil, whose poetry commemorated the beauties of his native district.

It may be mentioned that Bellow Mill is situated on the Bellow Water, near where it joins the river Lugar. One of Burns' finest songs begins: —

"Behind yon hills where Lugar flows."

That was the scene of William Murdock's boyhood. When a boy, he herded his father's cows along the banks of the Bellow; and as there were then no hedges, it was necessary to have some one to watch the cattle while grazing. The spot is still pointed out where the boy, in the intervals of his herding, hewed a square compartment out of the rock by the water side, and there burnt the splint coal found on the top of the Black Band ironstone. That was one of the undeveloped industries of Scotland; for the Scotch iron trade did not arrive at any considerable importance until about a century later.[3] The little cavern in which Murdock burnt the splint coal was provided with a fireplace and vent, all complete. It is possible that he may have there derived, from his experiments, the first idea of Gas as an illuminant.

Murdock is also said to have made a wooden horse, worked by mechanical power, which was the wonder of the district. On this mechanical horse he rode to the village of Cumnock, about two miles distant. His father's name is, however, associated with his own in the production of this machine. Old John Murdock had a reputation for intelligence and skill of no ordinary kind. When at Carron ironworks, in 1760, he had a pinton cast after a pattern which he had prepared. This is said to have been the first piece of iron-toothed gearing ever used in mill work. When I last saw it, the pinton was placed on the lawn in front of William Murdock's villa at Handsworth.

The young man helped his father in many ways. He worked in the mill, worked on the farm, and assisted in the preparation of mill machinery. In this way he obtained a considerable amount of general technical knowledge. He even designed and constructed bridges. He was employed to build a bridge over the river Nith, near Dumfries, and it stands there to this day, a solid and handsome structure. But he had an ambition to be something more than a country mason. He had heard a great deal about the inventions of James Watt; and he determined to try whether he could not get "a job" at the famous manufactory at Soho. He accordingly left his native place in the year 1777, in the twenty-third year of his age; and migrated southward. He left plenty of Murdocks behind him. There was a famous staff in the family, originally owned by William Murdock's grandfather, which bore the following inscription: "This staff I leave in pedigree to the oldest Murdock after me, in the parish of Auchenleck, 1745." This staff was lately held by Jean Murdock, daughter of the late William Murdock, joiner, cousin of the subject of this biography.

When William arrived at Soho in 1777 he called at the works to ask for employment. Watt was then in Cornwall, looking after his pumping engines; but he saw Boulton, who was usually accessible to callers of every rank. In answer to Murdock's enquiry whether he could have a job, Boulton replied that work was very slack with them, and that every place was filled up. During the brief conversation that took place, the blate young Scotchman, like most country lads in the presence of strangers, had some difficulty in knowing what to do with his hands, and unconsciously kept twirling his hat with them. Boulton's attention was attracted to the twirling hat, which seemed to be of a peculiar make. It was not a felt hat, nor a cloth hat, nor a glazed hat: but it seemed to be painted, and composed of some unusual material. "That seems to be a curious sort of hat," said Boulton, looking at it more closely; "what is it made of?" "Timmer, sir," said Murdock, modestly. "Timmer? Do you mean to say that it is made of wood?" "'Deed it is, sir." "And pray how was it made?" "I made it mysel, sir, in a bit laithey of my own contrivin'." "Indeed!"

Boulton looked at the young man again. He had risen a hundred degrees in his estimation. William was a good-looking fellow — tall, strong, and handsome — with an open intelligent countenance. Besides, he had been able to turn a hat for himself with a lathe of his own construction. This, of itself, was a sufficient proof that he was a mechanic of no mean skill. "Well!" said Boulton, at last, "I will enquire at the works, and see if there is anything we can set you to. Call again, my man." "Thank you, sir," said Murdock, giving a final twirl to his hat.

Such was the beginning of William Murdock's connection with the firm of Boulton and Watt. When he called again he was put upon a trial job, and then, as he was found satisfactory, he was engaged for two years at 15s. a week when at home, 17s. when in the country, and 18s. when in London. Boulton's engagement of Murdock was amply justified by the result. Beginning as an ordinary mechanic, he applied himself diligently and conscientiously to his work, and gradually became trusted. More responsible duties were confided to him, and he strove to perform them to the best of his power. His industry, skilfulness, and steady sobriety, soon marked him for promotion, and he rose from grade to grade until he became Boulton and Watt's most trusted co-worker and adviser in all their mechanical undertakings of importance.

Watt himself had little confidence in Scotchmen as mechanics. He told Sir Waiter Scott that though many of them sought employment at his works, he could never get any of them to become first-rate workmen. They might be valuable as clerks and book-keepers, but they had an insuperable aversion to toiling long at any point of mechanism, so as to earn the highest wages paid to the workmen.[4] The reason no doubt was, that the working-people of Scotland were then only in course of education as practical mechanics; and now that they have had a century's discipline of work and technical training, the result is altogether different, as the engine-shops and shipbuilding-yards of the Clyde abundantly prove. Mechanical power and technical ability are the result of training, like many other things.

When Boulton engaged Murdock, as we have said, Watt was absent in Cornwall, looking after the pumping-engines which had been erected at several of the mines throughout that county. The partnership had only been in existence for three years, and Watt was still struggling with the difficulties which he had to surmount in getting the steam engine into practical use. His health was bad, and he was oppressed with frightful headaches. He was not the man to fight the selfishness of the Cornish adventurers. "A little more of this hurrying and vexation," he said, "will knock me up altogether." Boulton went to his help occasionally, and gave him hope and courage. And at length William Murdock, after he had acquired sufficient knowledge of the business, was able to undertake the principal management of the engines in Cornwall.

We find that in 1779, when he was only twenty-five years old, he was placed in this important position. When he went into Cornwall, he gave himself no rest until he had conquered the defects of the engines, and put them into thorough working order.

He devoted himself to his duties with a zeal and ability that completely won Watt's heart. When he had an important job in hand, he could scarcely sleep. One night at his lodgings at Redruth, the people were disturbed by a strange noise in his room. Several heavy blows were heard upon the floor. They started from their beds, rushed to Murdock's room, and found him standing in his shirt, heaving at the bedpost in his sleep, shouting "Now she goes, lads! now she goes!"

Murdock became a most popular man with the mine owners. He also became friendly with the Cornish workmen and engineers. Indeed, he fought his way to their affections. One day, some half-dozen of the mining captains came into his engine-room at Chacewater, and began to bully him. This he could not stand. He stript, selected the biggest, and put himself into a fighting attitude. They set to, and in a few minutes Murdock's powerful bones and muscles enabled him to achieve the victory. The other men, who had looked on fairly, without interfering, seeing the temper and vigour of the man they had bullied, made overtures of reconciliation. William was quite willing to be friendly. Accordingly they shook hands all round, and parted the best of friends. It is also said that Murdock afterwards fought a duel with Captain Trevethick, because of a quarrel between Watt and the mining engineer, in which Murdock conceived his master to have been unfairly and harshly treated.[5]

The uses of Watt's steam-engine began to be recognised as available for manufacturing purposes. It was then found necessary to invent some method by which continuous rotary motion should be secured, so as to turn round the moving machinery of mills. With this object Watt had invented his original wheel-engine. But no steps were taken to introduce it into practical use. At length he prepared a model, in which he made use of a crank connected with the working beam of the engine, so as to produce the necessary rotary motion.

There was no originality in this application. The crank was one of the most common of mechanical appliances. It was in daily use in every spinning wheel, and in every turner's and knife-grinder's foot-lathe. Watt did not take out a patent for the crank, not believing it to be patentable. But another person did so, thereby anticipating Watt in the application of the crank for producing rotary motion. He had therefore to employ some other method, and in the new contrivance he had the valuable help of William Murdock. Watt devised five different methods of securing rotary motion without using the crank, but eventually he adopted the "Sun-and-planet motion," the invention of Murdock. This had the singular property of going twice round for every stroke of the engine, and might be made to go round much oftener without additional machinery. The invention was patented in February, 1782, five Years after Murdock had entered the service of Boulton and Watt.

Murdock continued for many years busily occupied in superintending the Cornish steam-engines. We find him described by his employers as "flying from mine to mine," putting the engines to rights. If anything went wrong, he was immediately sent for. He was active, quick-sighted, shrewd, sober, and thoroughly trustworthy. Down to the year 1780, his wages were only a pound a week; but Boulton made him a present of ten guineas, to which the owners of the United Mines added another ten, in acknowledgment of the admirable manner in which he bad erected their new engine, the chairman of the company declaring that he was "the most obliging and industrious workman he had ever known." That he secured the admiration of the Cornish engineers may be obvious from the fact of Mr. Boaze having invited him to join in an engineering partnership; but Murdock remained loyal to the Birmingham firm, and in due time he had his reward.

He continued to be the "right hand man" of the concern in Cornwall. Boulton wrote to Watt, towards the end of 1782: "Murdock hath been indefatigable ever since he began. He has scarcely been in bed or taken necessary food. After slaving night and day on Thursday and Friday, a letter came from Wheal Virgin that he must go instantly to set their engine to work, or they would let out the fire. He went and set the engine to work; it worked well for the five or six hours he remained. He left it, and returned to the Consolidated Mines about eleven at night, and was employed about the engines till four this morning, and then went to bed. I found him at ten this morning in Poldice Cistern, seeking for pins and castors that had jumped out, when I insisted on his going home to bed."

On one occasion, when an engine superintended by Murdock stopped through some accident, the water rose in the mine, and the workmen were "drowned out." Upon this occurring, the miners went "roaring at him" for throwing them out of work, and threatened to tear him to pieces. Nothing daunted, he went through the midst of the men, repaired the invalided engine, and started it afresh. When he came out of the engine-house, the miners cheered him vociferously and insisted upon carrying him home upon their shoulders in triumph!

Steam was now asserting its power everywhere. It was pumping water from the mines in Cornwall and driving the mills of the manufacturers in Lancashire. Speculative mechanics began to consider whether it might not be employed as a means of land locomotion. The comprehensive mind of Sir Isaac Newton had long before, in his 'Explanation of the Newtonian Philosophy,' thrown out the idea of employing steam for this purpose; but no practical experiment was made. Benjamin Franklin, while agent in London for the United Provinces of America, had a correspondence with Matthew Boulton, of Birmingham, and Dr. Darwin, of Lichfield, on the same subject. Boulton sent a model of a fire-engine to London for Franklin's inspection; but Franklin was too much occupied at the time by grave political questions to pursue the subject further. Erasmus Darwin's speculative mind was inflamed by the idea of a "fiery chariot," and he urged his friend Boulton to prosecute the contrivance of the necessary steam machinery[6]

Other minds were at work. Watt, when only twenty-three years old, at the instigation of his friend Robison, made a model locomotive, provided with two cylinders of tin plate; but the project was laid aside, and was never again taken up by the inventor. Yet, in his patent of 1784, Watt included an arrangement by means of which steam-power might be employed for the purposes of locomotion. But no further model of the contrivance was made.

Meanwhile, Cugnot, of Paris, had already made a road engine worked by steam power. It was first tried at the Arsenal in 1769; and, being set in motion, it ran against a stone wall in its way and threw it down. The engine was afterwards tried in the streets of Paris. In one of the experiments it fell over with a crash, and was thenceforward locked up in the Arsenal to prevent its doing further mischief. This first locomotive is now to be seen at the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers at Paris.

Murdock had doubtless heard of Watt's original speculations, and proceeded, while at Redruth, during his leisure hours, to construct a model locomotive after a design of his own. This model was of small dimensions, standing little more than a foot and a half high, though it was sufficiently large to demonstrate the soundness of the principle on which it was constructed. It was supported on three wheels, and carried a small copper boiler, heated by a spirit lamp, with a flue passing obliquely through it. The cylinder, of 3/4 inch diameter and 2-inch stroke, was fixed in the top of the boiler, the piston-rod being connected with the vibratory beam attached to the connecting-rod which worked the crank of the driving-wheel. This little engine worked by the expansive force of steam only, which was discharged into the atmosphere after it had done its work of alternately raising and depressing the piston in the cylinder.

Mr. Murdock's son, while living at Handsworth, informed the present writer that this model was invented and constructed in 1781; but, after perusing the correspondence of Boulton and Watt, we infer that it was not ready for trial until 1784. The first experiment was made in Murdock's own house at Redruth, when the little engine successfully hauled a model waggon round the room, — the single wheel, placed in front of the engine and working in a swivel frame, enabling it to run round in a circle.

Another experiment was made out of doors, on which occasion, small though the engine was, it fairly outran the speed of its inventor. One night, after returning from his duties at the mine at Redruth, Murdock went with his model locomotive to the avenue leading to the church, about a mile from the town. The walk was narrow, straight, and level. Having lit the lamp, the water soon boiled, and off started the engine with the inventor after it. Shortly after he heard distant shouts of terror. It was too dark to perceive objects, but he found, on following up the machine, that the cries had proceeded from the worthy vicar, who, while going along the walk, had met the hissing and fiery little monster, which he declared he took to be the Evil One in propria persona!

When Watt was informed of Murdock's experiments, he feared that they might interfere with his regular duties, and advised their discontinuance. Should Murdock still resolve to continue them, Watt urged his partner Boulton, then in Cornwall, that, rather than lose Murdock's services, they should advance him 100L.; and, if he succeeded within a year in making an engine capable of drawing a post-chaise carrying two passengers and the driver, at the rate of four miles an hour, that a locomotive engine business should be established, with Murdock as a partner. The arrangement, however, never proceeded any further. Perhaps a different attraction withdrew Murdock from his locomotive experiments. He was then paying attention to a young lady, the daughter of Captain Painter; and in l785 he married her, and brought her home to his house in Cross Street, Redruth.

In the following year, — September, 1786 — Watt says, in a letter to Boulton, "I have still the same opinion concerning the steam carriage, but, to prevent more fruitless argument about it, I have one of some size under hand. In the meantime, I wish William could be brought to do as we do, to mind the business in hand, and let such as Symington and Sadler throw away their time and money in hunting shadows." In a subsequent letter Watt expressed his gratification at finding "that William applies to his business." From that time forward, Murdock as well as Watt, dropped all further speculation on the subject, and left it to others to work out the problem of the locomotive engine. Murdock's model remained but a curious toy, which he took pleasure in exhibiting to his intimate friends; and, though he long continued to speculate about road locomotion, and was persuaded of its practicability, he abstained from embodying his ideas of the necessary engine in any complete working form.

Murdock nevertheless continued inventing, for the man who is given to invent, and who possesses the gift of insight, cannot rest. He lived in the midst of inventors. Watt and Boulton were constantly suggesting new things, and Murdock became possessed by the same spirit. In 1791 he took out his first patent. It was for a method of preserving ships' bottoms from foulness by the use of a certain kind of chemical paint. Mr. Murdock's grandson informs us that it was recently re-patented and was the cause of a lawsuit, and that Hislop's patent for revivifying gas-lime would have been an infringement, if it had not expired.

Murdock is still better known by his invention of gas for lighting purposes. Several independent inquirers into the constituents of Newcastle coal had arrived at the conclusion that nearly one-third of the substance was driven off in vapour by the application of heat, and that the vapour so driven off was inflammable. But no suggestion had been made to apply this vapour for lighting purposes until Murdock took the matter in hand. Mr. M. S. Pearse has sent us the following interesting reminiscence: "Some time since, when in the West of Cornwall, I was anxious to find out whether any one remembered Murdock. I discovered one of the most respectable and intelligent men in Camborne, Mr. William Symons, who not only distinctly remembered Murdock, but had actually been present on one of the first occasions when gas was used. Murdock, he says, was very fond of children, and not unfrequently took them into his workshop to show them what he was doing. Hence it happened that on one occasion this gentleman, then a boy of seven or eight, was standing outside Murdock's door with some other boys, trying to catch sight of some special mystery inside, for Dr. Boaze, the chief doctor of the place, and Murdock had been busy all the afternoon. Murdock came out, and asked my informant to run down to a shop near by for a thimble. On returning with the thimble, the boy pretended to have lost it, and, whilst searching in every pocket, he managed to slip inside the door of the workshop, and then produced the thimble. He found Dr. Boaze and Murdock with a kettle filled with coal. The gas issuing from it had been burnt in a large metal case, such as was used for blasting purposes. Now, however, they had applied a much smaller tube, and at the end of it fastened the thimble, through the small perforations made in which they burned a continuous jet for some time."[7]

After numerous experiments, Murdock had his house in Cross Street fitted up in 1792 for being lit by gas. The coal was subjected to heat in an iron retort, and the gas was conveyed in pipes to the offices and the different rooms of the house, where it was burned at proper apertures or burners [8]Portions of the gas were also confined in portable vessels of tinned iron, from which it was burned when required, thus forming a moveable gas-light. Murdock had a gas lantern in regular use, for the purpose of lighting himself home at night across the moors, from the mines where he was working, to his home at Redruth. This lantern was formed by filling a bladder with gas and fixing a jet to the mouthpiece at the bottom of a glass lantern, with the bladder hanging underneath.

Having satisfied himself as to the superior economy of coal gas, as compared with oils and tallow, for the purposes of artificial illumination, Murdock mentioned the subject to Mr. James Watt, jun., during a brief visit to Soho in 1794, and urged the propriety of taking out a patent. Watt was, however, indifferent to taking out any further patents, being still engaged in contesting with the Cornish mine-owners his father's rights to the user of the condensing steam-engine. Nothing definite was done at the time. Murdock returned to Cornwall and continued his experiments. At the end of the same year he exhibited to Mr. Phillips and others, at the Polgooth mine, his apparatus for extracting gases from coal and other substances, showed it in use, lit the gas which issued from the burner, and showed its "strong and beautiful light." He afterwards exhibited the same apparatus to Tregelles and others at the Neath Abbey Company's ironworks in Glamorganshire.

Murdock returned to Soho in 1798, to take up his permanent residence in the neighbourhood. When the mine owners heard of his intention to leave Cornwall, they combined in offering him a handsome salary provided he would remain in the county; but his attachment to his friends at Soho would not allow him to comply with their request. He again urged the firm of Boulton and Watt to take out a patent for the use of gas for lighting purposes. But being still embroiled in their tedious and costly lawsuit, they were naturally averse to risk connection with any other patent. Watt the younger, with whom Murdock communicated on the subject, was aware that the current of gas obtained from the distillation of coal in Lord Dundonald's tar-ovens had been occasionally set fire to, and also that Bishop Watson and others had burned gas from coal, after conducting it through tubes, or after it had issued from the retort. Mr. Watt was, however, quite satisfied that Murdock was the first person who had suggested its economical application for public and private uses. But he was not clear, after the legal difficulties which had been raised as to his father's patent rights, that it would be safe to risk a further patent for gas.

Mr. Murdock's suggestion, accordingly, was not acted upon. But he went on inventing in other directions. He thenceforward devoted himself entirely to mechanical pursuits. Mr. Buckle has said of him: — "The rising sun often found him, after a night spent in incessant labour, still at the anvil or turning-lathe; for with his own hands he would make such articles as he would not intrust to unskilful ones." In 1799 he took out a patent (No. 2340), embodying some very important inventions. First, it included the endless screw working into a toothed-wheel, for boring steam-cylinders, which is still in use. Second, the casting of a steam-jacket in one cylinder, instead of being made in separate segments bolted together with caulked joints, as was previously done. Third, the new double-D slide-valve, by which the construction and working of the steam-engine was simplified, and the loss of steam saved, as well as the cylindrical valve for the same purpose. And fourth, improved rotary engines. One of the latter was set to drive the machines in his private workshop, and continued in nearly constant work and in perfect use for about thirty years.

In 1801, Murdock sent his two sons William and John to the Ayr Academy, for the benefit of Scotch education. In the summer-time they spent their vacation at Bellow Mill, which their grandfather still continued to occupy. They fished in the river, and "caught a good many trout." The boys corresponded regularly with their father at Birmingham. In 1804, they seem to have been in a state of great excitement about the expected landing of the French in Scotland. The volunteers of Ayr amounted to 300 men, the cavalry to 150, and the riflemen to 50. "The riflemen," says John, "go to the seashore every Saturday to shoot at a target. They stand at 70 paces distant, and out of 100 shots they often put in 60 bullets!" William says, "Great preparations are still making for the reception of the French. Several thousand of pikes are carried through the town every week; and all the volunteers and riflemen have received orders to march at a moment's warning." The alarm, however, passed away. At the end of 1804, the two boys received prizes; William got one in arithmetic and another in the Rector's composition class; and John also obtained two, one in the mathematical class, and the other in French.

To return to the application of gas for lighting purposes. In 1801, a plan was proposed by a M. Le Blond for lighting a part of the streets of Paris with gas. Murdock actively resumed his experiments; and on the occasion of the Peace of Amiens in March, 1802, he made the first public exhibition of his invention. The whole of the works at Soho were brilliantly illuminated with gas.

The sight was received with immense enthusiasm. There could now be no doubt as to the enormous advantages of this method of producing artificial light, compared with that from oil or tallow. In the following year the manufacture of gas-making apparatus was added to the other branches of Boulton and Watts' business, with which Murdock was now associated, — and as much as from 4000L. to 5000L. of capital were invested in the new works. The new method of lighting speedily became popular amongst manufacturers, from its superior safety, cheapness, and illuminating power. The mills of Phillips and Lee of Manchester were fitted up in 1805; and those of Burley and Kennedy, also of Manchester, and of Messrs. Gott, of Leeds, in subsequent years.

Though Murdock had made the uses of gas-lighting perfectly clear, it was some time before it was proposed to light the streets by the new method. The idea was ridiculed by Sir Humphry Davy, who asked one of the projectors if he intended to take the dome of St. Paul's for a gasometer! Sir Waiter Scott made many clever jokes about those who proposed to "send light through the streets in pipes;" and even Wollaston, a well known man of science, declared that they "might as well attempt to light London with a slice from the moon." It has been so with all new projects-- with the steamboat, the locomotive, and the electric telegraph. As John Wilkinson said of the first vessel of iron which he introduced, "it will be only a nine days' wonder, and afterwards a Columbus's egg."

On the 25th of February, 1808, Murdock read a paper before the Royal Society "On the Application of Gas from Coal to economical purposes." He gave a history of the origin and progress of his experiments, down to the time when he had satisfactorily lit up the premises of Phillips and Lee at Manchester. The paper was modest and unassuming, like everything he did. It concluded: — "I believe I may, without presuming too much, claim both the first idea of applying, and the first application of this gas to economical purposes." [9]The Royal Society awarded Murdock their large Rumford Gold Medal for his communication.

In the following year a German named Wintzer, or Winsor, appeared as the promotor of a scheme for obtaining a royal charter with extensive privileges, and applied for powers to form a joint-stock company to light part of London and Westminster with gas. Winsor claimed for his method of gas manufacture that it was more efficacious and profitable than any then known or practised. The profits, indeed, were to be prodigious. Winsor made an elaborate calculation in his pamphlet entitled 'The New Patriotic Imperial and National Light and Heat Company,' from which it appeared that the net annual profits "agreeable to the official experiments" would amount to over two hundred and twenty-nine millions of pounds! — and that, giving over nine-tenths of that sum towards the redemption of the National Debt, there would still remain a total profit of 570L. to be paid to the subscribers for every 5L. of deposit! Winsor took out a patent for the invention, and the company, of which he was a member, proceeded to Parliament for an Act. Boulton and Watt petitioned against the Bill, and James Watt, junior, gave evidence on the subject. Henry Brougham, who was the counsel for the petitioners, made great fun of Winsor's absurd speculations,[10]and the Bill was thrown out.

In the following year the London and Westminster Chartered Gas Light and Coke Company succeeded in obtaining their Act. They were not very successful at first. Many prejudices existed against the employment of the new light. It was popularly supposed that the gas was carried along the pipes on fire, and that the pipes must necessarily be intensely hot. When it was proposed to light the House of Commons with gas, the architect insisted on the pipes being placed several inches from the walls, for fear of fire; and, after the pipes had been fixed, the members might be seen applying their gloved hands to them to ascertain their temperature, and afterwards expressing the greatest surprise on finding that they were as cool as the adjoining walls.

The Gas Company was on the point of dissolution when Mr. Samuel Clegg came to their aid. Clegg had been a pupil of Murdock's, at Soho. He knew all the arrangements which Murdock had invented. He had assisted in fitting up the gas machinery at the mills of Phillips & Lee, Manchester, as well as at Lodge's Mill, Sowerby Bridge, near Halifax. He was afterwards employed to fix the apparatus at the Catholic College of Stoneyhurst, in Lancashire, at the manufactory of Mr. Harris at Coventry, and at other places. In 1813 the London and Westminster Gas Company secured the services of Mr. Clegg, and from that time forwards their career was one of prosperity. In 1814 Westminster Bridge was first lighted with gas, and shortly after the streets of St. Margaret's, Westminster. Crowds of people followed the lamplighter on his rounds to watch the sudden effect of his flame applied to the invisible stream of gas which issued from the burner. The lamplighters became so disgusted with the new light that they struck work, and Clegg himself had for a time to act as lamplighter.

The advantages of the new light, however, soon became generally recognised, and gas companies were established in most of the large towns. Glasgow was lit up by gas in 1817, and Liverpool and Dublin in the following year. Had Murdock in the first instance taken out a patent for his invention, it could not fail to have proved exceedingly remunerative to him; but he derived no advantage from the extended use of the new system of lighting except the honour of having invented it.[11] He left the benefits of his invention to the public, and returned to his labours at Soho, which more than ever completely engrossed him.

Murdock now became completely identified with the firm of Boulton & Watt. He assigned to them his patent for the slide-valve, the rotary engine, and other inventions "for a good and valuable consideration." Indeed his able management was almost indispensable to the continued success of the Soho foundry. Mr. Nasmyth, when visiting the works about thirty years after Murdock had taken their complete management in hand, recalled to mind the valuable services of that truly admirable yet modest mechanic. He observed the admirable system, which he had invented, of transmitting power from one central engine to other small vacuum engines attached to the several machines which they were employed to work. "This vacuum method," he says, "of transmitting power dates from the time of Papin; but it remained a dead contrivance for about a century until it received the masterly touch of Murdock."

"The sight which I obtained" (Mr. Nasmyth proceeds) "of the vast series of workshops of that celebrated establishment, fitted with evidences of the presence and results of such master minds in design and execution, and the special machine tools which I believe were chiefly to be ascribed to the admirable inventive power and common-sense genius of William Murdock, made me feel that I was indeed on classic ground in regard to everything connected with the construction of steam-engine machinery. The interest was in no small degree enhanced by coming every now and then upon some machine that had every historical claim to be regarded as the prototype of many of our modern machine tools. All these had William Murdock's genius stamped upon them, by reason of their common-sense arrangements, which showed that he was one of those original thinkers who had the courage to break away from the trammels of traditional methods, and take short cuts to accomplish his objects by direct and simple means."

We have another recollection of William Murdock, from one who knew him when a boy. This is the venerable Charles Manby, F.R.S., still honorary secretary of the Institute of Civil Engineers. He says (writing to us in September 1883), "I see from the public prints that you have been presiding at a meeting intended to do honour to the memory of William Murdock--a most worthy man and an old friend of mine. When he found me working the first slide valve ever introduced into an engine-building establishment at Horsley, he patted me on the head, and said to my father, 'Neighbour Manby, this is not the way to bring up a good workman — merely turning a handle, without any shoulder work.' He evidently did not anticipate any great results from my engineering education. But we all know what machine tools are doing now, — and where should we be without them?"

Watt withdrew from the firm in 1800, on the expiry of his patent for the condensing steam-engine; but Boulton continued until the year 1809, when he died full of years and honours. Watt lived on until 1819. The last part of his life was the happiest. During the time that he was in the throes of his invention, he was very miserable, weighed down with dyspepsia and sick headaches. But after his patent had expired, he was able to retire with a moderate fortune, and began to enjoy life. Before, he had "cursed his inventions," now he could bless them. He was able to survey them, and find out what was right and what was wrong. He used his head and his hands in his private workshop, and found many means of employing both pleasantly. Murdock continued to be his fast friend, and they spent many agreeable hours together. They made experiments and devised improvements in machines. Watt wished to make things more simple. He said to Murdock, "it is a great thing to know what to do without. We must have a book of blots — things to be scratched out." One of the most interesting schemes of Watt towards the end of his life was the contrivance of a sculpture-making machine; and he proceeded so far with it as to to [sic] able to present copies of busts to his friends as "the productions of a young artist just entering his eighty-third year." The machine, however, remained unfinished at his death, and the remarkable fact is that it was Watt's only unfinished work.

The principle of the machine was to carry a guide-point at one side over the bust or alto-relievo to be copied, and at the other side to carry a corresponding cutting-tool or drill over the alabaster, ivory, jet, or plaster of Paris to be executed. The machine worked, as it were, with two hands, the one feeling the pattern, the other cutting the material into the required form. Many new alterations were necessary for carrying out this ingenious apparatus, and Murdock was always at hand to give his old friend and master his best assistance. We have seen many original letters from Watt to Murdock, asking for counsel and help. In one of these, written in 1808, Watt says: "I have revived an idea which, if it answers, will supersede the frame and upright spindle of the reducing machine, but more of this when we meet. Meanwhile it will be proper to adhere to the frame, etc., at present, until we see how the other alterations answer." In another he says: "I have done a Cicero without any plaits — the different segments meeting exactly. The fitting the drills into the spindle by a taper of 1 in 6 will do. They are perfectly stiff and will not unscrew easily. Four guide-pullies answer, but there must be a pair for the other end, and to work with a single hand, for the returning part is always cut upon some part or other of the frame."

These letters are written sometimes in the morning, sometimes at noon, sometimes at night. There was a great deal of correspondence about "pullies," which did not seem to answer at first. "I have made the tablets," said Watt on one occasion, "slide more easily, and can counterbalance any part of their weight which may be necessary; but the first thing to try is the solidity of the machine, which cannot be done till the pullies are mounted." Then again: "The bust-making must be given up until we get a more solid frame. I have worked two days at one and spoiled it, principally from the want of steadiness." For Watt, it must be remembered, was now a very old man.

He then proceeded to send Murdock the drawing of a "parallel motion for the machine," to be executed by the workmen at Soho. The truss braces and the crosses were to be executed of steel, according to the details he enclosed. "I have warmed up," he concludes, "an old idea, and can make a machine in which the pentagraph and the leading screw will all be contained in the beam, and the pattern and piece to be cut will remain at rest fixed upon a lath of cast iron or stout steel." Watt is very particular in all his details: "I am sorry," he says in one note, "to trouble you with so many things; but the alterations on this spindle and socket [he annexes a drawing] may wait your convenience." In a further note, Watt says. "The drawing for the parallel lathe is ready; but I have been sadly puzzled about the application of the leading screws to the cranes in the other.

I think, however, I have now got the better of the difficulties, and made it more certain, as well as more simple, than it was. I have done an excellent head of John Hunter in hard white in shorter time than usual. I want to show it you before I repair it."

At last Watt seems to have become satisfied: "The lathe," he says, "is very much improved, and you seem to have given the finishing blow to the roofed frame, which appears perfectly stiff. I had some hours' intense thinking upon the machine last night, and have made up my mind on it at last. The great difficulty was about the application of the band, but I have settled it to be much as at present."

Watt's letters to Murdock are most particular in details, especially as to screws, nuts, and tubes, with strengths and dimensions, always illustrated with pen-and-ink drawings. And yet all this was done merely for mechanical amusement, and not for any personal pecuniary advantage. While Watt was making experiments as to the proper substances to be carved and drilled, he also desired Murdock to make similar experiments. "The nitre," he said in one note, "seems to do harm; the fluor composition seems the best and hardest. Query, what would some calcined pipe-clay do? If you will calcine some fire-clay by a red heat and pound it, — about a pound, — and send it to me, I shall try to make you a mould or two in Henning's manner to cast this and the sulphur acid iron in. I have made a screwing tool for wood that seems to answer; also one of a one-tenth diameter for marble, which does very well." In another note, Watt says: "I find my drill readily makes 2400 turns per minute, even with the large drill you sent last; if I bear lightly, a three-quarter ferril would run about 3000, and by an engine that might be doubled."

The materials to be drilled into medallions also required much consideration. "I am much obliged to you," said Watt, "for the balls, etc., which answer as well as can be expected. They make great progress in cutting the crust (Ridgways) or alabaster, and also cut marble, but the harder sorts soon blunt them. At any rate, marble does not do for the medallions, as its grain prevents its being cut smooth, and its semi-transparence hurts the effect. I think Bristol lime, or shell lime, pressed in your manner, would have a good effect. When you are at leisure, I shall thank you for a few pieces, and if some of them are made pink or flesh colour, they will look well. I used the ball quite perpendicular, and it cut well, as most of the cutting is sideways. I tried a fine whirling point, but it made little progress; another with a chisel edge did almost as well as the balls, but did not work so pleasantly. I find a triangular scraping point the best, and I think from some trials it should be quite a sharp point. The wheel runs easier than it did, but has still too much friction. I wished to have had an hour's consultation with you, but have been prevented by sundry matters among others by that plaguey stove, which is now in your hands."

Watt was most grateful to Murdock for his unvarying assistance. In January, 1813, when Watt was in his seventy-seventh year, he wrote to Murdock, asking him to accept a present of a lathe "I have not heard from you," he says, "in reply to my letter about the lathe; and, presuming you are not otherwise provided, I have bought it, and request your acceptance of it. At present, an alteration for the better is making in the oval chuck, and a few additional chucks, rest, etc., are making to the lathe. When these are finished, I shall have it at Billinger's until you return, or as you otherwise direct. I am going on with my drawings for a complete machine, and shall be glad to see you here to judge of them."

The drawings were made, but the machine was never finished. "Invention," said Watt, "goes on very slowly with me now." Four years later, he was still at work; but death put a stop to his "diminishing-machine." It is a remarkable testimony to the skill and perseverance of a man who had already accomplished so much, that it is almost his only unfinished work. Watt died in 1819, in the eighty-third year of his age, to the great grief of Murdock, his oldest and most attached friend and correspondent.

Meanwhile, the firm of Boulton and Watt continued. The sons of the two partners carried it on, with Murdock as their Mentor. He was still full of work and inventive power. In 1802, he applied the compressed air of the Blast Engine employed to blow the cupolas of the Soho Foundry, for the purpose of driving the lathe in the pattern shop. It worked a small engine, with a l2-inch cylinder and 18-inch stroke, connected with the lathe, the speed being regulated as required by varying the admission of the blast. This engine continued in use for about thirty-five years. In 1803 Murdock experimented on the power of high-pressure steam in propelling shot, and contrived a steam-engine with which he made many trials at Soho, thereby anticipating the apparatus contrived by Mr. Perkins many years later.

In 1810 Murdock took out a patent for boring steam-pipes for water, and cutting columns out of solid blocks of stone, by means of a cylindrical crown saw. The first machine was used at Soho, and afterwards at Mr. Rennie's Works in London, and proved quite successful. Among his other inventions were a lift worked by compressed air, which raised and lowered the castings from the boring-mill to the level of the foundry and the canal bank. He used the same kind of power to ring the bells in his house at Sycamore Hill, and the contrivance was afterwards adopted by Sir Walter Scott in his house at Abbotsford.

Murdock was also the inventor of the well-known cast-iron cement, so extensively used in engine and machine work. The manner in which he was led to this invention affords a striking illustration of his quickness of observation. Finding that some iron-borings and sal-ammoniac had got accidently mixed together in his tool-chest, and rusted his saw-blade nearly through, he took note of the circumstance, mixed the articles in various proportions, and at length arrived at the famous cement, which eventually became an article of extensive manufacture at the Soho Works.

Murdock's ingenuity was constantly at work, even upon matters which lay entirely outside his special vocation. The late Sir William Fairbairn informed us that he contrived a variety of curious machines for consolidating peat moss, finely ground and pulverised, under immense pressure, and which, when consolidated, could be moulded into beautiful medals, armlets, and necklaces. The material took the most brilliant polish and had the appearance of the finest jet.

Observing that fish-skins might be used as an economical substitute for isinglass, he went up to London on one occasion in order to explain to brewers the best method of preparing and using them. He occupied handsome apartments, and, little regarding the splendour of the drawing-room, he hung the fish-skins up against the walls. His landlady caught him one day when he was about to bang up a wet cod's skin! He was turned out at once, with all his fish. While in town on this errand, it occurred to him that a great deal of power was wasted in treading the streets of London! He conceived the idea of using the streets and roadways as a grand tread-mill, under which the waste power might be stored up by mechanical methods and turned to account. He had also an idea of storing up the power of the tides, and of running water, in the same way. The late Charles Babbage, F.R.S., entertained a similar idea about using springs of Ischia or of the geysers of Iceland as a power necessary for condensing gases, or perhaps for the storage of electricity. [12] The latter, when perfected, will probably be the greatest invention of the next half century.

Another of Murdock's' ingenious schemes, was his proposed method of transmitting letters and packages through a tube exhausted by an air-pump. This project led to the Atmospheric Railway, the success of which, so far as it went, was due to the practical ability of Murdock's pupil, Samuel Clegg. Although the atmospheric railway was eventually abandoned, it is remarkable that the original idea was afterwards revived and practised with success by the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company.

In 1815, while Murdock was engaged in erecting an apparatus of his own invention for heating the water for the baths at Leamington, a ponderous cast-iron plate fell upon his leg above his ankle, and severely injured him. He remained a long while at Leamington, and when it was thought safe to remove him, the Birmingham Canal Company kindly placed their excursion boat at his disposal, and he was conveyed safely homeward. So soon as he was able, he was at work again at the Soho factory.

Although the elder Watt had to a certain extent ignored the uses of steam as applied to navigation, being too much occupied with developing the powers of the pumping and rotary engine, the young partners, with the stout aid of Murdock, took up the question. They supplied Fulton in 1807 with his first engine, by means of which the Clermont made her first voyage along the Hudson river. They also supplied Fulton and Livingston with the next two engines for the Car of Neptune and the Paragon. From that time forward, Boulton and Watt devoted themselves to the manufacture of engines for steamboats. Up to the year 1814, marine engines had been all applied singly in the vessel; but in this year Boulton and Watt first applied two condensing engines, connected by cranks set at right angles on the shaft, to propel a steamer on the Clyde. Since then, nearly all steamers are fitted with two engines. In making this important improvement, the firm were materially aided by the mechanical genius of William Murdock, and also of Mr. Brown, then an assistant, but afterwards a member of the firm.

In order to carry on a set of experiments with respect to the most improved form of marine engine, Boulton and Watt purchased the Caledonia, a Scotch boat built on the Clyde by James Wood and Co., of Port Glasgow. The engines and boilers were taken out. The vessel was fitted with two side lever engines, and many successive experiments were made with her down to August, 1817, at an expense of about 10,000L. This led to a settled plan of construction, by which marine engines were greatly improved. James Watt, junior, accompanied the Caledonia to Holland and up the Rhine. The vessel was eventually sold to the Danish Government, and used for carrying the mails between Kiel and Copenhagen. It is, however, unnecessary here to venture upon the further history of steam navigation.

In the midst of these repeated inventions and experiments, Murdock was becoming an old man. Yet he never ceased to take an interest in the works at Soho. At length his faculties experienced a gradual decay, and he died peacefully at his house at Sycamore Hill, on the l5th of November,1839, in his eighty-fifth year. He was buried near the remains of the great Boulton and Watt; and a bust by Chantrey served to perpetuate the remembrance of his manly and intelligent countenance.

Footnotes for Chapter V.

[1]   Fletcher's Political Works, London, 1737, p. 149,

[2]   One of the Murdocks built the cathedral at Glasgow, as well as others in Scotland. The famous school of masonry at Antwerp sent out a number of excellent architects during the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries. One of these, on coming into Scotland, assumed the name of Murdo. He was a Frenchman, born in Paris, as we learn from the inscription left on Melrose Abbey, and he died while building that noble work: it is as follows: —

"John Murdo sumtyme calt was I
And born in Peryse certainly,
An' had in kepyng all mason
Andrays, the Hye Kirk o'Glasgo,
Melrose and Paisley, Jedybro and Galowy.
Pray to God and Mary baith, and sweet
Saint John, keep this Holy Kirk frae scaith."

[3]   The discovery of the Black Band Ironstone by David Mushet in 1801, and the invention of the Hot Blast by James Beaumont Neilson in 1828, will be found related in Industrial Biography, pp. 141-161.

[4]   Note to Lockhart's Life of Scott.

[5]   This was stated to the present writer some years ago by William Murdock's son; although there is no other record of the event.

[6]   See Lives of Engineers (Boulton and Watt), iv. pp. 182-4. Small edition, pp. 130-2.

[7]   Mr. Pearse's letter is dated 23rd April, 1867, but has not before been published. He adds that "others remembered Murdock, one who was an apprentice with him, and lived with him for some time — a Mr. Vivian, of the foundry at Luckingmill."

[8]   Murdock's house still stands in Cross Street, Redruth; those still live who saw the gas-pipes conveying gas from the retort in the little yard to near the ceiling of the room, just over the table; a hole for the pipe was made in the window frame. The old window is now replaced by a new frame." — Life of Richard Trevithick, i. 64.

[9]   Philosophical Transactions, 1808, pp. l24-l32.

[10]   Winsor's family evidently believed in his great powers; for I am informed by Francis Galton, Esq., F.R.S., that there is a fantastical monument on the right-hand side of the central avenue of the Kensal Green Cemetery, about half way between the lodge and the church, which bears the following inscription: —

"Tomb of Frederick Albert Winsor, son of the late Frederick Albert Winsor, originator of public Gas-lighting, buried in the Cemetery of Pere la Chaise, Paris.
At evening time it shall be light. — Zachariah xiv. 7
"I am come a light into the world, that whoever believeth in Me shall not abide in darkness. — John xii. 46."

[11]   Mr. Parkes, in his well known Chemical Essays (ed. 1841, p. 157), after referring to the successful lighting up by Murdock of the manufactory of Messrs. Phillips and Lee at Manchester in 1805, "with coal gas issuing from nearly a thousand burners," proceeds, "This grand application of the new principle satisfied the public mind, not only of the practicability, but also of the economy of the application; and as a mark of the high opinion they entertained of his genius and perseverance, and in order to put the question of priority of the discovery beyond all doubt, the Council of the Royal Society in 1808 awarded to Mr. Murdock the Gold Medal founded by the late Count Rumford."

[12]   Thus," says Mr. Charles Babbage, "in a future age, power may become the staple commodity of the Icelanders, and of the inhabitants of other volcanic districts; and possibly the very process by which they will procure this article of exchange for the luxuries of happier climates may, in some measure, tame the tremendous element which occasionally devastates their provinces." — Economy of Manufactures.