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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 51/May 1897/Sketch of James Nasmyth

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JAMES NASMYTH was pre-eminently a self-made man. Though, taught in the schools, he worked out his own way without regard to the teaching he had received, and by methods peculiarly his own. He was a master engineer, an astronomer whose discoveries and conclusions attracted the attention of learned societies and were admired by the great, and a successful manager of men. "There can be no doubt," says Nature, in a sketch of him, "that he stands in the front rank of those who have advanced the material interests of mankind by the application of science to industrial methods,"

Mr. Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh, August 19, 1808, the next to the youngest child of a family of eleven, and died in London, May 7, 1890. He was the son of Alexander Nasmyth, an artist of considerable distinction, and reckoned in his ancestry two or three successive generations of architects and builders. Mention is made of his exercise of his observing powers in very early infancy. The conditions of his childhood life, although it was passed in the city, gave him opportunities to become acquainted with Nature. Many workshops were in operation near Calton Hill, where the nurses took the children to play, and he was one of the throng of little boys who were interested in watching the proceedings of the workmen. Having tools at home in his father's shop, he tried to imitate what he had seen done. He became skilled in making things for himself, and was called "a little Jack of all trades." He was taught by his eldest sister, then sent to a teacher of such a character that he contracted "a hatred against grammatical rules," and was enrolled in the Edinburgh High School in 1817. The teaching here was of the old routine sort, and aroused little interest in the pupil; but he did his tasks punctually and cheerfully, "though they were far from agreeable."

A different condition prevailed in the shop, where his father directed his attention to the action of the tools and to all the processes required for turning out the best work; and gradually he had planted in his mind "the great fundamental principles on which the practice of engineering in its grandest forms is based." Nasmyth became famous in the school for the perfect spinning tops, or "peeries," he could make, for his accurate construction of kites, and for his paper balloons. He cast, bored, and mounted small brass cannon, and made guns of cellar keys. With the fine steels he made he was able to buy the monitors off from the too strict enforcement of the assigned tasks. But he learned little of what the school taught—"a mere matter of rote and cram." He formed intimacies with fellow-pupils that proved of value to him: with a youth whose father had a foundry, where he spent profitable hours, and with another whose father had a special genius for practical chemistry, and made colors and white lead; signals were arranged with this boy, so that when anything particular was going on at the laboratory Nasmyth was notified of it; and the boys made their own reagents, and acquired considerable skill in producing various substances.

Nasmyth left the high school at the end of 1820, not much the better for his small acquaintance with the dead languages, but the mathematical studies had developed his reasoning powers. He practiced accuracy in drawing, made his own tools and chemical apparatus, and interested himself in the volcanic geology of Edinburgh. He attended the Edinburgh School of Arts from 1821 to 1826, and at seventeen years of age he was constructing steam engines of different designs and for various purposes. He heard the lectures at the university on chemistry, geometry and mathematics, and natural philosophy. He established a brass foundry in his bedroom, but did his heavier work at George Douglas's foundry, for which he made an engine to drive the lathes, the operation of which had such an enlivening effect on the workmen that the proprietor affirmed that the output was nearly doubled for the same wages. He made an expansometer or instrument for measuring in bulk all metals and solid substances, which so pleased Dr. Brewster that he described and figured it in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal. He experimented upon steam carriages for highways, and hit upon a device for increasing the draught of the engine chimney by the use of waste steam that George Stephenson had adopted, and which has given the locomotive its efficiency.

When it became possible, Nasmyth went to London to visit Henry Maudsley, the great manufacturer of machines, and seek employment in his establishment there. Maudsley's experience with pupil apprentices had not been pleasant, and he was not at first willing to employ him; but when the young man said he would consider himself fortunate if he could even be employed to clean the ashes from the furnaces, Maudsley answered, "So you are of that sort, are you?" and his heart was opened at once. Nasmyth exhibited his drawings the next day, and Maudsley instituted him his assistant workman, or private secretary, as no apprenticeship was needed in his case. His first work was on a machine for generating "original screws"; next, in connection with the construction of two small models of engines, he invented a device for exactly reducing bolt-nuts. Being given a month's vacation in the fall of 1830, he went to Liverpool to witness the performance of George Stephenson's locomotive, "The Rocket." With the desire to see all he could on his return of the mechanical, architectural, and picturesque, he determined to walk leisurely back to London. He was impressed with the pretty surroundings of Manchester, especially as seen from the Patricroft Bridge; visited the cotton mills, and continued his walk to London, occupied with the thought of settling down in the busy neighborhood he had just left.

Mr. Maudsley died in February, 1831, and Mr. Nasmyth continued to work with his partner, Mr. Field, till the latter part of that year, when, in the twenty-third year of his age, he decided to go into business for himself. Mr. Field was pleased with his intention, and gave him facilities for starting. He went to Edinburgh and set up a small temporary shop, where he made himself a set of engineering tools. He subsequently chose Manchester as his permanent place of business. He found a shop in an eligible situation, with convenient appurtenances, but in a building occupied by other tenants. The time of his starting in Manchester was an auspicious one for his business. Workmen of all kinds were short of the demand, and, taking advantage of the scarcity, were disposed to be careless, irregular, and insubordinate, and machine tools, which would not get drunk or go on strike and were unfailingly regular and accurate, were in great request. Mr. Nasmyth got his full share of the work of supplying these tools: planing machines, slide laths, drilling, boring, and slotting machines, and others; and orders pouring in upon him, his flat became loaded with work. He having constructed an engine that was almost too large for the shop, one end of the beam, while it was being taken apart for shipment, crushed through the floor, disturbing the tenant below, and it had become evident that he needed a larger shop. He found a site within the very landscape that had attracted his attention years before, as he was resting at the Patricroft Bridge. He built there the celebrated Bridgewater Foundry, and took in Mr. Holbrook Gaskell as a partner. Observing the inconvenience and danger attending the operation of the foundry ladle then in use, he invented the screw safety ladle, with which, he says, some twelve or sixteen tons of molten iron could be decanted "with as much neatness and exactness as the pouring out of a glass of wine from a decanter."

The maxim of the Bridgewater Foundry, "Free trade in ability," was put in force early in its operation. By this maxim was meant promotion of the workmen according to the skill and activity they displayed, without regard to the kind of apprenticeship they had served. This conflicted with the rule of the trades unions, which required a seven years' apprenticeship, and the inevitable strike and picketing occurred. Workmen were brought from Scotland, the trades unions were conquered, and the foundry continued to practice and exemplify its maxim unmolested. The practice was "to employ intelligent, well-conducted young lads, the sons of laborers or mechanics, and advance them by degrees according to their merits. They took charge of the smaller machine tools, by which the minor details of the machines in progress were brought into exact form. . . . A spirit of emulation was excited among them. They vied with each other in executing their work with precision. Those who excelled were paid an extra weekly wage. In course of time they took pride not only in the quantity but in the quality of their work, and in the long run became skillful mechanics. . . . The best of them remained in our service, because they knew our work and were pleased with their surroundings; while we, on our part, were always desirous of retaining the men we had trained, because we knew we could depend upon them."

The rapid extension of railroad construction, and the orders that consequently came in, led to much attention being given at Bridgewater to the building of locomotives, for which the machine tools used there gave great advantages. The Great Western Railway Company ordered twenty large engines, offering to add £100 to the contract price of each if they proved satisfactory. The premiums came, and with them a letter from the board of directors of the company offering to stand as references as to the quality of Messrs. Nasmyth and Gaskell's work. The Great Western Railway Company having successfully dispatched its steamship Great Western between Bristol and New York, and having elected to construct another steamer, the Great Britain, procured tools for making the engines from the Bridgewater Foundry. They were perplexed, however, about the forging of the intermediate paddle shaft, which was to be of a size never before attempted. They applied to Mr. Nasmyth, and he devised the steam hammer, the most famous of his inventions—an instrument with which, as he says in his autobiography, the workman might, "as it were, think in blows. He might deal them out on to the ponderous glowing mass and mold or knead it into the desired form as if it were a lump of clay; or pat it with gentle taps, according to his will, or at the desire of the forgeman." All was going well for setting the hammer in operation, when the plan of the vessel was changed by the introduction of the screw propeller, which rendered the immense shaft unnecessary. No patent was taken out for this invention, but the drawings of it were kept in the shop, open to the inspection of visitors. Among those who looked at them were M. Schneider, and M. Bourdon, his foreman, of the great iron works at Creuzot, France. A few years afterward, when Mr. Nasmyth visited Creuzot, he admired the excellence of a certain piece of machinery, and asked M. Bourdon how the crank had been forged. M. Bourdon replied, "It was forged by your steam hammer." Mr. Nasmyth. was then taken to the forge department, where he saw this "thumping child of his brain," which for him had existed only in his books, at work. The foreman had recollected the drawings, and embodied them substantially in the machine. Mr. Nasmyth at once secured a patent, introduced some improvements, and made the construction of the steam hammers a branch of his business. Though he was prompt enough in explaining to them the merits of his invention, it took considerable time to arouse the official minds of the Lords of the Admiralty, "who are very averse to introducing new methods of manufacture to the dockyards." But after he had furnished hammers to the principal manufacturers of England and had sent them abroad, these dignitaries learned in the course of three years that a new power in forging had been introduced. A deputation visited the foundry to see the invention, and were pleased and "astonished at its range, power, and docility." An order came for a hammer for the Devonport Dockyard. Their lordships were present when the hammer was started, and Mr. Nasmyth "passed it through its paces." He made it break an eggshell in a wineglass without injuring the glass. It was as neatly effected by the two-and-a-half-ton hammer as if it had been done with an egg spoon. Then "I had a great mass of hot iron swung out of the furnace by a crane and placed upon the anvil block. Down came the hammer on it with ponderous blows. My lords scattered and flew to the extremities of the workshop, for the splashes and sparks of hot metal flew about. I went on with the hurtling blows of the hammer and kneaded the mass of iron as if it had been clay." Orders followed to supply all the royal dockyards with a complete equipment of steam hammers.

The extension of the docks at Devonport called for an immense amount of pile driving. The contractor for the work had witnessed the operation of the steam hammer, and asked Mr. Nasmyth if the principle could not be applied to the pile driver. Such a pile driver was constructed. It was tested. Two piles of equal length and diameter were selected, one to be driven with the new machine and the other in the old way. The result was four minutes and a half with the former to twelve hours with the latter; and the steam-driven piles were hardly bruised, while the others suffered in the usual way.

Mr. Nasmyth had the satisfaction of seeing many of his mechanical notions adopted by rival or competing machine constructors, with or without acknowledgment. By the steady application of the rule of "free trade in ability" the factory was kept above trouble with the trades unions, being always able to find competent and interested hands to take the place of those who might be disposed to go out on strike; and it was a source of the greatest pleasure to the proprietor, "when looking round the warehouses and factories, to see the intelligent, steady energy that pervaded every department, from the highest to the lowest." Other features of the Bridgewater factory were the manufacture of small engines for various purposes, in which a large business was done; the utilization of waste steam for heating and drying; improvements effected in calico-printing machinery; the furnishing of machine tools to the Woolwich Arsenal, which Mr. Nasmyth had found, when he inspected it, "better fitted for a museum of technical antiquity than for practical use in these days of rapid mechanical progress"; and the supply of rope-making machinery—a new line of work—to the Russian Naval Arsenal at Nikolaiev, on the Black Sea.

In 1854 Mr. Nasmyth took out a patent for puddling iron by means of steam, in which the superfluous carbon was removed by the oxygen arising from the decomposition of the steam. About a year afterward Mr. Bessemer brought out his invention for effecting the same purpose by a blast of air, and it totally eclipsed Mr. Nasmyth's process; but Mr. Nasmyth consoled himself with the thought that he was a kind of pioneer of the invention, and Mr. Bessemer offered him a third share of the interest in it. But Mr. Nasmyth "was just then taking down his signboard and leaving business," and thankfully declined the offer. He bought a place near Penshurst in Kent, and naming it Hammerfield, after his hammers and the family crest, retired to it in 1857, when he was forty-eight years old, and spent the rest of his life there.

Here he indulged himself with complete freedom in the study of astronomy, in which he had been engaged as an avocation for many years. He had made a very effective six-inch reflecting telescope as early as 1827, and had instructed Mr. Maudsley in the art three years later. He then made a speculum ten inches in diameter—composing the alloy himself—of such quality as evoked admiration from Mr. Lassell, and cast a thirteen-inch speculum for Mr. Warren de la Rue, whose interest in astronomy had been awakened by witnessing his processes. With his ten-inch telescope he began observations in a general way, which gradually became particular. In time he substituted for this a twenty-inch reflector with improvements that made it more convenient to use, and in 1843 began his systematic researches on the moon, making careful drawings in black and white of the features that attracted attention, and thereby training his eye for more accurate observation. A series of these drawings, with a large map of the whole visible surface of the moon, was first exhibited at the Edinburgh meeting of the British Association in 1850, and afterward at the Great Industrial Exhibition of 1851—where, besides a council medal for his steam hammer, Mr. Nasmyth was given a complimentary notice for the lunar pictures—and to the Queen and Prince Consort personally. In the course of his astronomical observations he turned to consider the causes of the sun's light and other phenomena of light and heat. In May, 1851, he sent a communication to the Astronomical Society embodying his views that the light of the sun was simply the result of an action on that body of ethereal matter distributed through space unevenly, so that its intensity would vary as the system passed through different regions; that variability in stars might be thus accounted for; and that our Glacial period was produced by the solar system passing through a region deficient in power of luminosity. Mr. Nasmyth found afterward that these views were paralleled in some features of the theory of the sun enunciated by Dr. Siemens in 1882. He delivered a lecture on the Structure of the Lunar Surfaces before the Edinburgh Philosophical Society in 1858, and in 1874 brought out his book on The Moon considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite—a work which at once made its mark in selenological literature. He busied himself also with the study of the spots on the sun, and made the novel discovery of the willow-leaved structure of the solar surface, which attracted universal attention among astronomers. Sir John Herschel complimented him upon it in his Outlines of Astronomy; the astronomers at Greenwich made observations that confirmed it; and Father Secchi was trying to illustrate it by sprinkling rice grains over a blackboard covered with glue at the very moment Nasmyth was introduced to him by their fellow-astronomer Otto von Struve. We should mention, too, in connection with his astronomical studies the paper which he presented to the Royal Astronomical Society about 1851 on the Rotatory Movements of Celestial Bodies, which was suggested by the motion of that kind acquired by water running out of the bottom of a basin. Mr. Nasmyth was also interested in microscopy, and studied twenty-seven forms of infusoria in the water of the Bridgewater Canal; in photography, and made models of parts of the moon's surface and photographed them; in the origin of the form of the Pyramids, which he attributed to the appearance of the sun's rays streaming through clouds; and to the derivation of the cuneiform characters from the shapes of the impressions made by striking soft clay with the corner of a parallelogram-shaped instrument. He wrote Remarks on Tools and Machinery in Baker's Elements of Mechanics (1858).