Wilson, Robert (1803-1882) (DNB00)

WILSON, ROBERT (1803–1882), engineer, was born in 1803 at Dunbar, Haddingtonshire, where his father, a fisherman, was drowned in 1810. When quite a child he became an expert sculler, and he conceived the idea of making a propeller to be fixed to the stern of vessels. After a meagre education, he removed from Dunbar on being apprenticed to a joiner. The problem of his propeller continued to occupy his attention, and in 1827 his model was brought by James Hunter under the notice of the Earl of Lauderdale, who, after satisfying himself as to the feasibility of the invention, promised to introduce it to the admiralty. In the following year a committee of the Highland Society proved the success of the plan, and granted Wilson 10l. on condition of receiving the model. In 1832 he was awarded a silver medal by the Scottish Society of Arts, and the invention was brought by them before the admiralty. It was discussed by the officials with scant courtesy, though they afterwards, in 1840, adopted the similar invention of Sir Francis Pettit Smith [q. v.] Wilson, after spending a few years in Edinburgh as an engineer, removed to Manchester, and in 1838 was manager of James Nasmyth's Bridgwater foundry at Patricroft, near that city. He had an important share in perfecting the steam-hammer invented by James Nasmyth [q. v.] Wilson's share in the tool was its self-acting motion, which was patented by Nasmyth in July 1843. The first hammer was in use at the Low Moor ironworks, near Bradford, Yorkshire, from August 1843 to 1853, when Wilson, who was then engineer of that establishment, added to it the ‘circular balanced valve.’ In 1856, on the retirement of Nasmyth, he left Low Moor and became managing partner of the firm of Nasmyth, Wilson, & Co. He afterwards constructed the great double-acting hammer at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal, this improved action being patented in 1861. In 1880 the war department made him a grant of 500l. for the use of his double-action screw-propeller as applied to the fish torpedo. The history of his first great invention is contained in a pamphlet which he published in 1860, and republished in 1880, entitled ‘The Screw Propeller: who invented it?’ Between 1842 and 1880 he took out twenty-four patents for valves, pistons, propellers, and hydraulic and other machinery. His first patent for an hydraulic packing-press was taken out in conjunction with Nasmyth in 1856, and he subsequently made many improvements in this successful machine.

He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1873, and was a member of the Royal Scottish Society of Arts. He died at Matlock, Derbyshire, on 28 July 1882, and was buried at St. Catherine's, Barton-on-Irwell, not far from his residence, Ellesmere House, Patricroft. He was twice married, and left four sons and four daughters.

He is to be distinguished from another Robert Wilson, inspector for the Manchester Steam Users' Association, and author of a ‘Treatise on Steam Boilers,’ 1873, and ‘Boiler and Factory Chimneys,’ 1877.

[Manchester Guardian, 1 Aug. 1882; Engineer, 4 Aug. 1882; Axon's Lancashire Gleanings, 1883, p. 297; Rowlandson's History of the Steam Hammer, Eccles, 1864; Chambers's Encyclopædia, 1892, ix. 706; Specifications of Patents; Manchester City News, 15 Jan. 1898.]

C. W. S.