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Although he could write only with difficulty because of his lack of education, James Brindley was a man of genius in mechanical affairs. To him Great Britain owed the complex system of canals which contributed so much to the growth of industry


William Murdock

RIGHT-HAND man of the great James Watt, William Murdock was endowed with abundant talent and contributed much to engineering history. His well-deserved fame, however, has been largely obscured by that of his illustrious employer. In Watt's service, and in that of his successors, nearly the whole of Murdock's working life was spent.

William Murdock, the son of a farmer millwright of a hamlet near Old Cummock, Ayrshire, was born in 1754 and, after a period spent in herding cattle, was brought up in his father's trade. The work was miscellaneous and called for inventiveness. Thus he was employed to build a bridge across the River Nith, near Dumfries. At the age of twenty-three, having learnt that a new type of steam engine was being manufactured by the firm of Boulton and Watt, he journeyed to Birmingham in search of a job. Fortunately for him, Watt was absent when he called, for the great engineer had told Sir Walter Scott that Scotsmen did not make good mechanics; the Clyde to-day could tell a different story.

Matthew Boulton, Watt’s Partner, interviewed the young man who stood shyly in front of him hat in hand. That hat after a while attracted Boulton's attention; it seemed to be painted. Examination showed it to be made of wood and turned, as Murdock said, on a lathe that he had made himself. A lathe that can turn an oval shape such as is required for a hat needs both considerable knowledge to design and skill to build. Boulton, having recognized this, gave Murdock a trial, ultimately engaging him for two years at 15s a week, with an extra 2s when away from the Soho works.

Once installed, Murdock quickly proved his worth. He was sent to Cornwall in 1779 to erect Watt engines at the mines, of which by the summer of 1780 some twenty were at work. This task was not easy, as the Cornishmen were for the most part hostile, because they considered the dues charged for the engines excessive. Murdock, however - industrious, conscientious and loyal - eventually succeeded where Watt himself had failed, and when he left Cornwall in 1798 his loss was sincerely regretted by the miners.

During this Cornish period, Murdock made an invention from which has arisen a great modern industry, and he came near to being the first to create the locomotive. In his leisure time Murdock built a model steam carriage which, though only small, proved powerful and speedy - so much so indeed that on one occasion it outran its inventor and gave a bad fright to the Vicar of Redruth, who met it in the dark. Had Murdock persevered in this direction he might have anticipated Trevithick with the railway locomotive, but his efforts were frowned upon by Boulton and Watt, as they feared that his attention would be directed from their pumping engines. The model was working between 1782 and 1786.

Murdock's other invention - lighting with coal gas - met with a better fate, though it brought him no monetary reward. One or two investigators had previously found out that the gas driven off by heating coal was inflammable, but it was Murdock who first made practical use of the phenomenon. In 1792 he had lighted his house at Redruth (Cornwall) with gas and had even made use of portable gas lanterns. In 1794, when on a visit to Soho, Birmingham, he urged that the matter be taken up and gas-lighting patented, but the invention was allowed to remain dormant. In 1801 a Frenchman proposed to light a Paris street with gas, and this started Murdock on fresh investigations. In 1802 gas lighting was introduced at the Soho works, and the manufacture of gas-making plant was begun there in the following year.

This step enabled Boulton and Watt to contest a patent taken out by a German in connexion with a scheme for lighting London, and it was not until 1807 that the new illuminant made its appearance there. After that year the use of coal gas for lighting spread rapidly. What the industry has developed into may be gathered from the account of the activities of the Gas Light and Coke Company, which is given in the chapter “The Story of Gas Production”. Murdock's part in the introduction of gas lighting was not, however, entirely unrecognized, as in the year 1808 he was awarded the Rumford Gold Medal by the Royal Society for his paper upon the subject.

Murdock is credited with the invention of the sun-and-planet gear for converting a reciprocating into a rotary motion. This ingenious device Watt was driven to adopt when he had been forestalled by the patent of a rival in the application of the simple crank to the steam engine. Murdock invented the transmission of parcels by compressed air, a device still used by the Post Office and by large stores. He used compressed air as a motive power in a number of other ways, such as a lift for handling large castings.

Boulton died in 1809 and Watt in 1819, but for some time the firm had been carried on by their sons, Watt having retired in 1800. Murdock, although lamenting the loss of his two friends, as they had become, did not sever his connexion with the firm, but continued to busy himself with all that went on almost up to the end of his life. Murdock died peacefully at his house, not far from the works, on November 15, 1839, and is buried near his friends at Handsworth (Staffs).

[From part 14, published 1 June 1937]

You can

“Early Steam Coaches”,

“James Watt” and

“The Story of Gas Production”

on this website.

You can

“The Story of the Locomotive” in Railway Wonders of the World

William Murdock