Origin of Steam Navigation, pp.270-276.

[Scottish National Memorials Contents]

   The series of drawings and models, etc., here enumerated, present in a compendious form memoranda and illustrations of the early stages of Steam Navigation, a subject, the history of which is too vast to be here treated of. As, however, it is an invention which in its inception and early stages was distinctively Scottish, a few notes of leading facts which bear also on the objects shown may not be out of place. Leaving out of account the experiments of the Marquis de Jouffroy in France, and of Fitch and Romsey in America, which led to no practical result, it may be said that the first occasion on which any vessel was really propelled in water by a steam-engine was on 14th October 1788. This took place on Dalswinton Loch in the county of Dumfries; and the man to whom the credit of this successful experiment is due was Mr. Patrick Miller, of Dalswinton, a wealthy banker in Edinburgh, who devoted much time and money to improvements in agriculture and the mechanical arts, but especially to naval matters. He was a partner in the Carron Company, and the inventor of the Carronade, which became famous, and did enormous service in naval artillery. The circumstances connected with this first experiment in steam navigation are conciselv stated by Mr. Nasmyth in his autobiography (London, Murray, 1885, p. 28, et seq.). 

   ‘Miller found that my father’s taste for mechanical contrivances, and also his ready skill as a draughtsman, were likely to be of much use to him, and he constantly visited the studio. My father reduced Miller’s ideas to a definite form, and prepared a series of drawings, which were afterwards engraved and published. Miller’s favourite design was, to divide the vessel into twin or triple hulls, with paddles between them, to be worked by the crew. The principal experiment was made in the Firth of Forth on the 2d of June 1787. The vessel was double-hulled, and was worked by a capstan of five bars. The experiment was on the whole successful. But the chief difficulty was in the propulsive power. After a spurt of an hour or so, the men became tired with their laborious work. Mr. Taylor, student of divinity, and tutor of Mr. Miller’s sons, was on board, and seeing the exhausted state of the men at the capstan, suggested the employment of steam-power. Mr. Miller was pleased with the idea, and resolved to make inquiry upon the subject. 

   ‘At that time William Symington, a young engineer from Wanlockhead, was exhibiting a road locomotive in Edinburgh. He was a friend of Taylor’s, and Mr. Miller went to see the Symington model. In the course of his conversation with the inventor, he informed the latter of his own project, and described the difficulty which he had experienced in getting his paddle-wheels turned round. On which Symington immediately asked “Why don’t you use the steam-engine?” The model that Symington exhibited produced rotary motion by the employment of ratchet-wheels. The rectilinear motion of the piston-rod was thus converted into rotary motion. Mr. Miller was pleased with the action of the ratchet-wheel contrivance, and gave Symington an order to make a pair of engines of that construction. They were to be used on a small pleasure-boat on Dalswinton Lake. 

   ‘The boat was constructed on the double-hull or twin plan, so that the paddle should be used in the space between the hulls. After much vexatious delay, arising from the entire novelty of the experiment, the boat and engines were at length completed, and removed to Dalswinton Lake. This, the first steamer that ever “trod the waters like a thing of life,” the herald of a new and mighty power, was tried on the 14th of October 1788. The vessel steamed delightfully, at the rate of from four to five miles an hour, though this was not her extreme rate of speed. I append a copy of a sketch made by my father of this, the first actual steamboat, with her remarkable crew. 

   ‘The persons on board consisted of Patrick Miller, William Symington, Sir William Monteith, Robert Burns (the poet, then a tenant of Mr. Miller’s), William Taylor, and Alexander Nasmyth. There were also three of Mr. Miller’s servants, who acted as assistants. On the edge of the lake was a young gentleman, then on a visit to Dalswinton. He was no less a person than Henry Brougham, afterwards Lord Chancellor of England.1 The assemblage of so many remarkable men was well worthy of the occasion.’ 

   In 1789 an experiment on a larger scale was made by Miller with an engine also supplied to one of his boats by Symington, and in December of that year a speed of seven miles an hour was got on the Forth and Clyde Canal. After thus demonstrating the practicability of steam navigation Patrick Miller ceased to interest himself in the subject, apparently because James Watt considered Symington’s engines as an attempt to evade his exclusive privilege, though the great inventor ‘thought it best to leave them to be judged by Dame Nature first’ before he ‘brought them into an earthly Court.’ Watt at that time had no sanguine views as to the probable success of steam navigation, and declined to associate himself with Miller’s enterprise. On his own showing, Mr. Miller ‘expended in a long course of hazardous experiments 10,000 guineas with a view to benefit mankind,’ and for that expenditure he received no return. 

   Symington, however, was not deterred from continuing his efforts to promote steam navigation. After more than ten years’ quiet working and waiting, the young engineer found a sympathetic and generous patron in Lord Dundas, who had known something of his previous experiments. That nobleman commissioned Symington to build a steamer, and his lordship defrayed all expenses. The steamer, ‘Charlotte Dundas,’ named after Lord Dundas’s daughter, was built at Grangemouth, and launched in 1801. The engine was constructed by the Carron Company from designs by Symington, and under his personal superintendence. She plied frequently and successfully on the Forth and Clyde Canal, besides towing vessels up the river Carron from the Firth of Forth. Among those who are said to have sailed in her was Fulton, who, a few years after, began steam navigation in America, and Bell, who later still (in 1812) built and launched the ‘Comet’ on the Clyde. The career of the Charlotte Dundas’ was cut short by the canal authorities, who feared damage to the banks from the wash of her paddle-wheels. This reverse, however, did not daunt either Symington or his noble patron, for the former – at the instance of Lord Dundas, as before – built a second ‘Charlotte Dundas’ which was even more successful than the first, but had to be laid aside by a fresh interdict from the directors of the canal. 

   Misfortune dogged the steps of the unfortunate Symington. On the successful issue of his Forth and Clyde Canal experiments, the Duke of Bridgwater ordered from him eight steamboats for his canal, but on the same day on which he was served with the interdict from the Canal Committee, he received notice of the Duke’s death. 

   Robert Fulton, it is said, was born in Beith, Ayrshire, but he is generally spoken of as an American engineer. It is certain he spent several years in Europe, that he knew of Symington’s experiments, and was supplied with information by Henry Bell, if he did not actually inspect the ‘Charlotte Dundas.’ He made experiments on the Seine in 1803; in that year he ordered from Boulton & Watt an engine for a boat to be built in America, the principal parts of which were shipped in 1805, and in 1807 the ‘Clermont’ was launched, and commenced running between New York and Albany, making the trip of 150 miles in from thirty to thirty-two hours. 

   In 1811 Henry Bell of Helensburgh, who had been associated with Symington’s experiments, ordered from Mr. John Wood of Port-Glasgow a vessel which he designed for passenger traffic on the Clyde, between Glasgow and Greenock. He purchased from Mr. John Robertson, engineer in Glasgow, a ready-made engine of 3 horse-power, which was fitted into the boat, and the steamer ‘Comet’ complete was launched in June 1812. The vessel was advertised to ply regularly on alternate days from Glasgow and Greenock, from the 5th of August of that year, the following being a copy of the first European Steamboat Bill:- ‘The Steamboat “Comet” between Glasgow, Greenock, and Helensburgh, for passengers only. – The subscriber, having at much expense fitted up a handsome vessel to ply upon the river Clyde, from Glasgow and Greenock, to sail by the power of air, wind, and steam: He intends that the vessel shall leave the Broomielaw on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, about mid-day, or such an hour thereafter as may answer from the state of the tide; and to leave Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, in the morning, to suit the tide. The elegance, comfort, safety, and speed of this vessel require only to be seen to meet the approbation of the public; and the proprietor is determined to do everything in his power to merit general support. The terms are for the present fixed at 4s. for the best cabin, and 3s. for the second; but, beyond these rates, nothing is to be allowed to servants, or any person employed about the vessel. “Henry Bell.” Helensburgh, 5th August 1812.” ’ 

   The experience of the first season was, however, unfavourable, and during the winter the boat was lengthened from 40 to 60 feet, and the horse-power of the engine was increased. In 1813 steamboat-building began to be an important industry on the banks of the Clyde. 

   ELEVATION, SECTION, PLAN, AND VIEWS of triple vessel, and of wheels to communicate motion through the water to said vessel; invented by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton; built at Leith, 1786, and named the ‘Edinburgh.’ These are the engravings prepared from the original drawings of Alexander Nasmyth, mentioned in the above-quoted extract from the autobiography of James Nasmyth. 


   MODEL, double-hulled boat, driven by paddle-wheels and manual labour; designed by Patrick Miller, Dalswinton, 1787. This is the boat with which steam propulsion was first attempted. 


   DRAWING, of the steamboat built for Miller in 1787. 


   LATERAL SECTION, of the original steamboat built for Miller in 1787. 


   DRAWING, of the ‘Charlotte Dundas,’ the steamboat of William Symington, 1801-2, built at Grangemouth by Alexander Hart, and supplied with a 10 h.-p. engine, constructed according to Symington’s new patent at the Carron Ironworks. The vessel had a single stern paddle-wheel, placed in a cavity 12 ft. long by 4 ft. wide, which the engine worked directly by a connecting rod attached to a crank. See pp. xxiv and xxv of Macquorn Rankine’s ‘Historical Sketch relating chiefly to the Steam-Engine,’ in his Manual of the Steam-Engine (London and Glasgow: Griffin. 1859.) (See Fig. 189.) 


   PORTRAIT, of Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, by Alexander Nasmyth. (See Fig. 190.) 

(1301) Lent by MISS GREGAN. 

   VIEW, of Dalswinton House and the loch on which the experiments in steam navigation were made in 1788. 


   DRAWING, of Miller’s Boat, under steam, on Dalswinton Loch, 1788. This drawing is the work of Alexander Nasmyth, and has been reproduced in Bennett Woodcroft’s Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation and in James Nasmyth: an Autobiography


   SKETCH PORTRAIT, of William Symington, by D. O. Hill, R.A., about 1830. 


   WOODCUT – Dalswinton Loch Boat, fitted with engines by Symington in 1788. 

(1304) Lent by W. H. RANKINE. 

   DRAWING, of the ‘Clermont,’ 1807. 


   DRAWING of Henry Bell’s ‘Comet,’ 1811-12. See the late Professor Macquorn’ Rankine’s Manual of the Steam-Engine. (See Fig. 191.) 


   CYLINDER, of the Engine of the ‘Comet,’ the first steamer that plied on the Clyde, 1812. 


   WORKING DRAWINGS, of the Engine of Symington’s ‘Charlotte Dundas,’ 1803. Three frames. 


   MODEL, of the ‘Charlotte Dundas’ Steamboat, made from parts of the original vessel, which was built and fitted by Mr. William Symington at Grangemouth in 1801. 

(1302) Lent by W. H. RANKINE. 

   WOODCUT – ‘Charlotte Dundas’ 

(1303) Lent by W. H. RANKINE. 


   BAROMETER, which was adjusted and set up by James Watt in Wellhouse, Shettleston, near Glasgow, while working as a philosophical instrument-maker in Glasgow. It has remained as placed by him ever since. 

(1307) Lent by MAJOR G. R. CRUDEN. 

   TWO TRAYS, containing Brace and Thirty-three Bits, presented by James Watt to J. and R. Hart, Mitchell Street, Glasgow, as a mark of his regard, December 19th, 1815. 

(1309) Lent by JOHN YOUNG. 

   LETTER, by James Watt to Messrs, J. and R. Hart, dated Heathfield, Dec. 19, 1815. 

(1310) Lent by JOHN YOUNG. 

   GED’S ‘SALLUST,’ the first book printed from stereotype plates. ‘Edinburgi Gulielmus Ged, Aurifaber Edinensis. non Typis mobilibus ut vulgo fieri solet, sed Tabellis seu Laminis fusis, excudebat MDCCXXXIX.’’ 


   STEREOTYPE PLATES for a portion of Ged’s ‘Sallust.’ These were the first plates made by the inventor of Stereotypy, William Ged, Goldsmith in Edinburgh, for his edition of Sallust, published in 1739. 


   William Ged, the inventor of Stereotypy, was born in Edinburgh in 1690, and was bred to the craft of Goldsmith. About 1725 he conceived the idea of printing from metal casts obtained from the impressions of types, and after working on an experimental scale he went to London, where he entered into a partnership with the view of carrying the process into practice. The undertaking, however, did not succeed, and Ged died broken-hearted at his failure, in London, on the 19th October 1749. He printed from stereotype plates two Prayer-books for Cambridge University, under a contract dated April 23, 1731. Then, at Newcastle in 1742, appeared The Life of God in the Soul of Man, by Henry Scougal – ‘Printed and sold by John White, from Plates made by William Ged, Gold-smith in Edinburgh.’ 

    ORIGINAL MODEL, of the Rev. Patrick Bell’s Reaper, made by the inventor. (See Fig. 192.) 

(1306) Lent by MRS. BELL, 


   The Rev. Patrick Bell, LL.D., minister of Carmylie, the son of a Forfarshire farmer, was the inventor of the first successful reaping machine, and his invention embodied the principle on which all modern reapers are constructed. The circumstances which led to the construction of this first model, and to his reaper, are thus narrated by himself (Journal of Agriculture, vol. xix. 1853-5, p. 187):- ‘One evening after tea, while walking in my father’s garden, my eye caught a pair of gardener’s shears sticking in the hedge. I seized them by the handles which protruded, and I proceeded to snap at the twigs of the thorns. My mind was full of mechanics at the time, and many hours were spent daily in my workshop; and, contemplating the shears attentively, I insensibly said to myself, Here is a principle, and is there any reason why it should not be applied to the cutting down of the corn? Not altogether satisfied with my performance on the hedge, I brushed through it with the shears in my hand to a field of green oats adjoining, and commenced cutting them right and left. It was well that no neighbouring gossip saw me at the unwonted employment, else the rumour might have been readily circulated that the poor student had gone crazed. For weeks and months, by night and by day, these shears were uppermost in my thoughts, and I searched anxiously and indefatigably for the mode in which they should be applied. Plan after plan presented itself to me, and was put upon paper; the merits of each, and the likelihood of its success, were carefully scrutinised and pondered, and eventually I fixed upon the plan now successfully in operation. This took place in the summer of 1827. The next step was to construct a model, and to ascertain how thoughts would look when transferred to steel and iron. This was done; and it was during the process of making the little wooden frame and my puny cutters that the idea of a sloping canvas for conveying the cut corn to the side occurred to me. My first idea was to place the canvas level with the ground, and it was merely because it was more conveniently situated in the model, and pleased the eye better, that the angular position was adopted; so that, in reality, the position and the angle of the canvas were more matters of accident than the result of consideration.’ Principally by the labour of his own hands. Bell, who was then a student at St. Andrews University, constructed a working machine which was tried in 1828. The circumstances of that trial he thus details:- ‘The period now approached that was to decide the merits of the machine. That night I never will forget. Before the corn was perfectly ripe (I had not patience to wait for that) my brother, now farmer of Inchmichael, Carse of Gowrie, and I, resolved to have a quiet and unobserved start by ourselves. That could not be got while the sun was in the heavens, nor for a considerable time after he was set; and, accordingly, about eleven o’clock at night, in a darkish autumn evening. when every man, woman, and child were in their beds, the machine was quietly taken from its quarters, and the good horse Jock was yoked to it, and we trio wended our way across a field of lea to one of standing wheat beyond it – my brother and I speaking the meanwhile to one another in whispers. We reached our destination, and the machine was put in position right in the end of a ridge. My duty was to look ahead, and my brother’s to guide the horse. I gave the word of command to go on, and on the implement went; but it had not proceeded above five or six yards when I called upon my brother to stop. Upon examining the work, we found it far from satisfactory; the wheat was well enough cut, but it was lying in a bundle before the machine. For a moment we were both downcast. But, recollecting myself, I had yet great hope, and said so, the whole of the machine not being used, the reel or collector having been left behind. I ran across the field and brought the reel, and everything connected with it. upon my shoulders, and adjusted it as well as the darkness of the night would permit, and we were soon ready for a second start. Taking our positions respectively as before, the machine moved forward, and now all was right. The wheat was lying by the side of the machine as prettily as any that has been ever cut by it since. After this we merely took it back again to the end of the ridge, and made a cut with the open edge to ascertain how the swathes would lie upon the stubble, with which being well pleased, we, after some pardonable congratulations, moved the machine back to its old quarters as quickly and quietly as possible.’ Dr. Bell, who was born in 1800, received a public testimonial of £1000 in 1867, the only reward he reaped for his important services to agriculture, and he died in 1869. 

   RUSTAL, an Agricultural Implement formerly in use in the Highlands of Scotland. The Rustal or Restle was used in conjunction with the primitive plough. It is provided with a coulter shaped like a sickle, and it was drawn by a horse, one man guiding the animal while another held the stilt and directed the implement. Its function was to clear away roots, tough grass, and other obstructions which would have barred the progress of the comparatively weak and inefficient wooden plough. 


   CASCHROM or CASCHROIM, an agricultural implement intermediate between the plough and the spade formerly in extensive use in the Highlands for turning over the soil and preparing the seed-bed. It consists of a strong bar of wood about six feet long, bent at the end to a thick flat projection, the point of which is shod with a sharp-pointed piece of iron. On the right side, a little above the bend, a stout wooden pin projects about eight inches, on which the foot of the labourer is placed to force the flat sole into and through the ground. The Caschrom was of great use in steep, confined, and rocky situations, where the primitive plough could not be worked, and in operation it yielded some of the advantages to be obtained by spade culture. 


   OLD WOODEN PLOUGH, formerly in use in the Highlands of Scotland. Benbecula. Hebrides. 


   CROCAN, formerly used in the West Highlands for digging potatoes and gathering sea weed. 


1  Brougham was then only ten years of age.

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