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A brilliant and successful engineer, Nasmyth contributed much to the development of engineering practice, and was the inventor of the steam hammer. This appliance revolutionized the methods of forging and made possible the making of forgings of a size previously thought impracticable


James NasmythTHOSE who believe in the transmission of qualities from parent to child can legitimately quote in support the life of the engineer James Nasmyth. His father, although a fashionable Edinburgh portrait painter, had a considerable amount of mechanical talent, being credited, amongst other things, with the invention of the bow bridge, a type revived in such great modern examples as those at Sydney and Newcastle. Nasmyth’s father also made the drawings for the famous pioneer steamboat which, in 1788, was tried out on Dalswinton Loch, Dumfriesshire.

James Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh on August 19, 1808. He records having met such distinguished men as James Watt and Sir Walter Scott. The boy’s early education was somewhat piecemeal, but his father taught him drawing and the use of tools. Later, he attended the Edinburgh High School for three years, leaving in 1820 with, he says, “some Latin” only.

He forthwith set about repairing his deficiencies in other branches of learning by studying mathematics, mechanics and chemistry, attending classes in these subjects and lectures on them at the University. While at school, however, he had spent most of his spare time in haunting the foundry and workshops of an engineer friend or working in the brass foundry which he had set rip in his own bedroom.

At the age of seventeen he made a small steam engine which ground his father’s colours. Two years afterwards, because of a model steam carriage he had built, he was commissioned by the Scottish Society of Arts to make a full-size machine. This was a four-wheeled carriage with front steering and carried eight passengers. It was the first steam carriage to travel on Scottish roads, but, although it was successful, the Society seemed to tire of it and finally presented it to its maker.

About this time Nasmyth determined to attempt to enter the works of Henry Maudslay, one of the leading engineers of the day. The works were at that time situated at the Surrey end of Westminster Bridge, London. Armed only with a model engine and some drawings he had made, Nasmyth set out for London in May 1829 in a Leith smack. At first he had no success, as Maudslay, having found pupils so unsatisfactory, was determined to take no more; but the model and drawings proved on examination to be so excellent that Nasmyth was eventually installed as personal assistant, to Maudslay.

Nasmyth’s wages in this coveted position were at first only ten shillings a week, but on this small sum he contrived to live contentedly. His only holiday was an excursion, in September 1830, to witness the trials of the famous locomotive Rocket at Rainhill, Lancs. He walked back to London, visiting such factories as lay in his way, and managed the three weeks’ holiday on £7.

Mr. Maudslay died in 1831 and, though his partner, Mr. Field, retained Nasmyth’s services, the young man decided after a time to set up for himself. Having returned to Edinburgh, he spent the next year or two in doing engineering jobs for sundry clients, and in making machine tools with which to equip his projected works. He had decided upon Manchester as a promising centre, and in 1834 started his factory there on one floor of an old mill near the centre of the city. His total capital was only £63, and he had but a single assistant. Orders began to come in, and Nasmyth’s training in accurate work under Maudslay soon established his reputation.

More men were employed and the shop became crowded with work. By 1836 Nasmyth had sufficient money to lease a piece of land at Patricroft, near Manchester. On this site was raised a fine factory, the Bridgewater Foundry, and the firm of Nasmyth and Gaskell started its prosperous career.

One of the firm’s early orders was for twenty locomotives for the Great Western Railway. The manufacture of locomotives is still a staple of the modern firm of Nasmyth, Wilson and Co, Ltd. It was at the Bridgewater Foundry in 1839 that Nasmyth’s invented an appliance which revolutionized the method of forging, namely the steam hammer. The occasion of the invention was that a shaft of 30 in diameter was wanted for the projected paddle steamer Great Britain. The existing tilt hammers, worked by a big cam, were inadequate.

The inventive mind of Nasmyth speedily solved the problem and he sketched in his Scheme Book the hammer virtually as we know it to-day. Then came the news that the ship would have a screw and that such a big shaft was not necessary. The steam hammer thus remained only a sketch as far as Great Britain was concerned. But in April 1842 Nasmyth was visiting the famous Schneider works at Le Creusot, France, where to his great surprise he saw his hammer at work. A year or two earlier M. Schneider and his manager had been visiting Patricroft and, having been shown the Scheme Book, had realized the value of

the idea.

Nasmyth suggested a few alterations to the hammer and the incident then ended, but later he obtained an English patent and the steam hammer was widely adopted. A useful modification was the steam pile-driver. The form of the steam hammer suggested the vertical engine which at one time was to be seen in the majority of steamers. The success of the Bridgewater Foundry was such that it enabled Nasmyth to retire from business at the age of forty-eight and to devote himself to astronomy. He died on May 7, 1890, aged eighty-two.

[From part 10, published 4 May 1937]

James Nasmyth