Grace's Guide

British Industrial History

James Nasmyth

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1868.
James Nasmyth
1920.
James Hall Nasmyth (1808–1890).
His steam hammer.
His first hammer.
1840. Drilling machine.
1856. Grooving machine or recessing drill.
1856. Double lathe.
1930. Nasmyths Sketch of the Rocket.

James Hall Nasmyth (1808–1890) of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Co and J. Nasmyth and Co was a Scottish engineer, inventor and entrepreneur, famous for his development of the steam hammer.

1808 August 19th. Born in Edinburgh the son of Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), a landscape painter and his wife Barbara Foulis. He was the tenth of eleven children. His older brother George Nasmyth also became an engineer

One of Alexander's hobbies was mechanics and he employed nearly all his spare time in his workshop where he encouraged his youngest son to work with him in all sorts of materials.

James was sent to the High School where he had as a friend Jemmy Patterson, the son of a local iron founder. Being already interested in mechanics he spent much of his time at the foundry and there he gradually learned to work and turn in wood, brass, iron, and steel.

1820 He left the High School and again made great use of his father's workshop where at the age of 17, he made his first steam engine.

1828 James made a complete steam carriage that was capable of running a mile carrying 8 passengers. This accomplishment increased his desire to become a mechanical engineer. He had heard of the fame of Henry Maudslay's workshop and resolved to get employment there. With this object in view he drew out and carefully constructed a small steam engine, every bit of which was hand made.

1829 Went to London and called on Maudslay, taking his drawings and steam engine with him, and as a result Maudslay appointed him his own private workman at 10 shillings a week. Maudslay died two years later, and Nasmyth was taken on by Maudslay's partner Joshua Field as a draughtsman.

1831 When Nasmyth was 23 years old he decided to set up in business on his own and returned to Edinburgh.

1834 He eventually decided to move to and eventually settled in Patricroft, an area in the town of Eccles, Lancashire and set up in premises in Dale Street

In August 1836, the Bridgewater Foundry was opened after he formed a partnership with Holbrook Gaskell and his brother George

1840 In the summer Nasmyth married Anne Hartop, the daughter of an ironworks manager in Barnsley, and at about the same time he began to receive orders from the newly-opened railways which were beginning to cover the country, for locomotives. His connection with the Great Western Railway, whose famous steamship SS Great Western had been so successful in voyaging between Bristol and New York, led to him being asked to make some machine tools of unusual size and power which were required for the construction of the engines of their next and bigger ship SS Great Britain.

When even the largest hammer was tilted to its full height its range was so small that if a really large piece of work were placed on the anvil, the hammer had no room to fall. Faced with this dilemma the constructional engineer, Francis Humphrys, wrote to Nasmyth. Nasmyth thought the matter over and seeing the obvious defects of the tilt-hammer, that a small object was struck a heavy blow while a large object, which required a much heavier blow, received only a light one, sketched out his idea for the first steam hammer.

1840 April. Nasmyth visited France with a view to supplying the French arsenals and dockyards with tools and while he was there took the opportunity to visit the Creuzot Works. On going round the works, he found his own steam-hammer at work. On his return to England, Nasmyth immediately patented the hammer and began manufacture (see J. Nasmyth and Co). The first hammers were of the free-fall type but they were later modified, given power-assisted fall. Up until the invention of Nasmyth's steam-hammer, large forging, such as ships' anchors, had to be made by the "bit-by-bit" process, that is, small pieces were forged separately and finally welded together. Its advantages soon became so obvious that before long Nasmyth hammers were to be found in all the large workshops all over the country.

1843 Nasmyth subsequently applied the principle of his steam hammer to a pile-driving machine

Among his many other inventions was a means of transmitting rotary motion by means of a flexible shaft made of coiled wire, and a machine for cutting keys grooves, also self-adjusting bearings, a steam ram and a hydraulic press. He also invented the screw ladle for moving molten metal which could safely and efficiently be handled by one man.

1851 Living at Gorsey, Patricroft (age 43 born Edinburgh), an Engineer. With his wife Ann (age 33 born Sheffield). Two servants. [1]

1856 James Nasmyth Esq, subscribed £10 to the Smith Testimonial Fund, commemorating the work of F. P. Smith in promoting the screw propeller.

1856 He retired from business when he was 48 years old, for as he said "I have now enough of this world's goods: let younger men have their chance". He settled down in Kent where he happily pursued his various hobbies including astronomy. He built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope and made detailed observations of the Moon. He co-wrote The Moon : Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite with James Carpenter (1840–1899). This book contains an interesting series of "lunar" photographs: because photography was not yet advanced enough to take actual pictures of the Moon, Nasmyth built plaster models based on his visual observations of the Moon and then photographed the models. A crater on the Moon is named after him.

1861 Living at Park Gate, Penshurst, Kent (age 52 born Edinburgh), Civil Engineer. With his wife Anne Elizabeth (age 44 born Sheffield). Five servants. [2]

1890 May 7th. Died.[3]

1890 Article on his inventions in 'The Engineer'.

The Steam Hammer, and other Controversies

An excellent account of the work of James Nasmyth, and of the work of the Bridgewater Foundry under Nasmyth, was written by J. A. Cantrell and published in 1985 [4]. This is a thorough, scholarly work, with numerous references and footnotes, and provides a valuable source of information on the engineering industry during the period covered. It critically examines some of the important claims and omissions in Nasmyth's autobiography. A full chapter is devoted to Nasmyth’s claims regarding the invention of the steam hammer. This topic was also examined by Dr Cantrell in a paper to the Newcomen Society [5]

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. 1861 Census
  3. The Engineer 1890/05/09, p383.
  4. 'James Nasmyth and the Bridgewater Foundry' by J A Cantrell, 1984. ISBN 0 7190 1339 9
  5. 'James Nasmyth and the Steam Hammer' by J. A. Cantrell, Trans. Newcomen Society, Vol. 56 1984-85