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British Industrial History

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William Brunton

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William Brunton's engine.
1899. Brunton's Propeller.
Brunton's Traveller.
1815. Grass hopper engine, Eagle Foundry.

William Brunton (1777-1851) of the Butterley Co.

1777 June 1st. Born at Lochwinnoch, Ayrshire, Scotland, the son of Robert Brunton and Anne Grieve. He was the brother of Robert Brunton and John Brunton

Early worked at the New Lanark Mills.

1796 Joined Boulton and Watt; became manager.

1808 William Brunton became engineer of the Butterley Co in Derbyshire.

1810 October 30th. Married at Dalkeith to Ann Elizabeth Button ( -1845)

1812 Birth of son John Brunton

1813 He took out a patent for a machine which was to go upon legs like a horse. This contrivance had two legs attached to the back part, which, being alternately moved by the engine, pushed it before them. These legs, or propellers, imitated the legs of a man or the fore-legs of a horse, with joints, and when worked by the machine alternately lifted and pressed against the ground or road, propelling the engine forward, as a man shoves a boat ahead by pressing with a pole against the bottom of a river.

This locomotive or 'mechanical traveller', as it was termed by its inventor, moved on a railway at the rate of two and a half miles per hour, with the tractive force of four horses. During 1814 and 1815 it was at work at the Newbottle Colliery

Mr. Brunton's machine, however, never got beyond the experimental state, for, on one of its trials, it unhappily blew up, killing and wounding several of the bystanders, was never repaired, but laid aside as one of the failures of the times.

1814 Brunton left Butterley Works (another source says he terminated an engagement with Rastrick, Foster and Co of Shutt End, Stourbridge[1]), and joined Eagle Foundry

1815 A "grasshopper engine" was erected at Eagle Foundry by William Brunton. The engine worked until 1876[2]

1816 Birth of son Robert Brunton

1817 Birth of son William Brunton

c.1818 Partner at Eagle Foundry

1820 Birth of son James Brunton (1820–1867)

1821 Birth of daughter Marin Brunton (1821- )

1822 Birth of son John Dickinson Brunton

1823 Birth of son George Brunton

1824 William Brunton, Birmingham, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[3]

1827 Moves from Birmingham to London.[4]

1834 Birth of daughter Gwenllian Brunton

1851 Living at Camborne Cross, Camborne, Cornwall: William Brunton (age 33 born Birmingham), a Civil Engineer. With his wife Jane Brunton (age 32 born Todmorden and their children William E. Brunton (age 8 born Manchester), Maria Brunton (age 6 born Neath), Charles R. Brunton (age 3 born Illogan), and John (Frederick) Brunton (age 1 born Camborn). Also his father William Brunton (age 74 born Dalkeith), a Civil Engineer. Also his sister Gwenllian S. Brunton (age 16 born Edmonton). Three servants.[5]

1852 Died


1852 Obituary [6]

Mr. William Brunton was born in May 1777, at Lochwinnoch, Ayrshire, Scotland.

His father was a watch and clock maker, a trade which then engrossed all the minor mechanical works of the district, and in his shop, whilst yet a child, he laid the foundation of his subsequent mechanical proficiency, and under his grandfather, who was a colliery viewer, extensively employed, young William Brunton became familiar with, and interested in, all the engineering operations of the neighbourhood.

After the usual course of a plain education, he was, in the year 1790, put to work in the fitting shops of the New Lanark Mills, then recently erected by David Dale, in conjunction with Sir Richard Arkwright, from whose mills, in Derbyshire, everything in the new establishment was minutely copied, and a new race of cotton machine-makers was reared up.

There young Brunton received the instructions of millwrights, carpenters, smiths, and other workmen, who had returned from the Cromford Mills, where they had been sent for a course of practical instruction.

At New Lanark he remained, usefully employed, for about five years, when being attracted by the fame of the great works at Soho, he migrated to the South, and had the good fortune to be engaged as a workman, by Boulton and Watt, in the year 1796, when they had obtained an extension of their patent, and had just secured a verdict for infringement, against some mine adventurers in Cornwall.

Here he enlarged his scope of information, by diligent study, aided by the great advantage of association with such talented fellow-workmen, as Sotheron, Murdoch, Creighton and others: he gained also the confidence of his employers, and at the early age of twenty-one was sent alone, to the collieries of Mr. Curwen, in Westmoreland, to endeavour to rectify the defects of a pumping engine, which had been erected by the Soho firm. Of the difficulties which he had to encounter in this, his first campaign, he used to speak with great interest, to the latest period of his life.

He remained at Soho until he was made foreman and superintendent of the engine manufactory, and being then brought into close intercourse with Mr. Watt, towards the close of his life, he very frequently attended on him, in his last illness, being summoned to his couch, or to the side of an easy chair, in which the invalid was wheeled, to be within sight of interesting operations which were in progress. To Mr. Watt’s unrepining sufferings, to his unimpaired intellect, and to his peaceful and kindly disposition, at that period, Mr. Brunton was accustomed frequently to recur; and in his own last painful illness (which in some degree resembled that of. Mr. Watt) his friends perceived, that he exhibited the same qualities, which he had so often described, as the characteristics of his honoured friend and master.

In the year 1808, Mr. Brunton left Soho, and joined the Butterley works, then principally the property of the elder Mr. Jessop, and under his management; he there erected fitting shops, and established the manufacture of engines: he a!so represented the firm in many important missions, and thus made the acquaintance, and became the friend of Mr. Rennie, Mr. Telford, and other eminent men of the day, with whom he had business relations.

In 1815 Mr. Brunton left Butterley, and became a partner in and the mechanical manager of the Eagle Foundry, Birmingham, where he remained for ten years, during which time he designed and executed a great variety of important works.

In 1825 his connexion with the Eagle Foundry ceased, and he removed to London, where he practised as a Civil Engineer, and obtained a share of the employment, which was, however, at that period not very widely diffused.

In 1835 he quitted the metropolis, and became a partner in the Cwm Avon tin works, where he erected the present copper smelting furnaces and rolling mills.

In 1838 he left that establishment, and became connected with the Maesteg works and a brewery at Neath; here a total failure ensued, and the savings of his life were gone.

From that period, Mr. Brunton, who had become a widower, resided with one, or other of his children, sometimes in Cornwall, sometimes in Monmouthshire, occupying his mind in various ways, and recently in an effort to improve the ventilation of collieries, of which invention he sent a model to the Exhibition, in Hyde Park.

Up to June 1850 he occasionally reappeared in his profession, as his services were required by old friends and employers, but after his losses in Wales he never fully embarked in business.

As a mechanical engineer his works were various and important; many of them were in the adaptation of original and ingenious modes of reducing and manufacturing metals, and the improvement of the machinery connected therewith, such as those at Butterley, Dowlais, (where he was largely employed by Sir John Guest,) Cwm Avon, Swansea, and elsewhere.

In the introduction of steam for navigation he had a large share; he made some of the first engines used on the Humber and Trent, and was amongst the first on the Mersey, having made the engines for the vessel which first plied on the Liverpool ferries, in 1814. He fitted out the 'Sir Francis Drake,' at Plymouth in 1824, which is still afloat, and was the first steamer that ever took an English man-of-war in tow. In the course of his career, he obtained many patents but derived little remuneration from them, although some are now in general use.

There is at this time scarcely a tin mine in Cornwall without his calciner, which is also in we for the treatment of silver ore, in Mexico; his fan regulator is a very valuable invention, but has been unproductive to him. At Butterley, he first applied the principle of a rapid rotation of the mould, in casting iron pipes, and after incurring great part of the expense of a patent, he found that a foreigner had previously secured one for the same process, in casting terra cotta, and had recited in his specification, that the same mode might be applied to metals.

Mr. Brunton's long experience enabled him to refer to many mechanical failures, including some of his own abortive schemes, to which he alluded freely and described humorously, but there was one, which, as it occasioned a sad loss of life, he never mentioned but with painful solemnity; it was his walking machine, called the steam horse, which he made at Butterley in 1813, and which worked, with a load, up a gradient of 1 in 36, during all the winter of 1814, at the Newbottle Colliery, but which eventually exploded and killed thirteen persons.

In writing to a friend in 1850 Mr. Brunton thus alludes to it:-

'The act of propulsion resembled a man pushing a weight forward; the thighs were suspended to links at the top, and by radius bars like a parallel motion, the knee joint moved in the line, and was attached to the piston rod direct. The leg was connected to a joint of the thigh a little below the knee, and of such a length as when the foot rested on the ground, it formed an angle of propulsion varying from 20 to 30 degrees from the perpendicular. The lower end of the leg was furnished with an universal, or coffin joint to the shoe, which resembled two horse-shoes joined at the open end, and two or three triangular cross-bars to prevent slipping.

'In operation the legs moved alternately, and the length of the step being 6 feet, each propulsion moved the machine 12-feet onwards. The facility with which it could be regulated in slipping upon, or over anything was very perfect. I was permitted to enlarge the new boiler, because the restriction to 5 tons weight was found an unnecessary precaution, for the tendency of the engine in operation was to raise the engine off the rails, and I found it needful to connect the first wagon to the engine by a chain at such an angle, as to lay the weight of the wagon partly upon the engine."

In his active mechanical career of sixty years, Mr. Brunton had become known to all the leading men of the period, beginning with Sir Richard Arkwright, and continuing down to the present period. The names of Watt, Rennie, Jessop, and Telford have already been mentioned, as also those of his distinguished fellow-workmen at Soho; to these may be added the names of Wolfe, Trevithick, the elder Simpson, Sir M. I. Brunel, Seaward, George Stephenson, and others now no more. Of the good old school which they constituted, Mr. Brunton was, it is to be feared, almost the last. There are living a few of the older members of the profession, who knew him in his active life; many remember him in his declining years, arid all will unite in doing justice to the excellent qualities of his head and heart.

He died in peace and comfort on the 5th of October, 1851, at the house of his son William, at Camborne, in Cornwall, in his seventy-fourth year, sustained to the last by those religious principles, in the profession and practice of which he had consistently lived, through the course of a long and active career.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1885/08/14
  2. The Engineer 1885/08/14
  3. 1824 Institution of Civil Engineers
  4. 1824 Institution of Civil Engineers
  5. 1851 Census
  6. 1852 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries