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Brief Memoir of the late William Muir by Robert Smiles

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Brief Memoir of the late William Muir by Robert Smiles. No published date but circa 1888

THE LATE WILLIAM MUIR,

Mechanical Engineer,

OF LONDON & MANCHESTER.

BY ROBERT SMILES.

If the possession of consummate inventive genius, and its exercise with untiring patience and indomitable perseverance entitle to distinction, a lofty niche in the Walhalla of Industrial heroes must be assigned to the late William Muir, one of the most skillful and ingenious mechanics of the past generation. Poets, it has been said, are born, not made, and the same may be said with truth of mechanics comparatively few writers of so-called poetry receive the "divine afflatus" that inspires the true poet;. comparatively few of the makers of machines and machine tools are endowed with the combination of qualities that distinguish the true master mechanician: such qualities were exemplified in Mr. Muir, and in his peaceful conquests over time and labour, to the inestimable advantage of the world and of civilisation. The general public are only very partially cognisant of the number, value, and importance of Mr. Muir’s achievements as an inventor; many professional men know, we believe, that in his case the honour and fame attaching to such achievements have not been, to put this matter mildly, in excess of his deserts. He found in the world a fair field but no favour. In the course of his long and busy life he has done great things as a mechanician and a tool maker without aid from adventitious circumstances, by the exercise of self-reliance, self-control, patient perseverance, indomitable energy, and indubitably extraordinary natural inventive genius.

Mr. Muir was born at Catrine, a village in Ayrshire, on 17th of January 1806. His parents were worthy people of the middle-class, in comfortable circumstances. William was the second of four children, three sons and one daughter; the letters and papers he has left show that they were affectionately attached to each other from childhood to the end of their lives. One of the brothers was an Artist; the other a Musician; William, as is known, became distinguished as a Mechanician. Mr. Andrew Muir, William's father, was an active, energetic man, who conducted successfully a large business, embracing a variety of enterprises. He occupied an extensive farm, to which he made additions as opportunity served. Catrine House, near Ballochmyle, was the residence during the time of the poet Burns, of the celebrated Dugals Stewart, Professor of Moral Philosophy in the University of Edinburgh, who frequently entertained the poet there. Mr. Muir the elder succeeded the Professor as tenant of the pasture land attached to Catrine House, which from this reason got the name of "Andrew Mair’s braes," by which the land was familiarly known in the locality. He readily undertook business of a more stirring nature than that of grazing farmer. Between Auchinleck and Mauchline, on the Glasgow and South-Western Railway, the river Ayr is crossed by a lofty viaduct that took two years to build, and has been pronounced "one of the finest erections of the kind in Britain, and viewed from the banks of the Ayr has a most imposing appearance." Mr. Andrew Muir was sole contractor for the carting of the stones of which the viaduct is built. In addition to his farming and contract work, Mr. Muir did a large regular business — before the time of railways and canals — as common carrier between Catrine and the district and Glasgow.

Mr. William Muir was a man quiet, modest, and unassuming almost to a fault: although the writer of this sketch knew him intimately he never heard him refer to the fact that his father could claim lineal descent from the Barons of Rowallen, whose seat was Rowallen Castle, situated about three miles north from Kilmarnock, on the banks of the Carmel water. From an ancient genealogical account of the family, continued from Hector Boes, we learn that Sir J. Gilchrist Muir, a scion of the Rowallen House, so highly distinguished himself by his valour "at the battle of Largs (1293), against the Danes and the Norways," that he was rewarded with large grants of land. King Robert, second of the race of Stewart, married, about 1300, Elizabeth, the beautiful daughter of Sir Adam Muir of Rowallen, and had sons, Robert, Duke of Albany, Alexander, Earl of Buchan, and other children. Sir William Muir, tempo. 1640, "had a character for learning and piety and a noble genius in poetry: among many good deeds, he turned the Fifty-first Psalm into the verse now sung in our churches in divine worship. He was very much for the Covenanters, yet none could have greater abhorrence of the murder of His Majesty. He wrote a sorrowful poem on that occasion." The writer of this account pronounces the Muirs of Rowallen a race "inferior to none in the kingdom for antiquity, esteem, alliance, and respect." The Muirs of Catrine belonged to one of the many streams that originated with the first chief of Rowallen. The family crest is a Saracen's head; the mottoes "Durum Patientia Franco," and "Duris non Frangor."

The young Muirs, William inclusive, had as good an education as was procurable in those days. It was strictly elementary without special subjects or extras for the boys, or "accomplishments" for their sister. “Technical Education" did not exist then, even in imagination. The best part of William's education he prosecuted for himself after he left the school, which he did fairly accomplished in "the three R's " — Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic, — having received also, as was the prevailing order in Scottish schools, a full complement of religious instruction. While afterwards employed in Glasgow he attended classes at the University. He took an enthusiastic part in the formation of the Glasgow Mechanics' Institute, and was amongst the earliest subscribing members. On the night when the first general meeting was held, the nucleus of a library was opened and Muir took out the life of Benjamin Franklin, which he read with avidity and, as he ever after averred, with much profit.

Mr. Muir, the father, it is believed, wished William to join, and to succeed him, in his own business, but William, who had already a strong predilection for mechanical employment, and eke a will of his own, determined otherwise. During the latter portion of his time at school, the blacksmith's forge and the wheelwright's shop had more powerful attractions than the school. If cart-wheels were to be ringed he could always be depended upon to play truant and assist, by carrying water for cooling, or otherwise. Mr. Thomas Morton, of Kilmarnock, was famous in the district, and Willie Muir haunted Mr. Morton’s shop, which he greatly desired to enter as an apprentice. His father concluding that any attempt to force his son into other occupation against his will, must result unsatisfactorily, he gave way, and William was bound an apprentice to Mr. Morton with his consent and to the ultimate satisfaction of all parties.

Ayrshire, as is well known, was a stronghold of the Covenanters and the theatre wherein some of the most cruel atrocities of Claverhouse and his dragoons were perpetrated, including the murder of John Brown of Priesthill, commonly called "the godly carrier." Thomas Morton, Muir’s apprentice master, was fifth in direct lineal descent from the martyred John Brown. His mother, who lived till the year 1843, was four years younger than Burns the poet, and had vivid recollections of him and Jean Armour. Mrs. Morton lived at Mauchline when Burns was at Lochlea and Mossgiel. She had an enthusiastic love of "Auld Scots Sangs," and was also a judicious "collector." She appreciated Burn’s talents, but regarded what she euphemistically called his "wildness" with deep aversion and dislike. The Mortons, and it may be added the Muirs, were deeply imbued with the religious spirit of the Covenanters.

Thomas Morton was an excellent and an extraordinary man. He did, for a country town, a large business of a curiously mixed character. The principal part of his business related to carpet weaving machinery. The improvements in the loom that he made effected quite a revolution in the carpet manufacture: to one of the chief of these improvements he was led by having been entrusted to repair a barrel organ. The mechanism of the instrument suggested to the keen, thoughtful observer an important improvement in the loom, and he introduced a barrel into his carpet loom, with which he afterwards combined a modification of the Jacquard loom. He also made excellent bagpipes for the home trade, and that were exported in considerable numbers. It is not recorded that Morton the master could blow off a Slogan on the bagpipes: Muir the apprentice was an adept at turning the drones and chanters, and fitting the ivory ferrules; but if he could ever play a Pibroch upon the pipes it was in his after-life a lost art, concerning which he made no murmur. His being required to repair a telescope suggested to Morton the manufacture of telescopes, and he became famous for the power and excellent make and finish of his optical instruments. He employed a windmill to drive his lathes. When still in his apprenticeship he invented a lathe for turning ovals. In 1816 he fitted a boat with what he called "his windmill under water" — really a screw propeller — which operated with complete success, but nothing came of the invention then: he was before his time, as Muir his apprentice found himself occasionally, also, in the course of his career as an inventor. Mr. Morton erected an observatory at Kilmarnock, which was the pride of the town, and a means of valuable instruction and unmixed delight to thousands. The Board of Trade voted him thanks and a grant to encourage him to prosecute his labours. The Emperor of Russia made him a tempting offer to go to Russia and establish the carpet manufacture, but he preferred to remain. The Royal Scottish Society of Arts honoured him by electing him an honorary member. His fellow-townsmen elected him the first Chief Magistrate of Kilmarnock on the passing of the Municipal Reform Act in 1835.

It may be mentioned that the Murdochs as well as the Mortons and the Muirs are among the old Ayrshire families, and that the Muirs and the Murdochs were related by intermarriage. William Muir’s father was full cousin to William Murdoch the distinguished inventor, for interesting particulars concerning whom we may refer to Dr. Smiles’s lives of "Boulton and Watt". Murdoch was the discoverer of coal-gas and the first to apply it practically, by fitting up and by lighting with that illuminant Boulton and Watt’s Soho Works, Birmingham. In 1784 he exhibited successfully a working model locomotive engine, at Redruth, Cornwall, thirteen years prior to the exhibition by Richard Trevithick of his road engine.

As a boy, young Muir had his literary tastes as well as his interest in the possession and use of such tools as he could command — a "dully knife" constituted his kit probably. Throughout Ayrshire, and especially in Kilmarnock and thereabouts, almost every one that could read was familiar with the poems of the Ayrshire bard; Willie Muir seems to have been interested in them, and very neatly-copied extracts from Burns are preserved in one of his exercise-books. They may be taken as some indication of the boy's taste and, in a degree, of his temperament. They include Burns' epitaphs, "On his father," "On Wee Johnny," and "On Gavin Hamilton, Esq."; two stanzas from "Halloween," and one, commencing "Kilmarnock Wabsters," from "The Ordination." The selections forbid our regarding the youth as demure, priggish, or strait-laced, notwithstanding his religious training. Of Gavin Hamilton the poet says

With such as he, where'er he be,
May I be saved or damned !

Of Wee Johnny-

Whoe'er thou art, 0 reader, know
That death has murdered Johnny!
An' here his body lies fu' low—
For said he ne'er had ony.

It may be feared that Thomas Morton’s mother, and probably Muir’s parents, would consider such sentiments "wild," or worse — verging on if not really profane, -but there they are, and at the end of the book the legend, fairly writ, "William Muir’s hand write, all written in the year 1817." He was then eleven years of age. A few years later, before Muir left his native place, he acquired a piece of property that discloses an incident in the life of Burns that is not referred to in any of the memoirs of the poet that we have seen. It is a folding writing-desk, of fine old oak, with a brass plate on which the following inscription is engraved: "This desk is formed from a beam of Mauchline Kirk, erected 1160, in which the Reformer Wishart preached, and the poet Burns dreed the Penance of the Cutty Stool."

Of remarkable incidents during his apprenticeship we have no record or information. The furthest back memorandum books that have been preserved show him in account with Thomas Morton, the first of these having the entry "Settled up to this date, January 13, 1823" (Signed) Thomas Morton, when Muir, 17 years of age, was probably still an apprentice. Another account contains charges against, and moneys received from, the Catrine Company. The items include many barrels, levers, and sets, with other unintelligible technical terms.

In 1824, having served his apprenticeship creditably, he left home to push his way in the world, and took employment with Girdwood and Co, Glasgow, makers of cotton manufacturing machinery, work similar to that upon which he had been employed for the Catrine Company.

The young mechanician is engaged in his vocation during the day: how does he spend his evening hours? His MS. books that have been preserved supply a most satisfactory answer. They contain exhaustive sets of questions and problems, fully set out, in all branches of mechanics and mathematics.

In 1829 Mr. Muir was again employed by the Catrine Company, who made their own manufacturing machinery. In 1830 he was in Glasgow for a short time with Henry Houldsworth, according to his own memorandum, "drilling upon an old jigger of a lathe," from which he impatiently cut connection: study of the lathe, admiration of its performances, desire after its perfection, were almost a passion with Muir, as with Morton his prentice-master, and the "old jigger" was hence jarring beyond his powers of endurance.

The time had now arrived when, for improvement in his trade, the young mechanic determined to go farther afield than Glasgow, amongst entire strangers, and it became him to procure such credentials as he could that might be useful for introductions. He obtained highly favourable letters of introduction from Mr. Archibald Buchanan, Manager of the Catrine Cotton Works, January 2 7th, 1831; Mr. Andrew Darling, Millwright and Engineer to the Catrine Works, January 28th, 1831; and the Rev. James Currie, Parish Minister of Catrine.

Mr. Muir, on coming to London, without loss of time presented the certificate last referred to — his "Lines" - to the proper authorities, and became a member, as his papers show, of the Scots Church, Crown Court, Covent Garden, of which the Rev. Dr. Cummings was, for so long, the minister.

On the evening before Muir was to leave home for the South, there was a great gathering of the friends of his youth, to have a parting spell of social intercourse with him, and to bid him God-speed. They sent up a fire balloon, with model of a car attached, and made a hilarious disturbance that made the "old women of both sexes" rub their eyes and ask in wonderment "What's a' this aboot?" For answer, they were told that "Willie Mair’s become a wand'rin' Willie, an' he's gaun tae leave us." He records that he and his friends parted with singing "Auld lang Syne," and that he did not forget the poet's sentiments:—

Tho' cruel fate should bid us part,
I still shall love my Jean.

"So I turned my back on the home of my youth and my Jeanie." On 7th September 1830, Muir left home for Liverpool, travelling the first thirty miles by the stage coach. He intentionally timed his visit to Lancashire with the desire to be present at the pending opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. He fortunately secured the box-seat on the coach with the usual benefit of the driver's interesting communications, the pleasant flow of which, however, was somewhat interrupted by his inquiring, with seeming concern, what stage coachmen were to do when passengers were hauled by such iron horses as those he was going to Liverpool to see? For reply coachee gave his leaders, first "near," then the "off," neat but rather vicious cuts in the flank with his whip. They responded by bounding off at speed; the driver looking the passenger square in the face demanded triumphantly whether he could "match that with your iron horses?" The topic, which was found unsuitable for pleasant intercourse, was changed.

Mr. Muir realised his expectation, and was present at the great national event on the 15th September, the opening of the first instalment of the premier railway of the world — the London and North-Western. He wrote home to Catrine a graphic account of the proceedings, with a notice of the sad calamity — the death of Mr. Huskisson that painfully marked the celebration. While at Liverpool he took the opportunity of visiting Cheshire, Bidstone Lighthouse, the Battery, and other places of interest. On the 17th September he went to Manchester. He met with a favourable reception from Mr. James McWhinnie, to whom he had a letter of introduction from his brother Mr. John McWhinnie of Catrine. Muir would have remained in Manchester, but, receiving a letter stating that his brother Andrew was ill at Truro, he determined to proceed thither.

From a portion of a diary kept by Mr. Muir we extract the following notes:-September 22nd, left Manchester by coach to Liverpool, from Liverpool in the Comet steamer to Dublin. Arrived at Falmouth after a rough passage by the Shannon. 27th September to Truro. Found my brother much better. Visited St. Rustle, Redruth, Consol mines, Penzance, etc.; commenced an engagement at Hayle Foundry upon the 18th October."

The entries in Mr. Muir’s books, which are kept with regularity and care, furnish evidence that the changing scenes and circumstances of life, unfavourable for studious pursuits, did not divert him from the resolute prosecution of his self-improvement, as may be inferred from the drawing materials purchased from time to time at Truro and other places. He continued diligently engaged on his mechanical drawings.

He left Truro on the 24th March 1831, arrived in London from Falmouth on the 29th, and commenced with Messrs. Maudslay and Field on the 25th April.

The work upon which he was engaged at Maudslay’s had a considerable range in variety, as "under clack-valve for Lambeth Pumping Engine to order," "new drilling machine for the factory," etc. His record of the work upon which he was engaged from time to time and the wage-cost is exact and minute, and furnished data doubtless from which the books of the firm were made up, and that served for guidance in relation to future contracts.

At Maudslay’s he was ere long promoted to be one of the foremen. The duty was entrusted to him of taking charge of the construction of an engine or machine from start to finish. In illustration, we find in one of his many time and wage-books a detailed account of the time employed and the wages earned respectively by the artificers upon the "Nantz 30 HP. vibrating steam engine," from November 3oth, 1832, to July 2oth, 1833. The vibrating cylinder engine, it may be mentioned, was one of William Murdoch’s inventions, of which a beautiful model had been made by Mr. Joseph Maudslay.

The foreman's duties involved an immense amount of patience-trying, irksome figuring, as may be understood from a specimen entry, of which some of the men on this job had fifteen. Example from William Braddon’s account, as kept by his foreman — "December 22, 1 day 3 and 3/4 hours at £1-1s-3.75d" On the right-hand page of the timebook are the amounts paid to the men on account. A summary of each man's time and amounts paid, with balance due, are given at the end of the book.

In 1833 a curious novelty in engineering was entrusted to Mr. Muir while at Maudslay’s. Admiral the Earl of Dundonald, then Lord Cochrane, commonly called "Fighting Cochrane," was much exercised in fighting the idea of constructing a Steam Carriage for common roads. He went to Messrs. Maudslay for help to carry out his ideas and make for him such a carriage. Mr. Joseph Maudslay went to Mr. William Muir as the most likely man to give expression to Lord Cochrane’s ideas, if they were at all practicable. For a considerable time from May 25th, 1833, Mr. Muir was employed upon this carriage, with what result is not stated, but evidently to the satisfaction of Mr. Joseph Maudslay, in so far as Mr. Muir’s efforts and conduct were concerned, from his receiving a handsome gratuity from Mr. Joseph on account of the Steam Carriage. Mr. Muir has a note that the carriage had two cylinders, acting direct to the crank axles. The late Earl of Dundonald kept up the acquaintance in after-life, and was much interested in Mr. Muir’s inventions and his perfection of mechanical tools.

During the time Mr. Muir was at Maudslay’s, Mr. James Nasmyth, of Steam Hammer fame, was Mr. Henry Maudslay’s draughtsman, and Mr. Joseph Whitworth (the late Sir Joseph Whitworth) was in the works as fitter. Whitworth cultivated Muir’s acquaintance, but there was great dissimilarity in their tastes, and they never became intimate. On Sundays, for instance, Whitworth went out with his dogs, while Muir, with unfailing regularity, attended the Scots Church in Crown Court twice every Sunday.

On the 7th March 1836, Mr. Muir joined Mr. Holtzapfell of Long Acre, the celebrated small tool maker, to act as his assistant and representative. In this capacity Mr. Muir travelled, taking orders for Mr. Holtzapfell, and acted for him also as teacher of turning and the manipulation of cutting tools. As Mr. Holtzapfell’s representative Mr. Muir visited Leeds, Hull, Liverpool, Manchester, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Greenock, Dundee, Kilmarnock, Ayr, Catrine, Birmingham, and many other chief towns. He remained with Mr. Holtzapfell till the 17th November, when he left to undertake the onerous and responsible duties of foreman for Messrs. Bramah Robinson, Pimlico. It can scarcely be necessary to say that this was Bramah the celebrated lock maker and inventor of hydraulic presses, and numerous other hydraulic appliances.

It may here be mentioned that throughout his whole course Mr. Muir was a keen and thoughtful observer of everything bearing upon his profession, and an industrious note and sketch maker. His sketch and note books, in addition to those before referred to, include Demonstrations in Euclid as practically applied to Mechanics, and many partial and complete drawings of a great variety of machines and machine tools. His memoranda include an elaborate schedule of the proportions of Maudslay's Marine Engines of eleven different powers from 10 to 100 HP. The schedule embraces sixty-four different parts. Small pocket-books contain valuable "bits" in sketches of machines, machine tools, and separate parts, gleaned apparently from all the places where he had ever been employed.

In June 1840, when comfortably settled at Bramah’s, Mr. Joseph Whitworth made important overtures to Mr. Muir to join him at Manchester. Mr. Whitworth had made his acquaintance at Maudslay’s, as before stated, and was probably impressed by his peculiar merits and serviceable qualities, and their remarkable combinations — clever, keen-sighted, patient, and persevering as an inventor; in worldly wisdom "a Nathaniel in whom there was no guile." What inducements were held out to Mr. Muir to leave Bramah’s, whether any binding engagement was made, does not appear, but Muir did leave Bramah’s at the end of June 1840, and commenced with Whitworth in July, his first work being drawings for a Knitting Machine. Mr. Muir's sketch-books and copious memoranda after this date connect him with different works with which Mr. Whitworth’s name is associated. In Mr. Muir’s MS. books, dated 1841, are drawings, calculations, and results, given in extenso, of problems relating to speeds of road machine wheels and brooms with chain, and with spur wheel and pinion respectively. Mr. Muir made for Mr. Whitworth the whole of the drawings and working model of the Road Sweeping Machine.

Long before the connection between Muir and Whitworth was formed, the manifold and serious disadvantages resulting from the varieties of screw pitch in use was universally admitted. We do not know upon what terms he undertook the work, but we believe when at Mr. Whitworth’s place Mr. Muir collected from the principal mechanical engineers, at home and abroad, a collection of the various pitches in existence, and after a series of elaborate experiments arrived at a mean pitch, for ordinary or common threads, which was, after public exposition, adopted as "Whitworth pitch." On this subject it may be interesting to note that Mr. Muir’s sketch-book for 1841 contains, inter alia, notes of "experiments with 3/4in. bolts, the nuts in all cases being screwed to the bottom or ends of the screw." The breaking strains are given for "Fine V Thread," "Square Thread," "Common V Thread," and "Deep V Thread." Numerous "remarks" accompany the statement of results, in the evidently searching, patient, and careful inquiry. Afterwards Mr. Muir, when in business for himself, developed on his own account a mean pitch for fine threads for the use of Opticians, Electricians, and Makers of Scientific Instruments. This improvement was before its time. Now, however, the development of Electricity practically applied, and the more sensitive delicacy required in scientific instruments employed for various purposes, have led to a more full appreciation of its value and importance.

From "incompatibility of temper," or other cause, Mr. Muir never seemed to settle, or perhaps it may be said was not allowed to settle, satisfactorily with Mr. Whitworth. An illustration may be given that will account for "strained relations." Mr. Muir made the drawings for a Knitting Machine of a novel character, and, after the drawings, made and fitted up the machine itself. When very near completion Mr. Whitworth, impatient to take it to London, asked Mr. Muir to continue his work upon it on Sunday. This Mr. Muir said he could not do, but he would continue his labour till twelve o'clock on Saturday night, which he did. Mr. Whitworth did not conceal his displeasure, and indulged in "chaff" on the occasion, and from that time Mr. Muir was poised for a flight to another field.

While at Whitworth’s Mr. Muir did excellent work, and originated valuable and important novelties in mechanical arrangements, the paternity of which has never been as generally known as Merit's due demands. The works on which he was engaged at Whitworth’s after the Road Machine and the new Knitting Machine, referred to above, included a Radial Die Box, concerning which he has the note: "Four dies are made to advance by inclined planes; within the outer wheel the dies cross one another at an angle of about 40 degrees; that is, the faces meet and will pass one another as they move on the same parallel lines." He also prepared the drawings and made from them a new and original 6-inch Screw-cutting Foot Lathe; a new Boring Bar; a Bolt-screwing Machine; a 25 small Planing Machine; a Planing Machine for Circular Work; and one of his most brilliant inventions — the Radial Drill. His connection with Mr. Whitworth ceased in June 1842. It led to a useful introduction and a hopeful transition in the application of Mr. Muir’s special qualifications, that necessitate the introduction of a brief episode.

In 1836, when the Railway system was in its infancy, Mr. Thomas Edmondson, a member of the Society of Friends, was appointed station-master at Milton, afterwards called Brompton, on the Newcastle and Carlisle Railway, now part of the North-Eastern system. Mr. Edmondson, who had been bred a cabinet maker, was a man of great ingenuity, and very soon set to work to improve upon the passenger ticket system in use, which was the same as had served for the stage coaches — the issue to passengers of small scraps of paper. Mr. Edmondson had kept his tools and put together by degrees pieces of apparatus for the manufacture and manipulation of tickets that effected a great improvement. His appliances were of a simple and necessarily imperfect character. He was not a metal worker himself, and in his out-of the-way locality was cut off from the materials, tools, and assistance indispensable to the successful accomplishment of his designs. Imperfect although his improvements were, they excited the attention of the then limited railway world, and were highly approved. Captain Laws, of the Manchester and Leeds line, now Lancashire and Yorkshire, visited Mr. Edmondson, and induced him to enter the service of his company, offering him double the salary he was receiving. Mr. Edmondson proceeded to Manchester and remained for a time with the railway company, but the demands upon his time in connection with ticket supply, and the progressive improvement of his apparatus, became incompatible with his service to any single company, and he obtained an honourable release from his engagement, so that he might devote his entire energies to the ticket manufacturing business. In connection with the manufacture or alteration of some of his appliances Mr. Edmondson went to Mr. Joseph Whitworth for assistance, and Mr. Whitworth introduced him to Mr. Muir — the two men were well met. Mr. Muir’s first work for Mr. Edmondson, while still connected with Whitworth, was about April 19th, upon a Counting Machine. Whitworth was unwilling to be bothered with what he probably considered pottering work, and Edmondson, on the other hand, concluded that direct communication with Muir would be to their mutual advantage in all respects. On April 28th Muir called upon Edmondson by appointment, and received from him direct an order for a new Ticket Counting Machine. On the 22nd June Muir terminated his connection with Whitworth, and thenceforward Mr. Edmondson was his client without intermediary. In the presses and appliances employed in the perfected ticket system many successive improvements were effected by Messrs. Edmondson and Muir in conjunction. Mr. Muir’s portfolios of drawings bearing his signature contain interesting evidence of the important assistance he was able to render Mr. Edmondson in perfecting his ingenious apparatus. The drawings commence very soon after his receipt of order for a Counting Machine, and include "Drawings for Dating Press;" a beautifully executed drawing, full size, of "Counting Machine," with the legend on the face of the periphery: "T. EDMONDSON, Patentee. Wit. Muir, Maker." Other drawings are of "Cams for Ticket Printing Machine," of "Dating Press, new pattern," apparatus for supplying with ink the ribbons of the printing machine; with others of a like nature.

Although a specialist in more than one department, Mr. Muir was a good "all-round man" as a mechanician, as is apparent from the list of his inventions and improvements recorded in the Patent Office, ranging from an improved Theodolite, patented in conjunction with Mr. Henry Goss, to a Screw Propeller, jointly with the late Mr. Bennett Woodroft, of the Patent Office. A self-acting Sugar Cutting Machine, patented by Mr. Muir in 1863, was not taken up by the trade, but has since then come extensively into use.

On leaving Mr. Whitworth in June 1842, Mr. William Muir, master and man in his own person, laid the foundation of a firm, the name and productions of which are now favourably known throughout the civilised world.

Mr. Muir was married, on the 25th August 1832, to Eliza Wellbank Dickinson, of Drypool, in the county of York, in St. Paul's Church, Covent Garden, London. Mrs. Muir was the last of her race, the English head of the family having come over with William the Conqueror; and her father the last in a direct line of her ancestors, who had farmed their own and the same estate at Drypool. Mr. Muir’s home was in London while he was engaged there; he afterwards removed his family to Manchester.

His first workshop was in Berwick Street, Manchester, where he found room for a small forge, his lathe, and a bench. With his cherished lathe he never parted to the end of his days; it was to him as "Copenhagen," his favourite charger, was to the Duke of Wellington. Business rapidly increased and outgrew the cramped accommodation he had in Berwick Street, and, jointly with Mr. Edmondson, he took a large building in Miller's Lane, Salford. Mr. Edmondson occupied the uppermost floor as a Railway Ticket Printing Office; the accommodation provided by the remaining, the main portion of the premises, was needed and used by Mr. Muir for the manufacture of Mr. Edmondson’s printing, dating, and other machines, and for the business as a machine-tool maker that now flowed upon him.

He next, on his own account, leased a large plot of land in Strangeways, Manchester, from Earl Ducie; designed and commenced the erection of the large establishment which has been extended from time to time to what it is now, and has been long known as the "Britannia Works." After having created and established the business he took partners.

In token of the high reputation Mr. Muir had achieved, it should be stated that about the year 1852 he received an order, which he executed to the complete satisfaction of the authorities, to provide new and special labour-saving machine tools and appliances for the different departments of Woolwich Royal Arsenal.

Prior to 1854, the authorities at the War Office and Board of Ordnance had experienced great disadvantages in being dependent upon contractors for Small Arms, such as Rifles, Pistols, etc., in cases of war or urgency: the contractors in their turn were dependent upon the skilled workmen, who delayed production, necessitating delayed delivery, unless exorbitant demands for increased prices were satisfied. To escape such injustice and peril, the authorities determined to commence the manufacture of Small Arms upon a large scale, with the sights of the rifles, and other parts, made on the interchangeable principle, so that a great part of the work might be done by unskilled labour. Mr. John Anderson (afterwards Sir John), Inspector of Machinery for the Government, solicited the aid of Mr. Muir to design and make suitable plant and tools for the manufacture of sights on the interchangeable principle. This was a most important commission, and a startling novelty in Mr. Muir's experience, as it would have been, indeed, in the experience of any of his compeers. He undertook the duty, and performed it with the most signal success. This subject is referred to in a lecture by C. F. Partington, Scientific Demonstrator, etc. He says: "The improved machinery invented and manufactured by Messrs. Muir & Co. for the construction of Rifle Sights, forms a distinct era in the history of modern firearms. . . . The rare ingenuity they have exhibited has brought us to what may be considered the magnum bonum of engineering skill in Rifle Sight Machinery."

Mr. Andrew Muir, eldest son, was his father's sole assistant in designing the various machine tools, and carrying out these arrangements. At the request of Sir John Anderson, and with the consent of his father, Mr. Andrew Muir went to the then only partly-built Royal Small Arms Factory at Enfield, to assist in bringing the works into full operation, and to introduce such a system of good order and sound organisation as was so satisfactorily exemplified at the famous Britannia Works, Manchester, now administered by Mr. Alfred Muir, another son. The firm, it may be mentioned, have been so successful in their "Milling" work, a special feature in the Rifle Sight manufacture at Enfield, as to have attracted extensive orders in this department from many of the chief engineering establishments at home and abroad, for which Muir’s have designed special machines for large Milling that now, with the aid of Mr. Alfred Muir’s patent Milling Cutters, competes successfully with Planing, even for very large work.

Mr. Muir’s patented original inventions and improvements have been too numerous to admit of mention in detail. Self-dependence and originality were amongst his strongly-marked characteristics as an inventor; they were exhibited in his many ingenious shop contrivances, as well as in the productions of his works. His success in achieving the intended purpose of his contrivances was equally remarkable. From his earliest years down to the end of his life Mr. Muir’s regard for the lathe amounted almost to a passion. From time to time he has written many valuable practical papers on the lathe that have appeared in different periodicals. He has done much to increase the smoothness of motion, precision in action, and extended scope of operation of this favourite machine tool. In this direction we may mention his patent releasing motion for screw-cutting lathe, his motion for making right and left hand screws for such lathes, with other important improvements that are now adopted universally. Among his other inventions are his Elliptical Wheel Planing Machine, which gives equal traverse while cutting and a return stroke three times as quick. He has introduced divers new and improved designs for drilling machines. He was the first English machine-tool maker to introduce a complete system of Milling Machines that proved satisfactory alike for the rapidity and the accuracy of their productions, his system being now in use by all the great engineering firms. Another of his useful contrivances was his Double Grindstone, in which by regulated contact two stones dress each other and keep the grinding surfaces in fit condition. His automatic machine for winding cotton balls and bobbins performs the work of twenty operatives; in addition to the winding it puts the tickets on the filled bobbins. It is used universally by the trade.

Mr. Muir’s appropriate and expressive monument is to be seen in the Britannia Works. Those who are acquainted with the productions of those works will be best able to appreciate the value, importance, and varied excellences that characterise the inventions and improvements which have been effected in machine tools by Mr. William Muir.

The following autobiographical extract satisfactorily illustrates the character of both Mr. Muir and his apprentice master — of the former in his fully matured life. At the end of December 1883 an affectionate and respectful address, signed by twenty-two of the oldest employees of the firm of Muir & Co. at Manchester, was presented to William Muir, head of the firm (see Appendix). One of the signatories had been in the employment of the firm above forty years, a number of others above thirty years, and the remainder above twenty years. The act was spontaneous on the part of the men. In acknowledging receipt of the address, under date February 10th, 1884, Mr. Muir writes:

The warm expressions of feeling toward me that you are pleased to employ in your too flattering address, I must attribute to your kindness rather than to my merits. Evidence of your attachment is greatly enhanced in interest, and my emotion is, naturally, agreeably excited by its finding expression so long after our personal intercourse had ceased.

Your address is very cheering to me after our many years of toil together; the faithfulness and the good character and conduct of those of you whom I have known longest and most intimately, I cannot, if I would, forget: than they —`may ne'er worse be among us.'

It becomes me to say that the conduct towards you, on my part, that has evoked expressions of your approval and affection, has been, as I believe, in no slight degree due to the sound and wholesome early training, to the inculcation of sound principles and rules for the guidance of life and conduct with which I was favoured. I had the advantage, if not of a liberal education, of what is of no less importance — a healthy home training for twelve years. This was followed by apprenticeship for five and a half years with my dear godly old master, Thomas Morton, of Kilmarnock. He was a man remarkable for ingenuity as a mechanic, unflagging industry as a tradesman, and fervent piety as a Christian. He set me an excellent example alike in the house, in the workshop, and in the world. As an inventor and dexterous handicraftsman he was a truly extraordinary man; far ahead of his time in his aims, methods, and productions. He had to contrive many of his peculiar tools and appliances, to realise results that existed in some instances only in his own mind, in which he had no model or experience for guidance. Labouring under difficulties and disadvantages that can scarcely be appreciated in these latter days of tools and instruments of precision and manifold facilities, he turned out work as a musical instrument maker, a practical optician, and a machinist, that achieved for him a reputation that extended far and wide; his bagpipes, his telescopes, and his carpet-making machine — the first known and used in Scotland — were objects of wonder and admiration to visitors from all parts of the country. It was a great advantage to me to have a master of such an active, searching, thoughtful, enterprising spirit as inventor and improver; I could scarcely fail to catch a spark from such a fire. Among the other good habits to which he trained me was that of unwearied, cheerful industry. Early every morning and late every night, if circumstances required it, he was at work, and it became a source of pride and a pleasure to me to take part with him in his honourable toil.

In relation to my prentice-master's times for business there was one thing notable — he was heedless, personally, as to his own hours for commencing or ending the day's labour, and, if need required, was ever ready to work as many hours out of the twenty-four as nature would permit: the burdens he laid upon himself, however; he did not impose upon others, but allowed them due time for rest and recreation. On weekdays he set at nought the claims for rest and cessation from work at night and the dinner-hour, but in every week he felt a command laid upon him that he never failed to obey — 'Remember the Sabbath Day.' No matter how great the pressure, how indisputable the urgency, he never worked on the `Day of Rest.' I thank God, that with regard to this duty, my good Prentice-master, Thomas Morton, embued me with his spirit, and that I have been disposed and enabled to follow his example.

I was never asked to work on Sundays before I came to England, and I am thankful that I have been enabled to withstand pressure and to resist temptation in this matter. I have ever felt it my duty to do all I could to preserve inviolate the palladium of the working man's birthright in the ‘Day of Rest.' <br.

Earnestly desiring happiness and prosperity, spiritual and temporal, to you and your families, and that you may each and every one be possessors of `the unspeakable gift,'

I remain, my dear friends,

Yours faithfully,

(Signed) "WILLIAM MUIR."


Although he continued to be the nominal head of the firm, Mr. Muir retired some years ago from active concern and connection with its business, to spend the evening of his days, and for the enjoyment of his well-earned otium cum dignitale, at Brockley, London. Listless idleness, however, was foreign to such a nature as his. He retained, what he had always carefully kept together, his own excellent collection of carpenters', turners', and fitters' tools, and his drawing-board and instruments. He erected in his garden a light, airy workshop, with an entrance through a small conservatory. It contained a smith's forge, a vice, and mechanic's bench, a carpenter's bench, a double treadle grindstone, and his favourite old foot-lathe. In his workshop he amused himself by the fabrication of articles and objects - useful, ornamental, or fanciful. He was also a rather voluminous writer, and many articles and letters from his pen have appeared in various periodical publications. Mechanics and religion engaged his attention in about equal proportions: the speciality in the one class of subject that interested him most was the lathe; in the other, the Day of Rest. The inspiration of his writings was a desire to promote the happiness and improve the condition of working men.

Mr. Muir, although not publicly identified with Temperance organisations, warmly sympathised with Temperance reformers, and gave them material as well as moral support. He used neither intoxicating drinks nor tobacco. Drink he pronounced a dangerous deadly enemy of mankind; and tobacco, a dirty, unwholesome waster. All whom he could influence he counselled, by precept as well as example, to let these dangerous luxuries severely alone.

The Scot abroad sometimes forgets his early training, and drifts away from his religious attachments. Mr. Muir clave tenaciously till the end of his life to the church of his fathers. He was a Presbyterian Abdiel, "among the faithless, faithful only he."

Within a few months of the date on which their golden wedding would have been observed, his affectionate and faithful partner left him, after having "climbed the hill thegether" so long, and having so far "gone down hand in hand." Mrs. Muir died on the 5th January 1882, aged 75 years.

There were five sons of the marriage. Andrew, the eldest son, is a practical consulting engineer, machine-tool specialist, and the London representative of the firm. William, the second son, a student and traveller, graduated at St. John's College, Cambridge, and was in succession a student in universities and colleges at Heidelberg, Bonn, Paris, and Rome; he travelled also in Turkey, Russia, and other Continental countries; he was an accomplished linguist. He died on 21st February 1879. John Wellbank, the third son, an engineer, accepted an engagement under General Lopez at the arsenal at Ascension, capital of Paraguay, to which his father had supplied a number of machine tools. In an action with the Argentines he was dreadfully scalded from the destruction, by a shell, of the boiler of a steam vessel in which he was ascending the river. He leaped overboard, swam ashore, and was conveyed on a litter to a fort in the interior, where all was done, but in vain, for his relief. A Mr. Miles, an Englishman, who had been serving with the Argentines, and had been taken prisoner by Lopez’s party, was confined in the fort when Mr. John Muir was brought in. Mr. Miles brought to England the intelligence of his death, which occurred on the 11th of May 1863. Alfred, the fourth son, is managing partner of the firm at the Britannia Works, Manchester. Edwin Muir, the fifth son, has an extensive and successful practice, with his headquarters in Manchester, as a civil engineer.

Mr. Muir was never a very robust man, but he lived a steady, sober life, and had uniformly fairly good health, and never had a more serious illness than that to which he succumbed at the end of his long life. After an illness of about a month, during which he was nursed with the most tender care by Mrs. Andrew Muir, wife of his eldest son, he died peacefully at his residence at Brockley — fell as "a shock of corn fully ripe " — on the 15th June, being in his 83rd year, and was interred at Brockley Cemetery on the 19th June 1888. Two large and beautifully-arranged wreaths were sent by the old employees of the firm; floral offerings were also forwarded by other attached friends. The members of his own family only, and a select company of his most intimate personal connections, attended his obsequies, which, in their unobtrusive simplicity, were in harmony with his unpretentious life.

Requiescat in Pace!

Appendix

ADDRESS FROM THE WORKMEN,
PRESENTED TO WILLIAM MUIR, ESQ.
OF 1431 BROCKLEY ROAD, LONDON,
31st December 1883.

We the undersigned Employees, avail ourselves of the present occasion to tender our sincere and heartfelt thanks to you as the founder of the firm of Messrs. Wm. Muir & Co., Britannia Works, Manchester, which has given employment to a large and increasing number of workmen during the last forty-two years.

We solicit your acceptance of this Address as an expression of gratitude for the great energy, skill, and perseverance devoted to our welfare, as also for the kind, patient, and considerate manner with which you have always endeavoured to direct and guide us in the high and noble principle of performing our respective duties in a thorough workmanlike way, so as to be a credit to you and ourselves wherever we may go, and also give the best satisfaction to all interested in the use and production of machine tools.

Further, it is our sincere and earnest desire to assist the firm in maintaining the high reputation and prosperity it has attained, and hope that you may long be spared to enjoy the love and affection we have for one who has done so much for the happiness and well-being of those who have had the pleasure of being associated with so kind and generous an employer in his endeavour to elevate, both by example and precept, the social and moral condition of his employees. We all unite in wishing you health, prosperity, and happiness, hoping that God will prosper all your undertakings for the advancement of His glory and the well-being of those committed to your care and guidance.

(Signed)

  • DAVID MACKLEY, Foreman Pattern Maker. 1842
  • JOSEPH FELLOWS, Japanner. 1851
  • LAMBIE HODGE, Fitter. 1854
  • JOHN CHISHOLM, Fitter. 1857.
  • ELIAS BARLOW, Draughtsman. 1854.
  • THOMAS REAVEY, Turner. 1859.
  • HENRY NICHOLLS, Foreman Moulder. 1860
  • RICHARD GORDON, Moulder. 1863.
  • B. FLAHERTY, Blast Tenter. 1863.
  • Ed. SWEENEY, Core Maker. 1863.
  • WM. PARKINSON, Moulder. 1860
  • WILLIAM D. PARKS, Foreman Smith. 1846
  • JAMES FISHER, Slotter. 1853
  • WILLIAM HAWKINS, Borer. 1856.
  • WILLIAM WALKER, Press Fitter. 1857.
  • GEORGE PARK, Smith. 1859.
  • JOHN AUSTIN, Dresser. 1859.
  • MATTHEW HALL, Moulder. 1862.
  • CHARLES BAKER, Planer. 1863.
  • RICHARD HUNT, Foreman Pattern Maker. 1863.
  • GEO. WHITELEGGE, Turner. 1859.
  • JOSEPH CASSASOLA, Turner. 1868.

Many letters of condolence with the family, and expressions of the affection and esteem cherished by the writers towards Mr. Muir, were received after his death. The following may be given as, in its spirit and expression, a sample, excepting in the interesting peculiarity of the writer's connection with, and reference to, Mr. Muir’s native place:—

BIRMINGHAM,
ANDREW Muir, Esq. 21st July 1888.

Dear Sir,— I duly received your favour of the 19th with enclosure. It was kind of you to have me in remembrance, and not unkind, although your communication pained me greatly.

I had so long lost sight of your dear father as to have concluded that he had "passed the bourne,”: and entered into his rest. My reminiscences of early life, and the rarity of opportunity for intercourse with my departed friend for years past, made the idea of his having gone from us most unwelcome. I ever regarded your dear father as one of the brightest and best of Catrine's sons. He was born in an age when educational means and opportunities were mean, meagre, and in all respects in strong contrast with what educational facilities are in these later days. The youths of his time had to make their way and find their place in the world by their own application and industry, their self-improvement, fired by their own aspirations, helped by their genius, if haply they were endowed with it. He rose to a lofty attitude in his profession, and attained to a noble character as a man among men. Singularly unassuming as he was, I always attributed his eminence and success to his transcendent mechanical genius alone. If it had occurred to you, and you had sent me intelligence of his death when it occurred, it would have afforded me a melancholy pleasure to have done my best to have obtained the insertion of a worthy obituary notice in the most influential journals published in his native district. Even now, if you can favour me with some of the salient points in his life and history, I will endeavour to use the information in such wise as will do justice to the honoured dead, prove an incentive to the youths of his native place, and, as the story of a good man's life must always do, tend to the good of the world at large. I feel strongly that such a biography as his is worthy of full record for all time.

Hoping to hear from you soon, and that you may be able to favour me with the information I desire, and awaiting your communication,

I remain, dear Sir,

Yours with sincere sympathy,

(Signed) JNO. MORRISON.


See Also

William Muir