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Edward Alfred Cowper

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Edward Alfred Cowper (1819–1893), mechanical engineer

1819 December 19th Born in London, the son of Professor Edward Shickle Cowper (1790–1852), head of the department of engineering at King's College, London and his wife Ann Applegath

1833 Age 14. Cowper was apprenticed for seven years to John Braithwaite, an eminent locomotive and railway engineer in London

In 1837 he invented the detonating railway fog signal, first tried on the Croydon line and widely used thereafter as an emergency safety measure.

In 1841 Cowper joined Fox and Henderson, structural and railway engineers, in Smethwick where, he devised a method of casting railway chairs, and also designed the wrought-iron roof of the New Street Station in Birmingham

1847 Married Juliana

1851 Living at Factory Road, Birmingham (age 31 born London), an Engineer. With his wife Juliana (age 22 born Chiswick) and their son Charles Edward (age 2 born Birmingham). Also a visitor Joseph Desimus Hanson (age 18 born Norwood), an Engineer. Two servants. [1]

1856 Patent for the improvement in the manufacture of candles. Described as a civil engineer of Great George Street, Westminster [2]

In 1857 he invented the regenerative hot blast stove known as the Cowper stove, which greatly improved the economy of the hot blast process (which had been patented in 1828 by James B. Neilson) in the making of steel.

1871 Living at The Ferns, Leigham Avenue, Streatham (age 57 born Surrey), a Civil Engineer. With his wife Juliana Cowper (age 42 born Chiswick) and their children Julia Edith Cowper (age 19 born Hammersmith), Gran Evelyn Cowper (age 17 born Hammersmith), Mary Emily Cowper (age 16 born Hammersmith), Percy Cowper (age 14 born Hammersmith), Annie Florence Cowper (age 11 born Twickenham), Helen Nina Cowper (age 9 born Twickenham), Alice Maude Cowper (age 8 born Twickenham), Agnes Cecil Cowper (age 7 born Twickenham). Three servants. [3]

1880 He was President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

1893 Cowper died of pneumonia at his home, Rastricke, Pine Grove, Weybridge, Surrey, on 9 May 1893, leaving a widow, Juliana.


1893 Obituary [4]

EDWARD ALFRED COWPER was born on 10th December 1819 in London, and was the son of Mr. Edward Cowper, professor in the engineering department of King's College, London, who was a fertile inventor in relation to printing machines.

In 1834 at the age of fourteen he was apprenticed for seven years to Mr. John Braithwaite, of St. Pancras; and while there invented in 1837 the detonating fog-signal, which was first tried on the Croydon lino.

In 1841 he went to Messrs. Fox and Henderson, at the London Works, Smethwick, near Birmingham, where for some time he held the post of chief draughtsman and designer.

In 1846 he took an active part in promoting the establishment of this Institution, to which he contributed one of the earliest papers (Proceedings October 1847, page 1) on an "inverted-arch suspension-bridge.

During his stay at the London Works he introduced an improved mode of moulding railway chairs (Proceedings July 1851, page 42); and invented and made hydraulic machinery for bending railway- wheel spokes out of flat bars, cutting out horn-plates with dies, cutting out the links for suspension bridges, and other work.

In 1851 he returned to London, and commenced practice as a consulting engineer. Two important works testify to his early skill:— the Crystal Palace, formerly the 1851 Exhibition building; and the wrought-iron roof of the railway station, New Street, Birmingham (Proceedings 1854, page 79), the span of which - 211 feet - was at the time the largest in existence.

He early made his mark in engine design, and advocated the compound engine at a time when it was not yet appreciated; and he was an earnest believer in steam-jacketing. His steam-heated receiver or "hot pot" was tried in H.M.S. "Briton," fitted with compound engines, which attained the economy, at that time (1870) unparalleled, of 1.3 lb. of coal per horse-power per hour.

On the invention of the regenerative furnace by Sir William Siemens, he saw its applicability to the purpose of heating the blast for blast-furnaces (Proceedings 1860, page 54), by the use of stoves containing masses of open brickwork, instead of the cast-iron pipes through which the air to be heated had previously been passed. By this means the former temperature of 800' Fahr. in the pipe stoves was increased in the regenerative fire-brick stoves to 1150' and subsequently to 1600', corresponding with a saving of 4 cwts. of coke per ton of pig-iron.

The first of these stoves was built in 1859; and various improvements were subsequently effected up to 1887, both by himself and by his son, Mr. Charles E. Cowper, whom shortly before his death he had taken into partnership; one of the most important improvements was the recent introduction of a honeycomb form of regenerator.

Among his other inventions were the modern bicycle wheel, that is, a wire-spoke suspension-wheel with india-rubber tyre; and the "writing telegraph," which has recently been revived as one of the electrical novelties at the Chicago Exhibition.

In 1887, in conjunction with Dr. Anderson, he carried out an elaborate investigation with a 5 horse-power engine to test the accuracy of Joule's conclusions as to the mechanical equivalent of heat, with the result of confirming Joule's equivalent.

In addition to those already mentioned he also read papers before this Institution on Brockedon's application of vulcanised india-rubber to pipe-joints (Proceedings October 1848, page 20); on Cugnot's original invention of the locomotive steam-engine for use on common roads (Proceedings 1853, page 33); on a set of blast engines made for the East Indian Iron Co. (Proceedings 1855, page 154); on two pair of horizontal pumping engines (Proceedings 1858, page 46); on the inventions of James Watt, and his models (Proceedings 1883, page 599).

His death took place at Weybridge on 9th May 1893, after a brief illness from pneumonia, in the seventy-fourth year of his age.

He was an original Member of this Institution from its formation in Birmingham in 1847, and for many years a Member of Council and a Vice-President; and he was President in 1880 and 1881. He was also a Member of Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and a member of many other societies.


1893 Obituary [5][6]

EDWARD ALFRED COWPER, born on the 10th of December, 1819, was a son of the late Mr. Edward Cowper, professor in the engineering department of King’s College, London, one of the early improvers of the printing-machine, and the Author of a Paper on that subject read before the Institution in 1850.

When only fourteen the subject of this notice was apprenticed for seven years to the late John Braithwaite. While still an apprentice, he invented, about 1841 the detonating fog-signal, which was recommended as worthy of adoption by General Pasley, then Inspector-General of Railways, in a report dated the 14th of April, 1844. It was first tried on the Croydon railway, and has long since been in general use.

In 1841 Mr. Cowper entered the service of Messrs. Fox (afterwards Sir Charles Fox) and Henderson of Birmingham. While with that firm he invented an ingenious method of casting railway-chairs, and designed the wrought-iron roof of the New Street Station at Birmingham, which had a span of 211 feet - at that time the largest iron roof in existence. It was originally intended to have two spans, or more, supported by columns; but at Mr. Cowper’s suggestion, that method of construction was not adopted. The site was extremely awkward, as it was formed of a parallel and two taper portions, on which were four platforms and ten lines of rails. The ground, however, was so surrounded by buildings that it was possible to adopt a sloping ridge over the taper portions and thus simplify the task of designing the principals, all of which were made similar, the dimensions of each part being reduced as the span narrowed.

He also superintended the preparation of the contract drawings for the building of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was subsequently re-erected at Sydenham for the Crystal Palace Company.

At the end of 1851 Mr. Cowper resigned his post as chief draughtsman and designer to Messrs. Fox and Henderson and commenced to practise on his own account in London as a consulting engineer. Six years later he invented the regenerative hot-blast stove, in which fire-bricks are used instead of the cast-iron pipes through which the air to be heated previously passed. He subsequently effected various improvements in this design, an account of which he presented to the Institution in 1870 ; for that Paper he was awarded a Watt medal and a Telford premium.

In its latest form, the stove consists of a vertical combustion-chamber, and a 'regenerator' composed of a number of honeycomb passages or flues. Gas from the top of the blast-furnace is admitted to the combustion-chamber, together with air, and burns in it, the products of combustion, on arriving at the summit of the chamber, being drawn down through the honeycomb flues. The upper end of the regenerator rapidly becomes red-hot, and the heat travels gradually downwards until a considerable length of the flues becomes incandescent. The gas is then shut off, and blast is passed through the regenerator from the bottom to the top, gradually cooling it, the process taking some hours before the gas must be again admitted.

Mr. Cowper gave great attention to the subject of the economy of steam and was an ardent advocate of the compound-engine and of steam-jacketing. About the year 1858 he introduced the steam-jacketed receiver, which was subsequently known in the navy as 'Cowper’s Hot-Pot.' In its early form, this was a vessel into which the steam entered at one end, leaving it at the other ; but it was afterwards modified by the addition of an inner lining which forced every particle of steam in progress to the outlet to pass close to the heated walls.

At his suggestion, the engine-cranks were placed at right-angles, obviating the necessity of having six cylinders, two to each engine. In 1870 HMS Briton and HMS Thetis were fitted by Messrs. Rennie on this plan, with the result that the Briton, when steaming at a speed of ten knots, burned only 1.3 lb. of coal per HP. per hour.

In 1879 Mr. Cowper invented a beautiful and ingenious instrument, the writing-telegraph, by means of which the operator at a distant station was enabled to write as though he were present, without the use of any special signals, code or signs, and without the assistance of any person to translate the signals as received. The exact position of the pencil of the operator at the sending-station was communicated to the writing-pen at the receiving-station through two line wires, one giving the vertical and the other the horizontal position of the pencil.

It may also be interesting to record that as far back as 1868 he designed what was practically the modern bicycle wheel - a wirespoke suspension wheel with a rubber tyre. Other matters prevented him, however, from taking out a patent and the idea eventually became common property.

In conjunction with Dr. Anderson, he carried out in 1887 a series of experiments on the mechanical equivalent of heat, the results of which were contained in a Paper read at the meeting of the British Association at Manchester in that year.

Another point which stands out clearly in Mr. Cowper’s career is the part he took in founding the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He was one of the few original members of that body at its inception in 1847 and in the following year was elected a Member of Council. In 1880-81 he served the office of President.

Among the Papers he contributed to the Proceedings of that Institution may be mentioned, in addition to those already referred to:- 'An Inverted Arch Suspension Bridge' (1847); 'Cugnot’s Locomotive for Use on Common Roads' (1853); 'Blast Engines for the East Indian Iron Company' (1855); 'Two Pairs of Horizontal Pumping Engines' (1858); 'Regenerative Hot-Blast Stoves working at a temperature of 1,300 degrees Fahrenheit' (1860); and 'The Inventions of James Watt, and his Models preserved at Handsworth and South Kensington' (1883).

Mr. Cowper was a member of the Committee of Advice with reference to the collection of models in the Machinery and Inventions Division of the South Kensington Museum, an exhaustive catalogue of which, prepared by him, was published by the Science and Art Department in 1890.

He was a member of the Jury at the International Inventions Exhibition and acted as a judge for the Royal Agricultural Society in 1868 and 1870.

Among his many miscellaneous inventions may be mentioned improvements in candle-making machinery adopted by Price’s Candle Co; an apparatus for the recovery of lead fumes which effected great economy by securing fine particles of lead previously lost through the chimney; a sugar-cutting machine in which knives arranged in squares were employed to cut the slabs into small cube-shaped lumps ; and an improved gin for removing the fibre of cotton from the seed. He frequently acted as a witness in patent and arbitration cases.

Mr. Cowper was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 13th of January, 1852, and was transferred to the class of Member on the 28th of February, 1860. In 1878 he was elected a Member of the Council, on which he continued to serve until his death.

In addition to the Paper on the 'Regenerative Hot-blast Stove,' above referred to, he delivered before the Institution on the 17th of January, 1884, a lecture on the 'Steam-Engine,' which formed one of the special series of lectures on 'Heat in its Mechanical Applications.' He was a constant attendant at the meetings and frequently took part in discussions ; shortly before his death he interested himself greatly in a Paper on the 'Breakdown of the RMS Umbria', by Thomas Sopwith, and it was under his direction that the model of the broken shaft of that vessel, then exhibited, was prepared.

Mr. Cowper died from pneumonia, after a very brief illness, on the 9th of May, 1893, at the age of seventy-three. He may be said to have died in harness, for it was only a few weeks previously that he had taken into partnership is son, Charles E. Cowper, with a view of relieving himself from much of the strain of work which he had begun to feel.


1893 Obituary [7]

EDWARD ALFRED COWPER, son of Edward Cowper, the improver of the printing-press, and Professor of Engineering at King's College, was born on December 10, 1819.

He was apprenticed in 1834 for seven years to Mr. John Braithwaite of London, and in 1846 he was engaged by Messrs. Fox & Henderson of Birmingham. In 1851 he was occupied with the contract drawings for the buildings of the Great Exhibition, and in that year started practice as a consulting engineer in London.

Mr. Cowper designed the roof of the Birmingham Railway Station, the first large-span (211 feet) station roof constructed. He was a fertile inventor. During his apprenticeship he invented the well-known railway fog-signal, and, when engaged with Messrs. Fox & Henderson, he invented an improved method of casting railway chairs. In 1857 he patented his regenerative firebrick hot-blast stove, and continued to introduce improvements in its construction until 1887. Amongst his other inventions may be mentioned a compound engine with receiver Patented in 1857, a bicycle wheel with steel spokes and india-rubber tire, patented in 1868, and an electric writing telegraph, patented in 1879.

Mr. Cowper was an original member of the Iron and Steel Institute, and a constant contributor to its publications. In 1847 he assisted in founding the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and in 1880-81 occupied the presidential chair of that body. He was a member of the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and in 1884 was selected by them to give a special lecture on the steam-engine. He was commissioned by the Science and Art Department to catalogue the collection of machinery and inventions in the South Kensington Museum.

Mr. Cowper died on May 9, 1893, after a short illness, the cause of death being attributed to pneumonia.


1893 Obituary[8]

"THE LATE MR. E. A. COWPER.

We regret to record the death of Mr. E. A. Cowper, who for many years has occupied a very prominent and important position in the engineering world. His decease occurred on the 26th ult. at his house at Weybridge, and was unexpectedly sudden ; a cold developed into pneumonia, and cardiac failure supervening, the end came with great rapidity. It is only a few weeks ago that Mr. Cowper made formal arrangements for relieving himself from much of the strain of his business by taking his son, Mr. Charles E. Cowper, into partnership, and it was hoped by his friends that he was about to enter into a period of well-earned rest. For some months the weight of his seventy-three years had pressed heavily upon his frame, and he had practically adopted the course which so recently has been publicly announced. His mental activity was, however, unimpaired, and had it not been for the unfortunate accident of his taking cold, his accumulated experience and ripened judgment might have been at the service of the world for some time to come. Still, it may be written of him, “he died full of years and honours.” He had filled the office of Member of Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers, and of President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, besides being a member of most of the other technical societies. He had been a member of the jury at the Inventions and the Mining and Metallurgical Exhibitions, a judge of the Royal Agricultural Society in 1868 and 1870, and one of the Committee of Advice at South Kensington in relation to the models. In these and many other ways had the respect and esteem of the profession, and of the official classes, been shown to him.

The points that stand out most clearly in Mr. Cowper’s career are the founding of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1847, the designing of the great Exhibition buildings of 1851, the invention of the regenerative firebrick hot-blast stove in 1857, the invention of the steam-jacketed receiver for the compound engine, and the writing telegraph (1879). Mr. Cowper was one of the few original members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers at its inception in Birmingham in 1847 ; he became Member of Council in 1848, Vice-President in 1863, and President in 1880-81. He was a constant attendant of the meetings, and there are few volumes of the Proceedings which do not contain reports of his speeches. This is particularly true of the earlier issues, when the Institution was less important than it has since grown, and needed the loyal support of all its members. He did not, however, read many papers, the more noticeable being “ On an Inverted Arch Suspension Bridge ” (1847) ; “ On a New Method of Moulding Railway Chairs” (1851) ; “On Cugnot’s Locomotive for Use on Common Roads ” (1853) ; “ Description of the Wrought-Iron Roof over the Central Railway Station at Birmingham ” (1854); “A Description of a Set of Six Blast Engines made for the East Indian Iron Company ” (1855) ; “ Description of Two Pairs of Horizontal Pumping Engines ” (1858); “Some Regenerative Hot-Blast Stoves Working at a Temperature of 1300 deg. Fahr.” (1860) ; “ On the Inventions of James Watt and his Models ” (1883). Mr. Cowper’s early work as a constructive engineer is reflected in his papers. At the date of the first he was chief draughtsman and manager to Messrs. Fox and Henderson (afterwards Sir Charles Fox), and was engaged in designing roofs and machinery. It is a fact, we believe, that the braced suspension bridge which he advocated has never been constructed, although often proposed, until recently in the Tower Bridge. At a time when the strains in girders were little understood, as pointed out by Dr. Anderson in his recent “ James Forrest Lecture,” the suspension bridge had many attractions for engineers, which, however, were more than balanced by its want of rigidity. To obviate this defect, Mr. Cowper proposed to construct the “inverted arches ” of boiler plates of considerable depth, 3 ft. or 4 ft. or more, riveted together without joints or links, and strengthened by bars riveted along the top and bottom edges. The progress of science, however, soon brought the girder to a more perfect state, and this project was forgotten.

Two monumental pieces of work stand to testify to Mr. Cowper’s early skill—the Crystal Palace (formerly the 1851 Exhibition building), and the Birmingham Station. This latter was originally intended to have two spans, or more, supported by columns, and it was only at Mr. Cowper’s earnest remonstrance that this method of construction was given up. The site was extremely awkward, as it was formed of a parallel portion, and two taper portions, on which were ten lines of rails and four platforms. Fortunately the ground was so surrounded by buildings that the skyline was not generally visible, and it became possible to adopt a sloping iidge over the taper,portions, thus greatly simplifying the task of designing the principals.

The method followed was to make all the principals similar, reducing the dimensions of each part according to a fixed scale as the span narrowed.

One of the principals was tested at the manufacturers’ by setting it up and loading the struts with weights. A load of 45 tons, equal to 20 lb. per square foot, gave a deflection of 1$ in. ; 67 tons gave 2/g- in. ; and 90 tons 3yfr in., with no permanent set-. The Crystal Palace is even better known, and is marked by Mr. Cowper’s resolution to put the metal where it was wanted, and not to adopt forms that were artistically pleasant, while scientifically incorrect. Mr. Cowper early made his maik in engine design.

He was an ardent advocate of the compound engine at a time when it had few friends, and an earnest believer in steam jacketing. In the course of a discussion on superheating, in 1859, he mentioned that he had applied a gauge glass to a steam engine cylinder, and had watched in it, first, the initial condensation, and afterwards the re-evaporation. “I saw,” said he, “ that at first the cylinder acted as a condenser, and afterwards as a boiler.” It was this phenomenon that led him to adopt the jacketed “ intermediate receiver, by which he raised the steam from 231 deg. to 282 deg. In its earliest form this was a vessel into which the steam entered at one end, leaving it at the other, but later it was modified by the addition of an inner lining, obliging every particle of steam to pass close to the heated walls in i*s progress to the outlet. As an example of what could be obtained by careful design, he instanced H.M.S. Briton, which, when steaming at a cruising speed of 10 knots, burned only 1.3 lb. of coal per horse-power hour. This engine worked with 55 lb. pressure of steam, the cylinders and receiver being thoroughly jacketed.

It was in 1850 that he first tried the compound engine, and his patent for the receiver was dated 1857.

Mr. Cowper was early associated with Sir William (then Mr.) Siemens. On the invention of the regenerative furnace, he saw its applicability to the purpose of heating the blast for blast furnaces. Accordingly in 1857 he took out a patent in relation to this subject, and followed it by others, the date of the last being 1887. At the present time there are more than 500 of these stoves in operation. In their latest form they consist of a vertical combustion chamber and a number of honeycomb passages or flues. Gas from the top of the blast furnace is admitted to the combustion chamber together with air, and burns in it.

The products of combustion are diawn down through the honeycomb flues. The upper ends rapidly become red-hot-, and gradually the heat travels downwards, until a considerable length of the flues becomes incandescent. The gas is then shut off, and air passed through the flue from bottom to top, gradually cooling it, the process taking some hours befoie the gas must be again admitted. When the regenerative stove was introduced it was good practice to obtain from the pipe stoves a temperature of 800 deg. Fahr. This was immediately raised to 1150 deg., and subsequently to from 1400 deg. to 1600 deg. A rise from 1000 deg. to 1420 deg. represents a saving, according to Mr. Cowper, of 4 cwt. of coke per ton of iron, or of 3232/. per furnace per year, and the quality of the iron is better.

Among Mr, Cowper’s minor inventions may be counted the modern bicycle wheel and the writing telegraph. When the old “boneshaker” was the fashion, he designed a wire spoke suspension wheel with a rubber tyre, and made preparations for patenting it. He was, however, prevented by other matters from prosecuting the affair, and the idea became common property. The writing telegraph was a beautiful instrument, tut was before its time, and nothing came of it. Quite recently, however, we have heard that Mr. Elisha Gray has made a success of it in America, and that is to be one of the electrical novelties in Chicago. Mr Cowper's engineering ability was partly inherited. His father was Mr Edward Cowper, Professor in the Engineering Department of King's College, and a fertile inventor in relation to printing machinery. He apprenticed his son at the age of fourteen (1834) to Mr John Braithwaite, from whose establishment there came many good engineers. While there the youth invented the detonating fog signal for railways in substantially the same form as it is now. The period of apprenticeship ended in 1841, and in 1846 Mr Cowper transferred his services to Messrs. Fox and Henderson, as already mentioned. In 1851 he commenced in practice as a consulting engineer, and soon attained a leading position. He was elected a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1860, and a member of the Council in 1879. In 1887 he was invited to lecture before the Institution on the steam engine, a position of honour which he was well fitted to fill, for the subject had been with him the study of a lifetime both from a practical and theoretical point of view.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1851 Census
  2. The Morning Chronicle, Saturday, September 6, 1856
  3. 1871 Census
  4. 1893 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  5. 1893 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  6. The Engineer 1893/05/19, p429.
  7. 1893 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  8. Engineering 1893/05/19