Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

Registered UK Charity (No. 115342)

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,160 pages of information and 245,627 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Francis Pettit Smith

From Graces Guide

Sir Francis Pettit Smith (1808-1874) was an English inventor. He is best remembered for his work in successfully applying screw propulsion to ships. Although he was by no means the first to experiment with propellers, it was mainly through his persistent efforts that the screw was successfully introduced into the British naval and mercantile fleets.[1]

1808 February 9th. Born at 31 High Street, Hythe, Kent, the son of Charles Smith, postmaster, and his wife Sarah Pettit.

He was educated at a private school in Ashford run by the Rev. Alexander Power, before working as a grazing farmer on Romney Marsh

He later moved to Hendon in Middlesex where he continued to farm for 37 years as a poor man

1830 Married Ann Black at Folkestone

As a boy he had acquired great skill in the construction of model boats and took special interest in their means of propulsion. This fascination with boats remained with him and in 1834, on a reservoir near his farm, he perfected the propulsion of a model boat by means of a wooden screw driven by a spring. He became utterly convinced that this form of propulsion was greatly superior to the paddle wheel which was in use at the time.

The following year, with the help of an engineer, Thomas Pilgrim, he built a superior model with which he performed a number of experiments at Hendon.

In 1836 Smith took out a patent for propelling vessels by means of a screw revolving beneath the water at the stern. He built a 6 ton launch, the Francis Smith, with a wooden screw of two complete turns, with a length of 2 feet 6 inches and a diameter of 2 feet driven by a single-cylinder engine of 6 nominal horsepower. By luck he found that a shorter propeller drove the vessel faster. This boat was in operation on the Paddington Canal, and continued to ply there till September, 1837.

After securing the financial backing of several parties, he helped organize the Ship Propeller Co which in 1839 built the world's first successful screw-propelled steamship, SS Archimedes. A short time later, he was instrumental in persuading Isambard Kingdom Brunel to change the design of the SS Great Britain from paddle to screw propulsion, by lending Brunel the Archimedes for several months. He also helped persuade the British Admiralty to adopt screw propulsion.

The Admiralty failed to purchase the Archimedes, contrary to Smith's understanding, which led to the failure of his company.

1851 He received a share of an ex gratia payment of £20,000 by the Admiralty, shared among all propeller designers.

1855 he was awarded a civil-list pension of £200 and the subscriptions to a testimonial fund led to him receiving a service of plate and £2678.

1856 His patent expired and he retired to Guernsey as a farmer.

1856 At the time of the Spithead Review, when all of the vessels were powered by screw propellers, a testimonial fund was established to commemorate the achievement of F. P. Smith, supported by testimonials from several high ranking officials and a letter on behalf of Queen Victoria granting Smith a Civil List pension; many subscriptions were received from representatives of the shipping companies as well as engineering companies[2] Married for a second time, to Susan Wallis. He had children by each marriage.

In 1860 the government appointed him to the post of curator of the Patent Museum at South Kensington.

1861 Living at 2 Summer Place, Kensington (age 53 born Hythe), an Engineer. With his wife Susan (age 33 born Bexley, Kent). Two servants. [3]

1864 Smith negotiated with the Governors of Dulwich College for the lease of a plot of land on Sydenham Hill where he built his house named Centra House.

1871 Living at 15 Thurlow Place, Kensington (age 63 born Hythe), Curator Patent Office Museum. With his son Edward (age 34 born Hendon), an Estate Agent. Also two boarders [4]

1871 Knighthood

1874 February 12th. Died at 15 Thurlow Place, South Kensington and is buried in St Leonards Cemetery, Hythe, Kent.

1874 Obituary[5]

The death is announced of Sir F. P. Smith. the introducer of the screw for the propulsion vessels. It is computed that the total cost vessels in her Majesty's navy and the merchant service of this country which have been fitted with the screw greatly exceeds at present £120,000,000, with a saving to the country from the use the screw rather than of the paddle of several' millions sterling.

For his personal services to the navy her Majesty, in 1855, on the recoup mendation of Lord Palmerston, granted to Smith an annual pension from the Civil List of £200; and in 1871 conferred upon him the honour of knighthood.

In 1857 national subscription was made for a testimonial to Mr Smith and a service of plate and £2678 were presented to him at a public banquet in St James' Hall.

Sir Francis P. Smith at the time of his death was curator of the Patent Office Museum, Kensington.

1874 Obituary [6]

1875 Obituary [7]

SIR FRANCIS PETTIT SMITH, the only son of the late Mr. Charles Smith, for upwards of forty years postmaster at Hythe, Kent, was born on the 9th of February, 1808.

At the age of ten young Smith was sent to a school at Ashford, kept by the Rev. Alexander Power, and when he grew up to man's estate he adopted the business of a grazier, first in Romney Marsh, in Kent, and afterwards at Hendon, in Middlesex. He had all his life been addicted to the construction of models of boats, and had contrived various modes of propulsion ; but in 1834 a model, propelled by a screw driven by a spring, answered so well that he arrived at the conclusion that this would be preferable for vessels to paddle-wheels, which at that time were exclusively employed as propellers.

In 1835 he made a superior model, with which he performed a great number of experiments on one of the horse-ponds of his farm at Hendon, and at the Adelaide Gallery; and in 1836 he took out a patent for propelling vessels by a screw revolving beneath the water at the stern. At this stage of his progress he was joined by the late Mr. Wright, a banker, and Mr. C. A. Caldwell.

In 1836 a small steam vessel of 10 tons burden and 6 HP. was built, and was tried on the Paddington Canal, and on the Thames, with satisfactory results. In the construction and working of this boat Mr. Smith wits materially assisted by Thomas Pilgrim, a clever practical engineer, who subsequently acted as chief engineer of the Archimedes and other later vessels.

In 1837 the tiny craft put to sea, and visited Dover, Folkestone, &c., encountering some very severe weather, and demonstrating that the screw would answer in rough as well as in smooth water.

In 1838 the vessel was visited by the Lords of the Admiralty, who considered Mr. Smith‘s progress to have been so successful that they contemplated trying his invention in the navy; but before taking this step they were desirous of having it tried by Mr. Smith and his friends in a larger vessel.

To meet this requisition the 'Archimedes' was built, and launched from Millwall in October, 1838. She was of 237 tons burthen, and had engines of 80 HP., by Messrs. Rennie. She was designed by the late Mr. Edward Pascoe, and constructed by Henry Wimshurst. It was agreed that her performance would be considered satisfactory, and that the screw would in all probability be adopted in the navy if she realised a speed of 5 miles an hour. Nearly twice that speed was actually attained.

Up to this point Mr. Smith had been compelled to contend against not merely the physical difficulties incidental to new inventions, but against the almost universal sentiment of the engineering world, which regarded the project of propelling vessels by means of a screw as visionary and preposterous. Undaunted, however, by this unfavourable opinion, and undeterred by mechanical difficulties, Mr. Smith laboured steadily onward, maintaining his own faith unshaken, and upholding the faith of those gentlemen who were now associated with him in the prosecution of the invention, of whom one of the most effective and energetic was Mr. Henry Currie, the banker.

The remarkable success achieved by the 'Archimedes' took the engineering world by surprise; and, although a vast amount of inertia had yet to be overcome before the screw could be practically introduced in an effective manner, yet it now became clear that the original unfavourable sentiment regarding it had been erroneous.

In May 1839 the 'Archimedes' visited Sheerness, Portsmouth, &C., where her performance excited universal admiration. In May 1840 she was tested against some of the best packets on the Dover station; and Captain Chappell, of the Royal Navy, and Mr. Lloyd, Chief Engineer of the Navy, by whom the investigation was conducted, reported in the most favourable manner of her performance.

In the same year the 'Archimedes' visited every principal port in Great Britain, and crossed the Bay of Biscay to Oporto.

In 1841 a small vessel, named the 'Bee,' was built at Chatham by order of the Admiralty, and was fitted both with paddles and the screw, in order that it might be ascertained which instrument of propulsion gave the best result.

In 1842 the 'Rattler' was commenced at Sheerness; and in 1843 Mr. Lloyd, assisted by Mr. Smith and Mr. Brunel, made a number of experiments with her, to determine the best proportions of the screw; and the proportions as thus ascertained have since been the guide of engineering practice.

In 1844,the 'Rattler' was commissioned by Captain Henry Smith, RN. ; and, in 1845, an elaborate series of experiments was made, with the view of ascertaining the comparative efficiency, under all circumstances of wind and water, of the screw-steamer 'Rattler' and the paddle-steamer 'Alecto,' - the vessels being purposely constructed from the same lines, and of the same size and power. They were each of about 800 tons and 200 HP.; and, under nearly all the circumstances, the 'Rattler' showed a superiority of performance which led the Admiralty to order H.M. yacht 'Fairy', and twenty other ships of various classes, to be fitted with the screw, under Mr. Smith’s advice and superintendence.

This he continued till 1850, by which time nearly one hundred ships had been built, and ordered to be built, on the screw principle.

Meanwhile the fourteen years’ patent had expired, and an extension of it for five years had been granted ; no returns had yet been obtained from it, but very heavy expenses had been incurred; and, to add to Mr. Smith‘s perplexities, other and more painful obstacles than the lukewarmness of the public had to be encountered. No sooner was the practical value of the invention incontestably proved, than a succession of envious pretenders arose, each more anxious than the last to prove that screw propulsion was no novelty, and that if it had been, the merit of its introduction did not rightly belong to Mr. Smith.

Answering some of these detractors in a calm and dispassionate letter to the editor of the Mechanic’s Magazine, published in April 1854, Mr. Smith wrote : "The idea of using the screw as a propeller is at least a century old, and within that period has had its hundred votaries, each in turn nursing it as the offspring of his own fertile imagination, until compelled, by failure of repeated trials, to abandon it in disgust. Of such propositions and attempts, however, I had never heard or read at the time I first conceived the project myself, in 1834 ; but, on the contrary, until after the date of my patent, in 1836, I as conscientiously believed myself to be the first discoverer of the use of the screw for the purposes of navigation, as did Archimedes himself for those to which he applied it, and for which he is so justly famed."

The first public recognition of Mr. Smith’s services to his country was made in 1855, when, on the recommendation of Lord Palmerston, her Majesty granted him an annual pension from the Civil List of £200.

In 1857 a national subscription was made for a testimonial, and a service of plate and £2,678 were presented to him at St. James’s Hall; and later on, in 1871, he was knighted.

It is in virtue of his connection with screw propulsion that Sir Francis Pettit Smith‘s name will be known ; and the greatness of this one achievement might well suffice to throw into the shade minor services ; but none the less was Sir Francis a painstaking and efficient Curator of the Patent Office Museum, to which post he was appointed in 1860, and which he held until his death.

Sir Francis was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers on the 4th of April, 1848, and frequently attended the meetings and took part in tho discussions. He died on the 12th of February, 1874, and left a widow and two sons.’

This information has been mainly derived from an able and appreciative article which was published in the 'Illustrated London News,' April 26, 1856.


SMITH, Sir FRANCIS PETTIT (1808–1874), inventor of the screw-propeller for steamships, only son of Charles Smith, postmaster of Hythe, by Sarah, daughter of Francis Pettit of Hythe, was born there on 9 Feb. 1808. He was educated at a private school at Ashford in Kent, and began life as a grazing farmer in Romney Marsh, afterwards removing to Hendon, Middlesex. In boyhood Smith acquired great skill in the construction of model boats, and displayed much ingenuity in contriving methods of propulsion for them. Continuing to devote much of his spare time to the subject, he in 1835 constructed a model which was propelled by a screw, actuated by a spring, and which proved so successful that he became convinced that this form of propeller would be preferable to the paddle-wheels at that time exclusively employed.

The scheme of using some form of screw as a propeller had been advocated by Robert Hooke [q. v.] as early as 1681, and by Daniel Bernouilli and others in the eighteenth century. On 9 May 1795 Joseph Bramah [q. v.] took out a patent for a screw propeller, but did not apparently construct one. But between 1791 and 1807 John Cox Stevens, an American mechanician, made practical experiments with a steam-boat propelled by a screw at Hoboken, New Jersey. Moreover, simultaneously with Smith's first efforts, Captain John Ericsson, a Swede, was actively working in the same direction.

Smith was wholly ignorant of these endeavours. Impressed with the importance of the appliance, of which he believed himself the sole discoverer, he practically abandoned his farming, and devoted himself with whole-hearted enthusiasm to the development and perfecting of his idea.

By the following year (1836) he had constructed a superior model, which was exhibited in operation to friends upon a pond on his farm at Hendon, and afterwards to the public at the Adelaide Gallery, London. On 31 May in the same year he took out a patent, based upon this model, for ‘propelling vessels by means of a screw revolving beneath the water at’ the stern. Six weeks later, on 13 July—it is curious to note—Captain Ericsson took out, also in London, a similar patent. Smith quickly perfected his invention. With the pecuniary assistance of Mr. Wright, a banker, and the technical assistance of Mr. Thomas Pilgrim, a practical engineer whose services Smith engaged, he soon constructed a small boat of ten tons burden and fitted her with a wooden screw of two turns, driven by an engine of about six horse-power. This was exhibited to the public in operation in November 1836. An accident to the propeller led him to the conclusion that a shortened screw would give more satisfactory results, and in 1837 a screw of a single turn was fitted. With a view to proving the efficiency of this method of propulsion under all circumstances, the little vessel was taken to Ramsgate, thence to Dover and Hythe, returning in boisterous and stormy weather. The propeller proved itself efficient to an unexpected degree in both smooth and rough water.

The attention of the admiralty was now invited to the new invention, to which at the outset the sentiment of the engineering world was almost universally opposed. The admiralty considered it to be desirable that experiments should be made with a larger vessel before recommending the adoption of the screw in the navy. Accordingly a small company was formed, and the construction of a new screw steamer, the Archimedes, resolved upon. This was a vessel of 237 tons, fitted with a screw of one convolution, propelled by engines of eighty horse-power, the understanding with the admiralty being that her performance would be considered satisfactory if a speed of five knots an hour were maintained. Double this speed was actually achieved, and the vessel, after various trials on the Thames and at Sheerness, proceeded to Portsmouth, where she was tried against the Vulcan, one of the fastest paddle steamers in her majesty's service, with the most gratifying result. This was in October 1839, and in the following year the admiralty experts deputed to conduct a series of experiments with her reported that they considered the success of the new propeller completely demonstrated. The admiralty would not even then, however, definitely commit themselves, and it was not until a year later—in 1841—that orders were given for the Rattler, the first war screw steamer in the British navy, to be laid down at Sheerness. In the meantime the Archimedes was taken to the principal ports in Great Britain, to Amsterdam, and across the Bay of Biscay to Oporto, everywhere exciting interest, and leaving the impression that the value of the screw had been fully proved. When at Bristol Isambard Kingdom Brunel [q. v.] was invited to visit the vessel, and he was so satisfied with the new propeller that the Great Britain, the first large iron ocean-going steamer, which was originally intended to be fitted with paddles, was altered to adapt her for the reception of a screw. The Rattler was launched in 1843, and on 18 March 1844 Smith's four-bladed screw was tested in her with complete success. Orders were soon given for twenty war vessels to be fitted with it under Smith's superintendence. The hitherto accepted theory that the screw could not economically compete with the paddle because of the loss of power arising from the obliquity of its motion was also completely refuted, and its universal adoption for ships of war and ocean steamers became a mere question of time.

Smith acted as adviser to the admiralty until 1850, but derived from his work for the government and from his commercial operations very inadequate remuneration. In 1856 his patent—upon which an extension of time had been granted—expired, and he retired to Guernsey to devote himself once more to agriculture. But he was in 1860 compelled, by lack of pecuniary means, to accept the post of curator of the patent office museum, South Kensington. This office he held until his death. Some recognition of his services was made by Lord Palmerston in 1855, when a pension of 200l. was conferred upon him, and in 1857 he was the recipient at St. James's Hall of a national testimonial, comprising a service of plate and a purse of nearly 3,000l., which were subscribed for by the whole of the shipbuilding and engineering world. Later, in 1871, the honour of knighthood was conferred on him. He was an associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers, member of the Institute of Naval Architects, and of the Royal Society of Arts for Scotland; also corresponding member of the American Institute. He died at South Kensington on 12 Feb. 1874. He was twice married: first, in 1830, to Ann, daughter of William Buck of Folkestone, by whom he had two sons; and secondly, in 1866, to Susannah, daughter of John Wallis of Boxley, Kent. His widow and two sons survived him

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 'A Short History of Naval and Marine Engineering' by Capt Edgar C Smith, published by Babcock & Wilcox, 1937
  2. The Times, Apr 24, 1856
  3. 1861 Census
  4. 1871 Census
  5. Edinburgh Evening News - Wednesday 18 February 1874
  6. The Engineer 1874/02/20 p137
  7. 1875 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  • [1] Wikipedia
  • Biography of Francis Pettit Smith, ODNB [2]