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British Industrial History

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Humphrey Gainsborough

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Humphrey Gainsborough (1718 – 23 August 1776) was an engineer and inventor.

1718 April 15th. Baptised at Sudbury, the son of John Gainsborough, a weaver, and his wife Mary Burroughs. He was the brother of the artist Thomas Gainsborough.

1741 December 8th. Married in the City of London to Mary Marsland

Humphrey Gainsborough was pastor to the Independent Church in Henley-on-Thames, England.

1761 He invented the tide mill, which allowed a mill wheel to rotate in either direction, winning a £50 prize from the Society for the Encouragement of Arts in London.

1762 He designed a self-ventilating fish wagon

1763 Designed Conway's Bridge, built at Park Place close to Henley, a rustic arched stone structure that still carries traffic on the road between Wargrave and Henley today.

1766 He invented the drill plough, winning a prize of £60 from the Royal Society for his efforts.

1768 He improved the slope on the road up the steep White Hill to the east of Henley, straightening it in the process.

1772-73 The lock, weir and footbridge at Marsh Lock, just upstream from Henley on the River Thames, were designed by Gainsborough, together with other early locks from Sonning to Maidenhead.

1776 August 23rd. Died age 57 and buried at Rotherfields Greys, Oxfordshire.

1785 Philip Thicknesse wrote in The Gentleman's Magazine: '… one of the most ingenious men that ever lived, and one of the best that ever died … Perhaps of all the mechanical geniuses this or any nation has produced. Mr Gainsborough was the first.'

Steam Engines

One account claims that in the 1760s, Gainsborough showed a model of a condensing steam engine to James Watt. Watt had been working independently on improvements to the Newcomen "atmospheric engine" and subsequently patented these in 1769. He perhaps included some of — and at least built on — Gainsborough's ideas. Gainsborough is thus probably less well-known than he might have been.

In fact, it is improbable that Gainsborough and Watt ever met. However, there is good evidence for believing that Gainsborough independently conceived the idea of a separate condenser and conducted experiments, including the construction of a model engine.

The following information is largely drawn from a Newcomen Society paper by David Tyler[1]:

Gainsborough's engine attracted the attention of engineers in Cornwall, who were keen to pursue improvements in fuel economy.

Gainsborough and his supporters - who included Jabez Hornblower and Jonathan Hornblower firmly believed that his ideas had been communicated to James Watt, probably by Richard Edgeworth, and he challenged the validity of Watt's 1769 patent. However, from our knowledge of Watt's extensive experimental work, there is no reason to doubt that Watt independently conceived the idea of a separate condenser.

Gainsborough was unaware that Watt had been secretly developing his ideas from 1765 until revealed by Watt's application for a patent in 1769, hence his belief that his own work preceded that of Watt. In fact it is likely that knowledge of Gainsborough's work did reach the ears of Watt and his partners, and as a result Watt's colleagues urged him to make haste and obtain a patent.

Gainsborough applied for a patent for steam engine improvements in 1775, and this lead Watt to seek a meeting with him. Gainsborough's wife's illness prevented him from travelling to London to meet Watt. After she died, Matthew Boulton and Gainsborough planned to meet in August 1776, but it is not known whether this took place. Gainsborough died on 23 August.

Humphrey's model steam engine passed to his brother Thomas, where it languished in his garden in Pall Mall, until passed on to P. Thicknesse, and thence to a London bookseller named J. W. Fores.

Mr Tyler considers that some of Gainsborough's ideas may have been embodied in Hornblower's compound engines.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 'Humphrey Gainsborough (1718–1776): Cleric, Engineer and Inventor', by David Tyler, 2006. Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 76:1, 51-86