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James Melville Balfour

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James Melville Balfour (1831-1869)


1871 Obituary [1]

MR. JAMES MELVILLE BALFOUR, the youngest son of the late Rev. Lewis Balfour, D.D., was born on the 2nd of June, 1831, in the manse of Colinton, near Edinburgh, where his father was minister of the parish for the long period of thirty-seven years.

He received his education at the High School and University of Edinburgh. He early showed a strong inclination and remarkable aptitude for mechanical pursuits, and was an earnest student of mathematics and natural philosophy.

After attendance in different workshops in Edinburgh and Germany, with the view of gaining a knowledge of practical mechanics and of the proper methods of working materials, he entered the employment of Messrs. D. and T. Stevenson (MM. Inst. C.E.), by whom he was chiefly engaged in connection with the lighthouse department of their engineering practice.

In the spring of 1863 he was appointed Marine Engineer to the province of Otago, New Zealand, and on the termination of a two years’ engagement became Marine Engineer to the Colonial Government of Kew Zealand, and at once set himself to the task of designing marine works and of establishing the lighthouse system after the Scotch model. He took an active part in everything bearing ,on the welfare of New Zealand.

In connection with the New Zealand Exhibition of 1865, he made an elaborate series of experiments on the strength, weight, elasticity, deflection and durability of colonial timbers. These laborious experiments were the first to put the colonists in possession of reliable coefficients for the strength of sixty-four different kinds of native timber.

He was consulted on all matters relating to the improvement of harbours and rivers, the most important of his works of this kind being the Port Chalmers Dry Dock, estimated to cost £50,000. He completed the Dunedin Waterworks, which had been commenced under another engineer, and he also accomplished a great part of the marine survey of the west coast of the Middle Island.

He also designed and had executed under his immediate superintendence various lighthouses, among others those at Tairoashead, Nugget Point, Dog Island, Cape Campbell, and Farewell Spit, the lanterns and apparatus for which were sent from Edinburgh. For the lighthouse department he prepared a set of uniform harbour regulations and signals, to replace the great variety of regulations and signals formerly in use. These arrangements have given satisfaction to all concerned.

He took a lively interest in all matters connected with shipping, as evidenced by the elaborate instructions which he prepared for the proper adjustment of ships’ compasses, and also the inquiries which he instituted as to the causes of shipwrecks on the coast.

The whole lighting, buoyage, and beaconage of the colony was fast being brought into proper system at the time of his death.

He invented a 'Refraction Protractor' - the first instrument of the kind that was constructed - and which is thus spoken of by Professor Swan, of St. Andrews, in his Paper 'On new forms of Lighthouse Apparatus:' 'I cannot too strongly express my obligations to that gentleman (Mr. Balfour) for the invaluable aid which I have derived from his ingenious instrument. Without its help I should scarcely have undertaken to protract the designs which accompany this Paper.' His design for a pneumatic floating dry dock was novel, consisting of water-tight compartments, some of which were entirely closed so as to give a constant buoyancy which would barely allow the whole mass to sink. By forcing air in, instead of lifting the pontoon and allowing the water to run out, he proposed, on the principle of the ‘camel,’ to dispense with the cast-iron columns, hydraulic presses, girders, &C., which have hitherto been used to get the vessel out of the water.

Mr. Balfour was, unfortunately, cut down in the midst of usefulness at the early age of thirty-eight, being accidentally drowned by the capsizing of a boat in the heavy surf off Timaru, on the 18th of December, 1869. He was highly respected by the colonists for his unassuming manners and kindly disposition.

Besides his many printed official reports he has left, among others, the following publications :

'Description of a Refraction Protractor.” Royal Scot. Society of Arts, 1857, vol. v., App. p. 34 (awarded the Society’s silver medal and plate).

'Description of an Instrument for dividing circles on paper.” Royal Scot. Society of Arts, 1859, vol.‘ v., p. 149 (awarded silver medal).

'Description of a simple improvement on Reflectors for Lighthouses.” Royal Scot. Society of Arts, 1863, vol. vi., p. 211.

'Experiments on the Strength of Colonial Woods,)’ 1865. [Inst. C.E., Tract 8vo., vol. 155.1

'Description of a combined optical square and ‘line finder.’ ” Royal Scot. Society of Arts, 1866, vol. vii., p. 319 (awarded silver medal).

'Instructions to licensed adjusters of the Compasses of Steam vessels,” 1869.

Mr. Balfour was elected a Member of the Institution on the 15th of May, 1866.


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Sources of Information

  1. 1871 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries