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British Industrial History

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James Nasmyth by James Nasmyth: Chapter 9

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CHAPTER IX. HOLIDAY IN THE MANUFACTURING DISTRICTS.

In the autumn of 1830 Mr. Maudsley went to Berlin for the purpose of superintending the erection of machinery at the Royal Mint there. He intended to be absent from London for about a month and he kindly permitted me to take a holiday during that period.

I had been greatly interested by the descriptions in the newspapers of the locomotive competition at Rainhill, near Liverpool. I was, therefore, exceedingly anxious to see Stephenson's "Rocket," the engine that had won the prize. Taking with me letters of introduction from Mr. Maudsley to persons of influence at Liverpool, I left London for the north on the afternoon of Saturday the 9th of September 1830. I took my place on the outside of the Liverpool coach, which set out from "The Swan with Two Necks," in Lad Lane, city, one of the most celebrated coach-offices in those days.

The first part of the journey to Liverpool was very dismal. The night was wet. The rain came pouring down, and no sort of wrappings could keep it out. The outside passengers became thoroughly soaked. On we went, however, as fast as four horses could carry us. Next morning we reached Coventry, when the clouds cleared away, and the sun at last burst forth. I could now enjoy this charming part of old England. Although I had only a hasty glimpse in passing of the quaint streets and ancient buildings of the town, I was perfectly delighted with the specimens of ancient domestic architecture which I saw. At that time Coventry was quite a museum of that interesting class of buildings. The greater part of them have since been swept away in the so-called improvement of modern builders, none of whose works can ever so attract the artistic eye.

During the rest of the day the journey was delightful. Though the inside passengers had had the best of it during the night, the outside passengers had the best of it now. To go scampering across the country on the top of the coach, passing old villages, gentlemen's parks, under old trees, along hedges tinged with autumn brown, up hill and down hill, sometimes getting off the coach to lighten the load, and walking along through the fields by a short cut to meet it farther on; all this was most enjoyable. It gave me a new interest in the happier aspects of English scenery, and of rural and domestic life in the pretty old-fashioned farm buildings that we passed on our way. Indeed, there was everything to delight the eye of the lover of the picturesque during the course of that bright autumnal day.

The coach reached Liverpool on Sunday night. I took up my quarters at a commercial inn in Dale Street, where I found every comfort which I desired at moderate charges. Next morning, without loss of time, I made my way to the then terminus of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway; and there, for the first time, I saw the famous "Rocket." The interest with which I beheld this distinguished and celebrated engine was much enhanced by seeing it make several short trial trips under the personal management of George Stephenson, who acted as engineman, while his son Robert acted as stoker. During their trips of four or five miles along the line the "Rocket" attained the speed of thirty miles an hour — a speed then thought almost incredible! It was to me a most memorable and interesting sight, especially to see the father and son so appropriately engaged in working the engine that was to effect so great a change in the future communications of the civilised world.

I spent the entire day in watching the trial trips, in examining the railway works, and such portions of their details as I could obtain access to. About mid-day the "Rocket" was at rest for about an hour near where I stood; and I eagerly availed myself of the opportunity of making a careful sketch of the engine, which I still preserve. The line was opened on the 15th of September, when the famous "Rocket" led the way in conducting the first train of passengers from Liverpool to Manchester. There were present on that occasion thousands of spectators, many of whom had come from distant parts of the kingdom to witness this greatest of all events in the history of railway locomotion.

During my stay in Liverpool I visited the vast range of magnificent docks which extend along the north bank of the Mersey, all of which were crowded with noble merchant ships, some taking in cargoes of British manufactures, and others discharging immense stores of cotton, sugar, tobacco, and foreign produce. The sight was most interesting, and gave me an impressive idea of the mighty functions of a manufacturing nation energy and intelligence, working through machinery, increasing the value of raw materials and enabling them to be transported for use to all parts of the civilised world.

Mr. Maudsley having given me a letter of introduction to his old friend William Fawcett, head of the firm of Fawcett, Preston, and Company, engineers, I went over their factory. They were engaged in producing sugar mills for the West Indies, and also in manufacturing the steam-engines for working them. The firm had acquired great reputation for their workmanship; and their shops were crowded with excellent specimens of their skill. Everything was in good order; their assortment of machine tools was admirable. Mr. Fawcett, who accompanied me, was full in his praises of my master, whom he regarded as the great pioneer in the substitution of the unerring accuracy of machine tools, for the often untrustworthy results of mere manual labour.

I cannot resist referring to the personal appearance and manner of this excellent gentleman, William Fawcett. His peculiar courteous manner, both in speech and action, reminded me of "the grand old style" which I had observed in some of my father's oldest noble employers, and the representations given of them by some of our best actors. There was also a dignified kindliness about his manner that was quite peculiar to himself; and when he conducted me through his busy workshops, the courtly yet kindly manner in which he addressed his various foremen and others, was especially cheering. When I first presented my letter of introduction from Henry Maudsley, he was sitting at a beautiful inlaid escritoire table with his letters arrayed before him in the most neat and perfect order. The writing-table stood on a small Turkey carpet apart from the clerks' desks in the room, but so near to them that he could readily communicate with them. His neat old-fashioned style of dress quite harmonised with his advanced age, and the kindly yet dignified grace of his manner left a lasting impression on me as a most interesting specimen of "the fine old English gentleman, quite of the olden time."

I spent another day in crossing the Mersey to Birkenhead — then a very small collection of buildings — and wandered about the neighbourhood. I had my sketch-book with me, and made a drawing of Liverpool from the other side of the river. Close to Birkenhead were some excellent bits of scenery, old and picturesque farmhouses, overshadowed with venerable oaks, with juttings-out of the New Red Sandstone rocks, covered with heather, furze, and broom, with pools of water edged with all manner of effective water plants. They formed capital subjects for the artistic pencil, especially when distant peeps of the Welsh hills came into the prospect. I made several sketches, and they kept company with my graphic memoranda of architectural and mechanical objects. I may here mention that on my return to London I showed them to my brother Patrick, and some of them so much met his fancy that he borrowed my sketch-book and painted some pictures from them, which at this day are hanging on the walls of some of his admirers.

With the desire of seeing as much as possible of all that was interesting in the mechanical, architectural, and picturesque line, on my return journey to London, I determined to walk, halting here or there by the way. The season of the year and the state of the weather were favourable for the purpose. I accordingly commenced my pedestrian tour on Saturday morning, the 17th September. I set out for Manchester. It was a long but pleasant walk. I well remember, when nearing Manchester, that I sat down to rest for a time on Patricroft Bridge. I was attracted by the rural aspect of the country, and the antique cottages that lay thereabouts. The Bridgewater Canal lay before me, and as I was told that it was the first mile of the waterway that the great Duke had made, it became quite classic ground in my eyes. I little thought at the time that I was so close to a piece of ground that should afterwards become my own, and where I should for twenty years carry on the most active and interesting business of my life.

I reached Manchester at seven in the evening, and took up my quarters at the King's Arms Inn, in Deansgate. Next day was Sunday. I attended service in the Cathedral, then called the Old Church. I was much interested by the service, as well as by the architecture of the building. Some of the details were well worthy of attention, being very original, and yet the whole was not of the best period of Gothic architecture. Some of the old buildings about the Cathedral were very interesting. They were of a most quaint character, yet bold and effective. Much finely carved oak timber work was introduced into them; and on the whole they gave a very striking illustration of the style of domestic architecture which prevailed in England some three or four centuries ago.

On the following day I called upon Mr. Edward Tootal, York Street. He was a well-known man in Manchester. I had the happiness of meeting him in London a few mouths before. He then kindly invited me to call upon him should I ever visit Manchester, when he would endeavour to obtain for me a sight of some of the most remarkable manufacturing establishments. Mr. Tootal was as good as his word. Be received me most cordially, and at once proceeded to take me to the extensive machine factory of Messrs. Sharp, Roberts, and Co. I found to my delight that a considerable portion of the establishment was devoted to the production of machine tools, a department of mechanical business that was then rising into the highest importance. Mr. Roberts, an admirable mechanic as well as inventor, had derived many of his ideas on the subject while working with Mr. Maudsley in London, and he had carried them out with many additions and improvements of his own contrivance. Indeed, Roberts was one of the most capable men of his time, and is entitled to be regarded as one of the true pioneers of modern mechanical mechanism.

Through the kindness of Mr. Tootal I had also the opportunity of visiting and inspecting some of the most extensive cotton mills in Manchester. I was greatly pleased with the beautiful contrivances displayed in the machinery. They were perfect examples of the highest order of ingenuity, combined with that kind of common-sense which casts aside all mere traditional forms and arrangements of parts, such as do not essentially contribute to the efficiency of the machine in the performance of its special and required purpose. I found much to admire in the design as well as in the execution of the details of the machines. The arrangement and management of the manufactories were admirable. The whole of the buildings, howsoever extensive and apparently complicated, worked like one grand and perfectly constructed machine.

I was also much impressed by the keen interest which the proprietors of these vast establishments took in the minute details of their machinery, as well as by their intelligent and practical acquaintance with the technical minutiae of their business. Although many of them were men of fortune, they continued to take as deep an interest in such matters as if they were beginning life and had their fortunes to make. Their chief pride and ambition was to be at the head of a thoroughly well managed and prosperous establishment. And with this object, no detail, be it ever so small, was beneath their care and attention. To a young man like myself, then about to enter upon a similar career of industry, these lessons were very important. They were encouraging examples of carefully thought out designs, carried into admirable results by close attention to details, ever watchful carefulness, and indomitable perseverance.

I brooded over these circumstances. They filled my mind with hope. They encouraged me to go on in the path which I had selected; and I believed that at some time or other I might be enabled to imitate the examples of zeal and industry which I had witnessed during my stay in Manchester. It was then that I bethought me of settling down in this busy neighbourhood; and as I plodded my way back to London this thought continually occupied me. It took root in my mind and grew, and at length the idea became a reality.

I did not take the shortest route on my return journey to London. I desired to pass through the most interesting and picturesque places without unduly diverging from the right direction. I wished to see the venerable buildings and cathedrals of the olden time, as well as the engineering establishments of the new. Notwithstanding my love for mechanics I had always a spice of the antiquarian feeling in me. It enabled me to look back to the remote past, into the material records of man's efforts hundreds of years ago, and contrast them with the modern progress of arts and sciences. I was especially interested in the architecture of bygone ages; but here, alas! arts and sciences have done nothing. Modern Gothic architecture is merely an imitation of the old, and often a very bad imitation. Even ancient domestic architecture is much superior to the modern. We can now only imitate it; and often spoil when imitating.

I left Manchester and turned my steps in the direction of Coalbrookdale. I passed through a highly picturesque country, in which I enjoyed the sight of many old timber houses, most attractive subjects for my pencil. My route lay through Whitchurch, Wem, and Wellington; then past the Wrekin to Coalbrookdale. Before arriving there I saw the first iron bridge constructed in England, an object of historical interest in that class of structures. It was because of the superb quality of the castings produced at Coalbrookdale, that the ironmasters there were able to accomplish the building of a bridge of that material, which before had battled all projectors both at home and abroad.

I possessed a letter of introduction to the manager, and was received by him most cordially. He permitted me to examine the works. I was greatly interested at the sight of the processes of casting. Many beautiful objects were turned out for architectural, domestic, and other purposes. I saw nothing particularly novel, however, in the methods and processes of moulding and casting. The excellence of the work depended for the most part upon the great care and skill exercised by the workmen of the foundry. They seemed to vie with each other in turning out the best castings, and their models or patterns were made with the utmost care. I was particularly impressed with the cheerful zeal and activity of the workmen and foremen of this justly celebrated establishment.

On leaving Coalbrookdale I trudged my way towards Wolverhampton. I rested at Shiffnal for the night. Next day I was in the middle of the Black Country. I had no letters of introduction to employers in Wolverhampton; so that, without stopping there, I proceeded at once to Dudley. The Black Country is anything but picturesque. The earth seems to have been turned inside out. Its entrails are strewn about; nearly the entire surface of the ground is covered with cinder-heaps and mounds of scorice. The coal, which has been drawn from below ground, is blazing on the surface. The district is crowded with iron furnaces, puddling furnaces, and coal-pit engine furnaces. By day and by night the country is glowing with fire, and the smoke of the ironworks hovers over it. There is a rumbling and clanking of iron forges and rolling mills. Workmen covered with smut, and with fierce white eyes, are seen moving about amongst the glowing iron and the dull thud of forge-hammers.

Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted. The ground underneath them had sunk by the working out of the coal, and they were falling to pieces. They had in former times been surrounded by clumps of trees; but only the skeletons of them remained, dilapidated, black, and lifeless. The grass had been parched and killed by the vapours of sulphureous acid thrown out by the chimneys; and every herbaceous object was of a ghastly gray - the emblem of vegetable death in its saddest aspect. Vulcan had driven out Ceres. In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains, which were placed in small tunnels beneath the hedgeless road.

I went into some of the forges to see the workmen at their labours. There was no need of introduction; the works were open to all, for they were unsurrounded by walls. I saw the white-hot iron run out from the furnace; I saw it spun, as it were, into bars and iron ribbands, with an ease and rapidity which seemed marvellous. There were also the ponderous hammers and clanking rolling-mills. I wandered from one to another without restraint. I lingered among the blast furnaces, seeing the flood of molten iron run out from time to time, and remained there until it was late. When it became dark the scene was still more impressive. The workmen within seemed to be running about amidst the flames as in a pandemonium; while around and outside the horizon was a glowing belt of fire, making even the stars look pale and feeble. At last I came away with reluctance, and made my way towards Dudley. I reached the town at a late hour. I was exhausted in mind and body, yet the day had been most interesting and exciting. A sound sleep refreshed me, and I was up in the morning early, to recommence my journey of inquiry.

I made my way to the impressive ruins of Dudley Castle, the remnant of a very ancient stronghold, originally built by Dud, the Saxon. The castle is situated on a finely wooded hill; it is so extensive that it more resembles the ruins of a town than of a single building. You enter through a treble gateway, and see the remnants of the moat, the court, and the keep. Here are the central hall, the guard-rooms, and the chapel. It must have been a magnificent structure. In the Midlands it was known as the "Castle of the Woods." Now it is abandoned by its owners, and surrounded by the Black Country. It is undermined by collieries, and even penetrated by a canal. The castle walls sometimes tremble when a blast occurs in the bowels of the mountain beneath. The town of Dudley lies quite close to the castle, and was doubtless protected by it in ancient times.

The architectural remains are of various degrees of antiquity, and are well worthy of study, as embodying the successive periods which they represent. Their melancholy grandeur is rendered all the more impressive by the coal and iron works with which they are surrounded the olden type of buildings confronting the modern. The venerable trees struggle for existence under the destroying influence of sulphureous acid; while the grass is withered and the vegetation everywhere blighted. I sat down on an elevated part of the ruins, and looked down upon the extensive district, with its roaring and blazing furnaces, the smoke of which blackened the country as far as the eye could reach; and as I watched the decaying trees I thought of the price we had to pay for our vaunted supremacy in the manufacture of iron. We may fill our purses, but we pay a heavy price for it in the loss of picturesqueness and beauty.

I left the castle with reluctance, and proceeded to inspect the limestone quarries in the neighbourhood. The limestone has long been worked out from underneath the castle; but not far from it is Wren's Nest Hill, a mountain of limestone. The wrens have left, but the quarries are there. The walk to the hill is along green lanes and over quiet fields. I entered one of the quarries opened out in the sloping precipice, and penetrated as far as the glimmer of sunlight enabled me to see my way. But the sound of the dripping of water from the roof of the cave warned me that I was approaching some deep pool, into which a false step might plunge me. I therefore kept within the light of day. An occasional ray of the sun lit up the enormous rock pillars which the quarrymen had left to support the roof. It was a most impressive sight.

Having emerged from the subterranean cave, I proceeded on my way to Birmingham. I reached the town in the evening, and found most comfortable quarters. On the following day I visited some of the factories where processes were carried on in connection with the Birmingham trade. I saw the mills where sheet brass and copper were rolled for the purpose of being plated with silver. There was nothing in these processes of novel interest, though I picked up many practical hints. I could not fail to be attracted by the dexterous and rapid manipulation of the work in hand, even by boys and girls whose quick sight and nimble fingers were educated to a high degree of perfection. I could have spent a month profitably among the vast variety of small traders in metal, of which Birmingham is the headquarters. Even in what is called "the toy trade," I found a vast amount of skill displayed in the production of goldsmith work, in earrings, brooches, gold chains, rings, beads, and glass eyes for stuffed birds, dolls, and men.

I was especially attracted by Soho, once the famous manufacturing establishment of Boulton and Watt. Although this was not the birthplace of the condensing steam-engine, [1] it was the place where it attained its full manhood of efficiency, and became the source and origin of English manufacturing power. Watt's engine has had a greater influence on the productive arts of mankind than any other that can be named. Boulton also was a thorough man of business, without whom, perhaps, Watt could never have made his way against the world, or perfected his magnificent invention. Not less interesting to my mind was the memory of that incomparable mechanic, William Murdoch, a man of indomitable energy, and Watt's right-hand man in the highest practical sense. Murdoch was the inventor of the first model locomotive, and the inventor of gas for lighting purposes and yet he always kept himself in the background, for he was excessively modest. He was happiest when he could best promote the welfare of the great house of Boulton and Watt. Indeed he was a man whose memory ought to be held in the highest regard by all true engineers and mechanics.

The sight which I obtained of the vast series of workshops of this celebrated establishment — filled with evidences of the mechanical genius of these master minds — made me feel that I was indeed on classic ground, in regard to everything connected with steam-engine machinery. Some of the engines designed by Watt — the prototypes of the powerful condensing engines of the present day — were still performing their daily quota of work. There was "Old Bess," a sort of experimental engine, upon which Watt had tried many adaptations and alterations, for the purpose of suiting it for pumping water from coal mines. There was also the engine with the sun-and-planet motion, an invention of William Murdoch's. Both of these engines were still at work.

I went through the workshops, where I was specially interested by seeing the action of the machine tools. There I observed Murdoch's admirable system of transmitting power from one central engine to other small vacuum engines attached to the individual machines they were set to work. The power was communicated by pipes led from the central air or exhaust pump to small vacuum or atmospheric engines devoted to the driving of each separate machine, thus doing away with all shafting and leather belts, the required speed being kept up or modified at pleasure without in any way interfering with the other machines. This vacuum, method of transmitting power dates from the time of Papin; but until it received the masterly touch of Murdoch it remained a dead contrivance for more than a century.

I concluded my visits to the workshops of Birmingham by calling upon a little known but very ingenious man, whose work I had seen before I left Edinburgh, in a beautifully constructed foot turning-lathe made by John Drain. I was so much impressed with the exquisite design, execution, and completeness of the lathe, that I made it one of my chief objects to find out John Drain's workshop. It was with some difficulty that I found him. He was little known in Birmingham. His workshops were very small; they consisted of only one or two rooms. His exquisite lathes were not much in demand. They found their way chiefly to distant parts of the country, where they were highly esteemed.

I found that he had some exquisitely-finished lathes completed and in hand for engraving the steel plates for printing bank notes. They were provided with the means of producing such intricate ornamental patterns as to defy the utmost skill of the forger. Perkins had done a good deal in the same way; but Drain's exquisite mechanism enabled his engraving lathes to surpass anything that had before been attempted in the same line. I believe that Drain's earnest attention to his work, in which he had little or no assistance, undermined his health, and arrested the career of one who, had he lived, would have attained the highest position in his profession. I shall never forget the rare treat which his fine mechanism afforded me. Its prominent quality was absolute truth and accuracy in every part.

Having now had enough of the Black Country and of Birmingham workshops, I proceeded towards London. There were no more manufacturing districts to be visited. Everything now was to be green lanes, majestic trees, old mansions, venerable castles, and picturesque scenery. There is no way of seeing a country properly except on foot. By railway you whiz past and see nothing. Even by coach the best parts of the scenery are unseen. "Shank's naig" is the best of all methods, provided you have time. I had still some days to spare before the conclusion of my holiday. I therefore desired to see some of the beautiful scenery and objects of antiquarian interest before returning to work.

I made my way across country to Kenilworth. The weather was fine, and the walk was perfect. The wayside was bordered by grassy sward. Wide and irregular margins extended on each side of the road, and noble trees and untrimmed hedges, in their glowing autumnal tint, extended far and wide. Everything was in the most gloriously neglected and therefore highly picturesque condition. Here and there, old farmhouses and labourers' cottages peeped up from amidst the trees and hedges worthy of the landscape painter's highest skill.

I reached Kenilworth about half an hour before sunset. I made my way direct to the castle, glorious in its decay. The fine mellow glow of the setting sun lit up the grand and extensive ruins. The massive Norman keep stood up with melancholy dignity, and attracted my attention more than any other part of the ruined building. To me there is an impressiveness in the simple massive dignity of the Norman castles and cathedrals, which no other buildings possess. There is an expression of terrible earnestness about them. The last look I had of the Norman keep was grand. The elevated part was richly tinted with the last glow of the setting sun, while the outline of the buildings beneath was shaded by a dark purply gray. It was indeed a sight never to be forgotten. I waited until the sun had descended beneath the horizon, still leaving its glimmer of pink and crimson and gray, and then I betook me to the little inn in the village, where I obtained comfortable quarters for the night. I visited the ruins again in the morning. Although the glory of the previous evening had departed, I was much interested in observing the various styles of architecture adopted in different parts of the buildings — some old, some comparatively new. I found the older more grand and massive, and the newer, of the sixteenth century, wanting in dignity of design, and the workmanship very inferior. The reign of Shoddy had already begun before Cromwell laid the castle in ruins.

In the course of the day I proceeded to Warwick. I passed along the same delightful grass-bordered roads, shaded by noble trees. I reached the grand old town, with its antique buildings, and its noble castle — so famous in English history. Leaving the place with reluctance, I left it late in the afternoon to trudge on to Oxford. But soon after I started the rain began to fall. It was the first interruption to my walking journey which I had encountered during my three weeks' absence from London. As it appeared from the dark clouds overhead that a wet night had set in, I took shelter in a wayside inn at a place called Steeple Aston. My clothes were dripping wet; and after a glass of very hot rum and water I went to bed, and had a sound sleep. Next morning it was fair and bright. After a substantial homely breakfast I set out again. Nature was refreshed by the steady rain of the previous night, and the day was beautiful. I reached Deddington and stayed there for the night, and early next morning I set out for Oxford.

I was greatly excited by the first sight I had of the crowd of towers and spires of that learned and illustrious city. Nor were my expectations at all disappointed by a nearer approach to the colleges of Oxford. After a most interesting visit to the best of the buildings, I took in a fair idea of the admirable details of this noble city, and left in the afternoon of next day. I visited, on my way to Thame, the old church of Iffley. I was attracted to it by the fine old Norman work it contains, which I found most quaint and picturesque.

I slept at Thame for the night, and next day walked to Windsor. I arrived there at sunset, and had a fine view of the exterior of the castle and the surrounding buildings. I was, however, much disappointed on examining the architectural details. In sight of the noble trees about the castle, and the magnificent prospect from the terrace, I saw much that tended to make up for the disgust I felt at the way in which all that was so appropriate and characteristic in so historic a place as Windsor Castle should have been tampered with and rubbed out by the wretched conceit of the worst architects of our worst architectural period.

I left Windsor next morning, and walked direct for London. My time was up, but not my money. I had taken eight sovereigns on setting out from London to Liverpool by coach, and I brought one sovereign back with me. Rather than break into it I walked all the way from Windsor to London without halting for refreshment. My entire expenditure during my three weeks' journey was thus seven pounds.

When I look back upon that tour, I feel that I was amply rewarded. It was throughout delightful and instructive. The remembrance of it is as clear in my mind now as if I had performed the journey last year instead of fifty years ago. There are thousands of details that pass before my mind's eye that would take a volume to enumerate. I brought back a book full of sketches; for graphic memoranda are much better fitted than written words to bring up a host of pleasant recollections and associations. I came back refreshed for work, and possessed by an anxious desire to press forward in the career of industry which I had set before me to accomplish.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. The birthplace of the condensing engine of Watt was the workshop in the Glasgow University, where he first contrived and used a separate condenser — the true and vital element in Watt's invention. The condenser afterwards attained its true effective manhood at Soho. The Newcomen engine was in fact a condensing engine, but as the condensation was effected inside the steam cylinder it was a very costly source of power in respect of steam. Watt's happy idea of condensing in a separate vessel removed the defect. This was first done in his experimental engine in the Glasgow University workshop, and before he made the one at Kinniel for Dr. Roebuck.