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James Stirling (1800-1876)

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James Stirling (1800-1876). Brother of Robert Stirling

Hill Street, Edinburgh.

Born in 1800 at Methven in Perthshire

Apprenticed to Claud Girdwood and Co and also worked for James Smith at Deanston.

Developed the air engine at the Dundee Foundry Co

1834 James Stirling of Dundee, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1837 Married daughter of Professor James Hunter of St. Andrews.

1846 Left Dundee and moved to Edinburgh.[2]

1876 January 10th. Died


1876 Obituary [3]

James Stirling, born at Methven, in Perthshire, on the 20th of July, 1800, was descended from a highly respectable farmer family, nearly every member of which, females included, possessed mechanical talent almost amounting to genius.

He originally studied for the Church at Glasgow and at Edinburgh, but early directed his attention to mechanical engineering.

He served an apprenticeship with Claude Girdwood and Co, of Glasgow; and was subsequently engaged for some years as engineer at the Deanston works, when that well-known establishment was conducted by the late Mr. James Smith, and materially assisted in the construction of the famous salmon-ladder on the river Teith.

He afterwards became Engineer, and latterly Manager, of the Dundee Foundry, where he constructed for the Swedish Government a steamer which he took out and delivered, being kindly received by the Royal Family.

Mr. Stirling was much occupied in the improvement and practical working of the air engine, a description of which he contributed to the Institution in 1845. The same principle was subsequently adopted by Mr. Ericsson, whose name is generally connected with the invention.

The merit of the original idea belongs to Mr. Stirling’s elder brother, Dr. Stirling, the venerable minister of Galston, Ayrshire; but it was by Mr. James Stirling’s persevering ingenuity that it was so far perfected that the engine worked well, and proved an economical mode of producing power at the Dundee Foundry, and also at a spinning-mill in the same town. The engine was, however, ultimately laid aside in consequence of its being found impossible to preserve the air-heating vessel from being melted or burnt, which both Mr. Ericsson and the late Professor Rankine, of Glasgow, who experimented in the same direction, found an equally insuperable difficulty.

In this connection Dr. Stirling writes, under date Galston, 19th of January, 1876:- '. . . . It surely cannot be unreasonable, nay it is a duty in taking notice of the death of James Stirling, to make a remark which may stimulate the spirit of invention, or even contribute to realise its ambitious hopes. It is a fact, then, that he almost succeeded in establishing a new mechanical power, which promised to relieve the labours of that gigantic and universal drudge the steam-engine. He constructed at the Dundee Foundry an air-engine which for three years performed all the work of that establishment, and failed at last from imperfections in the material of which it was constructed. These imperfections have been in a great measure removed by time, and especially by the genius of the distinguished Bessemer. If Bessemer iron or steel had been known thirty-five or forty years ago, there is scarce a doubt that the air-engine would have been a great success. But as the nature of cast iron forty years since required the hot part of the engine to be made three times thicker than it would now be, and consequently at least six times less fit for transmitting the heat, the outside of it required to be kept at a much higher temperature than would have been necessary with Bessemer iron. The hot part also was made convex, and required to be protected by a screen of bricks, the destruction of which by neglect implied the destruction of the engine; on the contrary, if the vessel had been concave and allowed to get a sight of the fire, as would now be easily accomplished, its operation would have been much more efficient, and the vessel, being equally heated, would not have been liable to crack.

'The engine, such as it was, worked to the extent of 40 HP., according to the standard of Watt and Boulton; and this was ascertained not by theoretical calculations, but by the proper application of the Trutsen strap and movable weights frequently used. Upon the whole, this experiment was conducted with such care and skill, and such jealousy of being deceived, that the result as to power, &C., may be considered as fully established. It remains for some skilled and ambitious mechanist in a future age to repeat it under more favourable circumstances and with complete success.'

While at Dundee Mr. Stirling made the ornamental cast-iron dome, tank, engine, and pump, and a ball and socket pipe across the Tay for the Perth Waterworks; the iron ribbed gates of Earl Grey’s Dock, Dundee, 55 feet in width, dimensions at that time (1834) considered large; in 1841, gates for Montrose Dock similar to the former, except that they were covered on both sides with iron boiler plates, which, it is believed, was the earliest application of iron to that purpose.

As early as 1833 Mr. Stirling made several locomotive engines for the Dundee and Newtyle, the Cupar Angus, and the Arbroath and Forfar railways, and was proud of having run one of his engines up the Balbuchlay incline of the Dundee and Newtyle line, a gradient of 1 in 25.

He exhibited considerable ingenuity and originality in designing and adapting a reversing gear for the locomotive, which acted well, but has since been superseded by the more modern link motion.

In 1846 Mr. Stirling left Dundee to settle in Edinburgh, where he afterwards resided, fulfilling various professional engagements, among them the construction of a large gauge weir on the river Leny for the Glasgow Water Company, preparing the working plans of the Blackhill incline plane, for taking up boats afloat in the Monkland canal, Glasgow, and in superintending that work.

He was for a time much engaged in arbitrations and in the valuation of machinery, and was accounted a high authority in all matters relating to mill wheels and water power.

He invented a water meter, which indicated correctly and worked well, but not under pressure, a serious drawback to its general adaptability. It was, however, theoretically and practically an exact and actual measurer, and not a mere indicator, liable to have its results affected by varying rates of flow, and it was particularly well adapted for measuring the water delivered into cisterns. He took no patent or other protection for the meter, and received no pecuniary benefit from its sale.

In Edinburgh Mr. Stirling led a life of quiet citizenship. Enhanced by his own eminently kindly and hospitable disposition, the literary gifts and connections of his wife (he married in 1867) rendered his house in Hill Street for nearly a quarter of a century a centre of intellectual sociality.

He died on the 10th of January, 1876, aged seventy-five years.

Mr. Stirling was for nearly forty-two years a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, having been elected on the 10th of June, 1834.


1876 Obituary [4]



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. 1834 Institution of Civil Engineers
  2. The Engineer 1876/01/21
  3. 1876 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  4. Engineering 1876 Jan-Jun: Index: General Index