Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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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.

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.

Life of Richard Trevithick by F. Trevithick: Volume 2: Chapter 25

From Graces Guide


Trevithick's Gun-Carriage and Friction Slides, 1827

RICHARD TREVITHICK, of the parish of Saint Erth, in the county of Cornwall, civil engineer, maketh oath and saith that he hath invented new methods for centering ordnance on pivots, facilitating the discharge of the same, and reducing manual labour in time of action. That he is the true inventor thereof, and that the same hath not been practised by any other person or persons whomsoever to his knowledge or belief.

Sworn, 10th November, 1827, before me, Rd. Edmonds.

This gun is worked by machinery balanced on pivots giving it universal motion, by one man, with the facility of a soldier's musket. On one side a man puts in a copper charge of powder; in the opposite side a man drops a ball in a bag down the gun, as it stands muzzle up. The gunner, who sits on the seat behind the gun, points it and pulls the trigger. The firing causes it to run up an inclined plane at an angle of 25° for the purpose of breaking the recoil; it runs down again with its muzzle at the port, requiring no wadding, swabbing, cartridge, or ramming, but runs in, out, primes, cocks, shuts the pan, and breaks the recoil of itself; and by three men can be fired three times in a minute with accuracy. The gun-carriage is a tube 3 feet long and 3 feet diameter, made of wrought-iron plate 1/4 of an inch thick, centered on a pivot to the deck, with the gunner's seat attached, from which he looks through the case. As the gun requires no tackle, and but a man on each side to work it, only a space of 5 feet 6 inches is required from centre to centre of ports, therefore a single-deck ship will carry a greater number of guns than are now carried on a double-deck ship, be worked with one-third of the hands, and be fired five times as fast as at present. A frigate would mount fifty 42-pound guns on one deck, with 150 men, and would discharge in the same time a greater weight of ball with greater precision than five 74-gun ships. [1]

[Rough Draft.]

21st February, 1838.

With great pleasure I read in the papers the announcement of your arrival again in England, and am much gratified to find a person of your superior natural and practical talents, so rare to be obtained, to whom I may communicate my views.

I have proposed to Government to build an iron ship, and a gun on a new principle, which are to undergo an investigation, and have lodged a drawing of the ship and a model of the gun with my friend Mr. Gerard, a gentleman who returned with me from America, and who will present to you this letter with the above-mentioned drawing and model.

I have had an iron boat made for the purpose of sending it to London, to show the method of constructing ships on this plan, roomy, strong, and cheap. Also a wrought-iron ship with a steam-engine on an improved principle, which in a few days will be laid on the stocks at the Hayle Foundry iron manufactory.

Though Lord Cochrane was just the person to be interested in such schemes, it does not appear that he took any part in them. At that time he was at work on his own particular ideas for marine propulsion.

February, 1828.

MY DEAR SIR, Immediately after the receipt of your last, which I only received after twelve o'clock on the 7th, I went to the Ordnance Office, where, though Colonel Gossett was no longer an official personage, I had the good luck to meet him. He told me that the model of the gun was at Woolwich, and could not be got at in time to stop the progress of the other patent, and which he considered of but little moment, as he thought it very unlikely there could be any collision between the two inventions. He likewise said that from the official changes that had taken place in the office, much loss of time might be incurred by recalling the model, which was in train of being examined. To-day I have received a letter addressed to you from the Ordnance, by which it appears that your model has passed through an unsuccessful ordeal before the special committee.

21st February, 1828.

I am directed by the Master General to acquaint you that the Select Committee of Artillery Officers, to whom your model of a 42-pounder carronade and carriage on a new principle were referred, have reported that on examination of the invention, they consider it to be wholly inapplicable to practical purposes. Your model is at the Ordnance Office, and will be delivered on your sending for it.

I am, Sir,
Your most obedient humble servant,



My poor mother, who I regret to say has been very delicate ever since your departure, and is now again confined to bed, desires me to say that she is very sorry she is not Master General of the Ordnance, to give it a fair practical trial, as she thinks Captain Trevithick's opinions, though she cannot pronounce his name, may be fairly placed in opposition to that of the special committee of artillery officers.

Ever faithfully yours,


The recoil gun-carriage was his first occupation after twelve years of travel in countries where mechanical appliances were less thought of than weapons of war. He commenced this his second era of inventions, with what he called a new thing, though it was but an extension of his schemes of 1809, when be patented iron vessels, hollow sliding masts and yards, self-reefing sails, and sliding keels.

The model gun was of brass, resting on a railway formed of two inclined bars of iron, up which the recoil propelled it into a convenient position for cleaning and loading. Its own gravity caused it to fall into the required place for being again fired. The slides also served as friction-bars to regulate the recoil.

The gun and the slides carrying it were enclosed in a wrought-iron box, having openings in the front and rear for the passage of the muzzle and the breech. The muzzle front of the box was pivoted to the deck by a strong bolt as a centre of motion, whilst its rear was supported on two small wheels resting on the deck, allowing the gun to change its line of horizontal fire by sweeping from the centre pivot. The gunner's seat moved with the carriage, from which he could elevate or depress the muzzle by a lever. The gun was self- priming and self-cocking the powder charge was enclosed in a copper case. Captain Moncrieff's patent gun-carriage of the present day is described in words somewhat like those used by Trevithick forty years before. "The recoil lifted a weight smoothly and without friction; the gun and the weight were held in the position arrived at by a catch until the gun was loaded and ready to fire again. [2]

The iron boat mentioned in his note to Lord Cochrane as being made at Hayle, was "for the purpose of sending to London to show the method of constructing ships on this plan, roomy, strong, and cheap," and was thus spoken of in a newspaper of the 26th April, 1829. " The 'Scotsman' alludes to the intended construction of iron steamboats at Glasgow by Mr. Neilson:— "For fear of the public being misled on this subject, we beg to state that so far back as last Christmas twelve months we saw Trevithick, of Cornwall, superintending the construction of an iron man-of-war launch, with the avowed intention of applying a similar principle of construction to the building of fast-sailing iron steam-boats." This intimation, in 1829, to the since famous Glasgow iron-ship builders, that they could not claim the invention because Trevithick had made such a boat, in 1827, was probably in ignorance of Trevithick's Patent and models of 1809, [3] explaining the advantages of ships of iron, either under sail or under steam, for commerce or for fighting-ships. The improved high-pressure steam-engine then in hand for iron ships was but the perfecting of his plans of twenty years before. [4]

April 19th, 1830.

Sir,— I find by looking into the 'Art of Gunnery' that a 42-lb. shot discharged at the rate of 2,000 feet a second in vacuum would send it to the height of 63,360 feet, which multiplied by the weight of the shot would be 2,661,120 lbs., with 12 lbs. of powder; and as guns, after being heated to about the heat of boiling water, will recoil their usual distance with half their first charge of powder, it proves that one-half the powder at first is lost in heating the gun to about 212 deg., which is a great deal under the heat of fired powder, therefore only 6 lbs. of powder effective force is applied to the ball. Now suppose this 6 lbs. of powder to be one quarter part carbon, 1.5 lb. is all the heat that can possibly be applied to perform this duty; then 1 lb. of carbon would be equal to 1,774,080 lbs. of duty actually performed; but if you take into calculation the great loss of power by the powder not being instantly all set on fire, with the gun so much below the heat of fired powder, and the immense power remaining in the gun at the time of the ball leaving the muzzle; if this is applied as in a cylinder, it may fairly be said to have double this power, or 3,548,160 lbs. for 1 lb. of carbon consumed, which multiplied by 84, being the pounds in 1 bushel of carbon, gives 300 millions of duty. If it was applied to the best advantage, say on a piston, calling powder one thousand atmospheres, it would far exceed that duty. A gun 9 feet long and 7-inch bore has 16 feet of cold sides, and condenses at first one-half of its force by its cold sides and loses 150 millions in a 200th part of a second, while the ball passes from the breech to the muzzle. This gives 221,760 lbs. condensed by each foot of surface sides in so short a time. Binner Downs cylinder was taken as condensing 2,500 lbs. for each surface foot in six seconds; therefore, without taking into account the great difference in time there is eighty-eight times as much power lost by each foot of cold sides of the gun as by the cylinder sides. This shows what a considerable power is lost by cold sides where the vapour is so rare. Boulton and Watt's engine, doing twenty millions, performs with 1 lb. of coal a duty of 240,000 lbs., or about 1/14th part of what is done by 1 lb. of carbon in powder. The water evaporated by the boiler is 7 lbs. thrown into steam by 1 lb. of coal, and a duty of 33,750 lbs. for each pound of water evaporated.

Suppose 1 lb. of powder to contain 12 oz. of nitre and 4 oz. of carbon, and 1/24th part of the nitre to be a fixed water, which would be half an ounce of water in every pound of powder, making the carbon eight times as much as the water; from this data 1 lb. of water in powder would perform a duty of 28,385,280 lbs.

By this it appears that heat is loaded with fourteen times as much water in steam-engines as in powder, and does only 1/14th part of the duty of the water in powder. It is possible to heat steam independent of water, because if we work with steam of ten atmospheres, it would have ten times the capacity for heat, being in proportion to its gravity. The boiler standing on its end, with the water 1 foot thick above it, with a great number of small tubes from bottom to top, having great surface sides to heat the steam above the water, by working with a low chimney and slow fire, the tubes in the steam part of the boiler would not exceed 600 or 700 deg. of heat, which would not injure them; as less water would be generated into steam, a very small part of the boiler would be sufficient for it; and as the coal required would be less, the boiler required would be very small. I state the foregoing to remind you that but little is yet known of what heat may be capable of performing; as this data so far exceeds that has been calculated on the power of heat before, when conpared with steam in an engine.

The power is sure, if we can find how to conduct it.

I remain, Sir,
Your very humble servant,


If you can spare time please to write to me.

The foregoing may be classed either under cannon or steam-engine; Trevithick combined them under the general laws of expansion by heat. Three years had passed since the committee of artillery officers sitting on his gun had given a verdict of no go; yet the subject was not forgotten, and his calculations enabled him to discover the explosive force, and the speed of the projectile in different parts of the gun, things which are now ascertained by mechanical tests and measures.

If a 7-inch cannon 9 feet long loses by absorption of heat during the time of the passage of the shot to the muzzle one-half of the expansive force of the powder, it is time to wrap our guns as well as our steam-engines in non-conductors. The greater heat of exploded powder than of steam caused eighty-eight times the amount of loss from abstracted heat, and yet the force from a pound of carbon in powder, was fourteen times as much as the Watt engine gave from a pound of coal.

June 18th, 1898.

Sir,— A few days since a Mr. Linthorn called on me and requested me to accompany him to Cable Street, near the Brunswick Theatre, to see a crane worked by the atmosphere, in a double-acting engine attached to it. He has a patent, and has entered into a contract with the St. Katharine's Dock Company to work their cranes, 140 in number, by a steam-engine of sufficient power to command the whole of them, by placing air-pipes around the docks, with a branch to each crane. To each crane is fixed a 10-inch cylinder, 20-inch stroke, double-acting. The atmosphere pressing on the piston like steam, the air is drawn from the pipes by a large air-pump and steam-engine.

On being requested to give my opinion on this plan, after seeing one crane worked, I informed them of the disappointment that the ironmaster, Mr. Wilkinson, in Shropshire, several years since experienced, on the resistance of air in passing through long pipes from his blast-engine to his furnaces. He said he was aware of that circumstance, and it had since been further proved in London by one of the gas companies attempting to force gas a considerable distance, and who also failed.

He thought that forcing an elastic fluid, and drawing it by a vacuum, were very different things, and that the error was removed by drawing in place of forcing. For my part I am not convinced on this head; but am still of opinion that the result on trial will be found nearly the same. However, let that be as it may, the expense and complication of the machine, having a double engine, with its gear attached to every separate crane, together with the immense quantity of air thrown into the air-pump from 140 double engines of 10 inches diameter, 20-inch stroke, eighty strokes per minute, and considering the numerous air leaks in such an extent of pipes and machines, must reduce the effect of the pressure of the atmosphere on each piston to a comparatively small power, unless the air-pump and steam- engine are beyond all reasonable bounds.

Those objections I made them acquainted with, and said that, before they went to such an expense, it would be a safer plan to first make further inquiry, so that their first experiment might be on a sure plan, for the other dock companies were looking for the results of this experiment.

At the time I was informed of this plan, a thought struck me that it might be accomplished by another mode preferable to this: by a steam-engine to force water in pipes round the dock, to say 30 or 40 lbs. to the inch, more or less, and to have a worm-shaft, working in a worm-wheel, the same as a common roasting-jack, and apply to the worm-shaft a spouting arm like Barker's mill; the worm-shaft standing perpendicular would work the worm-wheel fixed in the chain-barrel shaft of the crane.

This would make a very simple and cheap machine, and produce a circular motion at once, instead of a piston alternating motion to drive a rotary motion. My report had some weight with them; inquiry is to be made into the plan proposed by me, so as to remunerate me, provided my plan is considered good. Mr. Linthorn wishes an investigation before scientific and able judges, and requested me to name some one. I must again make free in asking the favour of your advice on which you have so ably given me for thirty years) on this plan. Mr. Linthorn intends to request Dr. Wollaston to accompany you any day convenient to you. In the meantime, should you see him, it might not be amiss to mention it to him; and should you be able to attend for an hour or two to this business, I would thank you to drop me a note, saying when it may be convenient. There is a memorandum of an agreement between Mr. Linthorn and me; but the plan I suggest is only at present made public to him and yourself.

Your most obedient servant,


The reduction of friction by the use of an air-vacuum engine for working cranes, as designed by Mr. Linthorn, in lieu of an air-pressure engine was doubted by Trevithick.

The Mont Cenis pneumatic-pressure machines which the writer saw at work lost much power by friction before experience had taught remedies. The pneumatic vacuum tubes which propelled the trains on the South Devon Railway, failed to give the power that was expected. Sir William Armstrong's hydraulic cranes, brought into use not many years after the date of Trevithick's letter, have been found effective. The writer, not knowing that Trevithick had before recommended hydraulic cranes for warehouses, accompanied Sir William over his works, then being erected near Newcastle-on-Tyne, and talked with him on the detail of his crane designs.

Trevithick thought of giving circular motion to the crane chain-barrel by the attachment of a screw-propeller, acted on by the force of a current of water at a pressure of 30 or 40 lbs. to the inch. Sir William Armstrong's arrangement was quite different the merit due to Trevithick was for having pointed out the suitability of water as a means of conveying power through warehouses where fire was inadmissible.

June 29th, 1828.

Sir, - Fancy and whim still prompt me to trouble you, and perhaps may continue to do until I exhaust your patience. A few days since I was in company where a person said that £100,000 a year was paid for ice, the greatest part of which was brought by ships sent on purpose to the Greenland seas. A thought struck me at the moment that artificial cold might be made very cheap by the power of steam-engines; by compressing air in a condenser surrounded by water, and an injection to the same, so as to instantly cool down the highly-compressed air to the temperature of the surrounding air, and then admitting it to escape into liquid. This would reduce the temperature to any state of cold required.

I remain, Sir,
Your very humble servant,


Trevithick's ideas for making ice have since been patented and made useful, though the detail of the operation has been improved by experience.

The Dutch, extending the use of steam on the Rhine and also in sea-going ships, wished Trevithick to see what was going on in Holland, where his nephew, Mr. Nicholas Harvey, was actively engaged in engineering. He had not money enough for the journey, and borrowed £2 from a neighbour and relative, Mr. John Tyack. During his walk home a begging man said to him, 'Please your honour, my pig is dead; help a poor man.' Trevithick gave him 5s. out of the 40s. he had just begged for himself. How he managed to reach Holland his family never knew; but on his return he related the honour done him by the King at sundry interviews, and the kindness of men of influence in friendly communion and feasting.

July 31st, 1828.

Sir, The night before last I arrived from Holland where I spent ten days. I found my relative there, Mr. Nicholas Harvey, the son of John and Nancy Harvey. He is the engineer to the Steam Navigation Company at Rotterdam. They have a ship 235 feet long, 1,500 tons burthen, with three 50-inch cylinders double, also two other vessels 150 feet long, each with two 50-inch cylinders double, ready to take troops to Batavia. The large ship with three engines cost £80,000. The Steam Navigation Company built them, and many others of different sizes. This company has been anxious to get me to Holland, having heard of the duty performed by the Cornish engines. They were anxious to know what might be done towards draining and relieving Holland from its ruinous state.

Immediately on arrival I joined the Dutch company, and entered into bonds with them.

I give you, as near as I can, the present state of the country. About 250 years since, a strong wind threw a bank of sand across the mouth of the river Rhine, which made it overflow its banks; 80,000 lives were lost, and about 40,000 acres of land, which remain to this time under 12 feet of water.

About 100 years since the head and surface of the river Rhine was 5 feet below what it now is. The under floors of houses in Holland are nearly useless, and in another century must be totally lost, unless something is done to prevent it. The river at present is nearly overflowing its banks. In consequence of the rise of water, the windmill engines cannot lift it out. To erect steam-engines, they never could believe would repay the expense. Nearly one-half of Holland is at present under water, either totally or partially, because the ground kept dry in winter is flooded in summer.

About six years since it was in contemplation to recover the 40,000 acres before mentioned, and a company was formed of the King and the principal men in Holland, to drain this by windmills, which they estimated would cost £250,000, and making the banks and canals £450,000 more, when made by men's labour, and seven years to accomplish it.

This seven years was a great objection, because of the unhealthy state of the country while draining. The water is about 18 inches every year, to be lifted on an average 10 feet high. I have been furnished with correct calculations and drawings from this company.

They expected to have drained 40,000 acres in seven years, at a cost of £700,000, which, when drained, would have sold at £50 per acre, about two millions.

I find, from the statement given me, of 18 inches of water to be lifted 10 feet high, it would require about one bushel of coal to lift the water from one acre of ground for one year, and that a 63-inch cylinder double would perform the work of 40,000 acres, when working with high steam and condensing, at an expense of less than £3,000 per year. Engines in boats would cut and make the embankments and canals, without the help of men. I proposed six cylinders of 60 inches diameter, double power, which would drain the water in one year; and also four others for cutting the canals and making embankments. The expense would not exceed £100,000 and one year instead of £700,000 and seven years. Above 60,000 acres more are to be drained.

It was also proposed by Government to cut open the river Rhine to 1,000 yards wide and 6 feet deep for 50 or 60 miles in length; they supposed it would cost them ten millions sterling. I proposed to make iron ships of 1,000 tons burthen, with an engine in each, which would load them, propel, and also empty them for about 1d. per ton. Each ton will be about a square yard, and the cutting the river Rhine 1,000 yards wide, 6 feet deep, 50 or 60 miles in length, will not cost one and a half million, and be accomplished in a short time. I further proposed that all this rubbish be carried into the sea of the Zuyder Zee, which would make dry, by embanking with the rubbish, nearly 1,000,000 acres of good land, capable of paying ten times the sum of cutting open the river Rhine.

All this would add 100 per cent. more to the surface of Holland, and at this time it is much wanted, because their settlements abroad are free almost of the mother-country, and they have too many inhabitants for the land at present. I made them plans for carrying the whole into effect, and have closed my agreement with them.

In a few days I shall go to Cornwall, and promised to return again to Holland within a month. I saw Mr. Hall and the engineer of the Dock Company to-day. They are satisfied that the plan for working the cranes is a good one. I am to see them again on Monday next after which I shall return home, where I hope to see you, to consult you on the best plan for constructing the machines for lifting the water, cutting the canals, and making the dykes.

I remain, Sir,
Your very obedient servant,


In this mere outline of a life it is impossible to go fully into the merit of Trevithick's plans for doubling the land surface of Holland. A drainage company was formed in London with a board of directors, some of whom thought that a new kind of engine should be invented and patented as a means of excluding others from carrying on similar but competing operations. Trevithick, always ready to invent new things, though never forgetting his experience with old things, instinctively returned to the Dolcoath engines, and recommended them as suitable for the pumping work; but finally a new design was determined on, and Harvey and Co., of Hayle, received orders for the construction, with the greatest possible dispatch, of a pumping engine for Holland.

This happening shortly after the writer had been taken from the Bodmin school, he was desired to help in the erection of this engine, and after working-hours made a drawing of its original form.

Plate XV. Trevithick's Chain and Ball Pump. (See key below)

After a few successful though noisy trials, an alteration was made in the endless chain and in the guide-roller near the pump bottom. An amount of slack in the chain caused the balls to knock on passing this roller before entering the pump bottom. A chain having long links or bars of iron of uniform length, from ball to ball, jointed together by cross-pins, was substituted for the short link chain and passed over a revolving hollow square frame at the bottom of the pump, in place of the curved roller-guide in the drawing. Each of the four sides of this square hollow frame was of the same length as the jointed link, and the balls lay in the hollow of the frame without touching it, contact being only on the links. The balls were thus guided directly into the bottom of the pump on their upward course with a rigid chain, and the swing and knocking was avoided. This pump was in principle the traditional rag-and-chain pump of a hundred years before; yet no trace of its use is met with during Trevithick's life in Cornwall. The early pump had rag balls, in keeping with the mechanical ignorance of the time, and suitable to man's power.

Trevithick's pump with iron balls raised "7,200 gallons of water 10 feet high in a minute with 1.5 lb. of coal," [5] retaining all the original simplicity of the earlier rag-pump, having uniform circular motion and constant stream, without the use of a single valve. The engine and pump are thus described by him:—

The first engine that will be finished here for Holland will be a 36-inch cylinder and a 36-inch water-pump, to lift water about 8 feet high. On the crank-shaft there is a rag-head of 8 feet diameter, going 8 feet per second, with balls of 3 feet diameter passing through the water-pump, which will lift about 100 tons of water per minute. It is in an iron boat, 14 feet wide, 25 feet long, 6 feet high, so as to be portable and pass from one spot to another without loss of time. This will drain 18 inches deep of water (the annual produce on the surface of each acre of land) in about twenty minutes; to drain each acre with about a bushel of coal costing 6d. per year. The engine is high pressure and condensing. [6]

It was something like the Newcomen open-topped cylinder of a hundred years before, but with a heavy piston, on the top of which a guide-wheel equal in diameter to the cylinder turned on a pin, to which the main connecting rod was jointed. The guide-wheel prevented any tendency to twist the piston from the angular positions of the connecting rod, and allowed the crank-shaft to be brought comparatively near to the cylinder top. The boiler was cylindrical, of wrought iron, with internal fire-tube and external brick flues and gave steam of about 40 lbs. on the inch above the atmosphere, which, acting under the piston, caused the up-stroke, an expansive valve reducing the average pressure in the cylinder by one-half. The down-stroke was made by the atmospheric pressure of 14 lbs. on the inch, on the piston, its lower side being in vacuum, together with the weight of the thick piston and connecting rod, and the momentum of the revolving parts.

My readers must not suppose that this was an attempt to revive the discarded Newcomen engine; the likeness was only apparent; its power was mainly from the use of strong expansive steam, giving motion in the up-stroke through a rigid connecting rod, with controlling and equalizing crank and fly-wheel. It was not, as the Newcomen, [7] dependent for its power on the atmospheric pressure; and having no cylinder cover, or parallel motion, or beam, was not a Watt engine, though it had the Watt air-pump and condenser. The Dolcoath engines continued to work with open-topped cylinders a quarter of a century after the Watt patent; and when they had passed away, many of Trevithick's high-pressure steam-engines retained the me form of outline, but had neither cylinder covers, parallel motion, air-pump, nor vacuum. The agricultural engines of 1813 [8] and the South American engines of 1816 [9] had neither cylinder cover nor any other part of the Watt engine, yet they successfully competed with it in power, economy, and usefulness.

This design reveals a stumbling-block that superficial people fall over. The boiler in the boat was surrounded by brick flues, while a life-long claim of Trevithick's is that before his tubular boiler with internal fire, there could not be a successful steamboat, because brick flues were dangerous in sea-going vessels, but in an iron boat in smooth water it answered its purpose without in any respect falsifying Trevithick's former claims or plans.

The chain pumping machine was in an iron barge, the 36-inch diameter pump fixed just outside the bow, its lower end a foot in the water; its height of 8 or 9 feet enabled the water from the pump-head to flow through launders over the banks of the lakes to be drained. Some of the directors came to Hayle to see it work, and were well pleased at the constant stream of water rushing from the foaming pump-head into the launders. The large size of the rag-wheel gave the rapidly revolving chain and balls a great speed. In passing through the pump each ball forced upwards the water above it, and drew up after it the following water before any ball had passed out at the top of the pump the following ball had entered its bottom. The directors having desired the writer to take the engine to Holland and set it to work with the least possible delay, adjourned for refreshment before starting for London. In those few minutes differences arose, resulting in the engine remaining for months in the barge, and then going to the scrap heap.

Years afterwards others acted on Trevithick's drainage ideas, and Harvey and Co. built Cornish pumping engines with steam cylinders 112 inches in diameter, similar in principle to the Dolcoath engine [10] of 1816, which effectually drained the Haarlem lake.

The Rhine during 100 years, in its passage through the low flat lands, had by deposit raised the leve1 of its waters 5 feet, threatening to overflow the embankments and drown the surrounding country, that to a large extent was at a lower level than the river. All drainage from such land had to be pumped over the river bank, in many places 10 feet above the cultivated surface. Windmills had been used as pumping power, and a company had contemplated laying out £700,000 in windmills and canals for drainage.

If the surface water averaged 18 inches in depth yearly, Trevithick could by steam-engines drain an acre of land by the consumption of a bushel of coal yearly. Four engines with cylinder of 63 inches in diameter would drain 160,000 acres, and four smaller engines barges with suitable apparatus were to cut canals and construct embankments. The deposit of a hundred years was also to he removed, and the Rhine deepened 6 feet for a breadth of 1,000 yards, and a length of 50 or 60 miles, by steam-dredgers, as used twenty years before in deepening the Thames [11] to be fixed in iron ships of a thousand tons burthen. The cost of dredging from the bed of the river into a barge would be 1d. per ton but this would be more than repaid by making with it an embankment, enclosing the Zuyder Zee, which would then in its turn be drained and made pasture land.

Before leaving for America he had reported on the best means of improving St. Ives Bay. [12] Hayle Harbour was a branch of it, and he now suggested to Mr. Henry Harvey methods for deepening and improving it. A rival company of merchants and engineers, known then as Sandys, Carne and Vivian, after many fights had recourse to law on the question of the course of a stream which had been changed by alterations during the making of wharfs and channels for ships.

Trevithick made a model in wood, movable layers of which indicated changes of level caused by workmen at different periods, giving a different course to the river bed. Mr. Harvey's counsel, since known as Lord Abinger and Sir William Follett, complimented Trevithick on the facility of understanding the case by reference to the model. The writer having carried the surveying chain, was present at the trial at the Bodmin assizes in 1829.

September 14th, 1829.

Sir, —I expected to have seen you before this, but am detained by Mr. Harvey's attorney to settle the Foundry Quay. As I made the drawing and model of the disputed ground, and was examined in evidence in court, it was thought proper that I should be present at the time that Mr. Peters came to determine the boundary line between the two companies. This cannot be concluded for ten days. As I have been so long detained I wish to await your arrival in Cornwall for the purpose of trying the new engine while you are down, and will thank you to inform me when you intend to be with us.

I remain, Sir,
Your very humble servant,


Erskine, who had expressed the opinion favourable to Trevithick's engine more than twenty years before, [13] was in this trial the counsel for the opposing side, The verdict was in favour of Mr. Harvey, or Trevithick's side.

A former chapter [14] speaks of promises to pay certain savings by the use of Trevithick's inventions prior to his leaving for America. The United Mines refused to continue the payment, and on Mrs. Trevithick's application to Mr. Davies Gilbert for advice he kindly wrote to the Williamses, who managed those mines, and received the following reply:—

November 14th, 1820.

. . . with regard to Mrs. Trevithick's claims for savings on engines at the United Mines, there is much to be said.

Before Mr. Trevithick went abroad he sold half the patent right to William Sims, our engineer, who very strongly recommended that two of the engines at the United Mines should be altered to what he considered his patent principle, but the alterations proved very inferior to his expectations, and to this circumstance I attribute much of the objections in question. Mr. Henry Harvey has perhaps told you who the partners are in the patent, and when you next come into this county I shall be much pleased to wait on you at Tredrea that you may hear the whole of the case and though the United Mines adventurers are far from being a united body, I am very sure my sons, who are their managers, are desirous to recommend what appears to them right, and they will with myself be obliged for your opinion after you have heard the whole matter on both sides.

Dear Sir,
Yours very sincerely,



The opinion of Mr. Williams' elder son, Michael, has been given. [15] Some of the family were Quakers. No further money payment for the saving of fuel followed this carefully civil note, until Trevithick, on his return from America, called at Scorrier House in a very threatening attitude on 31st October, 1827, when Mr. Williams, sen., said his reason for not continuing the payment was from his belief that the term of the patent had expired. Then came the following lawyer's letter:—

7th November, 1827.

I was at Captain Trevithick's yesterday, who observed to me he saw you at Scorrier a few days ago, and requested you would be good enough to settle the arrears on the savings on some of the engines in the mines for which you acted, none having been paid for a year or two, when you stated that the payment had been discontinued on account of the patent having expired. I find on a reference to the patent that it will not expire till May, 1830.

I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant,


JOHN WILLIAMS, Esq., Scorrier.

January 24th, 1828.

Yesterday I called on Mr. Williams, and after a long dispute brought the old man to agree to pay me £150 on giving him an indemnification in full from all demands on Treskerby and Wheal Chance Mines in future. He requested that you should make out this indemnification. I could not possibly get them to pay more, and thought it most prudent to accept their offer rather than risk a lawsuit with them.

I remain, Sir,
Your obedient servant,



Treskerby and Wheal Chance were I believe the only mines that paid for the use of the pole patent. Mr. John Williams, sen., of Scorrier, was purser of those mines. The agreement was that patentees should have one-fourth part of the savings of coal above twenty-six millions. The one-half of this fourth part from these two mines for some years was about £150 per annum. This did not relate to the boilers; Trevithick unfortunately did not take out a patent for that improvement. The adventurers of two or three mines only had the honesty to pay £100 for each mine; others made use of it without acknowledgment.

PENZANCE, 12th January, 1853.

Such were the recollections of the family solicitor many years after the events had passed. The cylindrical high-pressure steam boiler and engine was really included in the patent of 1802 but frequent detail changes, consequent on size and position and local requirements, were made up to 1811, when a perfected form was arrived at, which is still in use. In principle it was unaltered and not materially different in form, but being used for larger engines, looked different. The inventor saw nothing in this difference, but the public did, and in the absence of the only man who could prove their error refused to pay on the plea of its not being patented. On his return from America he demanded £1,000 from each of the large Cornish mines, as a settlement in full for all benefits derived, from the use of the Trevithick high-pressure steam-boiler. He had proved the weakness of the lawyers before, when three eminent counsel had given opinions on the 1802 patent, one of them believing the patent good, because the principle contained was new; two of them feared that similarity of details might invalidate it: [16] so he determined to apply to the Government for remuneration for benefits that might lie called national.

December 20th, 1827.

Sir, I send the principal heads of what you will have to put in form to lay before the House. It is very defective; but you will be assisted by Captain Andrew Vivian, who can give dates and particulars, having been engaged with Mr. Gilbert and Captain Matthew Moyle in making out the duty performed at that time by Boulton and Watt and Hornblower's engines. He can also give you the results of the late improvements, with much more information than I can give. I saw him yesterday for this purpose; he will assist you with ll his power, and will call on you at Penzance on Friday or Saturday. As I shall with pleasure pay him for his trouble, you need not fear calling on him for what assistance you need.

Mr. Gerard and I propose to leave this for London on Saturday. If you think it necessary to see me, let Captain Vivian know it, and all meet at my house. I have sent you one of the monthly reports, in which you will see John Lean's report of Dolcoath engines, from which I have given you in my statement the average results and savings.

I remain, Sir,
Your very humble servant,


P.S.- I was at Dolcoath account on Monday, and made known to them my intention of applying. to Government, and not to individuals, for remuneration. They are ready to put their signatures to the petition, and so will all the county. I fear that it is as much as we shall do to get it before the House in time.

The following petition was drawn up and put into the hands of his old friend Davies Gilbert, then a Member of Parliament:—


The Humble Petition of Richard Trevithick, of the Parish of Saint Erth, in the County of Cornwall, Civil Engineer, 27th February, 1828,


That this kingdom is indebted to your petitioner for some of the most important improvements that have been made in the steam-engine, for which your petitioner has not hitherto been remunerated, and for which he has no prospect of being ever remunerated except through the assistance of your Honourable House.

That the duty performed by Messrs. Boulton and Watt's improved steam-engines in 1798, as appears by a statement made by Davies Gilbert, Esq., and other gentlemen associated for that purpose, averaged only fourteen millions and half (pounds of water lifted 1 foot high by 1 bushel of coals), although a chosen engine of theirs, under the most favourable circumstances, at Herland Mine lifted twenty-seven millions, [17] which was the greatest duty ever performed till your petitioner's improvements were adopted, since which the greatest duty has been sixty-seven millions, being more than double the former duty. That prior to the invention of your petitioner's the most striking defect observable in every steam-engine was in the form of the boiler, which in shape resembled a tilted waggon, the fire applied under it, and the whole surrounded with mason-work. That such shaped boilers were incapable of supporting steam of a high pressure, and did not admit so much of the water to the action of the fire as your petitioner's boiler does, and were also in other respects attended with many disadvantages.

That your petitioner, who had been for many years employed in making steam-engines on the principle of Boulton and Watt, and had made considerable improvements in their machinery, directed his attention principally to the invention of a boiler which should be free from these disadvantages; and after having devoted much of his time and spent nearly all his property in the attainment of this object, he at length succeeded in inventing and perfecting that which has since been generally adopted throughout the kingdom.

That your petitioner's invention consists principally in introducing the fire into the midst of the boiler, and in making the boiler of a cylindrical form, which is the form best adapted for sustaining the pressure of high steam.

That the following very important advantages are derived from this, your petitioner's, invention. This boiler does not require half of the materials, nor does it occupy half the space required for any other boiler. No mason-work is necessary to encircle the boiler. Accidents by fire can never occur, as the fire is entirely surrounded by water, and greater duty can be performed by an engine with this boiler, with less than half the fuel, than has ever been accomplished by any engine without it. These great advantages render this small and portable boiler not only superior to all others used in mining and manufacturing, but likewise is the only one which can be used with success in steam-vessels or steam-engine carriages. The boilers in use prior to your petitioner's invention could never with any degree of safety or convenience be used for steam navigation, because they required a protection of brick and mason work around them, to confine the fire by which they were encircled, and it would have been impossible, independent of the great additional bulk and weight, that boilers thus constructed could withstand the rolling of vessels in heavy seas; and not withstanding every precaution the danger of the fire bursting through the brick and mason work could never be effectually guarded against.

That had it not been for this, your petitioners, invention, those vast improvements which have been made in the use of of steam could not have taken place, inasmuch as none of the old boilers could have withstood a pressure of above 6 lbs. to the inch, much less a pressure of 60 lbs. to the inch, or even of above 150 lbs. to the inch when necessary.

That as soon as your petitioner had brought his invention into general use in Cornwall, and had proved to the public its immense utility, he was obliged in 1816 to leave England for South America to superintend extensive silver mines in Peru, from whence he did not return until October last. That at the time of your petitioner's departure the old boilers were falling rapidly into disuse, and when he returned he found they had been generally replaced by those of his invention, and that the saving of coals occasioned thereby during that period amounted in Cornwall alone to above £500,000. [18]

That the engines in Cornwall, in which county the steam-engines used are more powerful than those used in any other part of the kingdom, have now your petitioner's improved boilers, and it appears from the monthly reports that these engines, which in 1798 averaged only fourteen and half millions now average three times that duty with the same quantity of coals, making a saving to Cornwall alone of 2,781,264 bushels of coals, or about £100,000 per annum. And the engines at the Consolidated Mines in November, 1827, performed sixty-seven millions, being forty millions more than had been performed by Boulton and Watt's chosen engine at Herland, as before stated.

That had it not been for your petitioner's invention, the greater number of the Cornish mines, which produce nearly £2,000,000 per annum, must have been abandoned in consequence of the enormous expense attendant on the engines previously in use.

That your petitioner has also invented the iron stowage water-tanks and iron buoys now in general use in His Majesty's navy, and with merchant's ships.

That twenty years ago your petitioner likewise invented the steam-carriage, and carried it into general use on iron railroads.

That your petitioner is the inventor of high-pressure steam-engines, and also of water-pressure engines now in general use.

That his high-pressure steam-engines work without condensing water, an improvement essentially necessary to portable steam-engines, and where condensing water cannot be procured.

That all the inventions above alluded to have proved of immense national utility, but your petitioner has not been reimbursed the money he has expended in perfecting his inventions. That your petitioner has a wife and large family who are not provided for.

That Parliament granted to Messrs. Boulton and Watt, after the expiration of their patent for fourteen years, an extension of their privileges as patentees for an additional period, whereby they gained, as your petitioner has been informed, above £200,000.

That your petitioner therefore trusts that these his own important inventions and improvements will not be suffered to go unrewarded by the English nation, particularly as he has hitherto received no compensation for the loss himself and his family have sustained by his having thus consumed his property for the public benefit.

Your petitioner therefore most humbly prays that your honourable House will be pleased to take his case into consideration, and to grant him such remuneration or relief as to your Honourable House shall seem meet.

And your petitioner, as in duty bound, will ever pray, &e.


From the Patent Office to the House of Commons was, for a petitioner, as bad as out of the frying-pan into the fire. Trevithick solicited the support of Members of Parliament until tired of running after friends, and the petition became a dead letter, though the mining interests of Cornwall had in twelve years saved £500,000, by his unrewarded inventions.

December 24th, 1831.

Sir, I find that Mr. Spring Rice cannot get the Lords of the Treasury to agree to remunerate or assist me in any way. He appeared to be much disappointed, and said that he would write to the Admiralty Board on Thursday last, recommending them to adopt this engine. As yet I have heard nothing respecting it, nor do I expect to during the holy days but in the interim I wish to look out for some moneyed man to join in it, otherwise I fear I shall lose the whole. Can you assist in recommending anyone you know? I wish Mr. Thompson would come into it he would be a good man. Can you furnish me with a copy of your report to Mr. Spring Rice, or something relating thereto? It would be a great assistance in getting some one to join.

The sum required is small and the risk is less but the prospect is great, beyond anything I ever knew offered on such easy terms. Waiting your reply,

I remain, Sir, Your very humble servant,


December 26th, 1831.

I am sorry to find that you have not any prospect of assistance from Government. I have not any copy or memorandum of my letter to Mr. Spring Rice; but it was to the effect of first bearing testimony to the large share that you have had in almost all the improvements on Mr. Watt's engine, %which have altogether about trebled its power; to your having made a travelling engine twenty-eight years ago; of your having invented the iron-tanks for carrying water on board ships, &c.

I then went on to state that the great defect in all steam-engines seemed to be the loss, by condensation, of all the heat rendered latent in the conversion of water into steam; that high-pressure engines owed their advantages mainly to a reduction of the relative temperatures of this latent heat; that I had long wished to see the plan of a differential engine tried, in which the temperatures and consequently elasticities of the fluid might be varied on the opposite sides of the piston, without condensation; that the engine you have now constructed promised to effect that object; and that, in the event of its succeeding at all, although it might not be applicable to the drawing water out of mines, yet that for steam-vessels and for steam-carriages its obvious advantages would be of the greatest importance; and I ended by saying that although it was clearly impossible for me to ensure the success of any plan till it had been actually proved by experiment, yet judging theoretically, and also from the imperfect trial exhibited on the Thames, I thought it well worthy of being pursued. Your plan unquestionably must be to associate some one with you (as Mr. Watt did Mr. Boulton), and I certainly think it a very fair speculation for any such person as Mr. Boulton to undertake.

It is impossible for me to point out any individual, as never having had the slightest connection with trade or with manufacture in any part of my life, I am entirely unacquainted with mercantile concerns. I cannot, however, but conjecture that you should make a fair and full estimate of what would be the expense of making a decisive experiment on a scale sufficiently large to remove all doubt; and that your proposal should be, that anyone willing to incur that expense should, in the event of success, be entitled to a certain share of your patent. On such conditions some man of property may perhaps be found who would undertake the risk; and if the experiment proves successful, he will be sure to use every exertion afterwards for his own sake. With every wish for your success,

Believe me,
Yours very sincerely and faithfully,


The petition to Parliament for a national payment for national gains, so hopefully taken up on his return from America, when experience had proved the value of his inventions, after four weary years of deferred expectation, was consigned to the tomb of forgetfulness.

Compare the petition of 1828 with a modern report.

Prior to the invention of your petitioner's boiler, the most striking defect observable in every steam-engine was in the form of the boiler which in shape resembled a tilted wagon; your petitioner's invention consists principally in introducing the fire into the midst of the boiler, and in making the boiler of a cylindrical form, which is the form best adapted for sustaining the pressure of high steam, and does not require half of the materials, nor does it occupy half the space required for any other boiler, and greater duty can be performed by an engine with this boiler with less than half the fuel, than by any engine without it, and is the only one that can be used with success in steam-vessels, as none of the old boilers could have withstood a pressure of above 6 lbs. on the inch, much less a pressure of 60 lbs. or even of 150 lbs. when necessary.

A report of the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company in 1871 states, "by placing compound engines in the 'Tasmania,' they had reduced the consumption of coal to one-half the former quantity, doubled her capacity for freight, and increased her speed." [19] Presuming that the compound engines of the 'Tasmania' are like other engines known by that name, having high-pressure steam in a comparatively small cylinder from which it expands in a larger one, tubular boilers, surface condensers, and screw-propeller, the saving admitted in the Tasmania is just what Trevithick's petition pointed out forty-three years ago — to lessen one-half the weight, space, and fuel in marine steam-engines — his opinion being founded on the experience of a lifetime, for as early as 1804 he wrote on the question of compound engines, "I think one cylinder partly filled with steam would do equally as well as two cylinders;" [20] and again in 1816, describing expansion, "The engine is now working with 60 lbs. of steam, three-quarters of the stroke expansive, and ends with the steam rather under atmosphere strong;" [21] and in the same year worked the expansive compound engine at Treskerby. [22]

See Also

Foot Notes

  • Plate XV.
    • a, iron barge;
    • b, wood frame supporting pump
    • c, open-top steam-cylinder 3 feet diameter, 8-feet stroke;
    • d, piston guide-wheel;
    • e, connecting rod;
    • f, fly-wheel
    • g, cranked axle working air-pump bucket;
    • h, connecting rod for air-pump bucket
    • i, air-pump
    • j, condenser
    • k, steam and exhaust nozzles
    • l, eccentrics working steam and exhaust valves;
    • m, steam-pipe;
    • n, cylindrical boiler, with internal fire-tube;
    • o, external brick flues;
    • p, chimney;
    • q, feed-pump;
    • r, feed-pipe
    • s, cup or rag-wheel;
    • t, rag-chain, with iron balls;
    • u, pump-barrel, 3 feet diameter;
    • v, wheel guiding balls into bottom of pump-barrel;
    • w, launder.
  1. Description in Trevithick's handwriting.
  2. See 'The Times,' August 12th, 1870.
  3. See vol. i., p. 302.
  4. See vol. i., p. 329
  5. See letter, vol. ii., p. 332.
  6. See Trevithick's letter, vol. ii., p. 315.
  7. See vol. i., p. 5.
  8. See vol. ii., p. 37.
  9. See vol. ii., p. 208.
  10. See vol. ii., p. 168.
  11. See vol. i., p. 243.
  12. See vol. i., p. 343.
  13. See vol. ii., p. 129.
  14. See vol. ii., p. 108.
  15. See letter from Mr. Michael Williams, vol. ii., p. 109.
  16. See vol. ii p. 129.
  17. See Mr. Taylor's report on Herland engine, vol. ii p. 118.
  18. See Lean's report, vol. ii., p. 175.
  19. 'The Times,' October 26th, 1871, Half-yearly Report of the Chairman.
  20. See vol. ii,, p. 134.
  21. See vol. ii., p. 91.
  22. See vol. ii., p. 104.