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 163,165 pages of information and 245,632 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.

Lives of Boulton and Watt by Samuel Smiles: Chapter 2

From Graces Guide
Dionysius Papin
Ancient Paddle Boat


After the death of the Marquis of Worcester, the Marchioness, his widow, made various efforts to turn his inventions to account. Sceptical though the world was as to their utility, she fully believed in them and now that he was gone, it would have been dishonouring to his memory to entertain a doubt as to his engine being able to do all that he had promised. The Marchioness had not only to maintain the fame of her dear husband, but to endeavour, if possible, to pay the debts he had contracted in prosecuting his inventions. She accordingly sought to interest persons of authority and influence in the water-commanding engine, and seized every opportunity of bringing it into notice.

To such an extent did the Marchioness carry her zeal, that her friends began to fear lest her mind was becoming disordered and her father-confessor was requested to expostulate with her as to the impropriety of her conduct. He accordingly implored her to desist from her vain endeavours to get "great sums of money from the King to pay her deceased lord's debts, enriching herself by the great machine, and the like." He added that he feared "the devil, to make his suggestions the more prevalent, doth make use of some motives that seem plausible, as of paying your lord's debts, of founding monasteries, and the like;" pointing out that the end did not justify the means, and that such undertaking's were improper for her ladyship, and by no means likely to be attended with success. It is not probable that these representations had their effect; the more especially as the Marchioness was no more successful in inducing the public to adopt the invention than the Marquis himself had been. Accordingly, the water-commanding engine very shortly dropped out of sight, and in the course of a few years was almost entirely forgotten.

The steam-engine project, however, did not die; it only slept. It had been the fruit thus far of noble effort, of persevering self-denial, and unquestionable skill. What was good in it would yet live, and reappear perhaps in other forms, to vindicate the sagacity and foresight of its inventor. Even during the Marquis's lifetime other minds besides his were diligently pursuing the same subject. Indeed, his enthusiasm was of a kind especially calculated to inflame other minds and the success he had achieved with his engine, imperfect though it might be, was of so novel and original a character that it could not fail to excite a warm interest amongst men of like mechanical genius.

One of the most distinguished of these was Sir Samuel Morland, appointed Master of Mechanics to Charles II. immediately after the Restoration. He had been for some time previously in the employment of the Protectorate. He formed one of the embassy to Sweden, with Whitlocke, in 1653. Some years later he took an active part in the relief of the sufferings of the persecuted Protestants of Piedmont whose history he afterwards wrote, — having been appointed Commissioner Extraordinary for the distribution of the collected moneys. For some time he officiated as assistant to Thurloe, Cromwell's secretary; and it was while acting in this capacity that he became cognisant of a plot against the life of Charles II., then in exile. Morland divulged the plot to the king's friends, and thereby perhaps saved his life. For this service, Charles, on his Restoration, presented him with a medal, as a badge of his signal loyalty, and also appointed him Master of Mechanics.

From that time until the close of his life, Morland devoted himself entirely to mechanical studies. Among his various inventions may be mentioned the speaking-trumpet; [1] two arithmetical machines, of which he published an illustrated description; the capstan to heave ships' anchors and various kinds of pumps and water engines. His pumps were of a very powerful and effective kind. One of them, worked by eight men, forced water from the Thames at Blackmoor Park, near Winkfield, to the top of Windsor Castle. He also devoted himself to the improvement of the fire-engine, in which he employed a cylinder and piston, as well as a stuffing-box. Towards the later years of his life, he applied himself more particularly to the study of the powers and uses of steam. [2] In 1677, we find him taking a lease of Vauxhall, most probably the identical house occupied by the Marquis of Worcester, where he conducted a series of experiments as to the power requisite to raise water by cylinders of different dimensions. [3] It is not, however, known that he ever erected a steam-engine. If he did, no account of its performances has been preserved.

Morland's inventions proved of no greater advantage to him than those of the Marquis of Worcester had done. His later years were spent in poverty and blindness, and he must have perished but for the charitable kindness of Archbishop Tenison and a few other friends. Evelyn gives the following interesting account of a visit to him in October, 1695, two months before his death:— "The Archbishop and myself went to Hammersmith to visit Sir Samuel Morland, who was entirely blind; a very mortifying sight. He showed me his invention of writing, which was very ingenious; also his wooden calendar, which instructed him all by feeling, and other pretty and useful inventions of mills, pumps, &c., and the pump he had erected that serves water to his garden, and to passengers, with an inscription, and brings from a filthy part of the Thames now near it, a most perfect and pure water. He had newly buried £200 worth of music books, being, as he said, love songs and vanity. He plays himself psalms and religious hymns on the theorbo." The inscription to which Evelyn refers was on a stone tablet fixed on the wall of his house, still preserved, which runs thus:- "SIR SAMUEL MORLAND'S WELL, the use of which he freely gives to all persons: hoping that none who shall come after him, will adventure to incur God's displeasure, by denying a cup of cold water (provided at another's cost and not their own) to either neighbour, stranger, passenger, or poor thirsty beggar. July 8, 1695."

The next prominent experimenter on the powers of steam was Dr. Dionysius Papin. He was born at Blois about the middle of the seventeenth century, and educated to the profession of medicine. After taking his degree at Paris, he turned his attention more particularly to the study of physics, which soon occupied his whole attention; and under the celebrated Huyghens, then resident that city, he made rapid progress. He would, doubtless, have risen to great distinction in his own country, but for the circumstance of his being a Protestant. To escape the persecutions to which all members of that persuasion were then subject, Papin fled from France in 1681, together with thousands of his countrymen, a few years before the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He took refuge in London, where he was welcomed by men of science, and more especially by the celebrated Boyle, under whose auspices he was introduced to the Royal Society, of which be was appointed Curator at an annual salary.

It formed part of Papin's duty, in connection with his new office, to produce an experiment at each meeting of the Society. He was thus induced to prosecute the study of physical science and in order to stimulate the interest of the members, he sought to introduce new subjects from time to time to their notice. One of the greatest novelties of his "entertainments" was the production of his well-known Digester, which excited a considerable degree of interest and on one occasion a philosophical supper, cooked by the Digester, was served up to the Fellows, of which Evelyn gives an amusing account in his Diary.

He was led to the invention of the Digester by certain experiments which he made for Boyle. He discovered that if the vapour of boiling water could be prevented escaping, the temperature of the water would be raised much above the boiling point and it occurred to him to employ this increased heat in more effectually extracting nutritious matter from the bones of animals, until then thrown away as useless. The great strength required for his Digester, and the means he was obliged to adopt for the purpose of securely confining the cover, must have early shown him what a powerful agent he was experimenting on. To prevent the bursting of the vessel from the internal pressure, he was led to the invention of the safety-valve, which consisted of a small moveable plate, or cylinder, fitted into an opening in the cover of the boiler, and kept shut by a lever loaded with a weight, capable of sliding along it in the manner of a steel yard. The pressure of the weight upon the valve could thus be regulated at pleasure. When the pressure became so great as to endanger the safety of the boiler, the valve was forced up, and so permitted the steam to escape. Although Papin was thus the inventor of the safety-valve, it is a curious fact that he did not apply it to the steam-machine which he subsequently invented, but adopted another expedient.

The reputation of Papin having extended to Germany, he was, in 1687, invited to fill the office of Professor of Mathematics in the University of Marburg, and accepted the appointment. He continued, however, to maintain a friendly correspondence with his scientific friends in England, and communicated to the Royal Society the results of the experiments in physics which he continued to pursue. In the same year in which he settled at Marburg, he submitted to the Society an important paper, which indicated the direction in which his thoughts were then running. It had occurred to him, as it had before done to Hautefeuille, that the explosion of gunpowder presented a ready means of producing a power to elevate a piston in a tube or cylinder, and that, when so raised, a vacuum could be formed under the piston by condensing the vapour, and so ensuring its return by the pressure of the atmosphere. He thought that be might thus be enabled to secure an efficient moving force. But it was found in practice, that the proposed power was too violent as well as uncertain, and it was shortly given up as impracticable.

Papin next inquired whether his proposed elastic force and subsequent vacuum might not better be produced by means of steam. He accordingly entered upon a series of experiments, which gradually led him to the important conclusions published in his celebrated paper on "A New Method of Obtaining very Great Moving Powers at Small Cost," which appeared in the ‘Acta Eruditorum' of Leipsic, in 1790. "I felt confident," he there observes, "that machines might be constructed wherein water, by means of no very intense heat, and at small cost, might produce that perfect vacuum which had failed to be obtained by means of gunpowder." He accordingly contrived a machine to illustrate this idea, but it was very imperfect and slow in its action, as may well be imagined from the circumstance that to produce the condensation he did not apply cold, but merely took away the fire! Still he was successfully working out, step by step, the important problem of steam power. He clearly perceived that a piston might be raised in a cylinder by the elastic force of steam, and that on the production of a vacuum by its condensation, the piston might be driven home again by the pressure of the atmosphere. The question was, how was this idea to be realised in a practicable working machine? After many experiments, Papin had the courage to make the attempt to pump water by atmospheric pressure on a large scale. He was employed to erect machines after his principle, for the purpose of draining mines in Auvergne and Westphalia; but from the difficulty he experienced in procuring and preserving a vacuum, and the tediousness of the process, his enterprise proved abortive.

The truth is, that fertile though Papin was in conception, he laboured under the greatest possible disadvantage in not being a mechanic. The eyes and bands of others are not to be relied on in the execution of new and untried machines. Unless eyes and hands be disciplined by experience in skilled work, and inspired by intelligence, they are comparatively useless. The chances of success are vastly greater when mind, eyes, and hands, are combined in one person. Hence the unquestionable fact that though the motive power of steam had long been the subject of ingenious speculation and elaborate experiment amongst scientific men, it failed to be adopted as a practicable working power until it was taken in hand by mechanics — by such men as Newcomen, the blacksmith; Potter, the engine-driver; Brindley, the millwright; and, above all, by James Watt, the mathematical instrument maker.

The sagacious foresight of Papin as to the extensive applicability of steam-power as a motive agent, is strikingly shown by the following passage in the paper above referred to:— "If any one," says he, "will consider the magnitude of the forces to be obtained in this way (i, e., by the atmospheric high-pressure engine he was suggesting), and the trifling expense at which a sufficient quantity of fuel can be procured, he will certainly admit that this very method is far preferable to the use of gunpowder above spoken of, especially as in this way a perfect vacuum is obtained, and so the inconveniences above recounted are avoided. In what manner that power can be applied to draw water or ore from mines, to discharge iron bullets to a great distance, to propel ships against the wind, and to a multitude of other similar purposes, it would be too long here to detail but each individual, according to the particular occasion, must select the construction of machinery appropriate to his purpose." This last was, however, the real difficulty to be overcome. Steam, doubtless, contained a power to do all these things but as for the machine that would work quietly, docilely, and effectively, in pumping water, discharging bullets, or propelling ships, the mechanic had not yet appeared that was able to make one.

Papin was, however, a man of great perseverance and, strong in his faith as to the power of steam to propel ships, he gradually worked his way to the contrivance of a model steamboat. When in London, he had seen an experiment tried by the Prince Palatine Rupert on the Thames, in which a boat fitted with revolving paddles attached to the two ends of an axle which received its motion from a trundle working on a wheel turned round by horses, went with such rapidity as to leave the king's barge, manned by sixteen rowers, far behind in the race. The idea which occurred to Papin was, to apply a steam machine to drive the paddles, and thus ensure a ship's motion independent of wind or tide. For this purpose, it was necessary to convert the alternate motion of the piston-rod into a continuous rotary one; and this he proposed to effect "by having the rode of the pistons fitted with teeth, which would force round small wheels, toothed in like manner, fastened to the axis of the paddles."

The use of paddle-wheels in propelling boats had long been known. The Harleian MSS. contain an Italian book of sketches, attributed to the fifteenth century, in which there appears the annexed sketch of a paddle-boat. This boat was evidently intended to be worked by two men turning the crank by which the paddles were made to revolve. There were many other early schemes of paddle-boats, some of which were proposed to be worked by horse-power. The name of Blasco Garay has often been mentioned as the first who applied the power of steam to the driving of paddle-boats but for this there is not the slightest foundation. M. Bergenroth informs us that he has carefully examined all the documents relating to the trials of Blasco Garay in the archives at Simancas, but has found no reference whatever to steam as the power employed in causing the paddles to revolve. [4] The experiments were made at Malaga and Barcelona respectively, in the years 1540 and 1543: in one the vessel was propelled by a paddle-wheel on each side worked by twenty-five men, and in the other by a paddle-wheel worked by forty men.

It appears probable that although others before Papin had speculated as to the possibility of constructing a boat to be driven by the power of steam, he was the first to test the theory by actual experiment the first to construct a model steamboat. His first experiments were doubtless failures. The engine contrived by himself was found inapplicable to the driving of ships, as it had been to the pumping of mines and it was not until he saw the model of Savery's engine exhibited to the Royal Society of London, in 1698, and witnessed the trial of the same inventor's paddle-wheel boat on the Thames in the course of the same year that it occurred to him to combine the two contrivances in one, and apply Savery's engine to drive Savery's paddle-wheels. Returning to Marburg, he proceeded with his experiments, and informed Liebnitz that he had employed both suction and pressure by steam; that he had made a model of a carriage propelled by this force, which succeeded and he hoped that the same power would answer for boats. Papin prosecuted his idea with great zeal, trying many expedients, encountering many difficulties, and meeting with many disappointments. At length, after about fifteen years' labour, he succeeded in constructing a model engine, fitted in a boat "une petite machine d'un vaisseau roues" — which worked to his satisfaction. His next object was to get his model transported to London, to exhibit it on the Thames. "It is important," he writes to Liebnitz (7th July, 1707), "that my new construction of vessel should be put to the proof in a seaport like London, where there is depth enough to apply the new invention, which, by means of fire, will render one or two men capable of producing more effect than some hundreds of rowers." Papin had considerable difficulty in obtaining the requisite permission from the authorities to enable his model to pass from the Fulda to the Weser; but at length he succeeded, and the little vessel reached Munden, when, to Papin's great grief, it was seized by the boatmen of the river, and barbarously destroyed.

The year after this calamity befel Papin's machine he wrote an urgent letter to his old friends of the Royal Society at London, asking them to advance him sufficient money to construct another engine "and to fit it so that it might be applied for the rowing of ships." The Society, however, did not see their way to assisting Papin in the manner proposed, most likely because of the expense as well as uncertainty of the experiment. Two years later, worn out by work and anxiety, the illustrious exile died and it was left for other labourers to realise the great ideas he had formed as to locomotion by steam-power.

The apparently resultless labours of these men will serve to show what a long, anxious, and toilsome process the invention of the steam-engine has been. The early inventors had not the gratification of seeing their toils rewarded by even the faintest glimmering of practical success. One after another, they took up the subject, spent days and nights of study over it, and, laying down their lives, there left it. To many the study brought nothing but anxiety, toil, distress, and sometimes ruin while some fairly broke their hearts over it. But it was never abandoned. Disregarding the fate of their predecessors, one labourer after another resumed the investigation, advancing it by further stages, until at length the practicable working steam-engine was invented, presenting, perhaps, the most remarkable illustration of the power of human skill and perseverance to be found in the whole history of civilisation.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. We are informed that Morland's ‘Tuba Stentorphornica’, or speaking-trumpet, is still to he seen at Trinity College, Cambridge. Butler, in his ‘Hudibras,' alludes to the invention:— "I heard a formidable voice, Loud as the stentorphornic noise."
  2. His first idea seems to have been to employ gunpowder for the production of motive power, for in the 'Calendar of State Papers' (Dom) we find the following entry: "Deer. 11th, 1691.— Warrant for a grant to Sir Samuel Morland of the sole use for 14 years of his invention for raising water out of pits, &c., to a reasonable height, by the force of powder and air conjointly." — (`Entry Book,' V., p. 85.) In vol. XLVI., p. 49, we find this entry under the same date: "Warrant for a grant to Sir S. Morland of the sole making of an engine invented by him for raising water in mines or pits, draining marshes, or supplying buildings with water."
  3. The ‘Harleian Miscellany' (Brit. Mus.), No. 5771, contains the following brief tract in French, written by Morland in 1682. It is on vellum, and entitled 'Les Principes de la Nouvelle Force de Feu’ — "L'eau estant evaporee par la force de feu, ces vapeurs demandent incontinant une plus grand'espace [environ deux mine fois] que l'eau n'occupoiet au-paravant, et plus tost que d'etre toujours emprisonnes, feroient crever une piece de canon. Mais estant bien gouvernees selon les regles de la statique, et par science reduites a la mesure au poids, et it la balance, alors elles portent paisiblement leurs fardeaux [comme des bons chevaux] et ainsy seroient clles du grand usage au gendre humain, particulierement pour relevation des eaux, selon la table suivante que marque les nombres des livres qui pourrant estre leves 1800 fois par heure, a 6 pouces de levee, par de cylindres h moitie remplies d'eau, ausi bier que les divers diametres et profondeurs des dit cylindres." Tables are then given, showing the power requisite to raise given quantities of water to certain heights by cylinders of different dimensions.
  4. M. Bergenroth says the documents at Simancas consist of- 1. A holograph letter of Blasco Garay to the Emperor, dated Malaga, 10th Sept., 1540, containing his report on the trial trip of one of his paddle-wheel ships; 2. The report of the Captain Antonio Destigarura on the same trial trip; 3. The report of the Provcedores of Malaga concerning the same trip, dated 27th July, 1540; 4. The report of Blasco Garay to the Emperor, dated 6th July, 1543, concerning the trial trip of another of his paddle-wheel ships made at Barcelona in June, 1543; 5. A letter of Blasco Garay to Carrs, dated 20th June, 1543. In none of these is there to be found any reference to steam-power; but only to the power of men employed in driving the paddle-wheels. This is confirmed by the independent examination of the same documents by J. Macgregor, Esq., of the Temple, who gives the result in a Letter to Bennet Woodcroft, Esq., inserted as a note to the ‘Abridgments of the Specifications relating to Steam Propulsion,' pp. 105-7.