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British Industrial History

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Matthew Murray by Samuel Smiles

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Note: This is a sub-section of Matthew Murray

There are still other claimants for the merit of having invented the planing machine; among whom may be mentioned more particularly Matthew Murray of Leeds, and Richard Roberts of Manchester. We are informed by Mr. March, the present mayor of Leeds, head of the celebrated tool-manufacturing firm of that town, that when he first went to work at Matthew Murray's, in 1814, a planing machine of his invention was used to plane the circular part or back of the D valve, which he had by that time introduced in the steam-engine. Mr. March says, "I recollect it very distinctly, and even the sort of framing on which it stood. The machine was not patented, and like many inventions in those days, it was kept as much a secret as possible, being locked up in a small room by itself, to which the ordinary workmen could not obtain access. The year in which I remember it being in use was, so far as I am aware, long before any planing-machine of a similar kind had been invented."

Matthew Murray was born at Stockton-on-Tees in the year 1763. His parents were of the working class, and Matthew, like the other members of the family, was brought up with the ordinary career of labour before him. When of due age his father apprenticed him to the trade of a blacksmith, in which he very soon acquired considerable expertness. He married before his term had expired; after which, trade being slack at Stockton, he found it necessary to look for work elsewhere. Leaving his wife behind him, he set out for Leeds with his bundle on his back, and after a long journey on foot, he reached that town with not enough money left in his pocket to pay for a bed at the Bay Horse inn, where he put up. But telling the landlord that he expected work at Marshall's, and seeming to be a respectable young man, the landlord trusted him; and he was so fortunate as to obtain the job which he sought at Mr. Marshall's, who was then beginning the manufacture of flax, for which the firm has since become so famous.

Mr. Marshall was at that time engaged in improving the method of manufacture, and the young blacksmith was so fortunate or rather so dexterous as to be able to suggest several improvements in the machinery which secured the approval of his employer, who made him a present of 20L, and very shortly promoted him to be the first mechanic in the workshop. On this stroke of good fortune Murray took a house at the neighbouring village of Beeston, sent to Stockton for his wife, who speedily joined him, and he now felt himself fairly started in the world. He remained with Mr. Marshall for about twelve years, during which he introduced numerous improvements in the machinery for spinning flax, and obtained the reputation of being a first-rate mechanic. This induced Mr. James Fenton and Mr. David Wood to offer to join him in the establishment of an engineering and machine-making factory at Leeds; which he agreed to, and operations were commenced at Holbeck in the year 1795.

As Mr. Murray had obtained considerable practical knowledge of the steam-engine while working at Mr. Marshall's, he took principal charge of the engine-building department, while his partner Wood directed the machine-making. In the branch of engine-building Mr. Murray very shortly established a high reputation, treading close upon the heels of Boulton and Watt - so close, indeed, that that firm became very jealous of him, and purchased a large piece of ground close to his works with the object of preventing their extension.

The purchase of this large piece of ground, known as Camp Field, had the effect of "plugging up" Matthew Murray for a time; and it remained disused, except for the deposit of dead dogs and other rubbish, for more than half a century. It has only been enclosed during the present year, and now forms part of the works of Messrs. Smith, Beacock and Tannett, the eminent tool-makers. His additions to the steam-engine were of great practical value, one of which, the self-acting apparatus attached to the boiler for the purpose of regulating the intensity of fire under it, and consequently the production of steam, is still in general use. This was invented by him as early as 1799. He also subsequently invented the D slide valve, or at least greatly improved it, while he added to the power of the air-pump, and gave a new arrangement to the other parts, with a view to the simplification of the powers of the engine. To make the D valve work efficiently, it was found necessary to form two perfectly plane surfaces, to produce which he invented his planing machine. He was also the first to adopt the practice of placing the piston in a horizontal position in the common condensing engine. Among his other modifications in the steam-engine, was his improvement of the locomotive as invented by Trevithick; and it ought to be remembered to his honour that he made the first locomotive that regularly worked upon any railway.

This was the engine erected by him for Blenkinsop, to work the Middleton colliery railway near Leeds, on which it began to run in 1812, and continued in regular use for many years. In this engine he introduced the double cylinder--Trevithick's engine being provided with only one cylinder, the defects of which were supplemented by the addition of a fly-wheel to carry the crank over the dead points.

But Matthew Murray's most important inventions, considered in their effects on manufacturing industry, were those connected with the machinery for heckling and spinning flax, which he very greatly improved. His heckling machine obtained for him the prize of the gold medal of the Society of Arts; and this as well as his machine for wet flax-spinning by means of sponge weights proved of the greatest practical value. At the time when these inventions were made the flax trade was on the point of expiring, the spinners being unable to produce yarn to a profit; and their almost immediate effect was to reduce the cost of production, to improve immensely the quality of the manufacture, and to establish the British linen trade on a solid foundation. The production of flax-machinery became an important branch of manufacture at Leeds, large quantities being made for use at home as well as for exportation, giving employment to an increasing number of highly skilled mechanics.

Mr. Murray's faculty for organising work, perfected by experience, enabled him also to introduce many valuable improvements in the mechanics of manufacturing. His pre-eminent skill in mill-gearing became generally acknowledged, and the effects of his labours are felt to this day in the extensive and still thriving branches of industry which his ingenuity and ability mainly contributed to establish. All the machine tools used in his establishment were designed by himself, and he was most careful in the personal superintendence of all the details of their construction. Mr. Murray died at Leeds in 1826, in his sixty-third year.


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