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Matthew Wasbrough

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Matthew Wasbrough (1753-1781) - sometimes Washborough, was the first to apply a crank and flywheel to a steam engine, ahead of Boulton and Watt. By converting reciprocating to rotary motion, the stationary steam engine could be directly applied to drive machinery.

He was not the first to succeed in converting the action of a reciprocating steam engine to rotatory motion. In the 1760s Nicholas Joseph Cugnot propelled vehicles by steam, using two cylinders to drive the front wheel via racks and pinions.

1753 September. Born at Bristol the son of William Wasbrough (1717-1795) and his wife Mary Rice (1728-1797)

1776 January 23rd. Married Elizabeth Dowell

1778 Birth of son William Wasbrough (1778-1861)

1779 March. Patent 1213. For converting rectilinear into rotative motion. This used ratchets, but the patent did mention the use of a fly-wheel.

Erected engines and provided parts for Boulton and Watt, but he was not thought highly of by James Watt.[1]. Others regarded him as a young engineer of great promise, but a promise not fulfilled, due to his early death.[2]

1780 Designed and built the Pickard Engine (the first crank and fly-wheel engine) for James Pickard of Snow Hill. This is defined as 'the first atmospheric engine in the world to directly achieve rotary motion by the use of a crank and flywheel.' [3]

1781 Birth of son Matthew Wasbrough, Junior (1781-1830)

1781 October 21st. Died at Bristol. [4] Age 28 years.

Brass tablet to his memory in St. Peter's.[5]

Some of his mechanisms were installed in the corn and flour mills in Lievens Mead. [6]

'The notices of his death in the Bristol newspapers support the idea that had he lived Wasbrough would have made a great mark as an engineer. "The public have to deplore in him the loss of one of the first mechanics in the kingdom, whose early genius brought to perfection that long-wished for desideratum, the applying the steam engine to rotular movements: upon this principle, he lived long enough to complete several ingenious and complete pieces of mechanism, in which the corn and flour mills in Lievens [Lewens?) Mead are striking monuments of his extensive abilities."'[7]

Note: A Mr. Rice Wasbrough of the Brass Foundery, Narrow Wine Street, Bristol, was named as a contact in connection with a fire alarm placed by the National Fire and Life Association in 1819.[8]


1858 Biographical Notes[9] [10]

Matthew Wasbrough was the son of William and Mary Wasbrough, and was born in the house now occupied by Messrs. Thomas Hale and Sons, Brass-founders, &c., No. 3, Narrow Wine-street, and was baptised at the parish church of St. Peter, November 10th, 1753. His father was at the time in partnership with Mr. Roger Rice, who had established this, the oldest business of the kind in Bristol, on the premises referred to, in 1726, where it has ever since been carried on by some member of the family until the month of March, 1848, when Mr. Rice Wasbrough, the last of that name connected with it, died, and the late Mr. Thomas Hale, who had long been associated with him, became the head of the firm.

To this business Matthew Wasbrough was, at a proper age, introduced; and clock making forming at that time an important branch of the trade, and the mind of the future Inventor running in the direction of machinery, he was very naturally led to investigate the subject with a view to the introduction of improvements in his own particular department of it. He soon conceived the idea of making a machine that would drive the whole of the lathes employed in the manufactory to which he was attached (some twenty-five in number), and he accordingly, after much patient toil, constructed a steam engine (which he erected In a small building still remaining, with indications of the fact yet to be seen) beneath the clockmakers' workshops. To this machine he added the fly wheel, which was intended to produce a steady and uniform force; and of which I shall show that he was the inventor.

At page 157 of Hugo Reid's account of the Steam Engine is given "A sketch of the double-acting Steam Engine of James Watt, Invented by him in 1782;" which, however, is nearly three years after Matthew Wasbrough had patented his invention, which is described as his "New invented machine or piece of mechanism, which, when applied to a steam-engine, or any reciprocal movement, produces a circular or rotative movement without the medium of a water-wheel." This is, unquestionably, the first mention of such an invention having been perfected: the date of the patent of which is March 10th, 1779.

It appears, however, that about the same time other master minds were directed to the same subject, but Matthew Wasbrough was in advance of them all. Picard's rotative motion was patented in 1780; and that of James Watt followed, being "Inrolled the 23rd of February, 1782;" that is, as already intimated, nearly three years after that of Matthew Wasbrough! There can, therefore, I conceive, be no error in ascribing the invention of the fly-wheel or rotative motion of the steam-engine to a Bristol citizen; although it has been customary to award the honour to the Birmingham mechanist, James Watt.

Towards the close of 1780, Mr. Wasbrough was in communication with the Commissioners of the Navy, proposing to erect one of his newly patented steam-engines for the purpose of grinding corn, at either of the Victualling yards belonging to the Government, which proposal was accepted; and on January 31st, 1781, he received an order to proceed with the undertaking without delay, at Deptford. The engine was commenced immediately, and was progressing favourably so late as the end of Marsh following, when he received instructions to procure the castings necessary to complete the machine in Bristol.

In the month of July of the same year, when it was nearly finished. what must have been the astonishment of the inventor when informed "That the Board of Victualling Office had acceded to Mr. Smeaton's proposals of erecting an engine to throw water on a water-wheel for the purpose of grinding corn;" and that, therefore, his (Mr. Wasbrough's) machine would not be required.

Disappointed in realising his long cherished hopes of bringing his invention into public notice under the auspices of the Government, as on the success of the engine to be erected at Deptford depended the fate of other orders which he had received, and suffering at the time from severe indisposition, brought on by anxiety and the pecuniary losses he had sustained in perfecting his Invention, he was seized with a fever, of which he died October 21st, 1781, when he had but just completed his 25th year.

The following notice of the death of this unfortunate genius, believed to be from the pen of his most intimate friend, the late Mr. Joseph Storrs Fry, of this city, appeared in Felix Farleys Bristol Journal.

"Sunday, Oct. 21st, 1781, died, deeply regretted by his friends and acquaintance, Mr. Matthew Wasbrough. The public have to deplore in him the loss of one of the first mechanics in the kingdom, whose early genius brought to perfection that long wished-for deslderatum, the applying the powers of the fire-engine to rotular movements. Upon these principles he lived long enough to complete several ingenious pieces of mechanism, of which the corn and flour mills of Messrs. Young and Co., in Lewin's Mead, are striking monuments of his extensive abilities. His name, therefore, will be handed down with veneration to the latest posterity."

Mr. Wasbrough was buried at St. Peter's, in this city, of which parish he was churchwarden at the time of his death; and it is to preserve his name (now almost forgotten) among those of other Bristol worthies, that this brief account of him, which has not been attempted, as far as I know, by any other local writer, has been undertaken, and to which some additions, not even hinted at here, may be made another day.

A few years ago the following appeared in the Bristol Gazette:

"Steam Engines.- Without wishing to detract from the great merit and genius displayed by the late Mr. Watt in maturing the powers of steam, and applying it through the medium of mechanism to the various purposes which excite the admiration and astonishment of the world, we think it not inconsistent to notice the claims of a gentleman, formerly our fellow-citizen, to the honour of that invention on which the chief utility of the steam engine depends, viz.- the rotative motion, which Mr. Watt lived long enough to perfect all the various principles and modifications, whilst his contemporary was prematurely cut off; and, were it not for the record inserted in one of our predecessors papers (alluding to the notice of his death given above), perhaps there are but few living who are acquainted with a fact which affords an additional proof that Bristol has had a due share in promoting the progress of the acts and sciences in this instance." ...

I am, dear sir, faithfully yours, George Pryce, City Library, May 13, 1858.


Matthew Wasbrough and the Steam engine.

In my letter of the 10th ult., relating to this talented Bristolian, there is a slight error which I wish to correct - it is, that the notice of his death, which appeared in Felix Farley's Bristol Journal at the time it occurred, was not written by the late Mr. Joseph Storrs Fry, but by his father; in every other particular the account is accurate.

I think no one will dispute the fact that he was the inventor of "the fly-wheel, which was intended to produce a steady and uniform force;" and I offered a few remarks in proof thereof, which it is now my intention more fully to establish. Mr. Robert Scott Burn, in his work on "The Steam-Engine, its History and Mechanism," page 47, says, "that in the application of the steam engine to the production of a continuous motion, the first step to be taken was the changing of the reciprocating motion - of the piston rod - into a continuous rotatory one," which was effected by means of what is called a crank."

He then traces "the history of its application to the steam-engine," commencing with Mr. Wasbrough's invention patented in 1779; and adds that he "fitted up one of his machines at Birmingham for Mr. John Pickard. That party (he continues) was instrumental, however, in introducing a much simpler method of producing rotary motion; this was by substituting the crank. For this he took out a patent in 1780; and associated with him, in carrying its application into practice, the inventor of the previously mentioned mechanism - Wasbrough;" and for thie reason - Pickard was a button-maker, and Wasbrough the mechanic, and therefore in reality the first to apply the crank in the production of a continuous rotary motion. Although the name of the latter does not appear in Pickard's specification, it was evidently a joint undertaking; for Mr. Burn says - "They succeeded in introducing the (new) method of working into several mills." Matthew Wasbrough was, then, as it seems even from this brief narrative, the inventor of the rotatory motion (before the crank was usedj as applied to steam-engines.

Mr. Watt, however, would have the readers of his own account of the invention to believe that "the idea of using the crank had been borrowed from his factory at Soho," whereas the truth seems to be that he had himself obtained it from that of Matthew Wasbrough, at Bristol, which he was in the habit of visiting during several years before he claimed the invention which he patented in 1781; and to which the generous, open-hearted, unsuspecting Wasbrough gave him ready access; at the same time acquainting Watt with his various projects for improving the steam-engine.

In a communication recently received by me from Mr. Wasbrough's son, an octogenarian, he says:- "My mother, and Mrs. Bence, my great aunt (both women of the strictest veracity), were accustomed to refer to my father's open and unguarded conduct in allowing Mr. Watt, who was much with my father, to witness his proceedings; and it was by Watt's request that be erected an engine at Birmingham, by the aid of which there can be little doubt he made himself master of the principles connected with the grand desideratum, the rotatory motion, and on which he improved; still, there can be no queetlon that my father was the inventor."

How far the visits to Wasbrough's manufactory were taken advantage of by Watt is apparent from his own language, for he says:- "Having made my reciprocating engines very regular in their movements, I considered how to produce rotative motions from them in the best manner; and amongst various schemes which were subjected to trial, or which passed through my mind, none appeared so likely to answer the purpose as the application of the crank in the manner of the common turning lathe" all perfectly natural, for this was the very machine that Watt had often seen set in motion in the manufactory of Matthew Wasbrough, by means of a steam-engine which the latter had invented for that purpose, and which embodied the very principle in question.

The reader will judge for himself how far the facts here related may he regarded as negative proof that Watt borrowed the invention, or the leading idea of it, at least, from Wasbrough; but to my own mind they are strong presumptive evidence that such was the case.

There are certain statements in Mr. Watt's account of the invention of a continuous rotatory motion which appear to me to be irreconcilable. First he speaks of his specification in 1769, in which mention is made of a steam-wheel of his contrivance, but which "was given up, as several practical objections were found to operate against it." Then of "similar objections (which) lay against the rotatory engines, which had been contrived by himself and others," Then the "various schemes which were subject to trial, or which passed through his mind," his experiments with the crank, his "proposal to employ two engines acting upon two cranks" to arrive at the longed-for result, etc., all betokening deep thought, continued anxiety, and consumption of time, and yet he says, in contradiction to all this, that "his attention being fully employed in making and erecting engines for raising water, it (the invention of the rotatory motion) remained in patto until about the year 1778 or 1779, when Mr. Wasbrough erected one of his ratchet-wheel engines at Birmingham, the frequent breakages and irregularities of which recalled the subject to his mind, and he proceeded to make a model of his method which answered his expectations"

How Mr. Watt could detail the facts I have mentioned, and yet state on the same page that "he had been (so) fully employed in making and erecting engines for raising water as to be unable to turn his attention to the subject in hand," until Mr. Wasbrough erected his engine at Birmingham some ten years after his first attempt, I cannot understand. The appearance of Wasbrough's invention in Birmingham must have had a magical effect upon Watt, for he at once "proceeded to make a model of his method.", What method? Was it one upon which he had experimented for so many years and failed, or was it but a deviation from Mr. Wasbrough's engine, and which he claimed as his own invention? Speaking of the model, "which answered his expectations," Mr. Watt remarks that "having neglected to take out a patent, the invention was communicated by a workmen employed to make the model to one of the people about Mr. Wasbrough's engine, and a patent was at once taken out by them (by whom, the people) for the application of the crank to steam-engines."

The nameless workman is to me a very dubious character; nor do I think it likely that if Watt had so little to do towards perfecting his method that he could so soon make a model of an invention of so much importance, and so long and anxiously sought after (according to his own showing), he would have delayed taking out a patent for it immediately and not have allowed himself to be superseded in the matter by another.

Mr. Wasbrough's patent was taken out in 1779, the latest of the two years which Mr. Watt himself mentions as that in which Wasbrough erected his engine at Birmingham. The date of his (Wasbrough's) patent is March 10th, subsequent to which no doubt the said engine was erected.

Pickard's engine, in which the crank actually appears, followed in the next year, the patent for which is dated August 23rd, 1780; whereas Watt's specification bears date October 20th, 1781, that is nearly three years after Wasbrough's invention was patented, and fourteen months after that of Pickard. How, then, could Watt say that the invention was purloined from his factory at Soho, when it was not there at all?

The invention of Mr. Wasbrough, as the patent expresses, was "adapted to the purpose of moving, in a direct position, any ship or vessel against the tide, or where the wind is against the object, or in the failure of wind, and where human or animal strength is inadequate to the purpose, and which machine or piece of mechanism greatly varies from any machine or piece of mechianism hitherto invented for any of the above purposes" and says his son, "This was a purpose (navigating the ocean by steam) which my father's ardent mind was determinod to overcome; and my mother informed me that he used often to say (calling her by name)- 'I shall take you in my steam-vessel to Philadelphia next year to pay a visit to your sister' (who resided there), and if he had lived there can be little doubt but that steain navigation would have had its origin with my father."

How frequently has it been seen, as in the instance before as, that the real inventor goes unrewarded, whilst the improver reaps the benefit of his ingenuity and toil. Matthew Wasbrough dies at the early age of twenty-eight, of fever induced by over taxing his brain, and conscious neglect; whilst James Watt lives to a ripe old age, and descends to the grave full of riches.

I am dear Mr. Editor, faithfully yours, City Library, June 7th, 1858. George Pryce.



See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. Lives of Boulton and Watt by Samuel Smiles: Chapter 15
  2. 'James Watt and the Steam Engine' by H. W. Dickinson and Rhys Jenkins, 1927
  3. "Steam Engines of the Eighteenth Century - The Pickard Engine". Web.archive.org.
  4. The Engineer 1920/02/13
  5. Western Daily Press - Monday 28 June 1926
  6. The Engineer 1920/02/13
  7. The Engineer 1920/02/13
  8. Bristol Mercury - Monday 27 December 1819
  9. Bristol Mercury - Saturday 15 May 1858
  10. Bristol Mercury - Saturday 12 June 1858