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PS Comet

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The 'Comet' passing Dumbarton
Original engine. Exhibit at London Science Museum.
Replica engine. Exhibit at the Glasgow Museum of Transport.
Engine. Exhibit at the Glasgow Museum of Transport.
Engine. Exhibit at the Glasgow Museum of Transport.
Original cylinder, which proved too small and was replaced by one slightly larger in diameter. Exhibit at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow

The paddle steamer PS Comet was built for Henry Bell, hotel and baths owner in Helensburgh, and began a passenger service in 1812 on the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock, the first commercially successful steamboat service in Europe.

Henry Bell had become interested in steam propelled boats, corresponded with Robert Fulton and learnt from the Charlotte Dundas. In 1811 he got John Wood and Co, shipbuilders, Port Glasgow, to build a paddle steamer which was named the Comet after the "Great Comet" of 1811. The 28 ton craft was 43 ft 6" (or 45 ft) long and 11 ft 4" (or 10 ft) broad. It had two sets of paddles on each side, driven by an engine rated at three nominal horse power (or perhaps 4 hp.): at a later date the paddles were replaced by paddle-wheels. These were replaced by a single paddle-wheel on each side. According to one source, this was done after the vessel had been lengthened about 20 ft.[1]

The engine was made by John Robertson of Glasgow, and the boiler by David Napier, Camlachlie, Glasgow: a story has it that they were evolved from an experimental little steam engine which Bell installed to pump sea water into the Helensburgh Baths. The funnel was tall and thin, and a yardarm allowed it to support a sail when there was a following wind. A tiny cabin aft had wooden seats and a table.

The engine had a vertical cylinder of 12.5" bore (originally 11" or 11.5") and 16" stroke. The 6 ft diameter flywheel incorporated a balance weight. A slip eccentric arrangement was used for reversing.[2] [3]. The engine is displayed in the London Science Museum. The smaller original is displayed in the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

In August 1812 Bell advertised in local newspapers:


"The subscriber, having at much expense, fitted up a handsome vessel to ply upon the River Clyde from Glasgow, to sail by the power of air, wind, and steam, intends that the vessel shall leave the Broomielaw on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays about mid-day, or such hour thereafter as may answer from the state of the tide, and to leave Greenock on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the morning to suit the tide. The fare was "four shillings for the best cabin, and three shillings for the second."

In 1812 the Comet made a delivery voyage from Port Glasgow (a town just to the east of Greenock) 21 miles upriver to the Broomielaw, Glasgow, then sailed from Glasgow the 24 miles down to Greenock, making five miles an hour against a head-wind (some sources give a date of January 18, 1812 for a trial trip, McCrorie gives August 6, 1812 for the delivery, with the historic trip a day or so later).

1813 May. A report of the success of the ship. Completed the 26 miles in four hours or less. [4]

The success of this service quickly inspired competition, with services down the Firth of Clyde and the sea lochs to Largs, Rothesay, Campbeltown and Inveraray within four years - the Comet was outclassed by newer steamers. Bell briefly tried a service on the Firth of Forth.

1819 Bell had the Comet lengthened by Thomas Hardy [ref?] and from September 1819 ran a service to Oban and Fort William (via the Crinan Canal) a trip which took four days.

1820 December 13. The Comet was shipwrecked in strong currents at Craignish Point near Oban, while on passage from Fort William to Glasgow. The machinery was salvaged.

A successor vessel, Comet II, was built but Henry Bell seems to have been its manager, rather than having a financial interest in the vessel. On 21 October 1825 she collided with the steamer Ayr off Kempock Point, Gourock, Scotland. Comet II sank very quickly, killing 62 of the 80 passengers on board.

The original engine was acquired by Bailie MacLellan, a Glasgow coachbuilder, as payment for a vehicle he'd supplied to Henry Bell. He used it to drive machinery in his Miller Street works, after which it saw sevice in a brewery in Greenock. It was then bought by Robert Napier and Sons, who donated it to the London Science Museum in 1862.[5]

A replica of the Comet made by shipyard apprentices now stands prominently in Port Glasgow.

We append the following passages, illustrative of the early days of steam-navigation, and exhibiting James Watt on board of a steamer on the Clyde:-
It is not wonderful that the Comet, under the combined powers of "Wind, Air, and Steam," not to mention the elegance of her accommodations, soon beat the "Fly-boats" out of the river. We well remember her 'accommodations," as well as her "superior speed," having had, more than once, a long passage in her to and from Glasgow. Her cabin - not saloon, as now-a-days, was scarcely an improvement upon those of the "Highland Packets," which indeed it closely resembled - low roofed, of course, having a deal table in the centre, with benches, or "lockers," of the same material, on each side, for the dozen or more passengers to sit upon;- contrast inconceivably great to the rosewood and velvet couches of our modern papillons, or river marlins - as unlike their homely prototype us the gay winged creature is to the unsightly chrysalis from which it has emerged.
The success of Henry Bell's Comet, scouted at as the project had at first generally been, began to attract attention to the value of the enterprise. In 1813 another steam-boat was started. She was of somewhat larger proportions than the Comet, and of greater horse power. This vessel also, the Glasgow, was built by Mr. Wood. She was succeeded by a third, by the same builder, the Morning Star, in 1814, for Mr. John Robertson, engineer, Gorbals. The next steam-boat built by Mr. Wood was the Elizabeth, 58 feet deck, and 8 horse. power, for Mr. John Thomson, smith, of Gorbals. Sie was followed by the Caledonia, of 32 horse-power, and about 200 tons burthen. This vessel was purchased by Mr. James Watt, junior, of Soho, for purposes of scientific experiment. Her comparatively rude machinery was replaced by two engines of 14 horse-power each manufactured at Soho; and the observations made upon her performances suggested many useful improvements in the structure and arrangements of marine engines. The Glasgow was contracted for by a company, of which Messrs. J. & D. M'Goun of Greenock, and Messrs. Lilly & Johnstone of Glasgow were the prineipal partners. The patterns for her castings, as well as the greater part of the smith work and machinery, were executed by Anderson, Campbell & Co., of Greenock, and the fitting of the engine on board was superintended by Henry Bell. We have before us a large collection of the business letters of Henry Bell about this period, which are curious, and in many ways instructive, particularly in regard to the crude and jejune state of engineering in those its earlier stages, and in a neighbourhood in which it has since attained to such a distinguished eminence, aided by capital that seems almost without limit in its sources. The engine of the Glasgow proved a failure, involving Mr. Bell in much litigation and embarrassment. After plying on the Clyde for some time, at a rate of speed which did not come up to the expectations formed of her, the engine was replaced by one constructed by Mr. James Cook, engineer, of Tradeston, Glasgow.
The first steam-boats built at Greenock were two little vessels which at the time attracted much attention. They were built in 1815 or 1816 by Mr. James Munn, for a company in Greenock, Glasgow, and other places. They were the Princess Charlotte and Prince of Orange. Their peculiarity consisted in their having each two steam engines of 4 horse-power each, and these, moreover contracted for and made by Boulton and Watt at Soho, and fitted up on board by Soho workmen. These were the first specinens of marine steam engines from so celebrated a quarter seen in the Clyde. Their beauty of construction, symmetry, and smoothness of motion were regarded by our engineers as a kind of marvel, and excited universal admiration. It may easily be believed that particular pains had been bestowed on their execution. It was in this same year (1816) that Mr. Watt founded the "Scientific Library of Greenock;" and in his patriotic and generous design of trasplanting a knowledge of this invaluable branch of the arts to the dockyards and the workshops of his native town, he might have had in view to illustrate, by those four beautiful little machines, what might be done by care and scienttjfc exactness brought to bear on all their details.
The spirit of enterprise being awakened, that of emulation naturally followed; and one steam-boat rapidly succeeded another, on those beautiful waters, so admirably fitted by nature for such incipient achievements. Each successive construction rivalled its predecessor both in beauty and speed. Still much remained to be effected both in the management and economy of these new and increasitgly important undertakings. Beyond the illustrations nlready afforded of Mr. Watt's concern for the benefit and advance of his townsmen in their mechanical industries, he is understood not to have either very directly or personally occupied himself with the earliest efforts of steam navigation in this country - not only his distance from the scene of operations, but his retirement, many yeas previously, from the active business of Soho, having removed him from their immediate contact, unless on occasion of his brief periodical visits to Scotland. It is interesting, however, to observe the great mechanician himself actually on board of one of these creations of his own ingenuity and invention. During his last visit to Greenock in 1816, Mr. Watt, in company with his friend Mr. Walkinshaw - whom the author some years afterwards heard relate the circumstance - made a voyage in a steamboat as far as Rothesay and back to Greenock - an excursion which, in those days, occupied the greater portion of a whole day. Mr. Watt entered into conversation with the engineer of the boat, pointing out to him the method of "backing" the engine. With a foot rule he demonstrated to him what was meant. Not succeeding, however, he at last, under the impulse of the ruling passion, threw off his overcoat, and, putting his hand to the engine himself, showed the practical application of his lecture. Previously to this the "back stroke" of the steam-boat engine was either unknown or not generally acted on. The practice was to stop the engine entirely a considerable time before the vessel reached the point of mooring, in order to allow for the gradual and natural diminution of her speead.
The Comet, after plying on the Clyde, and subsequently on the Firth of Forth, was lost on one of the Highland shores. She had been lengthened in the interval of her first starting, at Helensburgh. The operation was clumsily performed, and, on her going ashore on the occasion referred to, the old part speedily separated from the new, and she became a total wreck. Mr. Bell himself happened to be on board on the occasion of this catastrophe. Fortunately no lives were lost. The original draught or "lines" of the Comet were, several years ago, presented by her builder, Mr. Wood, to Mr. Robert Napier, engineer, of Glasgow, in whose possession they are understood now to be.
As British steam navigation had its origin in the Clyde, at Greenock and Port-Glasgow, these places continued to retain unimpaired their acquired precedence in this pre-eminent and all-important branch of British industry. For the enterprise which made steam-boats available for purposes of deep-sea navigation, as well as for the supply of most of the early post-office stations, which soon became so serviceable at all points of the British coast, this country is indebted to Mr. David Napier. The establishment, in 1818, of his steam-boat communication, by means of the Rob Roy, of about 90 tons burthen, and 30 horse power, to ply between Greenock end Belfast, led the way for other and continually extending lines of traffic. Mr. Wood of Port-Glasgow soon after built the Talbot of 120 tons, which was placed on the station between Holyhead and Dublin. This was immediately followed by that enterprise which brought upon the station between Greenock and Liverpool an as yet unwitnessed class of steamers. Beginning with the Robert Bruce of 150 tons, with two engines by Mr. Napier of 30 horse-power each, this Scottish proprietary at Glasgow and Liverpool has continued, year by year since then, to launch steam-ships of increasing beauty and power, a class of vessels altogether unrivalled, and which, in their representatives upon the Liverpool, Halifax, and New York mail station - whose splendid line of ships emanates from the same intelligent and spirited men - might be considered to have reached the highest perfection of which the art of steam naval architecture is capable, did not the almost daily production of something, in both mould and machinery, superior to its predecessor, contradict such a belief. Of this magnificent fleet of steam-ships, the entire number, with the exception of one or two fine specimens from the building yards of Messrs. Wood, has been constructed at Greenock by Mr. Steele, from whose dockyard the first of this leviathan class of vessels, intended for the conveyance of large numbers of passengers as well as goods, was launched in 1826. This was the United Kingdom, 160 feet in length, 26 1/2 feet beam, with engines of 200 horse-power, by Mr. Napier. This large vessel was considered a prodigious step in advance, in her size, power, speed, and the whole style of her furnishings and appointments. She started from Greenock on her first trip on 29th July, 1826, with a hundred and fifty passengers on board, and circumnavigated the whole of the north and part of the west coast of Scotland, on her way to Leith, performing the distance, 789 miles, in what was considered the incredibly short space of 65 hours, deducting stoppages. The cost of her construction, was said to have been £40,000. So great had been the inerease of steam vessels up to this time, that in this year, 1826, there were already upwards of seventy belonging to the Clyde, and upwards of fifty belonging to the Mersey, a great proportion of the entire number having been supplied by the dockyards of the former river.'[6]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] The Clyde Passenger Steamer : Its Rise and Progress During the Nineteenth Century : from the 'Comet' of 1812 to the 'King Edward' of 1901' by Capt James Williamson, 1904, James Maclehose & Sons, Glasgow, p.8
  2. Marine Engineering - Descriptive Catalogue by H.P. Spratt, HMSO
  3. 'The Birth of the Steamboat' by H. Philip Spratt, 1958, Charles Griffin & Co
  4. Caledonian Mercury, May 20, 1813
  5. [2] The Clyde Passenger Steamer : Its Rise and Progress During the Nineteenth Century : from the 'Comet' of 1812 to the 'King Edward' of 1901' by Capt James Williamson, 1904, James Maclehose & Sons, Glasgow
  6. Glasgow Herald - Wednesday 1 October 1856
  • [3] Wikipedia
  • Biography of Henry Bell, ODNB