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.

William Symington

From Graces Guide
William Symington
1786. Steam carriage.
Symington's First Steam-Boat Engine
1877 photo of the first steam-boat engine now in the Science Museum
Drawing of the first steam-boat engine
Symington's first steam-boat engine (1788), displayed at the London Science Museum, 2010
JD Sci Mus Marine30.jpg
JD Sci Mus Marine34.jpg
JD Sci Mus Marine32.jpg
JD Sci Mus Marine35.jpg
Reconstructed ratchet wheel

William Symington (1764-1831) was a Scottish engineer and inventor, and the builder of what has been described as 'the first practical steamboat'. It was an ingenious design, and was subjected to testing, but it was a prototype, not intended as a working steam boat.


1764 Symington was born in Leadhills, South Lanarkshire to a family he described as being "respectable but not wealthy." His father worked as a practical mechanic at the Leadhills mines. Although his parents intended for him to enter the ministry, he intended to use his good education to make a career as an engineer.

1784 William Symington conceived the idea of steam being applied to propelling carriages, and made a working model, but soon gave it up, and nothing was ever after heard of the project

1785 Joined his brother George in his attempts to build a steam engine at Wanlockhead, Dumfriesshire.

1786 While there, he impressed the manager of a local mining company, Gilbert Meason, so much that he was sent to the University of Edinburgh to spend a few months attending science lectures.

1786 Built a steam carriage that was exhibited in Edinburgh that year. [1]

1787 By the time William joined his brother, George had already succeeded in building the second engine using James Watt's design to be built in Scotland. William Symington quickly saw a way to marry the efficiency of the Watt engine with the simplicity of that devised by Thomas Newcomen. Encouraged by Gilbert Meason, Symington demonstrated the practicality of his idea and his improved atmospheric engine was patented in 1787. When Watt sent someone to make a sketch of how this new engine worked, he discovered that the steam was condensed under a second piston and this was then pushed down when fresh steam entered the cylinder, forcing out the condensate. The power piston worked by the atmospheric pressure acting on the vacuum created by the condensing steam.

After its completion, Symington drew up a prospectus outlining the advantages of his invention, and this was circulated by Meason and his influential friends.

Later, Symington intended to carry out a trial in order to show than an engine would work on a boat without the boat catching fire. The vessel chosen for this experiment had been built in 1785 as a pleasure boat. It was agreed that Symington would install an engine and connect it to the paddle wheels. See 'Symington's First Marine Engine' below.

1788 The trial finally took place on a loch near Dumfries on October 14, 1788. The trial was said to have been a success. Later accounts would say that the boat went at 5mph and that Robert Burns was on board. However, if Burns was present, he failed to mention it in a letter he wrote on that day or in any of his verse. Certainly, the local minister and his son were on board and the latter reported the trial to Robert Cleland of Glasgow, who wrote that the trial failed and the boat had to be helped by hand cranks. The experiment did ultimately demonstrate, however, that a steam engine would work on a boat.

1789 After the successful demonstration of a steam engine on a boat, a larger engine was commissioned that would be tried in a boat on the Forth and Clyde Canal. The parts for the engine were ordered and an engine similar to that used previously, but a lot larger, was erected on another twin hull paddle boat. It was 60ft long. The first trial, on December 2, 1789, was unsuccessful because the paddle wheels were not up to the task and began to break up when an increase in speed was attempted. However, Patrick Miller, the patron of the venture, did sanction repairs and, on December 26 and 27, more successful trials were done.

Although Symington is best remembered for his contribution to steam powered vessels, he also built successful engines for mines and mills. The first of these was built on a mine in Wanlockhead. This was followed by engines in Sanquhar, and then in London.

1789 Symington advertised the advantages of his 'New Patent Steam Engine', as installed at Wanlockhead. It had a 36" bore cylinder with 8 ft stroke, making 14 strokes per minute. 'By a new, but simple method of condensation, this power is produced, without alternately heating and cooling the cylinder, as in the old engine.' Old engines could be converted 'at little more than the expence of the addition of a small addition to the bottom of their present cylinders.'[2]

1792 He built a large pumping engine that James Watt was also considered for. In the same year, he built an engine for the colliery of James Bruce. This marked a move to live near Falkirk and, later, a place as engine consultant for the Carron Co.

1793 He developed a crank drive with a crosshead above the cylinder, and built such an engine to wind coal from one of Bruce's pits. his engine proved very successful and about fifteen were built.

There are firm references to thirty-two engines built by Symington up until 1808, and passing mention of several more.

1794 As well as an engine builder, Symington was a colliery manager, also known as a 'viewer'. His first appointment in this capacity was in 1794 when the Trustees asked him to take over on James Bruce's death. His salary for this was £100 per annum and a house on the estate. This appointment ended in 1800 when Symington took over management of the Grange colliery near Bo'ness. William Cadell was behind Symington at this job.

It was Thomas, Lord Dundas who would motivate further steamboat trials. This was because he had extensive business interests on the east and west coasts and was governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal Company. Therefore, the canal was essential to his business, and steam power could speed up the movement of vessels through the canal. It helped progress that the Dundas family were one of the most powerful families of the late 18th century.

1800 At a meeting of company directors on June 5, 1800, Dundas brought up the idea of having a Captain Schank boat worked by a steam engine provided by Symington. The directors immediately agreed that this was a good idea.

1801 A diagram of Symington's engine shows an engine driving a forward wheel (or two wheels, one on either side) within the hull. The boat was built by Alexander Hart at Grangemouth and was tested on the River Carron in June 1801, when it moved with ease. However, it was less successful on the canal and was rejected by the committee.

1801 By 1800, Watt's patent had expired, so Symington set about the task of building a horizontal engine. He got a patent for his design in 1801. This design was ahead of its time because other engineers believed that it would not work. It was not widely accepted until 1825. See here for patent drawing.

Since the Canal Company had not been satisfied with the first boat, Lord Dundas gave Symington his support for the building of a second boat. Therefore, a model of the new boat was shown to Dundas and was named after one of his daughters in an attempt to secure his interest. The hull of the boat was made by John Allan to Symington's direction and the Carron Co made the engine.

1803 The Charlotte Dundas was first sailed on January 4, with Lord Dundas and some of his friends and relatives on board. The crowd were pleased with what they saw, but Symington wanted to make improvements and another more ambitious trial was made on March 28. On this occasion, the steamboat towed two loaded vessels through the canal, covering 18 1/2 miles in 9 1/2 hours.

The Charlotte Dundas therefore became the first boat to do more than just move itself, but the Canal Company did not wish to pursue the construction of another vessel. Symington was further upset when a scheme to build tug boats for the Duke of Bridgewater collapsed when the Duke died a few days before the trial was due to take place.

1804 he joined a local businessman in a partnership intended to manage the Callendar Colliery at Falkirk. A new pump was needed there and this allowed Symington to develop what he called a 'lifting engine'. He may have built one of these for the Wanlockhead mines in 1819. The Callendar venture ended badly, however, and, in a dispute at the High Court in Edinburgh that lasted until 1810, Symington lost.

Due to Patrick Miller's unwillingness to pursue the potential of the 1789 trial, the loss of interest from Lord Dundas and the proceedings at the High Court, Symington was left out-of-pocket.

1807 Featured in William Walker et al’s painting of "Men of science living in 1807-8"[3]

1827 Letter from Symington going into great detail about his life and inventions. [4]

In 1829, in ill health and in debt, Symington and his wife moved to London to live with their daughter and her husband.

1831 March 22nd. Died. Civil Engineer and a native of Leadhills, Scotland 'and the first who successfully propelled vessels by the power of steam.'[5].

He was buried in St. Botulph's churchyard.

In 1890, a bust was unveiled in Edinburgh, in what is now the National Museum, in memory of the great engineer.

1902 The Engineer wrote an article called "William Symington as a Pioneer in Steam Navigation". [6]

"William Symington.[7]

Next Sunday, March 22nd, at St. Botolph’s, Aldgate, E.C., a memorial service will be held to mark the centenary of the death of William Symington (1763-1831), whose efforts to introduce navigation by steam in this country failed only of complete realisation by untoward circumstances. His story has often been told and, like that of many another inventor, it is a sad one. His father was engaged as a mechanic in the Wanlockhead Lead Mines, Dumfriesshire, and assisted in the erection there of a Watt pumping, engine in 1779. The boy was brought up in this atmosphere, and although intended for the ministry, showed his bent by making a model of a steam road carriage. Mr. Gilbert Meason, one of the proprietors of the mines, took the model to Edinburgh and there it attracted the attention of Patrick Miller, a banker of that city, who had been making extended experiments with double and treble-hulled boats manually propelled by paddle wheels. Through the liberality of Mr. Meason Symington attended classes at the College in 1786 and was introduced to Mr. Miller, with the result that the latter commissioned him to make an engine for one of his double-hulled boats. The engine was of the construction patented by Symington on June 5th, 1787. It had two vertical cylinders, and rotative motion was obtained indirectly by chains and ratchets. The boat, 25ft. long, was supplied with cylinders 4in. diameter by 18in. stroke, and plied successfully on the loch at Dalswinton, Dumfriesshire, Miller’s country seat, on October 14th, 1788. By a train of circumstances too long to relate the engine was preserved and is now in the Science Museum, South Kensington.

Encouraged by this success, Symington, a year later, at Miller’s expense, built and engined a slightly larger boat for the Forth and Clyde Canal. Somewhat better results were obtained, but Miller, satisfied, to use his own words, “ that Mr. Symington’s steam engine is the most improper of all steam engines for giving motion to a vessel ”—and he was not far wrong, only there was nothing more “ proper ” available— abandoned the project and Symington had no means with which to prosecute the subject alone.

So he went on erecting his patented engine for pumping purposes in London, Leeds, and elsewhere, but was stopped by Boulton and Watt for infringement anil dill not revert to the subject of steam navigation till 1801, when Thomas, Lord Dundas of Kerse, a Governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal, commissioned him to built a tugboat as a substitute for horse haulage on the canal. As a result of his matured consideration of this problem, he designed a new typo of horizontal double-acting engine directly driving the paddle wheel by a crank ; this he patented on October 14th, 1801. Its simplicity and its superiority for the purpose over the then established beam engine is evident at u glance. The tugboat, 56ft. long, built at Grangemouth and named “ Charlotte Dundas,” after his lordship’s daughter, was equipped with this engine, with a cylinder 22in. diameter by 4ft. stroke, driving a paddle wheel in a recess in the stern and much resembling the stern-wheeler of to-day. The tug underwent successful trials, but Lord Dundas failed to persuade the committee of the proprietors to allow it to be used, as they feared that the wash of the paddle wheel would erode the banks of the canal.

In the meantime his lordship, having got Symington to make a model of the steamboat, introduced him to the great Duke of Bridgewater, so famous for his improvements in canal navigation. The latter, sceptical at first, became convinced of the usefulness of the steamboat and ordered eight similar vessels for his canal. Misfortune again doggeil Symington’s footsteps, for the Duke died on March 3rd, 1803, and his executors refused to go on with the scheme. It is said that this decision and that of the Canal Committee reached Symington simultaneously. Had the Duke lived, we should have seen inland steam navigation established four yearn before Robert Fulton succeeded on the river Hudson in America. More important than that, we should have had in use half a century earlier an engine superior to his and to that of his successors. David Napier, the great marine engineer, said of it in 1860 that it was “ superior in construction to [that of] many steamers of the present day.”

Symington, disheartened and dispirited, resumed his stationary engine practice, for the Watt patent had expired, but we hear little of him afterwards. In 1824, following the lead of Cartwright, Crompton and others, he tried to get a compassionate allowance from Government, but all he received was one sum of £100 and another of £50. Indeed, for the last few years of his life he was entirely dependent for support on his son-in-law, who resided in Burr-street, near St. Katharine’s Docks. Here the inventor, having lived to see steam navigation extended to all parts of the world, died on March 22nd, 1831, and was buried in the churchyard of St. Botolph’s, but exactly where is not known. The parallel with Trevithick’s case, two years later, is sufficiently striking.

A contemporary portrait by D. O. Hill, R.S.A., is in the Science Museum, and a bust cut in 1890 is in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh. On May 26th, 1903, Sir Marcus Samuel, Lord Mayor of London —afterwards Lord Bearsted—unveiled a beautiful tablet to Symington, the cost of which he had borne, in the church. On this tablet, after the memorial service on Sunday next, the 22nd instant, the Institute of Marine Engineers anil the Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, will lay chaplets “ for a remembrance.” All engineers who can do so are invited to take part."

Symington's First Marine Engine

This was a small atmospheric engine of 4" bore. To obtain rotative motion to the two paddles, two cylinders were provided, acting alternately. The two piston rods are interconnected by a pitch chain wrapped round a large brass wheel. Chains went from this wheel to turn the paddles using ratchet wheels. Connected to the axle of the central chain wheel is a smaller wheel, to which a pair of pitch chains is connected, and these are attached to a weighted vertical rod which works the steam valves by means of cross bars acting on levers.

Symington aimed to obtain the benefit of a separate condenser without infringing Watt's patent, by having the condenser and air pumps in the bottom of the cylinders, so that condensation was not effected in 'vessels distinct from .... the cylinders'.[8]. Watt thought differently, and obtained an injunction against Symington, but the engine was built anyway.

After Patrick Miller died, the first engine passed to his son, who neglected it, and eventually sold it for scrap to an Edinburgh plumber. He scrapped the wooden frame and separated the ferrous and non-ferrous components, but died before they were disposed of. The parts were purchased on behalf of Bennet Woodcroft, with a view to lending them to the Patent Museum.

Woodcroft commissioned John Penn and Co of Greenwich to rebuild the engine with a variety of new components, including the wooden frame (for which there were no drawings), new chains and ratchet gear, new wrought iron piston rods to suit the original pistons, crossheads, guide rods, some valve gear components, new wrought iron tank, and numerous other items. The full extent of replacement items was specified by Woodcroft in 1855, and can be found in 'The Engineer'[9]

The cylinders were cast in brass by George Watt of Low Calton, Edinburgh, in 1788.[10]

The reconstructed engine is, or was, on display in the London Science Museum (see photos), allowing the quality of the detail design to be appreciated. The importance of the physical presence of this engine is enhanced by the fact that there seems to be little published information on the detailed design and construction of this pioneering machine.

The photographs show how the valve operating gear is arranged such that opening the steam admission valve of one cylinder opens the condenser admission valve of the opposite cylinder. Not visible in the photos, but just discernable on the isometric drawing, is a small rocking beam with arch heads, located beneath the cylinders to work the air pumps. The drawing and accompanying description were published in 'Engineering' in 1877[11]

Although it is sometimes described as the first practical marine steam engine, it was clearly intended as an experimental engine. Its durability in working conditions, and its serviceability, are open to question.

Pumping Engine

'Mr Editor, - In your impression of last week's Herald, viz., the Thursday edition, I observed notice of the old pumping engine at Kinnaird, erected by Mr William Symington, which interested me very much. When a boy, I used to be often there, and many a time have I gone into the cylinder along with my playmates, and descended and ascended with the piston, while the engine was in motion, till we were tired of it. I have seen six of us in at once. This was quite a common thing with the boys there nearly forty years ago. I should have liked very much had the writer of the notice referred to, given a description of the engine, and the mode of her operations, as, I believe, very few now-a-days know anything of Symington's engine. I think it would have been interesting to many of your readers. When I read the notice, I was astonished at the immense quantity of water said to be pumped per day but I cannot help thinking that, in this matter, there is a mistake. Surely it has been guessed, not calculated. In order to satisfy myself, I filled a small cylinder with water, and weighed it, then calculated according to the length of the stroke, and diameter the working barrel, as given in the notice, and I find that she does not raise any more than 1018 tons per day, if she does that. Be this as it may, as one interested in the old engine, I have taken the trouble of making a few calculations in connection with her operations, &c., which may, perhaps, amuse those who know something of her. During the seventy years she has wrought, she cannot have made fewer than 257,544,000 strokes, which, at 7½ feet, gives 365,829 miles, which is nearly equal to fifteen times round the globe. During the same period, she cannot have consumed less than 255,000 tons of coal dross, which, at 1s 8d per ton, amounts to £21,250. Supposing calculation of the quantity of water pumped per day to be correct, she cannot have raised less during the time referred to than 26,009,900 tons of water. Now, if we convert this into gallons, it gives us 5,826,217,600, which would fill the Forth and Clyde Canal from end to end nearly four times. Hoping I have not trespassed by taking too much of your columns, or tired the patience of your readers, -I am, &c., A Kinnaird Bairn.'[12]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Timothy Hackworth and the Locomotive by Robert Young. Published 1923.
  2. Newcastle Courant, 24 January 1789
  3. National Portrait Gallery: [1]
  4. Caledonian Mercury (Edinburgh, Scotland), Saturday, September 29, 1827
  5. Western Times - Saturday 16 April 1831
  6. The Engineer 1902/04/04
  7. The Engineer 1931/03/20
  8. 'James Watt and the Steam Engine' by H W Dickinson & R Jenkins, 1927
  9. [2] Letter from John Penn & Co to 'The Engineer, 14 July 1877, p.27
  10. [3] 'Catalogue of Ship Models and Marine Engineering in the South Kensington Museum', 1889
  11. [4] 'Engineering' 26 Jan 1877
  12. Falkirk Herald, 14 November 1861