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 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Goldsworthy Gurney: Steam Carriages

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1833 Steam coach. From Motors and Motor-driving. Published in 1906.
1827 Illustration
1831 Chassis and engine from 'Lord of the Isles', when exhibited at the Glasgow Museum of Transport, now displayed at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Chassis and engine from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Chassis from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Chassis from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
Close up of gab gear (to change from forward to reverse) on engine from 'Lord of the Isles'
1831. Chassis from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Engine from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Engine from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.
1831. Engine from 'Lord of the Isles'. Exhibit at Riverside Museum, Glasgow.

Note: This is a sub-section of Goldsworthy Gurney.

See 1827 patent drawing.

In 1825, Goldsworthy Gurney had started practical work on a steam carriage, taking space for a small workshop in Oxford Street and filing a first patent for "An apparatus for propelling carriages on common roads or railways - without the aid of horses, with sufficient speed for the carriage of passengers and goods". His work encompassed the development of the blastpipe, which used steam to increase the flow of air through a steam engine's chimney, so increasing the draw of air over the fire and, in short, much increasing the power to weight ratio of a steam engine.

In 1826 he purchased a manufacturing works at, and moved his family to living space in, 154 Albany Street, near Regent's Park, and proceeded to improve the designs of his carriages, described below. Whilst the carriages certainly had technical merit and much promise, he was unsuccessful in commercialising them; by the spring of 1832 he had run out of funding, was forced to auction his remaining business assets, eventually losing a great deal of his own and investors money. The circumstances of the failure engendered controversy expressed in contemporary scientific publications, as well as in committees of the House of Commons.

" . . .the first extensive trial of steam as an agent in draught on common roads was that by Mr. Gurney, in 1829, who travelled from London to Bath and back in his steam carriage. he states that, although a part of the machinery which brings both the propelling wheels into action, when the full power of the engine is required, was broken at the onset, yet on his return he performed the last eighty-four miles, from Melksham to Cranford Bridge, in ten hours, including stoppages. . . . . Mr. Gurney states that he has kept up steadily the rate of twelve miles per hour; that the extreme rate at which he has run is between twenty and thirty miles per houp" [1]

In the period 1825–9, Gurney designed and built a number of steam powered road vehicles, amongst the first designed with the intent to commercialise a steam road transport business — the Gurney Steam Carriage Co. His vehicles were built at his Regent's Park Manufactory works, and tested around the park's barrack yard, and on frequent excursions to Hampstead, Highgate, Edgware, Barnet and Stanmore, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. Gurney was by no means the only inventor working in this field — Luke Herbert, in his 1837 Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads and Locomotive Engines rebuts in scathing fashion claims made for Gurney in preference to Trevithick as inventor of the steam carriage:

"…it is a matter of fact, that Gurney's carriages, made in every essential respect after Trevithick's models, did, occasionally, run [on the public roads]; and so did the carriages of many other locomotionalists; some prior, some subsequent to Gurney; some decidedly superior to his, and all those that were inferior, were incapacitated from proceeding beyond preparatory trials, by want of that material with which gentlemen of fortune, then unacquainted with steam locomotion, had so lavishly furnished on Mr. Gurney."

One of his vehicles was sufficiently robust to make a journey in July 1829, two months before the Rainhill Trials, from London to Bath and back, at an average speed for the return journey of 14 miles per hour — including time spend in refuelling and taking on water. His daughter Anna, in a letter to The Times newspaper in December 1875, notes that "I never heard of any accident or injury to anyone with it, except in the fray at Melksham, on the noted journey to Bath, when the fair people set upon it, burnt their fingers, threw stones, and wounded poor Martyn the stoker". The vehicle had to be escorted under guard to Bath to prevent further luddism.

The steam carriage was not a commercial success. There was an understandable apprehension on the part of the public to a conveyance atop a dangerous steam boiler; seeking to overcome this objection, Gurney designed an articulated vehicle, termed the Gurney steam drag, in which a passenger carriage was tethered to and pulled by an engine. At least two of these were built and shipped to Glasgow around 1830. According to the Steam Club of Great Britain:

The first was sent by sea to Leith, but it was damaged in transit. It appears that this carriage was left in Scotland while Gurney returned to London for spares. He gave instructions for it not to be used, but it was transferred to the military barracks where it was steamed and a boiler explosion ensued, severely injuring two people. The second carriage may have run a service for a short time but it remains unclear whether any passengers were carried for money. The local press carried the story of the explosion.

The remains of one of this pair rests in Glasgow Museum of Transport, to which it was presented, having been found in a barn near the Paisley Road. Again, according to the Steam Club of Great Britain, it comprises: 'an almost complete chassis with the engine, some pipe work, the valve gear and the steering gear. The wheels, boiler and bodywork are missing. The whole is painted red and this has made photography difficult but appears to have preserved this item, as it is untouched since arriving at the Museum in 1889!'

A regular service was established by between Cheltenham and Gloucester by Sir Charles Dance, running four times daily, for a number of months and based on a fleet of three of Gurney's carriages; but the aspirations of Dance and Gurney were effectively dashed, according to Francis Maceroni in his 1836 book 'A Few Facts Concerning Elementary Locomotion'.

The many wealthy horse-coach proprietors, together with the narrow minded country gentlemen and magistrates of the district, who erroneously conceived their interests threatened by the substitution of steam power for horse, formed one of the most disgraceful and mean conspiracies against a national undertaking that can be well remembered. By means of parliamentary intrigue, and false representations, these despicable persons obtained certain local turnpike bills to pass "the Honourable House" establishing tolls on steam carriages, which amounted to a virtual prohibition on their use.

A charge of £2 was levied on each steam carriage journey, whilst the toll for a horsedrawn carriage was 2 shillings. This may be contrasted with a contemporary exchequer loan to the railway developers of £100,000. Maceroni continues:

In addition to this flagrant outrage against justice and utility, the worthy squires and magistrates of the Cheltenham district, suddenly, without any necessity, covered a long tract of the road with a layer of loose gravel, a foot deep, which, adding to the above-mentioned difficulties an impediments, put an entire stop to the undertaking. At the same time, press coverage of an accident befalling a Glasgow steam drag adversely affected the reputation of the vehicles. Gurney was bankrupted with debts of £232,000.

Sufficient was the concern about Gurney's bankruptcy, and sufficient were his contacts, that a House of Commons select committee was convened from 1831 to 1835 on Mr.Goldsworthy Gurney's Case. Its final report stated:

"Mr Goldsworthy Gurney was the first person to successfully operate steam carriages on common roads, and he took out patents for his invention in 1825 and 1826-27. In 1830 Mr Gurney entered into contracts with various individuals for the commercial exploitation of his invention, carrying passengers at a lower fare than horse carriages. In 1831 more than 50 private bills were passed by Parliament imposing prohibitive tolls on steam carriages (two pounds or more, while horse carriages might pay six shillings or less), and the contractors suspended their operations, pending a petition to Parliament. A select Committee was appointed, and concluded that steam carriages were safe, quick, cheap, and less damaging to roads than horse carriages, that they would be a benefit to the public and the prohibitive tolls should be removed. A bill to this effect was passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords.

Goldsworthy Gurney, having kept open his factory until this point was forced to close it and sell off his materials and tools at a loss. The contractors withdrew from the business.

The effect of the Acts passed by Parliament have been to make an otherwise profitable business no longer viable. Mr Gurney's losses included the costs of keeping his workshop open for six years, loss of contracts, loss of mileage duty on the various routes and the costs of patents. He also lost the advantage of being the first to develop a working steam carriage, as others used the intervening period to develop their own machines, and lost his advantage over the railways. The total loss can be calculated at over £200,000. This left him unable to either build and operate steam carriages, or to protect his patents.

Sections of those Acts imposing prohibitory tolls on steam carriages should be immediately repealed, and such tolls should be replaced by those for which horse carriages are liable. Mr Gurney's patent should be extended at public expense for a period of fourteen years beyond the date of its expiry, or a sum of not less than £5000 should be offered to Mr Gurney in lieu of such extension. Other parties have an interest in Mr. Gurney's patent, and half of the money or benefits should be kept aside for Mr. Gurney exclusively."

According to 'A History of The Growth of The Steam-Engine' by Robert H. Thurston, Gurney was a proponent of the ammonia engine. "In 1822… Mr. Goldsworthy Gurney, who subsequently took an active part in their introduction, stated, in his lectures, that "elementary power is capable of being applied to propel carriages along common roads with great political advantage, and the floating knowledge of the day places the object within reach." He made an ammonia engine — probably the first ever made — and worked it so successfully, that he made use of it in driving a little locomotive."

After the Rainhill Trials of 1829, there was considerable controversy as to the genesis of this invention since it became associated in the mind of the public with George Stephenson — probably through the agency of Samuel Smiles' biography of that man. In her 1875 letter to The Times, his daughter traces the path of the idea: Gurney communicated it to Timothy Hackworth, who employed it in his Royal George locomotive, from which Stephenson allegedly took his inspiration for its inclusion in the Rocket.

More recent letters acquired by the National Railway Museum suggest that, in fact, Hackworth may have discovered the idea first and/or independently; and Hebert — clearly not a fan of Gurney — seeks to debunk claims for Gurney's invention by comparing the output of Gurney's carriages with those of Trevithick.

1829 'MR. GURNEY'S STEAM-CARRIAGE. [Further descriptive particulars.) The present differs from the earlier carriage in several improvements in the machinery, suggested by experiment; also in having no propellers, and in having only four wheels instead of six, the apparatus for guiding being applied immediately to the two fore-wheels, bearing a part of the weight, instead of two extra leading wheels, bearing little or none. No person can conceive the absolute control this apparatus gives to the director of the carriage, unless he has had the same opportunities of observing it, which I had in a ride with Mr. Gurnev. Whilst the wheels obey the slightest motion of the hand, trifling pressure of the foot keeps them inflexibly steady, however rough the ground. To the hind axle, which is very strong, and bent into two cranks of nine inches radius, at right angles to each other, is applied the propelling power, by means of pistons from two horizontal cylinders. By this contrivance, and a peculiar mode of admitting the steam to the cylinders, Mr. Gurney has very ingeniously avoided that cumbersome appendage to steam engines, the fly-wheel, and preserves uniformity of action, by constantly having one cylinder on full pressure, whilst the other is on the reduced expansive. The dead points — that is, those in which a piston has no effect from being in the same right line with its crank, — are also cleared by the same means. For the cranks are at right angles, when one piston is at a dead point, the other has position of maximum effect, and is then urged by full steam power; but no sooner has the former passed the dead point, than an expansion valve opens it with full steam, and closes on the latter. Firmly fixed to the extremities of the axle, and at right angles to it, are the two "carriers"— two strong irons extending each way to the felloes of the wheels. These irons may be bolted to the felloes of the wheels or not, or to the felloes of one wheel only. Thus the power applied to the axle is carried once to the part of the wheels least stress — the circumferences. By this artifice the wheels are required be of no greater strength and weight than ordinary carriage wheels ; and, like them, they turn freely and independently on the axle; but one or both may be secured as part and parcel of the axle, as circumstances require. The carriage is subsequently propelled by the friction or hold which either or both hind-wheels, according as the power is applied to them jointly or separately, have on the ground. Beneath the hind part drop two irons, with flat feet, called " shoe drags;" A well-contrived apparatus, with a spiudle passing through a hollow cylinder, to which the guiding handle is affixed, enables the director to force one or both drags tight on the road, so as to retard the progress in a descent, or, if he please, to raise the wheels off the ground. The propulsive power of the wheels being by this means destroyed, the carriage is arrested in a yard or two, though going at the rate of 18 or 20 miles hour. On the right hand of the director lies the handle of the throttle-valve, by which he has the power of increasing or diminishing the supply of steam, ad libitum, and hence of retarding or accelerating the carriage's velocity. The whole carriage and machinery weigh about 16 cwt. and, with the full compliment of water and coke, 20 or 22 cwt. of which I am informed, about sixteen hundred weight lie on the hind-wheels. The appearance of the carriage is pleasingly disappointing. With the idea of a steam-engine, we naturally associate that of something clumsy and unwieldy. Mr. Gurney, however, has so artfully packed his machinery, that one would be apt to ask, the first glance, "where does the power to propel these ponderous burthens reside !" In fact, there is wanting but little beyond the embellishment of the brush, to give his carriage an airy and tasteful elegance. By a series of happy inventions, Mr. Gurney has obviated all the obstacles opposed to the success and safety of his carriage. That troublesome appendage, the fly-wheel, as have observed, he has rendered unnecessary. The danger to be apprehended in going over rough pitching, from too rapid generation of steam, he avoids by curious application of springs; and should these be insufficient, one or two safety valves afford the ultimatum of security. He ensures an easy descent down the steepest declivity his "shoe-drags," and the power of reversing the action of the engines. His hands direct, and his foot literally pinches obedience to the course over the roughest and most refractory ground. The dreadful consequences of a boiler bursting are annihilated by a judicious application of tubular boilers. Should, indeed, a tube burst, a hiss, equal to that of a hot nail plunged in water, contains the sum total of alarm, while a few strokes with a hammer will set all to rights again.— Lastly, as if he wished to tread tenderly over the crooked ways of our fathers, he has so contrived his "carriers," that they shall act without confining the wheels, by which means there is none of that sliding and consequent cutting up of the road, which, in sharp turning, would result from inflexible constraint. [2]

See Also

Sources of Information

  1. Motors and Motor-drivingReport of the Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1831 as quoted in Motors and Motor-driving
  2. Berkshire Chronicle - Saturday 19 September 1829

[1] Wikipedia