Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Samuel Brown (of Brompton)

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Samuel Brown.

Samuel Brown ( -1849) was an English engineer and inventor credited with developing one of the earliest examples of an internal combustion engine, during the early 19th century.

Brown was a cooper by training (he also patented improvements to machinery for manufacturing casks and other vessels), has been described as the 'father of the gas engine'.

While living at Eagle Lodge in the Brompton area of west London, from 1825 to 1835, he developed 'the first gas engine that unquestionably did actual work and was a mechanical success'. He set up two engines for demonstration purposes in the grounds of the Lodge.

1823. In patents dated 4 December 1823 and 22 April 1826, Brown proposed to fill a closed chamber with a gas flame, and so expel the air; then he condensed the flame by injecting water, and operated an air engine by exhausting into the partial vacuum so obtained. The idea was evidently suggested by James Watt's condensing steam engine, flame being employed instead of steam to obtain a vacuum. [1]

1824 Explosive engine described [2] [3]

Brown designed an engine that used hydrogen as a fuel - an early example of an internal combustion engine. It had separate combustion and working cylinders, and was cooled by water contained within a casing or cylinder lining, circulated around the cylinders (water was constantly kept moving through the action of a pump and was re-cooled by contact with outside air). It had a capacity of 8,800 cc but was rated at only 4 hp. He tested the engine by using it to propel a vehicle up Shooter's Hill on 27 May 1826.

1826 "In 1826, Mr. Samuel Brown applied his gas-vacuum engine ... to a carriage, and ascended Shooter's hill to the satisfaction of numerous spectators. The great expense, however, which attended the working of a gas-vacuum engine, prevented its adoption."[4]

1827 Trials on a launch on the Thames were made, but the results were not considered profitable. See below.

1827 'MR. BROWN'S GAS ENGINE. We mentioned some time since, that a temporary trial of this engine took place between Blackfriars’ Bridge and Southwark Bridge, and that as far as it went the result was quite satisfactory. Yesterday a more extended exhibition took place in the presence of several scientific men ; some extensive coach proprietors were also present. The bridge and the avenues leading it were crowded with spectators. At one o’clock, the boat (containing nine gentlemen, and the three men who worked the engine, steered, and attended to the anchor) proceeded rapidly down the river, with a strong ebb tide, and coming near the Iron Bridge, she put about, and was admirably worked up through the centre arch of Blackfriars’ Bridge, against a very heavy fall of water. We were much pleased with the steady and effective manner in which the boat was propelled, as well as with the quiet and regular motion of the machinery. Several gentlemen, who had previously entertained some doubts, now expressed their conviction of its perfect applicabilily as a propelling power, for all purposes of land and water carriage. One great coach proprietor, after minutely examining the whole of the apparatus, in company with a scientific friend, expressed himself pertectly satisfied with the power, safety, and portability and said he was determined to enter into contracts for running carriages with engines of that construction, considering it superior to any other he had seen.'[5]

1828 'We were much gratified a day or two ago by witnessing a novel exhibition on the Hammersmith road of a large carriage propelled by a Gas Vacuum Engine, which rolled along with great ease, at the rate of seven miles per hour. There were several gentlemen in and upon it, who appeared quite satisfied of its power and safety. The public are indebted to Samuel Brown, Esq. of Brompton, for this valuable discovery, who has been indefatigable in his exertions to bring it to its present state of perfection!'[6]

1831 'Mr. Samuel Brown, of Eagle Lodge, Brompton, Middlesex, takes this opportunity of informing all persons interested in Drainage, that he has erected one of his PATENT GAS ENGINES in Soham Meer, within about a mile and a half of the town of Soham, in this county, and that the same will be at work for the inspection of the public on Wednesday the 19th day of January instant, at 12 o'clock at noon'[7]

1832 August. Letter to Mechanics' Magazine concerning the engine. Addressed from Eagle Lodge.

1832 'NEW PATENT GAS VACUUM ENGINE. We had yesterday an opportunity of witnessing, at a private view afforded by Mr. Brown, the patentee, at his residence, Eagle Lodge, Old Brompton, to a few friends and persons connected with the public press, the extraordinary effect of the application of gas as substitute for steam, exemplified by an engine of Mr. Brown’s construction, to which he has given the name that heads this article. We recollect that some years ago a model of an engine, designed by this very gentleman, having in view the same object which he has now realized, was a good deal spoken of as very ingenious combination of mechanical power, and we believe was the subject of several lectures by Mr. Millington, the civil engineer, and others; but although the power and effect of engine constructed and worked according to the plan of that model were not even then doubted, it was not considered within the range of human accomplishment so to work it with gas at any diminished rate of expense that could at all compete with the application and cheapness of steam, and from that time until the present occasion we had heard nothing of Mr. Brown’s invention, and took it for granted that it had shared the fate of those thousands of experimental projects that are buzzed about for little day, and are never heard of more. It appears, however, that the "Gas Vacuum Engine” was not destined to any such final oblivion, for it now bursts upon us with a maturity of power and perfection far superior to the rival ” steam,” against which it was supposed it could never effectually contend. To accomplish this immense object, Mr. Brown has, it seems, occupied the last eight or nine years in the silent, but sure progress of his operations, and unless figures err, which is not a thing generally supposed, there cannot be doubt in the mind of the greatest sceptic on such matters, that he has overcome all the difficulties that it was imagined impossible to surmount, in perfecting his invention. Indeed, not only has he brought it into a direct and successful competition with steam-engines, but has over-reached the latter power and economy, will clearly appear by some of the few well-authenticated statements, out of many, which we subjoin. The engine itself is very simple, and perhaps more for that reason, a very beautiful construction. It consists of a wrought-iron cylinder twenty-two feet erect, and six feet eight inches in diameter; attached to it water-wheel, by the motion of which the engine is set to work, and the water is supplied to this wheel and the machine put into operation in an instant, turning a small cock. The motion of this wheel also opens a valve, by which a certain quantity of gas is admitted into the cylinder, and this being immediately ignited by a jet of lighted gas from another small cock, all the atmospheric air in the cylinder is instantly expelled through the top, where there is a lid that immediately closes, and the cylinder being at the same time cooled by a supply of water from a tube fixed for the purpose, a complete vacuum is thus left in the whole height of the cylinder ; and if a body of water is to be forced by means of the engine, it will now rise in the cylinder to a height of seven feet above nozzle, or place of discharge. The immense column of water thus held suspended in the cylinder, a valve is opened, which admits a rush of atmospheric air into the remaining vacuum, and by this the water forced with tremendous gush out at the nozzle or opening for that purpose. This is the whole of the operation, but to judge of the ease and power with which it is effected, this magnificent engine must be seen at work. The one we have just been describing, and which we yesterday saw worked, in discharging water at Eagle Cottage, discharged at each stroke or gush seven hundred gallons of water ; and giving as it did, seven strokes in a minute, it threw out in that time nearly 5,000 gallons of water. But Mr. Brown can construct these engines with far greater force than we have stated, as will be shown by an offer of his to the West India Dock Company, which that body has now under consideration. They have at present in the West India Docks a steam-engine of thirty-horse power, constructed by Bolton and Watts, which throws out 500 gallons at every stroke, and makes ten strokes in the minute, discharging in the whole 5,000 gallons. Mr. Brown has proposed to contract with them, and supply a "gas vacuum engine” that will discharge 4,000 gallons of water every stroke, making only five strokes in the minute, but throwing out 20,000 gallons in the same time, being excess of 15,000 gallons over the steam-engine, a power of application which it would be quite impossible even to give to steam. We shall now give some idea of the cost, if indeed cost it can be called, at which those gas-engines may be worked, as compared with the expense of steam-engines; and while speaking of the West India Docks we may mention that their present steam-engine cost them in setting up 5,000l., whereas Mr. Brown has offered to erect his gas-engine for them, of four-fold power, for 2,000l., and proposes to work it the year round for one-half the annual expense of their steam-engine, and at that rate will bring to himself besides a handsome profit. It appears indeed by a calculation fully authenticated by experience, that far from the working of these gas-engines being attended with expense on the plan pursued by Mr. Brown, that they leave a positive gain, and that in fact the use of their power is had for less than nothing except the interest of money laid out in the first cost of the engine itself. There has been a small engine of Mr. Brown’s construction used by the Croydon Canal Company for the last year, in forcing the water of that canal from the lower to the higher level, and the account of expenditure, &c., in working this engine for that time, certified by the Secretary of the Company, gives the following curious result. The entire outlay for the year, iuclnding cost of coals used in the oven and retorts of the gasometer to produce the gas, expense of one man (all that is necessary) to attend the engine, repairs of machinery, ovens, retorts, &c., and all other incidental expenses, amounted to 666l. 14s., whereas the produce from the sale of coke made in the oven and retorts, and the tar formed in the operation of procuring the gas, within the same space of time, amounted to 769l. 12s., leaving an actual profit over and above the use of the engine of 102l. 18s.
We have seen the authenticated account of the particulars of the statement, and the quantity, quality, and price, of every thing set down, appears to be perfectly in accordance with the market-rates of the day,— and if this advantage is derivable from a small scale of operations, we do not see why on a more extended outlay similar results should not be produced. We saw, yesterday, ourselves, at Mr. Brown’s, a result from the working of the engine on that trivial occasion, which could leave no doubt of the accuracy of the Croydon Company’s return. There were eight bushels of common small coal put into the oven, and after producing the gas required, twelve bushels of the best coke were taken out. Then, again, six bushels of coal were put into the retorts, and after the formation of gas and a large quantity of tar, nine bushels of coke were taken out, and it is well known that good oven coke is nearly double the price of the description of coal necessary for the purpose. Indeed it is clear that Mr. Brown in his offer to the West India Dock Company must have calculated his profits from the residuums we have described.
When we come to consider the immense quantities of gas that are wasted in this country at present, it is enormous to contemplate the power that it would supply for various purposes. In Glasgow alone the manufacture of pyroligneous acid is on an average 10,000 gallons week, and the consequent consumption of fuel and discharge of gas must be exceedingly great, indeed, to the extent that it has been calculated that the gas thus thrown away to corrupt the atmosphere, would, if applied to working mills, which might easily be done, grind sufficient corn to supply the whole population of that city with flour. Then again, the waste of gas in making charcoal, and thousand other operations that produce it in abundance.
Mr. Brown has made some curious experiments to procure a supply of sufficient gas to work an engine without the use of coal at all, and has in many cases amply succeeded; as, for instance, with the sunflower, the stalk and root of which produce abundance of excellent gas, and leaves behind fine charcoal besides. He has calculated that thirty acres of this plant will supply sufficient gas to work an engine of 100-horse power for a whole year. This, we think, would be well worth the consideration of the mineowners in South America, where fuel to supply the steam-engines is so scarce.
In concluding our observations on this singular and valuable application of a new power by Mr. Brown to the great purposes of life, we can scarcely say which was greatest, our pleasure or surprise at the operation and effects we yesterday witnessed. Mr. Brown, we understand, has been visited by some of the first engineers in the country, and many other men of science, who all pronounced his invention, its use, and applicability, perfect and complete.'[8]

The engine was also employed to pump water and to propel river boats. Brown formed a company to produce engines for boats and barges, one of which is said to have achieved a speed of 8 mph upstream.

The company was unsuccessful, although this may have been due concerns about obtaining adequate supplies of the gas fuel rather than concerns about the engines.

In 1844 Brown was one of several expert witnesses at a court case concerning the priority of a screw propeller patent (Lowe v. Penn). 'Samuel Brown said,- I was employed in 1825 to make a gas engine propeller, to be placed on board a canal boat. I had used a screw to propel vessels in 1824. It was situated at the stern. I found that the whole screw would not answer, and I cut off piece by piece, until I arrived at the conclusion that a segment of a screw was better for propelling than a whole screw. I fitted up a vessel, for which I received £300 from the company by which I was employed to fit it up. The boat was worked on the river, and hundreds of persons examined it, and I had a model on board to explain the principle to everybody who came. That's how it got abroad. My axis worked in a stuffing box under the water.'[9]

1849, 16th September: Death announcement: '.... at Bermondsey, Samuel Brown, Esq., late of Gravel-lane, London, the celebrated inventor of the gas vacuum engine, the screw propeller, &c.'[10]


1839 Alfred Bunn is shown of Eagle Lodge, Brompton.[11] [12]

A comprehensive article about Brown and his work was published in 'The Engineer' in 1946. Reference is made to the fact that a small public library had been built on, or adjacent to, the site of Eagle Lodge. The article's author proposed that a plaque should be erected there to proclaim 'Here laboured Samuel Brown who devised the first internal combustion engine which ever did actual industrial work'.[13]

A Newcomen Society Paper presented in 2011 provides a good summary of Brown's engines, with illustrations of three types.[14]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Morning Post (London, England), Wednesday, December 26, 1827
  2. Mechanics Magazine 1824/08/14
  3. Mechanics Magazine 1824/08/28
  4. A Treatise upon Elemental Locomotion by Alexander Gordon. 1836
  5. Globe - Thursday 29 November 1827
  6. Western Times - Saturday 04 October 1828
  7. Cambridge Chronicle and Journal - Friday 14 January 1831
  8. Morning Advertiser - Thursday 26 July 1832
  9. Glasgow Herald, 20th December 1844
  10. York Herald, 22nd September 1849
  11. Hereford Journal - Wednesday 13 November 1839
  12. Stamford Mercury - Friday 8 November 1839
  13. [1] The Engineer, 6 September 1946: 'Samuel Brown and the Gas Engine' by A. K. Bruce, pp.214-6
  14. 'Some Early Internal Combustion Engines' by Bryan Lawton, presented at a Newcomen Society conference at MoSI, 14-17 April 2011