Go to previous chapter
ContentsStudy arithmetic and geometry , Practise art of drawing , Its important uses , Make tools and blowpipe , Walks round Edinburgh , Volcanic origin of the neighbourhood , George the Fourth's vist , The Radical Road , Destructive fires , Journey to Stirling , The Devon Ironworks , Robert Bald , Carron Ironworks , Coats of mail found at Bannockburn , Models of condensing steam-engine , Professor Leslie , Edinburgh School of Arts , Attend University classes , Brass-casting in the bedroom , George Douglass , Make a working steam-engine , Sympathy of activity , The Expansometer , Make a road steam-carriage , Desire to enter Maudslay's factory
I LEFT the High School at the end of 1820. I carried with me a small amount of Latin, and no Greek. I do not think I was much the better for my small acquaintance with the dead languages. I wanted something more living and quickening. I continued my studies at private classes. Arithmetic and geometry were my favourite branches.The three first books of Euclid were to me a new intellectual life. They brought out my power of reasoning. They trained me mentally. They enabled me to arrive at correct conclusions, and to acquire a knowledge of absolute truths. It is because of this that I have ever since held the beautifully perfect method of reasoning, as exhibited in the exact method of arriving at Q.E.D., to be one of the most satisfactory efforts and exercises of the human intellect.
Besides visiting and taking part in the works at Patterson's foundry, and joining in the chemical experiments at Smith's laboratory, my father gave me every opportunity for practising the art of drawing. He taught me to sketch with exactness every object, whether natural or artificial, so as to enable the hand to accurately reproduce what the eye had seen. In order to acquire this almost invaluable art, which can serve so many valuable purposes in life, he was careful to educate my eye, so that I might perceive the relative proportions of the objects placed before me. He would throw down at random a number of bricks, or pieces of wood representing them, and set me to copy their forms, their proportions, their lights and shadows respectively.
I have often heard him say that any one who could make a correct drawing in regard to outline, and also indicate by a few effective touches the variation of lights and shadows of such a group of model object's, might not despair of making a good and correct sketch of the exterior of York Minster!
My father was an enthusiast in praise of this graphic language, and I have followed his example. In fact, it formed a principal part of my own education. It gave me the power of recording observations with a few graphic strokes of the pencil, which far surpassed in expression any number of mere words. This graphic eloquence is one of the highest gifts in conveying clear and correct ideas as to the forms of objects -- whether they be those of a simple and familiar kind, or of some form of mechanical construction, or of the details of fine building, or the characteristic features of a wide-stretching landscape. This accomplishment of accurate drawing, which I achieved for the most part in my father's work-room, served me many a good turn in future years with reference to the engineering work which became the business of my life.
I was constantly busy. Mind, hands, and body were kept in a state of delightful and instructive activity. When not drawing, I occupied myself in my father's workshop at the lathe, the furnace, or the bench. I gradually became initiated into every variety of mechanical and chemical manipulation. I made my own tools and constructed my chemical apparatus, as far as lay in my power. With respect to the latter, I constructed a very handy and effective blowpipe apparatus, consisting of a small air force-pump, connected with a cylindrical vessel of tin plate. By means of an occasional use of the handy pump, it yielded such a fine steady blowpipe blast, as enabled me to bend glass tubes and blow bulbs for thermometers, to analyse metals or mineral substances, or to do any other work for which intense heat was necessary. My natural aptitude for manipulation, whether in mechanical or chemical operations, proved very serviceable to myself as well as to others; and (as will be shown hereafter) it gained for me the friendship of many distinguished scientific men.
But I did not devote myself altogether to experiments. Exercise is as necessary for the body as the mind. Without full health a man cannot enjoy comfort, nor can he possess endurance. I therefore took plenty of exercise out of doors. I accompanied my father in his walks round Edinburgh. My intellect was kept alive during these delightful excursions. For sometimes my father was accompanied by brother-artists, whose conversation is always so attractive; and sometimes by scientific men, such as Sir James Hall, Professor Leslie, Dr. Brewster, and others. Whatever may have been my opportunities for education so-called, nothing could have better served the purpose of real education (the evolution of the mental faculties) than the opportunities I enjoyed while accompanying and listening to the conversation of men distinguished for their originality of thought and their high intellectual capacity. This was a mental culture of the best kind.
The volcanic origin of the beautiful scenery round Edinburgh was often the subject of their conversation. Probably few visitors are aware that all those remarkable eminences, which give to the city and its surroundings so peculiar and romantic an aspect, are the results of the operation, during inconceivably remote ages, of volcanic force penetrating the earth's crust by disruptive power, and pouring forth streams of molten lava, now shrunk and cooled into volcanic rock. The observant eye, opened by the light of Science, can see unmistakable evidences of a condition of things which were in action at periods so remote as, in comparison, to shrink up the oldest of human records into events of yesterday.
I had often the privilege of standing by and hearing the philosophic Leslie, Brewster, and Hall, discussing these volcanic remains in their actual presence; sometimes at Arthur's Seat or on the Calton Hill, or at the rock on which Edinburgh Castle stands, Their observations sank indelibly into my memory, and gave me the key to the origin of this grand class of terrestrial phenomena. When standing at the "Giant's Ribs," on the south side of Arthur's Seat, I felt as if one of the grandest pages of the earth's history lay open before me. The evidences of similar volcanic action abound in many other places near Edinburgh; and they may be traced right across Scotland from the Bass Rock to Fingal's Cave, the Giant's Causeway in Antrim, and Slievh League on the south-west coast of Donegal in Ireland.
Volcanic action, in some inconceivably remote period of the earth's crust history, has been the Plough, and after denudation by water, has been the Harrow, by which the originally deep-seated mineral treasures of the globe have been brought within the reach of man's industrial efforts. It has thus yielded him inexhaustible mineral harvests, and helped him to some of the most important material elements in his progress towards civilisation. It is from this consideration that, while enjoying the results of these grand fundamental actions of the Creator's mighty agencies in their picturesque aspect, the knowledge of their useful results to man adds vastly to the grandeur of the contemplation of their aspect and nature. This great subject caused me, even at this early period of my life, to behold with special interest the first peep at the structure of the moon's surface, as revealed to me by an excellent Ramsden "spy-glass," which my father possessed, and thus planted the seed of that earnest desire to scrutinise more minutely the moon's wonderful surface, which in after years I pursued by means of the powerful reflecting telescopes constructed by myself.
To turn to another subject. In 1822 the loyalty of Scotland was greatly excited when George the Fourth paid his well-known visit to Edinburgh. It was then the second greatest city in the kingdom, and had not been visited by royalty for about 170 years. The civic authorities, and the inhabitants generally, exerted themselves to the utmost to give the king a cordial welcome, in spite of a certain feeling of dissatisfaction as to his personal character. The recent trial and death of Queen Caroline had not been forgotten, yet all such recollections were suppressed in the earnest desire to show every respect to the royal visitor. Edinburgh was crowded with people from all parts of the country; heather was arrayed on every bonnet and hat; and the reception was on the whole magnificent. Perhaps the most impressive spectacle was the orderliness of the multitude, all arrayed in their Sunday clothes. The streets, windows; and house-tops were crowded; and the Calton Hill, Salisbury Crags, and even Arthur's Seat it self, were covered with people. On the night before the arrival a gigantic bonfire on Arthur's Seat lit up with a tremendous blaze the whole city, as well as the surrounding country. It formed a magnificent and picturesque sight, illuminating the adjacent mountains as well as the prominent features of the city. It made one imagine that the grand old volcanic mountain had once more, after a rest of some hundreds of thousands of years, burst out again in its former vehemence of eruptive activity.
There were, of course, many very distinguished men who took part in the pageant of the king's entry into Edinburgh, but none of them had their presence more cordially acknowledged than Sir Walter Scott, who never felt more proud of "his own romantic town" than he did upon this occasion. It is unnecessary to mention the many interesting features of the royal reception. The king's visit lasted for seven or eight days, and everything passed off loyally, orderly, happily, and successfully.
Shortly after this time there was a great deal of distress among the labouring classes. All the manufacturing towns were short of employment, and the weavers and factory workers were thrown upon the public. Many of the workmen thought that politics were the causes of their suffering. Radical clubs were formed, and the Glasgow weavers began to drill at nights in the hopes of setting things to rights by means of physical force. A large number of the starving weavers came to Edinburgh. A committee was formed, and contributions were collected, for the purpose of giving them temporary employment. They were set to work to make roads and walks round the Calton Hill and Crags. The fine walk immediately under the precipitous crags, which opens out such perfect panoramic views of Edinburgh, was made by these poor fellows. It was hard work for their delicate hands and fingers, which before had been accustomed only to deal with threads and soft fabrics. They were very badly suited for handling the mattock, shovel, and hand-barrow. The result of their labours, however, proved of great advantage to Edinburgh in opening up the beauties of its scenery. The road round the crags is still called "The Radical Road."
Let me here mention one of the most memorable incidents of the year 1824. I refer to the destructive fire which took place in the old town of Edinburgh. It broke out in an apartment situated in one of the highest piles of houses in the High Street. In spite of every effort of the firemen the entire pile was gutted and destroyed. The fire was thought to be effectually arrested; but towards the afternoon of the next day smoke was observed issuing from the upper part of the steeple of the Tron Church. The steeple was built of timber, covered with lead. There is never smoke but there is fire; and at last the flames burst forth. The height of the spire was so lofty that all attempts to extinguish the fire were hopeless. The lead was soon melted, and rushed in streams into the street below. At length the whole steeple fell down with a frightful crash.
I happened to see the first outbreak of this extraordinary fire, and I watched its progress to its close. Burning embers were carried by the wind and communicated the fire to neighbouring houses. The last outburst took place one night about ten. All the fire-engines of Edinburgh and the neighbourhood were collected round the buildings, and played water upon the flames, but without effect. Whole ranges of lofty old houses were roaring with fire. In the course of two or three hours, several acres, covered by the loftiest and most densely crowded houses in the High Street, were in a blaze. Some of them were of thirteen stories. Floor after floor came crashing down, throwing out a blaze of embers. The walls of each house acted as an enormous chimney -- the windows acting as draught-holes. The walls, under the intense heat, were fluxed and melted into a sort of glass. The only method of stopping the progress of the fire was to pull down the neighbouring houses, so as to isolate the remaining parts of the High Street.
As the parapet of the grand old tower of the High Church, St. Giles, was near the site of the fire, -- so near as to enable one to look down into it, -- my father obtained permission to ascend, and I with him. When we emerged from the long dark spiral stairs on to the platform on the top of the tower, we found a select party of the most distinguished inhabitants looking down into the vast area of fire; and prominent among them was Sir Walter Scott. At last, after three days of tremendous efforts, the fire was subdued; but not till after a terrible destruction of property. The great height of the ruined remains of the piles of houses rendered it impossible to have them removed by the ordinary means. After several fruitless attempts with chains and ropes , worked by capstans, to pull them down, gunpowder was at last resorted to. Mines were dug under each vast pile; one or two barrels of gunpowder were placed into them and fired; and then the before solid masses came tumbling down amidst clouds of dust. The management of this hazardous but eventually safe process was conducted by Captain Basil Ball. He ordered a crew of sailors to be brought up from the man-of-war guardship in the Firth of Forth; and by their united efforts the destruction of the ruined walls was at last successfully accomplished.
In the autumn of 1823, when I was fifteen years old, I had a most delightful journey with my father. It was the first occasion on which I had been a considerable distance from home. And yet the journey was only to Stirling. My father had received a commission to paint a view of the castle as seen from the ruins of Cambuskenneth Abbey, situated a few miles from the town. We started from Newhaven by a small steamboat, passing, on our way up the Firth, Queensferry, Culross, and Alloa. We then entered the windings of the river, from which I saw the Ochils, a noble range of bright green mountains. The passage of the steamer through the turns and windings of the Forth was most interesting.
We arrived at Stirling, and at once proceeded to Cambuskenneth Abbey, where there was a noble old Gothic tower. This formed the foreground of my father's careful sketch, with Stirling Castle in the background, and Ben Lomond with many other of the Highland mountains in the distance. As my father wished to make a model of the Gothic tower, he desired me to draw it carefully, and to take the dimensions of all the chief parts as well as to make detailed sketches of its minor architectural features. It was a delightful autumn afternoon, and, before the day had closed, our work at the abbey was done. We returned to Stirling and took a walk round the castle to see the effect of the sun setting behind the Highland mountains.
Next morning we visited the castle. I was much interested with the interior, especially with a beautifully decorated Gothic oratory or private chapel, used by the Scottish kings when they resided at Stirling. The oratory had been converted with great taste into an ante-drawingroom of the governor's house. The exquisite decorations of this chapel[note: This exquisite specimen of a carved oak Gothic apartment had a terrible incident in Scottish history connected with it. It was in this place that The Douglas intruded his presence on James the Third. He urged his demands in a violent and threatening manner, and afterwards laid hands upon the king. The latter, in defending himself with his dagger, wounded the Douglas mortally; and to get rid of the body the king cast it out of the window of the chapel, where it fell down the precipitous rock underneath. The chapel has since been destroyed by fire.]
were the first specimens of Gothic carving in oak that I had ever seen, and they seemed to put our modern carvings to shame. The Great Hall, where the Scottish Parliament used to meet, was also very interesting as connected with the ancient history of the country.
From Stirling we walked to Alloa, passing the picturesque cascades rushing down the cleft's of the Ochils. We put up for the night at Clackmannan, a very decayed and melancholy-looking village, though it possessed a fine specimen of the Scottish castellated tower. It is said that Robert Bruce slept here before the Battle of Bannockburn. But the most interesting thing that I saw during the journey was the Devon Ironworks. I had read and heard about the processes carried on there in smelting iron ore and running it into pig-iron. The origin of the familiar trade term "pig-iron" is derived from the result of the arrangement most suitable for distributing the molten iron as it rushes forth from the opening made at the bottom part of the blast-furnace; when, after its reduction from the ore, it collects in a fluid mass of several tons weight. Previous to "tapping" the furnace a great central channel is made in the sand-covered floor of the forge; this central channel is then subdivided into many lateral branches or canals, into which the molten iron flows, and eventually hardens.
The great steam-engine that worked the blast furnace was the largest I had ever seen. A singular expedient was employed at these works, of using a vast vault hewn in the solid rock of the hillside for the purpose of storing up the blast produced by the engines, and so equalising the pressure; thus turning a mountain side into a reservoir for the use of a blast-furnace. This seemed to me a daring and wonderful engineering feat.
We waited at the works until the usual time had arrived for letting out the molten iron which had been accumulating at the lower part of the blast-furnace. It was a fine sight to see the stream of white-hot iron flowing like water into the large gutter immediately before the opening. From this the molten iron flowed on until it filled the moulds of sand which branched off from the central gutter. The iron left in the centre, when cooled and broken up, was called sow metal, while that in the branches was called pig iron; the terms being derived from the appearance of a sow engaged in its maternal duties. The pig-iron is thus cast in handy-sized pieces for the purpose of being transported to other iron foundries; while the clumsy sow metal is broken up and passes through another process of melting, or is reserved for foundry uses at the works where it is produced. After inspecting with great pleasure the machinery connected with the foundry, we took our leave and returned to Edinburgh by steamer from Alloa.
Shortly after, I had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of Robert Bald, the well-known mining engineer. He was one of the most kind-hearted men I have ever known. He was always ready to communicate his knowledge to young and old. His sound judgment and long practical experience in regard to coal-mining and the various machinery connected with it, rendered him a man of great importance in the northern counties, where his advice was eagerly sought for. Besides his special knowledge, he had a large acquaintance with literature and science. He was bright, lively, and energetic. He was a living record of good stories, and in every circle in which he moved he was the focus of cheerfulness. In fact, there was no greater social favourite in Edinburgh than Robert Bald.
Bald was very fond of young people, and he became much attached to me. He used to come to my father's house, and often came in to see what I was about in the work-room. He was rejoiced to see the earnest and industrious manner in which I was employed, in preparing myself for my proposed business as an engineer. He looked over my tools, mostly of my own making, and gave me every encouragement. When he had any visitors he usually brought them and introduced them to me. In this way I had the happiness to make the acquaintance of Robert Napier, Nelson, and Cook, of Glasgow; and in after life I continued to enjoy their friendship. It would be difficult for me to detail the acts of true disinterested kindness which I continued to receive from this admirable man.
On several occasions he wished me to accompany him on his business journeys, in order that I might see some works that would supply me with valuable information. He had designed a powerful pumping engine to drain more effectually a large colliery district situated near Bannockburn -- close to the site of the great battle in the time of Robert the Bruce. He invited me to join him. It was with the greatest pleasure that I accepted his invitation; for there would be not only the pleasure of seeing a noble piece of steam machinery brought into action for the first time, but also the enjoyment of visiting the celebrated Carron Ironworks.
The Carron Ironworks are classic ground to engineers. They are associated with the memory of Roebuck, Watt, and Miller of Dalswinton. For there Roebuck and Watt began the first working steam-engine; Miller applied the steam-engine to the purposes of navigation, and invented the Carronade gun. The works existed at an early period in the history of British iron manufacture. Much of the machinery continued to be of wood. Although effective in a general way it was monstrously cumbrous. It gave the idea of vast power and capability of resistance, while it was far from being so in reality. It was, however, truly imposing and impressive in its effect upon strangers. When seen partially lit up by the glowing masses of white-hot iron, with only the rays of bright sunshine gleaming through a few holes in the roof, and the dark, black, smoky vaults in which the cumbrous machinery was heard rumbling away in the distance -- while the moving parts were dimly seen through the murky atmosphere, mixed with the sounds of escaping steam and rushes of water; with the half-naked men darting about with masses of red-hot iron and ladles full of molten cast-iron -- it made a powerful impression upon the mind.
I was afterwards greatly interested by a collection of old armour, dug up from the field of the Battle of Bannockburn close at hand. They were arranged on the walls of the house of the manager of the Carron Ironworks. There were swords, daggers, lances, battle-axes, shields, and coats of chain-armour. Some of the latter were whole, others in fragmentary portions. I was particularly interested with the admirable workmanship of the coats of mail. The iron links extended from the covering of the head to the end of the arms, and from the shoulders down to the hips, in one linked iron fabric. The beauty and exactness with which this chain-armour had been forged and built up were truly wonderful. There must have been "giants in those days." This grand style of armour was in use from the time of the Conquest, and was most effective in the way of protection, as it was fitted by its flexibility to give full play to the energetic action of the wearer. It was infinitely superior to the senseless plate-armour that was used, at a subsequent period, to encase soldiers like lobsters. The chain-armour I saw at Carron left a deep impression on my mind. I never see a bit of it, or of its representation in the figures on our grand tombs of the thirteenth century, but I think of my first sight of it at Carron and of the tremendous conflict at Bannockburn.
Remembering, also, the impressive sight of the picturesque fire-lit halls, and the terrible-looking, cumbrous machinery which I first beheld on a grand scale at Carron, I have often regretted that some of our artists do not follow up the example set them by that admirable painter, Wright of Derby, and treat us to the pictures of some of our great ironworks. They not only abound with the elements of the picturesque in its highest sense, but also set forth the glory of the useful arts in such a way as would worthily call forth the highest power of our artists.
To return to my life at Edinburgh. I was now seventeen years old. I had acquired a considerable amount of practical knowledge as to the use and handling of mechanical tools, and I desired to turn it to some account. I was able to construct working models of steam-engines and other apparatus required for the illustration of mechanical subjects. I began with making a small working steam engine for the purpose of grinding the oil-colours used by my father in his artistic work. The result was quite satisfactory. Many persons came to see my active little steam-engine at work, and they were so pleased with it that I received several orders for small workshop engines, and also for some models of steam-engines to illustrate the subjects taught at Mechanics' Institutions.
I contrived a sectional model of a complete condensing steam-engine of the beam and parallel motion construction. The model, as seen from one side, exhibited every external detail in full and due action when the flywheel was moved round by hand; while, on the other or sectional side, every detail of the interior was seen, with the steam-valves and air-pump, as well as the motion of the piston in the cylinder, with the construction of the piston and the stuffing box, together with the slide-valve and steam passages, all in due position and relative movement.
The first of these sectional models of the steam-engine was made for the Edinburgh School of Arts, where its uses in instructing mechanics and others in the application of steam were highly appreciated. The second was made for Professor Leslie, of the Edinburgh University, for use in his lectures on Natural Philosophy. The professor had, at his own private cost, provided a complete and excellent set of apparatus, which, for excellent workmanship and admirable utility, had never, I believe, been provided for the service of any university. He was so pleased with my addition to his class-room apparatus, that, besides expressing his great thanks for my services, he most handsomely presented me with a free ticket to his Natural Philosophy class as a regular student, so long as it suited me to make use of his instruction. But far beyond this, as a reward for my earnest endeavours to satisfy this truly great philosopher, was the kindly manner in which he on all occasions communicated to me conversationally his original and masterly views on the great fundamental principles of Natural Philosophy -- especially as regarded the principles of Dynamics and the Philosophy of Mechanics. The clear views which he communicated in his conversation, as well as in his admirable lectures, vividly illustrated by the experiments which he had originated, proved of great advantage to me; and I had every reason to consider his friendship and his teaching as amongst the most important elements in my future success as a practical engineer.
Having referred to the Edinburgh School of Arts, I feel it necessary to say something about the origin of that excellent institution. A committee of the most distinguished citizens of Edinburgh was formed for the purpose of instituting a college in which working men and mechanics might possess the advantages of instruction in the principles on which their various occupations were conducted. Among the committee were Leonard Horner, Francis Jeffrey, Henry Cockburn, John Murray of Henderland, Alexander Bryson, James Mline, John Miller, the Lord Provost, and various members of the Council. Their efforts succeeded, and the institution was founded. The classes were opened in 1821, in which year I became a student.
In order to supply the students, who were chiefly young men of the working class, with sound instruction in the various branches of science, the lectures were delivered and the classes were superintended by men of established ability in their several departments. This course was regularly pursued from its fundamental and elementary principles to the highest point of scientific instruction. The consecutive lectures and examinations extended, as in the University, from October to May in each year's session. It was, in fact, our first technical college. In these later days when so many of our so-called Mechanics' Institutes are merely cheap reading-clubs for the middle classes, and the lectures are delivered for the most part merely for a pleasant evening' s amusement, it seems to me that we have greatly departed from the original design with which Mechanics' Institutions were founded.
As the Edinburgh School of Arts was intended for the benefit of mechanics, the lectures and classes were held in the evening after the day's work was over. The lectures on chemistry were given by Dr. Fyfe -- an excellent man. His clearness of style, his successful experiments, and the careful and graphic method by which he carried his students from the first fundamental principles to the highest points of chemical science, attracted a crowded and attentive audience. Not less interesting were the lectures on Mechanical Philosophy, which in my time were delivered by Dr. Lees and Mr.Buchanan. The class of Geometry and Mathematics was equally well conducted, though the attendance was not so great.
The building which the directors had secured for the lecture-hall and class-rooms of the institution was situated at the lower end of Niddry Street, nearly under the great arch of the South Bridge. It had been built about a hundred years before, and was formerly used by an association of amateur musicians, who gave periodical concerts of vocal and instrumental music. The orchestra was now converted into a noble lecture table, with accommodation for any amount of apparatus that might be required for the purposes of illustration. The seats were arranged in the body of the hall in concentric segments, with the lecture table as their centre. In an alcove fight opposite the lecturer might often be seen the directors of the institution -- Jeffrey, Horner, Murray, and others -- who took every opportunity of dignifying by their presence this noble gathering of earnest and intelligent working men.
A library of scientific books was soon added to the institution, by purchases or by gifts. Such was the eagerness to have a chance of getting the book you wanted that I remember standing on many occasions for some time amidst a number of applicants awaiting the opening of the door on an evening library night. It was as crowded as if I had been standing at the gallery door of the theatre on a night when some distinguished star from London was about to make his appearance. There was the same eagerness to get a good place in the lecture-room, as near to the lecture table as possible, especially on the chemistry nights.
I continued my regular attendance at this admirable institution from 1821 to 1826. I am glad to find that it still continues in active operation. In November 1880 the number of students attending the Edinburgh School of Arts amounted to two thousand five hundred ! I have been led to this prolix account of the beginning of the institution by the feeling that I owe a deep debt of gratitude to it, and because of the instructive and intellectually enjoyable evenings which I spent there, in fitting myself for entering upon the practical work of my life.
The successful establishment of the Edinburgh School of Arts had a considerable effect throughout the country. Similar institutions were established, lectures were delivered, and the necessary illustrations were acquired -- above all, the working models of the steam-engine. There was quite a run upon me for supplying them. My third working model was made to the order of Robert Bald, for the purpose of being presented to the Alloa Mechanics' Institute; the fourth was manufactured for Mr. G. Buchanan, who lectured on mechanical subjects throughout the country; and the fifth was supplied to a Mr. Offley, an English gentleman who took a fancy for the model when he came to purchase some of my father's works.
The price I charged for my models was £10; and with the pecuniary results I made over one-third to my father, as a sort of help to remunerate him for my "keep," and with the rest I purchased tickets of admission to certain classes in the University. I attended the Chemistry course under Dr. Hope; the Geometry and Mathematical course under Professor Wallace; and the Natural Philosophy course under my valued friend and patron Professor Leslie. What with my attendance upon the classes, and my workshop and drawing occupations, my time did not hang at all heavy on my hands.
I got up early in the mornings to work at my father's lathe, and I sat up late at night to do the brass castings in my bedroom. Some of this, however, I did during the day-time, when not attending the University classes. The way in which I converted my bedroom into a brass foundry was as follows: I took up the carpet so that there might be nothing but the bare boards to be injured by the heat. My furnace in the grate was made of four plates of stout sheet-iron, lined with fire-brick, corner to corner. To get the requisite sharp draught I bricked up with single bricks the front of the fireplace, leaving a hole at the back of the furnace for the short pipe just to fit into. The fuel was generally gas coke and cinders saved from the kitchen. The heat I raised was superb -- a white heat, sufficient to melt in a crucible six or eight pounds of brass.
Then I had a box of moulding sand, where the moulds were gently rammed in around the pattern previous to the casting. But how did I get my brass? All the old brassworks in my father's workshop drawers and boxes were laid under contribution. This brass being for the most part soft and yellow, I made it extra hard by the addition of a due proportion of tin. It was then capable of retaining a fine edge. When I had exhausted the stock of old brass, I had to buy old copper, or new, in the form of ingot or tile copper, and when melted I added to it one-eighth of its weight of pure tin, which yielded the strongest alloy of the two metals. When cast into any required form this was a treat to work, so sound and close was the grain, and so durable in resisting wear and tear. This is the true bronze or gun metal.
When melted, the liquid brass was let into the openings, until the whole of the moulds were filled. After the metal cooled it was taken out; and when the room was sorted up no one could have known that my foundry operations had been carried on in my bedroom. My brass foundry was right over my father's bedroom. He had forbidden me to work late at night, as I did occasionally on the sly. Sometimes when I ought to have been asleep I was detected by the sound of the ramming in of the sand of the moulding boxes. On such occasions my father let me know that I was disobeying his orders by rapping on the ceiling of his bedroom with a slight wooden rod of ten feet that he kept for measuring purposes. But I got over that difficulty by placing a bit of old carpet under my moulding boxes as a non-conductor of sound, so that no ramming could afterwards be heard. My dear mother also was afraid that I should damage my health by working so continuously. She would come into the workroom late in the evening, when I was working at the lathe or the vice, and say, "Ye'll kill yerself, laddie, by working so hard and so late". Yet she took a great pride in seeing me so busy and so happy.
Nearly the whole of my steam-engine models were made in my father's workroom. His foot-lathe and stove, together with my brass casting arrangements in my bedroom, answered all my purposes in the way of model making. But I had at times to avail myself of the smithy and foundry that my kind and worthy friend, George Douglass, had established in the neighbourhood. He had begun business as "a jobbing smith," but being a most intelligent and energetic workman, he shot ahead and laid the foundations of a large trade in steam-engines. When I had any part of a job in hand that was beyond the capabilities of my father's lathe, or my bedroom casting apparatus, I immediately went to Douglass's smithy, where every opportunity was afforded me for carrying on my larger class of work.
His place was only about five minutes' walk from my father's house. I had the use of his large turning-lathe, which was much more suitable for big or heavy work than the lathe at home. When any considerable bit of steel or iron forging had to be done, a forge fire and anvil were always placed at my service. In making my flywheels for the sectional models of steam-engines I had a rather neat and handy way of constructing them. The boss of the wheel of brass was nicely bored; the arm-holes were carefully drilled and taped, so as to allow the arms which I had turned to be screwed in and appear like neat columns of round wrought iron or steel screwed into the boss of the flywheel.
In return for the great kindness of George Douglass in allowing me to have the use of his foundry, I resolved to present him with a specimen of my handiwork. I desired to try my powers in making a more powerful steam-engine than I had as yet attempted to construct, in order to drive the large turning-lathe and the other tools and machinery of his small foundry. I accordingly set to work and constructed a direct-acting, high-pressure steam-engine, with a cylinder four inches in diameter. I use the term direct acting, because I dispensed with the beam and parallel motion, which was generally considered the correct mode of transferring the action of the piston to the crank.
The result of my labours was a very efficient steam-engine, which set all the lathes and mechanical tools in brisk activity of movement. It had such an enlivening effect upon the workmen that George Douglass afterwards told me that the busy hum of the wheels, and the active, smooth, rhythmic sound of the merry little engine had, through some sympathetic agency, so quickened the stroke of every hammer, chisel, and file in his workmen's hands, that it nearly doubled the output of work for the same wages!
The sympathy of activity acting upon the workmen's hands cannot be better illustrated than by a story told me by my father. A master tailor in a country town employed a number of workmen. They had been to see some tragic melodrama performed by some players in a booth at the fair. A very slow, doleful, but catching air was played, which so laid hold of the tailors' fancy that for some time after they were found slowly whistling or humming the doleful ditty, the movement of their needles keeping time to it; the result was that the clothing that should have been sent home on Saturday was not finished until the Wednesday following. The music had done it! The master tailor, being something of a philosopher, sent his men to the play again; but he arranged that they should be treated with lively merry airs. The result was that the lively airs displaced the doleful ditty; and the tailors' needles again reverted to even more than their accustomed quickness.
However true the story may be, it touches an important principle in regard to the stimulation of activity by the rapid movements or sounds of machinery, which influence every workman within their sight or hearing. We all know the influence of a quick merry air, played by fife and drum, upon the step and marching of a regiment of soldiers. It is the same with the quick movements of a steam-engine upon the activity of workmen.
I may add that my worthy friend, George Douglass, derived other advantages from the construction of my steam-engine. Being of an enterprising disposition he added another iron foundry to his smaller shops; he obtained many good engineering tools, and in course of time he began to make steam-engines for agricultural purposes. These were used in lieu of horse power for thrashing corn, and performing several operations that used to be done by hand labour in the farmyards. Orders came in rapidly, and before long the chimneys of Douglass's steam-engines were as familiar in the country round Edinburgh as corn stacks. All the large farms, especially in Midlothian and East Lothian, were supplied with his steam-engines. The business of George Douglass became very large; and in course of time he was enabled to retire with a considerable fortune.
In addition to the steam-engine which I presented to Douglass, I received an order to make another from a manufacturer of braiding. His machines had before been driven by hand labour; but as his business extended, the manufacturer employed me to furnish him with all engine of two-horse power, which was duly constructed and set to work, and gave him the highest satisfaction.
I may here mention that one of my earliest attempts at original contrivance was an Expansometer -- an instrument for measuring in bulk all metals and solid substances. The object to be experimented on was introduced into a tube of brass, with as much water round it as to fill the tube. The apparatus was then plunged into a vessel of boiling water, or heated to boiling point; when the total expansion of the bar was measured by a graduated scale, as seen in the annexed engraving. By this simple means the expansion of any material might be ascertained under various increments of heat, say from 60deg to 2l2deg It was simply a thermometer, the mass marking its own expansion. Dr. Brewster was so much pleased with the apparatus that he described it and figured it in the Edinburgh Philosophical Journal, of which he was then editor.
About the year 1827, when I was nineteen years old, the subject of steam carriages to run upon common roads occupied considerable attention. Several engineers and mechanical schemers had tried their hands, but as yet no substantial results had come of their attempts to solve the problem. Like others, I tried my hand. Having made a small working model of a steam-carriage, I exhibited it before the members of the Scottish Society of Arts. The performance of this active little machine was so gratifying to the Society that they requested me to construct one of such power as to enable four or six persons to be conveyed along the ordinary roads. The members of the Society, in their individual capacity, subscribed £60, which they placed in my hands as the means for carrying out their project.
I accordingly set to work at once. I had the heavy parts of the engine and carriage done at Anderson's foundry at Leith. There was in Anderson's employment a most able general mechanic named Robert Maclaughlan, who had served his time at Carmichaels' of Dundee. Anderson possessed some excellent tools, which enabled me to proceed rapidly with the work. Besides, he was most friendly, and took much delight in being concerned in my enterprise. This "big job" was executed in about four months. The steam-carriage was completed and exhibited before the members of the Society of Arts. Many successful trials were made with it on the queensferry Road, near Edinburgh. The runs were generally of four or five miles, with a load of eight passengers sitting on benches about three feet from the ground.
The experiments were continued for nearly three months, to the great satisfaction of the members. I may mention that in my steam-carriage I employed the waste steam to create a blast or draught by discharging it into the short chimney of the boiler at its lowest part, and found it most effective. I was not at that time aware that George Stephenson and others had adopted the same method; but it was afterwards gratifying to me to find that I had been correct as regards the important uses of the steam blast in the chimney. In fact, it is to this use of the waste steam that we owe the practical success of the locomotive-engine as a tractive power on railways, especially at high speeds.
The Society of Arts did not attach any commercial value to my steam road-carriage. It was merely as a matter of experiment that they had invited me to construct it. When it proved successful they made me a present of the entire apparatus. As I was anxious to get on with my studies, and to prepare for the work of practical engineering, I proceeded no further. I broke up the steam-carriage and sold the two small high-pressure engines, provided with a compact and strong boiler, for £67, a sum which more than defrayed all the expenses of the construction and working of the machine.
I still continued to make investigations as to the powers and capabilities of the steam-engine. There were numerous breweries, distilleries, and other establishments, near Edinburgh, where such engines were at work. As they were made by different engineers, I was desirous of seeing them and making sketches of them, especially when there was any special peculiarity in their construction. I found this a most favourite and instructive occupation. The engine tenters became very friendly with me, and they we re always glad to see me interested in them and their engines. They were especially delighted to see me make "drafts," as they called my sketches, of the engines under their charge.
My father sometimes feared that my too close and zealous application to engineering work might have a bad effect upon my health. My bedroom work at brass casting, my foundry work at the making of steam-engines, and my studies at the University classes, were perhaps too much for a lad of my age, just when I was in the hobbledehoy state -- between a boy and a man. Whether his apprehensions were warranted or not, it did so happen that I was attacked with typhus fever in 1828, a disease that was then prevalent in Edinburgh. I had a narrow escape from its fatal influence. But thanks to my good constitution, and to careful nursing, I succeeded in throwing off the fever, and after due time recovered my usual health and strength.
In the course of my inspection of the engines made by different makers, I was impressed with the superiority of those made by the Carmichaels of Dundee. They were excellent both in design and in execution. I afterwards found that the Carmichaels were among the first of the Scottish engine makers who gave due attention to the employment of improved mechanical tools, with the object of producing accurate work with greater ease, rapidity, and economy, than could possibly be effected by the hand labour of even the most skilful workmen. I was told that the cause of the excellence of the Carmichaels' work was not only in the ability of the heads of the firm, but in their employment of the best engineers' tools. Some of their leading men had worked at Maudslay's machine shop in London, the fame of which had already reached Dundee; and Maudslay's system of employing machine tools had been imported into the northern steam factory.
I had on many occasions, when visiting the works where steam-engines were employed, heard of the name and fame of Maudslay. I was told that his works were the very centre and climax of all that was excellent in mechanical workmanship. These reports built up in my mind, at this early period of my aspirations, an earnest and hopeful desire that I might some day get a sight of Maudslay's celebrated works in London. In course of time it developed into a passion. I will now proceed to show how my inmost desires were satisfied.
Go to next chapter
Copyright © 2001 anvilfire.com