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David Napier by David Napier and David Bell: Note 9

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William Symington

9. WILLIAM SYMINGTON, 1764-1831

The portrait on page 96 has been produced by Messrs. Annan from a negative taken by Mr. Fergus, Greenock, about 1889, from a sketch by D. 0. Hill, R.A., which is now at South Kensington.

The Brief History of Steam Navigation, published by Symington in 1829, states that he was born at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, in the year 1764. [1] The following is the substance of his narrative:

"Having commenced the profession of civil engineering, I made several improvements on the steam-engine. In July 1786, I went to Edinburgh, and submitted to the professors of that University, and to other learned and scientific gentlemen, the model of a carriage which I had invented, and intended to be moved on public roads by the power of steam. Upon this occasion I met the late Patrick Miller, Esq., of Dalswinton, who had been informed not only of my model of a steam-carriage but of my previous improvements on the steam-engine, by Mr. James Taylor, a school companion of mine, who was then tutor in Mr. Miller's family. When Mr. Miller called on me at the house of my much-respected friend, the late Gilbert Meason, Esq., he was shown the model of the steam-carriage, and Mr. Miller was pleased to say "It bids fair to improve greatly the commerce of the country by facilitating conveyance and reducing the rates of carriage." Mr. Miller also mentioned that he had spent much time making experiments as to the propelling of vessels upon water, by using wheels in place of sails or oars. These wheels he had hitherto put in motion by applying the strength of men to the turning of a handle or winch. He said he had also attempted to work them by the power of horses, but none of the powers had sufficiently answered his purpose.

"I stated without hesitation that I believed a steam-engine might be constructed to propel Mr. Miller's boats, by communicating a rotatory motion to the paddles by the alternate action of two ratchet-wheels in the same manner as proposed in the model of the steam-carriage then before him, which would render altogether unnecessary the aid of a fly-wheel to regulate and equalize the effects of the steam-engine in turning the revolving oars. The model then before Mr. Miller, and the description given by me of the manner by which I proposed applying the same power to produce a rotatory motion in the paddle wheels, seemed to convince him of the practicability of applying the steam-engine to the propelling of boats, and he said, with a becoming diffidence as to his knowledge of mechanical powers, that if I should think it possible to construct and work a steam-engine with safety on board of a vessel, he would have an experiment made on a small scale as soon as I could attend to it, and he left it entirely to me to devise the plan of the steam-engine, the mode of producing rotatory motion, and the placing of the apparatus with safety in the vessel, only stipulating that my whole energy and ability should be directed to the only end he had in view, that of making the paddle-wheels constantly revolve with a sufficient degree of velocity.

"Upon this mutual understanding I proceeded to erect a small steam-engine upon the principle for which I had previously procured a patent, having two cylinders of four inches diameter, each making an eighteen-inch stroke. This engine having been constructed by my direction and under my eye, I caused it to be fitted on board a double-keeled vessel then lying upon a piece of water near the house of Dalswinton, and this being done, an experiment was made in the autumn of the year 1788, in presence of Mr. Miller and various other respectable persons and the boat was propelled in a manner that gave such satisfaction that it was immediately determined to commence another experiment upon a more extended scale.

"The second experiment was made on the Forth and Clyde Canal. The machinery was executed at Carron Iron Works under my direction, and was erected in a boat belonging to Mr. Miller which had been previously built and fitted with paddle-wheels for the purpose of making experiments as to the effect of these wheels turned by the labour of men already described. I fitted into this boat a steam- engine with two cylinders, each eighteen inches in diameter and making a three feet stroke; and in the month of October 1789, I took on board Mr. Miller, the late John Adam, Blairadam; John Balfour, Pilrig; Ambrose Tibbets, Esquires, members of the Carron Company; Mr. James Taylor, my school companion; and David Drysdale, residing at Bankside, near Bainsford, an experienced sailor, to whom I gave the helm, and in presence of hundreds of spectators who lined the banks of the canal the boat glided along, propelled at the rate of five miles an hour, and all parties interested declared themselves satisfied with the success of my performance. . . . These experiments having been successfully completed, I was fully satisfied that the application of paddle-wheels was capable of giving a considerable velocity to the motion of vessels when an impetus was derived from a machine so powerful as the steam-engine; but as Mr. Miller at this period very unaccountably withdrew himself from public business and devoted his talents to the improvement of his estate of Dalswinton, it was left to me to carry into effect the practical results that had hitherto been ascertained, or still further to improve upon them. I at this time was also unfortunately obliged to go to the Wanlockhead Lead Mines to construct machinery upon a large scale, to enable the proprietors to work these mines to advantage, and the attention of all parties connected with the steamboat experiments being for a time directed to other important objects, the boat was dismantled, and its machinery laid up in Carroll Works; and thus ended the second trial made by me upon steamboat navigation.

"In the summer of the year 1800, the late Thomas Lord Dundas of Kerse applied to me, and after alluding to the experiments which I had made eleven years before, expressed a wish that I should employ myself in constructing a vessel capable of being propelled by the power of steam through the Forth and Clyde Canal (of which he was a large proprietor) and of dragging vessels in place of using horses, the power then and still employed in dragging vessels on that canal.

"I, accordingly, under the auspices and patronage of that enlightened nobleman, commenced a series of experiments in January 1801, and continued them till April 1803, which cost upwards of £7,000, and which produced the happy results now to be described. A steam-engine was erected with a cylinder of double power, 22 inches in diameter, and making a four feet stroke, and fitted into a boat adapted to the power of the engine; and after making various experiments, in March 1802 (this date given as 1803, but corrected and explained in Dr. Bowie's pamphlet) took on board of the boat, at Lock No. 20 of the canal, the late Lord Dundas my patron, Archibald Spiers, Esq., of Elderslie, and several gentlemen of their acquaintance, and made the steamboat take in drag two loaded vessels, the Active and Euphemia of Grangemouth, Gow and Esplin masters, each vessel upwards of seventy tons burden, and with great ease they were carried, without the assistance of any horses, through the summit level of this canal to Port Dundas, a distance of nineteen and a half miles, in six hours, although it blew so strong a breeze right ahead during the whole course of the day that no other vessel in the canal attempted to move to windward; and this experiment not only satisfied me but every person who witnessed it of the utility of steam navigation. When it was proposed however to the proprietors of the canal to substitute steamboats in place of drag horses, it was alleged that the undulation created upon the water by the use of the paddle-wheels would have the effect of washing down the banks of the canal, and thereby doing a greater injury to the canal itself than any benefit that could be expected to be derived from the use of such an improvement; and as the proprietors of the canal were entitled to judge of their own affairs, I and the late Lord Dundas, although differing from them in opinion, were bound to submit to their decision; and the result of these experiments was, that I, at the desire of my patron, caused a beautiful model of the steam-engine and boat to be executed, with a set of ice-breakers attached to it, which was sent to the house of Lord Dundas in Arlington Street, London. I was thus a second time thrown upon my own resources in attempting to achieve the much desired and ultimate object of this invention, viz. the application of steam to the general use of navigation, and was thus with great reluctance obliged to lay up the boat upon which these experiments were tried in a creek of the canal near to Bainsford Drawbridge, where it remained for many years exposed to public view. While lying there, Mr. Henry Bell from Glasgow, who had also witnessed my experiments in 1789, was frequently seen to inspect it, and it was this gentlemen who, in conjunction with others, constructed in the year 1811 the steamboat the Comet which first plied on the river Clyde, and the immense advantages resulting from this exemplification of the invention made it to be taken advantage of by the companies who have since so flourishingly prosecuted steam navigation in this country.

"It happened one day during the period that I was employed in conducting the experiments under the patronage of Lord Dundas, viz. in July 1801, that a stranger came to the banks of the canal and requested to see me. He very politely announced himself as Mr. Fulton, a native of North America, and told me that he intended to return to his native country in a few months, but, having heard of the steamboat experiments, he could not think of leaving the country without waiting upon me in the hope of seeing the boat and machinery, and procuring some information as to the principles upon which it was moved. In compliance with his earnest request I caused the engine fire to be lighted up, and the machinery put in motion. Several persons entered the boat, and, along with Mr. Fulton, were carried from Lock No. 16, where the boat then lay, about four miles west along the canal, and returned to the place of starting in one hour and twenty minutes, to the great astonishment of Mr. Fulton and the other gentlemen present. Mr. Fulton asked me if' had any objection to his taking notes regarding the form, the size, the construction, etc., of the steamboat and steam apparatus; to which I answered that I had none, as I was of opinion the greater publicity that could be given to a discovery intended for general good so much the better. He accordingly took out a memorandum book, and put several pointed questions to me regarding the general construction and effect of the machinery, which were answered with a wish to be explicit, and Mr. Fulton noted down the answers and everything that was described to him, and made his own remarks, while the boat was moving along the canal with him and others on board. I never heard of him again, till I saw an account of his death in an American newspaper, dated Baltimore, 1818. . . .

"Previous to finishing the experiments upon the Forth and Clyde Canal, I went to London, and presented my patron, Lord Dundas, with the model of the steamboat and steam apparatus already described. Upon this occasion his Lordship suggested the propriety of showing the model to His Grace the Duke of Bridgewater, whom he knew to be an ingenious and spirited nobleman, besides being sole proprietor of extensive canals, and who could, if he approved of the invention, adopt it upon his own. His Lordship accordingly called upon the Duke and told him that I was in town, and requested that I might be allowed to wait upon his Grace with the model of the steamboat; to which he replied, 'that it appeared to him altogether needless to amuse themselves further with anything regarding steamboats, as he could well assure his Lordship they would never be made to answer any useful purpose, having himself, subsequent to the experiments which I made in Scotland, bestowed upon the subject much pains and great expense, without affording the least hope of success; yet, with this impression as to the improbability of utility, he was still willing to see anything new upon the subject,' and consented to examine my model.

"I waited upon the Duke next day, and showed and explained the model to him, when he declared that such a vessel as that before him had every appearance of answering the purpose he wished, and pointing to his collection of paintings, which he said had cost him upwards of £100,000, he stated his belief that the advantage which trade might derive at some future period from the use of such steamboats would many times exceed the value of his excellent gallery of pictures; and to show his conviction of the fact, he gave me an immediate order to build eight such boats for the use of his canal, and pressingly requested me to devote my whole time to the executing of this order with as little delay as possible. I then returned to Scotland elated with the prospect of being able in a short time thus to turn my invention to a useful purpose, and satisfactorily completed my last experiment, then only in progress; but, to my great mortification, upon the very day I had finished it, I heard of the much lamented death of that very worthy and enterprising nobleman the Duke of Bridgewater, together with the determination of the proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Canal not to use the boats, after the pains that had been taken to perfect them. This so affected me that probably I did not use that energy I otherwise might have done to introduce my invention to public notice; and perhaps it was from this circumstance that the introduction of steam navigation was postponed in the United Kingdom of Great Britain till after the Americans had taken advantage of it, and carried the invention into general practice.

"I was advised to apply for His Majesty's Letters Patent to cover my invention, which are dated October, 1801, but, after having put myself to this expense, I discovered that the idea of the application of steam to the propelling of boats is much earlier than my time. So far back as the year 1736, Jonathan Hulls of England procured a patent for the propelling of boats by steam, conform to a plan which he published with a copy of his patent. This boat however was unfit for any useful purpose in consequence of the imperfection of the steam-engine and the awkward manner of applying the power. That ingenious machine was not then brought to such a degree of perfection as to be capable of being used for the production of rotatory motion in a manner sufficient for the propelling of boats, and I humbly presume to say, but with perfect confidence in the truth of what I say, that I am the first individual who ever effectually applied the power of the steam-engine to the propelling of vessels without saying anything of my original invention of the steam carriage. While advancing this pretension I am confident in being able to maintain it; but, at the same time, I am far from wishing to detract from the merit of any of the ingenious men who have laboured in the same department, Much is due to Jonathan Hulls, and perhaps it is impossible to expect greater progress to have been made in the invention at the time he wrote. Much merit is also due to my first patron, Mr. Miller, to whom the country is much indebted for the improvements he made upon boats and wheels; but it was I alone who invented a steam-engine and actually applied it to the propelling of boats. Although I hesitate not to declare that the improved engine of Messrs. Boulton & Watt has now deservedly superseded every other, it is I who have thus first put upon something like a firm basis the great principle, as it were before but dreamt of, that this mighty agent could be rendered subservient to the purposes of navigation. It would be quite unnecessary for me to make any allusion to the advantages which the public now derives from this invention — they are obvious and great; and every class of society travelling for pleasure or commerce avail themselves of the certainty and despatch it affords."


The Charlotte Dundas in her structural arrangements and practical results may be regarded as having amply justified Symington's claim, just quoted. The first important trial recorded was that of March, 1802, although Symington states that "various experiments" had been made prior to that date. The vessel's performances were entirely satisfactory, but the groundless fear of injury to the canal banks led to her being laid aside in April, 1803. The hull was 56 feet long, 18 feet beam, and 8 feet deep; the paddle-wheel wrought in a cavity astern, about 4 feet wide, on each side of which a rudder was fitted, connected by an iron rod, and the steering controlled by a hand-wheel forward. It is stated further that "stampers were attached to the bow of the boat for the purpose of breaking ice on the canal. The engine, constructed by the Carron Iron Works Co. under Symington's supervision in accordance with his patent of October 1801, marked a great advance on any engine previously designed for boat propulsion. The cylinder (22 inches diameter and 4 feet stroke) lay horizontally on a lower platform or deck; the piston-rod being coupled direct to the connecting-rod, which wrought the crank on the shaft of paddle-wheel. By means of "friction-wheels" working within guides the piston-rod had a steady motion, and the air-pump was operated by a bell-crank lever. The engine being placed on the port side of vessel was balanced by the boiler on the other side. This admirable engine was as a whole much superior to many of the paddle engines that followed it in later times; and was the prototype of the horizontal and inclined direct acting engines still used for river steamers. Further details of Symington's work are to be found in the pamphlet by his son-in-law, Dr. Robert Bowie, and in a biography by J. & W. H. Rankine. The latter publication (in which allusion was made by mistake to a second Charlotte Dundas) was dedicated to David Napier; and his recollections of the vessel were given in the following letter, written fifty-seven years after he had visited it:

To the Editor of the Glasgow Herald.
WORCESTER, 1st July, 1860.

Sir,
I was pleased reading a letter in your Thursday's paper about the remains of the first steamboat. Mr. Miller of Dalswinton did make some experiments previous to the Charlotte Dundas, but the Charlotte Dundas was certainly the first steamboat, ten years before the Comet on the Clyde, that was applied to anything like practical purposes in this or any other country.

I have not seen the letter your correspondent refers to about the brick funnel, but I think there must be some misunderstanding on that point, as a brick funnel would topple over when the vessel listed. I think that mistake has arisen from the boiler that was on board the Charlotte Dundas having been a common land boiler, built round with brickwork as is usually done on land. Although I believe that both Fulton and Bell saw the Charlotte Dundas, I cannot help thinking that it is altogether a stretch of imagination about their taking sketches of the machinery, as that appeared to me quite unnecessary, the machinery being of the simplest kind, superior in construction to many steamers of the present day, so that any person though not an engineer had only to open his eyes when he could see and comprehend the whole at a glance, and retain it in his mind without the aid of pencil or paper. The cylinder lay in a horizontal position on deck, fore and aft the vessel; and the piston was connected to a crank on the paddle-wheel in the stern of the ship; that, with the boiler, constituted the whole machinery of the Charlotte Dundas. Although it is fifty-seven years since I saw the Charlotte Dundas, and although I did not take a sketch of her machinery, this description will be found correct. Poor Symington, the inventor and constructor of the Charlotte Dundas, whom I knew, like many other geniuses who have not the means of carrying out their own inventions, having got disgusted with the world for not appreciating his talents, took to that worst of all remedies for drowning care, and like many other benefactors of their race died poor.
Yours truly,

DAVID NAPIER.


After the engine had been removed from the Charlotte Dundas, dredging buckets, wrought by hand, were fitted in place of the paddle, and applied to clear the canal which she had not been allowed to use in her original condition. Bell, writing in 1827, stated that she was "still used as a dredge-boat."

The hull after being left to decay for many years at Bainsford was it is believed, finally broken up at Wilson's boatyard at Lock 16 on the Canal, about 1860.

Symington died in the house of his son-in-law, Dr. Bowie, London, on 22nd March 1831; and his remains were interred in the Churchyard of St. Botolph, Aldgate Without. A Tablet to his memory was placed in this Church by the Right Hon. Sir Marcus Samuel, Lord Mayor of London, in 1903; a bust in marble was unveiled in the Museum of Science and Art, Edinburgh, by Sir William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) in November, 1890; and a monument at Leadhills was completed in June, 1891.

See Also

Foot Notes

  1. The ‘Dictionary of National Biography’ gives "October 1763" as the date of Symington's birth, but as the author of the article has stated that he could not recall his authority for that date, and as the Parish Registers of Leadhills District for 1763-64 contain no entry on the subject, there appears to be no ground for altering the date given by Symington himself.