Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875) was a surgeon, chemist, lecturer, consultant, architect, builder and prototypical British gentleman scientist and inventor of the Victorian period.
Amongst many accomplishments, he developed the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, later its principles to a novel form of illumination, the Bude light; developed a series of early steam powered road vehicles; and laid claim - still discussed and disputed today - to the blastpipe, a key component in the success of steam locomotives, engines, and other coal fired systems.
Events surrounding the failure of his steam vehicle enterprise gave rise to considerable controversy in his time, with considerable polarisation of opinion. During her lifetime, his daughter Anna Jane engaged in an extraordinary campaign to ensure the blastpipe was seen as his invention.
1793 February 14th. Born in the village of Treator near Padstow, Cornwall. His unusual Christian name was taken from his godmother who was a maid of honour to Queen Charlotte. Gurney's grandfather married into money, allowing his father, and to an extent him, to live as gentlemen.
Attended the Grammar School at Truro, where he was interested in contemporary sciences; and had the opportunity through friends to meet Richard Trevithick and see his 'Puffing Devil', a full-size steam road carriage, at Camborne.
After school he took a medical education with a Dr. Avery at Wadebridge, succeeding to the whole practice in 1813
1814 Married Elizabeth Symons, a farmers daughter from Launcells
Settled in Wadebridge
1815 January. Birth of his daughter Anna Jane (1815-1895).
Gurney practiced as a surgeon, but he also became interested in chemistry and mechanical science; he was also an accomplished pianist, and constructed his own piano, described as a 'large instrument'.
1820. He moved with his family to London and settled at 7 Argyle Street, near Hanover Square, where Gurney continued his practice as a surgeon. There he expanded his scientific knowledge and started giving a series of lectures on the elements of chemical science to the Surrey Institute, where he was appointed lecturer in 1822.
1822 March 2nd. Birth of son Goldsworthy John Gurney (1822-1847) at Launcells.
A skill attributed to Gurney was an ability to express scientific thought on paper and through lectures. His lectures in the 1822-3 period included one on the application of steam power to road vehicles. He was also of a practical bent, and in 1823 was awarded an Isis gold medal of the Royal Society of Arts for devising an oxy-hydrogen blowpipe.
1825 Patented a water tube boiler, which was constructed in 1826, and tested by Simon Goodrich in 1827. The Science Museum have a scale model of the boiler in their collection (photographs here). It had two horizontal drums of small diameter. The tubes sloped slightly upwards from the lower drum, turned back via a U-bend, and sloped upwards to the upper drum. Both horizontal drums were connected to a vertical vessel of small diameter, at the top of which was a deadweight safety valve.
1827 Partnership dissolved. '...the Partnership recently carried on by us the undersigned, Goldsworthy Gurney and James Viney under the firm of Gurney and Co, at the Manufactory for Steam Engines, in the Regent's Park, in the County of Middlesex, was this day dissolved by mutual consent...'
1827 April. His carriage runs on the road near Regent's Park. 
1827 December. Detailed drawing and description of the steam carriage. 
1829. See Goldsworthy Gurney: Steam Carriages for more details.
In 1830, Gurney leased a plot of land overlooking Summerleaze Beach in Bude, from his friend Sir Thomas Acland, and set about the construction of a new house to be built amongst the sand hills. The construction rested on an innovative concrete raft foundation, representing an early worked example of this technique.
1831 Gurney built a small steam carriage named 'Lord of the Isles'. He made a number of trips in the Glasgow area, its career being ended by the boiler exploding. Remarkably, the engine and the remains of the chassis were preserved, and are on display at the Riverside Museum, Glasgow, having been previously displayed at the former Transport Museum, where most of the above photos were taken. Study of the machine shows some advanced features for 1831 (and a very perfunctory effort at painting the remains for exhibition).
Gurney regrouped from his carriage failure at The Castle, applying his mind to the principle of illumination by the forcing of oxygen into a flame to increase the brilliance of the flame, giving rise to the Bude Light.
He also applied the principles of the blastpipe or steam jet to the ventilation of mines, as well as to the extinguishing of underground fires.
1837 His wife Elizabeth died and is buried in St. Martin in the Fields.
With his daughter - described as his constant companion - he moved to 'Reeds', a small house on the outskirts of Poughill, near Bude.
In 1844 he bought a lease on Hornacott Manor, Boyton, 10 miles from Bude, where he built Woodleigh Cottage for himself, and engaged his interest in farming.
In 1850 he gave up the lease on the Castle. In this period, he became a consultant, applying his innovative techniques to a range of problems, notably, after 1852, to the ventilation of the new Houses of Parliament where in 1854 he was appointed 'Inspector of Ventilation'.
1854 Perhaps arising out of the Boyton farming connection he took a second wife, being married at St. Giles in the Field to Jane Betty, the 24 year old daughter of a farmer from Sheepwash, Devon; Gurney was 61. The marriage appears to have been unsuccessful; there was perhaps some contention between Anna Jane (39) and her much younger step-mother. Jane Betty was removed from Gurney's will, although they were never divorced.
Gurney continued to divide his time between London and Cornwall, variously engaged in work with clients; experimenting and innovating in diverse fields such as heating (the Gurney Stove) or electrical conduction; and in improving his Hornacott estate. He was appointed president of the Launceston Agricultural Society.
1863 Gurney was knighted.
1863 Suffered a paralytic stroke; he sold Hornacott and retired back to Reeds at Cornwall, where he lived with his devoted daughter Anna Jane
1875 February 28th. Died and is buried at Launcells parish church.
A key development of his time at the Surrey Institute was use of the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, normally credited to Robert Hare in which an intensely hot flame was created by burning a jet of oxygen and hydrogen together; the blowpipe was the underpinning of limelight; Gurney its first exponent.
Gurney extended the use of the steam-jet to the cleaning of sewers, bridging his mechanical and medical knowledge in the service of the eradication of cholera in the metropolis; and in dealing with mine fires — notably bringing under control a fire known as the burning waste of Clackmannan, which in 1851 had raged for more than 30 years over an area of 26 acres, at the South Sauchie Colliery near Alloa. Gurney injected some 8M cubic feet of chokedamp (a mixture of nitrogen and carbon dioxide) into the mine by means of his steam-jet to extinguish the combustion; and after three weeks, drove water into the mine as a spray from the steam-jet to bring the temperature down from 250 °F to 98 °F. It is reckoned that the value of property saved by the extinguishing of this fire was £200,000.
He further improved the problematical lighting of theatres which used limelight, with his invention of the Bude-Light. Using a standard flame producer such as an oil lamp and by adding oxygen directly into the flame he produced a dramatically increased bright white light. A system of prisms and lenses distributed Bude Light to every room of his Castle house. Bude lights were fitted in the House of Commons — where it is said that he replaced 280 candles with three such lamps, which lit the House for sixty years until the arrival of electricity — as well as along Pall Mall and in Trafalgar Square where recently refurbished replicas of the two styles originally used can be seen.
He extended his work to lighthouse lamps, innovating in the choice of source; the use of lenses, and the introduction of identifying on-off patterns enabling seafarers to identify which lighthouse it was they saw flashing.
The Gurney Stove, another invention which he patented in 1856, was extensively used to heat a wide variety of buildings. The stove's most interesting feature is the use of external ribs to increase the surface area of the stove available for heat transfer. A number of these stoves are still in use to this day, in the cathedrals of Ely, Durham and Peterborough.
Arising from his successes with mine ventilation he was commissioned in 1852 to improve the gas lighting, heating, and especially the ventilation systems for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. Although he had some success in moving air around the palace buildings, ridding the legislature of the foul smell of the Thames was beyond his skill.
Gurney worked on many other projects, with interests and patents extending from improved steam engine design, to electric telegraphy and the design of musical instruments.
1875 Obituary 
1875 Obituary 
DNB Biography - 1st series
GURNEY, Sir GOLDSWORTHY (1793-1875), inventor, son of John Gurney of Trevorgus, Cornwall, was born at Treator near Padstow in that county, 14 Feb. 1793. He was named after his godmother, a daughter of General Goldsworthy, and a maid of honour to Queen Charlotte.
He was educated at the Truro grammar school, and in 1804, while spending his holidays at Camborne, was much impressed by witnessing one of Trevithick's earliest experiments with a steam-engine on wheels.
He was placed with Dr. Avery at Wadebridge as a medical pupil, and while there first met Elizabeth Symons, to whom he was married in 1814.
Gurney settled down at Wadebridge as a surgeon, but occupied his leisure in building an organ and in the study of works on chemistry and mechanical science.
In 1820 Gurney, with his wife and daughter, removed to London, where he made the acquaintance of Sir Anthony Carlisle, Dr. Wollaston, and others. Gurney delivered a course of lectures on the elements of chemical science at the Surrey Institution, the lectures being subsequently published (1823). Faraday, who was then assistant to Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, admitted his indebtedness to these lectures, which dealt chiefly with heat, electricity, and gases, and anticipated the principle of the electric telegraph.
While engaged at the Surrey Institution Gurney invented the 'oxy-hydrogen' blow- pipe. Before the invention of Gurney's blow-pipe the risk of accident was so great that recourse was seldom had to oxy-hydrogen. Gurney experimented on different materials, and by fusing lime and magnesia he discovered the powerful limelight known as the 'Drummond Light,' because first used by Thomas Drummond (1797-1840) [q. v.] in his trigonometrical survey of Ireland in 1826-7. But Drummond, in a letter to Joseph Hume, chairman of a committee of the House of Commons on lighthouses, stated that 'he had no claim to the invention of the light, for he had it from Mr. Gurney in 1826.'
Gurney, at the request of Sir Anthony Carlisle, made some experiments in crystallisation and the limelight before the Duke of Sussex and Prince (afterwards King) Leopold, and the duke personally presented him with the gold medal of the Society of Arts voted for the invention of the blow-pipe. Gurney was present at Sir W. Snow Harris's experiment on Somerset House Terrace with wire for the ship lightning-conductor. He remarked to Carlisle at this time, in reference to the magnetic needle: “Here is an element which may, and I foresee will, be made the means of intelligible communication.” The discovery of the instant starts of the magnetic needle, by meeting the poles of a galvanic battery over it, is claimed as unquestionably Gurney's, and a passage from his lectures in 1823 calls attention to the phenomenon.
Gurney was devoted to music, and invented an instrument of musical glasses, played as a piano, which was afterwards performed upon at the Colosseum, Regent's Park.
Gurney began in 1823 his experiments in steam and locomotion. He took a partner in his profession of physic, and soon gave up the practice himself, much to the regret of his patients, in order to devote himself to these researches. He desired to construct an engine to travel on common roads. The weight of the engine was reduced from four tons to thirty hundredweight, and a sufficiency of steam was obtained by the invention of the ‘steam jet.' Mr. Smiles (Life of Stephensori) attributes to George Stephenson the invention of the steam-jet or blast, and its application to locomotive engines. In 1814 Stephenson sent a steam-pipe up the chimney of his engines, as Trevithick had done ten years before; but this was not the principle of the high-pressure 'steam-jet ' invented by Gurney. Up to its discovery waste steam from the engine was universally dispersed through the chimney.
In 1827 Gurney took his steam carriage to Cyfarthfa, at the request of Mr. Crawshay, and while there applied his steam-jet to the blast furnaces. This gave an immense impetus to the manufacture of iron. The steam-jet caused the success of Stephenson's 'Rocket ' engine on the Liverpool and Manchester railway in October 1829. Previously, on 6 Oct. this engine ran about twelve miles without interruption in about fifty-three minutes; when Gurney's discovery was first applied, a velocity of twenty-nine miles an hour was soon obtained. Gurney had applied the steam-jet to steamboats as early as 1824, when constructing his steam carriage, and on 6 Oct. 1829 it was applied by Hackworth to the Sans pareil.
In July 1829 Gurney made a memorable journey with his steam carriage from London to Bath and back again, at the rate of fifteen miles an hour, on the common road. This journey, undertaken at the request of the quartermaster-general of the army, was the first long journey at a maintained speed ever made by any locomotive on road or rail.
Sir Charles Dance, having witnessed the capabilities of the steam carriage, ran it in 1831 uninterruptedly between Gloucester and Cheltenham for three months without a single accident, when it was put a stop to by the passing of acts of parliament imposing prohibitory tolls. The carriages ran the distance of nine miles in fifty-five minutes on an average, and frequently in forty-five minutes. The prohibitory legislation against the use of steam on common roads ruined it as a commercial speculation, and Gurney threw up the subject in disgust.
A committee of the House of Commons, appointed in 1831 to inquire into the subject, reported 'that the steam carriage was one of the most important improvements in the means of internal communication ever introduced; that its practicability had been fully established; and that the prohibitory clauses against its use ought to be immediately repealed.' As the clauses were not repealed, however, Gurney petitioned parliament on the subject. A second committee was appointed, which followed the conclusions of the former one as to the prohibitory clauses, and recommended a grant to Gurney for the injury he had sustained by the passing of the acts. But railways now intervened, and quickly engrossed public attention, and justice was not done to Gurney's claims.
Gurney proceeded to apply his high-pressure steam-jet to other important uses. By its means he extinguished the fire of a burning coal mine at Astley in Lancashire, and in 1849 the fire in another coal mine at Clackmannan, which had been burning for more than thirty years.
The 'Gurney stove' was another invention most extensively used. The main feature of the stove was the same which the inventor had previously applied to his system of warming and ventilating the two houses of parliament. For a second time Gurney directed his attention to the subject of light, and introduced a new mode of lighting into the old House of Commons. A further advance was made in 1852, when he arranged the system of lighting and ventilation in the new houses of parliament. He held an appointment to superintend and extend the system from 1854 to 1863, and on his retirement in the latter year from his public duties his system in its main principles was still retained.
For several years after 1845 Gurney resided for portions of each year at Hornacott Manor, Launceston, Cornwall, which he had purchased, and where he gave much attention to practical farming. He was president of two clubs for the improvement of agriculture at Launceston and Stratton.
In 1862 Gurney obtained a patent for the invention of a stove, by means of which he produced gas from oil and other fatty substances. It was intended for lighthouses, and experimentally applied under his own direction for lighting a part of H.M. ship Resistance.
His Observations pointing out a means by which a Seaman may identify Lighthouses, and know their Distance from his Ship, in any position or bearing of the Compass/ were published in 1864. Gurney suggested the flashing of light (for which he had an ingenious contrivance) as a mode of signalling.
As the result of evidence given by Gurney after a colliery explosion at Barnsley, the government enacted that all coal mines should have two shafts. He planned and superintended, by means of his steam-jet (in 1849), the ventilation of the pestilential sewer in Friar Street, London, which could not be cleansed by any other means, and suggested to the metropolitan commissioners of sewers that a steam-jet apparatus should be placed at the mouth of every sewer emptying into the great Thames riverside sewer.
Gurney was a magistrate for Cornwall and Devon, and in 1863 was knighted in acknowledgement of his discoveries. The same year, while engaged in correcting his 'Observations on Lighthouses,' he had a stroke of paralysis. He was thus incapacitated for scientific investigation, and retired to his seat at Reeds, near Bude, where the remaining years of his life were cheered by the affectionate solicitude of his daughter, Anna J. Gurney, who was his constant companion for more than sixty years, and who had taken the deepest interest in his discoveries.
Gurney died at Reeds on 28 Feb. 1875. A clock was placed in Poughill church tower, Stratton, Cornwall, by Miss Gurney (25 April 1889) to commemorate her father's inventions, which had ‘made communication ... so rapid that it became necessary for all England to keep uniform clock-time ' (tablet in the church).
Gurney's works are:
- 1. 'Course of Lectures on Chemical Science, as delivered at the Surrey Institution,' 1823.
- 2. ‘Observations on Steam Carriages on Turnpike Roads, &c., with the Report of the House of Commons/ 1832.
- 3. ' Account of the Invention of the Steam-jet or Blast, and its Application to Steamboats and Locomotive Engines (in reference to the claims put forth by Mr. Smiles in his Life of George Stephenson), 1859.
- 4. ‘Observations pointing out a means by which a Seaman may identify Lighthouses, and know their Distance from his Ship in any position or bearing of the Compass/ 1864.
[Gurney's works; Times, 26 Dec. 1875; West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser, 18 March 1875 and 8 April 1886; private memoranda. See also the bibliographical notices in Bibliotheca Cornubiensis, i. 198, 199, iii. 1212, 1213.] G. B. S.
His daughter's efforts at promotion
Gurney's daughter appears to have engaged in considerable promotion of her father's claim to various of his inventions; the inscription on his gravestone reads:
"To his inventive genius the world is indebted for the high speed of the locomotive, without which railways could not have succeeded and would never have been made".
In her copy of the Dictionary of National Biography, all references to the blowpipe were amended by hand to his blowpipe.
In 1880 she donated £500 to memorialise "his" Steam Jet, at the stone-laying ceremony for Truro Cathedral, somehow managing to rope the children of the then Prince of Wales to present the money. (The Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Albert Edward was timidly asked whether he minded, and replied "Oh, why not? The boys would stand on their heads if she wished."). Anna Jane's subscription read:
"In memory of her father Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, inventor of the steam-jet, as a thank offering to almighty God for the benefit of high speed locomotion whereby His good gifts are conveyed from one nation to another and the word of the Lord is sent unto all parts of the world."
A chiming clock presented by her in 1889 to Poughill Church was inscribed "His inventions and discoveries in steam and electricity rendered transport by land and sea so rapid that it became necessary for all England to keep uniform clock time"
A final Anna Jane tribute was a stained glass window in St. Margaret's, Westminster (destroyed during the second world war), with an inscription part of which reads:
"He originated the Electric Telegraph, High Speed Locomotion and Flashing Light Signalling. He invented the Steam Jet and the Oxy-Hydrogen Blowpipe."
Sources of Information
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Saturday, July 1, 1826
- The Bristol Mercury (Bristol, England), Monday, August 28, 1826
-  Gazette Issue 18335 published on the 13 February 1827. Page 9 of 32
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, April 23, 1827
- The Standard (London, England), Saturday, September 08, 1827
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, September 10, 1827
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Tuesday, September 11, 1827
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Wednesday, September 26, 1827
- The Morning Chronicle (London, England), Monday, December 10, 1827
-  Gazette Issue 21935 published on the 28 October 1856. Page 22 of 44
-  Gazette Issue 22297 published on the 12 August 1859. Page 18 of 34
-   Gazette Issue 22636 published on the 20 June 1862. Page 19 of 58
-  Gazette Issue 22761 published on the 11 August 1863. Page 1 of 44
- 1871 Census
- Engineering 1875 Jan-Jun: Index: General Index
- The Engineer 1875/03/12