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Isaac Dodds

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History 2.

Isaac Dodds (1801-1882), railway engineer

1801 Born the son of Thomas Dodds (died 1805) and Ann Weatherburn in Low Felling, Heworth[1], nephew of Ralph Dodds

One of the first apprentices at Robert Stephenson and Co

One of his sisters married John Stephenson (1794-1848), railway contractor

c.1838 One of the engineers of the Sheffield and Rotherham Railway

1839 Isaac Dodds of the Holmes Iron Works near Rotherham, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[2]

1851 Isaac Dodds 49, civil engineer, lived in Kimberworth, Rotherham, with Thomas W Dodds 23, Robert V Dodds 20, Isaac J Dodds 17, Ralph E Dodds 13[3]


Biography by Major S. Snell (1921)

1921 Biography of Isaac Dodds and his son Thomas Weatherburn Dodds, by Major S. Snell, here.[4]


1884 Obituary [5]

Isaac Dodds was born on the 9th of July, 1801, at the Felling Hall, Hewarth, in the county of Durham.

He was the second son of Mr. Thomas Dodds, the Viewer for the Felling Colliery, who was killed with thirty-four others in the explosion at the Hebburn Colliery on the 21st of October, 1805.

Though the family was left in comfortable circumstances, the misconduct of a trustee rendered it necessary that young Isaac Dodds should be put to work at an early age, and as his education was incomplete, he went in the evenings for instruction to Mr. Willie Woolhave (plumber, glazier and parish clerk), a very ingenious man, who, finding his pupil apt in mechanical notions, taught him to turn, and generally confided to him all his inventions.

Mr. Dodds always spoke of Mr. Woolhave in the warmest terms. 'To Willie Woolhave,' he said, 'we are indebted fur the life-boat, though it was patented by a Mr. Greathead; he was also the inventor of the first safety-lamp I ever saw, which was like a large parrot cage enclosing a glass lamp, the air being supplied by bellows worked by the collier’s knees, using the air from the lowest strata. Dr. Clanny brought out a lamp about the same time, but I believe the idea was derived from Mr. Woolhave; on the death of Woolhave, the inhabitants of South Shields raised a subscription for a tombstone, on which was carved the life-boat.'

In 1814 young Dodds became a pupil of his uncle, Ralph Dodds, chief viewer to the Grand Allies Collieries, at Killingworth. Being in the office, he remembered a remarkable incident which occurred. The chief engineer of the colliery having fixed an engine to pump the water during the sinking of the colliery, could not start it to work, nor could he find out the cause, when a man named Christopher Heppel came to see Mr. Ralph Dodds, and said to him, 'You have a man named George Stephenson in your employ, who says he knows what is wrong with that engine, and could soon put it right.' Mr. Dodds replied, 'Send him to me; if he does, I will make a man of him.' George Stephenson did know the reason, put the engine to work, and was very shortly afterwards advanced in position; being a shrewd, industrious, and well-conducted man, he became a favourite, Mr. Dodds advancing him from time to time.

Shortly afterwards followed the improvement by George Stephenson in the locomotive engine, with Mr. Dodds’ ideas on the machine; these were carefully studied every hour that could be devoted to it, and no occasion was lost in considering what could be added, altered, or, if necessary, taken away. Young Dodds, being generally present, had full opportunity of hearing all the discussions, and of seeing the various sketches of the proposed alterations. He said, 'The engine was made, and I now venture my humble opinion, that for the purpose for which it was required, viz., a colliery locomotive, to draw coals on a railway, it was at that time the very best that had been brought out; it worked most successfully, and all who saw its performance were satisfied that a great step had been made towards a complete locomotive, requiring only time, experience and perseverance to give it all that the votaries of a 'travelling steam horse’ desired; it showed that a ‘steam horse’ was not only possible, but that it contained a germ of speed and power to overcome all animal power.'

This engine was patented by Ralph Dodds and George Stephenson, for improvements in locomotive engines, on the 28th of February, 1815. Young Dodds, after this engine had been at work for some time, became satisfied that the method of coupling the wheels was imperfect; he obtained two spinning wheels, and applied a coupling-rod to enable him to work both with one treadle, to do which necessitated a return crank. Having got it to work satisfactorily, he showed it to his uncle and to Stephenson, who afterwards adopted the coupling-rod which is now universally used in coupled engines.

In November 1815 he went down the Killingworth pit with Nicholas Wood and George Stephenson to test the safety-lamp which Stephenson had invented. There were present John and William Moody, Robert Cree, Robert Summerside, George Rales and others, numbering seventeen in all.

In the first instance, George Stephenson entered the cupboard in which the gas was collected, when the lamp was blown out of his hand and the top blown off, but he said he had forgotten to fasten it down with some copper wire, having only used string. He took the plyers and copper wire out of his pocket and instantly made it secure; he reentered the small room, and the trial was a perfect success. Mr. Wood at once went in, and he and George Stephenson took in young Dodds, and with much minute care exhibited and explained to him the whole action.

When the engine-works were commenced at Newcastle-on-Tyne, he went there as a pupil under George Stephenson. During his apprenticeship he made a model of the horizontal cylinders for the locomotive engine, and advocated its adoption in preference to the vertical cylinders then made, his principal objection being that, by the vertical action, the rails were injuriously affected. Mr. Stephenson ignored his reasons, saying he felt assured the horizontal cylinders would never do, as the lower part of the cylinders would wear out. Notwithstanding this, when the 'Rocket' was made, the cylinders were placed about midway between the vertical and the horizontal position, and Dodds reminded George Stephenson of his former views, and was pleased that he had even made a compromise.

After completing his time at Newcastle, he commenced the engineering works at the Felling shore; whilst there he was applied to by Messrs. Wolsey to try and improve the air-pump for the process of boiling sugar in vacuo; after some experimental trials, he succeeded in making the 'double-action air-pump' give satisfactory results in 1830.

Whilst in London in 1832 a premium was offered in Newcastle-on-Tyne for a machine to weigh coals in carts or wagons. When he returned, Mr. Stephenson informed him that he had entered him as a competitor; he replied that he knew nothing of weighing-machines, as he had never paid any attention to the subject. Mr. Stephenson said, 'Isaac, thou can’st invent anything; thou hast three weeks to think over it and make the model in; try for it.' The model was made and was put in about half-an-hour beyond the time allotted, in spite of which it was admitted, and the premium awarded to him was paid.

Prior to this he had engaged James Hann as an engineer on the 'Industry' paddle steamboat; finding out his fondness for mathematics from seeing him working algebraical questions on his shovel with a piece of chalk, he took him into the office, where he worked out the various rules, afterwards published in 'Mechanics for Practical Men,' by Isaac Dodds and James Hann.

In 1832 he was induced to accept the position of Engineer to the Horseley Iron Works, Staffordshire, and commenced the manufacture of locomotive engines. The first engine being for mineral railways in Wales, the boiler was carried on two separate four-wheeled bogies, or frames, on which the cylinders were fixed and the wheels coupled.

In 1833 he designed the 'Star' for the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. The engine had several improvements which were novel at that time, namely, the frame was a solid plate, the horn-plates being welded on; the boiler was made to expand and contract on that frame, in the manner now generally adopted; the cylinders were placed horizontally, outside, and the motion was given to the valve by a return crank, working the eccentric rod to an arc or link moving by a reversing lever, the position of the eccentric-rod in the arc, which gave the forward or backward motion, and also varied the stroke of the valves. This engine was the first which had the steam-passages made larger in area, the valve opening barely three-fourths for the admission of steam, but opening the full area for exhausting. 'Mr. Dodds claimed that this was the first engine made with a solid or plate hame; the first reversing motion acting directly by a reversing lever, and the first arc or link motion, with fixed centres used; and also the first boiler free to expand on the frame.'

Mr. Dodds took up the question of working heavy inclines by a locomotive engine, as against the rope, with Messrs. Stephenson, Locke, Rastrick, and others, and proposed to make an engine that should do the work at the St. Helen’s incline, over the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, more satisfactorily than with the rope then in use. With the aid of Mr. Vignoles, Past-President Inst.C.E., he obtained the order, and constructed the 'Monarch,' which had horizontal inside cylinders, working rocking-shafts at the smoke-box end of the frame, on the end levers of which were coupled the connecting-rods, acting upon outside crank-pins. This engine was considered a very heavy one at the time, being over 20 tons in working order. Mr. Dodds declined taking the loads up the incline until the rope pulleys were removed, which being done, the engine started, and did the work better than had been anticipated.

Whilst at Horseley Mr. Dodds made the first large plate, on which to roll plate-glass; the plate weighed 19 tons when completed. To plane the surface was a difficulty, which he overcame by making a machine, the plate constituting the frame, and the tool being made to traverse over it. This plate took three month to plane.

In 1835 he received a medal from the Society of Arts for an 'improved parallel-motion,' and in 1836 another medal for 'the prevention of boiler explosions,' by making a disk of copper plate over the fire-box, and inserting a plug of fusible metal. The plug becoming uncovered by the water before the plates of the fire-box, permitted the fire to act upon and melt it, when the steam would be projected on the fire. This practice is now universally adopted, with slight modifications.

He also received a silver medal of the Society of Arts for improvements in casting railway contractors’ wagon-wheels, rendering unnecessary the cutting the naves to prevent breakage in contraction.

About this time Mr. Dodds was sent for by Messrs. Hooper (Government coopers), who had a strike amongst their men, to try and devise some means to cut their staves by machinery. He undertook to make a machine to do their work, if he was allowed a couple of days to think it over. However, he returned in a few hours with a pencil sketch of the machine, which was the forerunner of curvilinear sawing machinery. The machine, when made, was composed of a series of vertical saws, and on a template being fixed on the side of the movable frame, the saws, when working, were kept in the direct line of cut, and would cut as many pieces to the template form as the number of saws permitted. It was used for staves, gun-stocks, &c.

After a successful career of four years, Mr. Dodds had the misfortune to lose his right eye by an accident, which necessitated his retirement. Joseph Bramah was desirous to secure his services, and made him a liberal offer to act as consulting engineer with him, and that he should not be required to look on paper.

However, he was induced to go to Rotherham by his brother-in-law, John Stephenson, who had taken the contract for making the Sheffield and Rotherham and a portion of the North Midland railways. On their completion he became the Locomotive Superintendent, and made the first locomotive engine turntable, to work on a smooth outer ring; he introduced various self-acting switches: he dispensed with the leather-cased buffers filled with horsehair, and made buffers with a series of spiral springs, for engines and carriages.

Travelling one day to Derby with Messrs. Robert Stephenson and Barlow, the engineers, after lighting a cigar with a paper spill, which he had twisted in a spiral form, he carelessly retained the spill, springing it backwards and forwards between his thumb and finger, when it sprang away some distance; it immediately struck him that if a piece of paper had that power, a piece of steel so coiled would make a capital buffer. Next day he had two large buffers made, one of flat steel, the other of round steel, with the sides flattened, and had them fixed at Rotherham as a stop for the engines to run against. Finding that they answered the purpose satisfactorily, he had a model made for engine buffers, similar in form to those afterwards patented by Mr. Baillie and others, under the title of 'volute springs.'

Amongst his other inventions may be mentioned the little machine for punching, called the 'Bear,' the 'punching and shearing machine,' the 'rail-straightening press,' and the 'Jim Crow' used by platelayers.

In 1845 Mr. Dodds went to Glasgow with Messrs. Stephenson, Mackenzie, and Brassey, and was interested in making the Lancaster and Carlisle and Caledonian Railways.

In 1846 he designed and erected a rectangular wrought-iron girder bridge at the Beattock, on the Caledonian Railway, to carry a stream over the cutting, about 90 feet across, and a roadway over it. This aqueduct or bridge the Government Inspector declined to pass, and was only eventually settled by Mr. Brassey agreeing to become responsible and building two piers. The tests were satisfactory.

When Mr. Robert Stephenson first conceived the idea of constructing the Menai tube, he explained his views to Mr. Dodds, who gave him the results of his experience, and advocated the rectangular form of girder in making the proposed experiments. Several wrought-iron girder bridges were erected on the Caledonian and Scottish Central Railways, from 1846 to 1848.

In the latter part of 1850 Mr. Dodds took his eldest son, Mr. T. W. Dodds, into partnership, and re-commenced the Holmes Engine and Railway Works, Rotherham. It must be admitted that by the introduction of steeled rails by Messrs. Dodds, who had great prejudices to overcome, but who persevered and spent freely to prove the economy, increased durability, and superior working of steel as against iron, they were the ‘pioneers' of the rails which railway companies have now almost entirely adopted.

Mr. Dodds and his son carried on the engineering works with considerable success, and obtained a reputation for originality of design and excellence of work in the manufacture of locomotive, portable, and other steam-engines, machinery, and railway plant generally. The first of the type of the portable engines now in use was designed and made at these works, and they supplied, not only home railways, but India, Spain, Portugal, and other foreign countries.

The panic of 1866, and other adverse circumstances at that time, however, had a disastrous effect, which resulted in the closing of the works some little time afterwards. Mr. Dodds never entered into business again, but retired to live with his son, Mr. T. W. Dodds, until his late lamented decease.

Mr. Dodds possessed great general kindness of character. He always assisted aspirants for invention, and corrected their errors, so as to prevent their waste of time and money, advising them how to proceed. He was a man of simple tastes, but of large desires to know everything, generous to a fault, and not careful for his own interest.

He was scarcely appreciated during his lifetime, and it is only just now to judge him by what he did during his lifetime. Mr. Dodds was elected an Associate of the Institution on the 30th of April, 1839, and was transferred to Associate Member on the formation of that class.

He died on the 1st of November, 1882.


See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. BMD
  2. 1839 Institution of Civil Engineers
  3. 1851 census
  4. 'A Story of Railway Pioneers; being an account of the inventions and works of Isaac Dodds and his son Thomas Weatherburn Dodds' by Major S. Snell, 1921
  5. 1884 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries