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British Industrial History

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John Barnes

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John Barnes (1798-1852)

1823 John Barnes, Engineer, Mercers Place, Commercial Road, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[1]

1850 The four cylinder opposed piston engines for the French Navy's screw steamship Charlemagne were designed and constructed under the superintendence of John Barnes at La Ciotat, assisted by Robert Walker. Described in 'The Artizan' in 1854[2], with drawing here


1853 Obituary [3]

Mr. John Barnes, who was born at Walker-Colliery, near Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on the 12th of August 1798, descended from a family of mining engineers; the five previous generations having all been 'coal viewers,' of considerable eminence in the north.

His father, Thomas Barnes, (who died in the year 1801) was a man of education and general acquirements, and in a voluminous correspondence with Smeaton, and subsequently with Boulton and Watt, relative to the erection and duty of steam-engines, for draining mines and raising coals, erected under his direction, from their plans, he exhibited proofs of superior information on the subject of steam and its application, and demonstrated great sagacity and intelligence.

With such a father, and under the care of a mother, who was well calculated to guide and instruct him, from his earliest days, John Barnes was imperceptibly induced to study, and the plates of Dr. Desagulier’s Natural Philosophy, became his hornbook and primer.

At a very early age he was committed to the care of the Rev. W. Rawes, M.A., in whose school, at Houghton-le-Spring, Durham, he received the rudiments of a superior classical and mathematical education; his predilection for mechanical construction manifesting itself, more powerfully than pleasantly, in his illustrations of the graphic descriptions in Caesar's Commentaries, of Catapultae, and Arbaletae, with the models of which, made in his hours of recreation, he frequently endangered his companions and his tutors.

At the early age of fifteen he was removed from school, when, in consideration of the important services rendered by his father, to the firm of Boulton and Watt, and in consequence of the celebrated James Watt being his godfather, he was received into the Soho Works, and allowed access to all parts of the establishment, enjoying the advantage of frequent intercourse with the heads of the establishment, and receiving instruction from Murdoch, Southeron, and the other eminent men, then conducting the executive portions of the Soho Works.

He there formed an intimacy with Joseph Miller, (M.Inst.C.E.) who ultimately became his partner, and during the period of his stay at Soho, his aptitude for acquiring knowledge, and his untiring industry in accumulating information, seizing only on the most essential points, with an intuitive dread of wasting time on trivialities, were remarkable features in the character of a youth not seventeen years of age.

In 1815, furnished with introductions from Mr. Watt, to Professors Playfair and Leslie, he went to Edinburgh, where he followed, with assiduity, the various classes, but more particularly those of Natural Philosophy, Mathematics, Chemistry, Mineralogy, Logic, and Drawing. Here he followed the same untiring course of study and, on quitting the university, he brought away high testimonials of the intelligence he had displayed, and for his successful mastery of subjects, to which he had devoted attention.

From Professor Leslie, in particular, he obtained a letter, mentioning in terms of high commendation, the great proficiency he had attained in the study of natural philosophy, and stating that frequently, during the absence of the demonstrator, Mr. Barnes had performed the experiments, illustrative of the Professor's lectures.

On quitting Edinburgh, in the year 1817, Mr. Barnes was articled to the late F. Giles (M.Inst.C.E.), to receive instructions in surveying, and at the end of the year 1818, his master said of him, 'He is now competent to the practice of land surveying, levelling, and mapping, and as to his abilities, they are competent to anything he may follow.'

Being then twenty years of age, he thought it was time to commence his professional career, and whilst looking around for an engagement with some established civil engineer, he received some employment for engineering and surveying business; among others from Gordon and Murphy, who desired to engage his services at the mines of Moran, near Vera Cruz, for the purpose of superintending the erection of steam-engines, and for suggesting such improvements, as might seem to him best calculated to drain and work the mines effectually and economically.

In consequence of some misunderstanding arising between the Mining Company and the Spanish Government, he renounced his intention of going to South America; but was commissioned by Messrs. Gordon and Murphy to design and superintend the construction of a pumping-engine on the Cornish principle; this machine he ordered at the Butterley Iron Works, where his former companion and friend Joseph Miller, was then engaged, and being thus again brought together, an arrangement was entered into between them, to commence business in London, as manufacturing engineers, with the avowed object of devoting their attention principally to the construction of engines for steam-vessels.

Accordingly in the year 1822 the firm of Barnes and Miller commenced the construction of engines, in which, from the beginning, they introduced the use of steam expansively in marine engines, a system not generally practised at that period; but to which, with general improved proportions and better workmanship, must be attributed, in a great degree, the success they attained and the reputation they established, both in England and on the Continent, but more especially in France, where in consequence of the shallowness of the water, and the rapidity of the currents in the principal rivers, the lightness and excellent proportions of the framing and other parts, the general efficiency, and the moderate consumption of fuel of their engines, were valuable points.

Before this period, the introduction of steam power for the propulsion of passenger vessels on the Rhone and the Saone, had been scarcely deemed practicable, and the endeavour to employ it for towing barges, had been attended with very moderate success. When attempted by some French Engineers, by Manby, Wilson and Co, of Charenton, and by Steele and Atkins, of La Gare, a member of this latter firm was killed by the explosion of the boiler, in an attempt to propel the vessel against the stream; and the Writer of this memoir (who had gone on board to aid his countrymen in overcoming a difficulty,) only saved his life and those of his workmen, by ordering them in great haste from the boat, on perceiving that the working engineer had fastened down the safety valve, by a strut between the end of the valve lever and the deck carline; the explosion occurred, before the party reached the shore, and the unfortunate cause of it perished, with a number of persons of some importance in Lyons.

This catastrophe and the general indifferent success of the previous attempts, had so depressed all speculative enterprise at Lyons, that when a Company was formed, for the navigation of the Rhone, Messrs. Barnes and Miller felt themselves called upon to make a considerable investment in the affair, to impart to it some degree of confidence, which still was very wavering; when however, on the first upward voyage, intelligence was sent by courier, from each station, that the steamer was overcoming all difficulties, the value of the shares rose, as the solution of the problem approached, and when the boat reached Lyons, in two days less than the time guaranteed by the Engineers, the securities had reached a premium, and were eagerly purchased from Messrs. Barnes and Miller, who immediately secured extensive orders for engines and machinery for France, and subsequently for this country, where the reputation of the machinery from the works thus established, has been worthily maintained to the present time.

It should be mentioned, also, that the 'Sophia-Jane,' the first steam-vessel ever employed in Australia, was constructed by Messrs. Barnes and Miller, and was sent out to the colony, as their speculation.

At the termination of his connexion with Mr. Miller, in 1835, Mr. Barnes commenced business on his own account, giving the designs for the engines, for which he entered into contracts, and superintending their construction at the Horseley Ironworks, Tipton, near Birmingham. In this manner he supplied a number of engines, of acknowledged superiority, using an improved kind of feathering paddle-wheel, similar to 'Cave's,' or 'Morgan’s' wheel, in the general features, but simpler and of a more solid and enduring construction.

These engines and paddle-wheels were chiefly placed on board vessels constructed by the celebrated ship-builder, M. Normand, of Havre-de-Grace, and the success attained, was such as might have been anticipated, from the combination of the talents of two such men. The obituary lists the ships built here- Ed.

Among the vessels so produced, was 'Le Napoleon,' in 1842, one of the earliest successful attempts to adapt the screw propeller to navigation; an account of which was given by M. Normand at a meeting of the Institution, on the 13th February 1844, and recorded in the Minutes of Proceedings.

The following extract, from a communication from M. Normand, fils, gives an interesting account of some of Mr. Barnes’ labours, and exhibits the high appreciation of his talents, and the feeling entertained for him in a foreign land:-

(Long passage in obituary in French omitted- Ed.)

For some time subsequently, Mr. Barnes was principally engaged as a consulting Engineer, as referee, in cases of litigation, and to some extent in designing marine engines; until the year 1845, when, through the recommendation of his friend Mr. Robert Stephenson, M.P., the management of the works at La Ciotat, near Marseilles, was intrusted to him by MM. Louis Benet and Cie, and where, in spite of impediments, which would have effectually arrested any man possessing less confidence in his own powers, or less determination to exercise them, he produced, entirely from his own designs and chiefly from drawings made by himself, a number of steam-vessels advantageously known in the Mediterranean, [The obituary lists the ships built here- Ed.] where they perform the service of the Post-office, and on other stations.

On the completion of the 'Charlemagne,' screw steam frigate, his last, and probably, his most successful work, he received the decoration of the Legion d'Honneur, with a highly complimentary testimonial from the Government, for the services rendered to France, in the improvement of her steam navy; services, which it is deeply to be regretted, could not have been secured for his own country, and which were not only offered, but were pressed on the Government, by those friends who knew Mr. Barnes’ value, before he consented to accept the engagement at 'La Ciotat.'

Mr. Barnes was a man of profound and varied knowledge; in addition to the wide range of scientific subjects connected with his profession, in all of which he was soundly versed, he understood the most minute practical details of construction, indeed, he was frequently blamed for expending his valuable time, on minor points, which might have been intrusted to others.

His recreation was the study of the early history of mankind, and he was deeply read in the antiquities of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, as well as in Architecture, Archeology, Numismatics, and Ethnology; he had devoted much attention to Theology, and entertained sound and original views of the correspondence between the Mosaic accounts of the Creation, and modern Geological investigations. He was a good Greek and Latin scholar, spoke and wrote French with great fluency, and for the purposes of aiding his studies had acquired several modern languages. He was a good executive musician, and was thoroughly versed in the theory of the science. He was a sound and original thinker, and it was impossible to come in contact with him, without being struck by the philosophical character of his views, and being instructed by his conversation.

He joined the Institution, as a Member, in the year 1823, frequently distinguished himself in the discussions at the meetings, imparting freely the rich stores of knowledge he possessed ; and always mindful of its interests, he bequeathed to the Library a considerable portion of the correspondence of his father with Mr. Smeaton, and Messrs. Boulton and Watt, which it is anticipated may exhibit some interesting facts Connected with the history of engineering at that period.

During the last few years of his life, he was subjected to severe trials in his professional career, which he was aided in supporting by the unfailing devotion of his excellent wife; a lady descended from the old Staffordshire families of Biddulph and Burnet, and who possessing most excellent sense and talents, unobtrusively influenced her husband and supported him, under trying circumstances, when without such incitement his energies might have flagged Her deep solicitude was for his welfare and happiness, as her sole ambition was to see his fame established; to the former she devoted her life, and the latter must be amply satisfied by the universal testimony of esteem and respect paid to his memory.

He died at La Ciotat, on the 24th of September 1852, in the fifty-fourth year of his age, after a very short illness; his remains were brought to England by his only brother, and laid beside those of his parents, at Long Benton, near the place of his birth.

He was an upright, honest man, who used well the talents he had been blessed with, and he carried with him, to the grave, the esteem and respect of all who knew him.


Notes [4]

A contributor writes: 'Evans built the Sophia Jane. Barnes and Miller bought the engineless vessel at auction and installed her machinery'

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