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Peter William Willans

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1885.22-unit Crompton Dynamo and Willans' Engine.
Willans engine at London Science Museum.

Peter William Willans (1851–1892), engineer

Peter William Willans (1851-1892) of Willans and Robinson

1851 Born on 8 November in Roundhay, Leeds, son of Obadiah Willans, woollen manufacturer, and his wife, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry Tetley.

Attended Leeds grammar school

1867 Became an apprentice with the engineering firm of Carrett and Marshall of Hunslet, Leeds.

1872 Moved to London; joined John Penn and Sons as a draughtsman. While at Penns he designed a high-speed steam engine which had all its working parts totally enclosed and splash-lubricated, a radical departure from contemporary practice but Penns were not prepared to develop it.

1874 of 32, Granville-park, Blackheath, patent on "improvements in steam engines."[1]

1874 Willans's three cylinder high speed single-acting enclosed steam engine described and illustrated in 'Engineering'[2]

Willans formed a partnership to licence other manufacturers of his engine

1875 Patent in respect of the invention of "improvements in hydraulic engines and pumps."[3]

1875 Marine application of Willans engine (see below).

1876 joined Hunter and English of Bow, London, to develop and market the engine for marine use. However, boat builders were reluctant to install such novel machinery.

1880 Willans married Edith Ellen (b. 1854/5), daughter of Kyrle Money, a minister, on 11 December. They had at least three children.

1880 Willans left Hunter and English and went into partnership with Mark Robinson as Willans and Robinson; founded the Ferry Works, Thames Ditton, Surrey, to build engines and boats. The rise of the electricity industry created a new market for his engines, which proved so well suited to driving dynamos that by the time of his death over half the country's electrical power was generated by them. During this time Willans improved his designs and adopted advanced manufacturing techniques, pioneering the rapid assembly of engines from standardized, interchangeable components. He also conducted extensive tests on his engines, which demonstrated their high efficiency and gained him a reputation as a highly scientific engineer.

1885 Willans was awarded the Institution of Civil Engineers' Telford medal

1886 elected a member of ICE.

1887 Triple expansion engine built to his patent of 1884 is in the London Science Museum.

1888 awarded the Watt medal for his paper "Economy trials of a non-condensing steam engine".

1891 Living in Pirbright, chairman of Willans and Robinson Ltd, member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 39, with Edith E Willans 35, Una M Willans 9, Kyrle William Willans 7, Isabella M Willans 5, Gilbert R S Willans 1[4]

1892 May: Died at home in Pirbright.

1892 Birth of son Peter William

Early Marine Application of Willans Engine
'A NEW MARINE ENGINE.
During the last week some very interesting experiments have been made with a steam launch belonging to Sir Gilbert Clayton East. The boat itself is not new, having been built some four years ago by Messrs Forrestt, of Limehouse, and was then fitted with engines for driving twin screws by Messrs John Penn & Sons, the eminent marine engineers of Greenwich. Her owner, however, finding that the two propellers were constantly becoming entangled with weeds, applied, a short time ago to Messrs Penn to supply him with a new engine to drive a single screw, as less liable to that inconvenience. In order to make more cabin accommodation, Sir Gilbert East gave directions that the engines should be fitted very far back in the stern, so far back indeed as to render the application of an ordinary launch engine impossible and at the suggestion of Messrs Penn he decided to make use of a new engine recently patented by Mr P. W. Willans (a gentleman connected with Messrs Penn's factory), which could be easily placed in the limited space in the stern. The work connected with the fitting of this engine on board the boat has just been completed, and the result of the few short runs she has made on the river have been most satisfactory. Mr Willans' engine is constructed with three cylinders, and the only working parts are three pistons, three connecting rods, and a 3-throw crank axle. These are enclosed in a cast-iron casing, so that nothing can be seen of the engine itself except the two ends of the axle, which appear through the casing. The cylinders are placed side by side, and it is by a system of ports which connect the cylinders one with the other, together with a peculiar construction of piston, that the piston of one cylinder acts as the slide and admits steam to the next or the third cylinder. All these ports meet in a three-way cock, and by turning this cock the direction of the steam is altered, and the engine is stopped or reversed with marvellous rapidity. It will thus be seen that all slides, eccentrics, link-motion, and other complicated reversing gear are done away with; there is no exposed machinery to catch dresses, no oil and grease flying about, and none of the other disadvantages which make steam engines in small boats so disagreeable. Besides this, the engine is so simple that it is completely under the control of anyone, and is so compact that it can be lifted in or out of the boat by two men. Two men can also take it to pieces, examine every part, and put it together again, in less than an hour. The steam acts on one side, of the piston only, and, as the pressure is always downwards, the engine is perfectly noiseless.
By means of a very simple arrangement the engine is made to work expansively, and cuts off at five-eighths of its stroke. Though in this particular case more than 380 revolutions per minute is not required, yet an engine of the kind has been constructed to make 1000 revolutions; and at these great speeds, by allowing a small quantity of oil to remain in the bottom of the casing, the lubrication of the working parts is perfect, and such a thing as hot bearing is unknown. The diameter of the cylinders of the engine under our notice is 7in., the stroke being the same, and with 90lb. of steam and 380 revolutions the indicator cards showed a little under 40 horse-power. The weight of the engine by itself is 7cwt.
No reliable trials of the speed of this boat have yet been made, but she steamed from Limehouse to Erith, a distance of 13 miles, the other day, in 75 minutes, against a slack tide. As the mean draught of the boat is one-seventh greater than it was with the old engine, in consequence of the additions to the cabins, and as the trim of the boat is considerably altered, it would be scarcely fair to draw a comparison between the speed with the twin screws and with the new engine. Many engineers of eminence have inspected the engine at work, and have expressed themselves greatly pleased with its arrangement and performance. The length of the boat is 50 feet, beam 7 feet 4 inches. The engine was made for Mr Willans by Messrs Tangye, of Birmingham, and Messrs Penn supplied and fitted the boiler, propeller, shafting, and all other gear.'[5]



1892 Obituary [6]

PETER WILLIAM WILLANS was born at Leeds on 8th November 1851, and received a classical education at the grammar school of that town.

His father, who owned large cloth mills in Leeds, intended that he should be brought up to that trade; but he preferred to become an engineer, and served his apprenticeship from 1867 to 1872 with Messrs. Carrett and Marshall, Sun Foundry, Leeds.

He then went to London, where, after working two years in the drawing office of Messrs. John Penn and Sons, Greenwich, he designed his first high-speed engine.

On leaving them he acted for a short time as a consulting engineer in the firm of Messrs. Willans and Ward.

From 1875 to 1880 he superintended the manufacture of his engine at the works of Messrs. Hunter and English, Bow. At that time the use of the three-cylinder single-acting high-speed Willans engine was almost entirely confined to launches; and as it was difficult to make launch builders believe in high-speed engines, he started works at Thames Ditton in partnership with Mr. Mark H. Robinson, for building not only the engines but the launches as well.

From small beginnings these works grew in importance, at first gradually and then at a more rapid rate, and in 1888 the firm was converted into a company, in the management of which Mr. Willans was actively engaged, both as chairman and as chief engineer.

He devised and elaborated a scheme of profit-sharing, in order to identify the men's interest with that of the company, and in this he entirely succeeded.

Besides his three-cylinder engine, he invented also later the "central-valve" engine, much used for the direct driving of dynamos; an electrical governor, of which the latest form was completed only a short time before his death; and a magnetic coupling for the transmission of power without mechanical contact between the parts.

He was well known as a scientific experimenter of the highest order, as shown by his valuable researches on the action of steam in engines, and his extensive experimental investigations into the economical performances of steam engines working under various conditions.

His death took place on 23rd May 1892, in the forty-first year of his age, as the result of an accident in which he was thrown out of his dog-cart and fell upon his head.

He became a Member of this Institution in 1888, and took part frequently in the discussion of subjects connected with his own researches.


1893 Obituary [7]

....When he left school his father, who owned extensive woollen mills in Leeds, wished him to go into the cloth trade, but Willans was persuaded by an old schoolfellow, W. H. Massey, who had become a millwright, to try Mechanical Engineering.

After serving a short probationary term, he was in 1867 apprenticed to Carrett and Marshall, of Leeds, who were largely engaged in the manufacture of coal-cutting and other mining-machinery, organ-blowers, and hydraulic motors; and it was in connection with apparatus of this kind that he began to design improvements in valve-gear. He made working models of engines and pumps which were marvels of ingenuity, although not of any great practical value.

A few months before he was out of his time the business of Messrs. Carrett and Marshall was transferred, in 1872, to the firm of Messrs. Hathorn, Davis, Campbell, and Davey ; and from letters he wrote pending the negotiations it seems that he had great difficulty in making up his mind whether to stay with the new people, to go into partnership with a fellow-pupil, who offered Willans £5,000 'to put into anything,' or to follow his old schoolfellow to the works of John Penn and Sons, where there was an opening for a draughtsman at 30s. a week. He finally decided on the last course, because of the prospect of the two friends living together and helping each other, and commenced work in the drawing-office at Greenwich early in August, 1872, his first job being a pipe-drawing for two large ironclads ('Kaiser' and 'Deutschland'), although he had never before seen a marine-engine. By sheer hard work he raised himself above the level of his fellows, became exceedingly useful at trial-trips and gained the confidence and respect of those who mere brought into contact with him. His leisure time was spent in reading and in drawing out Zeuner and other valve-gear graphics.

In these studies he received later on considerable assistance from Mr. J. McFarlane Gray, Chief Examiner of Engineers to the Board of Trade, of whom he always spoke with gratitude.

While in the employment of Messrs. Penn, Willans invented, and patented in 1874, his three-cylinder steam-engine, in which the piston of one cylinder acts as the valve of another, the reversing being effected by moving a 6-port three-way valve from one position to another.

The first engine of this type was made by Messrs. Penn, in whose possession it remains, after having been used on many occasions as an auxiliary in the smith-shop, in the pattern-shop and in a floating workshop. But the firm was not prepared to take up the manufacture of the Willans engine; a license was therefore granted to Tangyes of Birmingham and the engine as turned out by them was largely used for various purposes at home and abroad. The failures were so numerous, however, that Willans left Messrs. Penn to join Alexander Ward, who had bought a share of the patents, and, as Willans and Ward, Consulting Engineers, to devote the whole of his time to try to make a success of the undertaking.

When shortly afterwards Messrs. Tangyes, for commercial reasons, decided to withdraw from the matter, Hunter and English of Bow were induced to make the Willans engine for marine purposes and eventually Mr. Willans himself was appointed in 1876 manager of this branch of their business. The English Admiralty and some foreign Governments made many trials with the improved engine, which he designed to work as ‘compound,’ and its applications in other directions were numerous and varied.

During the four years 1876-1879, however, the hopes of all concerned were only partially realized; troubles with 'roller' and other bearings had not yet been entirely overcome and there was also some difficulty in dealing with Willans himself. His outdoor work took him very often to the reaches of the Upper Thames and, having taken up his residence at Hampton Wick, he found it increasingly difficult to give unremitting attention to the indoor work of a factory at Bow.

In October, 1880, therefore, he left Messrs. Hunter and English and went into partnership with Mark H. Robinson, with whom he started works at Thames Ditton for the manufacture of his three-cylinder launch-engine and for building launches and steam-yachts.

When electric lighting was introduced into England, the want of a good high-speed steam-engine was much felt, and, at the advice of Mr. R. E. Crompton and Mr. W. H. Massey, Mr. Willans decided to adapt his engine to this class of work.

The first public trial of one of his engines for electric lighting was in connection with a train-lighting experiment on the District Railway in January, 1884, and in the same year his firm supplied four 50-HP. engines for electrical work at Buckingham Palace.

In 1885 the demand for larger engines of the high-speed type for central station work induced him to undertake the design of an improved engine to compete in economy of steam with the highest class of slow-running engines ; the Willans 'central-valve' engine was the result. Two years later, the building of launches having been practically abandoned, the growing importance of the business led to its conversion into a limited company, of which Mr. Willans acted as Chairman until his death.

Thrown from his dog-cart on the morning of the 23rd of May, 1892, when driving to catch an early train, he received injuries: to the brain, from which he died on the same day at his home at Frimley in Surrey.....[more]


Read his obituary in The Engineer 1892/05/27.

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. London Gazette, 1874
  2. 'Engineering' 18 Sept 1874
  3. London Gazette 1875
  4. 1891 census
  5. Glasgow Herald - Thursday 8 April 1875
  6. 1892 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  7. 1893 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  • Biography of Peter Willans, ODNB [1]