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William MurdockWilliam Murdock

steam engine and coal gas pioneer

William Murdock was born in Ayrshire, Scotland, on August 21, 1754, the son of a millwright. In 1777 he moved to Birmingham to join the Soho manufactory, the engineering works owned by Matthew Boulton and James Watt. Two years later, Murdock was sent to Cornwall to supervise the installation of Watt steam engines to work pumping equipment in the tin mines. He settled in Redruth and married the daughter of a Cornish mine overseer. In addition to his installation duties, Murdock was also engaged in helping Watt devise a method by which continuous rotary motion could be used to turn the moving machinery of mills, and the rotary piston gear that Watt patented in 1781 is believed to have been of Murdock's devising.

Dissatisfied with simply making improvements to the Watt engine, Murdock determined to build an engine which would have the power of locomotion. Devoting all his spare time to this idea, he eventually managed to build a machine that stood on three wheels, was about a foot in height, and that had a spirit-lamp underneath the boiler to turn the water into steam. The "steam carriage" managed to terrify the vicar of Redruth one evening when he encountered it on a test run along the church path, but it worked. (According to the correspondence of Boulton and Watt, it is believed that the first trial run of Murdock's "steam carriage" came in 1784). Murdock's bosses regarded such an application of steam power as frivolous, however, and no one was able to make progress with a steam-driven vehicle as long as Watt controlled the patent. Fortunately, Murdock's ambition was later taken up by another young inventor, Richard Trevithick.

a model of the gas plant Murdock designed to light up his workshopsThe invention for which Murdock is best known is the use of coal gas for lighting purposes. Several independent inquirers into the constituents of Newcastle coal had arrived at the conclusion that nearly one-third of the substance was driven off in vapor by the application of heat, and that the vapor so driven off was inflammable. But no suggestion had been made to apply this vapor for lighting purposes until Murdock took the matter in hand. Murdock tested the effects of different types of coal from all over Britain, setting up an iron retort in the back yard of his home from which a metal tube ran into the living room. On July 29, 1792, he presided at the lighting of a gas flame within the room. It would be several years, however, before Murdock took his invention beyond this rudimentary stage.

right: a model of the gas plant Murdock designed to light up his workshops

Murdock returned to Soho in 1798, took up his permanent residence in the neighborhood, and resumed his experiments with coal gas. He knew he still had a long way to go in devising storage methods, mantles to give effective light, and gas purification systems, as well as safety measures. Boulton and Watt took great interest in Murdock's progress, but were reluctant to apply for patents because they were currently engaged in litigation over their steam engine patents. They finally overcame their reluctance, however, and by 1803 the Soho factory was entirely illuminated by gas. The "Soho stink," as Murdock called the odor of the gas, was eliminated after a time and factories as well as private homes began to install the system.

On February 25, 1808, Murdock read a paper before the Royal Society entitled On the Application of Gas from Coal to Economical Purposes, in which he gave a history of the origin and progress of his experiments.

Murdock's catalog of inventions and ideas also includes: a method of harnessing compressed air that he used to work the bells in his Birmingham home (1802); a high-pressure steam engine that could propel shot (1803); a cylindral crown saw that could be used to bore steam pipes for water and cut columns out of solid blocks of stone (1810); an iron cement, the basic formula of which is still in use today, and; a method of transmitting letters and packages through a tube exhausted by an air pump.

Murdock took little interest in developments after 1810, by which time the gas industry was in the hands of businessmen scrambling for position and setting up rival gas companies in every city. In that year Murdock became a partner in the Soho company and remained so until he retired in 1830. He died in Birmingham on November 15, 1839, and is buried near his former employers and mentors, Boulton and Watt.

Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York: Facts on File, 1979

Significant Scots

James Watt

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