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.
The 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.
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 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.
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.
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 www.electricscotland.com/history/other/murdoch_william.htm
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