Thursday, August 21, 2014

William Murdock 'enlights' the 19th Century

William Murdock
(1754 – 1839)
On August 21, 1754, Scottish engineer and inventor William Murdock was born. He was the first to make extensive use of coal gas for illumination and a pioneer in the development of steam power.

William Murdock (sometimes also referred to as Murdoch) excelled in the field of math from early age and even studied the principles of mechanics and worked much with metal and wood while helping out in his fathers work. It is not quite clear, which achievements Murdock really made in these years. It is assumed that he built a wooden horse with his father that he was responsible for the construction of a bridge. Also, it is believed that the young Murdock performed several experiments with coal gas, but this is not really proven. He got to know James Watt around 1777 and was hired in Birmingham due to his extraordinary abilities.

Murdock was soon sent to Cornwall in order to erect and maintain Boulton & Watt engines, which he did perfectly, as Boulton later wrote. However, they were not the only company operating in the Cornwall area and it became soon clear that most of these companies started copying from each other. Murdock was appointed to undertake some inspections of their competitor's engines and was sometimes threatened for doing so. But Murdock also spent a lot of time improving the Boulton & Watt engines and it is known that he discussed some further inventions with his employers. Unfortunately, his contract stated that all inventions he made belonged to the company and therefore, it is not exactly clear, which improvements he made in this period. In 1799, he invented a steam wheel that was a lot more efficient than any of its kind and due to the fact that his contract was amended by then, he was able to file this patent in his own name.

To one of his most important inventions belongs the so called road locomotive in 1784. Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot was already known to have demonstrated a similar device even though it weighted more than 4 tonnes. Murdock built a working model on his own and on this day there are several accounts from witnesses who "saw the model steam carriage run around Murdock's living room in Redruth in 1784". This model had 3 wheels with the engine and boiler placed between the two larger back wheels. Murdock performed the first public demonstration in Great Britain, but he never really gained popularity for these achievements.

However, Murdock is best known for his gas light. Many historians believe that his first experiments with gas took place in a cave in the early 1790s and first, he had to develop a method for the production and the capture of gas. He returned to Birmingham in 1798 where he continued his experiments and four years later, he performed a public exhibition of his lighting by illuminating the exterior of the Soho Foundry. Soon, companies like Philips gained their interest in illuminated their factories. Still, it is believed that he never really made much money from his invention, even though soon most towns in Britain were lit by gas.

Murdock moved into a house in Birmingham, where he installed several of his inventions like the gas light, a doorbell that worked by compressed air and even a conditioning system. Around 1830, his partnership with Boulton & Watt came to an end. William Murdock passed away in 1839.

At yovisto, you can watch John Merriman's video lecture on the Industrial Revolution at Yale University.

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