William Murdoch - The Scottish Edison (1754 - 1839)


William Murdoch (or Murdock) was born in 1754 at Bell o' Mill, near Old Cumnock. His father, who followed the combined avocations of miller, millwright, and farmer, was noted as the inventor of toothed circular gearing. While quite a youth, William's inventive talents began to develop, and he is said to have contrived a wooden horse to go by wheels and treadles, on which he and his brother rode to school.

The invention, however, that was to introduce him to the leading mechanics of the age was an oval lathe. The story of the lathe is this: In the year 1777, Murdoch, then 23 years of age, set out for England with a view of bettering his position in life, and finding his way to Birmingham, called at the Soho Works, then the property of Messrs Boulton & Watt, the latter of whom afterwards became famous as the inventor of the steam engine. Mr Boulton was at hand, and on seeing the raw youth from Ayrshire, was attracted, curiously enough, not so much by the young man as by fine hat he wore. "What is that hat of yours made of?" enquired the great engineer. "It is made of wood," was the reply. "And who made it?"; "I made it myself." "And how?" " I turned it on my lathe," was the ready answer. "What!" asked Mr. Boulton in surprise, "how is it possible to turn an oval in a lathe?" " It's quite possible," said the canny Scot, " for I made the lathe myself that did it. On the merits of the lathe he was immediately engaged on trial at the salary of 15 shillings per week, and he rose so rapidly to distinction that the great James Watt began to regard him as his "right hand man".

Though working for the firm of Boulton & Watt, he resided for the long period of nineteen years at Redruth in Cornwall. At this place he was married, and there he started a foundry of his own. In memory of his stay at Redruth, a tablet bearing the following inscription, was recently erected in his house in Cross Street: "William Murdoch lived in this house 1782 - 1798; made his first locomotive here; tested it in 1784; invented gas-lighting, and used it in this house in 1792"

During his stay in Cornwall he was chiefly engaged by the firm in the erection of engines for the mine-owners of the district, and, as his duties involved a large amount of travelling from one place to another, he set himself to improve upon his youthful idea of the wooden bicycle by constructing one to be driven by steam. After more than two years' application to the work he finished a model high pressure, non-condensing locomotive steam engine, with a copper boiler and fire-box and flue, a spirit lamp, one double-action cylinder, two driving wheels and a steering wheel. This model, exhibited at the great exhibition of 1851, may now be seen in the Birmingham Art Gallery. It ran at the rate of from six to eight miles an hour, and was latterly fitted up with gas. Strangely enough, the man whose name ultimately became indissolubly associated with steam and steam engines discouraged this attempt of Murdoch's, and declared "it would require that God should work a miracle to enable steam to move an engine on wheels." It may thus be fairly allowed that Murdoch is entitled to the credit of being the inventor of the locomotive, the fruits of which were reaped by George Stephenson at a later period.

In 1781, Murdoch invented the famous "sun and planet", a device in mechanics for obtaining circular motion, and also the D slide valve, simplifying and improving thereby the construction of steam engines. He also patented a process for making copperas, vitriol, and different sorts of dye stuffs, paints, &c., from coal, thus precluding the introduction of aniline coal tar dyes, which were not turned to practical account for fifty years afterwards. To shew the fertility of his inventive mind, it may be mentioned that he is the inventor of cast-iron cement, of the oscillating cylinder for marine engines, of a stone-boring machine, and a direct-acting blast engine. He also suggested the transmission of letters and packages through pneumatic tubes, constructed a pneumatic lift, utilized compressed air to ring the bells in his own house, and experimented in many other ways with no small degree of success. As a benefactor of the race, his discovery of the invention of gas-lighting entitles him to high honour.

In his first experiments he generated the gas in an iron retort in the back-court of his house, and conveyed it in a pipe, through a hole in the frame of the window, to a point near the ceiling of his room, much in the same way as it is done still. On 29th July 1792, Murdoch finally managed to achieve a gas flame inside the room. In 1794, he asked his employers to take out a patent for his invention, but the firm being involved in lawsuits over Watt's own patents, declined to take up the matter. After this Murdoch left the Soho works for a time and started a foundry on his own account at Cumnock, a project which he abandoned after a year, and returned to Watt and Boulton as manager of the firm, at a salary of £1,000 per annum. Back in Birmingham he continued to experiment with gas lighting. The main problem faced by Murdoch was to find a safe way of providing effective light. In 1802 Matthew Boulton installed two gas lamps outside his Soho factory. The following year the foundry was entirely illuminated by gas. Soon afterwards Boulton & Watt began to sell lighting and heating equipment and Murdoch had become a partner in the business.

Soon after this the firm entered upon the manufacture of gas-making plant, and the introduction of the new light began gradually to extinguish the penny candles of the ancients. After the death of Boulton, Murdoch became a partner in the Soho concern, and it became under his management one of the greatest engineering works in the world. It was not long before all large factories were using gas lighting. The National Light and Heat Company was founded in 1812. The first street lighting began two years later. In London alone, by 1819, 288 miles of pipes had been laid to supply 51,000 burners.

Murdoch continued to experiment and he was the first person to develop a steam gun. He was less successful at producing an efficient steam car. In 1830, Murdoch retired from the firm, and nine years later he died in his eighty-fifth year, and was buried in Handsworth Church, Birmingham beside his old friends Boulton and Watt.

From "Ayrshire Nights Entertainment: A Descriptive Guide to the History, Traditions, Antiquities of the County of Ayr" by John MacIntosh of Galston, Ayrshire, published in 1894, by John Menzies & Co. of Kilmarnock, Dunlop and Drennan.