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Significant Scots
James Taylor


TAYLOR, JAMES, whose name must ever bear a conspicuous and honorable place in the history of the invention of steam navigation, was born, May 2, 1758, at the village of Leadhills, in Lanarkshire, and received the rudiments of his education at the academy of Closeburn. After fitting himself to enter the medical profession, he was engaged, in the year 1785, by Mr Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, to superintend the education of the two sons of that gentleman, who were in attendance at the university of Edinburgh. It was also the aim of Mr Miller, that Mr Taylor, whose scientific acquirements had been warmly spoke of by the common friend who recommended him to the situation, should assist him in those mechanical pursuits with which for some years he had been in the habit of amusing his leisure hours. In the year just mentioned, Mr. Miller was engaged in a series of operations for applying paddle wheels to vessels, rather with a view to extricating them from perilous situations against the impulse of wind and tide, than with any expectaion that such machinery, driven, as he contemplated it to be, by human power alone, could be of use in ordinary navigation. Mr Taylor entered at once into Mr Miller’s views, and aided in the preparation of a double vessel, of sixty feet in length, with intermediate paddles, driven by a capstan, which Mr Miller tried in the Firth of Forth, in spring, 1787, against a custom-house wherry, which it easily distanced. On this occasion Mr Taylor became convinced of the utility of the paddles; but, observing that the men were much exhausted by their labour, he was equally convinced that a superior mechanical power was wanting, in order to realize the full value of the invention. Having communicated his thoughts to Mr Miller, he received from that gentleman the following answer:--"I am of the same opinion, and that power is just what I am in search of. My object is to add mechanical aid to the natural power of the wind, to enable vessels to avoid and to extricate themselves from dangerous situations, which they cannot do on their present construction." Invited to co-operate in this object, Mr Taylor applied himself to the consideration of all the mechanical powers already in common use, but without being able to convince himself of the applicability of any of them. At length the steam-engine presented itself to him; and though he might be naturally supposed to have been himself startled at the boldness of such a thought, he soon convinced himself of its being practicable. On suggesting it to Mr Miller, he found he had excited more astonishment at the novelty, than respect of the feasibility of the scheme. Mr Miller allowed the sufficiency of the power; but was disposed to deny that it could be applied, more particularly in those critical circumstances to obviate which was the chief aim of his own project. "In such cases," said he, "as that disastrous event which happened lately, of the wreck of a whole fleet upon a lee shore, off the coast of Spain, every fire on board must be extinguished, and of course such an engine could be of no use." Mr Taylor was not daunted by these objections, but, on the contrary, the more he thought of the project, the more convinced he became of its practicability. He represented to Mr Miller, that, if not applicable to purposes of general navigation, it might at least prove useful on canals and estuaries. After many conversations, the latter gentleman at length conceded so far to Mr Taylor’s suggestion, as to request him to make drawings, for the purpose of showing how the engine could be connected with the paddle-wheels. Mr Taylor did so, and Mr Miller, being still further satisfied, though as yet, it appears, unconvinced, agreed to be at the expense of an experiment, provided it should not amount to a large sum, and that Mr Taylor should superintend the operations, as he candidly confessed he was a stranger to the use of steam. The two projectors were then at Dalswinton; but it was arranged that, when they should return to Edinburgh in the early part of winter, an engine should be constructed for the purpose. Part of the summer was employed by Mr Miller in drawing up a narrative of his experiments upon shipping, with a view to its being printed and circulated. This he submitted to Mr Taylor for the benefit of his correction; and the latter gentleman, observing that no mention had been made of the application of the steam engine, "I have not done that inadvertently," answered Mr Miller, "but from a wish not to pledge myself to the public for a thing I may never perform: you know my intentions on that subject are as yet conditional." Mr Taylor replied, that he could hardly look upon them in that light, as he was satisfied that any expense which could attach to so small a matter would not prevent him (Mr Miller) from making the experiment; that he considered the mention of the steam engine as of importance; and that it could be alluded to in such a manner as to pledge him to nothing. Mr Miller was convinced, and introduced an allusion to steam, as an agent he might perhaps employ for the propulsion of his vessels. Copies of the paper thus improved were transmitted to the royal family, the ministers, many of the leading members of both houses of parliament, and to all the maritime powers in Europe, besides the president of the United States of America.

In November, 1787, Mr Miller removed as usual to the capital, and Mr Taylor, having been empowered by his employer to proceed about the construction of an engine, recommended to Mr Miller’s notice a young man named Symington, who had attempted some alterations upon the steam engine, and was now residing in Edinburgh for his improvement in mechanics. It was agreed that Symington should form an engine on his own plan, and that the experiment should be made in the ensuing summer upon the lake of Dalswinton. The construction of the engine occupied several months, and was not completed at the conclusion of that session of the university; so that Mr Taylor was detained in town, to superintend the operations, for some time after his pupils had returned with their father to the country. When all was ready, he proceeded with Symington to Dalswinton, where, on the 14th of October, 1788, the experiment was made in the presence of Mr Miller and a considerable concourse of spectators. The boat was a double one, and the engine, which had a four inch cylinder, was placed in a frame upon the deck. The experiment was successful beyond the most sanguine wishes of any of the parties concerned. The vessel moved at the rate of five miles an hour, and neither was any awkwardness found in the connexion of the engine with the wheels, nor hazard apprehended in any considerable degree from the introduction of a furnace into so inflammable a fabric. The experiment was repeated several times during the course of the few ensuing days, and always with perfect success, insomuch that the invention became a subject of great local notoriety. An account of the experiments, drawn up by Mr Taylor, was inserted in the Dumfries Journal newspaper, and the event was also noticed in the Scots Magazine of the ensuing month.

Mr Miller now formed the design of covering his own and Mr Taylor’s joint invention by a patent; but, in the first place, it was judged expedient that experiments should be made with a vessel and engine more nearly approaching the common size. For this purpose Mr Taylor went to the Carron foundry, with his engineer, Symington, and there, in the summer of 1789, fitted up a vessel of considerable dimensions, with an engine, of which the cylinder measured eighteen inches in diameter. In the month of November this was placed on the Forth and Clyde canal, in the presence of the Carron Committee of Management, and of the parties chiefly interested. The vessel moved along very smoothly for a space beyond Lock Sixteen, when, on giving the engine full play, the flat boards of the paddles, which had been weakly constructed, began to give way, which put an end to the experiment. The paddles having been reconstructed on a stronger principle, another experiment was made on the 26th of December, when the vessel made easy and uninterrupted progress, at the rate of seven miles an hour. Except in speed, the performances on these occasions were as perfect as any which have since been accomplished by steam-vessels. The project was now conceived, by all parties, to have gone through a sufficient probation, so far as the objects of inland navigation were concerned; and in an account of the latter experiments, drawn up by Mr (afterwards lord) Cullen, and published in the Edinburgh newspapers, February 1790, this view is firmly taken.

On reviewing the expenses of these proceedings, Mr Miller found considerable cause of chagrin in their amount, which, chiefly in consequence, as he said, of the extravagance of the engineer, greatly exceeded what he had been led to expect. Subsequently he devoted his attention and means to agricultural improvements; and Mr Taylor could never prevail on him to resume their project. The cultivation of florine grass at last took such hold of the mind of Mr Miller, that, in the belief of Mr Taylor, no other object on earth could have withdrawn him from it. Mr Fergusson, younger of Craigdarroch, in 1790, endeavoured, but in vain, to engage the interest of the court of Vienna in the new invention.

The indifference of Mr Miller, the direction of public attention to the war which soon after commenced, and the unfavourable situation of Mr Taylor, in an inland part of the country, and unable of himself to do anything, conspired to throw the project for several years into abeyance. At length, in 1801, Mr Symington, who had commenced business at Falkirk, resolved to prosecute a design, in the origination of which he had borne an active and serviceable, though subordinate part. He wished lord Dundas to employ him to fit up a small experimental steam-vessel, which was tried on the Forth and Clyde canal, but, causing much disintegration of the banks, was forbidden by the Company to be ever set in motion again. This vessel was laid up at Lock Sixteen, where it remained for a number of years. Symington was afterwards in terms with the duke of Bridgewater for introducing steam navigation on his grace’s canal, and Messrs Miller and Taylor were about to take measures to protect their joint invention from being appropriated by this individual, when the death of the duke, and the abandonment of the scheme, saved them that trouble.

Some time after, Mr Fulton, from the United States of America, accompanied by Mr Henry Bell of Glasgow, when on a visit to the Carron works, waited on Mr Symington, and inspected the boat which he had fitted up for the Forth and Clyde canal. The consequence was, that, in 1807, the former gentleman launched a steam vessel on the Hudson, and, in 1812, Mr Bell another upon Clyde, being respectively the first vessels of the kind used for the service of the public in the new and old hemispheres. Thus, after all the primary difficulties of the invention had been overcome,--when the bark was ready, as it were, to start from the shore, and waited only for the master to give the word for that purpose,--did two individuals, altogether alien to the project, come in and appropriate the honour of launching it into the open sea. Unquestionably, the merit of these individuals in overcoming many practical difficulties, is very considerable; yet it is clear that they were indebted for the idea to the previous inventions and operations of Messrs Miller and Taylor, and that if the latter gentleman had, in the one instance, been inclined, and in the other able, to carry their project into effect at the proper time, they would not have been anticipated in this part of the honour, any more than in the suggestion of the paddles and the engine.

It appears that Mr Taylor by no means sat tamely by, while Fulton and Bell were reaping the credit due to their labours. Mr Taylor repeatedly urged Mr Miller to renewed exertions, though always without success; kept his claims as well as he could before the public eye; and, on finding that Mr Symington had obtained a patent, forced him into an agreement to share the profits, none of which, however, were ever realized. When the vast importance of steam navigation had become fully established, the friends of Mr Taylor, who was not in prosperous circumstances, urged upon him the propriety of laying his claims before the government, and soliciting a reward suitable to the magnitude and importance of the discovery. At last, in 1824, he was induced to draw up a statement of his concern in the invention of steam navigation, which he printed and addressed to Sir Henry Parnell, chairman of the select committee of the House of Commons, upon steam boats. He hoped that his narrative might be the means of obtaining from the government some remuneration for the incalculable services he had performed to mankind; but it had no such effect. Bowed down by infirmities, and the fruits of a long life of disappointments, this ingenious man died on the 18th of September, 1825, in the sixty-eighth year of his age.


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