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Significant Scots
Henry Bell


BELL, HENRY, the first successful applier of steam to the purposes of navigation in Europe, was born at Torphichen in Linlithgowshire, April 7, 1767. He was sprung from a race of mechanics, being the fifth son of Patrick Bell and Margaret Easton, whose ancestors, through several descents, were alike well-known in the neighbourhood as ingenious mill-wrights and builders; some of them having also distinguished themselves in the erection of public works, such as harbours, bridges, &c., not only in Scotland, but also in the other divisions of the United Kingdom. Henry Bell, after receiving a plain education at the parish school, began, in 1780, to learn the handicraft of a stone-mason. Three years after, he changed his views in favour of the other craft of the family, and was apprenticed to his uncle, who practised the art of a mill-wright. At the termination of his engagement, he went to Borrowstounness, for the purpose of being instructed in ship modelling, and, in 1787, he engaged with Mr James Inglis, engineer at Bell’s Hill, with the view of completing his knowledge of mechanics. He afterwards went to London, where he was employed by the celebrated Mr Rennie; so that his opportunities of acquiring a practical acquaintance with the higher branches of his art, were altogether very considerable.

About the year 1790, Bell returned to Scotland, and it is said that he practised for several years, at Glasgow, the unambitious craft of a house-carpenter. He was entered October 20, 1797, as a member of the corporation of wrights in that city. It was his wish to become an undertaker of public works in Glasgow; but either from a deficiency of capital, or from want of steady application, he never succeeded to any extent in that walk. "The truth is," as we have been informed, "Bell had many of the features of the enthusiastic projector; never calculated means to ends, or looked much farther than the first stages or movements of any scheme. His mind was a chaos of extraordinary projects, the most of which, from his want of accurate scientific calculation, he never could carry into practice. Owing to an imperfection in even his mechanical skill, he scarcely ever made one part of a model suit the rest, so that many designs, after a great deal of pains and expense, were successively abandoned. He was, in short, the hero of a thousand blunders and one success." The idea of propelling vessels by means of steam early took possession of his mind. "In 1800 (he writes) I applied to Lord Melville, on purpose to show his lordship and the other members of the Admiralty, the practicability and great utility of applying steam to the propelling of vessels against winds and tides, and every obstruction on rivers and seas, where there was depth of water." Disappointed in this application, he repeated the attempt in 1803, with the same result, notwithstanding the emphatic declaration of the celebrated Lord Nelson, who, addressing their lord-ships on the occasion, said, "My Lords, if you do not adopt Mr Bell’s scheme, other nations will, and in the end vex every vein of this empire. It will succeed (he added), and you should encourage Mr Bell." Having obtained no support in this country, Bell forwarded copies of the prospectus of his scheme to the different nations of Europe, and to the United States of America. "The Americans," he writes, "were the first who put my plan into practice, and were quickly followed by other nations." The various attempts which preceded that of Bell are briefly noticed in the "Fifth Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Steam-Boats, June, 1822, Sir Henry Parnell, chairman." Mentioning the following as experimenters, namely, Mr Jonathan Hulls, in 1736; the Duke of Bridgewater, on the Manchester and Runcorn canal; Mr Miller of Dalswinton; the Marquis de Jouffroy (a French nobleman), in 1781; Lord Stanhope, in 1795; and Mr Symington and Mr Taylor, on the Forth and Clyde canal, in 1801-2; the Report proceeds—"These ingenious men made valuable experiments, and tested well the mighty power of steam. Still no practical uses resulted from any of these attempts. It was not till the year 1807, when the Americans began to use steamboats on their rivers, that their safety and utility were first proved. But the merit of constructing these boats is due to natives of Great Britain. Mr Henry Bell of Glasgow gave the first model of them to the late Mr Fulton of America, and corresponded regularly with Fulton on the subject. Mr Bell continued to turn his talents to the improving of steam apparatus, and its application to various manufactures about Glasgow; and in 1811, constructed the Comet steam-boat."

The launching of the first American steam-boat on the Hudson, and the first British steam-boat on the Clyde, was the commencement of the application of Watt’s great discovery as a locomotive power. Already the improvement of the steam-engine had given a new impulse to manufacturing industry, which only required a more peaceable era to develope itself in boundless progression. But the improved steam-engine was now also to be employed in increasing the rapidity and regularity of conveyance by water, and in uniting the most remote parts of the globe in social and commercial relationship. It was destined also, before the lapse of many years, to accelerate the speed of travelling by land to a degree which had not been imagined by the most sanguine; and from the united influence of both was to be evoked that most astonishing discovery of all, which, literally annihilating time and space, makes the lightning itself the medium of communication throughout continents, and across arms of the sea. It is remarkable, as Dr. Lardner has observed, that the introduction of steam navigation is due to the intelligence of men "none of whom shared those privileges of mental culture enjoyed by the favoured sons of wealth; none of whom grew up within the walls of schools or colleges, drawing inspiration from the fountains of ancient learning;" but "sustained by that innate consciousness of power, stimulated by that irrepressible force of will, so eminently characteristic of minds of the first order, they, in their humble and obscure positions, persevered against adverse and embarrassing circumstances, against the doubts, the opposition, and not unfrequently the ridicule of an incredulous world, until at length, truth was triumphant, and mankind now gathers the rich harvest sown by these illustrious labourers."

In 1808, Bell removed to the modern village of Helensburgh, on the Firth of Clyde, where his wife undertook the superintendence of the public baths, and at the same time kept the principal inn, whilst he continued to prosecute his favourite scheme, without much regard to the ordinary affairs of the world. In 1812 he produced his steam-boat, the Comet, of 30 tons burthen, with an engine of three horsepower. The Comet, so called from the celebrated comet which appeared at that time, was built by Messrs John Wood and Co., at Port-Glasgow, and made her trial trip on the 18th of January, when she sailed from Glasgow to Greenock, making five miles an hour against a head-wind. In August of the same year we find Bell advertising the Comet to ply upon the Clyde three times a week from Glasgow, "to sail by the power of air, wind, and steam." In September the voyage was extended to Oban and Fort-William, and was to be accomplished to and from the latter place in four days. Mr Bell lived to see his invention universally adopted. The Clyde, which first enjoyed the advantages of steam navigation, became the principal seat of this description of ship-building, and, at the present time, Clyde-built steamers maintain their superiority in every port in the world. Steamships are now launched from the building-yards of Glasgow and Greenock of 2000 tonnage and 800 horse-power; and Clyde-built ships, with Glasgow engines, make the voyage betwixt Liverpool and New York in ten days. Steam-boat building and marine-engine-making received their first powerful impulse from the solution of the problem of ocean steam-navigation. From tables, constructed by Dr Strang from returns furnished to him by the various ship-builders and engineers in Glasgow, Dumbarton, Greenock, and Port-Glasgow, it appears that, during the seven years from 1846 to 1852, there were constructed at Glasgow and in its neighbourhood, 123 vessels, of which 1 was of wood, 122 of iron, 80 paddle, and 43 screw; consisting of 200 wooden tonnage; 70,441 iron tonnage; 6610 horse-power engines for wooden hulls, 22,539 horse-power engines for iron hulls, and 4720 horse-power engines for vessels not built on the Clyde. During the same period there were constructed in Dumbarton, 58 vessels, all of iron, 20 being for paddles and 38 for screws, and having a tonnage of 29,761; and during the last three years of the same period 3615 horsepower engines were made there for iron hulls, and 200 horse-power engines for vessels not built on the Clyde. During the same period, from 1846 to 1852, there were constructed at Greenock and Port-Glasgow, 66 steam-vessels, of which 13 were of wood, and 53 of iron, 41 paddle, and 25 screw; consisting of 18,131 wood tonnage, and 29,071 iron tonnage, 129 horse-power engines for wooden bulls, 5430 horsepower engines for iron hulls, and 4514 horse-power engines for vessels not built on the Clyde. For the whole ports in the Clyde, the steam-vessels built and the marine engines made, from 1846 to 1852, were as follows:—Number of steam vessels built—Wood hulls, 14; iron hulls, 233; in all, 247; of these 141 were paddles, and 106 screws. The tonnage of the wooden steamers amounts to 18,331, of the iron to 129,273. The engines’ horse-power in wood hulls was 6739, the engines’ horse-power in iron hulls was 31,593; while there was of engines’ horse-power for vessels not constructed on the Clyde, 9434, making a grand total of 247 steamers, amounting to 147,604 tons, and of engines 47,766 horse-power. The steam communication which has, for several years, existed betwixt our West Indian and North American colonies and the mother country, has recently been extended to Australia and the Cape of Good Hope, thus uniting Great Britain to her most distant dependencies by new and powerful ties, and literally realizing the vivid description of George Canning, who, dilating on the benefits of steam-navigation, several years before the death of Bell, described it as "that new and mighty power, new at least in the application of its might, which walks the water like a giant, rejoicing in its course, stemming alike the tempest and the tide - accelerating intercourse - shortening distances - creating, as it were, unexpected neighhourhoods, and new combinations of social and commercial relations, and giving to the fickleness of winds, and the faithlessness of waves, the certainty and steadiness of a highway upon the land." Whilst commerce and civilization were thus making rapid progress by means of his invention, Henry Bell reaped no personal advantage from it. He even approached the confines of old age in very straitened circumstances. Touched by his condition, the late Dr Cleland, and a number of other benevolent individuals, commenced a subscription on his behalf, by which a considerable sum was raised. The trustees on the river Clyde granted him an annuity of 100, which has been continued to his widow. This was but a becoming acknowledgment of the value of his great invention on the part of the trustees of a river whose annual revenue was increased, mainly by the impulse given to its trade by steam-navigation, from 6676 in 1810, the year before Bell commenced the construction of the Comet, to 20,296 in 1830, the year in which he died; and which has been more than tripled during the last twenty-two years, being, in 1852, 76,000. Within the same space of time, the channel of the river has undergone a corresponding improvement, being rendered navigable by ships of 700 and 800 tons burthen; whereas, little more than half a century ago, it was navigable only by coal gabbards and vessels of 30 to 45 tons. The average available depth of the Clyde at high water of neap-tides, is 16 feet, with an additional depth of two or three feet at spring-tides. At the Broomielaw, the harbour of Glasgow, there are now 10,000 lineal feet of quayage, giving accommodation to hundreds of the largest ships belonging to the mercantile marine of this and foreign countries. Mr Bell died at Helensburgh, March 14, 1830, aged sixty-three, and lies buried in the Row churchyard. An obelisk to his memory was erected on the rock of Dunglass, a promontory on the Clyde, about 2 1/2 miles above Dumbarton.


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