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Significant Scots
Thomas Drummond


DRUMMOND, CAPTAIN THOMAS.—Among the many distinguished engineers of whom Scotland has been so prolific in the present age, the subject of this notice will always hold a conspicuous place. He was born at Edinburgh, in October, 1797, and was the second of three sons; and being deprived of his father while still in infancy, the care of his education devolved upon his mother, who discharged her duty in that respect so effectually that the Captain ever afterwards spoke of her with affectionate gratitude, and attributed much of his professional success to her careful and efficient training. After having undergone the usual course of a classical education at the High School of Edinburgh, he was entered at Woolwich as a cadet in 1813; and such was the persevering energy and diligence with which his home-training had inspired him, that he soon distanced his school-fellows, and passed through the successive steps of the military college with a rapidity altogether unusual in that institution. It was not in mathematics alone, also, that he excelled, but in every other department of science to which he turned his attention; for such was his intellectual tenacity and power of applications, that he never relinquished a subject until he had completely mastered it. Of this he once afforded a striking proof while still in one of the junior academies of the college. Not being satisfied with a difficult demonstration in conic sections contained in Hutton’s "Course of Mathematics," which formed the text-book of the class, young Drummond sought and discovered a solution of a more simple character, and on a wholly original principle. Such was the merit of this bold innovation, that it replaced the solution of Hutton among the professors of Woolwich College, who were proud of their young pupil, and entertained the highest hopes of his future success as a military engineer. The same reflective independent spirit characterized his studies after he had left Woolwich to follow out the practical instruction of his profession. On one occasion his attention was directed to the various inventions by which the use of the old pontoon was to be superseded; and he contrived a model, which was reckoned a master-piece of ingenuity. It was, says his friend Captain Dawson, who describes it, "like a man-of-war’s gig or galley, sharp at both ends, and cut transverely into sections, for facility of transport, as well as to prevent it from sinking if injured in any one part; each section was perfect in itself, and they admitted of being bolted together, the partitions falling under the thwarts or seats. The dockyard men, to whom he showed it, said it would row better than any boat except a gig; and it was light, and capable of being transported from place to place on horseback."

After having spent some time in training, both at Plymouth and Chatham, during which he embraced every opportunity of improving his professional knowledge, not only by books and the conversation of intelligent officers and scientific scholars, but also by a visit to France, to study its army of occupation and witness a great military review, Drummond was stationed at Edinburgh, where his charge consisted in the superintendence and repair of public works. But this sphere was too limited for his active spirit; and, finding little prospect of advancement in his profession, he had serious thoughts of abandoning it for the bar, and had actually enrolled his name as a student at Lincoln’s Inn, when fortunately, in the autumn of 1819, he met in Edinburgh with Colonel Colby, at that time engaged in the trigonometrical survey of the Highlands. Delighted to have such an associate in his labours, the colonel soon induced the disappointed engineer to abandon all further thoughts of the study of law, and join him in the survey. As these new duties required Drummond to reside in London during the winter, he availed himself of the opportunity not only to improve himself in the higher departments of mathematics, but also to study the science of chemistry, which he did with his wonted energy and success. While attending, for this purpose, the lectures of Professors Faraday and Brande, his attention was called to the subject of the incandescence of lime; and conceiving that this might be made available for his own profession, he purchased, on his return from the lecture-room, a blow-pipe, charcoal, and other necessary apparatus, and commenced his course of experiments. These were prosecuted evening after evening, until he had attained the desired result. He found that the light derived from the prepared lime was more brilliant than that of the Argand lamp; and that it concentrated the rays more closely towards the focal point of the parabolic mirror, by which they were reflected in close parallel rays, instead of a few near the focus, as was the case with the Argands.

An opportunity was soon given to test this important discovery. In 1824, Colonel Colby was appointed to make a survey of Ireland, and took with him Lieutenant Drummond as his principal assistant. The misty atmosphere of Ireland made this survey a work of peculiar difficulty, as distant objects would often be imperceptibly seen under the old system of lighting; but the Colonel was also aware of the improved lamp which Drummond had invented, and sanguine as to its results. His hopes were justified by a striking experiment. A station called Slieve Snaught, in Donegal, had long been looked for in vain from Davis’ Mountain, near Belfast, about sixty-six miles distant, with the haze of Lough Neagh lying between. To overcome this difficulty, Drummond repaired to Slieve Snaught, accompanied by a small party, and taking with him one of his lamps. The night on which the experiment was made was dark but cloudless, and the mountain covered with snow, when the shivering surveyors left their cold encampment to make the decisive trial. The hour had been fixed, and an Argand lamp had been placed on an intermediate church tower, to telegraph the appearance of the light on Slieve Snaught to those on Davis’ Mountain. The hour had past, and the sentry was about to leave his post, when the light suddenly burst out like a brilliant star from the top of the hitherto invisible peak, to the delight of the astonished spectators, who were watching with intense anxiety from the other station of survey. Another invention of almost equal importance with the Drummond’s light was his heliostat, by which the difficulty arising from the rapid motion of the earth in its orbit round the sun, was obviated by the most simple means, and the work of survey made no longer dependent upon a complicated apparatus that required frequent shifting and removal; so that, while it could take observations at the distance of a hundred miles, a single soldier was sufficient to carry and plant the instrument upon the requisite spot.

The high scientific knowledge which Drummond possessed, and the valuable services he had rendered to the Irish survey, were not lost sight of, and demands soon occurred to call him into a higher sphere of duty. These were, the preparations necessary before the passing of the Reform Bill, by laying down the boundaries to the old and the new boroughs. This very difficult task he discharged so ably, and so much to the satisfaction of the public, as to silence the murmurs of cavillers, who complained because a young lieutenant of engineers had been appointed to so important a charge. After it was finished, he returned to his work of surveying; but in the midst of it was appointed private secretary to Lord Spencer, in which office he continued till the dissolution of the government, when he was rewarded with a pension of 300 per annum, obtained for him through the interest of Lord Brougham. In 1835, he was appointed undersecretary for Ireland, where he was placed at the head of the commission on railways; but his incessant labour in this department, along with his other duties of a political nature, are supposed to have accelerated his death, which occurred April 15, 1840. His memory will continue to be affectionately cherished, not only by the distinguished statesmen with whom he acted, but by society at large; while the scientific will regret that public duties should have latterly engrossed a mind so admirably fitted for the silent walks of invention and discovery.


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