NIMMO, ALEXANDER, F.R.S.E., M.R.I.A --Among the members
of a profession so congenial to the intellectual character of Scotland as
that of a civil engineer, Alexander Nimmo deservedly holds an honoured
place. He was born at Kirkcaldy, Fifeshire, in 1783. His father, who was
distinguished in his own sphere by remarkable talents and acquirements, had
originally been a watchmaker, but afterwards kept a hardware store.
Alexander’s education was commenced at the grammar-school of his native
town, afterwards continued for two years at the university of St. Andrews,
and completed at the university of Edinburgh. The result was, that besides
being an accomplished scholar in Latin and Greek, he was distinguished for
his proficiency in algebra and the higher branches of mathematics. Thelatter departments, however, by which he was ultimately to be brought
into notice, employed the greater part of his attention.
As early occupation was
necessary for his limited means, Alexander Nimmo, at the age of nineteen,
was obliged to commence the business of life as a schoolmaster. This
commencement was honourable to his talents, as well as predictive of his
future distinction; for it was as rector of the academy of Inverness, a
situation laid open to public competition, which he won by a unanimous vote
of the trustees, after an examination of three days, where he had several
candidates of high talent for competitors. In this situation his scientific
attainments were sohighly estimated by Mr. Telford, that the latter
recommended him to the parliamentary commission appointed for fixing and
determining the boundaries of the Scottish counties. On being employed on
this arduous scientific duty, Mr. Nimmo accomplished it during the
vacations, in a manner that gave complete satisfaction. This was attested by
a further recommendation of Mr. Telford in his behalf, to the commissioners
for reclaiming the bogs of Ireland, by whom he was appointed to the survey.
Mr. Nimmo accordingly repaired thither, and not only constructed an
admirable series of maps and reports upon the subject, but thoroughly
acquainted himself with the character, manners, and necessities of the Irish
peasantry, and the best modes of alleviating their poverty. After this
survey was finished he made a tour through France, Germany, and Holland, to
inspect public works, especially those connected with his new profession.
In consequence of the able manner in
which Mr. Nimmo had discharged these public duties, fresh occupations were
poured upon him, by which his whole life became one of continual action. The
first of these, upon his return from the continental tour, was the
construction of Dunmore harbour, a work of immense difficulty, in
consequence of the great depth of water, and the heavy roll of the Atlantic
to which that coast is exposed. After this followed a commission, in which
he was employed by the Fishery Board to make surveys of the harbours of
Ireland, and construct harbours and piers all round the coast. Another
office connected with this duty, and in which he was employed by the Ballast
Board, was to make a chart of the whole cost, which he executed with
his usual ability and accuracy. He also compiled a book of sailing
directions of St. George’s Channel and the Irish coast—a work of high
utility in a navigation at that time so imperfectly known, and so full of
danger. His services in behalf of Ireland did not here terminate; for,
during the great distressof that country in 1822, he was appointed
engineer of the western district. The experience which he had formerly
acquired while surveying the Irish bogs with a view to their cultivation,
was now brought into active practical use; and between the year already
mentioned, and 1830, he caused £167 000 to be expended in reclaiming waste
land, improving what was as yet but partially cultivated, and establishing
new settlements, upon which the destitute peasantry were located and
employed. The increase of the revenue of that district to the amount of
£106,000 per annum, was the result of these labours and provident outlay,
independently of the industry and comfort which they created, and the moral
improvement of the population.
The labours of Mr. Nimmo as a civil
engineer, extending to the year 1832, are thus briefly enumerated in the
notices of his professional career. Besides his surveys in Scotland and
Ireland, above thirty piers or harbours were built upon the Irish coast
under his direction. He also designed the Wellesley bridge and docks at
Limerick. He superintended the construction of the harbour at Perth Cawl in
South Wales. Latterly, he was engaged in Lancashire, in projecting a railway
from Liverpool to Leeds, and also employed upon the Manchester, Bolton, and
These tasks, which occupied a life of
no long continuance, left Mr. Nimmo little time to distinguish himself in
authorship, notwithstanding his numerous attainments, and ardent love of
science in general; and, therefore, his productions in this way were
miscellaneous treatises rather than formal volumes. He wrote an occasional
paper for the various periodicals, in which he unbent his mind from the more
severe studies of his profession. He also published an article in the
Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy, showing how the science of geology
might be made available in navigation. He was author of the article in
Brewster’s Cyclopedia on "Inland Navigation." He wrote, jointly with Mr.
Telford, the article on "Bridges;" and with Mr. Nicholson, that on
"Carpentry." The evidence he delivered on the trial between the Corporation
of Liverpool and the Medway Company, which has been published, was also
greatly admired by mathematicians and engineers, as containing a sound and
practical elucidation of the scientific principles of their profession.
As Mr. Nimmo’s first success in life
was owing to his accomplishments as a scholar, his early love of literature
continued with him to the close. His acquirements therefore were extensive,
so that besides being well acquainted with the classical languages, he was
master of French, German, Dutch, and Italian; he was also thoroughly skilled
in the sciences of practical astronomy, chemistry, and geology. He died at
Dublin, on the 20th of January, 1832, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
This 19th century
biography of Alexander Nimmo contains several inaccuracies concerning
his early years. He was almost certainly born in Cupar, Fife, and not in
Kirkcaldy, although he must have moved there when his father opened the
hardware shop in that town. It cannot be confirmed that he attended the
local grammar school, but this is possible. He started attending
university at St Andrews at age 13 (a common age to start university at
that time), with the help of a bursary paid out from a trust fund by the
magistrates of Cupar.
After four years at
University, he was employed for some months as a tutor in Edinburgh. His
first teaching post was at Fortrose, in the Black Isle, a short distance
north of Inverness. This started in early 1802 when he was aged 18 or
19. Following the unexpected death of the mathematics teacher and Rector
(headmaster) of Inverness Academy in 1805, Nimmo applied for this job.
He was interviewed in Edinburgh, by four of the university professors.
Four candidates applied, but only one, Nimmo, attended for interview. A
surviving copy of a letter from the professors to the Directors of the
Academy stated that he was interviewed for one day only, and not three
as various early biographies state, but the professors were well
satisfied with his abilities in mathematics, science and languages.
His survey of the county
boundaries only took place in the Highlands, and not throughout Scotland
as this biography suggests. It was carried out in the summer of 1806,
and the results were used in a map by Aaron Arrowsmith, printed in
London in 1807. In a later summer, 1808 or 1809, he surveyed the
possible route for a road across Rannoch Moor, but this was never built.
Other scientific work he carried out in Inverness included examining the
water temperatures in Loch Ness and reporting on the movement of
sediment along the coast of the Moray Firth.
The report of his work in
Ireland, to be found in this biography, is reasonably accurate. His
visit to France, Germany and Holland took place in 1814.
For a modern accurate
biography of Nimmo see: NoŽl P. Wilkins: Alexander Nimmo, Master
Engineer, 1783–1832, Irish Academic Press, 2009.
For a transcript of his
journal whilst surveying the county boundaries, with accompanying
essays, see: NoŽl P. Wilkins (ed.): Alexander Nimmo's Inverness
Survey and Journal 1806, Royal Irish Academy, 2011.
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