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The Scottish Nation

MILLER, PATRICK, of Dalswinton, Dumfries-shire, whose name is associated with the invention of the steamboat, was born at Glasgow in 1731. He was the youngest son of William Miller, Esq. of Glenlee, in the stewartry of Kirkcudbright, and brother of Sir Thomas Miller, who was created a baronet, and lord president of the court of session, in 1788. Possessing unusual genius and ability, he was the sole architect of his own fortunes, having started in life without a sixpence – as he used to boast – and with nothing but a good education wherewith to make his way in the world. In his youth, as a sailor, he visited many parts of the globe, including the countries of the Mediterranean, the West Indies, and America. He afterwards became a banker in Edinburgh, and having realized a handsome fortune, he purchased the estate of Dalswinton, building on it an elegant mansion, subsequently the seat of James MacAlpine Leny, Esq.

For nearly thirty years he was deputy-governor of the Bank of Scotland, which he placed on the eminent position it now occupies by entirely altering its system of exchanges with London.

He devoted his leisure to the sciences of navigation, artillery, and agriculture, and in all three he made discoveries from which the most important advantages have been derived by the world at large. First amongst these stands the steamboat, of which he was the originator, though the honour of this great invention James Taylor and William Symington have each claimed. These were both employed by him, Symington having been introduced to Mr. Miller by Taylor. In February, 1787, Mr. Miller published a pamphlet, in which he distinctly announced his belief in the practicability of using steam as a motive power for the propulsion of vessels, -- at the same time intimating his intention of trying the experiment of so propelling boats; and in October, 1788, he did try the experiment on a small scale at Dalswinton, with the most perfect success, -- repeating it on a larger one in December, 1789, on the Forth and Clyde canal. The engine used by him in the first of these experiments is now preserved in the Kensington Patent Museum, for which it was obtained by Bennet Woodcroft, Esq., F.R.S., author of ‘The Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation,’ who spent a large sum of money in the search for it, and subsequent restoration of such of its parts as were missing when he discovered it.

The ancient corporation of the Trinity House, Leith, unanimously voted Mr. Miller the freedom of that body, on the occasion of his presenting them with a copy of his pamphlet, in which the practicability of using steam for purposes of navigation was first suggested by him.

Double and triple boats were amongst Mr. Miller’s numerous inventions, and he likewise invented paddle wheels, which are not very dissimilar from those in use on the steamers of the present day. He took a patent for paddle-wheel boats of the description just mentioned in May, 1796, but it does not appear that he ever derived any benefit from it. A plurality of masts was a favourite idea of his, and we find that, in 1786, he built a double vessel, with paddle-wheels moved by manual labour, which had five masts. This vessel, armed with carronades – another of his inventions – he offered to the government of the day; and on their declining the offer, presented it to Gustavus III., king of Sweden, who acknowledged it by an autograph letter of thanks, enclosed in a magnificent gold box, which also contained, as a gift from his majesty, a small packet of turnip seed, whence sprung the first Swedish turnips ever grown in Great Britain.

Although Mr. Miller, -- from having been the first man in modern days who constructed guns with chambers, to which he gave the name of carronades, in consequence of his having had them cast at the Carron foundry, -- is generally considered the inventor of that species of ordnance, he himself always gave the credit of the idea to Gustavus Adolphus the Great; and indeed most of the first pieces cast for him had Latin inscriptions on them to that effect. He went to very great expense with his experiments on these guns, which he tried of all calibers, from 2-pounders up to 132-pounders. With one of the latter he obtained a range of above 5,000 yards. He was not content with testing his invention (if so it may be called) in the usual way, but actually proved it practically by fitting out a privateer (the ‘Spitfire’), armed with sixteen of his 18-pounder carronades, and sending her on a cruise in the Channel, at the mouth of which she was captured by a French frigate (the ‘Surveillante,” 36), after a hard-fought action, in which the frigate had sixty or seventy men killed and wounded, and had to run for port with between four and five feet water in her hold.

Mr. Miller’s inventions and experiments in navigation and gunnery alone cost him above £30,000, but what he spent on his agricultural improvements and experiments has never been ascertained, though it is believed to have been very large.

He contrived the first drill plough ever used in the United Kingdom, also a thrashing-machine worked by horses, and an iron plough. He likewise introduced the feeding of cattle on steamed potatoes, and the dressing of land with kiln-burnt clay as a substitute for lime. But the improvement in agriculture which he considered the most important was the cultivation of florin grass, the great value of which was first brought to notice by the Rev. Dr. Richardson of Clonfeckle, in Ireland. Off land which had not previously let for more than a shilling an acre, Mr. Miller got crops of florin grass hay, which brought at auction nearly as much as the best wheat land on the Dalswinton estate.

Mr. Miller was so highly thought of as a practical agriculturist, that one of the agricultural societies of Scotland presented him with two splendid silver vases, bearing suitable inscriptions.

He died at Dalswinton, December 9, 1815, and was interred in the Greyfriars’ churchyard, Edinburgh. He had married early in life, and had several children, of whom three sons and two daughters survived him, viz., Patrick, member of parliament in 1789-90 for Dumfries-shire; William, an officer of the Royal horse guards (blue); Janet, married to John Francis, 15th earl of Mar; Jean, married to Leslie Grove Jones, an officer of the Grenadier guards; Thomas Hamilton, an advocate at the Scottish bar. In 1862 was printed at London, ‘A Letter to Bennet Woodcroft, Esq., F.R.S., vindicating the right of Patrick Miller, Esq. of Dalswinton, to be regarded as the first inventor of Practical Steam Navigation. By Major-general Miller, C.B., late of the Madras artillery.’

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