James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography

Author: James Nasmyth

Chapter 10. Begin Business at Manchester

Mr. Maudslay arrived from Berlin two days after my return to London. He, too, had enjoyed his holiday. During his stay in Berlin he had made the friendship of the distinguished Humboldt. Shenkel, the architect, had been very kind to him, and presented him with a set of drawings and engravings of his great architectural works, which Mr. Maudslay exhibited to me with much delight. What he most admired in Shenkel was the great range of his talent in all matters of design, his minute attention to detail, and his fine artistic feeling.

Soon after Mr. Maudslay’s return, a very interesting job was brought to him, in which he took even more than his usual interest. It was a machine which his friend Mr. Barton, of the Royal Mint, had obtained from France. It was intended to cut or engrave the steel dies used for stamping coin. It was a remarkable and interesting specimen of inventive ingenuity. It copied any object in relief which had been cast in plaster of Paris or brass from the artist’s original wax model. The minutest detail was transferred to soft steel dies with absolute accuracy. This remarkable machine could copy and cut steel dies either in intaglio or in cameo of any size, and, in short, enabled the mechanic who managed it to transfer the most minute and characteristic touches of the original model to the steel dies for any variety of size of coin. Nevertheless, the execution of some of the details of the machine were so defective, that after giving the most tempting proof of its capabilities at the Royal Mint, Mr. Barton found it absolutely necessary to place it in Maudslay’s hands, in order to have its details thoroughly overhauled, and made as mechanically perfect as its design and intention merited.

This interesting machine was accordingly brought to the private workshop, and placed in the hands of the leading mechanic, whom I had the pleasure of being associated with, James Sherriff, one of our most skilled workmen. We were both put to our mettle. It was a job quite to my taste, and being associated with so skilled a workman as Sherriff, and in constant communication with Mr. Maudslay, I had every opportunity of bringing my best manipulative ability into action and use while perfecting this beautiful machine. It is sufficient to say that by our united efforts, by the technical details suggested by Mr. Maudslay and carried out by us, and by the practical trials made under the superintendence of Mr. Wyon of the Mint, the apparatus was at length made perfect and performed its duty to the satisfaction of every one concerned.

Mr. Maudslay had next a pair of 200 horse-power marine engines put in hand. His sons and partners were rather opposed to so expensive a piece of work being undertaken without an order. At that time such a power as 200 horse nominal was scarcely thought of; and the Admiralty Board were very cautious in ordering marine engines of any sort. Nevertheless, the engines were proceeded with and perfected. They formed a noble object in the great erecting shop. They embodied in every detail all Mr. Maudslay’s latest improvements. In fact the work was the sum total of the great master’s inventions and adaptations in marine engines. The Admiralty at last secured them for the purpose of being placed in a very fine vessel, the Dee, then in course of construction. Mr. Maudslay was so much pleased with the result that he had a very beautiful model made of the engines; and finding that I had some artistic skill as a draughtsman, he set me to work to make a complete perspective drawing of their great engines as they stood all perfect in the erecting-shop. This was a work entirely to my taste. In due time I completed a graphic portrait of these noble engines, treated, I hope, in an artistic spirit. Indeed, such a class of drawing was rarely to be had from any engineering draughtsman. Mere geometrical drawing could not give a proper idea, as a whole, of so grand a piece of mechanism. It required something of the artistic spirit to fairly represent it. At all events my performance won the entire approval of my master.

Mr. Maudslay was a man of a wide range of mechanical abilities. He was always ready to enter upon any new work requiring the exercise of special skill. It did not matter whether it was machine tools, engraving dies, block machinery, or astronomical instruments. While at Berlin he went to see the Royal Observatory. He was naturally much interested by the fine instruments there—the works of Repsoldt and Hertz, the pioneers of improved astronomical workmanship. The continental instrument makers were then far in advance of those of England. Mr. Maudslay was greatly impressed with the sight of the fine instruments in the Berlin Observatory. He was permitted to observe some of the most striking and remarkable of the heavenly bodies— Jupiter, Saturn, and the Moon. It was almost a new revelation to him; for the subject was entirely novel. To be able to make such instruments seemed to him to be a glorious achievement of refined mechanism and manipulative skill. He returned home full of the wonderful sights he had seen. It was a constant source of pleasure to him to dwell upon the splendour and magnificence of the heavenly bodies.

He became anxious to possess a powerful telescope of his own. His principal difficulty was in procuring a lens of considerable diameter, possessed of high perfection of defining power. I suggested to him the employment of a reflecting telescope, by means of which the difficulties connected with the employment of glass could be avoided. This suggestion was based upon some knowledge I had acquired respecting this department of refined mechanical art. I knew that the elder Herschel had by this means vastly advanced our knowledge of the heavenly bodies, indeed to an extent far beyond what had been achieved by the most perfect of glass lens instruments. Mr. Maudslay was interested in the idea I suggested; and he requested me to show him what I knew of the art of compounding the alloy called speculum metal. He wished to know how so brittle a material could be cast and ground and polished, and kept free from flaws or defects of every kind.

I accordingly cast for him a speculum of 8 inches diameter. I ground and polished it, and had it fitted up in a temporary manner to exhibit its optical capabilities, which were really of no mean order. But, as his ambition was to have a grand and powerful instrument of not less than 24 inches diameter, the preparation for such a speculum became a subject to him of the highest interest. He began to look out for a proper position for his projected observatory. He made inquiry about a residence at Norwood, where he thought his instrument might have fair play. It would there be free from the smoke and disturbing elements of such a place as Lambeth. His mind was full of this idea when he was called away by the claims of affection to visit a dear old friend at Boulogne. He remained there for more than a week, until assured of his friend’s convalescence. But on his return voyage across the Channel he caught a severe cold. On reaching London he took to his bed and never left it alive. After three or four weeks’ suffering he died on the 14th of February 1831.

It was a very sad thing for me to lose my dear old master. He was so good and so kind to me in all ways. He treated me like a friend and companion. He was always generous, manly, and upright in his dealings with everybody. How his workmen loved him; how his friends lamented him! He directed, before his death, that he should be buried in Woolwich Churchyard, where a cast iron tomb, made to his own design, was erected over his remains. He had ever a warm heart for Woolwich, where he had been born and brought up. He began his life as a mechanic there, and worked his way steadily upwards until he reached the highest point of his profession. He often returned to Woolwich after he had left it; sometimes to pay a share of his week’s wages to his mother, while she lived; sometimes to revisit the scenery of his youth. He liked the green common, with the soldiers about it; Shooter’s Hill, with its wide look-out over Kent and down the valley of the Thames; the river busy with shipping; the Dockyard wharf, with the royal craft loading and unloading their armaments. He liked the clangour of the arsenal smithy, where he had first learned his art; and all the busy industry of the place. It was natural, therefore, that being so proud of his early connection with Woolwich he should wish his remains to be laid there; and Woolwich, on its part, has equal reason to be proud of Henry Maudslay.

After the death of my master I passed over to the service of his worthy partner, Joshua Field. I had an equal pleasure in working under him. His kindness in some degree mitigated the sad loss I had sustained by the death of my lamented friend and employer. The first work I had to perform for Mr. Field was to assist him in making the working drawings of a 200 horse-power condensing steam-engine, ordered by the Lambeth Waterworks Company. The practical acquaintance which I had by this time acquired of the mechanism of steam-engines enabled me to serve Mr. Field in a satisfactory manner. I drew out in full practical detail the rough but excellent hand sketches with which he supplied me. They were handed out for execution in the various parts of the factory; and I communicated with the foremen as to the details and workmanship.

While I was occupied beside Mr. Field in making these working drawings, he gave me many most valuable hints as to the designing of machinery in general. In after years I had many opportunities of making good use of them. One point he often impressed upon me. It was, he said, most important to bear in mind the get-at-ability of parts—that is, when any part of a machine was out of repair, it was requisite to get at it easily without taking the machine to pieces. This may appear a very simple remark, but the neglect of such an arrangement occasions a vast amount of trouble, delay, and expense. None but those who have had to do with the repair of worn-out or damaged parts of machinery can adequately value the importance of this subject.

I found Mr. Field to be a most systematic man in all business affairs. I may specially name one of his arrangements which I was quick to take up and appreciate. I carried it out with great advantage in my after life. It was, to record subjects of conversation by means of "graphic" memoranda. Almost daily, persons of note came to consult with him about machinery. On these occasions the consultations took place either with reference to proposed new work, or as to the progress of orders then in hand. Occasionally some novel scheme of applying power was under discussion, or some new method of employing mechanism: On ordinary occasions rough and rapid sketches are made on any stray pieces of waste paper that were about, and after the conversation is over the papers are swept away into the waste basket and destroyed. And yet some of these rapid drawings involve matters of great interest and importance for after consultations.

To avoid such losses, Mr. Field had always placed upon his table a "talking book" or "graphic diary." When his visitors called and entered into conversation with him about mechanical matters, he made rapid sketches on the successive pages of the book, and entered the brief particulars and date of the conversation, together with the name and address of the visitor. So that a conversation, once begun, might again be referred to, and, when the visitor called, the graphic memoranda might be recalled without loss of time, and the consultation again proceeded. The pages of Mr. Field’s "talking books" were in many ways most interesting. They contained data that, in future years, supplied valuable evidence in respect to first suggestions of mechanical contrivances, and which sometimes were developed into very important results. I may add that Mr. Field kept these "talking books" on a shelf in front of his drawing table. The back of each volume was marked with the year to which the entries referred, and an index was appended to each. A general index book was also placed at the end of the goodly range of these graphic records of his professional life.

The completion of the working drawings of the Lambeth pumping engines occupied me until August 1831. I had then arrived at my twenty-third year. I had no intention of proceeding further as an assistant or a journeyman. I intended to begin business for my self. Of course I could only begin in a very small way. I informed Mr. Field of my intention, and he was gratified with my decision. Not only so; but he kindly permitted me to obtain castings of one of the best turning-lathes in the workshops. I knew th at when I had fitted it up it would become the parent of a vast progeny of descendants—not only in the direct line, but in planing machines, screw-cutting lathes, and many other minor tools.

At the end of the month, after taking a grateful farewell of Mr. Field and his partners, I set sail for Leith with my stock of castings, and reached Edinburgh in due time. In order to proceed with the construction of my machine tools, I rented a small piece of land at Old Broughton. It was at the rear of my worthy friend George Douglass’s small foundry, and was only about five minutes’ walk from my father’s house. I erected a temporary workshop 24 feet long by 16 feet wide.

I removed thither my father’s foot-lathe, to which I had previously added an excellent slide-rest of my own making. I also added a "slow motion," which enabled me to turn cast-iron and cast-steel portions of my great Maudslay lathe. I soon had the latter complete and in action. Its first child was a planing machine capable of executing surfaces in the most perfect style—of 3 feet long by 1 foot 8 inches wide. Armed with these two most important and generally useful tools, and by some special additions, such as boring machines and drilling machines, I soon had a progeny of legitimate descendants crowded about my little workshop, so that I often did not know which way to turn.

[Image] My temporary workshop at Edinburgh

I had one labourer to drive the wheel which gave motion to my big lathe; but I was very much in want of some one else to help me. One day a young hearty fellow called upon me. He had come from the Shotts Iron Company’s Works in Edinburgh. Having heard of what I was about, he offered his services. When he told me that he had been bred as a millwright, and that he could handle the plane and the saw as well as the chisel and the file, I closed with him at once. He was to have fifteen shillings a week. I liked the young man very much—he was so hearty and cheerful. His name was Archibald Torry, or " Archie," as he was generally called during the twenty years that he remained in my service I obtained another assistant in the person of a young man whose father wished him to get an insight into practical engineering. I was offered a premium of #50 for twelve months’ experience in my workshop. I arranged to take the young man, and to initiate him in the general principles and practice of engineering. The #50 premium was a very useful help to me, especially as I had engaged the millwright. It enabled me to pay Torry’s wages during the time that he remained with me in Edinburgh. I found it necessary, however, to take in some work in the regular way of business, in order to supply me with the means of completing my proper supply of tools.

The chief of these extraneous and, I may say, disturbing jobs, was that of constructing a rotary steam-engine. Mr. Robert Steen had contrived and patented an engine of this sort. He was a dangerously enthusiastic man, and entertained the most visionary ideas as to steam power. He was of opinion that his own contrivance was more compact and simple, and possessed of more capability of producing power from the consumption of a given quantity of fuel, than the best steam-engines then in use. I warned him of his error; but nothing but an actual proof would satisfy him. He urgently requested me to execute his order.He made me a liberal and tempting offer of weekly payments for my work during the progress of his engine. He only required that I should give his invention the benefit of my careful workmanship. He considered that this would be sufficient to substantiate all his enthusiastic expectations. I was thus seduced to accept his order.

I made the requisite drawings, and proceeded with the work. At the same time my own machine tools were in progress, though at a retarded pace. The weekly payments we’re regularly made, and I was kept in a sort of financial ease. After three months the rotary engine was finished to the inventor’s complete satisfaction. But when the power it gave out was compared with that of a good ordinary steam-engine, the verdict as to consumption of fuel was against the new rotary engine. Nevertheless, the enthusiastic projector, "tho’ vanquished he would argue still," insisted that the merits of his contrivance would sooner or later cause it to be a most formidable rival to the crank steam-engines. As he was pleased with its performances, I had no reason to be dissatisfied. I had done my part in the matter, and Mr. Steen had done his. His punctual weekly payments had assisted me in the completion of my tools; and after a few months more labour I had everything ready for starting business on my own account.

My choice lay between Liverpool and Manchester. I had seen both of these cities while on my visit to Lancashire to witness the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway. I now proceeded to visit them again. I was fortified with valuable introductions to leading men in both places. I was received by them with great kindness and hospitality. I have heard a great deal about the ingratitude and selfishness of the world. It may have been my good fortune, but I have never experienced either of those unfeeling conditions. On the whole I have found a great deal of unselfish kindness among my fellow-beings. They have often turned out of their way to do me a service; and I can never be too grateful for the unwearied kindness, civility, and generosity of the friends I met with during my stay in Lancashire.

It was a question which would be the best place to settle in— Liverpool or Manchester. I had seen striking evidences of the natural aptitude of Lancashire workmen for every sort of mechanical employment, and had observed their unsparing energy while at work. I compared them with the workmen whom I had seen in London, and found them superior. They were men of greater energy of character; their minds were more capacious; their ingenuity was more inventive. I felt assured that in either Liverpool or Manchester—the centres of commercial and manipulative energy—I could settle down with my limited capital and tools, and in course of time contrive to get on, helped by energy, self-reliance, and determination. I also found that the demand for machine-making tools was considerable, and that their production would soon become an important department of business. It might be carried on with little expenditure of capital, as the risks were small and the returns were quick. I resolved to cultivate that moderate and safe class of mechanical business, at all events at the outset.

I first went to Liverpool. I presented my letter of introduction to Mr. Roscoe, head of the Mersey Steel and Iron Company. He received me with great kindness, and gave me much good advice. I called upon Edward Berry, engineer, and also upon William Fawcett, who had received me with so much kindness on my former visit. I cannot omit mentioning also the friendly reception which I received from Dr. Sillar. He had been a medical student at Edinburgh, and had during that time met with some kindness from my father. He expressed his remembrance of it with grateful effusion; and added his personal introduction, with that of my letters, to some of the leading men in Liverpool. I may mention that Dr. Sillar was the son of Burns’s "Brother Poet" Davie, to whom the well-known "Epistle" was addressed.

Among the other well-known men to whom I was introduced at Liverpool was John Cragg, an intelligent and enterprising ironfounder. He was an extensive manufacturer of the large sugar-boiling pans used in the West Indies. He had also given his attention to the introduction of iron into buildings of different sorts. Being a man of artistic taste he had even introduced cast-iron into Gothic architecture. In order to exhibit, in an impressive form, the uses of his favourite metal, he erected at his own cost a very elegant church in the northern part of Liverpool.*
[footnote... So far as I can recollect, the name of the church was St. James’s. It exhibited a very early introduction of iron as an important element in architectural construction. Iron was afterwards largely introduced into mills, mill gearing, and buildings generally.

Cast-iron was introduced, not only in the material parts of the structure, but into the Gothic columns and Gothic tracery of the windows, as well as into the lofty and elegant spire. Iron was also employed in the external ornamental details, where delicate yet effective decoration was desirable. The famous architect, Edward Blore, was the designer of the church; and the whole details of the building—of which cast-iron formed the principal material— were executed to his entire satisfaction*
[footnote... So far as I can recollect, the name of the church was St. James’s. It exhibited a very early introduction of iron as an important element in architectural construction. Iron was afterwards largely introduced into mills, mill gearing, and buildings generally.

My introduction to Mr. Cragg led to an acquaintance, and then to a friendship. When the ice was broken which was very soon—he told me that he was desirous of retiring from the more active part of his business. Whether he liked my looks or not I do not know; but, quite unexpectedly, he made me a very tempting offer to enter his works as his successor. He had already amassed a fortune, and I might do the same. I could only thank him most sincerely for his kindness. But, on carefully thinking the matter over, I declined the proposal. My principal reason was, that the special nature of his foundry work did not quite harmonise with my desire to follow the more strictly mechanical part of the iron business. Besides, I thought I had a brighter prospect of success before me; though I knew that I had many difficulties to contend against. Did I throw away my chances in declining the liberal proposal of Mr. Cragg? The reader will be able to judge from the following pages. But to the last*
[footnote... Mr. Cragg died in 1853, aged 84.
...] I continued a most friendly intercourse with my intended patron, while he on his part took an almost paternal interest in my progress.

After my visit to Liverpool I passed on to Manchester. I was fortunate in having introductions to some of the leading men there,—to John Kennedy, William Fairbairn, the Grant Brothers, and lastly, to that most admirable man, Benjamin Hick, engineer, Bolton. To narrate in detail all the instances of warm and hospitable kindnesses which I received from men in Lancashire, even from the outset of my career there, would fill a volume.

I first went to see my friend Edward Tootal, who had given me so kind a reception in 1830. I was again cordially received; he now promised to befriend me, which he did most effectually. I next visited John Chippendale, of the firm of Thomson, Chippendale, and Company, calico printers. I had met him at a friend’s house in London, where he had offered, if I ever visited Manchester, to introduce me to some of the best men there. I accordingly called upon him at his counting-house. It happened to be Tuesday, the market day, when all the heads of manufacturing establishments in and round Manchester met together at the Exchange between 12 and 1; and thus all were brought to a focus in a very convenient manner.

Mr. Chippendale first introduced me to Mr. John Kennedy, one of the most distinguished men in Manchester. I had a special letter of introduction to him from Buchanan of Catrine, and his partner Smith of Deanstone. I explained to him the object of my visit to Manchester, and he cordially entered into my views. He left his occupation at the time, and went with me to see a place which he thought might be suitable for my workshop. The building was new at hand—in Dale Street, Piccadilly. It had been used as a cotton mill, but was abandoned by the owner in favour of more suitable and extensive premises. It was now let out in flats for manufacturing purposes. Power was supplied to each flat from a shaft connected with a large mill up the street, the owner of which had power to spare. The flat shown to me was 130 feet long by 27 feet wide, and the rent was only #50 a year. I thought the premises very suitable, but I took a night to sleep over it. I thanked Mr. Kennedy very much for his kindness, and for the trouble which he had taken on behalf of an unknown stranger.

On this memorable day I had another introduction, through the kindness of Mr. Chippendale, which proved of great service to me. It was to the Messrs. Grant, the famous "Brothers Cheeryble" of Dickens. I was taken to their counting-house in Cannon Street, where I was introduced to Daniel Grant. Although business was at its full height, he gave me a cordial reception. But, to save time, he invited me to come after the Exchange was over and take "tiffin" with him at his hospitable mansion in Mosely Street.

There, he said, I should meet some of the most enterprising men in Lancashire. I was most happy, of course, to avail myself of his invitation. I went thither accordingly, and the first thing that Daniel did was to present me in the most cordial manner to "his noble brother William," as he always affectionately called him. William was the head of the firm, and he, too, gave me a warm and hearty welcome. He asked me to sit beside him at the head of the table.

During dinner—for indeed it was such, being the survival of the old-fashioned one o’clock dinner of a departing age—William entered into conversation with me. He took occasion to inquire into the object of my visit to Manchester. I told him, as briefly as I could, that I intended to begin the business of a mechanical engineer on a very moderate scale, and that I had been looking out for premises wherein to commence operations. He seemed interested, and asked more questions. I related to him my little history, and told him of my desires, hopes, and aspirations. What was my age? "Twenty-six." "That is a very young age at which to begin business on your own account" "Yes; but I have plenty of work in me, and I am very economical." Then he pressed his questions home. "But what is your capital?" I told him that my capital in cash was #63. "What!" he said, "that will do very little for you when Saturday nights come round." "That’s true," I answered; "but as there will be only myself and Archy Torry to provide for, I think I can manage to get along very well until profitable work comes in."

He whispered to me, "Keep your heart up!" With such views, he said, I was sure to do well. And if, he added, on any Saturday night I wanted money to pay wages or other expenses, I would find a credit for #500 at 3 per cent at his office in Cannon Street, "and no security." These were his very words. What could have been more generous? I could only whisper my earnest thanks for his warm-hearted kindness. He gave me a kindly squeeze of the hand in return, which set me in a glow of gladness. He also gave me a sort of wink that I shall never forget—a most knowing wink. In looking at me he seemed to turn his eye round and brought his eyebrows down upon it in a sudden and extraordinary manner. I thought it was a mere confirmation of his kind advice to "keep my heart up!" It was not until two years after that I found, from a mutual friend, that the eye in question was made of glass! Sometimes the glass eye got slightly out of its place, and Mr. Grant had to force it in again by this odd contortion of his eyebrows, which I had translated into all manner of kind intentions. As soon as the party broke up I went to Wren and Bennett, the agents for the flat of the old mill which I had seen in Dale Street. I inspected it again, and found that it was in all respects suitable for my purpose. I may mention in passing that the flat below mine was in the occupation of a glass-cutter, whose glass-cutting lathes and grindstones were supplied with power from the same upright shaft that was to serve me in the same manner on the flat above, Encouraged by the support of William Grant, I immediately entered into a contract for the premises as a yearly tenant. Nothing could have been more happily arranged for my entering into business as a mechanical engineer and machine tool maker. The situation of the premises was excellent, being in the heart of Manchester There was a powerful crab crane, or hoisting apparatus, in the upper story, and the main chains came down in front of the wide door of my workshop, so that heavy castings or cases of machinery might be lifted up or let down with the utmost case and convenience. At the same time I was relieved from looking after the moving power and its natural accompaniment of trouble and expense in the way of fuel and attendance.

[Image] My factory flat at Manchester

When I had settled the contract for taking the place, I wrote down to Edinburgh by that night’s post to tell my father of the happy results of my visit to Manchester, and also to inform my right hand man, Archy Torry, that I should soon be with him. He was to prepare for packing up my lathes, planing machines, drilling machines, and other smaller tools, not forgetting my father’s foot lathe, of which I had made such effective use.*
[footnote... I have still this foot-lathe in full and perfect and almost daily action. I continue to work with it now, after sixty-three years of almost constant use. It is a lathe that I duly prize and venerate, not only because it was my father’s, but also because it was, in practical fact, the progenitor, more or less directly, of all the mechanical productions of my long and active life.

I soon followed up my letter. I was in Edinburgh in a few days’ time, and had all my tools packed up. In the course of about ten days I returned to Manchester, and was followed by Archy Torry and the ponderous cases of machinery and engineer’s tools. They were all duly delivered, hoisted to my flat, and put in their proper places. I was then ready for work.

The very first order I received was from my friend Edward Tootal. It was a new metallic piston for the small steam-engine that gave motion to his silk-winding machinery. It was necessary that it should be done over night, in order that his factory should be at work as usual in the morning.

My faithful Archy and I set to work accordingly. We removed the old defective piston, and replaced it by a new and improved one, made according to my own ideas of how so important a part of a steam-engine should be constructed. We conveyed it to Mr. Tootal’s factory over night, and by five o’clock in the morning gave it a preliminary trial to see that everything was in order. The "hands" came in at six, and the machine was set to work. It was no doubt a very small order, but the piston was executed perfectly and satisfactorily. The result of its easier action, through reduced friction, was soon observable in the smaller consumption of coal. Mr. Tootal and his brother were highly pleased at my prompt and careful attention to their little order, and it was the forerunner of better things to come.

Orders soon came in. My planing machine was soon fully occupied. When not engaged in executing other work it was employed in planing the flat cast-iron inking tables for printing machines. These were made in considerable numbers by Messrs. Wren and Bennett (my landlords) under the personal superintendence of Ebenezer Cowper, brother of the inventor, who, in conjunction with Mr. Applegath, was the first to produce a really effective newspaper printing machine. I had many small subsidiary jobs sent to me to execute. They not only served to keep my machine tools properly employed, but tended in the most effective way to make my work known to some of the best firms in Manchester, who in course of time became my employers.

In order to keep pace with the influx of work I had to take on fresh hands. I established a smithy down in the cellar flat of the old mill in Dale Street, so that all forge work in iron and steel might be promptly and economically produced on the premises. There was a small iron foundry belonging to a Mr. Heath, about three minutes walk from my workshop, where I had all my castings of iron and brass done with promptness, and of excellent quality. Mr. Heath very much wanted a more powerful steam-engine to drive his cupola blowing fan. I had made a steam-engine in Edinburgh and brought it with me. There it lay in my workshop, where it remained unused, for I was sufficiently supplied with power from the rotating shaft. Mr. Heath offered to buy it. The engine was accordingly removed to his iron foundry, and I received my full quota of value in castings.

Week by week my orders grew, and the flat of the old mill soon assumed a very busy aspect. By occasionally adding to the number of my lathes, drilling machines, and other engineers’ tools, I attracted the attention of employers. When seen in action they not only facilitated and economised the production of my own work, but became my best advertisements. Each new tool that I constructed had some feature of novelty about it. I always endeavoured after greater simplicity and perfectness of workmanship. I was punctual in all my engagements. The business proved safe and profitable. The returns were quick. Sometimes one-third of the money was paid in advance on receipt of the order, and the balance was paid on delivery at my own premises. All risk of bad debts was avoided. Thus I was enabled to carry on my business with a very moderate amount of capital.

My crowded workshop and the active scene it presented, together with the satisfaction my work gave to my employers, induced several persons to offer to enter into partnership with me. Sometimes it was on their own account, or for a son or relation for whom they desired an opening. But I fought shy of such proposals. It was a very riskful affair to admit as partners young men whose character for ability might be very doubtful. I was therefore satisfied to go on as before. Besides, I had the kind and disinterested offer of the Brothers Grant, which was always available, though, indeed, I did not need to make use of it. I had also the good fortune to be honoured by the friendship of Edward Lloyd, the head of the firm of Jones, Lloyd, and Co. I had some moderate financial transactions with the bank. Mr. Lloyd had, no doubt, heard something of my industry and economy. I never asked him for any accommodation; but on one occasion he invited me into his parlour, not to sweat me, but to give me some most kindly hints and advice as to the conduct of my financial affairs. He volunteered an offer which I could not but feel proud of. He said that I should have a credit of #1000 at my service, at the usual bank rate. He added, "As soon as you can, lay by a little capital of your own, and baste it with its own gravy!" A receipt which I have carefully followed through life, and I am thankful to say with satisfactory results.

Before I conclude this chapter, let me add something more about my kind friends the Brothers Grant. It is well that their history should be remembered, as the men who personally knew them will soon be all dead. The three brothers, William, Daniel, and John Grant, were the sons of a herdsman or cattle-dealer, whose occupation consisted in driving cattle from the far north of Scotland to the rich pastures of Cheshire and Lancashire. The father was generally accompanied by his three sons, who marched barefoot, as was the custom of the north country lads in those days. Being shrewd fellows, they observed with interest the thriving looks and well-fed condition of the Lancashire folks. They were attracted by the print works and cotton mills which lay by the Irwell, as it crept along in its bright and rural valley towards Manchester. When passing the works of Sir Robert Peel at Nuttal, near Bury, they admired the beauty of the situation. The thought possessed them that they would like to obtain some employment in the neighbourhood. They went together in search of a situation. It is said that when they reached the crown of the hill near Walmsley, from which a beautiful prospect is to be seen, they were in doubt as to the line of road which they should pursue. To decide their course, a stick was put up, and they agreed to follow the direction in which it should fall. The stick fell in the direction of Ramsbottom, then a little village in the bottom of the valley, on the river Irwell. There they went, and found employment.

They were thrifty, economical, and hard-working; and they soon saved money. Their savings became capital, and they invested it in a little print work. Their capital grew, and they went on investing it in print works and cotton mills.

They became great capitalists and manufacturers; and by their industry, ability, and integrity, were regarded as among the best men in Lancashire. As a memorial of the event which enabled them to take up their happy home at Ramsbottom, they caused to be erected at the top of Walmsley Hill a lofty tower, overlooking the valley, as a kind of public thank-offering for the prosperity and success which they had achieved in their new home. Their well-directed diligence made the valley teem with industry, activity, health, joy, and opulence. They never forgot the working class from which they had sprung, and as their labours had contributed to their wealth, they spared no expense in providing for the moral, intellectual, and physical interests of their work-people. Whenever a worthy object was to be achieved, the Brothers Grant were always ready with their hearty and substantial help. They contributed to found schools, churches, and public buildings, and many a deserving man did they aid with their magnanimous bounty.

I may also mention that they never forgot their first impression of the splendid position of the first Sir Robert Peel’s works at Nuttal. In course of time Sir Robert had, by his skill and enterprise, acquired a large fortune, and desired to retire from business. By this time the Grant Brothers had succeeded so well that they were enabled to purchase the whole of his works and property in the neighbourhood. They proceeded to introduce every improvement in the way of machinery and calico printing, and thus greatly added to the quality of their productions. Their name became associated with everything that was admirable. They abounded in hospitality and generosity. In the course of many long years of industry, enterprise, and benevolence, they earned the goodwill of thousands, the gratitude of many, and the respect of all who knew them. I was only one of many who had cause to remember them with gratefulness. How could I acknowledge their kindness? There was one way; it was a very small way, but I will relate it. Soon after my introduction to the Grants, and before I had brought my tools to Manchester, William invited me to join a gathering of his friends at Ramsbottom. The church built at his cost had just been finished, and it was to be opened with great eclat on the following Sunday. He asked me to be his guest, and I accepted his invitation with pleasure. As it was a very fine day at the end of May, I walked out to Ramsbottom, and enjoyed the scenery of the district. Here was the scene of the Grant Brothers’ industry and prosperity. I met many enterprising and intelligent men, to whom William Grant introduced me. I was greatly pleased with the ceremonies connected with the opening of the church.

On the Monday morning William Grant, having seen some specimens of my father’s artistic skill as a landscape painter, requested me to convey to him his desire that he should paint two pictures—one of Castle Grant, the residence of the chief of the Clan Grant, and the other of Elgin Cathedral. These places were intimately associated with his early recollections, The brothers had been born in the village adjoining Castle Grant; and Elgin Cathedral was one of the principal old buildings of the north. My father replied, saying that he would be delighted to execute the pictures for a gentleman who had given me so kindly a reception, but that he had no authentic data—no drawings, no engravings—from which to paint them; and that he was now too old to visit the places. I therefore resolved to do what I could to help him to paint the pictures.

As it was necessary that I should go to London before returning to Edinburgh to pack up my machine tools there, I went thither, and after doing my business, I embarked for Dundee by the usual steamer. I made my way from there, via Perth and Dunkeld, to Inverness, and from thence I proceeded to Elgin. I made most careful drawings of the remains of that noble cathedral. I endeavoured to include all that was most beautiful in the building and its surrounding scenery. I then went on to Castle Grant, through a picturesque and romantic country. I found the castle amidst its deep forests of pine, larch, elm, and chestnut. The building consists of a high quadrangular pile of many stories, projecting backwards at each end, and pierced with windows of all shapes and sizes. I did my best to carry away a graphic sketch of the old castle and its surroundings: and then, with my stock of drawings, I prepared to return to Inverness on foot. The scenery was grand and beautiful. The weather was fine, although after mid-day it became very hot. A thunder storm was evidently approaching. The sun was obscured by a thunder-cloud; the sky flashed with lightning, and the rain began to pour down. I was then high up on a wild looking moor, covered with heather and vast boulders.

[Image] An extemporised shower-bath

There was no shelter to be had, for not a house was in sight. I did not so much mind for my clothes, but I feared very much for my sketches. Taking advantage of the solitude, I stripped myself, put my sketches under my clothes, and thrust them into a hollow underneath a huge boulder. I sat myself down on the top of it, and there I had a magnificent shower-bath of warm rain. I never enjoyed a bath under such romantic circumstances. The thunder-clouds soon passed over my head, and the sun broke out again cheerily. When the rain had ceased I took out my clothes and drawings from the hollow, and found them perfectly dry. I set out again on my long walk to Inverness; and reached it just in time to catch the Caledonian Canal steamer. While passing down Loch Ness I visited the romantic Fail of Foyers; then through Loch Lochy, past Ben Nevis to Loch Linnhe, Oban, and the Kyles of Bute, to Glasgow, and from thence to Edinburgh.

I had the pleasure of placing in my father’s hands the sketches I had made. He was greatly delighted with them. They enabled him to set to work with his usual zeal, and in the course of a short time he was able to execute, con amore, the commission of the Brothers Grant. So soon as I had completed my sketches I wrote to Daniel Grant and informed him of the result of my journey. He afterwards expressed himself most warmly as to my prompt zeal in obtaining for him authentic pictures of places so dear to the brothers, and so much associated with their earliest and most cherished recollections.

I have already referred to the Brothers Cowper. They were among my most attached friends at Manchester. Many of my most pleasant associations are connected with them. Edward Cowper was one of the most successful mechanics in bringing the printing machine to a state of practical utility. He was afterwards connected with Mr. Applegath of London, the mechanical engineer of the Times newspaper*
[footnote... Mr. Koeig’s machines, first used at the Times office, were patented in 1814. They were too complicated and expensive, and the inking was too imperfect for general adoption. They were superseded by Mr. Edward Cowper’s machine, which he invented and patented in 1816. He afterwards added the inking roller and table to the common press. The effect of Mr. Cowper’s invention was to improve the quality and speed of printing, and to render literature accessible to millions of readers.
...] he invented for the proprietors a machine that threw off from 4500 to 5000 impressions in the hour.

In course of time the Brothers Cowper removed the manufacture of their printing machines from London ,to Manchester. There they found skilled and energetic workmen, ready to carry their plans into effect. They secured excellent premises, supplied with the best modern machine tools, in the buildings of Wren and Bennett, about two minutes’ walk from my workshop, which I rented from the same landlords.

I had much friendly intercourse with the Cowpers, especially with Ebenezer the younger brother, who took up his residence at Manchester for the purpose of specially superintending the manufacture of printing machines. These were soon in large demand, not only for the printing of books but of newspapers. One of the first booksellers who availed himself of the benefits of the machine was Mr. Charles Knight, who projected the Penny Magazine of 1832, and sold it to the extent of about 180,000 copies weekly. It was also adopted by the Messrs. Chambers of Edinburgh, and the proprietors of the Magasin Pittoresque of Paris. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge also used Cowper’s machine in printing vast numbers of bibles and prayer-books, thereby reducing their price to one-third of the former cost. There was scarcely a newspaper of any importance in the country that was not printed with a Cowper’s machine.

As I possessed some self-acting tools that were specially suited to execute some of the most refined and important parts of the printing machine, the Messrs. Cowper transferred their execution to me. This was a great advantage to both. They were relieved of the technical workmanship; while I kept my men and machine tools fully employed at times when they might otherwise have been standing idle. Besides, I derived another advantage from my connection with the Brothers Cowper, by having frequent orders to supply my small steam-engines, which were found to be so suitable for giving motion to the printing machines. At first the machines were turned by hand, and very exhausting work it was; but the small steam-engine soon relieved the labourer from his heavy work.

Edward frequently visited Manchester to arrange with his brother as to the increasing manufacture of the printing machines, and also to introduce such improvements in the minor details as the experience and special requirements of the printing trade suggested. It was on these occasions that I had the happy opportunity of becoming intimately acquainted with him; and this resulted in a firm friendship which continued until the close of his admirable life. The clear and masterly way in which, by some happy special faculty, he could catch up the essential principles and details of any mechanical combination, however novel the subject might be, was remarkable; and the quaint and humorous manner in which he treated all such subjects, in no small degree caused his shrewd and intelligent remarks to take a lasting hold of the memory.

On many occasions Edward Cowper gave Friday evening lectures on technical subjects at the Royal Institution, London. Next to Faraday, no one held the attention of a delighted audience in so charming a manner as he did. Like Faraday, he possessed the power of clearly unveiling his subject, and stripping it of all its complicated perplexities. His illustrations were simple, clear, and understandable. Technical words were avoided as much as possible. He threw the ordinary run of lecturers far into the shade. Intelligent boys and girls could understand him. Next to Faraday, no one filled the theatre of the Institution with such eager and crowded audiences as he did. His choice of subjects, as well as his masterly treatment, always rendered his lectures instructive and attractive. He was one of the most kind-hearted of men, and the cheerful way in which he laid aside his ordinary business to give instruction and pleasure to others endeared him to a very wide circle of devoted friends.


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Chicago: James Nasmyth, "Chapter 10. Begin Business at Manchester," James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography, ed. Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904 in James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=85I6L3J1NXJWBEQ.

MLA: Nasmyth, James. "Chapter 10. Begin Business at Manchester." James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography, edited by Smiles, Samuel, 1812-1904, in James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography, Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=85I6L3J1NXJWBEQ.

Harvard: Nasmyth, J, 'Chapter 10. Begin Business at Manchester' in James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography, ed. . cited in , James Nasmyth: Engineer; an Autobiography. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=85I6L3J1NXJWBEQ.