William Murdoch, engineer and inventor of coal-gas lighting, amongst other things, was born on the 21st of August, 1754.
William Murdoch has been described as ‘The Scot who lit the world’, but for many years he has been the 18th Century Scot whose contribution to society has remained largely in the shadows. He was a modest man, who introduced numerous innovations, many ahead of their time, and he surely merits much wider recognition than he hitherto has received. What is certain is that his role in the emergence of steam has been obscured, largely due to James Watt taking most of the credit. And, despite being independently known as the inventor of gas lighting, for which he was awarded the Rumford Gold Medal, in 1808, by the Royal Society, he remained an employee of Boulton & Watt for over twenty years. Murdoch was indeed an inventor who ranks with the best and should be seen as a giant of the Industrial Revolution. The list of his inventions in the field of engineering is staggering. Amongst other things, he created a steam-driven tricycle, steam cannon, the steam gun, a worm-driven cylinder boring machine, 'D-slide' valves, underwater paint for ships, and iron cement – and he coined the term ‘gasometer’. He carried out a number of experiments with compressed air and developed the first the pneumatic tube message system. That was developed by the ‘London Pneumatic Dispatch Company’ and became widely used until the 1940s. The technology made a comback more recently, where it is in use in banks and supermarkets as a means of transferring cash from the tills to more secure areas. Murdoch also invented the high-pressure steam engine, without which there would have been no railway locomotives – and he was even dissuaded from persevering with his novel idea of running engines on rails. Murdoch’s innovation of the oscillating 'sun-and-planet' gear allowed steam power to be turned into a truly circular motion, with the piston driving the flywheel directly instead of using a beam. That invention of Murdoch’s led to the steam engine, the invention of fellow Scot, James Watt, becoming the motive power for many different industries.
Murdoch's best known contribution, ignoring steam for the moment, was gas lighting. Murdoch invented gas lighting using gas made from coal, the first new form of lighting since the candle, which remained the primary method of illumination until Edison's electric light bulb, one hundred years later. He not only invented gas lighting, he invented the method of extracting gas from coal, and by 1792, he had put it to practical use lighting his own workshop. By 1798, it was used to provide light at Boulton & Watt's Soho Works in Birmingham, which was notably illuminated to celebrate the Treaty of Amiens in 1803. Boulton & Watt thereafter began selling gas-making equipment and, by 1805, gas lighting systems were being manufactured on a commercial scale and installed in cotton mills and factories, particularly in Manchester. The benefit to cotton mills was immense. That came not only from prolonged working hours and reduced costs, but from a decreased risk of fire (think open candles and cotton). By 1813, Westminster Bridge in London was lit up and municipal gas supply systems quickly followed, such as Glasgow, in 1817. Many of these were developed by others, but they all relied on Murdoch's original work. Decent urban lighting had a dramatic effect of society as, for the first time, it became relatively safe to go out after dark. Murdoch never patented gas lighting, although he did present a paper to the Royal Society and I guess we should say, the world was never the same again.
William Murdoch was born at Bello Mill Farm, by the village of Lugar, in the Parish of Auchinleck, near Cumnock in Ayrshire, on the 21st of August, 1754. He learned much from his father, who had been a master gunner with the army and was a very capable millwright as well as a talented engineer and inventor. John Murdoch invented cast iron pinion gearing and, in 1763, the world’s first tricycle; his famous ‘wooden horse’ driven by hand cranks. William, therefore, had a good pedigree and naturally developed an excellent grasp of mechanics. He went to Cumnock School, where he excelled in mathematics, but he honed his practical engineering skills helping his father. William’s father leased Bello Mill from the local laird, James Boswell, and it is likely that Boswell was responsible for Murdoch’s pilgrimage to Birmingham to ask James Watt for a job, because Boswell knew them both. In 1777, at the age of twenty-three, Murdoch walked all the way from his home town to the Soho steam engine foundry of James Watt, and his business partner, Matthew Boulton. Today, that’s a journey of just over two hundred and seventy miles; probably a little more by 18th Century roads. Murdoch’s biographer, Samuel Smiles, related how Murdoch was spotted nervously fiddling with his hat when interviewed by Boulton. The hat was made of wood and Murdoch claimed to have had made it himself on a home-made lathe. Whether or not the story is true, Boulton, who later described Murdoch as the finest engine erector he had ever seen, offered him a job.
Murdoch 's ingenuity and ability was quickly recognised by James Watt and, in 1779, he appointed him to supervise the erection, maintenance and repair of the Boulton & Watt steam engines used in Cornish tin mines for pumping water. Steam engines were operated and maintained by the manufacturers, who were paid through a complex formula calculated on the basis of the engines’ performance. So Murdoch's skill in keeping them running efficiently helped to ensure Boulton & Watts’ profits. Murdoch remained loyal to Boulton and Watt, despite their having persuaded him not to patent his own research into high pressure engines and Watt’s ‘surreptitious appropriation’ of some of his ideas. Watt said of Murdoch’s idea, “I did not like [the fact that] a scheme I had revolved round in my mind for years... should be wrested from me.” Whether or not that was just envy, the idea did appear (or reappear?) in one of Watt’s patents. The sad thing is that Watt kept it under wraps, effectively holding up the progress of the Industrial Revolution for ten years, until 1801, when the Cornish engineer, Richard Trevithick, built a competing design. Whatever the motives of Watt, Murdoch was well rewarded and, in 1810, became a partner and director of the Company. From 1817, Murdoch took a leading role in successful efforts to apply the Company’s expertise to marine engineering.
William Murdoch was also the inventor of the first, successful steam road vehicle or locomotive in Britain, which he designed, built and ran, in Redruth, around 1784. Murdoch died in Birmingham on the 15th of November, 1839, where he was buried beside his partners, James Watt and Mathew Boulton. In 1830, James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, wrote the most apt epitaph. He described Murdoch as “that incomparable mechanic ... a man of indomitable energy, and Watt's right-hand man in the highest practical sense ... whose memory ought to be held in the highest regard by all true engineers and mechanics.”