Symington, William

Symington, William
SUBJECT AREA: Ports and shipping
b. 1764 Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland
d. 22 March 1831 Wapping, London, England
Scottish pioneer of steam navigation.
Symington was the son of the Superintendent of the Mines Company in Lanarkshire, and attended the local school. When he was 22 years old he was sent by Gilbert Meason, Manager of the Wanlockhead mines, to Edinburgh University. In 1779 he was working on the assembly of a Watt engine as an apprentice to his brother, George, and in 1786 he started experiments to modify a Watt engine in order to avoid infringing the separate condenser patent. He sought a patent for his alternative, which was paid for by Meason. He constructed a model steam road carriage which was completed in 1786; it was shown in Edinburgh by Meason, attracting interest but inadequate financial support. It had a horizontal cylinder and was non-condensing. No full-sized engine was ever built but the model secured the interest of Patrick Miller, an Edinburgh banker, who ordered an engine from Symington to drive an experimental boat, 25 ft (7.6 m) long with a dual hull, which performed satisfactorily on Dalswinton Loch in 1788. In the following year Miller ordered a larger engine for a bigger boat which was tried on the Forth \& Clyde Canal in December 1789, the component parts having been made by the Carron Company. The engine worked perfectly but had the effect of breaking the paddle wheels. These were repaired and further trials were successful but Miller lost interest and his experiments lapsed. Symington devoted himself thereafter to building stationary engines. He built other engines for mine pumping at Sanquhar and Leadhills before going further afield. In all, he built over thirty engines, about half of them being rotary. In 1800–1 he designed the engine for a boat for Lord Dundas, the Charlotte Dundas; this was apparently the first boat of that name and sailed on both the Forth and Clyde rivers. A second Charlotte Dundas with a horizontal cylinder was to follow and first sailed in January 1803 for the Forth \& Clyde Canal Company. The speed of the boat was only 2 mph (3 km/h) and much was made by its detractors of the damage said to be caused to the canal banks by its wash. Lord Dundas declined to authorize payment of outstanding accounts; Symington received little reward for his efforts. He died in the house of his son-in-law, Dr Robert Bowie, in Wapping, amidst heated controversy about the true inventor of steam navigation.
Further Reading
W.S.Harvey and G.Downs-Rose, 1980, William Symington, Inventor and Engine- Builder, London: Mechanical Engineering Publications.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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