Wilson, Thomas

Wilson, Thomas
SUBJECT AREA: Canals, Ports and shipping
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b. 1781 Dunbar, Scotland
d. 1 December 1873 Grangemouth, Scotland
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Scottish shipwright and canal engineer, builder of the barge Vulcan, the world's first properly constructed iron ship.
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Wilson, the son of a sailor, spent his early years on the Forth. Later his father moved home to the west and Wilson served his apprenticeship as a shipwright on the Clyde at the small shipyards of Bowling, fifteen miles (24 km) west of Glasgow and on the river's north bank. In his late thirties Wilson was to take the leading role in what is arguably the most important development in Scotland's distinguished shipbuilding history: the building of the world's first properly constructed iron ship. This ship, the Vulcan, was the culmination of several years' effort by a group of people well connected within the academic establishment of Scotland. The Forth and Clyde Canal Company had passed instructions for investigations to be made into reducing running expenses and a distinguished committee looked into this matter. They included John Robison (Secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh), Professor Joseph Black of Glasgow University, James Watt and John Schanck. After a period of consideration it was decided to build a new, fastpassage barge of iron, and tenders were invited from several appropriate contractors. Wilson, with the assistance of two blacksmiths, John and Thomas Smellie, was awarded the work, and the Vulcan was constructed and ultimately launched at Faskine near Glasgow in 1819. The work involved was far beyond the comprehension of engineers of the twentieth century, as Wilson had to arrange puddled-iron plates for the shell and hand-crafted angle irons for the frames. His genius is now apparent as every steel ship worldwide uses a form of construction literally "hammered out on the anvil" between 1818 and 1819. The Vulcan was almost 64 ft (19.5 m) in length and 11 ft (3.4 m) broad. In 1822 Wilson was appointed an inspector of works for the Canal Company, and ultimately he superintended the building of the docks at Grangemouth, where he died in 1873, the same year that the Vulcan was broken up.
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Further Reading
R.Harvey, 1919, Early Days of Engineering in Glasgow, Glasgow: Aird and Coghill. F.M.Walker, 1989–90, "Early iron shipbuilding. A reappraisal of the Vulcan and other pioneer vessels", Transactions of the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in
Scotland 133:21–34.
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Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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