Bell, Henry

Bell, Henry
SUBJECT AREA: Ports and shipping
b. 1767 Torphichen Mill, near Linlithgow, Scotland
d. 1830 Helensburgh, Scotland
Scottish projector of the first steamboat service in Europe.
The son of Patrick Bell, a millwright, Henry had two sisters and an elder brother and was educated at the village school. When he was 9 years old Henry was sent to lodge in Falkirk with an uncle and aunt of his mother's so that he could attend the school there. At the age of 12 he left school and agreed to become a mason with a relative. In 1783, after only three years, he was bound apprentice to his Uncle Henry, a millwright at Jay Mill. He stayed there for a further three years and then, in 1786, joined the firm of Shaw \& Hart, shipbuilders of Borrowstoneness. These were to be the builders of William Symington's hull for the Charlotte Dundas. He also spent twelve months with Mr James Inglis, an engineer of Bellshill, Lanarkshire, and then went to London to gain experience, working for the famous John Rennie for some eighteen months. By 1790 he was back in Glasgow, and a year later he took a partner, James Paterson, into his new business of builder and contractor, based in the Trongate. He later referred to himself as "architect", and his partnership with Paterson lasted seven years. He is said to have invented a discharging machine for calico printing, as well as a steam dredger for clearing the River Clyde.
The Baths Hotel was opened in Helensburgh in 1808, with the hotel-keeper, who was also the first provost of the town, being none other than Henry Bell. It has been suggested that Bell was also the builder of the hotel and this seems very likely. Bell installed a steam engine for pumping sea water out of the Clyde and into the baths, and at first ran a coach service to bring customers from Glasgow three days a week. The driver was his brother Tom. The coach was replaced by the Comet steamboat in 1812.
While Henry was busy with his provost's duties and making arrangements for the building of his steamboat, his wife Margaret, née Young, whom he married in March 1794, occupied herself with the management of the Baths Hotel. Bell did not himself manufacture, but supervised the work of experts: John and Charles Wood of Port Glasgow, builders of the 43ft 6 in. (13.25 m)-long hull of the Comet; David Napier of Howard Street Foundry for the boiler and other castings; and John Robertson of Dempster Street, who had previously supplied a small engine for pumping water to the baths at the hotel in Helensburgh, for the 3 hp engine. The first trials of the finished ship were held on 24 July 1812, when she was launched from Wood's yard. A regular service was advertised in the Glasgow Chronicle on 5 August and was the first in Europe, preceded only by that of Robert Fulton in the USA. The Comet continued to run until 1820, when it was wrecked.
Bell received little reward for his promotion of steam navigation, merely small pensions from the Clyde trustees and others. He was buried at the parish church of Rhu.
Further Reading
Edward Morris, 1844, Life of Henry Bell.
Henry Bell, 1813, Applying Steam Engines to Vessels.

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

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