James Nasmyth (1808–90)

James Nasmyth was an innovative engineer and a successful entrepreneur, whose writings about his early career are a valuable source of evidence on the state of British industry in the 1830s.

He was born in Edinburgh, the son of Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840), an artist, designer of bridges, and friend of the poet Robert Burns. At Edinburgh High School he became acquainted with Jemmy Patterson, the son of an ironfounder, and used his own father’s workshop to build a steam engine when he was only 17. He migrated to London in his early twenties, and in 1829 became an assistant at the engineering works of Henry Maudslay (1777-1831). In 1832 he embarked on a lengthy tour of manufacturing districts in the Midlands and the North, during which he sketched the locomotive Rocket near Liverpool, explored textile mills in Manchester, and recorded his impression of the ironworks at Coalbrookdale.

In 1834 he set up a machine tool workshop in Manchester on the first floor of a tenemented former textile mill, where the beam of a steam engine that was being machined crashed through the floor into the premises of a glasscutter beneath. From 1836, with borrowed money, he built the Bridgewater Foundry at Patricroft, west of Manchester, alongside the Bridgewater Canal and near the Liverpool & Manchester Railway. In 1839 Nasmyth designed the A-framed steam hammer, with the intention that it would forge the paddle shaft of the SS Great Britain, although ultimately Brunel’s great ship was screw-propelled. The steam hammer was patented in 1842, and a double-acting version was introduced in 1843.

The first working steam hammer was made in Le Creusot by Frenchmen who had seen Nasmyth’s drawings while visiting England, but large numbers were subsequently produced at Patricroft. It was used principally for shingling wrought-iron and for making larger forgings than had been possible with earlier hammers, whether water- or steam-powered. The same principles were applied to make pile drivers. Nasmyth invented several other machine tools, including a nut-shaping machine, an hydraulic punching machine, and a flexible shaft for driving small drills. He designed an hydraulic press, and the screw ladle which enabled one foundryman safely to move large quantities of molten metal. 

He retired in 1856 to pursue a distinguished career as an amateur astronomer, publishing articles and books on the sun and the moon, where a crater on the bears his name. The Bridgewater Foundry continued and became a Royal Ordnance Factory during the Second World War.