William Richards (1756–1831)

Steam power was one of the critical innovations of the industrial revolution, allowing mechanical power to be concentrated wherever it was needed. The evolution of the technology relied on many inventors and makers who gradually spread the use of engines to all parts of the world. Richard Williams was an engineer from England who moved in the 1780s to the southern German state of Saxony to build beam engines.

The first ever beam engine was built in 1712 by the English ironmonger Thomas Newcomen. The value of engines in pumping water out of mines was immediately recognised and after 20 years about 100 were in use. Many inventors developed the technology, most famously James Watt, who protected his designs with patents and great secrecy.

Jakob Freiherr Waitz and Karl Friedrich Bückling went from Saxony to visit James Watt at the Boulton and Watt engine factory in Birmingham. They bribed a worker for drawings and tried to build an engine of their own at Hettstedt. However, when they could not make it operate successfully Bückling brought Richard Williams and another man from England in 1786 to improve it. Little is known about Williams, but he may have come originally from Cornwall and become an engine erector for Boulton and Watt.

Williams spent the rest of his life in Saxony. Continuing to work with Bückling, he built many beam engines to pump water from copper mines in the Mansfeld area and to power the salt works at Kötzschau, Schönebeck and Teuditz. Beyond Saxony, they provided engines in North-Rhine Westphalia for the salt works at Unna near Dortmund in 1799, and the Bölhorst coal mine near Minden in 1803. In Brandenburg they worked with the Lauchhammer foundry. At Kołobrzeg (then in Prussia and now in Poland) they made two engines for the salt works on the Baltic sea in 1806.

Williams trained many people in German-speaking countries to build and operate engines. He married in Saxony and his son Franz Carl Richards continued his work. His pumping engine of 1813 for the mine at Eisleben operated until 1885 and is preserved in the Deutsches Museum at Munich – it is the oldest surviving steam engine in Germany.