James Nasmyth

"This article is about the Scottish engineer. For the inventor of basketball, see James Naismith."

name = James Nasmyth

image_width = 220px
caption = James Nasmyth
birth_date = 19 August 1808
birth_place = Edinburgh, Scotland
death_date = 7 May 1890
death_place =
residence = England
nationality = Scottish
field = Engineer, Inventor
work_institution = Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company, James Nasmyth and Company, Nasmyth, Wilson and Company
alma_mater =
doctoral_advisor =
known_for = Inventor of the steam hammer
prizes =
religion =
footnotes =

James Hall Nasmyth (sometimes spelled Naesmyth or Nasmithand Nesmyth (August 19, 1808 – May 7, 1890) was a Scottish engineer and inventor famous for his development of the steam hammer

Early life

His father Alexander Nasmyth was a big landscape and portrait painter in Edinburgh, where James was born. One of Alexander's hobbies was mechanics and he employed nearly all his spare time in his workshop where he encouraged his youngest son to work with him in all sorts of materials. James was sent to the Royal High School where he had as a friend Jemmy Patterson, the son of a local iron founder. Being already interested in mechanics he spent much of his time at the foundry and there he gradually learned to work and turn in wood, brass, iron, and steel. In 1820 he left the High School and again made great use of his father's workshop where at the age of 17, he made his first steam engine.

Some years later the subject of steam carriages for use on the roads was arousing a lot of interest and in 1828 James made a complete steam carriage that was capable of running a mile carrying 8 passengers. This accomplishment increased his desire to become a mechanical engineer. He had heard of the fame of Henry Maudslay's workshop and resolved to get employment there; unfortunately his father could not afford to place him as an apprentice at Maudslay's works. Nasmyth therefore decided to instead show Maudslay examples of his skills and produced a complete working model of a high-pressure steam engine, creating the working drawings and constructing the components himself.


In May 1829 Nasmyth visited Maudslay in London, and after showing him his work was engaged as an assistant workman at 10 shillings a week. Unfortunately, Maudslay died two years later, whereupon Nasmyth was taken on by Maudslay's partner as a draughtsman.

When Nasmyth was 23 years old, having saved the sum of ₤69, he decided to set up in business on his own at Dale Street, Manchester. He soon moved to Patricroft, an area of the town of Eccles, Lancashire, where in August 1836, he and his business partner Holbrook Gaskell opened the Bridgewater Foundry, where they traded as Nasmyth Gaskell & Co.

In March 1838 James was making a journey by coach from Sheffield to York in a snowstorm, when he spied some ironwork furnaces in the distance. The coachman informed him that they were managed by a Mr. Hartop who was one of his customers. He immediately got off the coach and headed for the furnaces through the deep snow. He found Mr. Hartop at his house, and was invited to stay the night and visit the works the next day. That evening he met Hartop's family and was immediately smitten by his twenty-one year old daughter, Anne. A decisive man, the next day he told her of his feelings and intentions, which was received "in the best spirit that I could desire." He then communicated the same to her parents, and told them his prospects, and so became betrothed in the same day. They were married two years later, on June 16, 1840 in Wentworth.

Up to 1843, Nasmyth, Gaskell & Co. concentrated on producing a wide range of machine tools in large numbers. By 1856, Nasmyth had built 236 shaping machines.

In 1840 he began to receive orders from the newly-opened railways which were beginning to cover the country, for locomotives. His connection with the Great Western Railway whose famous steamship SS "Great Western" had been so successful in voyages between Bristol and New York, led to him being asked to make some machine tools of unusual size and power which were required for the construction of the engines of their next and bigger ship SS "Great Britain".

The steam-hammer

In 1837 the Great Western Steam Company was experiencing many problems forging the paddle shaft of the "Great Britain"; when even the largest hammer was tilted to its full height its range was so small that if a really large piece of work were placed on the anvil, the hammer had no room to fall, and in 1838 the company's engineer wrote to Nasmyth:

Nasmyth thought the matter over and seeing the obvious defects of the tilt-hammer (it delivered every blow with the same force) sketched out his idea for the first steam hammer. He kept his ideas for new devices, mostly in drawings, in a "Scheme Book" which he freely showed to his foreign customers.

In April 1842, Nasmyth visited France with a view to supplying the French arsenals and dockyards with tools and while he was there took the opportunity to visit the Le Creusot works. On going round the works, he found his own steam-hammer at work. A short explanation soon cleared up the mystery (one of the managers of the Works had copied the drawing of it from the Scheme Book while on a visit to England). A mere two months after his return to England, Nasmyth patented the hammer, in June 1842, and began production of them in Edinburgh. By using the hammer production costs could be reduced by over 50 percent, while at the same time improving the quality of the forgings produced.

The first hammers were of the free-fall type but they were later modified, given power-assisted fall. Up until then, the invention of Nasmyth's steam-hammer, large forging, such as ships' anchors, had to be made by the "bit-by-bit" process, that is, small pieces were forged separately and finally welded together. A key feature of his machine was that the operator controlled the force of each blow. He enjoyed showing off its capability by demonstrating how it could first break an egg placed in a wine glass, without breaking the glass, which was followed by a full-force blow which shook the building. Its advantages soon became so obvious that before long Nasmyth hammers were to be found in all the large workshops all over the country.

Nasmyth subsequently applied the principle of his steam hammer to a pile-driving machine which he invented in 1843. His first full scale machine used a four ton hammer-block, and a rate of eighty blows per minute. The pile driver was first demonstrated in a contest with a team using the conventional method at Devonport on July 3, 1845. He drove a pile 70 feet long and 18 inches squared in four and a half minutes, while the conventional method required twelve hours. This was a great success, and many orders for his pile driver resulted. It was used for many large scale constructions all over the world in the next few years, such as the High Level Bridge at Newcastle upon Tyne and the Nile barrage at Aswan, Egypt.

By 1856 a total of 490 hammers had been produced which were sold across Europe to Russia, India and even Australia, and accounted for 40% of Nasmyth Gaskell & Co's revenues.

Other inventions

Apart from the steam hammer Nasmyth created several other important machine tools, including the shaper, an adaptation of the planer which is still used in tool and die making. Another innovation was a hydraulic press which used water pressure to force tight-fitting machine parts together. All of these machines became popular in manufacturing, and all are still in use in modified form.

Nasmyth was also one of the first toolmakers to offer a standardised range of machine tools; before this, manufacturers constructed tools according to individual clients' specifications, with little regard to standardisation and caused compatibility problems.

Among Nasmyth's other inventions, most of which he never patented, were a means of transmitting rotary motion by means of a flexible shaft made of coiled wire, a machine for cutting key grooves, self-adjusting bearings, and the screw ladle for moving molten metal which could safely and efficiently be handled by two men instead of the six previously required.

Later life

He retired from business in 1856 when he was 48 years old, as he said "I have now enough of this world's goods: let younger men have their chance". He settled down in Kent where he renamed his retirement home "Hammerfield" and happily pursued his various hobbies including astronomy. He built his own 20-inch reflecting telescope and made detailed observations of the Moon. He co-wrote "The Moon : Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite" with James Carpenter (1840–1899). This book contains an interesting series of "lunar" photographs: because photography was not yet advanced enough to take actual pictures of the Moon, Nasmyth built plaster models based on his visual observations of the Moon and then photographed the models. [http://search.lindahall.org/events_exhib/exhibit/exhibits/moon/p20.htm] A crater on the Moon is named after him.He was arguably the last of the early pioneers of the machine tool industry.

He was happily married for 50 years, until his death. They had no children.


Further reading

*Smiles, Samuel, ed., " [http://www.archive.org/details/jamesnasmythengi00nasmiala James Nasmyth Engineer: An Autobiography] " John Murray (1912).

External links

* [http://www.bibliomania.com/2/9/70/117/ Bibliomania: Full text of autobiography]

NAME= Nasmyth, James
SHORT DESCRIPTION= Engineer, Inventor
DATE OF BIRTH= 19 August 1808
PLACE OF BIRTH= Edinburgh, Scotland
DATE OF DEATH= 7 May 1890

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