Full Steam Ahead!

People tend to associate steam-powered machinery and railroads with the Victorian era (hence the science-fiction subgenre Steampunk), but the it was the Regency that actually gave birth to the new steam engines. One of the first successful  steamboat launchings happened in Glasgow, Scotland on 4 January 1803. The ship’s name was the Charlotte Dundas, and she had been the work of many years and many prototypes by inventor William Symington.



Symington had developed a steam-driven pivoted crosshead beam above the vertical cylinder to turn a paddle-wheel crank as early as 1793, but he had trouble finding the financial backers to build an actual ship powered by his design. But then, Thomas Dundas, 1st Baron Dundas, the Governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal Company, had the excellent idea of trying Symington’s design on a steam powered canal tug boat.

Canal shipping was absolutely crucial to the budding British industries, because they were the fastest and most reliable method of transporting materials for manufacture and distributing goods across the UK. The shipping barges were usually hauled along the canals by horses, who were treated so horribly that I won’t discuss it here lest fellow animal-lovers or equestrians become queasy. Patrick Miller of Dalswinton and Captain John Schank had tried to create a steam ship that would haul a barge up the canals, rather than relying on the much-abused canal horses, but they had failed. Their failure, however, sparked a notion in Lord Dundas’s mind regarding the feasibility of steam powered barges and Symington’s new steam engine. 

Lord Dundas presented a proposal entitled “a model of a boat by Captain Schank to be worked by a steam engine by Mr Symington” to the canal company’s directors, and they approved it on 5 June 1800. Symington now had his funding, and he got to work. By 1801 he had patented a horizontal steam engine directly linked to a crank, and Lord Dundas commissioned Symington’s newfangled engine to be built by the Carron Company.


The new boat was christened the Charlotte Dundas, theoretically in honor of one the Lord Dundas’s daughter but more likely in honor of his wife, nee Lady Charlotte Fitzwilliam. After it’s maiden voyage in January of 1803, Symington tinkered on it for a few more weeks before giving it a true test as a barge tug. On 28 March 1803:

the Charlotte Dundas towed two 70 ton barges 30 km (almost 20 miles) along the Forth and Clyde Canal to Glasgow, and despite “a strong breeze right ahead” which stopped all other canal boats it took only nine and a quarter hours, giving an average speed of about 3 km/h (2 mph). This demonstrated the practicality of steam power for towing boats.


Nothing but good times ahead for steam powered canal tug boats right? Wrong.

The forward-thinking and innovative Francis Egerton, 3rd Duke of Bridgewater,  the fabulously wealthy “father of British inland navigation”, had been all for the implementation of the new steam tug along the canals. Sadly, the duke passed away before he could make this a reality, and the majority of the Forth and Clyde Canal Company were too timid to see the project all the way through without the Duke there to twist their puny arms. They were concerned that the waves generated by the steam engine’s paddles would erode the banks of the canal, and so they lost the chance to be innovators of steam-powered canal transport.

Just as the heirs of Xerox regret the company’s refusal to follow through with that silly new personal computer it invented, I’m sure the descendants of those directors would love a time machine and a large boot with which to kick the butts of their waffling, short-sighted ancestors.

So what happened to one of the technological models of the age and it’s brilliant inventor?

The Charlotte Dundas was left in a backwater of the canal at Bainsford until it was broken up in 1861. Symington was not paid all he had invested in construction of the Charlotte Dundas and was left disappointed, but the development of steamboats was continued by others including Robert Fulton in the United States and Henry Bell in Scotland.

Symington went back to work in mining, but had his usual run of ill-luck in business matters. Impoverished and in failing health, he moved with his wife to London in 1829 to live with one of their daughters and her husband, where Symington died in 1831. He was buried in St. Botulph’s churchyard, and only 4 people attended his funeral.

Basically, due to the anti-technology cowards afraid to move forward, instead of being 5 or more years ahead of the curve on steam power and Symington getting the credit for his innovation, the Forth and Clyde Canal Company lagged in their field and Symington disappeared into the engineering shadows of Robert Fulton and Henry Bell. Doesn’t that just suck?

Terry Pratchett may have thought so too. The engineering protagonist of his 40th Discworld novel (which are gifts from the gods of fantasy, sociocultural critique, and snarky wordplay, so you should read them ASAP), Raising Steam, is named Dick Simnel  … to me that bears a strong touch of “Symington” in the phonemes. Was he thinking of an alternate reality where Symington/Simnel got the recognition and fortune he deserved?


One thought on “Full Steam Ahead!

  1. Talk about winners vs losers! Right now Ford Motor Company is planning to build electric pickups and suvs with the capability of driving themselves not far from a planned new testing area at Willow Run. Xerox still honored Chester Carlson for demonstrating the xerographic effect in 1939 (I think) when I worked there in the 1990’s. But it took some investors and risk taking to engineer a machine that could use the concept.

    The Republicans claim that government should not pick winners and losers, and now that they have power, they are picking Exxon and Goldman Sachs. And Trump. And Putin.

    Too bad our country no longer believes in a free public education.

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