James Nasmyth

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(b. Edinburgh, Scotland, 19 August 1808; d. London, England, 7 May 1890)

engineering, astronomy.

Although best known for his steam hammer, Nasmyth also did much to improve the design of machine tools in general. His mechanical skills were used to help William Lassell build a very fine Newtonian reflector, and he published astronomical observations of some interest.

Nasmyth was the youngest son of Alexander Nasmyth, a portrait and landscape painter, and Barbara Foulis. Leaving the high school in Edinburgh, in 1820, he was educated privately—and not at all well—but he acquired some knowledge of chemistry, mathematics, and natural philosophy. Through his skill in model engineering, he met John Leslie, who gave him admittance to his classes at Edinburgh University. In 1821 he attended the Edinburgh School of Arts. In 1829 he found employment as personal assistant to Henry Maudslay in his works in London, and in 1834 he established his own business in Manchester. So successful was he there, and in many later enterprises, that by 1856 he was able to retire with a large fortune.

The steam hammer was Nasmyth’s most successful invention. Power hammers had previously been worked by steam, but in an imprecise and relatively uncontrolled manner, actuated by levers or cams. Nasmyth produced his design in November 1839 with a view to its being used for the forging of a thirty- inch-diameter paddle shaft in prospect for the steam- ship Great Britain, then on the stocks at Bristol. (The shaft was forged, but not actually used, since the ship was eventually screw-driven.) His first solution was a single-acting hammer, operating by gravity, the steam merely lifting the hammer for each successive drop. Acceptance of his design was at first slow; and the first steam hammer to be built, in 1842 at the ironworks founded by Adolphe and Eugène Schneider at Creuzot, was copied without Nasmyth’s knowledge from his private “scheme-book”design. James Watt is said to have anticipated the idea. The steam hammer, with many improvements, soon became perhaps the most dramatic symbol of steam power, particularly as it made possible the forging of very large guns for the British navy.

Nasmyth also designed a milling machine, a planing or shaping machine, and a steam pile driver. After his early retirement, he took up astronomy, creating something of a stir when he announced that the solar

surface was patterned like willow leaves (1862). A book on the moon, written jointly with James Carpenter, was well illustrated.


I. Original Works. Nasmyth’s book on the moon is The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite (London, 1874; 4th ed., London, 1903), written with James Carpenter; his paper on the sun is “On the Structure of the Luminous Envelope of the Sun,” in Manchester Philosophical Society Memoirs, 1 (1862), 407–411. For his astronomical work, all of minor importance, see Agnes Clerke, History of Astronomy During the Nineteenth Century, 3rd ed. (London, 1893), 103, 204, 313, 326, 352. Apart from his autobiography, Nasmyth published nothing on the steam hammer except his patent (No. 9382, 9 June 1842).

II. Seocndary Literature. The literature is very extensive, but the main biographical source is Nasmyth’s autobiography, edited by Samuel Smiles (London, 1883; Cambridge, 1931). See also Thomas Baker, Elements of Mechanism. With Remarks on Tools and Machines by J. Nasmyth, 2nd ed. (London, 1858).

J. D. North

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James Nasmyth

James Nasmyth (1808-1890) was an inventor and contributed greatly to the inventions of power tools, most notably the steam hammer.

James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer, one of the integral contributions to the industrial revolution in Europe. Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 19, 1808, the son of an artist. He left school at age twelve to make model engines and other mechanical devices. At nineteen he built a full-size steam carriage which performed with acclaim. When he was twenty-one, Nasmyth accompanied his father on a trip to London, England, where he met machinist and engineer Henry Maudslay. During the next two years, Nasmyth studied and worked under Maudslay, learning from him as well as making valuable contributions, such as designing hexagonal-headed nuts and a flexible shaft of coiled spring steel for drilling holes in awkward places. In 1834, Nasmyth opened his own shop in Manchester, England, later moving to a foundry at Patricraft, England, where he became known for his craftsmanship and steam-powered tools. It was also here, in 1839, that he invented the steam hammer, a device that allowed large materials to be forged with great accuracy. The concept of the steam hammer was simple, even though the idea was totally new. A hammering block was hoisted by steam power to a vertical position above a piece of metal. Once the hammer reached an appropriate height, steam in the piston was released and the block fell. The pistons could be regulated not only in strength of blow, but also in frequency of strokes. At the time, Nasmyth decided to postpone patenting, building, and marketing the new steam hammer. Two-and-a-half years later, however, while visiting a fellow machinist in France, Nasmyth was shown a steam hammer that had been built from his own rough sketches. Nasmyth quickly returned to England, patented his work, and manufactured hammers for an eager market. Soon he was making hammers with four-and five-ton blocks, and by 1843 he had improved on them by injecting steam above the piston to add force to the downward blow. The steam hammer allowed larger forgings with heavier metals, tightened bonds, and made metals stronger and more dense. Not surprisingly, Nasmyth soon revived a previous interest and became involved in manufacturing steam locomotives for various railway companies. In fourteen years, he built 109 high-pressure steam engines, pumps, and hydraulic presses. His steam hammer was exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851 alongside his prize-winning maps of the moon. Nasmyth retired in 1856 and dedicated his last thirty years to astronomy, a life-long interest and hobby. He built a number of telescopes and charted sunspots as well as the surface of the moon. Besides his steam hammer, a direct predecessor of the pile driver, Nasmyth also devised a vertical cylinder-boring machine and milling machines. He died a financially successful inventor, unlike many of his peers, on May 7, 1890. □

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James Nasmyth


Scottish inventor who designed the first powerful steam hammer (patented in 1842). James Nasmyth manufactured more than 100 steam locomotives, a series of small high-pressure steam engines, hydraulic presses, an assortment of steam-driven pumps, and other useful machines. He did all these things before the age of 48, when he retired from active business and devoted himself to astronomy. In 1874, he wrote The Moon: Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. Nasmyth died in 1890 in London, England.