My preparations for the Luxulyan valley talk has now reached the historic event of Austen’s engine trial at Fowey Consols. Before this series of posts moves on to explore the impact the day made on the rest of William West’s life, it will take a quick look at some of the controversy that arose from the trial.
The Austin engine’s record breaking 125 million duty did not go unchallenged. Despite of the day being surrounded by all the trappings of an impartial scientific trial, many accusations appeared in the press, raising doubts about the validity of the result.
One such letter is reproduced here, a letter from a well respected engineer, James Sims. In reading this letter it must be taken into consideration that Sims thought that he would be the engineer to build the engine at Austen’s shaft, but lost the contract to the young, and relatively unknown William West. No doubt this added extra vitriol to Sim’s pen as he compiled his words to the Mechanic’s magazine.
ON THE TRIAL OF AUSTEN’S STEAM ENGINE
“[After the official Report of the trial of Mr Austen’s engine, inserted in a preceding part of this Number, was in the hands of the printer, we received the following copy of a letter which Mr. James Sims of Chacewater, lately addressed on the subject to the Falmouth Packet, with a request that if we inserted the one we should also insert the other. As the request is a very fair one we readily comply with it.” Ed. M.M.]
“Sir-The account given of a steam engine in your paper of last week, and which is stated to be an extraordinary steam-engine, is, in the fullest sense of the word, extraordinary, not only in the duty as recorded, but so in the mode which was adopted for conducting a trial of that kind. I have no doubt that at least all practical engineers will agree with me, that it is perfectly absurd to think of making a fair trial of the duty of a steam engine (working under similar circumstances as the engine in question), in the short time of 24 hours; and on referring to the average duty performed by this engine for the last six months, and comparing it with the duty as recorded to have been performed during this trial, I consider that I am fully justified in making this remark. Duty as recorded at the trial 125,095,713 lifted one foot high by the consumption of one bushel of coal; average duty for the last six months 89,964 183 ;-balance in favour of 24 hours’ trial 35 131,530. The effectual working of this engine for six months, as reported by Mr Lean, gives 89,964,183, and which is the data that any practical man would refer to, in order to ascertain the duty performed.
I find by the monthly reports of steam-engines, that by comparing the average duty
Austen’s engine house
performed by this engine for six months, beginning with April last, and ending with September; and Borlase’s engine at Wheal Vor for six months, beginning with December 1832, and ending with May, 1833 there is a difference in favour of Austen’s engine of 4,816 182; Austen’s engine having performed during that time 89,964,183, and Borlase’s engine 85,148,001. Borlase’s engine never having been subjected to a trial of 24 hours only, there has been no proof of what the duty would amount to for that time, but so far as my opinion goes in matters of this kind, and I have no doubt that I hold it in common with every engineer in this county, there is no reason on earth why the duty should not be in a like proportion, provided it was tried in the same way, and by the same committee; therefore, if Mr Lean have given correct reports of these engines, (of which I hope there is no doubt), I am at a loss to know to which the greatest praise is due-viz. Messrs. Petherick and West the engineers of Austen’s engine, or Captain Richards, engineer of Borlase’s engine. Messrs. Petherick and West’s engine shows the greatest number of millions – but when it is known that an improvement which would enable them to save one bushel of coal, would raise the duty to nearly what it is above Richards’s engine, and taking into consideration the differences under which the two engines are working, ( Richards’s engine having 190
fathoms of pump-work and four balance-bobs to contend with, and Petherick and West’s engine only 128 fathoms of pump-work and one balance-bob), it ceases to be a matter of surprise why Petherick and West’s engine should for a fair average of duty performed for the last six months do 4,816,182, or a little more than 1-19 more duty than Richards’s engine in the same time. I beg to state, that there is what is termed an advantage which Richards’s engine has that of Petherick and West’s in the number of strokes per minute, the average of Richards’s engine for the six months I have quoted being 6,33 strokes per minute, and the other 3,16 strokes per minute; but even this is of little importance, as I find on referring to different reports, a 50 inch engine working at 19 strokes per minute, and performing 51,740,126 duty; and on the same report a 53 inch engine working 4,66 strokes per minute, and performing 49,405,880 duty; and in another report, which was for April last, a 70 inch engine working 2,3 stokes per minute, and performing 66,845,381; and a 70 inch engine working 8,54 strokes minute, and performing 64,378,231, plainly showing that whether an engine works three strokes per minute, or six strokes per minute, the difference in duty is of little importance. Having thus far explained this matter in manner which I hope will enable the country to be undeceived respecting this wonderful engine, I conclude by saying that I deem it unnecessary to point out any other engines which have not been much below this in duty, as this can easily be ascertained by a short perusal of the Monthly Reports.
I am, &c. JAMES SIMS”
Dec 5th 1835
Sim’s key accusation was that a 24 hour trial did not represent a true reflection of an engine’s efficiency. It was the praise being dished out towards West and Petherick that appeared to upset Sim’s the most, to him their engine was attracting an accolade that it did not deserve. History is never simple, if it was it would be boring.
The ‘Last Great Cornish Engineer‘ explores West’s response to such accusations, but this post series must now move on to discover some of the stories surrounding the impact the engine made on William West’s life.
For William West book suggestions visit my William West book shelf, a growing collection.