The Last Great Cornish Engineer now has a web page
The completion of my talk at the Friends of Luxyluyan Valley was a good reason to dig back through all the assorted posts on William West and place then in some sort of logical order. The result of this piece of web house keeping is a page dedicated to William West of Tredenham, with links across to the various rabbit holes that my research has tempted me to dive into.
I have no doubt that this will be a page that will get added to as time goes by, there are plenty of ideas bubbling away, demanding to be explored. So if Victorian Engineers are an interest of yours, especially those with a Cornish connection, pop back to this website once in a while to have a browse.
And now that bit of tidying up the site is completed, time to go exploring history again….
Notes and musings for the Friends of Luxulyan Valley William West talk.
This is post is a resource for all those who attended my talk in March 2017 in the Luxulyan Valley, an area rich in William West’s History. The post follows the order of the presentation, contains links to references within the Navbooks blog, along with a few facts, figures and dates.
If you did not attend the presentation, then feel free to wander among the links on this page, and perhaps enjoy forming your own conclusions about the significance of the Austen’s engine trial.
Thread one-The Steam engine Duty race
Steam engine development in Cornwall
Newcomen engine first used at Wheal Vor in 1715
The first James Watt engines in Cornwall 1777
The Cornish engine
1812 the first high pressure condensing engine
Number of pounds of water raised one foot by an engine using one bushel of coal.
The Duty race
1811 Lean’s Engine reporter started publication, Maximum duty recorded 22.3 Million
1825 Grose erected his engine at the Wheal Hope Mine . This engine first introduced the concept of insulating the the cylinders, nozzles, and steam pipes, an introduction that greatly improved the efficiency of the engine.
1827 Grose’s 80″ at Wheal Towan is recorded at 67m.
“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” James Sims
“In 1869, the company’s engineer, Cornishman John West, was asked to design an engine capable of pumping 12,000 gals/min from a depth of 300 ft. His engine, a condensing, double-acting rotative beam engine weighing 675 tons, was unique, but proved to be as successful as it was gargantuan. With a 110-inch cylinder and two latticework beams, the engine worked pump rods in the shaft and a pair of huge flywheels inside the engine house.”NANCE, R. Damian,
James Sim’s had several connections with William West, and their relationship was a mixed one. As seen in an earlier post, he was one of the most vocal of the Austen’s Engine trial critics. He would became related to West through marriage, when he William married his sister, Grace Sims.
The West-Sims business relationship would in time evolve from bitter rivalry into a working partnership. In 1843 the Sims family granted West the licence to build the Sims compound engine, and West installed several large engines of this design in Devon and Cornwall.
Jame’s engine was developed in the late 1830s. It used two cylinders one above the other; the smaller higher pressure cylinder sat on top of the larger lower pressure cylinder. The design was attempt to reduce the ‘kick’ being induced by using higher pressure steam. Unfortunately it required a taller, and therefore more expensive engine house, in addition to being difficult to maintain as a result of steam packing gland located deep within the engine, between the two cylinders. It was not a design that was widely adopted, although it did form the basis of the huge dutch engines at Cruiquis.
I have been hunting the web for a good picture of the design, as so far this is the best I can discover. A cover of a book for sale at Plough books. Feel free to comment if you have stumbled across others. The Cruquis museum on their excellent website has a diagram and description of its operation.
This is the best I have managed with the book cover, not a good image I admit. It does show well the overall layout however, and more importantly, the impact its design had on the engine house. Having the high pressure cylinder stacked on top would have demanded a significantly taller building.
If you do know of some better images of this type of compound engines please post a message, I am sure there must be some better ones out there. Meanwhile the preparation for the Luxulyan valley talk continues….jm
As a foundation to build my next talk around I have thrown together a few dates in William West’s life. Yes there are many gaps, and yes it is all a bit random in topics, but it does create a quick orientation time. As this series of posts progress, so will this post be updated. For a very quick biography of William West Click here>
Now that the series of posts on William West is over, it seems a good opportunity to index all the posts on this blog covering William West, the last great Cornish engineer. So if you wish to learn more about his life and works, have a wander around the posts.
Porthtowan is one of those locations that can only be in Cornwall. The idyllic blue mix of Atlantic surf, golden beaches and heather topped cliffs are punctuated by the scree of mine waste tips pouring down from long disused mine shafts. Where there are now holiday makers and second homes, there was once miners and engine houses; where now is heard the sound is now of playing children the hammering of the Cornish stamps once dominated.
On a day, sometime in 1828 a young William West was working on one of the engines that stood on here at Great Towan mine. It was no ordinary engine, for this was one of Samuel Groses’s 80″record breaking steam engines at Druce’s and Wilson’s shafts. Groses’s understanding of thermal efficiency had been pushing the performance of his engines up and up. He was the star of the Cornish engineers of the time, his engines were dominating the performance league tables, and now he was determined to increase his lead further.
William West on that fateful day was also determined, he had an idea that, if successful, would move steam engine efficiency along in another leap. If successful, it would also move his own career in another leap. And so, when Captain Grose away, the young west, the un-schooled farmer’s son born on Dolcoath mine, made a bold request of Captain Vivian, could he experiment with Grose’s precious engine? Captain Vivian in what must have been a great act of faith, agreed.
OS 1884 (survey 1881) Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland. Website
His plan was simple, and one that was an extension of the concepts proven so successful by Grose. Captain Samuel Grose and made huge advances by insulating the huge cylinder of the steam engine. This insulation kept the precious heat energy where it was needed, in the cylinder. West took the idea further, right back to the Cornish Boiler where the high pressure steam was produced.
On that day the boiler and pipework had been lagged with sawdust. On that day, on the hill slopes above Porthtowan another advance in steam engine technology was made. More water was raised for every bushel of coal fed into the boiler because less heat was wasted heating the air above Cornwall, and more heat went into producing the high pressure steam demanded by the engine.
West’s idea worked, and Grose on his return was impressed. He adopted West’s improvement, and was rewarded with the engine achieving a new record of 87 million duty. A result that Thomas Lean described as,
“Began, as it were, a new era in duty of the steam engine.”
But there was a flaw in West’s plan. A simple basic flaw, with disastrous consequences. Of all materials to encase a hot, fire filled, boiler with sawdust should not have been a first choice. The result was predictable, the sawdust caught fire, along with the roof and woodwork of the engine house. But once the smoldering wood and been put out, the boiler was re-lagged, the lesson had been learnt, this time ash or burnt earth was used.
Grose gained the accolade of his achievements at Porthtowan, and West went on to make his own name.
I thought long and hard on which event to start the story of William West with. After some deliberation it boiled down to one of two good tales; the bottle of gin, teacher, and roaring open fire, or the Candle story. It was the candle story that won, so if you desire to know more about the fate of the gin soaked teacher of West’s very brief education, then skip to the bottom of this page.
Trevithick’s cottage now lies , white washed and pristine, in the care of the National Trust in the village of Penpond, south west of Camborne.
In that cottage during the evenings of 1808 an eight year old boy would stand holding a candle. Each evening he had walked across the fields from his Father’s farm on Dolcoath mine to hold that candle. Each evening he stood beside the great stature of Richard Trevithick as the light he held flickered over his drawings.
Those drawings would be transformed by a Bridgenorth Foundry into a machine that Trevithick knew would change the world. Under the light of West’s candle he was evolving his compact high pressure steam engine into what seemed to him a obvious concept. Add wheels beneath one of his high pressure engines, add rails beneath the wheels, add carriages behind the engine, and then sit passengers in carriages. So obvious, so simple, and yet it would have the power to change society for ever. All Richard Trevithick needed to do was show the world the world’s first passenger train and then the world’s first passenger railway would soon follow. In those evenings at Penponds he was designing the Catch-Me-Who-Can locomotive, the engine that was destined to pull that first passenger train.
And so the young West played his very small part in the birth of passenger railways. Holding that candle, whist listing to Trevithick, and soaking up his enthusiasm. How he was given that amazing opportunity history does not tell us, what the link was between the greatest of all Cornish engineers and a farmer on Dolcoath mine history also fails to tell. History has left many gaps in the tale of West and Trevithick’s candle, but we do know where the story went.
The Catch-Me-Who-Can fulfilled its task of pulling a passenger train. A train that went around and around a circular track at Euston , pulling those first fare paying
passengers at shilling a ride. Although the engine was a success, the track proved a failure, brittle and not fit for the task, it caused frequent, and sometimes dramatic derailments. The general public understandably were not impressed, Trevithick’s technology demonstrator did not achieve the engineer’s vision, and he walked away from railway development for ever.
The world had missed its chance, it would now have to wait until on 1830 before the first passenger railway was open, George Stephenson’s Liverpool and Manchester Railway.
That eight year old boy would through a mixture of chance, skills, and perseverance become an engineer. Just like Trevethick he would design steam engines, and just like Trevithick he would add his innovations to the engineering world, but unlike Trevithick he would build and run his own successful railway. William West was the boy that held the candle for Richard Trevithick.
To learn about that Gin fueled incident then have a read of one of these: