Murdock (Murdoch), William

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b. 21 August 1754 Cumnock, Ayrshire, Scotland
d. 15 November 1839 Handsworth, Birmingham, England
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Scottish engineer and inventor, pioneer in coal-gas production.
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He was the third child and the eldest of three boys born to John Murdoch and Anna Bruce. His father, a millwright and joiner, spelled his name Murdock on moving to England. He was educated for some years at Old Cumnock Parish School and in 1777, with his father, he built a "wooden horse", supposed to have been a form of cycle. In 1777 he set out for the Soho manufactory of Boulton \& Watt, where he quickly found employment, Boulton supposedly being impressed by the lad's hat. This was oval and made of wood, and young William had turned it himself on a lathe of his own manufacture. Murdock quickly became Boulton \& Watt's representative in Cornwall, where there was a flourishing demand for steam-engines. He lived at Redruth during this period.
It is said that a number of the inventions generally ascribed to James Watt are in fact as much due to Murdock as to Watt. Examples are the piston and slide valve and the sun-and-planet gearing. A number of other inventions are attributed to Murdock alone: typical of these is the oscillating cylinder engine which obviated the need for an overhead beam.
In about 1784 he planned a steam-driven road carriage of which he made a working model. He also planned a high-pressure non-condensing engine. The model carriage was demonstrated before Murdock's friends and travelled at a speed of 6–8 mph (10–13 km/h). Boulton and Watt were both antagonistic to their employees' developing independent inventions, and when in 1786 Murdock set out with his model for the Patent Office, having received no reply to a letter he had sent to Watt, Boulton intercepted him on the open road near Exeter and dissuaded him from going any further.
In 1785 he married Mary Painter, daughter of a mine captain. She bore him four children, two of whom died in infancy, those surviving eventually joining their father at the Soho Works. Murdock was a great believer in pneumatic power: he had a pneumatic bell-push at Sycamore House, his home near Soho. The pattern-makers lathe at the Soho Works worked for thirty-five years from an air motor. He also conceived the idea of a vacuum piston engine to exhaust a pipe, later developed by the London Pneumatic Despatch Company's railway and the forerunner of the atmospheric railway.
Another field in which Murdock was a pioneer was the gas industry. In 1791, in Redruth, he was experimenting with different feedstocks in his home-cum-office in Cross Street: of wood, peat and coal, he preferred the last. He designed and built in the backyard of his house a prototype generator, washer, storage and distribution plant, and publicized the efficiency of coal gas as an illuminant by using it to light his own home. In 1794 or 1795 he informed Boulton and Watt of his experimental work and of its success, suggesting that a patent should be applied for. James Watt Junior was now in the firm and was against patenting the idea since they had had so much trouble with previous patents and had been involved in so much litigation. He refused Murdock's request and for a short time Murdock left the firm to go home to his father's mill. Boulton \& Watt soon recognized the loss of a valuable servant and, in a short time, he was again employed at Soho, now as Engineer and Superintendent at the increased salary of £300 per year plus a 1 per cent commission. From this income, he left £14,000 when he died in 1839.
In 1798 the workshops of Boulton and Watt were permanently lit by gas, starting with the foundry building. The 180 ft (55 m) façade of the Soho works was illuminated by gas for the Peace of Paris in June 1814. By 1804, Murdock had brought his apparatus to a point where Boulton \& Watt were able to canvas for orders. Murdock continued with the company after the death of James Watt in 1819, but retired in 1830 and continued to live at Sycamore House, Handsworth, near Birmingham.
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Principal Honours and Distinctions
Royal Society Rumford Gold Medal 1808.
Further Reading
S.Smiles, 1861, Lives of the Engineers, Vol. IV: Boulton and Watt, London: John Murray.
H.W.Dickinson and R.Jenkins, 1927, James Watt and the Steam Engine, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
J.A.McCash, 1966, "William Murdoch. Faithful servant" in E.G.Semler (ed.), The Great Masters. Engineering Heritage, Vol. II, London: Institution of Mechanical Engineers/Heinemann.
IMcN

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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