Nasmyth, James Hall

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b. 19 August 1808 Edinburgh, Scotland
d. 7 May 1890 London, England
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Scottish mechanical engineer and inventor of the steam-hammer.
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James Nasmyth was the youngest son of Alexander Nasmyth (1758–1840), the portrait and landscape painter. According to his autobiography he was named James Hall after his father's friend, the geologist Sir James Hall (1761–1832), but he seems never to have used his second name in official documents. He received an elementary education at Edinburgh High School, but left at the age of 12. He attended evening classes at the Edinburgh School of Arts for the instruction of Mechanics between 1821 and 1825, and gained experience as a mechanic at an early age in his father's workshop. He shared these early experiences with his brother George, who was only a year or so older, and in the 1820s the brothers built several model steam engines and a steam-carriage capable of carrying eight passengers on the public roads. In 1829 Nasmyth obtained a position in London as personal assistant to Henry Maudslay, and after Maudslay's death in February 1831 he remained with Maudslay's partner, Joshua Field, for a short time. He then returned to Edinburgh, where he and his brother George started in a small way as general engineers. In 1834 they moved to a small workshop in Manchester, and in 1836, with the aid of financial backing from some Manchester businessmen, they established on a site at Patricroft, a few miles from the city, the works which became known as the Bridgewater Foundry. They were soon joined by a third partner, Holbrook Gaskell (1813–1909), who looked after the administration of the business, the firm then being known as Nasmyths Gaskell \& Co. They specialized in making machine tools, and Nasmyth invented many improvements so that they soon became one of the leading manufacturers in this field. They also made steam locomotives for the rapidly developing railways. James Nasmyth's best-known invention was the steam-hammer, which dates from 1839 but was not patented until 1842. The self-acting control gear was probably the work of Robert Wilson and ensured the commercial success of the invention. George Nasmyth resigned from the partnership in 1843 and in 1850 Gaskell also resigned, after which the firm continued as James Nasmyth \& Co. James Nasmyth himself retired at the end of 1856 and went to live at Penshurst, Kent, in a house which he named "Hammerfield" where he devoted his time mainly to his hobby of astronomy. Robert Wilson returned to become Managing Partner of the firm, which later became Nasmyth, Wilson \& Co. and retained that style until its closure in 1940. Nasmyth's claim to be the sole inventor of the steam-hammer has been disputed, but his patent of 1842 was not challenged and the fourteen-year monopoly ensured the prosperity of the business so that he was able to retire at the age of 48. At his death in 1890 he left an estate valued at £243,805.
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Bibliography
1874, with J.Carpenter, The Moon Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite, London.
1883, Autobiography, ed. Samuel Smiles, London.
Further Reading
R.Wailes, 1963, "James Nasmyth—Artist's Son", Engineering Heritage, vol. I, London, 106–11 (a short account).
J.A.Cantrell, 1984, James Nasmyth and the Bridgewater Foundry: A Study of Entrepreneurship in the Early Engineering Industry, Manchester (a full-length critical study).
——1984–5, "James Nasmyth and the steam hammer", Transactions of the Newcomen Society 56:133–8.
RTS

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

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