William Murdoch lived from 21 August 1754 to 15 November 1839. He was an engineer with wide ranging interests who, amongst other things, devised a means of producing gas for public supply. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
William Murdoch (his name was sometimes spelled "Murdock" in England) was born near near Cumnock in East Ayrshire. He was the son of John Murdoch, a millwright who leased Bello Mill from the local laird, James Boswell. At school he excelled in mathematics, while he learned his practical engineering by helping his father. In 1763 the nine year old William helped his father build a "wooden horse", a tricycle driven by hand cranks. It is said that in 1774 he helped his father build Craikston Bridge over the Lugar Water.
In 1777 the 23 year old William Murdoch walked the 300 miles to the Soho Foundry in Birmingham to ask James Watt for a job, possibly with an introduction from James Boswell, who knew both of them. Within a year Murdoch was being trusted to fit and erect steam engines on customers' premises. On his first solo job in Wanlockhead, he made a number of changes to the steam engine he was erecting that improved on the basic design that had emerged from the foundry. In September 1779 Murdoch moved to Redruth in Cornwall to supervise the erection, maintenance and repair of the increasing number of Boulton & Watt steam engines in Cornish tin mines.
During the 1780s Murdoch worked on a number of improvements on the basic design of steam engines, including a "steam wheel" that, if properly developed, could have brought the steam turbine into use far earlier than it was. More immediately successful was his "sun and planet gear", which allowed steam power to be turned into a truly circular motion. He also carried out a number of experiments with compressed air and developed the first pneumatic message system. This was developed by the London Pneumatic Dispatch Company and became widely used until the 1940s. He also experimented with steam cannons and steam guns, and by 1784 had produced a model steam carriage of a design more advanced and efficient than anything that had gone before.
During the 1790s, Murdoch turned his attention to the production of gas from coal. He initially produced enough gas to light a single room at his house in Redruth in Cornwall, and by 1798 he had installed an experimental gas lighting system in the Boulton & Watt works in Birmingham. Within a few years, Boulton & Watt were selling entire gas lighting systems to cotton mills, where the combination of lighting by candles and oil from the cotton had led to many fires. The municipal gas supply systems that quickly followed (such as the preserved Biggar Gasworks) were developed by others, but they all relied on Murdoch's original work.
In 1810 James Murdoch became a partner in Boulton & Watt, and from 1817 he took a leading role in the company's efforts to apply its expertise to marine engineering. The result was the production of steam engines for around 50 ships in the years to 1825. Murdoch died in 1839, aged 85, and was buried in Birmingham.