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James Nasmyth
James Nasmyth

James Nasmyth (or Naesmyth or Nasmith) lived from 9 August 1808 to 7 May 1890. He was an inventor and engineer remembered mostly for his development of the steam hammer. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.

James Nasmyth was born the youngest of six children. His father was Alexander Nasmyth often called "the father of Scottish landscape painting", and James' older brother Patrick and his four older sisters, Anne, Barbara, Charlotte, and Jane, all became artists in their own right. James, however, had a more mechanical outlook, having clearly inherited the side of his fathers talents that showed through in his technical drawings and in his architecture.

James was educated at Edinburgh's Royal High School. One of his friends was the son of a local iron founder, and James would spend much of his time at the foundry, learning to work in various metals. After leaving school, James put these skills to good use when he built his first steam engine at the age of 17. By 1828, at the age of 20, he had produced a steam carriage capable of carrying eight people for a mile.

The following year he was employed by the engineer Henry Maudslay in London. Two years later he returned to Edinburgh to set up his own business, before moving to settle in Lancashire. Here he helped establish the Bridgewater Foundry, later called Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company, which until its takeover by the Ministry of Supply in 1940 was to become famous for its locomotives and heavy machine tools.

A major problem being encountered at the time was finding a means of machining very large metal parts. The best tool available at the time was the steam hammer, which tilted upwards under steam pressure, and was then allowed to drop in an arc to deliver the blow. This had the disadvantage of leaving little room between the hammer and anvil for large objects, and only ever being able to deliver blows at the same force. Nasmyth produced a very different type of steam hammer, in which the hammer itself was raised vertically above the anvil by steam, and then fell vertically, either under its own weight, or with a controlled strike whose force was regulated by steam pressure. This represented an enormous advance that enabled the manufacture of the huge engines for the SS Great Western. Not content with having revolutionised heavy engineering, Nasmyth went on to develop his steam hammer into a new kind of pile driver. This was first demonstrated at Devonport on 3 July 1845 when his new machine drove an 18in square and 70ft long pile into the ground in 4½ minutes. A team using conventional methods took 12 hours to drive an identical pile into nearby ground.

James Nasmyth retired a wealthy man in 1856 at the age of 48, explaining his decision with the words: "I have now enough of this world's goods: let younger men have their chance". He settled down with his wife in Kent, and spent his time painting and pursuing his interest in astronomy, becoming the co-author of a book entitled The Moon : Considered as a Planet, a World, and a Satellite. In recognition of his pioneering work, a crater on the moon is named after him. Nasmyth died in 1890 in Kent.

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