William Symington lived from 1764 to 1831. He is primarily remembered as the builder of the world's first practical steamboat, Charlotte Dundas. The wider picture in Scotland at the time is set out in our Historical Timeline.
Symington was born in Leadhills, the son of a mechanic in the mines in the surrounding area. Although his parents were not wealthy, William was well educated. They intended him to enter the ministry, but his own ambitions lay with engineering. In 1785 William joined with his older brother George in trying to build a steam engine at Wanlockhead to the design of James Watt.
William's potential was quickly spotted by Gilbert Meason, manager of one of the mines, and he was sent to study engineering at Edinburgh University for several months. By the time William returned to Wanlockhead, his brother George had completed the steam engine, only the second in Scotland to be built to Watt's design. William quickly saw how to combine its efficiency with some of the simplicity of Thomas Newcomen's steam engines, and his improved atmospheric engine was patented in 1787.
Symington interest in nautical matters began with a trail to show than a steam engine could power a boat without the boat catching fire. The vessel chosen for this experiment had been built in 1785 as a pleasure boat and the trail took place on Dalswinton Loch near Dumfries. Accounts differ as to how successful the steam engine was in powering the boat through the water, but it certainly operated without catching fire. He then went on to try to power a 60ft boat on the Forth and Clyde Canal with steam. Unfortunately the paddle wheels were not up to the job and disintegrated. After repairs to the paddle wheels, successful runs were made on 26 and 27 December 1789.
Meanwhile, Symington was also busy installing steam engines to power mills and extract water and coal from mines across Scotland, being responsible for more than 32 between 1790 and 1808. During this period he moved to Falkirk to become a consultant to the Carron Iron Works.
From 1800 Symington resumed his interest in powering boats by steam, under the patronage of Thomas, Lord Dundas. He was involved in the company running the Forth and Clyde Canal and had strong business interests in improving transport links across Scotland. The first boat to result from this partnership was tested on the River Carron in June 1801, but was not a great success. Lord Dundas continues to back Symington, however, and the result was their second boat, the Charlotte Dundas. This first sailed on 4 January 1803 using an engine manufactured under Symington's direction at the Carron Iron Works. The initial trial was a success, and on 28 March that year the Charlotte Dundas towed two loaded barges through the canal, covering 18½ miles in 9½ hours. Symington had produced the world's first practical steamboat. Sadly the Forth and Clyde Canal company did not decide to commission further steamboats, and a trial on the Bridgewater Canal was cancelled when the Duke of Bridgewater died a few days before it was due to take place.
Symington moved his interests back to mining, and in 1804 he went into partnership to manage the Callendar Colliery in Falkirk. This ended badly, resulting in a prolonged legal case from which Symington emerged, in 1810, a rather poorer man.
In 1829, William Symington, now in ill health and in debt, and his wife moved to live with their daughter and her husband in London. He died in 1831 and was buried in St. Botulph's churchyard. In 1890, a bust was unveiled in Edinburgh in memory of William Symington. He was also very influential in the later development of steamships, with Henry Bell taking a close interest in the Charlotte Dundas before designing his own commercially successful Comet.