Brindley, James

, a man of a most uncommon genius for mechanical inventions, and who particularly excelled in planning and conducting inland navigations, was born at Tunsted, in the parish of Wormhill, and county of Derby, in 1716. His parents were possessed of a little freehold, the small income of which his father dissipated by a fondness for shooting and other field-diversions, and by keeping company with people above his rank. The consequence of this was, that his son was so totally neglected, that he did not receive the ordinary rudiments of education. The necessities of the family were so pressing, that young Brindley was obliged, as early as possible, to contribute towards its support; and, till he was nearly seventeen years of age, he was employed in those kinds of light labour which are usually assigned, in country places, to the children of the poor. At this period of his life, he bound himself apprentice to one Bennet, a mill-wright, near Macclesfield, in Cheshire, and soon became expert in the business; besides which, he quickly discovered a strong attachment to the mechanic arts in general, and a genius for extending them much farther than they had hitherto been carried. In the early part of his apprenticeship, he was frequently left by himself, for whole weeks together, to execute works concerning which his master had given him n previous instructions. These works, therefore, he finished in his own way; and Mr. Bennet was often astonished at the improvements his apprentice, from time to time, introduced into the mill-wright business, and earnestly questioned him from whence he had gained his knowledge. He had not been long at the trade, before the millers, wherever he had been employed, always chose him again, in preference to the master, or any other workman; and, before the expiration of his servitude, at which | time Mr. Bennet, who was advanced in years, grew unable to work, Mr. Brindley, by his ingenuity and application, kept up the business with credit, and supported the old man and his family in a comfortable manner.

It may not be amiss to mention a singular instance of our young mechanic’s active and earnest attention to the improvement of mill-work. His master having been employed to build an engine paper-mill, which was the first of the kind that had been attempted in those parts, went to see one of them at work, as a model to copy after. But, notwithstanding this, when he had begun to build the mill, and prepare the wheels, the people of the neighbourhood were informed by a mill-wright, who happened to travel that road, that Mr. Bennet was throwing his employers’ money away, and would never be able to complete, to any effectual purpose, the work he had undertaken. Mr. Brindley, hearing of the report, and being sensible that he could not depend upon his master for proper instructions, determined to see, with his own eyes, the mill intended to be copied. Accordingly, without mentioning his design to a single person, he set out, on a Saturday evening, after he had finished the business of the day; travelled fifty miles on foot; took a view of the mill; returned back, in time for his work, on Monday morning; informed Mr. Bennet wherein he had been deficient; and completed the engine, to the entire satisfaction of the proprietors. Besides this, he made a considerable improvement in the press-paper.

Mr. Brindley afterwards engaged in the mill-wright business on his own account, and, by many useful inventions and contrivances, advanced it to a higher degree of perfection than it had formerly attained; so that he rendered himself greatly valued in his neighbourhood, as a most ingenious mechanic. By degrees, his fame began to spread itself wider in the country, and his genius was no longer confined to the particular branch in which he had hitherto been employed. In 1752, he erected a very extraordinary water-engine at Clifton, in Lancashire, for the purpose of draining some coal-mines, which before were worked at an enormous expence. The water for the use of this engine was brought out of the river Irwell, by a subterraneous tunnel, nearly six hundred yards in length, carried through a rock; and the wheel was fixed thirty feet below the surface of the ground. Mr. Brindley’s | superiority to the mechanics in that part of the kingdom where he resided, being now well ascertained, and his reputation having reached the metropolis, he was employed by N. Pattison, esq. of London, and some other gentlemen, in 1755, to execute the larger wheels for a new silk-mill, at Congleton, in Cheshire. The execution of the smaller wheels, and of the more complex part of the machinery, was committed to another person, and that person had the superintendancy of the whole. He was not, however, equal to the undertaking; for he was obliged, after various efforts, to confess his inability to complete it. The proprietors, upon this, being greatly alarmed, thought fit to call in the assistance of Mr. Brindley; but still left the general management of the construction of the silk-mill to the former engineer, who refused to let him see the whole model, and, by giving him his work to perform in detached pieces, without acquainting him with the result which was wanted, affected to treat him as a common mechanic. Mr. Brindley, who, in the consciousness of genius, felt his own superiority to the man who thus assumed an ascendancy over him, would not submit to such unworthy treatment. He told the proprietors, that if they would let him know what was the effect they wished to have produced, and would permit him to perform the business in his own way, he would finish the mill to their satisfaction. This assurance, joined with the knowledge they had of his ability and integrity, induced them to trust the completion of the mill solely to his care; and he accomplished that very curious and complex piece of machinery in a manner far superior to the expectations of his employers. They had not solely the pleasure of seeing it established, with a most masterly skill, according to the plan originally proposed, but of having it constructed with the addition of many new and useful improvements. There was one contrivance in particular, for winding the silk upon the bobbins equally, and not in wreaths; and another for stopping, in an instant, not only the whole of this extensive system throughout its various and ^numerous apartments, but any part of it individually. He invented, likewise, machines for making all the tooth and pinion wheels of the different engines. These wheels had hitherto been cut by hand, with, great labour, but by means of Mr. Brindley 's machines, as much work could be performed in one day as had heretofore required fourteen. The | potteries of Staffordshire were also, about this time, indebted to him for several valuable additions in the mills used by them for grinding flint stones, by which that process was greatly facilitated.

In the year 1756, Mr. Brindley undertook to erect a steam-engine, near Newcastle-under-Line, upon a newplan. The boiler of it was made with brick and stone, instead of iron plates; and the water was heated by fire-flues of a peculiar construction; by which contrivances the consumption of fuel, necessary for working a steam-engine, was reduced one half. He introduced, likewise, in this engine, cylinders of wood, made in the manner of coopers ware, instead of iron ones; the former being not only cheaper, but more easily managed in the shafts; and he substituted wood too for iron in the chains which worked at the end of the beam. His inventive genius displayed itself in various other useful contrivances, which would probably have brought the steam-engine to a great degree of perfection, if a number of obstacles had not been thrown in his way by some interested engineers, who strenuously opposed any improvements which they could not call their own.

The disappointment of Mr. Brindley’s good designs in this respect must have made the less impression upon him, as his attention was soon after called off to another object, which, in its consequences, hath proved to be of the highest national importance; namely, the projecting and executing of Inland Navigations, from whence the greatest benefits arise to trade and commerce. By these navigations the expence of carriage is lessened; a communication is opened from one part of the kingdom to another, and from each of those parts to the sea; and hence the products and manufactures of the country are afforded at a moderate price. In this period of our great mechanic’s life, we shall see the powers given him by the God of Nature, displayed in the production of events, which, in any age less pregnant with admirable works of ingenuity than the present, would have constituted a national aera. We shall see him triumphing over all the suggestions of envy or prejudice, though aided by the weight of established customs; and giving full scope to the operations of a strong and comprehensive mind, which was equal to the most arduous undertakings. This he did under the protection of a noble duke, who had the discernment to single | him out, and the steadiness and generosity to "support him, against the opinions of those who treated Mr. Brindley’s plans as chimeras, and laughed at his patron as an idle projector.

His grace the late duke of Bridgevvater had, at Worsley, about seven miles from Manchester, a large estate, rich with mines of coal, which had hitherto lain useless in the bowels of the earth, because the expence of carriage by ]and was too great to find a market for consumption. The duke, wishing. to work these mines, perceived the necessity of a canal from Worsley to Manchester; upon which occasion, Mr. Brindley, who was now become famous in the country, was consulted. Having surveyed the ground, he declared the scheme to be practicable. In consequence of this, an act was obtained, in 1758 and 1759, for enabling his grace to cut a canal from Worsley to Salford, near Manchester, and to carry the same to or near Hollin Ferry, in the county of Lancaster. It being, however, afterwards discovered, that the navigation would be more beneficial, b*th to the duke of Bridgewater and the public, if carried over the river Irwell, near Barton bridge, to Manchester, his grace applied again to parliament, and procured an act, which enabled him to vary the course of his canal agreeably to this new plan, and likewise to extend a side branch to Longford bridge in Stretford. Mr. Brindley, in the mean time, had begun these great undertakings, being the first of the kind ever attempted, in England, with navigable subterraneous tunnels aird elevated aqueducts. The principle laid down at the commencement of this business reflects much honour on the noble undertaker, as well as upon his engineer. It was resolved that the canal should be perfect in its kind, and that, in order to preserve the level of the water, it should be free from the usual obstructions of locks. But, in accomplishing this end, many difficulties occurred, which were deemed unsurmountable. It was necessary that the canal should be carried over rivers, and many large and deep vallies, where it was evident that such stupendous mounds of earth must be raised, as could scarcely, it was thought, be completed by the labour of ages: and, above all, it was not known from what source so large a supply of water could be drawn, as, even upon this improved plan, would be requisite for the navigation. But Mr. Brindley, with a strength of mind peculiar to himself, and | being possessed of the confidence of his great patron, who spared no expence to accomplish his favourite design, conquered all the embarrassments thrown in his way, not only from the nature of the undertaking itself, but by the passions and prejudices of interested individuals: and the admirable machines he contrived, and the methods he took, to facilitate the progress of the work, brought on such a rapid execution of it, that the world began to wonder how it could have been esteemed so difficult. Thus ready are men to find out pretences for lessening the merit of others, and for hiding, if possible, from themselves, the unpleasant idea of their own inferiority.

When the canal was completed as far as Barton, where the Irwell is navigable for large vessels, Mr. Brindley proposed to carry it over that river, by an aqueduct of thirty -nine feet above the surface of the water. This, however, being generally considered as a wild and extravagant project, he desired, in order to justify his conduct towards his noble employer, that the opinion of another engineer might be taken; believing that he* could easily convince an intelligent person of the practicability of his design. A gentleman of eminence was accordingly called in; who, being conducted to the place where it was intended that the aqueduct should be made, ridiculed the at* tempt; and when the height and dimensions were communicated to him, he exclaimed, “I have often heard of castles in the air, but never before was shewn where any of them were to be erected.” This unfavourable verdict did not deter the duke of Bridgewater from following the opinion of his own engineer. The aqueduct was immediately begun; and it was carried on with such rapidity and success, as astonished all those who but a little before condemned it as a chimerical scheme. This work commenced in September, 1760, and the first boat sailed over it on the 17th of July, 1761. From that time, it was not uncommon to see a boat loaded with forty tons drawn over the aqueduct, with great ease, by one or two mules; while below, against the stream of the Irwell, persons had the pain of beholding ten or twelve men tugging at an equal draught: a striking instance of the superiority of a canalnavigation over that of a river not in the tideway. The works were then extended to Manchester, at which place the curious machine for landing coals upon the top of the bill, gives a pleasing idea of Mr, Brindley’s address in | diminishing labour by mechanical contrivances. It may here be observed^ that the bason, in particular, for conveying the superfluous water into the Irwell, below the canal, is an instance of what an attentive survey of this ingenious man’s works will abundantly evince, that, where occasion offered, he well knew how to-unite elegance with utility.

The duke of Bridgewater perceiving, more and more, the importance of these inland navigations, extended his ideas to Liverpool; and though he had every difficulty to encounter, that could arise from the novelty of his undertakings, or the fears and prejudices of those whose interests were likely to be effected by them, his grace happily overcame all opposition, and obtained, in 1762, an act of parliament for branching his canal to the tideway hi the Mersey. This part of the canal is carried over the rivers Mersey and Bollan, and over many wide and deep vallies. Over the yaliies it is conducted without the assistance of a single lock; the level of the water being preserved by raising a mound of earth, and forming therein a mould, as it may be called, for the water. Across the valley at Stretford, through which the Mersey runs, this kind of work extends nearly a mile. A person might naturally have been led to conclude, that the conveyance of such a mass of earth must have employed all the horses and carriages in the country, and that the completion of it would be the business of an age. But our excellent mechanic made his canal subservient to this part of his design, and brought the soil in boats of a peculiar construction, which were conducted into caissoons or cisterns. On opening the bottoms of the boats, the earth was deposited where it was wanted; and thus, in the easiest and simplest manner, the valley was elevated to a proper level for continuing the canal. The ground across the Bollan was raised by temporary locks, which were formed of the timber used in the caissoons just mentioned. In the execution of every part of the navigation, Mr. Brindley displayed singular skill and ingenuity; and, in order to facilitate his purpose, he produced many valuable machines, which ought never to be forgotten in this kingdom. Neither ought the oeconomy and forecast which are apparent through the whole work to be omitted. His ceconomy and forecast are peculiarly discernible in the stops, or floodgates, fixed in the canal, where it is above the level of the land. These stops are so constructed, that, should any of the banks give way, and | thereby occasion a current, the adjoining gates will rise by that motion only, and prevent any other part of the water from escaping than what is near the breach between the two gates.

The success with which the duke of Bridgewater’s undertakings were crowned, encouraged a number of gentlemen and manufacturers, in Staffordshire, to revive the idea of a canal navigation through that county, for the advancement of the landed interest and the benefit of trade, in conveying to market, at a cheaper rate, the products and manufactures of the interior parts of the kingdom. This plan was patronized, and generously supported, by lord Gower and Mr. Anson; and it met with the concurrence of many persons of rank, fortune, and influence in the neighbouring counties. Mr. Brindley was, therefore, engaged to make a survey from the Trent to the Mersey; and, upon his reporting that it was practicable to construct a canal, from one of these rivers to the other, and thereby to unite the ports of Liverpool and Hull, a subscription for carrying it into execution was set on foot in 1765, and an act of parliament was obtained in the same year. In 1766, this canal, - called, by the proprietors, “The Canal from the Trent to the Mersey,” but more emphatically, by the engineer, the Grand Trunk Navigation, on account of the numerous branches which, he justly supposed, would be extended every way from it, was begun; and, under his direction, it was conducted, with great spirit and success, as long as he lived. Mr. Brindley’s life not being continued to the completion of this important and arduous undertaking, he left it to be finished by his brother-in-law, Mr. Henshall, who put the last hand to it, in May 1777, being somewhat less than eleven years after its commencement. We need riot say, that the final execution of the Grand Trunk Navigation gave the highest satisfaction to the proprietors, and excited a general joy in a populous country, the inhabitants of which already receive every advantage they could wish from so truly noble an enterprize. This canal is ninety-three miles in length; and, besides a large number of bridges over it, has seventy-six locks and five tunnels. The most remarkable of the tunnels is the subterraneous passage of Harecastle, being 2880 yards in length, and more then seventy yards below the surface of the earth. The scheme of this inland navigation had employed the thoughts of the | Ingenious part of the kingdom for upwards of twenty years before, and some surveys had beeo made. But Harecastle hill, through which the tunnel is constructed, could neither be avoided nor overcome by any expedient the ablest engineers could devise. It was Mr. Brindley alone who surmounted this and other difficulties, arising from the variety of measures, strata, and quick-sands, which none but himself would have attempted.

Soon after the navigation from the Trent to the Mersey was undertaken, application was made to parliament, by the gentlemen of Staffordshire and Worcestershire, for leave to construct a canal from the Grand Trunk, near Haywood in Staffordshire, to the river Severn, near Bewdley. The act being obtained, the design was executed by our great engineer, and hereby the port of Bristol was added to the two before united ports of Liverpool and Hull. This canal, which is about forty-six miles in length, was completed in 1772. Mr. Brindley’s next undertaking was the survey and execution of a canal from Birmingham, to unite with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire canal near Wolverhampton. This navigation, which was finished in about three years, is twenty-six miles in length. As, by the means of it, vast quantities of coals are conveyed to the river Severn, as well as to Birmingham, where there must be a peculiar demand for them, extraordinary advantages have hence accrued to manufactures and commerce. Our engineer advised the proprietors of the last mentioned navigation, in order to avoid the inconvenience of locks, and to supply the canal more effectually with water, to have a tunnel at Smethwick. This would have rendered it a complete work. But his advice was rejected, and, to supply the deficiency, the managers have lately erected two of Messrs. Watts and Boulton’s steam-engines. The canal from Droitwich to the river Severn, for the conveyance of salt and coals, was likewise executed by Mr. Brindley. By him, also, the Coventry navigation was planned, and it was a short time under his direction. But a dispute arising concerning the mode of execution, he resigned his office; which, it is imagined, the proprietors of that undertaking have since had cause to lament. Some little time before his death, Mr. Brindley began the Oxfordshire canal. This unites with the Coventry canal, and forms a continuation of the Grand Trunk Navigation to Oxford, and thence by the Thames to London. The canal from | Chesterfield to the river Trent at Stockwith, was the last public undertaking in which Mr. Brindley engaged. He surveyed and planned the whole, and executed some miles of the navigation, which was succesfully finished by Mr. Henshall, in 1777. There were few works of this nature projected, in any part of the kingdom, in which our engineer was not consulted. He was employed, in particular, by the City of London, to survey a course for a canal from Sunning, near Reading in Berkshire, to Monkey island, near Maidenhead. But when application was made to parliament, for leave to effect the design, the bill met with such a violent opposition from the land-owners, that it was defeated.

Mr. Brindley had, for some time, the direction of the Calder navigation; but he declined a farther inspection of it, on account of a difference in opinion among the commissioners. In the year 1766, he laid out a canal from the river Calder, at Cooper’s bridge, to Huddersfield in Yorkshire, which hath since been carried into execution. In 1768, he revised the plan for the inland navigation from Leeds to Liverpool. He was, likewise, at the first general meeting of the proprietors after the act of parliament had been obtained, appointed the engineer for conducting the work: but the multiplicity of his other engagements obliged him to decline this employment. In the same year, he planned a canal from Stockton, by Darlington, to Winston in the bishopric of Durham. Three plans, of the like kind, were formed by him in 1769; one from Leeds to Selby; another from the Bristol channel, near Uphill in Somersetshire, to Glastonbury, Taunton, Wellington, Tiverton, and Exeter; and a third from Langport, in the county of Somerset, by way of Ilminster, Chard, and Axminster, to the South channel, at Axmouth, in the county of Devon. In 1770, he surveyed the country, for a canal from Andover, by way. of Stockb’ridge and Rumsey, to Redbridge, near Southampton; and, in 1771, from Salisbury, by -Fordingbridge and Ringwood, to Christchurch. He performed the like office, in 1772, for a navigation of the same kind, proposed to be carried on from Preston to Lancaster, and from thence to Kendal, in Westmoreland. He surveyed, likewise, and planned out a canal, to join that of the duke of Bridgewater’s at Runcorn, from Liverpool. If this scheme had been executed, it was Mr. Brindley’s intention to have constructed the work, by an | aqueduct over the river Mersey, at a place where the tide flows fourteen feet in height. He also surveyed the county of Chester, for a canal from the Grand Trunk to the city-of Chester. The plan for joining the Forth and the Clyde was revised by him; and he proposed some considerable alterations, particularly with regard to the deepening of the Clyde, which have been attended to by the managers. He was consulted upon several improvements with respect to the draining of the low lands, in different parts of Lincolnshire and the Isle of Ely. A canal was, likewise, laid out by him, for uniting that of Chesterfield, by the way of Derby, with the Grand Trunk at Swarkstone. To the corporation of Liverpool, he gave a>*plan for cleansing their docks of mud. This hath been put into execution with the desired effect: and he pointed out, also, -the method, which has been attended with equal success, of building walls against the sea without mortar. The last of our great mechanic’s ingenious and uncommon contrivances, that we shall mention, is his improvement of the machine for drawing water out of mines, by a losing and a gaining bucket: This he afterwards employed, to advantage, in raising up coals from the mines.

When "any extraordinary difficulty occurred to Mr. Brindley, in the execution of his works, having little or no assistance from books, or the labours of other men, his resources lay within himself. In order, therefore, to be quiet and uninterrupted, whilst he was in search of the necessary expedients, he generally retired to his bed; and he has been known to lie there one, two, or three days, till he had attained the object in view. He then would get up, and execute his design without any drawing or model. Indeed, it never was his custom to make either, unless he was obliged to do it to satisfy his employers. His memory was so remarkable, that he has often declared that he could remember, and execute, all the parts of the most complex machine, provided he had time, in his survey of it, to settle in his mind the several departments, and their relations to each other. His method of calculating the powers of any machine invented by him, was peculiar to himself. He worked the question for some time in his head, and then put down the results in figures. After this, taking it up again in that stage, he worked it farther in his mind, for a certain time, and set down the results as before. In the same way he still proceeded, making use | of figures only at stated periods of the question. Yet the ultimate result was generally true, though the road he travelled in search of it was unknown to all but himself;. and, perhaps, it would not have been in his power to have shewn it to another.

The attention which was paid by Mr. Brindley to objects of peculiar magnitude did not permit him to indulge himself in the common diversions of life. Indeed, he had not the least relish for the amusements to which mankind, in general, are so much devoted. He never seemed in his element, if he was not either planning or executing some great work, or conversing with his friends upon subjects of importance. He was once, prevailed upon, when in London, to see a play. Having never been at an entertainment of this kind before, it had a powerful effect upon him, and he complained, for several days afterward, that it had disturbed his ideas, and rendered him unfit for business. He declared, therefore, that he would not go to another play upon any account. It might, however, have contributed to the longer duration of Mr. Brindley’s life, and consequently to the farther benefit of the public, if he could have occasionally relaxed the tone of his mind. His not being able to do so, might not solely arise from the vigour of his genius, always bent upon capital designs; but be, in part, the result of that total want of education, which, while it might add strength to his powers in the particular way in which they were exerted, precluded him, at the same time, from those agreeable reliefs that are administered by miscellaneous reading, and a taste in the polite and elegant arts. The only fault he was observed to fall into, was his suffering himself to be prevailed upon to engage in more concerns than could be completely attended to by any single man, how eminent soever might be his abilities and diligence. It is apprehended that, by this means, Mr. Brindley shortened his days, and, in a certain degree, abridged his usefulness. There is, at least, the utmost reason to believe, that his intense application, in general, to the important undertakings he had in hand, brought on a hectic fever, which continued upon him, with little or no intermission, for some years, and at length terminated his life. He died, at Turnhurst, in Staffordshire, on the 30th of September, 1772, in the 56th year of his age, and was buried at New chapel in the same county, where an altar-tomb has been erected to his | tnemory. The vast works Mr. Brindley was engaged in at the time of his death, he left to be carried on and completed by his brother-in-law, Mr. Henshall, for whom he had a peculiar regard, and of whose integrity and abilities in conducting these works, he had the highest opinion.

Thus was the world deprived, at a comparatively early period, of this great genius

Of mother wit, and wise without the schools,

who very soon gave indications of uncommon talents, and extensive views, in the application of mechanical principles; and who, by a happy concurrence of circumstances, the chief of which was the patronage of his grace the duke of Bridgewater, was favoured with an opportunity of unfolding and displaying his wonderful powers, in the execution of works new to this country, and such as will ex*-. tend his fame, and endear his memory, to future times. The public could only recognize the merit of this extraordinary man in the stupendous undertakings which he carried to perfection, and exhibited to general view. But those who had the advantage of conversing with him familiarly, and of knowing him well in his private character, respected him still more for the uniform and unshaken integrity of his conduct; for his steady attachment to the interest of the community; for the vast compass of his understanding, which seemed to have a natural affinity with all grand objects; and, likewise, for many noble and beneficent designs, constantly generating in his mind, and which the multiplicity of his engagements, and the shortness of his life, prevented him from bringing to maturity. 1


Biog. Brit, an article procured from Mr. Henshall, Brlndley’s brother-inlaw, by Messrs. Wedgewood and Bentley? and much of it drawn up by the latter. Philips’s Hist, of Inland Navigation, &c.