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William Symington

William Symington was born in 1763 in Leadhills, a remote mining village in the Lowther Hills of South Lanarkshire, Scotland. His father worked as a practical mechanic and superintendent at the Leadhills mine and the family was described as “respectable but not wealthy”. Although his parents were keen for him to enter the ministry he preferred to make a career as an engineer.WS On leaving school he worked as an engineer at Wanlockhead mine in the neighbouring village, where his brother George also worked. In 1784 William had designed a pumping engine at Wanlockhead trying not to infringe Watt’s patent. Gilbert Meason, manager of the mine, recognising William’s talent, sent him to the University of Edinburgh in 1786 to spend a few months attending science lectures. In 1786 William and George built a model steam carriage powered by a version of a Watt engine. William Symington cleverly combined the efficiency of the Watt engine with the simplicity of that devised by Thomas Newcomen and with Gilbert Meason’s encouragement and financial support, was able to demonstrate the practicality of his idea. In 1787 he patented his own improved atmospheric engine. His new engine worked by condensing the steam under a second piston which was then pushed down when fresh steam entered the cylinder, forcing out the condensate. The power piston worked by the atmospheric pressure acting on the vacuum created by the condensing steam. In 1788 William Symington was asked by Patrick Miller of Dalswinton House, near Dumfries to fit a steam engine to his boat to drive the paddlewheels. Symington adapted his steam carriage engine for the boat and proved that steam could power a boat. A second trial took place in December 1789 at Carronshore but Miller withdrew his support and it was 12 years before Symington worked on steam navigation again. William Symington had been working with the Carron Iron Works supervising the construction of the engine for Patrick Miller’s second vessel. By 1790 Symington had moved to Falkirk and become consulting engineer at the Carron Company. Symington had a son with Ann Miller in 1789. In 1791 he married Elizabeth Benson, whose father was a foreman with Carron Company, and they had 6 children, all born in the Falkirk area. Although Symington is best remembered for his contribution to steam powered vessels, he also built engines for mines and mills. The first of these was built on a mine in Wanlockhead in 1790, followed by engines in Sanquhar, Yorkshire and in London. In 1792, he built a large pumping engine that James Watt was also considered for and built an engine for the colliery of Sir James Bruce of Kinnaird. In 1793, he developed a crank drive with a crosshead above the cylinder, and built such an engine to wind coal from one of Bruce's pits. His engine proved very successful and about fifteen were built. In all, there are firm references to thirty-two engines built by Symington up until 1808, and passing mention of several more. When Sir James Bruce of Kinnaird died in 1794 Symington was offered the post of colliery manager, or viewer, at Kinnaird Colliery. His salary for this was £100 per annum and a house on the estate. While there he worked on 3 steam engines and by the year 1800 15 other engines had been built to his patent, not only in Scotland but also in Yorkshire and London. This appointment ended in 1800 when Symington took over management of the Grange colliery near Bo'ness, belonging to William Cadell. In 1804, following on after the Charlotte Dundas, Symington joined a local businessman in a partnership intended to manage the Callendar colliery at Falkirk but the venture ended badly for him. Symington continued to live in the Falkirk area until 1929 when he moved south to London to live with his daughter and son in law. He died there in March 1831 during a fever epidemic. Fear of the epidemic kept others away from his burial and only four people attended. William Symington’s work on marine engineering was a major influence on the early development of steam propulsion but he was a practical man, an engine builder, not a businessman and he failed to profit from his inventions. His achievements were outstanding and he is recognised far and wide as one of the great Scottish mechanical engineering pioneers.