LOOKING back at the early years of the 19th century, Glasgow was fortunate that several individuals simultaneously came to the fore who would have a huge impact on the development of the city.

Last week I told the story of the remarkable Kirkman Finlay, the merchant who almost single-handedly boosted Glasgow’s trading links by using his political links to take on the East India Company in Parliament and end its monopoly of trade with Asia in 1813. Finlay was rightly lauded for his contribution to Glasgow long before he died at the home he built, Castle Toward on the Cowal peninsula, in 1842.

It was Glasgow’s great fortune that Kirkman Finlay and his fellow merchants and manufacturers were building their businesses at a time when a relatively new source of power was rapidly developing into an all-conquering behemoth – the steam engine.

In a very real sense the age of steam had begun in Glasgow. As we saw earlier in this series, it was while walking on Glasgow Green in 1765 that James Watt had his moment of inspiration which led him to add a condenser to the existing Newcomen steam engine, transforming its power output. Glasgow cannot claim, however, to have been the birthplace of boats powered by steam. That happened much further south in Dumfriesshire. 

The idea of an engine-powered boat had been around for 50 years when the son of a mining engineer, William Symington (1764-1831) got support from banker Patrick Miller to build a prototype steam-driven vessel.  
In October 1788, he demonstrated his steam-powered paddle-driven adapted pleasure on Dalswinton Loch near Dumfries, and no less a personage than Robert Burns was there to see it. 

Symington knew that if his steamboat was to have any practical application he would need to show that it could work for industry and that meant showing off his invention in or around Glasgow. 

In December, 1789, Symington fitted a steam engine to a 60ft-long paddle boat on the Forth and Clyde Canal.  Its maiden voyage had to be abandoned as the paddles broke into pieces, but Symington simply built stronger paddles and a few weeks later, he gave the world’s first practical demonstration of a working boat powered by steam. 

Symington then came up with a design for what was effectively a steam-powered tug which was named the Charlotte Dundas after one of the daughters of Thomas, Lord Dundas, a director of the Canal company.

On January 4, 1803, the Charlotte Dundas had her maiden voyage along the Canal, and later she towed two boats totalling 70 tons in record time – it was reported she had reached nearly 10mph in places, but the Canal’s directors invested no further because of the erosion of the Canal’s banks.

The lessons of Symington’s experiments were not lost on a young engineer then working as a carpenter in Glasgow, Henry Bell, originally from Torphichen in West Lothian.  The genius of Henry Bell (1767-1830) was to see the possibility of steam-powered transport, particularly for passengers, and in 1800 he wrote to the Admiralty in London to recommend the building of steamships. They had already looked into the possibility and rejected the idea outright.  

Bell was not the first to develop such a vessel, because it was tried in the USA in 1807 by the inventor Robert Fulton who built the North River Steamboat to carry passengers on the Hudson River in New York State.

Having moved to Helensburgh where his wife managed their hotel and public baths, in 1811, Bell designed a craft he named the Comet, after the Great Comet of that year – it’s due back to see us around the 48th century – and it was built for him by John Wood, a shipbuilder in Port Glasgow.

With a wooden hull, weighing 30 tons and with a steam engine that could develop 3hp, Comet was launched in July, 1812, and made her maiden voyage a month later.  
Bell put Comet to work on the Clyde ferrying passengers up and down the river between the Broomielaw in Glasgow and  Helensburgh. It was Europe’s first commercial steam passenger ship, and it had the great advantage of not having to pay heed to the wind or the tides.  

Little did Glasgow know but this was the start of a century of world-leading achievements marrying steam and ships, and among the first to take advantage of this new form of transport were Glasgow’s merchants and entrepreneurs. 

Even as Bell was experimenting with the idea of steam-powered boats, a Glasgow based engineer called David Napier was perfecting his engines and boilers in the family works in the city. Born in Dumbarton in 1790,  Napier had studied drawing and mathematics under the master architect Peter Nicholson, but it was steam and engines that fascinated him and he increasingly designed and built both boilers and engines.  

A David Napier boiler was used by engineer John Robertson of Glasgow in the Comet, and on the back of that success, Napier was able to develop a new engineering works at Camlachie and foresee the possibilities for steam navigation on a much bigger scale.  He was a pioneer of such vessels, and one of them, the Marion, built in 1815 and named after his wife, was the first steam-powered boat on Loch Lomond.

Napier was successful from the start as numerous competitors to Henry Bell came rushing to have Napier build their own steam-powered passenger vessels. 

By 1821, Napier had become acknowledged as the designer and builder of the best marine engines in the country, and he expanded into new premises at Lancefield Quay, leasing Camlachie to his cousin Robert to produce his own engines  – we shall learn more about both Napiers later in this series.

The greatest advance was the application of steam engines to ocean-going vessels, and David Napier was involved in many such creations as new shipbuilding yards opened up along the Clyde.

Henry Bell and David Napier were thus two of the most influential men at the start of the industry which would make Glasgow’s name around the world, and in future columns we’ll see how shipbuilding transformed the city which became synonymous with the famous branding ‘Clydebuilt.’ .