William Murdock Biography (1754-1839)


Murdock was a central figure of the English Industrial Revolution. His renowned mechanical ability probably had its origin in his early exposure to his family's milling business; his father was involved in casting the first iron-toothed gear in Scotland. In 1777, Murdock went south to look for a job with Boulton & Watt, a partnership that was selling James Watt 's new steam engines. During the job interview, Matthew Boulton noticed that Murdock was nervously handling a fine piece of woodwork that he had brought with him. Boultonrecognized Murdock's talent and hired him on the spot.

Murdock entered the business as a foreman, supervising the installation of engines in tin mines in southwest England. Besides improving the engines beinginstalled, he made a remarkable three-wheeled steam-engine "carriage " that reached speeds of seven miles per hour (11 kph) in 1784. Although Murdock's ideas were further developed by Richard Trevithick, Watt controlled the patentfor steam-powered carriages, and the first locomotive was not developed for another 25 years.

Soon Murdock began the experiments in gas lighting for which he is famous today. Murdock was the first to realize that gas was a more convenient energy source than coal, primarily because it could be piped and controlled more easily. Despite ridicule from his peers and the danger of gas explosions, Murdockinstalled gaslighting in his house, using gas made from coal in his backyardand piped in through a hole in a window frame. Murdock went on to develop methods for manufacturing, storing, and purifying coal-gas.

Murdock's employers were unenthusiastic about this sideline until they heardthat a similar gaslighting system, made by Philippe Lebon, was being used inFrance. Boulton and Watt then asked Murdock to install gaslighting at their main factory in Birmingham in 1802, as part of England's celebration of a temporary peace treaty with France. Soon the firm received its first commercial order to install gaslights at a cotton spinning factory. By 1806, Murdock hadimproved the odor of the coal-gas.

Meanwhile, Murdock had continued to apply his ingenuity to steam engine improvements, many of which were patented in 1799. He invented a new machine for boring cylinders and a better method for casting jacketed cylinders. Today, heis still known for inventing the slide valve, which injects and removes steam alternately from each end of the cylinder. Murdock also built the first model of an oscillating engine and the first free-standing steam engine.

Murdock also explored the possibilities of harnessing the power of compressedair to drive machinery. This work represented an early application of air-driven (pneumatic) systems used today in truck brakes and manufacturing equipment. Although Murdock eventually became a limited partner in Boulton & Watt, he remained essentially a hired hand throughout his career, rather than anindependent businessman. Nevertheless, he earned great respect from many rivals who were wealthier and better educated.

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