James Nasmyth Biography (1808-1890)


James Nasmyth invented the steam hammer, one of the integral contributions tothe Industrial Revolution in Europe.

Nasmyth was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on August 19, 1808, the son of an artist. He left school at age twelve to make model engines and other mechanicaldevices. At nineteen he built a full-size steam carriage which performed with acclaim. When he was twenty-one, Nasmyth accompanied his father on a trip to London, England, where he met machinist and engineer Henry Maudslay. Duringthe next two years, Nasmyth studied and worked under Maudslay, learning fromhim as well as making valuable contributions, such as designing hexagonal-headed nuts and a flexible shaft of coiled spring steel for drilling holes in awkward places.

In 1834, Nasmyth opened his own shop in Manchester, England, later moving toa foundry at Patricraft, England, where he became known for his craftsmanshipand steam-powered tools. It was also here, in 1839, that he invented the steam hammer, a device that allowed large materials to be forged with great accuracy. The concept of the steam hammer was simple, even though the idea was totally new. A hammering block was hoisted by steam power to a vertical position above a piece of metal. Once the hammer reached an appropriate height, steam in the piston was released and the block fell. The pistons could be regulated not only in strength of blow, but also in frequency of strokes.

At the time, Nasmyth decided to postpone patenting, building, and marketing the new steam hammer. Two-and-a-half years later, however, while visiting a fellow machinist in France, Nasmyth was shown a steam hammer that had been built from his own rough sketches. Nasmyth quickly returned to England, patentedhis work, and manufactured hammers for an eager market. Soon he was making hammers with four-and five-ton blocks, and by 1843 he had improved on them by injecting steam above the piston to add force to the downward blow.

The steam hammer allowed larger forgings with heavier metals, tightened bonds, and made metals stronger and more dense. Not surprisingly, Nasmyth soon revived a previous interest and became involved in manufacturing steam locomotives for various railway companies. In fourteen years, he built 109 high-pressure steam engines, pumps, and hydraulic press. His steam hammer was exhibitedat the Great Exhibition of 1851 alongside his prize-winning maps of the moon.

Nasmyth retired in 1856, and dedicated his last thirty years to astronomy, alife-long interest and hobby. He built a number of telescopes and charted sunspots as well as the surface of the moon. Besides his steam hammer, a directpredecessor of the pile driver, Nasmyth also devised a vertical cylinder-boring machine and milling machines. He died a financially successful inventor (unlike many of his peers) on May 7, 1890.

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