Symington’s steam power

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The article in last week’s Herald about the fate of the Charlotte Dundas replica was a reminder of another local contribution to world history.

In the 1770s James Watt, whose experimental work was done at Kinneil, transformed the cumbersome and inefficient steam engine of his day into a powerhouse of industry.

Other engineers began to look for ways in which the new power could be harnessed to improve transport and one of them was William Symington from Leadhills.

At Dalswinton Loch in Dumfriesshire the businessman Patrick Millar funded Symington’s experiments with small steam engines mounted on paddle boats, and in 1788 they were able to demonstrate that it could be done successfully.

So far so good, but how would it perform under commercial conditions carrying goods and passengers?

They approached the Forth and Clyde Canal Company and the following year ‘The Experiment’ arrived in Grangemouth for trials. Unfortunately the boat failed the test and, after spending thousands of pounds, Miller gave up on the idea.

But Symington still believed and he stuck with it through all kinds of difficulty.

A decade later, in 1801, the Governor of the Canal Company, Lord Thomas Dundas, who was anxious to speed up canal traffic asked Symington to have another go.

A new boat, called Charlotte Dundas after his daughter, was built in Alexander Hart’s Grangemouth yard with an engine assembled at Carron Works.

Trials were held on the five-mile stretch of the canal west of Lock 16 and, though they were reasonably successful, problems remained, especially damage to the banks of the canal.

Another setback, but again Symington kept faith with his idea when others doubted.

Two years later another boat with various changes but also called Charlotte Dundas was designed and built. On March 28, 1803 in front of a large number of guests it managed to pull two barges weighing 130 tons, over 18 miles in nine hours.

It was good, but not sensational, and failed to persuade the conservative canal operators still fearful that their precious asset would be damaged.

They refused to allow the boat’s use and this time Symington abandoned hope and moved on to other projects.

Looking back now we see that day as a turning point in the history of navigation when the world’s first practical steamboat proved that the technology worked.

Four years later Robert Fulton’s Clermont steamed along New York’s Hudson River and in 1812 Henry Bell of Torphichen launched his Comet on the River Clyde.

Both men had visited Symington and examined his boat at Grangemouth. Symington worked for a time as the manager of Falkirk’s Callendar Colliery before moving to London where he died in near poverty in 1831.

The Charlotte Dundas, stripped of her engines and fittings, was abandoned near Lock 10 and rotted away there until 1860.

Some of the timbers were used to make a pulpit for Camelon Parish Church and a chair which was once in the possession of the Grangemouth Dockyard Company.

In the 1980s, as part of a YTS project, Falkirk Council built the three quarter size model of the Charlotte Dundas which Grangemouth Heritage Trust want to bring back to the town and put on display.

I hope they are successful because there would be no better way of teaching our children about key moments in our history.

It would also be an opportunity to honour the genius of a great Scottish engineer.