Quits America – Duke of Orleans – Lands at Falmouth – Prejudice against Foreigners—John Feltham – Machine for twisting Cotton and forming it into Balls — Machine for hemming and stitching – Machine for Card-shuffling – Designs for a Block Machinery – Edward, Lord Dudley – Slide Rest – Maudslay – Designs offered to Mr. Taylor – Rejected Increase of the Navy — Sir Samuel Bentham

On the 20th of January, 1799, Brunel bade adieu to America, grateful for the freedoms which her institutions had permitted him to enjoy; for the encouragement which her citizens had afforded to his expanding genius; and for the opportunity which the requirements of its rudimentary condition offered for testing the practical value of his projections.

The hope of his boyhood, once to visit England, which had found expression on the quay of Rouen in the exclamation, “ Ah! quand je serai grand, j’irai voir ce pays-là,” was at length to be fulfilled ; and the unwavering constancy of a long-cherished attachment was now to meet with its reward.

The reputation which he had acquired in America enabled him to procure valuable letters of introduction from men of learning and eminence in the United States. With H. R. H. the Duke of Kent he had already formed a personal acquaintance in New York, where he also became known to the Duke of Orleans, afterwards King Louis Philippe, who, at a subsequent period, when entertaining Brunel at the Palais Royal, seemed pleased to recall the circumstances connected with their first acquaintance. He would cheerfully remind Brunel how he and his brothers, the Duke de Montpensier and the Count Beaujolais, had fared; sometimes compelled to quit the only Inn in a wild district in consequence of some unintentional offence offered to the landlord, and sometimes compelled to perform long journeys on foot, each with his luggage on his back. “Ah !” said his Majesty, “you were then the one to travel in state; but I with my friends went through that country very differently.”

In March 1799, Brunel landed at Falmouth, and he was shortly afterwards united to Miss Sophia Kingdom. For his sake, she had steadily rejected many an eligible suitor whom her fascination and beauty had attracted, but we may well believe that her confidence and affection had nothing to regret when, with the freshness of youth in his heart, and the smile of truth upon his lips, he could write in his seventy-sixth year, and after forty-six years of wedded life, this touching acknowledgment, “To you, my dearest Sophia, I am indebted for all my success.” Truly says Jeremy Taylor, “She that is loved is safe, and he that loves is joyful.”

Necessity as inclination urged Brunel to seek employment, although a serious doubt might be well entertained as to the reception which would be accorded to him by the country.

The hereditary feeling of repugnance to everything French, and indeed the suspicion and jealousy with which everything foreign was regarded, attained in England, about that period, a greater intensity than ever. The length to which these feelings were carried is curiously illustrated in a letter placed in my hands by Sir Benjamin Hawes, and addressed by Mr. John Feltham, a gentleman well known and respected, to Sir Benjamin’s father.

Bath, No. 12, Kingsmead Square,
20th July, 1798.

Dear Sir,

You need not be alarmed when I tell you in custody, and my papers, writings, &c. &c., seized by order, I apprehend, of His Grace the Duke of Portland, in consequence of having a few weeks since given a poor Turk, or Persian, 2s. 6d. and a breakfast. I could not understand a word he said; but he was poor, and on foot. He brought me a letter of recommendation from Mr. Hoskins, who had, I suppose, relieved him ; and he desired me to copy a letter to give him to take on to London to Mr. Wilmot to give him 10s. 60. in the Boro’, — which letter has been seized, and the poor man taken up for a spy.

This letter of Mr. Hoskins, which I copied, mentioned the word “citizen,” which it seems has caused the alarm. I have no doubt of the business proving highly honourable to Mr. H. and myself: though I may possibly be brought to town. I underwent a long examination yesterday, and the Bench and Mayor behaved very much to their credit, and paid me some compliments for my conduct. I sent for Mr. Cruttwell, on whose word I am on the parole of honour.

Your affectionate friend,
Jonn Feltham

P.S.—Probably this little act of benevolence has stopt all my letters. Adieu. God bless you.
To Mr. Benjn. Hawes

Brunel had indeed introduced his inventions from America, and it was at first supposed that they were of y American origin, which may possibly have had the effect of modifying feeling and opinion. Still he was unable to enter the gates of Portsmouth Dockyard without an official order or permit, even when engaged in superintending his own works.

In May 1799, Brunel took out his first patent. This was for a duplicate writing and drawing machine. In principle it resembled the Pantograph, as described in the “Mémoires de l’Académie des Sciences,” 1743, though differing widely in the details. A machine for twisting cotton-thread and forming it into balls was also amongst the earliest of Brunel’s inventions in this country. The impulse given by this machine to the employment of cotton can now scarcely be credited. The little balls were very elegant in form ; and from the manner in which the thread was wound, they presented the appearance of net-work, or ribbons of lace. The machine measured the length of the thread which it wound, and proportioned the size of the ball to its weight and fineness. Unfortunately Brunel neglected to secure the benefit of his invention by patent, and it was therefore rapidly and generally adopted; and while thousands of pounds were realised through its means, Brunel himself remained without remuneration. In his Journal of 1806, he notices a visit which he paid to the establishment of the Messrs. Strutt, at Belper (Derby), where, after remarking that there were 640 persons employed, he says, “I observed they had adopted my contrivance for winding cotton into balls. There were about twenty spindles on one swing.” A lady, a friend of Brunel, having experienced the advantage of the little cotton balls, while expressing her admiration to him, jokingly suggested that he ought to invent a means of relieving ladies from the wearisome employment of hemming and stitching. From any other, the observation would have received but a passing notice. It had certainly been forgotten by the lady herself, when, to her surprise, she saw his patent for “trimmings and borders for muslins, lawns, and cambric,” in which she found her wishes more than fulfilled. The advantages of this invention are stated to be “ that the operations of hemming, whipping, or otherwise securing from ravelling the edges of trimmings cut in narrow slips out of border webs, as they have unavoidably been hitherto, are by this invention altogether saved.” To this machine may perhaps be referred the origin of that recently introduced from America, and so largely employed in Belfast and the north of Ireland in hemming cambric handkerchiefs, stitching linen drawers and jackets, and in making shirts.

A very essential difference will be observed in the fate of the two machines. While the one remained neglected and unproductive, the other is a marked success, and has become the object of an important and remunerative trade.

Brunel also invented, about this period, for the benefit of some feeble-handed card-player, a little machine for shuffling cards; but what the exact nature of its construction was, I have been unable to learn. The cards were placed in a box, å handle was turned, and in a few seconds the sides of the box opened, presenting the pack divided into four parts, and the cards most effectually mixed. This machine he presented to Lady Spencer.

In a note addressed to Lady Hawes by the Dowager Lady Littleton, she says that “she well recollects Sir Isambard bringing to her mother the little instrument for shuffling cards, and also the deep interest and admiration with which her parents always thought and spoke of him.”

Although these machines afforded no direct profit, they served as an introduction, and offered valuable testimony of Brunel’s mechanical genius and skill. It was, however, to a system of machines which should supply the whole British navy with blocks, that we must look for the establishment of his claim to occupy the first rank amongst inventors and mechanists. Owing to the fortuitous circumstance of Mrs. Brunel’s brother being Under-Secretary to the Navy Board, Brunel was enabled, through him, to enter into negotiations with Messrs. Fox and Taylor, who had for many years enjoyed a monopoly for the supply of blocks to the British navy, and to whom Brunel first made offer of his ingenious inventions,— with what result we shall presently see.

So long ago as 1775, Mr. Taylor took out a patent “for the improvement in coghing or bushing of cast iron or metal shivers for ships’ blocks ;” and in 1781, another patent for “ planking shivers with lignum vitæ, or other hard wood, so that the pieces of plank let in on each side of the shivers to cross each other shall wear on the pin head or endway of the grain with little wear, and less noise or friction than heretofore.” This patent included the bushing, boxing, coghing, or plating the shivers with hard wood for forming the rim or groove of shivers in cast metal ; the shivers to have spokes of lignum vitæ, or other hard wood, and to be secured to the rim by screws or rivets; and for boiling English wood shivers in oil or salt water to render them more serviceable.”

Still the most essential operations connected with block-making were performed by manual labour; and upon the accuracy of the eye and hand of the workman depended the execution of the work. This was, however, not only highly costly, but, from want of uniformity in the execution, disappointing and unsatisfactory. The difficulties which stood in the way of Watt might have postponed also the accomplishment of Brunel’s project, had not the kindred genius of Henry Maudslay supplied a highly important element of success; and thus has it ever been that ideas are found to precede, sometimes for years, their practical fulfilment.

“The principle of the press,” for example, ” which bears the name of Bramah, was known,” says Mr. Babbage, “about a century and a half before the machine to which it gave rise existed; but the imperfect state of mechanical art in the time of the discoverer would have effectually deterred him, if the application of it had occurred to his mind, from attempting to employ it in practice, as an instrument for exerting force.”* In another department we have an example in the ruin to which Edward, Lord Dudley, was exposed, when, in 1619, he sought to realise his idea of applying pit coal in place of wood fuel to the smelting of iron ore, a process which, beyond all others, has gained for England her superiority in the mechanical arts, but which the ignorance and the prejudice of the people rejected for nearly one hundred years.

[* History of Machinery and Manufactures, by Charles Babbage, F.R.S.]

In the case of Brunel, his mechanical conceptions could scarcely have been developed without the aid of the slide rest.

Mr. Nasmyth has shown*, that by the application of this instrument to the turning lathe, the whole condition of practical mechanism was changed. “A mechanical contrivance was made to take the place of the human hand for holding, applying, and directing the motions of a cutting tool to the surface of the work to be cut, by which the tool is constrained to move along or across the surface of the object with such absolute precision, that, with scarcely any expenditure of force on the part of the workman, any figure, bounded by a line, a plane, a circle, a cylinder, a cone or a sphere, may be executed with a degree of accuracy, ease and rapidity, which, as compared with the old imperfect hand system, may well be considered a mighty triumph over matter.” “It is to this instrument,” says Mr. Nasmyth, “ we owe the power of operating alike on the most ponderous or the most delicate pieces of machinery, with a degree of minute precision of which language cannot convey an idea.”

[* Essay on Tools and Machines, appended to Buchanan’s Mill Work, revised by George Rennie.]

In estimating then the value of the vast change created in our dockyards by the genius of Brunel, we must not forget how much is due to the able cooperation of Mr. Henry Maudslay, who, by a happy combination of industry and genius, was enabled, from the humblest beginning, to build up an establishment which gave to the world such men as Field, Seaward, Nasmyth, and Whitworth to perpetuate its character, and confer upon their country the highest mechanical benefit yet obtained. Perhaps no nobler monument has been raised to the invention, the skill, and the perseverance of an individual mind than that now exhibited in Cheltenham Place, Lambeth.

When, in 1800, Maudslay was engaged upon the working model of the block machinery in Wells Street, one assistant sufficed for all his wants. In those workshops, which he, in conjunction with his venerable partner, Mr. Field, established in Lambeth, there may be now seen upwards of 1,200 mechanics, many of superior attainments and skill, carrying out some of those vast engineering appliances which the requirements of the country demand, and in the preparation of which some of the original constructions, if not inventions, of Maudslay, still bear an important part.

The skill of Mr. Maudslay became first known to Brunel through a M. de Bacquancourt, a French emigrant of considerable mechanical dexterity, and who, by some happy accident, had made the acquaintance of Maudslay. Between M. de Bacquancourt and Brunel there was a natural mechanical sympathy; but the disposition and the politics of M. de Bacquancourt, which were of the ultra Royalist stamp, prevented any very intimate connexion.

By the early part of the year 1800, Brunel had not only completed his drawings of the principal parts of the block machinery, but had made a working model of the mortising and boring engines, it is believed principally with his own hands, which left no doubt as to the practical value of his projection, and for which in 1801 he took out a patent.

Under the impression that the contract still subsisting with Messrs. Fox and Taylor for supplying blocks to the navy would present a serious obstacle to the introduction of his machinery, he naturally made, through Mr. Kingdom, an offer to those gentlemen of the results of his labours.

The reply of Mr. Samuel Taylor is as follows :

Southampton, March 5th, 1801.

Dear Kingdom,

I am favoured with your letter of the 2nd inst., , and I should have replied yesterday but I had not time.

Your brother has certainly given proofs of great ingenuity, but he certainly is not acquainted with our mode of work. What he saw at Deptford is not as we work here. I will just describe in a few words how we have made our blocks for upwards of twenty-five years – twenty years to my own knowledge. The tree of timber, from two to five loads’ measurement, is drawn by the machine under the saw, where it is cut to its proper length. It is then remored to a round saw where the piece cut off is completely shaped, and only requiring to be turned under the saw. The one, two, or three, or four mortises are cut in by hand, which wholly completes the block, except with a broad chisel cutting out the roughness of the teeth of the saw, and the scores for the strapping of the rope. Every block we make (except more than four machines can make) is done in this way, and with great truth and exactness. The shivers are wholly done by the engines, very little labour is employed about our works, except the removing the things from one place to another.

My father has spent many hundreds a year to get the best mode, and most accurate, of making the blocks, and he certainly succeeded; and so much so, that I have no hope of anything ever better being discovered,
and I am convinced there cannot. At the present time, were we ever so inclined, we could not attempt any alteration. We are, as you know, so much pressed, and especially as the machine your brother-in-law has invented is wholly yet untried. Inventions of this kind are always so different in a model and in actual work.

Believe me, dear Kingdom,
Yours in great truth,


I may here mention that the average supply of blocks during 1797-98-99, 1800 and 1801 was 100,000, the value of which, with the other articles of the blockmaker’s contract, amounted to about 34,000£.

In 1793 there were 153 ships of the line, and 411 below that rank. In 1803 there were 189 ships of the line, and 781 below that rank. The tonnage had increased from 402,555 to 650,976, or 61 per cent. * It was no wonder then that the contractors for blocks were overpowered with work, and that to meet the increasing demand some change was required to increase the supply, and to check the cost.

[* According to the Report of the Surveyor-General of Land Revenue and Roads and Forests, the Navy had increased in 1806 to 776,087 tons.]

Brunel had now no hope of inducing the contractors to adopt his inventions ; but as he learnt that the valuable monopoly which they had so long enjoyed was about to expire, it became of the utmost importance that he should obtain an opportunity of laying his invention before the Government authorities.
Fortunately for Brunel, and for the country, Lord Spencer had not yet left the Admiralty ; to him Brunel had brought an introduction from America, and now he was by Lady Spencer made known to Sir Samuel Bentham, K. S. G., who filled the important office of Inspector-General of Naval Works. This office had been specially created for Sir Samuel, that he might be freed from the control of the Navy Board, a governmental department to which the execution of works determined upon by the Admiralty was confided, but which seems to have been only calculated to enlarge patronage, decrease responsibility, and multiply the links in the official drag-chain of the naval service.

It must be remembered that it was only under the administrations of Lord Spencer and Lord St. Vincent that for many years any improvement had been attempted in the naval department. The difficulties with which those men had to contend in overcoming the force of inertia and the spirit of routine, which from the end of the seventeenth to the commencement of the nineteenth century pervaded our naval administration, must have been enormous.

The steam-engine had from the beginning of the eighteenth century been applied to our large mining operations with increasing advantage. It had also, from 1780, rendered immense service to the manufacturing interests of the country; yet, until 1798, it had been excluded from our dockyards.
It was the same with regard to the application of machinery to the manufacture of cordage, anchors and blocks. Of this neglect no one was so conscious as Sir Samuel Bentham, and no one laboured more diligently to bring about the necessary reforms. With regard to the special improvement now proposed by Brunel, the very position occupied by Bentham might have proved the greatest impediment to its success. Bentham was himself an inventor and mechanist of the highest distinction. He had already conceived a system of machinery for making blocks. His name was known and his influence had been felt throughout Russia. A personal friend of the Empress Catherine, he had been employed by her in a variety of important works, the Fontanka canal, the manufactories at Kritschev, the arsenal at Cherson, &c. He had been appointed Conseiller de la cour; he had received military rank, a gold-hilted sword, and above all, the cross of the order of St. George * ; still these honours induced no relaxation in his intellectual labours. The continuous efforts during fifty-seven years to realise his enlarged mechanical conceptions, show how deeply his mind was impressed with the importance of substituting machinery for the “uncertain dexterity of more expensive manual labour.” It appears that, from 1773 to 1830, Sir Samuel’s mind was constantly engaged in projections of mechanical utility, many of them anticipating the requirements of the age; some only now adopted without acknowledgment, and some remaining still to be applied.

[* Memoirs of Sir Samuel Bentham by his widow,]

It was but natural to presume, that a mind impressed with its own superiority, as Bentham’s might have been, would hesitate to admit the claims of a rival: but Sir Samuel’s mind was not cast in a common mould. Rising far above professional vanity and official jealousy, and consulting only his country’s benefit, he no sooner became convinced of the superiority of Brunel’s inventions than he at once abandoned his own less perfect conceptions, and with a candour worthy of all praise, delayed not an hour to forward Brunel’s application to the Admiralty ; thus seeking in a noble and generous spirit to reflect upon French genius some of that honour and protection which he had himself experienced when a sojourner in a foreign land.

It is much to be regretted that no detailed memoir * exists of the life of this remarkable man; that published by his widow only whets the edge of our desire to know more of his inner self: of his trials as well as of his triumphs. From what we do know, a curious and interesting parallel is suggested between him and his protégé. Both were largely endowed with mechanical aptitude; both commenced their public career far from their native land; both put forth their best energies under the influence of their first attachments; and both closed their missions as the active and distinguished supporters of that mechanical progress, which is ever found to be so intimately connected with national superiority.

[* Such a memoir has appeared since the publication of the first edition of this work. It is a highly interesting and instructive record of a man who with superior natural endowments — largely improved by cultivation, devoted his attainments to the honourable discharge of his official duties, and to the furtherance of the best interests of his country.]