Sunday, 10 August 2008

Vintage Thing No.24 - The Murdoch Flyer

Calling all steam punks! Here is the Murdoch Flyer, a replica of a road locomotive that might pre-date Cap'n Richard Trevithick's engine of 1801. It's been built by a group called the Murdoch boys based in Redruth. Construction was financed by voluntary contributions and grants including sales of a song called "The Ballad of William Murdoch" by Ed Hamilton.

As interest in steam punk increases on the back of stories such as Phillip Pullman's Dark Materials trilogy, models of steam engines inspired by such speculative fiction are being made all over the world. But here we have the grandaddy of them. Or at the very least, one of the granddaddies.

Cornwall can justifiably claim to be the birth place of steam traction. In 2001, we celebrated 200 years of Cornish motoring but the Murdoch Boys who have built this replica of the Flyer point to a tantalising account that Murdoch rode around the Cornish tin mines in a full sized development of the models he'd been making since 1784.

There's a certain amount of conjecture in this replica but it's based on the surviving model he made that nowadays is on display in Birmingham's science museum. It's a Boulton and Watt beam engine on wheels. A single cylinder sits inside a boiler and drives a beam up and down. A vertical shaft transits power to a crankshaft in front of the boiler behind the driver's seat. Gears then power the rear wheels. The top speed is about twelve miles an hour but I gather that it shakes itself to pieces at this speed and not because it lacks any springs.

Murdoch seems like a man obsessed with the idea of steam traction. Employed by the pioneering steam engineers Boulton and Watt to service their engines employed in the Cornish mines, Murdoch worked on his ideas in his spare time. His bosses did not encourage these activities, preferring him to do just what he had been sent to Cornwall to do, which was to erect engines and investigate infringements of patents. Murdoch invented coal gas lighting to enable himself to work on his models at night. And the single uncorroborated account of this engine describes how it was built at the Tuckingmill Brass Foundry and how it was illuminated by gas lamps.

Trevithick's triumphant ascent of Camborne Hill on Christmas Eve 1801 is well-documented. Surely if Murdoch created something as extraordinary more than a decade earlier wouldn't there be verifiable records of it? The Watt archive contains no letters from Murdoch to Watt from 1780 to 1797 and some have suggested that James Watt Junior upheld his father's reputation by editing out evidence that some Boulton and Watt innovations did not come from his father. What is certain is that other Boulton and Watt employees legally passed what we would call their intellectual property rights to their masters. And Watt wrote to Boulton in 1784 saying that he had taken out a patent on self-propelled vehicles "to keep other people from making similar patents," ostensibly for their own good because he feared the results of a high pressure steam explosion. So maybe Murdoch didn't want to publicise his engine too much for fear of incurring the wrath of his employers.

On the other hand, the roads of the day were dreadful. The story that Murdoch drove any sort of distance on his machine is claimed by some to be apocryphal and undermines the case for the full size version ever existing. Trevithick's third trip with his locomotive ended when its wheels became trapped in a gulley and it overturned. In modern parlance, the infrastructure didn't exist.

Many people have pointed to the steam carriage of Nicholas-Joseph Cugnot as the first steam powered vehicle. Dating from 1771, this was a military exercise to produce an artillery tractor and Cugnot's engine was not successful, proving unwieldy and only capable of steaming in short bursts. It also suffered the first automobile accident when it ran out of control and knocked down a wall, fortunately without loss of life but as its speed was reputedly 1 km/h everyone would have had time to get out of its way.

Peter Tuthill claims Cugnot's engine was an irrelevance since it was a military vehicle and a conspicuous failure. It was either the Scotsman in Redruth or the Cornishman in Camborne who started us on our motoring adventure with a proper motor car.

I'm struck by the fact that out of these pioneering designs, two are three wheelers. And one of those - Cugnot's - was front wheel drive. How very French.

And if Cugnot's motor vehicle was a failure, how come it still exists in the Musees des Arts et Metiers in Paris?

So who was the first? Could it be the Belgian in China, Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit missionary? He designed a steam car for the teenage Chinese emperor Kangxi in around 1672. Nobody can say whether this was built or not but surely they would have made a model first to try out the principle.

If we include models, then a small steam car built by a unnamed mechanic (or tuftler) near Karlsruhe around 1775, also deserves mention. This model no longer exists, however, having been destroyed in an Allied bombing raid during World War 2.

My money remains on Trevithick. But I love that story - again unconfirmed - that Murdoch's Flyer outpaced him one day and got away from him. As he pursued the runaway, Murdoch encountered a distressed clergyman who'd narrowly avoided being run down by the Flyer and was convinced that he'd just been chased by the devil himself.

Cognot's beast of burden would never have chased anyone but that little story about Murdoch's Flyer is where I got the idea for the Reverend Tregaskis.

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