William Murdoch – the first British motorist?

Posted by jerry on August 11th, 2008 — Posted in History, Journal, Steam, Technology

In 1784, William Murdoch – a Scot working in Cornwall servicing Boulton and Watt beam engines – began making models of what may well have become the first self propelled steam vehicle after Joseph Cugnot’s experimental steam military tractor.

Murdoch Flyer

Employed by Boulton and Watt – who were possessive of their patents – Murdoch was said to have invented a coal-gas lamp so he could build models at night. Intriguingly, Watt wrote to Boulton in 1784 to say he had taken out a patent on self-propelled vehicles, which suggests he might have had his suspicions about what his employee was up to.

Although the replica built by the ‘Murdoch Boys’ is somewhat conjectural, it is clearly based on extant models, and plausibly uses a version of the Watt beam engine on wheels. The machine – known as ‘The Murdoch Flyer’ is said to be capable of 12 mph (about 20kph) at which speed it is apparently a rather exciting ride. It would have been quite a feat of engineering in its day.

Interestingly, it is a three-wheeler, making it similar in some respects to Cugnot’s wagon and the later Gardner-Serpollet which both survive in Paris at the Musee des Arts et Metiers.

The machine is powered by a single cylinder sitting inside a boiler which 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.

It may look decidedly Victorian steam punk – but the original was built in the reign of George III. It was the same year that the Italian Vincenzo Lunardi made the first hydrogen balloon ascent in England.

Thanks to Bob Blackman’s blog. You can read more about steam cars at the Steam Car Club of Great Britain.

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