Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2052:

by John H. Lienhard

Today, we ride a gurney. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

No, I don't mean a hospital gurney (as best we know, it was developed by one Theodore Gurney in 1883.) We want to meet another inventor of vehicles, Goldsworthy Gurney, born in 1793 and knighted seventy years later. The knighthood was probably arranged by senior Parliament officials who wanted to give him an excuse to retire.

Gurney was then near the end of a long and remarkable life as an inventor -- scraping along on an unreliable payroll, and working on air circulation systems in the aging Parliament buildings.

He'd been raised in Cornwall, studied medicine and chemistry when he was young, married a Cornish woman, moved to London at 27, and became a lecturer in chemistry. Then the inventions began.

He invented a new oxygen-hydrogen blowpipe for chemical analysis and he built an organ. He invented another musical instrument that looked like a piano, but was more akin to Benjamin Franklin's glass armonica. Its mechanisms drew silken ribbons over edges of a set of musical glasses to make a very gentle sound.

He invented electric lighting systems and a new kind of heating stove that found use in English Cathedrals. But he's most famous for his steam car. And it was no single invention.

His interest in steam-powered vehicles went back to a friendship with another Cornishman, Richard Trevithick, whom he'd known since childhood. Trevithick pioneered steam cars, then turned to rail. Steam went on rails to avoid the terrible problems of running heavy iron vehicles on the unpaved roads of that time.

So Gurney focused on weight reduction. Furnaces and boilers were the big problem. He invented a small steam jet that pulled air into a firebox and made it burn hotter. He designed boilers in which water was heated in tubes passing through the firebox. He also used his steam jet to draw burned gases up the smokestack.

Much that's written about Gurney and his so-called "steam jet engines" leaves the impression that his vehicles were jet propelled. Well, nothing of the sort. But that takes nothing from his genius. He developed a fine commercial steam coach that carried six people in its cab and fifteen more on open benches.

It traveled 12 miles an hour -- much faster than a horse coach, and it was not terribly noisy. He went into production in 1827 and one might think the automobile had been invented. But it was not to be. Public fears, then open resistance -- stone throwing, barricade building -- put Gurney's cars out of business.

Almost bankrupt, he went on to other inventions. Though he's little remembered today, he set the groundwork for the steam cars that appeared at the century's end. He influenced analytical chemistry, mine lighting systems, and telegraphy.

When Gurney's first wife (ten years his senior) died, he married another Cornish woman 36 years his junior. But then, Gurney's entire life seems to've been a kind of time dislocation -- ideas out of time, and inventions whose real impact would be of another generation as well.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

D. H. Porter, The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney: Gentleman Scientist and Inventor, 1793-1875. (Bethlehem, PH: Lehgh University Press, 1998).

G. B. Smith, Gurney, Sir Goldsworthy. Dictionary of National Biography, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).

See also, this Cornish history site on Gurney or F. J. Ferris's account of Gurney's work.

An early Gurney car (from D. Lardner, The Steam Engine Familiarly Explained and Illustrated, 1836)

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.