Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 387:
JAMES NASMYTH

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 387.

Today, we see through the inner eye of a great engineer. 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.

James Nasmyth was born in 1808, in Scotland. The world-wide intellectual and political revolution was over. English industry had come out of the 18th century as the new civilizing force. Nasmyth would grow up to become an engineer in the 19th-century industrial world all this had created.

James's father, Alexander Nasmyth, was an artist. He founded the Scottish school of landscape painting. But he'd also invented a lightweight iron bridge, a new kind of rivet, and more. Young James was raised in his father's workroom. He grew up in a place where the artist's images of the mind met the material means for making things.

Nasmyth made a life's work of rendering the dreams of the 18th-century Industrial Revolution into the heavy machinery of the 19th century. Yet before he studied engineering, he first studied art. In 1840 he produced a great steam hammer to forge the new steamship engine shafts. A decade later, that marvelously agile forge drew crowds at the Crystal Palace Exhibition. Nasmyth described how he invented it:

Following ... this idea, I ... rapidly sketched out my steam-hammer, having it all clearly before me in my mind's eye.
So we look deeper at Nasmyth -- at the process that spawned a lifetime of creating heavy machine equipment. What we find is the imprint of the artist's eye. Here's a page from his sketchbook. Words, fragments of machinery, and calculations look disordered at first. Then we see the progression from the inner eye to the outer world. We catch the sense of beauty that drives invention. If he'd written his words backward, we'd think we were looking at Leonardo's notebooks.

Nasmyth erases the line between art and thing entirely. Great engines march out of his head, onto his notebooks, and off into a new machine-powered world. And when he's done, he turns about and renders his finished machine back into an oil painting. He takes the dream back into his mind, where it was first born.

Nasmyth made this remarkable observation about engineering:

The ... eyes and the fingers -- the bare fingers -- are the two principal ... sources of trustworthy knowledge in all the materials and operations ... the engineer has to deal with.
He goes on to scorn a new breed of cigar-smoking, glove-wearing engineers. People blind to the sense of touch, and deaf to the inner eye, cannot create worthy machines, he says. And that's something we engineers should know now, just as surely as Nasmyth knew it when he helped forge the modern engines of our ingenuity.

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

(Theme music)


Petroski, H., Industrial Revolutionary, James Nasmyth. Mechanical Engineering, Vol. 112, No. 2, 1990, pp. 40-46.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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