The Dunbar lad who invented the ship's propeller

Robert Wilson was born in a fisherman's cottage on 10 September 1803. He loved playing in and with boats in Dunbar's Cromwell Harbour. In 1808 he watched as a soldier from the barracks demonstrated how a paddle wheel would move a boat through smooth water faster than oars, but in rough sea the paddle wheel was much less effective. This perplexed his inquiring mind.

An Inquisitive Mind
Robert's father was tragically drowned in 1810 as Dunbar's lifeboat rescued the crew of HMS Pallas. The Wilson family moved away from the shore but young Robert took his problem with him. One day, walking in the countryside, he saw a windmill operating. Could a design like the blades of a windmill not be used to drive a boat? By the time he left school aged nine, he had devised a model boat, which was propelled by "rotating skulls," the forerunner of the screw propeller.

Wilson constructed a model boat and experimented with different numbers and designs of blades. He varied the blades' area and pitch, always comparing them with his model paddle wheels.

A Much Under-rated Inventor
His experiments gained attention locally and in 1827 the Earl of Lauderdale brought Wilson's invention to the attention of the Admiralty. However, their Lordships were not interested!

In 1828 full scale trials in the Firth of Forth off Leith further demonstrated the worth of Wilson's designs but led him nowhere except into debt.

It was 1832 before further sea trials were conducted. Wilson was awarded the Highland Society of Scotland's silver medal and again his designs were presented to Admiralty. Again they were rejected.

In 1835, the attention of Francis Pettit Smith, a Kent farmer, "was drawn to the subject of screw propulsion." The following year he was granted a patent for his "improved" screw propeller. Smith is generally given the credit for 'inventing' the propeller, although his work was years after Wilson's.

Engineering Success
Robert Wilson went on to become a highly successful engineer. His input was instrumental in implementing James Nasmyth's design for the first successful steam hammer. He later joined with him in the Manchester based company of Nasmyth, Wilson and Co specialising in the design and manufacture of machine tools, hydraulic presses, pumps and locomotives, with Wilson at its head.

He continued to invent and innovate and between 1842 and 1880, Wilson took out 30 patents for valves, pistons, propellers, and hydraulic and other machinery. In 1880, when he was 77 years old, the War Office granted him £500 for the use of his double action screw propeller. However, Dunbar's pioneer designer of the screw propeller did not get the credit he deserved for his principal invention and his achievement in this regard lasts as undeservedly anonymous.

Photo:N/A Unknown ©Royal Museum of Scotland
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