Goldsworthy Gurney: Inventor took hot air out of Parliament

People on board Sir Goldsworthy's steam carriage (based on the original drawing by G Morton) Image copyright Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Image caption People on board Sir Goldsworthy's steam carriage on its journey from London to Bath in 1827

A 19th Century inventor who lost a fortune in legal disputes with Westminster ended up taking the hot air out of government by ventilating the Houses of Parliament.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney's work brought him to the brink of international fame, but a combination of near misses and disastrous legal battles left him all but penniless.

In the 1820s Sir Goldsworthy developed the prototype for a steam-powered car, invented the concept for limelight and designed heating and ventilation systems.

Despite his later successes, the early failed battles with the powerful horse industry as he tried to develop the car set the tone for a tumultuous career.

The steam-powered vehicle faced bitter opposition from those with vested interests in maintaining reliance on horse power, who were suspicious about the new technology and feared a loss of income.

The fight travelled to Westminster where private Bills were passed imposing vast tolls on Sir Goldsworthy's new car.

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney

Image copyright Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
  • Sir Goldsworthy was born in 1793 near Padstow in north Cornwall
  • He was fascinated by chemistry, gases and by the potential of steam power
  • He created his first steam powered car prototype in the 1820s
  • In 1828 Sir Goldsworthy managed to travel up Highgate Hill, London, which was deemed a tremendous achievement. He used a lighter tubular boiler to allow the vehicle to have the power to travel up the hill
  • The following year, his coach travelled from London to Bath - the longest sustained journey of any mechanised vehicle at the time
  • In the early 1830s he developed the prototype for limelight - an intense light created by heating lime
  • After many experiments with gas he created the gas powered Bude Light, which led to the contract to light the Houses of Parliament
  • At the age of 70 he had a stroke and retired from public life. He died in 1875.

Source: BBC News/Ian Saltern/Dr Dale Porter

Dr Dale Porter, author and emeritus professor of history and humanities at Western Michigan University, said the major flaws in the invention were the need to establish fuel and water stations and the poor condition of the road infrastructure.

At the same time, the railway industry also had innovations of its own with George Stephenson building steam locomotives for the first lines.

"The railways had the business organisation and funding needed to establish fuelling stations across the countryside, and rails answered the need for a smooth transit surface," Dr Porter said.

"It was soon clear that whereas a steam carriage could carry up to 18 passengers, a steam train could carry 10 times as many just as efficiently."

Image copyright Courtesy of Bude Castle Heritage Centre
Image caption Sir Goldsworthy's argument was not helped when one of his cars blew up in Glasgow

Eventually, the House of Commons launched an inquiry which found Sir Goldsworthy had been unjustly treated and moved to get the Bills repealed.

However, the House of Lords had different ideas, and after being swayed by the power of the railways lobby, they insisted the tolls should stay.

Two years later Sir Goldsworthy went through another Parliamentary inquiry and lost again. He and his partners had lost an estimated £150,000 - the equivalent of millions of pounds today.

In the years that followed, he discovered the basis for limelight which was used for decades in theatres and gave rise to the expression "in the limelight".

After many experiments with gas he also created the gas powered Bude Light, which was powerful enough to light large areas.

It resulted in an invitation to help light the very scene of his great defeat - the newly built Houses of Parliament.

The lights illuminated parts of the Palace of Westminster, including the debating chambers, for decades as well as Trafalgar Square.

Image caption A modern replica of Sir Goldsworthy's Bude Light remains in Trafalgar Square, London

Following his success with illumination, he was also given a contract to heat - using his invention, the Gurney Stove radiator - and ventilate the palace.

The radiator was a simple but large coal stove with metal fins to radiate the heat.

Historian Ian Saltern said Sir Goldsworthy must have had "mixed feelings" on returning to the place where he saw major defeat earlier in his life.

"The problem was, most of the things Gurney dabbled in, someone else came along shortly after and either did it slightly better or were better connected with the right people," he said.

"He was knighted very late in his life and it took a long time for him to get the recognition for his work."

The demise of the steam powered car

Image copyright Science Museum
Image caption A patent drawing of Sir Goldsworthy's steam coach in 1827

"It's often forgotten that in the very earliest days of the car and even right up until the 1920s steam powered cars were a very real alternative to petrol engine ones," said Dr Bin Wang, mechanical engineer from Brunel University London.

The size and weight of steam vehicles meant they suffered from a poor power-to-weight ratio compared to petrol ones, however.

"Also in Victorian times boilers had an unfortunate tendency to explode.

"Once early automotive engineers cracked the boiler failure issue and the need to stoke as well as drive, steam cars actually outsold petrol ones until shortly before the outbreak of World War One."

Dr Wang added that the invention of the electric starter for engine cars meant petrol vehicles were simple, easy and safe to start - the final straw in the demise of the steam-powered car.

However, some of the Gurney Stove radiators, which were installed in public buildings across England, are still in operation, including at Tewkesbury Abbey, in Gloucestershire.

"Most historians of technology today believe that invention is not the work of solitary geniuses, but takes place in a community of people interested in solving certain technical problems," Dr Porter said.

"From 1800, scores of men were trying to solve the physics and mechanics of steam locomotion, just as many were involved with the problem of mine ventilation, and hundreds were trying to devise new methods of lighting and heating.

Image caption Gurney Stoves in Tewkesbury Abbey are still in operation

"When we write about scientific and technological breakthroughs we should remember and respect the many men and women who toiled in the trenches alongside those who later won fame."

When Sir Goldsworthy died in 1875 he left just £300 in his estate - far from the many millions he could have made.

So why was he relatively unknown?

Dr Porter said he remained an amateur scientist who did not make it into the circles of professional engineers and also did not restrict his curiosity to one area of science.

He said Sir Goldsworthy also did not have a sympathetic and popular biographer, like many other scientists and inventors.

"His daughter could have written a biography. Instead, she burnt all his papers after his death."

You can find out more about Goldsworthy Gurney on BBC Inside Out South West on the iPlayer until 16 February.

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