Today, a strange connection between Lord Byron and
steam power. 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.
John Byron, father of poet Lord Byron,
was as colorful as his son. People called him "Mad
Jack" behind his back. He was a notorious wastrel.
After Mad Jack Byron burned up his fortune, his
first wife fled. He married his second wife,
wealthy young Catherine Gordon, in 1785. They lived
on the Byron estate near Nottingham. He was just
finishing off her fortune three years
later, when his poet son was born. Catherine
finally took their son off to Scotland. Mad Jack
died when the boy was only three.
Around the time of his second marriage, Mad Jack
became fascinated with staging naval battles in an
artificial pond on his estate beside the Neer
River. Downstream, the Robinson family had set up a
mill. The land was fairly flat in that region, and
they'd built a reservoir to supply their delicate
system of waterwheels.
The autocratic Mad Jack began diverting the river
water for his pond. The Robinsons filed a lawsuit,
but without much hope. Historian Richard Hills
tells how, in desperation, they finally wrote James
Watt in August, 1785, and ordered a ten-horsepower
steam engine to replace their water wheels. They
[We] beg you will give due attention to our
and lett Lord Byron see that we can do without
Watt had received the last of his last major steam
engine patents only the year before. The Robinsons
were gambling on a truly cutting-edge solution to
their problem. By the following February, the
engine had been built, shipped, and installed.
Before the engine was in place, Mad Jack Byron lost
the lawsuit. The need for the engine was no longer
urgent. On top of that, its installation had been
faulty. The Robinsons continued their conversion to
steam power, but now they moved more cautiously.
First they installed one of the older engines
that'd been in use before Watt. Then they
ordered a second Watt machine.
The Robinson's conversion to steam was a troubled
process -- a lot like using software in its
beta-test phase. For years, the Robinson family
sparred with Watt over how much post-installation
service was due them. Meanwhile, in the company
backrooms, Watt and his people worked feverishly to
improve subsequent engines.
Watt died in 1819, while the younger Lord Byron
(the poet) was traveling in Italy. Watt had
systematically improved his engines and become the
most famous engineer in the world. Byron, who would
die young five years later, was the rock star of
Their lives touched only tangentially when Byron's
prodigal father drove a miller to become one of the
first users of Watt's new engines. At the same
time, he drove his wife off to Scotland where his
son found the raw material that would shape a
poetic vision. In his poem Don Juan, Byron
I 'scotched, not kill'd, the Scotchman in my
And love the land of 'mountain and flood'.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hills, R. L., Power from Steam: A History of the
Stationary Steam Engines. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, Chapter 5. My thanks to Lewis
Wheeler, UH Mechanical engineering Department, for
providing this source.
I am grateful to James Pipkin, UH English
Department, for additional counsel.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.