Today, five Hornblowers. 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.
An odd thing happens when you study certain areas of technological history.
You find names that recur, over and over -- Maxim, Bernoulli, Hornblower. That's because these
aren't just names of creative people, but rather of creative families. Each represents more than
one person. So let's meet the Hornblowers.
First, Joseph Hornblower, born in 1696. He became a very early builder of Newcomen's first steam
engines. He installed them in Cornwall, where they served to drain water out of mines.
Two of his sons, Jonathan and Josiah, took up their father's trade. Jonathan became one of the most
prominent engine builders in England. When young James Watt went into business with Matthew Boulton,
it was he who erected all of their first engines. Like so many early engine builders, Jonathan was
an ardent dissident Protestant. The Scot, Watt, called him "a very pleasant sort of old Presbyterian."
(Watt was probably thinking about his own brand of Protestantism, since Hornblower was a Baptist.)
Jonathan's younger brother, Josiah, worked with him until 1753. That year a Colonist, Colonel John
Schuyler, ordered an engine from the Hornblowers. Twenty-four-year-old Josiah took the engine to
New Jersey, and installed it there. This was the first steam engine in America, and fate intervened
in a most interesting way. Josiah's ship voyage was awful. Terrible weather turned a six-week crossing
into thirteen weeks of terror for Josiah.
After that, he wanted no more sea travel -- ever. So he stayed on, first to run Schuyler's engine and
mine, then to set up a workshop where the first American steam engines were built. He ran a ferry service
and a general store. By the time the American Revolution gathered, he supported it. Afterward, he served
as a representative in our new Congress. He died in Belleville, New Jersey, in 1809 -- the same year
Lincoln was born.
Back in England, two of Jonathan's sons also went into steam engine building. One was Jabez. He had a
long and somewhat checkered career building engines in England, Holland, and Sweden. Jabez was quite able,
but he had a tendency to be fractious.
Jonathan's other son, also named Jonathan, might be best-known of all five. He invented the compound
engine, which I studied in a college lab course. Steam first expands in a small high-pressure cylinder,
it leaves at a lower pressure, then it enters a larger cylinder to finish expanding. The condenser on
Jonathan's compound engine was, alas, too much like Watt's. Watt took him to court and blocked him from
selling it. Other inventions got him into more trouble with Watt. He finally retired and took up astronomy.
But, for three generations, five different Hornblowers helped to turn the steam engine from a rickety experiment
into the new motive power for the western world. So it's small wonder that their name seems to surface every
time anyone so much as whispers the words steam engine!
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
R. L. Hills, Hornblower, Jabez Carter; Hornblower Jonathan -- Josiah Hornblower; and Hornblower, Jonathan.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, (H. C. G. Matthew and Brian Harrison, eds.) (Oxford University
The 1832 Edinburgh Encyclopaedia provides fine images of a Hornblower type of compound steam engine (below)
and of several competing designs for rotary steam engines. The latter may be seen by clicking on the
thumbnail image to the right.
Hornblower was stopped from developing rotary engines by Watt's patent. Notice,
too, that Murdoch (from the Boulton/Watt Company) also suggested a rather advanced design. Carter's patent,
which is included in this collection, was much later than any of these eighteenth-century designs. None of
these rotary engine designs yielded a practical machine in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries.
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H.