Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2015:
FIVE HORNBLOWERS

by John H. Lienhard

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 work.

(Theme music)


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 Press. 2004).

Rotary steam engines 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.

Compound steam engine

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2005 by John H. Lienhard.