Who invented the screw propeller - they all did! (compiled by Ian J Dickson)

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This page started as a Scottish east-west puzzle, with Scots contenders J STEADMAN from Irvine and R WILSON from Dunbar.

The answer must be that no one individual invented it.
As Samuel Smiles, the 19th century polymath and writer, wrote, in 'Men of Invention and Industry', 1884: "It was not the production of one man, but of several generations of mechanical inventors. . . While others had given up the idea of prosecuting it to its completion, Smith stuck to his invention with determined tenacity, and never let it go until he had secured for it a complete triumph. . . he had made a stride in advance which was almost tantamount to a new invention."
In his book on innovations
('How We Got to Now', 2014), Steven Johnson pointed out that inventions are nearly always inevitable in that many people come up with the same idea around the same time - the basic idea behind the light bulb occurred to more than 20 different people, but Edison proved best at turning it into a business success.

Other screw propeller contenders, detailed below, are the American R J GATLING, Englishman F P SMITH, Swede J ERICSSON, American J STEVENS, Austrian J RESSEL, Englishman Rev E L BERTHON and Canadian Capt J PATCH

James Watt, in 1770, wrote: "Have you ever considered a spiral oar?" Joseph Bramah, in 1785, patented the idea of a "screw propeller", but never tried it in practice. The Austrians have statues to Joseph Ressel, whom they claim as the inventor (see below). Various people took out patents in England and America from 1794 onwards, though nothing practical was achieved. Richard Trevethick, in a 1815 patent, describes the screw propeller with considerable minuteness. John Swan was heralded the practical inventor, after a trial boat driven by a spring, in 1824. Read on . . .

James Steadman
championed by Irvine
on Scotland's west coast

Robert Wilson
championed by Dunbar
on Scotland's east coast

Richard Jordan Gatling
in North Carolina,
beaten by Ericsson

Francis Pettit Smith
The Oxford Companion official contender

Steedman (the spelling on his gravestone) or Steadman, a carpenter and cabinetmaker, had an interest in natural history, and his study of fish gave him the idea of rear propulsion; watching a spinning wheel in 1816 suggested the method. He and gunsmith McCririck made models, one of which was taken by an Irvine leading light and fellow inventor, Maxwell Dick, to London in 1830, where - it was alleged - the idea was pirated, and patented without credit to James Steadman.

His gravestone at Irvine Old Parish Church bears the carving of a screw propeller:

James Steedman gravestone

Click on either picture (the one above or that on right) to enlarge it.

Wilson, always interested in boats (seeing paddle-wheels on a fishing boat at age 5; he lost his father in a boat rescue at age 7), had the idea from watching a windmill. He worked on the invention while apprenticed to a joiner and cabinetmaker. In 1827, the Earl of Lauderdale unsuccessfully approached the Admiralty, the "Edinburgh Mercury" recorded the "new invention", and in 1828, the first practical screw propeller was trialled on the Union Canal (the model being in the Royal Scottish Museum). The Admiralty again rejected the idea in 1833. In 1880, aged 77, the War Office granted him £500 for the use of his double-action screw propeller as applied to the fish torpedo.

A 4-ton propeller at Dunbar harbour was unveiled as a memorial to him, on the anniversary of his birth in Sept. 2003.
Robert Wilson memorial

Gatling, later Dr Gatling, and known for the invention of the Gatling Gun, had, by the age of 21, in 1839, in North Carolina, invented the screw propeller for steamboats, only to discover it had just been independently patented by Smith & Ericsson.

Smith, a farmer, from boyhood had had a passion for constructing models of boats. In 1834, he built a boat with a wooden screw; in 1835, a superior model; in 1836 he took out a patent. Where he got his original idea is not known. In 1839, the "Archimedes", a 237-ton vessel, achieved over 9 knots speed. Isambard Brunel was so impressed that he advised the screw to be adopted as the method for propelling the "Great Britain", which achieved 10 knots on her first voyage. The design was patented in the U.S. in 1838-39. Both Smith & Ericsson introduced the screw propeller on war vessels in 1843, in their respective countries. Smith was knighted in 1871.

John Ericsson
Ericsson moved from Sweden to England in 1826; his 1829 steam engine "Novelty" lost to the Stephensons' "Rocket". After patenting the screw propeller in May 1836, he moved in 1839 to New York, where he & Smith took out U.S. patents.

Rev E L Berthon (1813-99) apparently invented the screw propeller in 1834 - see information from Berthon International below.

a Canadian view - Capt. John Patch in 1833 in Nova Scotia - see below.

Many others improved the ideas independently of the patents of either Smith or Ericsson.

Maxwell Dick also devised a snowplough, a suspension railway, a bed of hot water pipes for cholera victims, a telegraph insulator, and guano fertilisers.

Robert Wilson went on to be a highly successful engineer, taking out patents for valves, pistons, propellers and hydraulic and other machinery.

As well as the rapid-fire machine gun of 1861, Gatling invented machines for sowing cotton seeds, a hemp-breaking machine and a steam plough.

One of Smith's backers was Sir John Rennie, son of the famous engineer John Rennie, brought up only 5 miles from Dunbar, at East Linton.

Source: John Strawhorn, "The History of Irvine" (1982), p.120

Source: Will Collin, "East Lothian Life", issue 45, autumn 2003, p.28-29

Gatling sources: Web sites, mostly repeating the same information.

Sources: various, incl. Samuel Smiles (see below)

We look forward to your contribution - if you have any views on the above, please send them in, and we will publish any further information on this page. Email us at info@irvineayrshire.org

John Ericsson sources included:
www.fact-index.com/j/jo/john_ericsson.html (includes a very full biography) and
www.history.rochester.edu/steam/stevens/screw.htm (incl. technical drawings from 1828 and 1836).
The fascinating Samuel Smiles chapter (perhaps written c.1870) is at: www.bookrags.com/books/moiai/PART3.htm

[This is not a new question: see Robert Wilson, "The Screw Propeller: Who Invented It?" (Murray, Glasgow, 1860), available electronically, in its Second Edition 1880, courtesy of the University of California library at www.archive.org]

Our original page prompted the following additional information:

John Stevens (1749-1838) (See www.history.rochester.edu/steam/stevens): His steam screw propellers, in operation on the Hudson River from 1802 to 1806, were the first to navigate the waters of any country. He considered himself its inventor, but the screw propeller had been proposed by Bernouli in 1752 and is described by Bushnell (writing to Jefferson) in 1787. Many others later suggested the propulsion of vessels by means of spiral wheels.

Josef Ressel (1793-1857), a Czech-born inventor (See http://www.radio.cz/en/article/33185): We discovered this information on the Radio Praha site. At Vienna University Ressel attended lectures on forestry, chemistry, technology and natural sciences. But due to a lack of money he had to leave the university and became a forester after graduating from a forestry school. At his new job he came up with many gimmicks, for instance how to measure areas of woods quickly and reliably. The job instigated an interest in sea navigation in the young man, as his duty was to care for wood from deforesting to the building of sea ships. So among many other inventions, Ressel became famous for the propeller. In 1826 he applied for an Austrian patent for what he called 'a never-ending screw which can be used to drive ships both on sea and rivers' and he received the license in February 1827.
Ressel was the first to place the propeller between the helm and the stern so that the propeller worked under the water thus being most efficient.
But Ressel's authorship of the invention was put in doubt due to inertia of the Austrian Presidium of Imperial Sciences, when in a suspicious coincidence, English traders Sauvage and Smith came up with the same invention. It is believed now that someone might have secretly sold Ressel's invention to Great Britain. But in 1865, at its arbitrary session, the National Academy in Washington decided the matter in Ressel's favour.

Rev. Edward Lyon Berthon was a great inventor (this information comes from the website of Berthon Yachting, Lymington, Hants, UK): in 1834/35, at the age of 22, he invented the screw propeller, which at the time was dismissed by the Admiralty as “a pretty toy which never would, and never could, propel a ship”. Three years later Berthon read that Francis Smith of Hythe had developed a similar device, which had also been rejected by the Admiralty. Berthon called upon Smith, certain that he had pirated his design from the patent office; Smith convinced him that he had actually arrived at the idea without outside influence. They collaborated and eventually Smith proved the device by towing the Lords of the Admiralty on their barge from Whitehall to Woolwich.
When on the 29th June 1849 the SS ORION was wrecked off Port Patrick, a friend of Berthon, the Rev Clark, was saved and wrote "Can not you think of a way in which boats, enough for all on board, be stowed on a passenger steamer without inconvenience?" Thus was born the Berthon Collapsible Lifeboat.
When demonstrated to Queen Victoria, the Prince Consort, the Princess Royal and the Prince of Wales, the latter commented that a cannon ball would go through it easily. The Rev Berthon asked him what a cannon ball would not go through, and the Queen was reported to have been greatly amused. The Navy, however, did not accept the design until Berthon had perfected it in 1873.
In 1877, the Rev E L Berthon started his company in Romsey, building folding lifeboats and "other floating machines". After his death in 1899, his son Edward ran the business.

Capt. John Patch (this information is from John A Townsend and Manfried von Starhemberg): John Patch was born 1781 in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, Canada and died there in 1861. He was a sailor and fisherman. One day, while watching a small boat being manoeuvred with a single oar, he came up with the idea for a device which would allow steamships to travel without the need of large inefficient paddlewheels or wind-dependent sails. It would be thirty years before he would see his idea become reality.
During the winter of 1832-3, Patch developed and built the screw propeller, a wooden shaft with two 'fans' at the end. His friends Robert and Nathan Butler helped him by building a hand crank and wooden gears to be used with the device. During the summer of 1833, Patch tested his invention in Yarmouth harbour and, in 1834, Captain Robert Kelley agreed to put it on his 25-tom ship, the Royal George. On a subsequent trip to Saint John, the wind died, leaving other sailing vessels stranded, but the Royal George carried on. The propeller was a success.
Captain Patch was published in the SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, titled Patch's propeller in Vol.4, issue 5, page 33 of October 10,1848, one sentence being: "THOSE THAT HAVE SEEN IT OPERATE CONSIDER IT MUCH SUPERIOR TO ERICSSON'S." (Ericsson being the one credited with the invention of the screw propeller itself.) Capt Patch deserves recognition, not necessarily as the inventor of the screw propeller, but certainly as a contributor. In his home Town of Yarmouth Nova Scotia, not so much as a plaque in his honour has ever been erected - no fault of the Town, just a possible ignorance of the facts.
In 1858, over 100 Yarmouth citizens signed a petition to provide Captain Patch with a pension as a thank-you for his work. The petition was presented to the Nova Scotia Legislature, but was eventually rejected, and Capt Patch died penniless in a Yarmouth poorhouse - not a very fitting end, considering that his contributions had an impact, world-wide, without a doubt. The screw propeller is still the main form of propulsion of vessels world wide, to this very day. John Townsend has tried to get some form of recognition for Captain Patch - well deserved - and late in coming.

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