Amongst many accomplishments, he developed the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe, later applying its principles to a novel form of illumination, the Bude light; developed a series of early steam powered road vehicles; and laid claim—still discussed and disputed today—to the blastpipe, a key component in the success of steam locomotives, engines, and other coal fired systems.
Events surrounding the failure of his steam vehicle enterprise gave rise to considerable controversy in his time, with considerable polarization of opinion. During her lifetime, his daughter Anna Jane engaged in an extraordinary campaign to ensure the blastpipe was seen as his invention. Although it would be half a century until the gasoline fueled internal combustion engine would be invented, Gurney shares at least some of the credit for developing the automobile. His steam carriages were in fact technically successful until taxed out of existence. This proved that, despite opposition, the new technology could greatly improve travel and transport. In less than five months, in June 1831, his vehicles transported more than 3,000 people over 3,000 miles, a feat never before achieved. Gurney's name is not as well known as some of those who helped to transform the early horse-less carriage into the modern, mass produced automobile but his legacy merits inclusion in the history of those technologies that revolutionized human life. He used his skills to improve the standard of life of his era. Trained initially as a surgeon, he came to realize that his skills could be put to better use in attempting to solve what he saw as technical problems, such as how to improve lighting and travel.
Gurney was born in the village of Treator near Padstow, Cornwall on February 14, 1793. His unusual Christian name was taken from his godmother who was a maid of honor to Queen Charlotte. The Gurney family was long established, and could trace its lineage back to the Counts de Gourney, who arrived in Great Britain with William the Conqueror; another line of the family was established in Norfolk; see Gurney (surname). Gurney's grandfather married into money, allowing his father, and to an extent him, to live as gentlemen.
He was schooled at the Grammar School at Truro, where he showed an interest in contemporary sciences; and had the opportunity through friends to meet Richard Trevithick and see his "Puffing Devil," a full-size steam road carriage, at Camborne.
After school, he took a medical education with a Dr. Avery at Wadebridge, succeeding to the whole practice in 1813, and providing him with sufficient income to contemplate marriage to Elizabeth Symons, a farmer's daughter from Launcells, in 1814. The couple settled in Wadebridge where their daughter Anna Jane was born in January 1815. Gurney practiced as a surgeon, but he also became interested in chemistry and mechanical science; he was also an accomplished pianist, and constructed his own piano, described as a "large instrument."
He moved with his family to London in 1820, apparently discontented with rural life and wishing to seek his fortune. The family settled at 7 Argyle Street, near Hanover Square, where Gurney continued his practice as a surgeon. There he expanded his scientific knowledge and started giving a series of lectures on the elements of chemical science to the Surrey Institution, where he was appointed lecturer in 1822. A son, Goldsworthy John, was born to the couple in that year, at Launcells.
A skill attributed to Gurney was an ability to express scientific thought on paper and through lectures. His lectures during 1822 and 1823 included one on the application of steam power to road vehicles. He was also of a practical bent, and in 1823 was awarded an Isis gold medal of the Royal Society of Arts for devising an oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. By 1825, he had started practical work on a steam carriage, taking space for a small workshop in Oxford Street and filing a first patent for "An apparatus for propelling carriages on common roads or railways—without the aid of horses, with sufficient speed for the carriage of passengers and goods." His work encompassed the development of the blastpipe, which used steam to increase the flow of air through a steam engine's chimney, so increasing the draw of air over the fire and, in short, much increasing the power to weight ratio of a steam engine. In 1826, he purchased a manufacturing works at, and moved his family to living space in, 154 Albany Street, near Regent's Park, and proceeded to improve the designs of his carriages, described below. Whilst the carriages certainly had technical merit and much promise, he was unsuccessful in commercializing them; by the spring of 1832, he had run out of funding, was forced to auction his remaining business assets, eventually losing a great deal of his own and investors money. During 1832, however, his carriages transported some 3,000 people over 4,000 miles. He himself made a journey of 84 miles in nine and a half-hours. He reached 17 miles an hour. He had actually produced a technically successful carriage. It was opposition from the manufacturers of horse drawn carriages that resulted in Parliament taxing his business out of existence. The circumstances of the failure engendered controversy expressed in contemporary scientific publications, as well as in committees of the House of Commons.
In 1830, Gurney leased a plot of land overlooking Summerleaze Beach in Bude, from his friend Sir Thomas Acland, and set about the construction of a new house to be built amongst the sand hills. The construction rested on an innovative concrete raft foundation, representing an early worked example of this technique. The original house called "The Castle" still stands but has been extended over the past century. A Bude and Stratton Heritage Trust has been formed and plans are well advanced, under the Limelight Project, to raise funds to "interpret the fascinating history and heritage of Bude and the surrounding area, within Bude Castle." In this period he became godfather to William Carew Hazlitt, who notes that Gurney was involved in property development in Fulham.
Gurney regrouped from his carriage failure at The Castle, applying his mind to the principle of illumination by the forcing of oxygen into a flame to increase the brilliance of the flame, giving rise to the Bude Light. He also applied the principles of the blastpipe or steam jet to the ventilation of mines, as well as to the extinguishing of underground fires. His wife Elizabeth died in 1837, and is buried in St. Martin in the Fields. With his daughter—described as his constant companion—he moved to Reeds, a small house on the outskirts of Ploughill, near Bude. In 1844 he bought a lease on Hornacott Manor, Boyton, 10 miles from Bude, where he built Wodleigh Cottage for himself, and engaged his interest in farming. In 1850 he gave up the lease on the Castle. In this period, he became a consultant, applying his innovative techniques to a range of problems, notably, after 1852, to the ventilation of the new Houses of Parliament where in 1854 he was appointed Inspector of Ventilation.
Perhaps arising out of the Boyton farming connection he took a second wife, being married at St. Giles in the Field to Jane Betty, the 24 year old daughter of a farmer from Sheepwash, Devon; Gurney was 61. The marriage appears to have been unsuccessful; there was perhaps some contention between Anna Jane (39) and her much younger step-mother. Jane Betty was removed from Gurney's will, although they were never divorced.
Gurney continued to divide his time between London and Cornwall, variously engaged in work with clients; experimenting and innovating in diverse fields such as heating (the Gurney Stove) or electrical conduction; and in improving his Hornacott estate. He was appointed president of the Launceston Agricultural Society.
In 1863, Gurney was knighted by Queen Victoria, but later that year suffered a paralytic stroke; he sold Hornacott and retired back to Reeds at Cornwall, where he lived with his devoted Anna Jane, ultimately passing away on February 28, 1875. He is buried at Launcells parish church.
In the period 1825–9, Gurney designed and built a number of steam powered road vehicles, amongst the first designed with the intent to commercialize a steam road transport business—the Gurney Steam Carriage Company. His vehicles were built at his Regent's Park Manufactory works, and tested around the park's barrack yard, and on frequent excursions to Hampstead, Highgate, Edgware, Barnet and Stanmore, at speeds of up to 20 miles per hour (32 km/h). Gurney was by no means the only inventor working in this field—Luke Herbert, in his 1837 Practical Treatise on Rail-Roads and Locomotive Engines rebuts in scathing fashion claims made for Gurney in preference to Trevithick as inventor of the steam carriage:
…it is a matter of fact, that Gurney's carriages, made in every essential respect after Trevithick's models, did, occasionally, run [on the public roads]; and so did the carriages of many other loco-motionalists; some prior, some subsequent to Gurney; some decidedly superior to his, and all those that were inferior, were incapacitated from proceeding beyond preparatory trials, by want of that material with which gentlemen of fortune, then unacquainted with steam locomotion, had so lavishly furnished on Mr. Gurney.
One of his vehicles was sufficiently robust to make a journey in July 1829, two months before the Rainhill Trials, from London to Bath and back, at an average speed for the return journey of 14 miles per hour – including time spend in refuelling and taking on water. His daughter Anna, in a letter to The Times newspaper in December 1875, notes that "I never heard of any accident or injury to anyone with it, except in the fray at Melksham, on the noted journey to Bath, when the fair people set upon it, burnt their fingers, threw stones, and wounded poor Martyn the stoker." The vehicle had to be escorted under guard to Bath to prevent further luddism.
The steam carriage was not a commercial success. There was an understandable apprehension on the part of the public to a conveyance atop a dangerous steam boiler; seeking to overcome this objection, Gurney designed an articulated vehicle, termed the Gurney steam drag, in which a passenger carriage was tethered to and pulled by an engine. At least two of these were built and shipped to Glasgow around 1830. According to the Steam Club of Great Britain:
The first was sent by sea to Leith, but it was damaged in transit. It appears that this carriage was left in Scotland while Gurney returned to London for spares. He gave instructions for it not to be used, but it was transferred to the military barracks where it was steamed and a boiler explosion ensued, severely injuring two people. The second carriage may have run a service for a short time but it remains unclear whether any passengers were carried for money. The local press carried the story of the explosion.by writers of the period Gurney received a great deal of credit and an abundance of advertising for his work. He was especially conspicuous in the Parliamentary investigations regarding cteam carriages. On the whole, however, it is generally considered that he was proclaimed far beyond his merits, especially in comparison with other rivals such as Hancock, Maceroni and others."
The remains of one of this pair rests in Glasgow Museum of Transport, to which it was presented, having been found in a barn near the Paisley Road. Again, according to the Steam Club of Great Britain, it comprises:
An almost complete chassis with the engine, some pipe work, the valve gear and the steering gear. The wheels, boiler and bodywork are missing. The whole is painted red and this has made photography difficult but appears to have preserved this item, as it is untouched since arriving at the Museum in 1889.
A regular service was established by between Cheltenham and Gloucester by Sir Charles Dance, running four times daily, for a number of months and based on a fleet of three of Gurney's carriages; but the aspirations of Dance and Gurney were effectively dashed, according to Francis Maceroni in his 1836 book, A Few Facts Concerning Elementary Locomotion.
The many wealthy horse-coach proprietors, together with the narrow minded country gentlemen and magistrates of the district, who erroneously conceived their interests threatened by the substitution of steam power for horse, formed one of the most disgraceful and mean conspiracies against a national undertaking that can be well remembered. By means of parliamentary intrigue, and false representations, these despicable persons obtained certain local turnpike bills to pass "the Honourable House" establishing tolls on steam carriages, which amounted to a virtual prohibition on their use.
A charge of £2 was levied on each steam carriage journey, whilst the toll for a horsedrawn carriage was 2 shillings. This may be contrasted with a contemporary exchequer loan to the railway developers of £100,000. Maceroni continues:
In addition to this flagrant outrage against justice and utility, the worthy squires and magistrates of the Cheltenham district, suddenly, without any necessity, covered a long tract of the road with a layer of loose gravel, a foot deep, which, adding to the above-mentioned difficulties an impediments, put an entire stop to the undertaking.
At the same time, press coverage of an accident befalling a Glasgow steam drag adversely affected the reputation of the vehicles. Gurney was bankrupted with debts of £232,000.
Sufficient was the concern about Gurney's bankruptcy, and sufficient were his contacts, that a House of Commons select committee was convened from 1831 to 1835, On Mr.Goldsworthy Gurney's Case. Its final report stated:
Mr Goldsworthy Gurney was the first person to successfully operate steam carriages on common roads, and he took out patents for his invention in 1825 and 1826-27. In 1830 Mr Gurney entered into contracts with various individuals for the commercial exploitation of his invention, carrying passengers at a lower fare than horse carriages. In 1831 more than 50 private bills were passed by Parliament imposing prohibitive tolls on steam carriages (two pounds or more, while horse carriages might pay six shillings or less), and the contractors suspended their operations, pending a petition to Parliament. A select Committee was appointed, and concluded that steam carriages were safe, quick, cheap, and less damaging to roads than horse carriages, that they would be a benefit to the public and the prohibitive tolls should be removed. A bill to this effect was passed by the Commons but rejected by the Lords.
Mr. Gurney, having kept open his factory until this point was forced to close it and sell off his materials and tools at a loss. The contractors withdrew from the business.
The effect of the Acts passed by Parliament have been to make an otherwise profitable business no longer viable. Mr Gurney's losses included the costs of keeping his workshop open for six years, loss of contracts, loss of mileage duty on the various routes and the costs of patents. He also lost the advantage of being the first to develop a working steam carriage, as others used the intervening period to develop their own machines, and lost his advantage over the railways. The total loss can be calculated at over £200,000. This left him unable to either build and operate steam carriages, or to protect his patents.
Sections of those Acts imposing prohibitory tolls on steam carriages should be immediately repealed, and such tolls should be replaced by those for which horse carriages are liable. Mr Gurney's patent should be extended at public expense for a period of fourteen years beyond the date of its expiry, or a sum of not less than £5000 should be offered to Mr Gurney in lieu of such extension. Other parties have an interest in Mr. Gurney's patent, and half of the money or benefits should be kept aside for Mr. Gurney exclusively.
Lyman Horace Weeks comments in his Automobile Biographies, that
Gurney's daughter appears to have engaged in considerable promotion of her father's claim to various of his inventions; the inscription on his gravestone reads: "To his inventive genius the world is indebted for the high speed of the locomotive, without which railways could not have succeeded and would never have been made."
In her copy of the Dictionary of National Biography, all references to the blowpipe were amended by hand to his blowpipe.
In 1880, she donated £500 to memorialise "his" Steam Jet, at the stone-laying ceremony for Truro Cathedral, somehow managing to rope the children of the then Prince of Wales to present the money. (The Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Albert Edward was timidly asked whether he minded, and replied "Oh, why not? The boys would stand on their heads if she wished.") Anna Jane's subscription read:
In memory of her father Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, inventor of the steam-jet, as a thank offering to almighty God for the benefit of high speed locomotion whereby His good gifts are conveyed from one nation to another and the word of the Lord is sent unto all parts of the world.
A chiming clock presented by her in 1889, to Ploughill Church was inscribed "His inventions and discoveries in steam and electricity rendered transport by land and sea so rapid that it became necessary for all England to keep uniform clock time."
A final Anna Jane tribute was a stained glass window in St. Margaret's, Westminster (destroyed during the second world war), with an inscription part of which reads: "He originated the Electric Telegraph, High Speed Locomotion and Flashing Light Signalling. He invented the Steam Jet and the Oxy-Hydrogen Blowpipe."
Gurney's legacy may not have endured in terms of working technology. Nor can a direct link be established between his horse-less carriage and the mass produced, gasoline fueled motor car. Yet his pioneer efforts to promote mechanized transport did help to pave the way for later producers and designers to develop the modern automobile. The early opposition he experienced is typical of how older technologies are threatened by new inventions. The battle he fought and lost with Parliament nonetheless stimulated debate about the possibilities of the new technology. These early carriages did cause considerable damage to the roads, demonstrating that the new technology would also require internal investment in infrastructure if it was to prove successful.
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