Saturday, November 25, 2006
Fascinating Inventor No.1 - Sir Goldsworthy Gurney 1793-1875
Sir Goldsworthy Gurney had a truely brilliant name, and he was actually a brilliant but not very well known Victoran inventor. He was born in Cornwall in 1793 and first of all became a surgeon (obviously a bit after being a baby) before he became an inventor full time. His family had a lot of money which was quite useful in Victorian times because it meant he did not have to go down a mine when he was 8 or up a chimney when he was 6, just to earn enough to actually eat some mouldy bread. So, he was able to muck about with things, in the days when health and safety had not been thought of which is a good job for us.
One of his first inventions was the oxy-hydrogen blowpipe. I don't know what he used this for apart from burning things over long distances which is fair enough but it did lead to him finding out about lime and how it could be used as a light. This may sound crazy to you because fruit is not generally known as a source of light but I am not talking citrus. Lime is a mineral that can be burnt and gives off a really powerful light called limelight and this was used in theatres and even lighthouses.
A quite big invention was the steam carriage. He built lots of them around the same time that Stephenson built The Rocket. In 1829, one of them ran from London to Bath at 15 miles per hour (phew). As you can see the steam carriage used to blow up alot and did not really catch on.
If you go to a heating and ventilation engineer party ever, you will find that Sir GG is a big name. He invented giant machines for heating large spaces like cathedrals. These machines did in fact look like early space rockets should have looked like. There are still some of them left, probably because they are far to heavy to actually get out of the building. Anyway, Sir GG did very nearly invent the first space rocket completely by accident. Here is the story. In Victorian times the poor people were a bit stinky. The rich people knew this and tried to keep away from them by living in the country or in huge houses or both. But in London, in the summer of 1858, the sewers were so smelly and the Thames so stinky that THE BIG STINK happened. The Members of Parliament gave Sir GG money to deal with the problem. He thought he could burn off the stinky gases. So he connected the main Victorian sewer to the chimney in the Clock Tower of the Houses of Parliament.
Christopher Jones in his book, 'The Great Palace of Westminster' takes up the story.
"Unfortunately the gases would not light. Next, Gurney put a coal fire at the base of the Clock Tower and tried again; this time the gases burned. One day though when Mr Joseph Bazalgette, the chief engineer at the Metropolitan Board of Works, was examining the pipe that led from the main sewer to the Clock Tower, he discovered that there was a leak from a fractured coal-gas pipe into the sewer, and only a trap-door in the sewer was stopping the coal-gas from reaching the furnace at the bottom of the Clock Tower. There had already been one small explosion, although no one was hurt and no damage done. If the full blast of coal-gas and sewer gas had reached the furnace, then the chances are that the Clock Tower would have taken off for the moon, and the rest of the Palace would have been destroyed with it. Gurney, who so nearly blew up the Palace of Westminster, died knighted and respected in his bed. Guy Fawkes, a bumbling plotter of ludicrous incompetence, died in excruciating agony on the scaffold not far away, in Old Palace Yard."