James Nasmyth

Scottish mechanical engineer and inventor

James Hall Nasmyth (19 August 1808 – 7 May 1890) was a Scottish engineer, artist and inventor famous for his development of the steam hammer. He was the co-founder of Nasmyth, Gaskell and Company manufacturers of machine tools. He retired at the age of 48, and moved to Penshurst, Kent where he developed his hobbies of astronomy and photography.

The characteristic feature of our modern mechanical improvements, is the introduction of self-acting tool machinery. What every mechanical workman has now to do, and what every boy can do, is not to work himself, but to superintend the beautiful labor of the machine.
- James Nasmyth, 1851


  • My first essay at making a steam engine was when I was fifteen. I then made a real working; steam-engine, 1 3/4 diameter cylinder, and 8 in. stroke, which not only could act, but really did some useful work; for I made it grind the oil colours which my father required for his painting. Steam engine models, now so common, were exceedingly scarce in those days, and very difficult to be had; and as the demand for them arose, I found it both delightful and profitable to make them; as well as sectional models of steam engines, which I introduced for the purpose of exhibiting the movements of all the parts, both exterior and interior. With the results of the sale of such models I was enabled to pay the price of tickets of admission to the lectures on natural philosophy and chemistry delivered in the University of Edinburgh. About the same time (1826) I was so happy as to be employed by Professor Leslie in making models and portions of apparatus required by him for his lectures and philosophical investigations, and I had also the inestimable good fortune to secure his friendship. His admirably clear manner of communicating a knowledge of the fundamental principles of mechanical science rendered my intercourse with him of the utmost importance to myself. A hearty, cheerful, earnest desire to toil in his service, caused him to take pleasure in instructing me by occasional explanations of what might otherwise have remained obscure.
  • The characteristic feature of our modern mechanical improvements, is the introduction of self-acting tool machinery. What every mechanical workman has now to do, and what every boy can do, is not to work himself, but to superintend the beautiful labor of the machine. The whole class of workmen that depend exclusively on their skill is now done away with. Formerly I employed four boys to every mechanic. Thanks to these new mechanical combinations, I have reduced the number of grown-up men from 1.500 to 750. The result was a considerable increase in my profits.
    • James Nasmyth in: 10th Report of Commissioners on Organisation and Rules of Trades Unions, 1868; Cited in: Robert Maynard Hutchins (1952), Great Books of the Western World: Marx. Engels. p. 214

James Nasmyth engineer, 1883


James Nasmyth (1883), James Nasmyth engineer, p. 389

  • Our history begins before we are born. We represent the hereditary influences of our race, and our ancestors virtually live in us. The sentiment of ancestry seems to be inherent in human nature, especially in the more civilised races. At all events, we cannot help having a due regard for the history of our forefathers. Our curiosity is stimulated by their immediate or indirect influence upon ourselves. It may be a generous enthusiasm, or, as some might say, a harmless vanity, to take pride in the honour of their name. The gifts of nature, however, are more valuable than those of fortune; and no line of ancestry, however honourable, can absolve us from the duty of diligent application and perseverance, or from the practice of the virtues of self-control and self-help.
    • p. 1
  • Everything connected with war and warlike exploits is interesting to a boy.
    • p. 52 (in 2010 edition)
  • We may fill our purses, but we pay a heavy price for it in the loss of picturesqueness and beauty.
    • p. 153 (in 2010 edition)
  • Time passed by. I had furnished steam hammers to the principal foundries in England. I had sent them abroad, even to Russia. At length it became known to the Lords of the Admiralty that a new power in forging had been introduced.
    • p. 87 (p. 221 in 2010 edition)
  • In all well-conducted concerns the law of "selection of the fittest" sooner or later comes into happy action, when a loyal and attached set of men work together harmoniously for their own advantage as well as for that of their employers.
    • p. 218 (p. 181 in 2010 edition)
  • The arrangement we greatly preferred was to employ intelligent, well-conducted young lads, the sons of labourers or mechanics, and advance them by degrees according to their merits.
    • P. 227
  • Among the many things that I showed Sir John while at Hammerfield, was a piece of white calico on which I had got printed one million spots. This was for the purpose of exhibiting one million in visible form. In astronomical subjects a million is a sort of unit, and it occurred to me to show what a million really is. Sir John was delighted and astonished at the sight. He went carefully over the outstretched piece with his rule, measured its length and breadth, and verified its correctness.
    • p. 389; Cited in: Humphrey Jennings, ‎Mary-Lou Jennings, ‎Charles Madge (1985). Pandaemonium, 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1886. p. 302

Quotes about James Nasmyth

  • So long ago as 1856 James Nasmyth told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that the thunderbolt's course was not zigzagged, as artists for centuries had represented, but sinuous like a river.
    • Photographic Times and American Photographer, 1889, p. 372
  • The success of the trade unions stimulated technical change, by giving employers and incentive to introduce labour-saving machinery. James Nasmyth told the Royal Commission on Trade Unions of 1867 how the engineering dispute of 1852 had led him to introduce self-acting machine tools, thereby halving his adult labour force and increasing his profits.
    • Hubert Jim Fyrth, ‎Maurice Goldsmith (1969), Science, History, and Technology: A.D. 800 to the 1840's. p. 22
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