Locomotive Power used on the Forth and Clyde Canal

Invention and Innovation

From its construction in the 1770s the Forth and Clyde Canal was at the forefront of experiments to improve the method of transport used on inland waterways.  The work of Symington and the development of the Charlotte Dundas – the world’s first practical steamship – is well known (Bowman 1981) but there were also scientific experiments in bow wave theory, practical demonstrations in the use of tracking by steam locomotives, and the introduction of the screw propeller.

In 1834 John Scott Russell was observing a boat on the Union Canal at Hermiston near Edinburgh being drawn along ‘rapidly’ by a pair of horses, when the boat suddenly stopped.  He noticed that the

bow wave continued forward at great velocity assuming the force of a large solitary elevation, a well-defined heap of water which continued along the channel apparently without any change of force or diminution of speed’

He followed the wave on horseback as it rolled at about 8 mph, but after over a mile lost it.  Russell at the time was conducting experiments to determine the most effective design for canal boats on the canal.  He named it the ‘Wave of Translation,’ though today we know it as the solitary wave or soliton.  In fluid mechanics this non-linear wave propagation is now called Russell’s Solitary Wave.  Normal waves oscillate but Russell’s Wave of Translation was incredibly stable for 80 miles.  Russell’s Solitary Waves never merge – a small wave is overtaken by a larger, rather than combining with it.

The geometry of canals made such waves common, their size and velocity being dependent upon the width and depth of water in the canal.  Russell wrote scientific papers about his discovery and the waves were studied by academics at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.  It was put to practical use by the Forth and Clyde Canal Company and in 1839 the Athenaeum magazine wrote:

It has been long known that there is a system of canal navigation practised on some canals in Scotland, in which light iron vessels, capable of carrying from sixty to one hundred passengers, are towed along by a pair of horses at a rate of ten miles an hour; and this is effected by what is called ‘riding on the wave.’  This new system of wave navigation, the theory of which has been fully explained in the reports of the meetings of the British Association, has hitherto been limited in its use by the speed of horses, and been thrown back into comparative obscurity by the brilliant feats of the locomotive engine whirling its ponderous burden along the iron railway with the speed of the winds.

Illus 1: Side View of the Swift Twin Boat.

Attempts to construct steam vessels adapted for canal navigation had met with limited success.  Famously, the Charlotte Dundas had been abandoned due to fears that the wash from its paddle wheel would damage the banks.  In 1830 the passage boat Cyclops had been converted to steam at the Oakbank Foundry in Glasgow; and in 1831 Fairburn & Lillie of Manchester constructed the twin-hulled passage boat the Lord Dundas for the Canal Company.  The agitation of the water from her paddle wheel was largely confined to the area between her hulls.  Twelve months later Fairburn & Lillie delivered another steamboat, the Manchester, and she commenced service on the goods trade between Port Dundas and Stirling.  Another canal steamer, the Edinburgh, built by Wilson at Tophill, commenced the night service between Port Hopetoun at the east end of the Union Canal in Edinburgh to Port Dundas on 28 September 1832.  She carried 6 tons of goods and 40-50 passengers.  However, according to the statistical account of Kirkintilloch, all of these steamers were discontinued by 1839 – the Cyclops and Manchester being used in the construction of the new docks at Grangemouth.  The difficulty, once again, seems to have been damage to the canal banks by the paddle-wheel wash.

In 1837 the Committee of the Forth and Clyde Navigation agreed to a proposal by its consulting engineer, John Macneill, to utilise the same mighty machines that the railways used to increase the speed of the boats.  The haulage of boats on this canal was performed exclusively by horses, the rates of speed being for the heavy sloops, brigs, &c. in the London, Dundee, and other trades, about 1½ to 2 miles per hour, when drawn by two or five horses, according to the state of the weather, and for swift or passenger boats between eight and nine miles per hour, on an average, when drawn by two horses.  The object of the experiment was to ascertain the possibility of using locomotive steam power to draw the boats instead of horses and to see if higher speeds could be obtained.

Initially a stationary engine seems to have been set up immediately to the west of Lock No. 16 at Camelon.   This worked a winch and a very long rope was attached to the vessels.  Thomas Wilson, the supervisor for the eastern end of the Canals, visited on 7 December 1838 and wrote:

Attended Mr McNiel’s experiments at No 16 for draging vessels with the Stationery Engine placed half a mile West The bank made an attempt to track a vessel which was accomplished at an ordinary rate and one of the Russian Boats.  I am rather afraid that it will not answer unless some other plan is taken to keep the Track line in a direct line with the rope from the Engine over the pulleys.”

Illus: Model of the “Victoria” in the National Museum of Scotland. Photograph by Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net).

The intention, however, was always to conduct an experiment with a steam locomotive and for this purpose a temporary line of rails was put in place on the towpath, the wooden blocks laid on the surface.  The rails were borrowed from the Wishaw and Coltness Railway.  This was clearly under construction by 18 March 1839 when Wilson requested the use of the rails for moving construction material around the site of the new docks in Grangemouth and was told that he would have to wait until the experiments were completed (he received the cargo of rails and sleepers on 3 December).  The single line track running west from Lock 16 was about three quarters of a mile long.  A locomotive engine and tender, designed by George Dodds, was brought down the canal from the Kirkintilloch Railway and set on the rails.  Dodds was the superintendent of the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway and the engine was built in 1831 by Murdoch, Aitken & Co, engineers, at Hill Street off Gallowgate in Glasgow.  Locomotive no. 1 (as it was designated) was delivered on 10 May 1831 and was the first to be built in Scotland and also the first to operate successfully on a commercial basis. 

It was of the “Killingworth” type, considered even at that date to be rather old-fashioned; Dodds had specified this type because of its reliability.  Some time before its arrival in Camelon it had been renamed the “Victoria,” presumably around the time of her coronation in 1837.  A temporary shed was erected to protect it against the weather.

The Victoria was only designed to reach speeds of up to 18mph, though for most of the work on the Monkland and Kirkintilloch Railway all that was required was 5mph.  The valuable metal on the unattended engine at Lock 16 was a tempting target for a thief and its removal almost halted the experiments.  The story was related by Thomas Wilson:

5 August 1839

In consequence of having heard that the Engine placed west from No 16 for the purpose of trying Mr Macniell’s experiment of dragging vessels on a railway having been stripped of all the Copper tubs and Brass bushes I went west to the Shed and found that a great number of Valuable Articles were broken off and taken away.

That information having been given on Saturday evening of a noise having been heard about the Engine for several days by the people who occupies a house near the place on the opposite side of the Canal, Mr Thos. Stark went west and found the two Connecting rods and some other Articles, which he brought away, and with the view to catch the depredators Robert Hendrie, John Taylor was sent to watch on Sabbath Night, and found the fellow lying under the Boiler.  This day he was taken before the Sheriff and Fiscal for examination.  The fellow denied all knowledge of taking the articles.  That he was a little the worse of drink had went in when there was an open at the back side and lay down and fell asleep – and denied having been in the Shed before that night.  Mr Stark found a letter on Saturday in the shed on Saturday which he had dropt, wrote by Mary Mowet to her Sister recommending the bearer, Wm Williamson, as an Engineer or Coalman, and to use her influence with her husband to get him in a situation.  This letter he acknowledged to have lost which was good evidence that he had been in the Shed before Saturday.  Got a warrant from the Sheriff to serch for the stolen Articles and sent Charles Stevenson, the Person who is employed to clean the Engine, along with the Officer.
Found three pieces of Copper Pipes in the house of Aitken which he seemed unwilling to say from whom he purchased them.  Called at Mr Ferguson Tin smith and he stated that the pieces were offered for sale on Saturday and would know the Person that offered them for sale.  On Mr Ferguson being taken in presence of Williamson, declared he could give his oath that he is the Person which is a conclusive evidence, the examination to be resumed on Wednesday

(Wilson’s Log)

Just before his trial on 16 September Williamson changed his plea to guilty and was sentenced to six months imprisonment.

On the appointed morning of the 21 August a great many people were attracted to the spot.  Mr Macneill, Mr Johnston, the canal director, and several engineers and gentlemen, being present, the experiment commenced by attaching to the engine the towing line of the first passenger boat that made its appearance, and which contained upwards of ninety passengers with their luggage.  The arrangements for the novel trial were wholly unexpected on the part of the passengers, among whom no small degree of curiosity and excitement prevailed when apprised of the circumstance.  There was a trifling delay in disengaging the horses and tying the line to the engine.  Immediately on the rope being attached, the engine was proceeding at a rapid pace, when the cord (an old one) unfortunately broke.  It was speedily adjusted, however; but coming in contact with a curb stone, it again gave way, and some little time was lost until a new one was procured.  This having been done, the remainder of the line was traversed at a speed of 17¼ miles per hour, the boat going through the water with the greatest safety.  It was the opinion of all present that, with a modern passenger locomotive, a speed might be obtained, equal to that upon the best railways, few of the latter possessing the advantage secured by the canal bank of a perfect level throughout.  On stopping at the end of the rails, the passengers signified their approval by a round of hearty cheers, their only regret apparently being that they had not the advantage of such a power to tow them on to Port Dundas.  No mention is made in the reports on how the boat was stopped in order to untie the rope and reunite it with the horses.  Given the speed attained and the distance involved the journey would have taken under four minutes.

It was an interesting four minutes.  The speed was kept up round two slight curves and until the termination of the rails made it necessary to stop, amid the cheers of the delighted passengers.  The railway curve of double flexure had a radius of less than a third of a mile.  To prevent disposition occurring from the resistance of the vessels towed, the outer rail had been laid a little lower in level than the inner one, so as to give the engine a slight tendency to descend towards the outward rail.  This was also intended to prevent the overturning of the engine by a strong pull.

The nature of the motion was highly gratifying to all the passengers, being more uniform, steady, and smooth, than when the boats were drawn by horses.  Further passenger boats were hauled on that day and over the following one.  Almost all attained velocities of 16 to 17 miles per hour, and these were maintained with a very small expenditure of steam.  The wave produced by this rapid movement of the boats through the water was very different from that which had been observed in all velocities hitherto accomplished on canals, and altogether unlike the one which theoretical investigation had prepared the scientists to look for.  It did not undulate and rush along the banks but proceeded direct from the boat side to the shore, striking the latter at right angles, or nearly so.  It was by no means increased in an equal proportion to the increase of velocity but, on the contrary, when highest it was evidently less than that which the passenger boats ordinarily had produced. 

Several of the heavy masted vessels were also taken in tow during the two days of trial, at the rates of 3, 3½, 4, and 5 miles per hour; and, on one occasion, two loaded sloops, and a large waggon boat, were together attached to the engine, and hauled with ease at the rate of 2¾ miles per hour, whilst only one-fourth of the steam was allowed to pass the throttle valve.

The Glasgow Courier summed up the results of the two days’ trial as demonstrating that they

render palpably apparent the immense advantages which might be gained by this new adoption of steam power – a great economy in haulage expenses, as one engine might draw at least 6 sloops, which now would require form 18 to 24 horses, and, if necessary, at double the present speed; and a proportional increase of the important traffic on the canal, which might be reasonably expected.”

The Ayr Observer, evidently using the same press release, noted that

By the application of locomotive power, the Union Canal might be traversed in 2 hours, and the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1½, instead of 4 hours and 3½ as at present, and this by assuming 16 miles per hour, though more might easily be performed.  As one engine could draw at least six heavily loaded vessels, requiring by the present system from 18 to 24 horses, an immense saving would accrue to the Company, while the public would be proportionally benefitted by the increased facility of conveyance.  The expense of laying the rails will be trifling, the banks of the canal already forming a level sufficiently broad for at least a single line.

The Stirling Journal was confident that “The company having ascertained the full success of the experiment, will construct a tramway along the canal bank.”  Indeed, this seems to have been a common belief.  The Canal Company, however, wanted to conduct more tests.  Thomas Wilson was clearly sceptical and wrote in his diary:

“Thursday 22nd August 1839

Went to No 16 to see the experiment of tracking the Passage Boats by means of a Locomotive Engine on the Rail way which was put there by Mr McNeil for the purpose of trying the experiment of tracking vessels by the small Engine stationed 3/4 mile west from the Stable. The Engine which was made by Mr Dodds for the purpose of conveying loaded waggons on the Kirkintilloch Railway was applied to the Passage Boats and the average speed with Boat fully loaded with Passengers was from 16 to 18 miles p hour. Dragged one of Carron Company’s vessels in the Liverpool trade loaded at the rate of 4 miles an hour.  It would be satisfactory to ascertain the rate at which 3 or 4 vessels of such description can be tracked.”

Macneill suggested that the track be extended to four miles towards Lock 17 in order to better test the efficacy of steam traction.  Whilst this does not appear to have happened it is probable that a further length was added.  It was 11 September before the next trials were held using the same set up.    On this occasion the Governor of the Canal Company and part of the Committee were present.  As before, the manager of the Forth and Clyde Canal Company and several professional and scientific persons attended.  Victoria was attached successively to passenger boats, lightly and heavily laden, and to sloops, singly and two together.  The passenger boats almost instantly attained velocities of 16 and 17 miles per hour, and these were maintained with a very small expenditure of steam.  The sloops varied from 70 to 90 tons, and were moderately laden, but their draught of water was not less than 8 feet.  They were hauled at various velocities.  The highest was limited to 3½ miles per hour – much higher than had been thought possible, but this was considered to be a rate which would never be desirable for this class of vessels to exceed.

The great success of this second set of tests led to further trials on 10-11 October.  This time the Deputy Governor travelled up from London with many more of the Committee and proprietors of the Company. The Glasgow Chronicle, reflecting the spirit of the occasion, observed that

Besides these gentlemen, there was a large number of persons assembled anxious to witness this harvest of new facts, pregnant with important consequences to the commerce of the country, and so deeply interesting in a scientific point of view.  Among the office bearers of the Company, we observed Messrs Kirkman Findlay, James Loch MP, James Douglas, T. Grahame, Johnstone, Herbertson, Moncrieff, Mackay, & c.  In addition among those assembled were Messrs Gladstone (Liverpool), R Napier, Sir J Robinson, H.K. (Edinburgh), Professor Forbes (Edinburgh), Messrs James Smith (Deanston), W, Houston (Johnston Castle), Forbes (Callander), John Scott Russell, Whitwell (London), Wood (Port Glasgow), Sanderson, W Crichton, Deans, Aughten, Thompson, Liesh, W. Dods, R. Dods, Mitchell, Wilson, &c.”

(No doubt these select few spent some time waiting in the nearby Union Inn.  Sir John Robison, KH, FRSE, FRSSA (1778 –1843) was a Scottish inventor and writer on scientific subjects.  Sir James Loch (1780 –1855) was a Scottish advocate, barrister, estate commissioner and later a member of parliament.  Whilst managing the estates of the Duke of Sutherland he was responsible for agricultural improvements which included the “clearances.”  James Smith of Deanston (1789-1850) was an agricultural engineer renowned for his work in deep soil drainage.  He invented the subsoil plough and with it converted the lands of Deanston from unproductive moorland to good agricultural land.  In June 1839 he had inspected the damhead at the Earlsburn Reservoir.)

Illus 3: The Union Inn in the centre with the Forth and Clyde Canal on the right where the experiments were conducted.

The aim was to try towing vessels under a variety of conditions and to demonstrate to the great and the good the practicality of the system.  With a passenger boat laden with passengers a rate of 20 miles per hour was attained, and it was evident that the only limit to the speed was that of the power of the engine.  Indeed, it was claimed that one of the swift passage boats reached the almost unimaginable speed of 30mph!

The following eight trading vessels (three schooners, three sloops and two canal traders) were arranged in a line, attached to each other, and the first to the locomotive.

Thetis, Grangemouth66358ft 0ins
Alert, Leith41678ft 9ins
Union, Kirkaldy48658ft 6ins
Thistle, Alloa51186ft 0ins
Dainty Davy30474ft 10ins
London Packet81708ft 10ins
Star (scow)0404ft 0ins
Prince (luggage boat)0224ft 6ins

For the haulage of this amount of tonnage, at the usual rate of 1½ miles per hour, about twenty horses would normally be employed, under the most favourable circumstances.  The Victoria towed it with about one fourth only of her steam power at a rate of 2¼ miles per hour.  The ease with which she did this justified the opinion of several spectators, qualified to judge, that double this amount of tonnage might have been mastered by her with very little or any diminution of her speed.  The appearance of such a fleet, with hoisted colours, moving majestically after the comparatively small engine, was striking in the extreme. 

The wave produced by the motion of the large vessels at the rate they were towed was of the ordinary size and character.  In one of the latter experiments four passenger boats were towed in a line, and the volume of the waves was evidently broken up into numerous smaller waves, spreading over the whole surface of the canal and resembling a great ripple.  The reverse of this occurred when two passenger boats were lashed together abreast as a twin boat; the wave then extended in a fine regular glassy swell from the boats to the shores.  These effects pointed out that the form, magnitude, position, &c. of the wave were all susceptible of modification. 

The scientific observers were delighted:

Thus the wave theory, which was formerly a beautiful speculation of science, becomes the basis of a new system of inland water transport, and abstract science receives new illustrations from the practical application of its principles… The predictions of science never received more perfect accomplishment or more beautiful illustration than on this occasion.  It is well known to those persons who have attended what has been written on this subject, that the wave of the Forth and Clyde Canal, from its great depth, travels at the rate of about eleven or twelve miles an hour, and that consequently, in order to ‘ride the wave,’ it would be necessary to draw the boat at fourteen or fifteen miles an hour, a speed hitherto impracticable, because above the available speed of horses; but it had been confidently predicted, that at these high velocities the violent surges usual at velocities of eight or nine miles an hour would wholly disappear, and the vessel ride the summit of a smooth undulating wave, exciting comparatively little commotion in the waters of the canal.  Two of the experiments set this truth in a remarkable light – one being performed with an ill-shaped passage-boat containing passengers and luggage, but unsuited to high velocities, which the engine had no power to drag ‘over the wave,’ the other with a boat suited to higher velocities and filled with passengers.  Now it happened, as predicted, that in the experiment first alluded to the boat moved at a less velocity than the wave, raised a high and powerful wave at the bow, which overspread the banks of the canal and threw up behind it a foaming and most injurious surge; whilst on the other hand the vessel which moved at the high velocity rode smooth and even on the top of the placid and gentle wave, leaving behind it no commotion but the sudden collapse of the parted waters.  The results of the day’s experiments appear to be most promising, as phenomena in the motion of fluids and of vessels on the water, hitherto unseen, will be brought to light, and applications of mechanical power and mercantile resources hitherto unheard of will be called forth.” 

(the Athenaeum quoted in Aris’s Birmingham Gazette 2 December 1839, 4).

The Canal Committee was highly pleased with the results and ordered cost estimates for the four mile test track between Locks 16 and 17, and for a track between Port Dundas and Grangemouth with a rail track on one side of the canal and a towpath on the other and engines ‘necessary for the same’.  All of these were to be compared with the then known costs of the horse-drawn day and night passage and tracking boats (Paterson 2006).  By April 1840 Macneill’s report was available and was carefully considered by the staff and officers of the Canal.  By then, however, there was another factor to consider.  The opening of the Slamannan Railway had begun to seriously impact passenger traffic on the Forth and Clyde Canal because it was possible to use the Union Canal to Causewayend in Muiravonside and then the railway westwards to Glasgow.  Worse was to come, the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railway had just been approved and would clearly be in direct commercial opposition to the Canal.  The idea of building a railway on the banks of the canal to compete with a railway on a more direct route was clearly not going to float.

In any case, there was a much more practical alternative and that was to develop the motive power of the boats themselves in a manner which reduced the erosive effects of any wash.  One local man even experimented with a prototype of a pump-jet, as noted in this newspaper report from the Evening Mail on 13 July 1840:

“An ingenious mechanic, residing at Grahamston, has been for a long period engaged in constructing a small vessel to be propelled by means of pressure pumps – the application of a principle quite new to the masters of this science.  On Monday evening the boat was launched into the Forth and Clyde Canal, at Bainsford bridge, and proceeded beautifully along the reach at a rate of not less than 15 miles per hour, conducted alone by the inventor, who worked the pumps.  This novel invention has produced much speculation among the members of the profession at this place, and it is now reported that he is so much satisfied with his first experiment, that another on a larger scale is forthwith to be undertaken, and a patent procured to protect the invention.  He has no doubt that it will, at no distant era, entirely supersede the present mode of propulsion by means of a paddle wheels.”

Essentially, the device worked by taking in water from the navigable channel through an intake valve and then increasing its pressure using a pump and forcing it backwards through a nozzle.  The principle of a water-jet to propel a boat had already been demonstrated by James Rumsey on the Potomac River in America in 1787 using a steam-powered pump to drive a stream of water from the stern.

Experiments were also conducted on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1840 with the use of new designs of propeller.  The local role in the development of the screw propeller will be dealt with elsewhere.  These were to lead to the construction of a type of self-propelled barge uniquely suitable to the requirements of the Forth and Clyde Canal, known as a “puffer.”  As a result the Forth and Clyde Canal remained commercially viable well into the 20th century.


Bowman, I.1981Symington and the Charlotte Dundas.
Martin, D.1976The Monkland & Kirkintilloch Railway.
Martin, D.1976The Forth & Clyde Canal: a Kirkintilloch view.
Paterson, L.2006From Sea to Sea: A History of the Scottish Lowland and Highland Canals.
Wilson’s LogSee Falkirk Council Archives Website
British Newspaper Archive

G.B. Bailey, 2023