Bell was born at Torphichen, near Bathgate, West Lothian in 1767 and pioneered the development of the steamship. He was the fifth son of Patrick Bell and Margaret Easton, themselves members of a family well known at the time as millwrights, builders and engineers. Their work included the design and construction of harbours, bridges, etc., in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom.
Henry Bell was educated at the local parish school and was apprenticed to a stonemason in 1780. Three years later, he was apprenticed to his uncle, a millwright. He later learned ship modelling in Borrowstounness and in 1787, pursued his interest in ship mechanics in Bell’s Hill with the engineer Mr James Inglis. This was followed by several years in London.
He returned to Scotland around 1790, and moved to Glasgow, where he worked as a house-carpenter. His ambition was to follow in the footsteps of his ancestors and become a civil engineer, and to this end he joined the Glasgow corporation of wrights on October 20, 1797. He was entirely unsuccessful, apparently due to either lack of money, or lack of application or skill on his part. According to his contemporaries:
“Bell had many of the features of the enthusiastic projector; never calculated means to ends, or looked much farther than the first stages or movements of any scheme. His mind was a chaos of extraordinary projects, the most of which, from his want of accurate scientific calculation, he never could carry into practice. Owing to an imperfection in even his mechanical skill, he scarcely ever made one part of a model suit the rest, so that many designs, after a great deal of pains and expense, were successively abandoned. He was, in short, the hero of a thousand blunders and one success.”
Interest in Steam Power for Shipping
The idea of propelling vessels by means of steam early took possession of his mind. “In 1800 (he writes) I applied to Lord Melville, on purpose to show his lordship and the other members of the Admiralty, the practicability and great utility of applying steam to the propelling of vessels against winds and tides, and every obstruction on rivers and seas, where there was depth of water.”
Disappointed in this application, he repeated the attempt in 1803, with the same result, notwithstanding the emphatic declaration of the celebrated Lord Nelson, who, addressing their lord-ships on the occasion, said, “My Lords, if you do not adopt Mr Bell’s scheme, other nations will, and in the end vex every vein of this empire. It will succeed (he added), and you should encourage Mr Bell.” Having obtained no support in this country, Bell forwarded copies of the prospectus of his scheme to the different nations of Europe, and to the United States of America. “The Americans,” he writes, “were the first who put my plan into practice, and were quickly followed by other nations.” The various attempts which preceded that of Bell are briefly noticed in the “Fifth Report of the Select Committee of the House of Commons on Steam-Boats, June, 1822, Sir Henry Parnell, chairman.” Mentioning the following as experimenters, namely, Mr Jonathan Hulls, in 1736; the Duke of Bridgewater, on the Manchester and Runcorn canal; Mr Miller of Dalswinton; the Marquis de Jouffroy (a French nobleman), in 1781; Lord Stanhope, in 1795; and Mr Symington and Mr Taylor, on the Forth and Clyde canal, in 1801-2; the Report proceeds—”These ingenious men made valuable experiments, and tested well the mighty power of steam. Still no practical uses resulted from any of these attempts. It was not till the year 1807, when the Americans began to use steamboats on their rivers, that their safety and utility were first proved. But the merit of constructing these boats is due to natives of Great Britain. Mr Henry Bell of Glasgow gave the first model of them to the late Mr Fulton of America, and corresponded regularly with Fulton on the subject. Mr Bell continued to turn his talents to the improving of steam apparatus, and its application to various manufactures about Glasgow; and in 1811, constructed the Comet steam-boat.”
In 1808, Bell moved to the modern town of Helensburgh, on the north shore of the Firth of Clyde, where his wife undertook the superintendence of the public baths, and at the same time kept the principal inn, whilst he continued to prosecute his favourite scheme, without much regard to the ordinary affairs of the world.
In 1812 he built his steam-boat the Comet, of 30 tons burthen, with an engine of three horsepower. The Comet, named after a great comet, which had been visible for several months in 1811-12, was built by Messrs John Wood and Co., at Port Glasgow which lies 3 miles to the east of Greenock, as adjacent towns on the south bank of the River Clyde as it widens into the Firth of Clyde. The Comet made a delivery voyage from Port Glasgow 21 miles upriver to the Broomielaw, Glasgow, then sailed from Glasgow the 24 miles down to Greenock, making five miles an hour against a head-wind. (some sources give a date of January 18, 1812 for a trial trip, McCrorie gives August 6, 1812 for the delivery, with the historic trip a day or so later.)
In August, Bell advertised a passenger service on the Comet between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh three times a week, returning on alternate days, “to ply upon the River Clyde from Glasgow, to sail by the power of air, wind, and steam.”
Bell briefly tried a service on the Firth of Forth. Then he had the Comet lengthened and re-engined and from September 1819 ran a service to Oban and Fort William (via the Crinan Canal), a trip which took four days, but on December 13, 1820 the Comet was shipwrecked in strong currents at Craignish Point, near Oban.
Bell built another vessel, Comet II, but, on October 21, 1825, she collided with the steamer Ayr off Kempock Point, Gourock. Comet II sank very quickly, killing 62 of the 80 passengers on board. After the loss of his second ship, Bell abandoned his work on steam navigation.
Bell lived to see his invention universally adopted. The Clyde, which first enjoyed the advantages of steam navigation, became the principal seat of this description of ship-building. Bell reaped no personal advantage from the widespread adoption of steam powered ships, and, due to his poor management of his finances spent many of his later years in abject poverty.
Touched by his condition, the late Dr Cleland, and a number of other benevolent individuals, commenced a subscription on his behalf, by which a considerable sum was raised. The trustees on the river Clyde granted him an annuity of £100, which was continued to his widow. This was but a becoming acknowledgment of the value of his great invention on the part of the trustees of a river whose annual revenue was greatly increased by it.
Bell died at Helensburgh in 1830, aged 62. He was interred in the Rhu churchyard. An obelisk to his memory was erected on the rock of Dunglass, a promontory on the Clyde, about 2½ miles above Dumbarton.