ONE of the many inventions by a Scot which is disputed by other countries is the steamboat. Google ‘‘inventor of the steamboat’’ and up will pop the name of Robert Fulton of the USA. The fact is that Fulton did create the world’s first commercial steamboat but his claim is disputed even in America, where the names of John Fitch, James Rumsey, Nathan Read and John Stevens are all quoted as steamboat inventors – and there’s no doubt they all were pioneers of the steamboat.

Yet ask which man first successfully propelled a working boat by the power of steam and the answer is William Symington of Scotland and he did it in this week in 1789.

The English engineer Jonathan Hulls had lodged a patent for a steam-powered vessel as early as 1737, but he never actually built one or demonstrated it in the flesh, so to speak.

He called it a ‘‘Machine for carrying vessels and ships out of, or into, any Harbour, Port or River against Wind or Tide or in a Calm’’ and declared he had been granted Letters Patent by King George II entitling him to benefit from his invention for a period of 14 years.

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Hulls had no support for building his invention and he is said to have died in poverty long before James Watt’s development of a steam engine that could be adapted for use on a boat.

Born in Leadhills, now in South Lanarkshire, in 1764, Symington’s father was a mechanical engineer at the local mines. They were “respectable but not wealthy” in Symington’s own words.

He was well-educated and his parents wanted William to enter the Kirk ministry, but his brother George was already involved in making steam engines and William followed in his footsteps.

Before he was even 20, Symington had conceived of applying steam power to road carriages and even demonstrated a working model.

Yet nothing came of it except for a recommendation from a local mine manager, Gilbert Meason, that he should go to Edinburgh University and study science. Symington did so but returned to help George complete the steam engine at Wanlockhead mine, only the second such engine in

Scotland and built to the design of James Watt himself.

The National: James Watt

Symington realised that Watt’s engine could be improved and he patented developments of the engine, including one which could be laid horizontally which in turn got him to thinking about practical usage.

His road carriage experiment having gone nowhere, Symington created an engine to power a boat and, unlike Hulls, he built one, with support from banker Patrick Miller. The fear was that the engine would set fire to a boat, but in October 1788, his steam-powered paddle-driven adapted pleasure boat was demonstrated on Dalswinton Loch near Dumfries, and while there were arguments as to how fast it went, at least the boat did not catch fire.

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Symington and Miller could see the possibilities of steam power in boats and the latter – or rather his manager John Taylor – would later claim they had invented the concept.

Unfortunately for them the Scots Magazine of November 1788 contained a comprehensive account of the experiments and credited Symington with the invention – the man himself was content to be known as a pioneer in the field of steam navigation, the words that were eventually carved on his memorial in Leadhills. Later court cases and even scrutiny in Parliament would confirm Symington’s case.

The big step forward took place in December, 1789. Symington fitted a steam engine to a 60ft-long paddle boat on the Forth and Clyde Canal and it made its maiden voyage on December 2, though the trip had to be abandoned as the paddles broke into pieces.

Nothing daunted, Symington fitted stronger paddles and 230 years ago this week on December 26 and 27, 1789, the boat made a lengthy voyage on the Canal, possibly reaching the unheard-of speed of 6mph.

This was the world’s first practical demonstration of a working steamboat.

Unfortunately the canal banks were damaged and Miller was also concerned about the rising costs so development work stopped and Symington went off to install steam engines, mostly for water extraction, in more than 30 mines across Scotland and became a consultant to the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk.

One man had not forgotten about Symington’s work and he just happened to be one of the most powerful men in Scotland – Thomas, Lord Dundas, who was governor of the Forth and Clyde Canal company and had an interest in canals in England.

Dundas knew that a Captain John Schank had failed in an attempt to make a steamboat for the Bridgewater Canal, but he proposed putting Symington’s new engine into a Schank boat and in 1801 it was successfully trailed on the River Carron.

Symington then came up with a design for what was in effect a steam-powered tug which was named the Charlotte Dundas after one of his patron’s daughters. On January 4, 1803, the Charlotte Dundas had her maiden voyage along the Canal, and later she towed two boats totalling 70 tons in record time.

Yet if anything she was too fast and the Canal’s directors pulled the plug after seeing erosion of the banks.

The Charlotte Dundas was decommissioned and allowed to rot away, while Symington had to watch on as Robert Fulton in the USA and Henry Bell on the Clyde made the steamboat developments that left him far behind. He died in 1831 in London and his achievements were only acknowledged much later.