Writer, copy editor, and educator who finds joy in reading, writing, and thinking along life’s trails

The Hammerman

Do you know the story of the earliest people who had your family’s last name? I am James Nasmyth (nā´smith). My name story is fiery and fierce. My last name was not Robertson, meaning “son of Robert.” It was not Miller, meaning “a worker who ground grain into flour.” My surname dates back to Scotland in the 1400s. My ancestor heard the heavy footsteps and clanking weapons of angry neighbors. He fled into a village blacksmith’s shed. The blacksmith quickly dressed him in a hammerman’s long, leather apron and gave him a sledge hammer. The rowdy Scots stormed into the smith’s shed. They saw this new hammerman break the metal he was shaping. They shouted, “Ye’re nae smyth!” The blacksmith and the hammerman used their tools to drive away the men. Would my ancestor’s family name mean that all Nasmyths in future years would be “not smiths”?

As a son in the family of Nasmyths, I was born the morning of August 19, 1808, in Edinburgh, Scotland. My parents, four brothers, and seven sisters welcomed me to the world. I soon learned about the special gifts that my family would share with me. My grandparents taught my parents a respect for excellent workmanship and appreciation for the arts. They passed these down to me.

Alexander Nasmyth, my father, was both a mechanical engineer and a landscape artist. He was talented in sketching with pencil and in painting. My creative father once painted himself. He had accidentally burned his good socks while drying them by the fire. So he used watercolors to paint black and white socks on his feet and ankles! My father also taught me mechanical skills. I spent hours in his workroom using his tools and discovering how they worked. After lots of practice, I could sketch an object so precisely that a person could use my drawing to build a model.

I also remember a bad fall that I had when I was six years old. “When sliding down the railing of the stairs I lost my grip and fell suddenly over. The steps were of stone. Fortunately…I fell into the servants’ carpets…I was thus saved from cracking my poor little skull.”

As a fifteen-year-old, I went on a trip with my father in 1823. I observed the process of smelting iron ore in a large iron works. I studied the giant steam engine which ran the blast furnace. After returning to Edinburgh, I built working models of steam engines and tools. My drawings and work experiences prepared me for my profession as a mechanical engineer. In 1836, I started my own business and built machine tools at the Bridgewater Foundry in Patricroft, England.

My education and industry background helped me to invent machines to solve mechanical problems. Master toolmaker Henry Maundslay and I created a marine steam engine to power steamships. To allow foundry workers to safely remove molten iron from the furnace, I invented a safety foundry ladle. When I was thirty-one, I decided that England needed more powerful mechanical tools. I sketched a design in my Scheme Book journal and created the steam hammer. This invention used steam power to move a machine part up and down with great force. The steam hammer was very important in making ship anchors. It also strengthened pile-drivers. These pounded large poles into the ground for constructing buildings and docks.

I retired in 1856 and moved with my wife Anne to Hammerfield, England. I happily explored astronomy. I discovered new information about lunar craters and mountains. To see space objects in more detail, I designed and built a large reflecting telescope. From 1860 until 1864, I looked at the sun’s surface and made drawings. This investigation of sun spots and Willow-leaf patterns on the sun earned me international fame.

Throughout my life, I demonstrated my inherited talent for mechanical, metal, and art projects. My inventions improved the machine tools of the Industrial Revolution. My ideas are still studied by mechanical engineers. As I think back to my safe landing during that childhood fall, I am thankful for the pile of carpets. I believe that “But for that there might have been no steam hammer.” My legacy is my family tradition with men who showed their mettle for metal. This proves that the historical claim that my ancestor was not a smith was “nae” true.

Note. Adapted from James nasmyth: engineer; an autobiography [Project Gutenberg HTML Reader Etext from the edition published by John Murray]. Samuel Smiles (Ed.) (1897).

* Used with permission from ECS Learning Systems, Inc.


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