Gentleman Scientist and Inventor, 1793-1875

Dale H. Porter

Sir Goldsworthy Gurney is often called Cornwall's "forgotten genius." As a youth, he observed Richard Trevithick invent steam locomotives, kept notes on the coastal tides, and studied the new Enlightenment science at Truro school. He became a practicing surgeon at the age of twenty, but he gave up his provincial practice in 1820 to join the "Chemical Revolution" in London. After forty years of research and invention, he suffered a paralytic stroke. Other men took credit for his inventions, and knowledge of his work virtually disappeared for a century. Now Dale H. Porter has combined recent research by local Cornish historians with his own investigations of nineteenth-century London politics and society to reconstruct Goldsworthy Gurney's remarkable life.


Gurney's research led to associations with Humphry Davy, Michael Faraday, and other leading scientists of the day, and though he never gained membership in the Royal Society, his public lectures on the elements of chemistry proved popular and lucrative. A variety of experiments led him to develop the "lime-light," which illuminated theaters throughout the century; he patented heating stoves still in use at Ely and Durham cathedrals; and he even devised a piano with glass strings. He also built one of the first practical steam locomotives, which ran on the roads rather than rails. In 1829 a Gurney steam vehicle made the longest journey under steam power known up to that time - a two-day trip from London to Bath and back.


A campaign of legislative and sometimes physical harassment undercut Gurney's early triumphs, and competition from Robert Stephenson's railways drove him out of business. He then designed gas lighting, heating, and ventilation systems for the new Houses of Parliament at Westminster. At the same time, he experimented with innovative methods of coal mine ventilation, lighthouse signaling, and urban pollution control. In London, he appeared constantly before parliamentary committees as an expert witness; back home in Cornwall, he enjoyed the status of a country gentleman, serving as president of the agricultural society and as county magistrate. He was knighted in 1863 for his public service.


Gurney's dual career as a gentleman scientist and practical inventor, and his record of alternate successes and failures, illustrate the nature of early-nineteenth-century science and technology. Examining Gurney's procedures in the light of recent research on the nature of scientific and technological thinking, Porter recasts the long-debated question of the impact of science upon British industrial development. He shows that Gurney's chemistry investigations were quite consistent with the best scientific practice of his time, but that his concept of invention lacked the sophistication of Britain's emerging professional engineers. The well-illustrated text explores the social, political, and technical communities in which Gurney flourished and provides a rich biography as well as a thoughtful assessment of his limitations and achievements.


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Lehigh University Press - The Life and Times of Sir Goldsworthy Gurney