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By Science Museum on

If I Had A Hammer

I love hammers, or to be more precise, I like hitting things with hammers. Be it nails, walnuts or – at some point in the long-distant past – brothers. So when I saw this giant steam powered hammer looming over me in Making the Modern World I had to learn more.

Nasmyth Steam Hammer
Nasmyth Steam Hammer (Science Museum / Science and Society Picture Library)

It was invented by James Hall Nasmyth. He was born in 1808, and drawn to mechanics from a young age, making his first steam engine at the age of 17.

He forged a successful career making industrial machinery – at least after an early setback when a piece of his iron work broke through the wooden floor of his workshop and landed in the glass cutters flat below.

The impetus for creating the steam hammer came in 1838 when the Great Western Company was experiencing problems making the Ship SS Great Britain. The company’s engineer, Francis Humphries, wrote to Nasmyth with a challenge: “I find there is not a forge-hammer in England or Scotland powerful enough to forge the paddle-shaft of the engine for the Great Britain! What am I to do?”

Steam Hammer painting by Nasymth

He’d come to the right man. Nasmyth patented the steam hammer in June 1842 and demonstrated it at The Great Exhibition of 1851. Well aware that the machine’s accuracy combined with its extraordinary power was a remarkable selling point, he set an egg resting on a glass under the hammer. When the hammer fell it broke the egg but not the glass. 

He then reset the machine, and the hammer thudded down with a thump that shook the building.

Although Nasmyth patented the hammer, and built his reputation on it, the first one was actually built at Eugene Schneider’s Le Creusot Ironworks in France, before 1842. This may have been the result of Schneider visiting Nasmyth’s works while he was away, and being shown Nasmyth’s sketch for the as-yet-unbuilt hammer. Nasmyth discovered the hammer working when he later paid a return visit to Le Creusot, and had to rush through a patent on his return to England. Always keep your secret drawings under lock and key!

Nasmyth retired in 1856 announcing, “I have now enough of this world’s goods: let younger men have their chance”. He might have been done with worldly goods, but he certainly wasn’t done with science. More on that in my next post…

One comment on “If I Had A Hammer

  1. Youtube is a great resource for finding industrial hertage film clips of all sorts.

    Here is a short film from over a century ago of a steam hammer at work in the USA. It really brings Nasmyth’s painting to life, and shows how vital was coordination between the forge team and hammer driver – one wrongly timed blow and the team would be a H&S statistic.

    The steam hammer is still alive and well in forges and engineering works in odd corners of the world as this clip shows.

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