Robert Wilson (1803 – 1882)
Prominent beside the wharf of Dunbar’s Victoria Harbour is a large, black painted ship’s propeller, a memorial to a little known Dunbar lad, a Victorian inventor and technologist.
Robert Wilson was the son of Benjamin Wilson, mariner and cooper, and was born at the Shore of Dunbar. Robert had just turned seven when his father was drowned, lost when the Dunbar Lifeboat was upset during a rescue. Straightened circumstances soon forced his mother, Catherine Lyall, and the remaining family to move to the countryside to be near relatives. There, Robert was apprenticed to a wright.
Despite the move, Robert was still close enough to Dunbar to keep up his developing interest in ships and propulsion – the library of the town’s Mechanics Institute providing suitable technical texts to support his interests and his membership led to important contacts. From boyhood he worked at devising a means of propelling a vessel by means of ‘rotating sculls’ – what we know today as a propeller. By the 1820s, and with the patronage of the Lauderdales in Dunbar, he demonstrated working models in Leith Harbour, winning a prize from Highland Society and the Scottish Society of Arts in 1832. It was a harder struggle to convince the wider world that the invention was useful. Even with the aid of his Scottish backers the Admiralty was sceptical of his device and periodic spells of debt meant that experiments had to give way to earning a living.
Robert concentrated on his career, securing a position as Works Manager of the Bridgewater Foundry (Patricroft, Lancaster) of James Nasmyth. When Nasmyth retired in 1856, Robert became his managing partner (the firm later became Nasmyth, Wilson & Co.) and he remained so until 1882. In that period, Robert secured over 30 patents for engineering advances. Many were concerned with the technology behind Nasmyth’s steam hammers, but some related directly to his early obsession – propellors. Although he never got the recognition that he felt he deserved (a competitor, Francis Petit Smith, reaped most of the rewards) in 1880 he was awarded 500 pounds by the Admiralty to licence his double action screw propeller to drive the torpedoes then under development.
Robert’s career was followed closely back in Dunbar and East Lothian and the pages of the local press make repeated reference to Scotland’s Pioneer of Speed; as early as 1936 it was proposed that a memorial be erected near the scene of his first experiments – a plan that had to wait until his 200th anniversary when the current memorial was unveiled in September 2003.
This page has been constructed using resources (file M0023531EO) of the Local History Collection at the John Gray Centre; files are kept on many notable East Lothian residents. All are available for consultation during opening hours.