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Edward Somerset, 2nd Marquis of Worcester, harnessed the power of steam

Posted in Famous Inventors, Historical articles, History, Inventions, Royalty, Science on Friday, 20 December 2013

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This edited article about science first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 499 published on 7 August 1971.

Marquis of Worcester, picture, image, illustration

The Marquis of Worcester invented a machine that roared, rumbled and gurgled and scared away a gang of marauding Roundheads when a servant shouted "Run, the lions are loose!"

From the ramparts of Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire, the Marquis of Worcester watched a small force of Roundheads approach. There seemed little he could do to prevent the enemy from entering and plundering his home, or even to stop them from dragging him away to stand trial as a Royalist supporter of King Charles I.

At the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642, Worcester had pledged himself to uphold the monarchy, and the king had commissioned him secretly to raise armed forces in Ireland and on the Continent of Europe to do battle with the Commonwealth armies.

In 1645 he signed a treaty on Charles’s behalf with the Irish Catholics, but elsewhere his mission failed.

When the plot was discovered, Worcester was disowned by the king, who denied that he had ever contemplated using foreign mercenaries to fight against his own people. Worcester’s only hope was flight from England, and he was in the midst of hurried preparations to embark for France when the Roundheads appeared.

As well as being a Royalist nobleman, the marquis was also a mechanical inventor of some brilliance, and his ingenuity now gave practical aid to his loyalty. He had constructed a system of hydraulic engines and wheels to convey water from the moat surrounding the castle to the top of its great tower.

Such a contraption was unheard of in his day, and as can be imagined, it made a considerable noise when it was operated. The marquis resolved to try and startle the Roundheads by confronting them with a display of his engineering works. He gave orders for them to be set in motion.

“There was such a roaring,” he wrote afterwards, “that the poor, silly men stood so amazed as if they had been half dead – and yet they saw nothing.”

The wheels clanked and turned, the waters roared and gurgled. Then one of the marquis’s servants, showing great resource and powers of imagination, came running towards them, shouting: “Look to yourselves, my masters, for the lions are loose.” Whereupon the startled Roundheads tumbled over each other in their efforts to escape.

That, at least, is the legend attached to the Marquis of Worcester’s fortunate escape from the hands of his enemies. It may well have been true, for he was one of the most remarkable amateur scientists ever to have lived, and it is probable that he actually made the first steam engine to be built since the days of Hero of Alexandria, some 2,000 years before.

While Worcester was exiled in France his estates were confiscated. He found the greatest difficulty in keeping up appearances at the French court, where he made many friends. For a time he became one of the chosen circle of powerful men who gathered at the salon of the beautiful Marie Delorme, one of the most brilliant centres of elegant Parisian society.

He was taken by Marie on a visit to a Parisian madhouse where he was shocked to find an eminent physicist, Salomon de Caux, imprisoned. De Caux was reputed to have invented a fountain operated by the power of steam, and for his pains was declared mad by Cardinal Richelieu and locked up in an asylum. Worcester was outraged, saying that such a man would be honoured in England for his inventive genius and not driven insane in prison.

Whether it was this example of the terrible fate awaiting would-be inventors in France, or his increasing poverty and dependence on the charity of his French friends which caused Worcester to quit France, we cannot know. But return to England he did, in an effort to restore his flagging fortunes – but at a time when his life was at risk. It seemed inevitable that he would be betrayed, and one day word was passed to Cromwell’s men that he was living secretly in London. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London.

It was probably during the two years of his imprisonment that he wrote the book which so intrigued his fellow scientists after his death. Its full title was A Century of the Names and Scantlings of Such Inventions as at present I can call to mind to have tried and perfected, and the book was printed in 1663.

It includes such things as secret writing by cipher or by special inks; explosive projectiles designed to sink ships, and ships designed to withstand explosive projectiles; floating gardens for London’s rivers; automatic figures; dredging machines; a watch that never needed winding; a cannon that could fire six times in a minute; a flying machine; calculating machines; and a portable ladder which folded up small enough to go into a pocket but which could be extended to 100 ft.

As can be seen, no field of invention deterred the marquis, and whether or not any of this extraordinary catalogue of inventions was ever made, it is certainly true that many of them foreshadowed the inventions of other men in later years.

The most important and significant invention in the catalogue is No. 68. It describes “an admirable and most forcible way to drive up water by fire”. In other words, it was a steam engine designed to raise water from shafts dug into the ground. This is exactly the use for which the first steam engine was employed in the mines in England. It would seem that the device with which Worcester is reputed to have scared the Roundheads may have been a version of this steam engine.

During his years in the Tower, he had plenty of time to work on his earlier ideas and perfect them sufficiently for a model to be constructed after his release. This took place in 1660, when Charles II was restored to the throne. There are reliable reports by his contemporaries that Worcester publicly exhibited a model of his invention at Vauxhall in London in 1663. Was it, in fact, the first steam engine ever built, and was Edward Somerset, second Marquis of Worcester, the true inventor of such a machine?

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