Alexander Nasmyth

Alexander Naismith

1758 (Edinburgh) – 1840 (Edinburgh)

A noted portrait and landscape painter, Nasmyth also invented the bow-and-string arch and compression riveting. As a 16-year-old he was spotted by Ramsay and went to London as his apprentice (reproducing Ramsay’s royal portraits). He and his great friend and walking companion Burns were among the group on board the first-ever steam-driven boat. Raeburn was a close friend, Playfair another fellow-walker, Brewster a regular evening visitor, and Somerville among his many female students. He was visited by the elderly Watt, had illustrations commissioned by Scott, and collaborated on some bridges with Telford

Marc Isambard Brunel

1769 (Hacqueville, France) – 1849 (London)

Brunel pioneered mass-production methods and revolutionised tunnelling. Monge was among his teachers. Davy and Faraday were Royal Society colleagues — they shared several interests. Babbage was a friend — Brunel was familiar with his Difference Engine, and joined in attempts to get government funding for it. He commisioned Maudslay, a useful colleague, to produce machinery for several projects, and sent his son, the prodigy Isambard Kingdom Brunel, to extend his practical experience in Maudslay’s workshops (before making him chief engineer on his Thames Tunnel venture aged only 20).

Isambard Kingdom Brunel

1806 (Portsmouth, England) – 1859 (London)

Brunel was one of the great innovative engineers of the 19th century. His father Marc employed him in his own firm from age 16, and arranged good mechanical experience with Maudslay. Babbage, a correspondent, did some experiments to help confirm Brunel’s preference for broad-gauge rail track. Murchison, Paxton (whom Brunel admired) and Talbot were also correspondents — Talbot helpfully influential with one project, but disputing his own compensation with another. Mendelssohn and Schinkel visited Brunel at Wapping. Bazalgette was one of his few real friends. So was Stephenson, despite their commercial rivalry; both drove themselves to premature death.

Isambard Kingdom Brunel knew…

Gustave Eiffel

1832 (Dijon, France) – 1923 (Paris)

Eiffel was one of the most innovative engineers of his age, responsible for visually and structurally eloquent constructions around the world, and a pioneer of wind-testing. Gounod led a protest against the Eiffel Tower, but happily joined Eiffel and his guest Edison at a champagne lunch atop it, improvising for them at the piano. Santos-Dumont regularly ate with Eiffel and circled the tower in his biplane. Bartholdi contacted him for advice on constructing the Statue of Liberty, Blériot consulted him on the best shape for a wing, while the entrepreneur de Lesseps roped him in to his Panamanian fiasco.

Gustave Eiffel knew…

Robert Fulton

1765 (Lancaster County, Pa.) – 1815 (New York)

Fulton, equally entrepreneurial and practical, was a pioneer of steam navigation and of the submarine. He studied painting in London with West. Becoming interested in canal projects, he met Watt, and in Manchester also met Owen (who fruitlessly backed his mechanical-excavation scheme), Dalton and Coleridge. In France he met Paine (another with a good practical imagination), Carnot (who tried to interest the French navy in his submarine) and Bossut (whose hydrodynamic researches helped his steamboat designs). Franklin had been a friend in Philadelphia. Boulton was met only once, on steam-engine business.

August Leopold Crelle

1780 (Eichwerder, Germany) – 1855 (Berlin)

Crelle’s genius was as a mathematical talent-spotter and disseminator of others’ work. Abel was a particular protégé, who with Steiner helped inspire the publication of Crelle’s important journal. Others he took up personally were Eisenstein and Plücker, while the likes of Möbius, Lobachevsky, Grassmann, Weierstrass and Hesse all had important early exposure through his efforts. Jacobi was also very close. Humboldt was a strong supporter, and invited him to breakfast when Gauss wanted to meet Babbage. Ampère, Legendre and Talbot were all correspondents. Poncelet called him “honourable and knowledgeable.”

Jean-Victor Poncelet

1788 (Metz, France) – 1867 (Paris)

Poncelet was taught most influentially by Monge and Carnot, and also by Ampère and Hachette. Morin, a friend, was also a collaborator. Gergonne published several of Poncelet’s papers in his journal, though the two, having arrived independently at some of the same important findings in projective geometry, engaged in a two-year dispute over priority. Arago finally persuaded him to take up a Paris professorship. Cauchy, deeply conservative, did his best to attack Poncelet’s work, effectively forcing him to publish significant work in Germany, in the journal published by Crelle, whom Poncelet greatly admired.

Matthew Boulton

1728 (Birmingham, England) – 1809 (Birmingham)

Baskerville encouraged Boulton’s sense of experiment. Watt, always the more cautious, joined him in a notable 25-year manufacturing partnership. Of other Lunar Society colleagues, Wedgwood (the other great enlightened industrialist of the age) and Darwin were good friends, Small his confidant and doctor. Flaxman and Murdoch (a key colleague) both worked for him. Franklin, introduced by Michell, was a hero to him (they took to each other enthusiastically). Banks and Herschel were friends (Boulton supplied Banks with green glass earrings to barter on Cook’s voyage), Boswell and Johnson were suitably-impressed visitors.

James Watt

1736 (Greenock, Scotland) – 1819 (Handsworth, England)

Watt did far more than mechanically improve the steam engine – he invented the concept of feedback, for example. In Scotland, Black got Watt employed as instrument-maker (the start of a long close friendship), Hutton became a close friend while Smith (perhaps unappreciative) also met him. Among Lunar Society colleagues in England, Priestley hugely admired him, Small advised him, the steam-enthusiast Darwin became a particularly close friend, while the entrepreneur Boulton entered a highly successful 25-year partnership with him. He developed equipment for Beddoes, sold engines to Fulton, contributed to Brewster’s encyclopaedia, and corresponded with Thomas Wedgwood (about photography), Berthollet and Coulomb.

Thomas Telford

1757 (Westerkirk, Scotland) – 1834 (London)

Telford fancied himself as a poet, and left money to his friend Southey, who had dubbed him “the Colossus of Roads.” Telford’s fellow-Scot Adam helped him get an early job in London. He met the penal reformer Howard when renovating a prison. Brewster became a friend — Telford wrote engineering articles for his Edinburgh Encyclopaedia. He worked with Watt on the Glasgow water-supply, and consulted with Stephenson about the Liverpool–Manchester railway. Wilkinson was one of his supporters, and MacNeill his assistant. A classic workaholic, he himself said that he did not make many friends.