William Brunton
born  26th May 1777, Dalkeith, Midlothian, Scotland, UK
baptised  1st June 1777, Dalkeith, Midlothian, Scotland, UK
died  5th October 1851, Camborne, Cornwall, UK
era  Georgian / Victorian
A biographical summary
The "very ingenious mechanist" William Brunton (senior) had a wide-ranging civil engineering career in the early years of steam technology. He invented and patented a locomotive propelled by steam-driven mechanical legs, and his ingenuity in heavy industry resulted in eight patents for machinery and processes, including for fire-grates, calcining (thermal treatment of ores) and ore processing. He also worked on railways, marine steam engines and ironworks installations. Born and raised in Scotland, Brunton's early career began in Birmingham before he moved to London and later to south Wales.
Brunton was the eldest son of a watch and clock maker from whom he learned mechanics. His grandfather worked in a colliery and taught him engineering. At the age of 13, he started work as a fitter at New Lanark Cotton Mills (founded 1786) on the River Clyde, but more significantly, by 1796 he was working for steam pioneer James Watt (1736-1819) at the Boulton & Watt Soho Foundry in Birmingham. By 1802 he had risen to superintendent of the engine department.
In 1808, Brunton joined William Jessop (1745-1814) and Benjamin Outram's (1764-1805) Butterley Ironworks in Derbyshire to manage its expanding engine factory, making early marine steam engines. Here he is said to have met the distinguished engineers John Rennie (1761-1821) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834).
In 1813, Brunton designed and constructed the steam-driven locomotive known as his mechanical traveller or 'steam horse'. It was a four-wheeled locomotive that ran on rails, driven from the rear by a pair of mechanical legs. It was thought that iron wheels running on iron rails wouldn't generate enough traction for motion — the legs were a way to overcome this. The prototype worked for two years on Butterley Gang Road.
He was soon working on a larger model, started in 1814 and costing £540. It was used at Newbottle Colliery, County Durham, pulling coal wagons along a 1 in 36 gradient at 4kph. The boiler was replaced in July 1815, and while being tested this boiler exploded, causing around a dozen fatalities and many serious injuries — the first recorded railway disaster. The driver had tampered with the safety valve to make the machine run faster.
Although not at fault, Brunton abandoned the project and moved to Birminingham to become a partner in Francis, Smith, Dearman & Brunton at Eagle Foundry, where he worked as mechanical engineer on marine engines for river steamers. After 1825, he moved to London and worked as a consulting civil engineer. Among his projects were the Redruth & Chacewater Railway in Cornwall, and improvements to the Ynysgedwyn Ironworks in Powys, Wales.
By 1832 he was working in south Wales, supervising the construction of Claypon's Tramroad, which served Ynysgedwyn Ironworks and other installations. He later became a partner in the Cwmafan tin and copper works north east of Port Talbot, designing copper smelting furnaces and rolling mills, and had a financial interest in Maesteg Iron Works. One of his last inventions was a huge steam-driven colliery fan that improved ventilation at Gelligaer Colliery in Caerphilly.
It was Jessop who described Brunton as an ingenious mechanist. He was certainly multi-talented, dedicated and well-known in his time. Though receiving small recompense for his inventions, many were influential. His patented calciner technology was in widespread use in the Cornish tin mining industry, and reportedly in the silver mines of Mexico.
1777 Born 26th May in Dalkeith, Scotland, eldest child (with twin Margaret) of watch and clock maker Robert Albert Brunton (1748-1834) and Anne Grieve (b.1759), at least nine siblings (three died young), brothers John (1780-1835) and Robert (1796-1852) also became engineers
1790 Works in fittings shop of New Lanark Cotton Mills, South Lanarkshire
1796 Starts work at Boulton & Watt's Soho Foundry, Birmingham, as a workman, rises to foreman, later in close attendance on steam pioneer James Watt (1736-1819)
1798 Sent to Curwen Collieries, Westmoreland, to rectify a defective Boulton & Watt pumping engine
1802 Made superintendent of engine department at Boulton & Watt, salary rises from £80 to £100 per year
1808 Manages engine manufactory, Butterley Ironworks, Derbyshire, making early marine steam engines, introduces rotating moulds for casting iron pipes
1810 Marries (30th October) Ann Elizabeth Button (d.1845, likely nonconformist faith), adopted daughter of John and Rebecca Dickinson, at St Martin in Birmingham, at least 10 children — Rebecca (b.1811), John (1812-99), Robert (1814-55), Ann Elizabeth (1816-33), William (1817-81), Maria (born c.1819), (John) Dickinson (1821-1909), Charles Glover (c.1822-33), George (1823-1900), Alfred (b.1828) and Gwenllian Sophia (born c.1835)
1811 Awarded silver medal by Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce for Description of an improved Pump for raising the Water whilst Wells are sinking or making (using a telescopic system of overlapping pipes for the pumps)
1813 Designs and builds a prototype steam-driven mechanical traveller, used on Butterley Gang Road up to 1815
1814-15 Builds larger mechanical traveller for Newbottle Colliery in County Durham, boiler explodes through driver error on 31st July 1815
1815-25 Partner in Francis, Smith, Dearman & Brunton at Eagle Foundry in Birmingham, works on marine engines for steamers, and Nicholas Oliver Harvey (1801-61) later of Harvey & Co (Hayle, Cornwall) is trained by him
1824 Member of Institution of Civil Engineers, regular contributor to meetings on iron manufacture, steam engines, locomotives and railways
1825-35 Working as independent consulting engineer from London, clients include Harvey & Co (Hayle, Cornwall) and Ynysgedwyn Ironworks at Ystradgynlais in Powys
1830-32 Assists in two surveys aided by brother Robert and son John for London & Birmingham Railway
1831 Endorses and improves Thomas Telford's design for Swansea Harbour (July)
1831-32 Proposes rail line between Bristol and London Paddington, with Henry Habberley Price (1794-1839)
1832-35 Supervises the construction of Claypon's Tramroad (8km extension of Brecon Forest tramroad network in Wales), using large earthworks instead of masonry causeways, and promotes the use of steam-driven excavators for railway building
1834 Argues for wide gauge railways in Observations on Railways, and develops Plan of the intended Basing and Bath Railway with Francis Giles (not adopted)
1835-38 Partner and managing director of Cwm Avon Tin-Plate, Copper & Coal Works (Cwmafan), designs and builds copper smelting furnaces, rolling mills and ventilation network
1838 Invests in Vale of Neath Brewery but loses his money
1844 Living in Neath, financial interest in Maesteg Iron Works
1849 Living in Newport, constructs an early steam-driven colliery fan (6m diameter radial blade centrifugal fan) at Gelligaer Colliery, Caerphilly
1849 Publishes the design of the colliery fan, later exhibits model at the Great Exhibition of 1851
1850 Retires and moves to Camborne in Cornwall to live with son William
1851 Dies (5th October) at Camborne, after an illness
No.3700 ... "for a Method and Machinery for propelling or drawing Carriages upon Roads or Railways, also Boats, Barges, or Vessels, upon Canals or Navigations, by means of certain Levers or Legs, alternately or conjointly acting upon such Roads, Railways, Canals, or Navigations, or upon Machinery attached thereto", Butterley Iron Works, Derbyshire ... 22nd May 1813
No.4387 ... "for certain improvements in steam-engines, and furnaces of steam-engines, by which a saving in the consumption of fuel is effected and the combustion of smoke is more completely attained", Eagle Foundry, Birmingham ... 29th June 1819
No.4449 ... "for certain improvements in, and additions to, fire-grates", Eagle Foundry, Birmingham ... 19th April 1920
No.4685 ... "for certain improvements upon fire-grates, and the means of introducing coal thereon" [mechanical stokers], Eagle Foundry, Birmingham ... 26th June 1822
No.5621 ... "for improvements in Furnaces for the calcination, sublimation, or evaporation, of ores, metals, and other substances" [calciner], Leadenhall Street, London ... 21st February 1828
No.5722 ... "for a Machine, Apparatus, or Instrument, to ascertain and register the quantity, specific gravity, and temperature, of certain Fluids in transit; part or parts of which invention is or are applicable to other purposes", Leadenhall Street, London ... 4th December 1828
No.6500 ... "for an apparatus to facilitate and improve the excavation of ground, and the formation of embankments", 3 Charlotte Row, Mansion House, London ... 2nd November 1833
No.9135 ... "for an improved method or means of dressing ores, and separating metals or minerals from other substances", Neath, Glamorgan ... 2nd November 1841
No.9251 ... "for an improved method or means of dressing ores, and separating metals or minerals from other substances. (For the colonies only)", Neath, Glamorgan ... 19th May 1842
Selected works
Mechanical traveller, two locomotives, Derbyshire and County Durham, UK .... 1813-15
Eagle Foundry marine engines for river steamers, UK .... 1815-25
Fit-out for steamer Sir Francis Drake, Plymouth, UK .... 1824
Survey work for the London & Birmingham Railway, UK .... 1830-32
Redruth & Chacewater Railway (16km tramroad), Cornwall, UK .... 1824-26
Cwm Nant Llywd causeway, Pontaedawe, West Glamorgan, Wales, UK .... 1828
Waun-y-coed bridge, River Tawe, Pontardawe, West Glamorgan, Wales, UK .... 1828
Claypon's Tramroad, Powys, UK .... 1832-35
Ynysgedwyn inclined plane, Powys, UK .... 1832-35
Smelting furnaces, rolling mills and Stac-y-Foel vent system, Cwmafan tin and copper works, Neath Port Talbot, Wales, UK .... 1835-38
Steam-driven colliery fan, Caephilly, UK .... 1849
All items by William Brunton
Everything built ... 1777 - 1851
G.C. Boase, Brunton, William (1777-1851), rev. Christopher F. Lindsay, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn September 2013
Alec Skempton ed., Brunton, William (1777-1851), A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, Volume 1: 1500-1830, Thomas Telford Publishing Limited, Institution of Civil Engineers, London, pp.92-93
William Brunton, 1777-1851, Minutes of ICE Proceedings, London, January 1852, pp.95-98
Further reading
William Brunton, Description of an improved Pump for raising the Water whilst Wells are sinking or making, Transactions of the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, pp.157-164, London, 1812
William Brunton, Description of a practical and economical method of excavating Ground and forming Embankments for Railways &c, John Weale, London, 18362
William Brunton, Observations on Railways, printed for private distribution, March 1834
William Brunton, Reports on the Formation of a Floating Harbour at Swansea, with reference to the Plans submitted to the Trustees, W.C. Murray and D. Rees, Swansea, 1831
David Barnes, The Companion Guide to Wales, Companion Guides, Boydell & Brewer Ltd, Woodbridge, 2005
Dieter Hopkin, 'William Brunton's walking engines and the Crich Rail-road', Early Railways 5, ed. David Gwynn, Six Martlets Publishing, Clare, Suffolk, 2014, pp. 221-242
Stephen Hughes, The Archaeology of an Early Railway System: The Brecon Forest Tramroads, Royal Commission on Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, 1990
Stephen K. Jones, Brunel in South Wales: Volume II: Communications and Coal, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2006
Loughnan St.L. Pendred, A Note on Bruntonís Steam Horse, 1813, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, Vol.2, pp.118-120, January 1921
Paul Reynolds, The Brecon Forest Tramroad, P.R. Reynolds, Swansea, 1979
Arsenic and the Brunton Calcinor, Geevor Tin Mine Museum, Cornwall 2009
The Repertory of Patent Inventions: And Other Discoveries and Improvements in Arts, Manufactures, and Agriculture, Repertory of Arts and Manufactures, London, 1814, 1827, 1828 and 1846 editions
portrait  William Brunton's "Mechanical traveller", 1813, re-imagined by Simon Waller

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William Brunton
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New Lanark Cotton Mills
New Lanark Cotton Mills, South Lanarkshire, where Brunton went to work in the fittings shop at the age of 13. The mill settlement had been founded in 1784 by David Dale (1739-1806) with cotton-spinning pioneer Richard Arkwright (1732-92), and used water-driven machinery. The complex included worker's dwellings and a school.
Photo: © Peter Ward and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
The remains of the Boulton & Watt Soho Foundry, Birmingham
Some of what remains of the Boulton & Watt Soho Foundry in Birmingham. Brunton started there as a workman soon after the foundry building was constructed (1796). This was the world's first factory dedicated to steam engine manufacture that produced complete engines. The foundry closed in 1895 and its later owner rebuilt the structure, but some original fabric remains.
Photo: © Chris Allen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Recreation of Butterley Ironworks, Butterley, Derbyshire
By 1808, Brunton is managing the newly-enlarged engine manufactory at Butterley Ironworks in Derbyshire, shown above c.1817 (digital recreation). Brunton was working on early marine steam engines. In 1810, he installed one in a dredger for Bristol Dock Company.
Image: courtesy Simon Waller
Brunton gravestone, Camborne
William Brunton's gravestone. He died of an unidentified illness on 5th October 1851 in Camborne, Cornwall, where he was living with his son William. Brunton was of nonconformist faith.
Photo: Stephen K.Jones
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Mechanical traveller, William Brunton
William Brunton's mechanical traveller, or 'steam horse', was a travelling locomotive that gripped the rails with its steam-driven rear legs, preventing the engine from losing traction. The prototype was in use between 1813-15 on Butterley Gang Road, a steep wagonway that ran from Crich Quarry to the Cromford Canal.
Wikimedia Commons, no copyright
Mechanical traveller, William Brunton
Brunton's mechanical traveller cleverly re-imagined in its working context by Simon Waller.
Image: courtesy Simon Waller
Reconstruction of the Ynysgedwyn Incline engine house
A reconstruction of the Ynysgedwyn Incline engine house complex, Powys, Wales. Brunton worked on the design of the incline between 1832-35 while he was a consulting engineer in London.
Photo: © Crown copyright: Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales | © Hawlfraint y Goron: Comisiwn Brenhinol Henebion Cymru
Cwmafan Copperworks with Stac-y-Foel in the distance
A view of Cwmafan looking north-west, painted in 1983 after an earlier version. The artist is R.W. Harrison. In the foreground is the Cwmafan Copperworks, where Brunton was a director (1935-38). He designed and constructed its smelting furnaces and rolling mills. He was also likely responsible for its ventilation system, best known for Stac-y-Foel (dem. 1940), the brick chimney visible on the mountain (see below). A flue system ran up the slope to the stack, keeping corrosive fumes away from the town but badly affecting local vegetation.
Painting (1983): by R.W. Harrison, reproduced by kind permission of its owner, Gareth Ll. Jones
Cwmafan Tin Plate Works
The Cwmafan works by 1910.
Image: courtesy Gareth Ll. Jones
Stac-y-Foel, Cwmafan
Stac-y-Foel (dem. 1940) as depicted on an old postcard. The chimney was removed early in World War II as it was thought it would aid German aircraft navigators.
Image: courtesy Gareth Ll. Jones