The Postmaster’s Son and Archimedes

Francis Pettit Smith was born in Hythe on 9 February 1808. His father Charles was the post master and  also an undertaker, a news vendor and agent for the Kent Fire and Life Office. On 19 December 1795 he had married Sarah Pettit in Hythe. Their first son, another Francis, died young and they also had two daughters, Mary Anne and Charlotte. The house where Francis was born has once again become the town’s Post Office, though not in any form that Charles Smith would recognise.

Hythe Post Office. A plaque over the door commemorates Francis’s birth there.

When he was ten years old, Francis was sent to Power’s Commercial Academy in  Ashford, established in 1812 by the Rev’d Alexander Power,  author of New Orthographical Exercises.  It seems that the young Francis was  not stirred by either commerce or orthography:   his leisure time in his boyhood was devoted to making model boats and when he left school he turned to sheep farming, at first on the Romney Marsh and later in Hendon, Middlesex. In 1830, in Folkestone, he married Ann Black.

However, his interest in model boats remained, particularly a fascination with how to get them to move without using sails. In 1834, on a pond near his farm, he perfected the propulsion of a model boat by means of a wooden screw driven by a spring. He became convinced that this form of propulsion was the future for full-size shipping,  greatly superior to the paddle wheel which was in use at the time.  The idea may not have been entirely his own. The year before in Dartford, Richard Trevithick, the brilliant engineer who had transformed Cornish ore-mining, made an attempt to adapt the screw as a propeller of steam boats. The idea had attracted some interest among scientists.

However, Trevithick died shortly afterwards and Francis took the idea forward with the help of another engineer, Thomas Pilgrim. Together they built a more advanced model and tested it at Hendon. It was successful enough to allow Francis to take out a patent in 1836. He built a six-ton launch, the Francis Smith, with a wooden screw of two complete turns, with a length of two feet six  inches and a diameter of two feet driven by a single-cylinder engine. By luck he found that a shorter propeller drove the vessel faster. This boat was in operation on the Paddington Canal, and continued to ply there till September, 1837.

It’s success attracted investors and the Ship Propeller Company was founded. With Thomas Pilgrim’s help, it built a small screw-propelled vessel, the Archimedes, which put to sea in 1837  and visited Dover and Folkestone, fortuitously encountering some severe weather, and demonstrating that the screw would work as well in rough as in calm water.

A short time later, Francis persuaded Isambard Kingdom Brunel to change the design of the ss Great Britain from paddle to screw propulsion, by lending Brunel  Archimedes for several months. Brunel also helped persuade the British Admiralty to adopt screw propulsion, though it took five years of deliberation before they did so.

The ss ‘Great Britain’…

… and her propeller

Francis had expected that the Admiralty would buy Archimedes, but they did not and the idea of the screw propeller took time to catch on commercially. His company failed.

Meanwhile, his family suffered varying fortunes. He and Ann had three sons, Thomas, Edward, and, in 1840 little Archimedes. His sister Charlotte had married a linen draper, William Johnson Boby and gone to live in Dover; she died there in 1833. At about the same time, his father, Charles, retired and his remaining daughter, Mary Anne, took over as Postmistress in Hythe. In 1847, Charles died, followed the next year by his grandson, Archimedes. They are buried together with Charlotte in St Leonard’s churchyard, Hythe.

Sacred to the memory of/ Charles Smith/ late of this Town/ who died 6th May 1847/ aged 77 years.
Also/ to his …. daughter/ [line illegible]/ who died … January 1833/ aged 27 years.
Also to his grandson / Archimedes Pettit Smith/ who died 5th of August 1848/ aged 7 years.

Francis was retained by the Admiralty as an advisor until 1850 but received little remuneration. Nevertheless, some recognition of his services was made when in 1855 he was granted a pension of £200 per annum by Lord Palmerston. In 1856 his patent, upon which an extension had already been granted, expired and he was obliged to return once more to farming and settled in Guernsey. Ironically, by that year 327 ships and vessels of all classes in the Royal Navy had been fitted with screw propellers.

At the 1856 Spithead Review, when Queen Victoria viewed the massed vessels of her navy, all powered by screw propellers, a testimonial fund was established to commemorate Francis’s achievement. It was supported by high ranking officials and subscriptions were received from representatives of the shipping companies as well as engineering firms.

The Spithead Review of 1856                                     Illustrated London News

The proceeds of the fund, £2678 and a quantity of plate, were presented to him at a grand banquet. Then in 1860, the government appointed him to the post of curator of the Patent Museum at South Kensington.

Francis Pettit Smith in 1857

Around this time, his personal life got a little messy. His wife Ann had died and the 1861 census finds him living in Kensington with another woman, Susan, whom he states is his wife. In fact, they were not married until 1866. Susan, or Susanna, was twenty years younger than Francis. Before their marriage, in 1864, Francis negotiated with the governors of Dulwich College for the lease of a plot of land on Sydenham Hill where he built a new home, named Centra House. The house still stands and at present is being restored from the seven flats into which it was divided, back to a single dwelling. In the grounds Smith had planted a considerable shrubbery and had use of woodlands down to College Road. A blue plaque at the house says he lived there from 1864 to 1870.

During this time, he started divorce proceedings against Susan, in 1868. This seems not to have proceeded to a decree, and they were still married in 1871 when he made his will,  but by then he was living back in Kensington with his two adult sons of his first marriage.  That same year, he was knighted by the queen at Osborne.

Francis Pettit Smith in 1871 

He died three years later, still in Kensington. His obituaries stated that he left a widow and that he had children by both his marriages, but I can find no trace of any children by Susan, or, indeed, of Susan herself. Francis left her £50 from a life insurance policy of £500. He had no other money. He made other bequests, too – Thomas Pilgrim’s son got £100; his physician got a gold watch and a niece his walnut piano and some linen sheets. The plate which had been donated by the testimonial fund was to be displayed in the South Kensington museum. The residue from the insurance policy and proceeds from the sale of his effects were to go to his daughter-in-law, widow of his elder son, to use for the grandchildren and to his other son Edward with the ‘request that he will apply it to better use than he has hitherto been in the habit of doing’.

Francis is not buried in St Leonard’s churchyard, Hythe, despite a plethora of claims on the internet to the contrary. He is interred at Brompton cemetery, not far from the grave of Samuel Smiles, who wrote about him in his Men of Invention and Industry.

 Francis’s grave in Brompton Cemetery 

As with all revolutionary (pun intended!) inventions, there were multiple claimants to the honour of being the first to have the idea. Among the others are James Steadman, a Scot whose idea was stolen by a fellow inventor, but who has a screw propeller engraved on his tombstone; Robert Wilson, another Scot who successfully trialled a screw propeller on the Union Canal in Edinburgh in1828; Richard Gatling, inventor of the gun, who thought he had invented the screw propeller only to find that Francis already had the patent; and several others.

Smiles wrote of the screw propeller: ‘It was not the production of one man, but of several generations of mechanical inventors. . . While others had given up the idea of prosecuting it to its completion, Smith stuck to his invention with determined tenacity, and never let it go until he had secured for it a complete triumph’.

And finally, here is a link to a fascinating video about the building of Archimedes  produced by William Mowll:

And with thanks to Christopher McGonigal for research into the Smith family of Hythe.