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British Industrial History

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James Robson

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James Robson (1832-1913), designer of gas engines which were produced by Tangyes

1832 Born in North Shields the son of James Robson, a building contractor

Apprenticed to an ironmongery and hardware business run by his uncle

1858 Listed as 'Robson James, Ironmonger, Plumber, Brazier, Bellhanger and Gas Fitter, 9 Unions Street.' Also his father's business listed as 'Robson James and Matthew, builders, contractors, joiners and stone masons, 83 Church Way'[1]

1863 'PROLONGED PATENTS. Patents on which the Stamp Duty of £50 has recently been paid - James Robson, jun., North Shields, Improvements to mineral oil lamps. Dated December 8, 1860. [2]

1864 Letter the The Engineer describing his experiments with coal gas engines. Writes from 12 King Street, South Shields.[3]

Robson developed gas-powered forging hammers. See Tangyes entry for illustrations.

1871 Living at 84 Church Road, Tynemouth: James Robson (age 36 born North Shields), Ironmonger and Widower. With his two sons James Robson (age 7 born South Shields) and Matthew Robson (age 5 born South Shields). One servant.[4]

1881 Lodging at 15 Guest Street, Birmingham: James Robson (age 46 born Shields, Nth.), Gas Engineer and a Widower. Also lodging but no relationship given is James Robson (age 17 born Shields), a Draughtsman; and Matthew Robson (age 16 born Shields), Printer Compositor. They are in the house of Charlotte Kent.[5]

1913 James Robson died at Handsworth, Birmingham, on 15th August 1913

1913 Obituary [6]

We regret to have to announce that Mr. James Robson, sen., died on the 15th inst., at Handsworth, Birmingham. Mr. Robson was born in 1832 at North Shields, and in his early days was constantly experimenting with small gas engines. He constructed several engines which were put to work in the neighbourhood of his home.

His first patent for improvements in gas engines was taken out in 1877, and this was followed by a another of 1879. It is claimed for these two patents that they are the pioneer patents of the two-cycle gas engine, and that all the present day engines of this type operate in conformity with them.

It will probably be remembered that Mr. Robson's early commercial gas engines working on the two cycle principle were manufactured by Tangyes Limited, Cornwall Works, Birmingham, having been introduced about the year 1881, while shortly afterwards this firm brought into the market his patented gas forging hammer, of which many examples were sold and are still working.

Memoir by his son

1915 'A brief memoir of James Robson, the inventor of the two-cycle internal combustion engine and the gas hammer, has been written by his son, Mr. James Robson of Handsworth. The memoir is an interesting contribution to the history of the development of the internal combustion engine, and the author offers it to engineering professors, engineers, and to the principals or librarians of technical schools who care to apply for copies.'[7]

Authoritative View of Robson's Engine Developments

The following information is condensed from a four page summary of Robson's work by Lyle Cummins[8]

James Robson was the son of a building contractor, and was apprenticed in his uncle's ironmongery business. In 1857 he built an experimental atmospheric gas engine with flame ignition. The vertical cylinder resided in a stout wooden box, surrounded by cooling water. The box served as the engine's frame. The crankshaft was above the cylinder, and was fitted with a large gear wheel from a quarry crane, giving rise to the name 'Cogwheel Engine'. Robson's own drawing is reproduced in Lyle Cummins' book. The engine was destroyed in 1865 when Robson's ironmongery and plumbing shop succumbed to the effect of excavation work next door for the Theatre Royal. After this, Robson returned to assist his father in North Shields, before returning to engines a decade later.

Going back to 1858-9, he built a horizontal double-acting engine which for 9 years drove a circular saw at his father's premises. He built two similar engines for local use. The engines had electric ignition.

During this first phase of activity he designed a small engine, which was later patented (British Patent 4,050, 1880) and built by R. Waygood and Co and sold as the 'London Gas Engine'. It had two vertical cylinders, one for combustion of the mixture and the next for expansion.

In 1877 he was granted his first patent for a two stroke compression engine (British Patent 2,334, 1877). Only one of these was built, for use in North Shields.

The next development was patented in 1879 (British Patent 4,501, 1879). It had flame ignition. The first engine was made in North Shields in early 1879, and ran until he left in 1880. It was produced in refined form by Tangyes, Robson having granted the rights to Tangyes. He joined the firm in 1881, where he remained until retirement. About 300 of these engines were made, production ending in 1891.

Lyle Cummins notes that Robson's and Dugald Clerk's work to produce the first two stroke engines in England was concurrent, and their ideas sometimes overlapped. He observes that if James Robson '...had been a writer as well as an inventor a battle of words might have erupted over whether the two-stroke cycle engine ran on the Clerk or Robson cycle.' Clerks' engine had two operating cylinders, Robson's had one double-acting cylinder and a low pressure storage reservoir.

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. 1858 Post Office Directory of Northumberland and Durham
  2. Birmingham Daily Post, 5th December 1863
  3. [1] The Engineer
  4. 1871 Census
  5. 1881 Census
  6. The Engineer 1913 Jul-Dec: Obituaries p198
  7. Birmingham Daily Post, 12th November 1915
  8. 'Internal Fire; the Internal Combustion Engine, 1673-1900' by Lyle Cummins, Carnot Press, 2000