Letters of James Nasmyth (1808-1890)

Scope and Content

The correspondence is composed of: a letter of Nasmyth to the Duc du Roussillon about astronomical papers, cuneiform script etc, 1855; and, a letter to Haigh Foundry Co., about the method of working the hammer, 1845.

Administrative / Biographical History

James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, was born at York Place, Edinburgh, on 19 August 1808. He was educated privately and, for a time, at the Royal High School. He was taught drawing by his father and he became skilled at handling tools. He made a small steam-engine and made models of steam-engines to be used for illustrative purposes by mechanics institutes. In 1821 he became a student and his model-making business supported him in his studies. Nasmyth was commissioned to build a steam-carriage and in 1827-1828 it was tried out on roads in and around Edinburgh. In 1829 he went to London - to Lambeth - to work for the engineers Henry Maudslay (inventor of the metal lathe) and Joshua Field, and stayed there until 1831. While in the employment of Maudslay he invented the nut-shaping machine. He returned to Edinburgh and made tools and machines before setting up in business in Manchester, laying the foundations of what became Bridgewater Foundry. His steam-hammer came about in 1839 in association with his work for the new steamship 'Great Britain' under construction at Bristol. Nasmyth also suggested the use of a submerged chain for towing boats on rivers and canals, and contrived a hydraulic punching-machine capable of making a hole in a block of iron five inches thick. He was also interested in astronomy and in 1827 constructed a small reflecting telescope. James Nasmyth died in South Kensington, London, on 7 May 1890.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Letter to Haigh Foundry, noted as acquired March 1966, but note subsequently crossed out, Accession no. E66.13. Letter to Roussillon, purchased June 1968, Accession no. E68.21.


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Lee, Sidney (ed.). Dictionary of national biography. Vol. 14. Myllar-Owen. London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1909.

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.

Related Material

The UK National Register of Archives (NRA), updated by the Historical Manuscripts Commission, notes: autobiography, Unknown location, see A microfilm is in Eccles Central Library; correspondence and drawings, Edinburgh Central Library; correspondence and sketchbook, Institution of Mechanical Engineers Library, NRA 9515 Mechanical Engineers; correspondence and drawings among papers of Samuel Smiles, British Library, Manuscript Collections, Ref. Add MSS 71070-93; sketches, 1821-1885, National Library of Scotland, Manuscripts Division, Ref. MSS 3241-43, and letters (17) to Henry Bicknell, 1859-1879, Ref. MS 11000; letters (4 vols) to Sir John Anderson, 1872-1880, Aberdeen Central Library, Ref. NRA(S)3542 NRA 38831 Aberdeen CL; letters (13) to Sir John Herschel, 1845-1871, Royal Society, Ref. HS NRA 8803 Herschel; and, correspondence 1848-1889, Salford City Archives, Ref. U312 NRA 33747 Nasmyth.