Henry Bell – Steamboat Pioneer

Scottish engineer Henry Bell (1767-1830) is credited with pioneering the development of Europe’s first successful passenger steamboat service, a paddle steamer named PS Comet, which ran between Greenock and Glasgow on the River Clyde in 1812. As early as 1800, Bell had unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the British Admiralty to consider funding research into the viability of using steam power to propel ships, with the vision of being able to propel vessels ‘against winds and tides’ as he noted in his writings at the time. Having studied the work of fellow Scotsman William Symington and corresponded with American engineer Robert Fulton, Henry Bell went ahead with his goal of building a steam-powered vessel, the PS Comet.

Born in 1767 as the fifth son of Patrick Bell and Margaret Easton in the village of Torpichen, near Bathgate, West Lothian, Henry Bell’s family was well established as builders, engineers and millwrights both in Scotland and other parts of the United Kingdom. Following his primary education at the local school, Bell was apprenticed as a stonemason and later as a millwright under the tutorship of his uncle. His career continued with learning about ship mechanics in Bells Hill, North Lanarkshire, before spending several years in London working for John Rennie, a Scottish engineer. Upon returning to Glasgow in 1790, Bell trained in carpentry work, but his real interest was in steam powered boats. The American engineer with whom Bell corresponded, Robert Fulton, built the North River Steamboat and began the world’s first commercial steamboat service in New York in 1807, very likely inspiring Bell to pursue his goal of building a steam powered boat.

Henry Bell and his wife moved to the town of Helensburgh, on the shore of the Firth of Clyde, where his wife ran the hotel and public baths they purchased. Bell set about having the paddle steamer built by shipbuilder, John Wood at Port Glasgow, and in August 1812 the vessel made the first journey as a commercial steamboat between Broomielaw and Greenock, with a regular service continuing for some time between Helensburgh, Greenock and Glasgow. By 1816 more sophisticated vessels started competing with Bell’s Comet. Bell upgraded the Comet with the increase in engine power offering passengers a four day journey from Glasgow to Fort William along the Crinan Canal, The Comet was wrecked near Oban in 1820 and after building a second steamer, named Comet II which sank after a collision, this time with passengers losing their lives, Bell retired from the steamship business.

A full-size replica of the Comet was constructed in 1962 and stands at Port Glasgow. The original engine that powered the Comet is on display at the Science Museum in London, while the engine from Comet II can be viewed at Clydebuilt. An obelisk monument to Henry Bell stands on the Helensburgh seafront where it was installed in 1872 as a remembrance of the man who had the vision to promote steam-driven boats to travel ‘against winds and tides’.