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Location: Glasgow Guide / Glasgow Information / Famous Glaswegians / Henry Bell   

Famous Glaswegians (and those who became famous in Glasgow)<<

Bell, Henry[Born: April 7, 1767, Torphichen - Died: November 14, 1830, Helensburgh]

Famous Glaswegians: Henry Bell's CometHenry Bell achieved fame by having the paddle steamer PS Comet built and in 1812 beginning a passenger steamboat service on the River Clyde between Glasgow and Greenock, the first commercially successful service in Europe.

Born in Torphichen, Linlithgowshire, Scotland, after school he spent 3 years learning to be a stone-mason, then was apprenticed to his uncle, a mill-wright. After this he went to Borrowstounness (Bo'ness) to learn ship modelling, then was employed in engineering mechanics in Glasgow, then went to London, where he worked and studied under the Scottish engineer John Rennie. In 1790 he returned to Glasgow to work as a carpenter, his mind "a chaos of extraordinary projects" nearly all of which were never completed.

He became interested in steam propelled boats, and corresponded with Robert Fulton. In 1800 and 1803 Bell tried to get the British Admiralty to support experiments, but they declined his proposals. He was apparently often on board William Symington's boats, intruded himself among the patternmakers and constructors of Symington's steamboat machinery in the Carron Ironworks, and repeatedly examinined the Charlotte Dundas after it was laid up in a backwater of the canal. In 1808 Bell and his wife moved to Helensburgh on the Firth of Clyde where they bought the public baths and hotel. She became superintendent of the public baths while he continued with his favourite project. He would have learned of Fulton's successful introduction of a steamboat service at New York in 1807.

In 1811 Bell got John Wood, shipbuilder in Port Glasgow, to agree to build a paddle steamer, and in 1812 the Comet began a passenger steamboat service on the River Clyde between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh. This inspired a host of competitors. Bell briefly took the Comet on the Firth of Forth, then had the Comet lengthened and re-engined and from September 1819 ran a service to Oban and Fort William, but in 1820 the Comet was shipwrecked near Oban. Although he built a second "Comet" this was not a success. Bell, not good at managing his finances, became poor and in 1830 he died in Helensburgh at the age of 63.


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