Guest blog, Rod Dawes
James McConnell was a founder member of IMechE, today marks his birthday in 1815. McConnell was born in Fermoy, Ireland but went to live in Scotland with his Uncle upon his fathers death. At the age of 14 he began an engineering apprenticeship in Glasgow at Claud Girdwood & Co, a maker of cotton manufacturing machinery. By the age of 22 he had moved, working first in foundries in Liverpool and then as the foreman in the machine shop of Curtis & Co, Manchester. During his time in Liverpool he improved his technical skills by attending the Mechanics’ Institute: it seems he benefited from the patronage of Edward Bury, the locomotive manufacturer; and his work on balancing the moving parts of locomotives for the London and Birmingham Railway had been put into practice (he presented an IMechE paper on this in 1848). In 1841 he was made a foreman for the Locomotive Department of the Birmingham and Gloucester Railway Company, apparently on the recommendation of Bury. He joined at a challenging time, when a boiler explosion had caused a fatal accident, and much of his time was spent on putting in controls and standards to prevent future disasters. The Department was based at Bromsgove, at the bottom of the steep Lickey Incline. The railway had taken a short cut up this incline, to save money, but the locomotives of the time could not ascend it without the assistance of an extra locomotive, known as a ‘banking engine’; as train capacity increased so too did the need for ever more powerful banking engines. McConnell built his own engine, the 0-6-0 Great Britain, which was demonstrated to an illustrious gathering in Sep 1846. The engine showed his flair for design, the Great Britain was probably the first saddle-tank locomotive; he also pioneered double furnace engines and coal (as opposed to the commonly used coke) for firing. It is said that rain forced the observers indoors and that their discussions led to the thought that mechanical engineers needed their own institution. During the course of these discussions a draft was prepared, almost certainly by McConnell whose house was close by at Blackwell, and the agreed text was circulated to those who might be interested. Exactly how and when this was resolved upon has been open to debate but the location and timing of this anecdote seem plausible and is generally accepted; other versions state that the discussions centred around George Stephenson having been subjected to the indignity of being asked to prove his credentials in order to join the Institution of Civil Engineers, an affront that led to the founding of IMechE (it was Samuel Smiles who coined this myth, an active if somewhat unreliable biographer of many engineers).
On the 7th Oct 1846, in the Queen’s Hotel, Birmingham it was decided to form a committee to draft the rules. McConnell was elected chairman of this committee, which met and approved the rules on the 18th Nov 1846; they then set an Open Meeting for 27th Jan 1847. This meeting saw the formal inauguration of the IMechE: McConnell was elected our first Chairman; and George Stephenson was elected our first President, his motion to adopt the rules was accepted. McConnell had the task of reading out the names of those who had pledged their co-operation and on his motion it was resolved that:
The Institution be established, and composed of the gentlemen whose names he had announced
The minutes of this meeting, and all those up to and including 1982 can be accessed here. The membership forms of inaugural members (and those up to and including 1930) are also available. Many of these inaugural members (there were 56) were from the Birmingham area, with several from Boulton & Watt. The initial list of members was by invitation, afterwards new members had to be sponsored by three existing members. In 1850 IMechE added the Graduate class to its membership, McConnell was a keen supporter of this move anticipating that it would be of great advantage to the profession and hoping that the number of Graduates would equal that of ordinary members. This ambition was not met but it shows he remained active in formulating IMechE rules and policy. However, records also show that he was a colourful personality who was often in the thick of discussions. Also in 1847, McConnell obtained the post of Locomotive Superintendent at the Wolverton Works of the London and North Western Railway (LNWR), Southern Division, where he remained until 1862. Here he produced the 2-2-2 Bloomer engines. The LNWR had separate designs and personnel in their different divisions and this led McConnell into conflict with the northern works, Crewe where Francis Trevithick and John Ramsbottom were producing small, simple and powerful engines. The issue came to a head when Richard Moon promoted Ramsbottom, removed Trevithick and began campaigning against McConnell; McConnell resigned following an unfavourable report to the LNWR Board*. These work place machinations took several years to work out and appear to have inhibited his IMechE activities, he disappears as a member entirely in 1861 and his death is not recorded in the IMechE Proceedings (a surprising omission and one that suggests disagreement). Colourful he may have been but he was also kind, for his Wolverton employees he built schools, churches, a mechanics’ institute and a savings bank. McConnell and his family then moved to Great Missenden, and he worked as a consultant. In 1871 he went into partnership with William Marshall. In 1862 and again in 1867, McConnell was on the juries of the International Exhibitions, held in London and Paris respectfully. He died on 11 Jun 1883.
*Moon was Chairman from 1861-1891, he was also a director of the LNWR. Moon and McConnell had a difficult relationship: part of Moon’s case against McConnell was an accident at Leek Wootton which involved a McConnell locomotive; he also vigorously investigated spending at Wolverton; and took issue with the size and weight of his locomotives.