James Lowe (inventor)

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James Lowe (1796–1866) was the English inventor of a screw propeller.


Lowe was apprenticed on 2 November 1813 to Edward Shorter, a master mechanic and Freeman of the City of London, who had in 1800 taken out a patent for propelling vessels, which he had named "the perpetual sculling machine". In 1816 Lowe ran away and joined a whaling ship, the Amelia Wilson, but after three voyages returned to his master.

Later Lowe went into business as mechanist and a smoke-jack maker, and experimented on screw-propellers for ships. On 24 March 1838 he took out a patent, No. 7599, for "improvements in propelling vessels" by means of one or more curved blades, set or fixed on a revolving shaft below the water-line of the vessel. His propeller was first practically used in the steamship Wizard in 1838, and then in Rattler and Phœnix.

On 16 December 1844 Lowe brought an action in the Court of Queen's Bench against Penn & Co., engineers at Greenwich, for infringement of the patent. The evidence was contradictory, but it was shown that Lowe, although not the original inventor of propellers, was the inventor of a combination nor before applied to the propulsion of vessels. This combination consisted of three parts:

  1. a segment of a screw,
  2. a segment of a screw applied below the watermark, so as to be totally immersed,
  3. a segment of a screw applied on an axis below the water.

The jury gave a verdict in his favour. On 19 August 1852 he took out another patent, No. 14263, for his propeller.

Lowe spent his wife's fortune on his experiments, reduced himself to poverty, and never succeeded in obtaining any compensation for the use of his invention. He died on 12 October 1866 when a wagon ran him over in the Blackfriars Road, London, killing him.


Lowe married, on 30 May 1825, the eldest daughter of Mr. Barnes of Ewell, Surrey. She died in 1872.


Their daughter, Henrietta, who in July 1855 married Frederick Vansittart, of the 14th Light Dragoons, continued her father's experiments.

As Henrietta Vansittart she took out a patent, No. 2877, on 18 September 1868, for a further improvement, which she called the "Lowe-Vansittart propeller". This was fitted to many government ships, and was found to be a valuable invention. It was also used on the SS Lusitania.[1]


  1. ^ Howes, Anton. "11 Forgotten Women who Invented the British Industrial Revolution". Medium. Retrieved 11 May 2017.