John Braithwaite (engineer)

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For his father, engineer died 1818, see John Braithwaite the elder.
John Braithwaite
John Braithwaite.jpg
Born (1797-03-19)19 March 1797
London, England
Died 25 September 1870(1870-09-25)
Paddington, London, England
Occupation Engineer, inventor

John Braithwaite, the younger (19 March 1797 – 25 September 1870) was an English engineer who invented the first steam fire engine. He also co-designed the first locomotive to cover a mile in less than a minute.

Early life[edit]

Braithwaite was third son of John Braithwaite the elder. He was born at 1 Bath Place, New Road, London, on 19 March 1797, and, after being educated at Mr. Lord's school at Tooting in Surrey, attended in his father's manufactory, where he made himself master of practical engineering, and became a skilled draughtsman. In June 1818 his father died, leaving the business to his sons Francis and John. Francis died in 1823, and John Braithwaite carried on the business alone. He added to the business the making of high-pressure steam-engines. In 1817 he reported before the House of Commons upon the Norwich steamboat explosion, and in 1820 he ventilated the House of Lords by means of air-pumps. In 1822 he made the donkey engine[citation needed], and in 1823 cast the statue of the Duke of Kent by sculptor Sebastian Gahagan that was erected in Portland Place, London.

Modern replica of Novelty, with a descendant of Braithwaite aboard
Drawing of a steam locomotive named after William IV

He was introduced to George and Robert Stephenson in 1827, and about the same time became acquainted with Captain John Ericsson, who then had many schemes in view. In 1829 Braithwaite and Ericsson constructed for the Rainhill experiments the locomotive engine, The Novelty. This engine was the first that ever ran a mile within a minute (fifty-six seconds).[1]


1906 horse-drawn steam fire engine in England. The water is pumped onto the fire by a double-acting onboard steam engine.

At this time Braithwaite manufactured the first practical steam fire-engine,[2] which was ultimately destroyed by a London mob. It had, however, previously done good service at the burning of the English Opera House in 1830, at the destruction of the Argyle Rooms 1830, and at the conflagration of the Houses of Parliament in 1834. It threw two tons of water per minute, burnt coke, and got up steam in about twenty minutes; but it was looked upon with so much jealousy by the fire brigade of the day that the inventor had to give it up. He, however, soon constructed four others of larger dimensions, two of which, in Berlin and Liverpool respectively, gave great satisfaction. In 1833 he built the caloric engine in conjunction with Captain Ericsson.[3]

Civil engineer[edit]

Next year he ceased to take an active part in the management of the engine works in the New Road, but began to practise as a civil engineer for public works, and was largely consulted at home and abroad, particularly as to the capabilities of and probable improvements in locomotive engines. In 1834 the Eastern Counties railway was projected and laid out by him in conjunction with Mr. Charles Blacker Vignoles. The act of incorporation was passed in 1836, and he was soon after appointed engineer-in-chief for its construction.[4]

He adopted a five-feet gauge, and upon that gauge the line was constructed as far as Colchester, the works, however, being made wide enough for a seven-feet gauge. On the recommendation of Robert Stephenson it was subsequently altered to the national gauge of 4 feet 8½ inches. In after years Braithwaite advocated a still narrower gauge. He ceased to be officially connected with the Eastern Counties Railway on 28 May 1843. Whilst engineer to that company he introduced on the works the American excavating machine and the American steam locomotive pile-driving machine. He was joint founder of the Railway Times, which he started with Joseph Clinton Robertson as editor in 1837, and he continued sole proprietor till 1845. He undertook the preparation of plans for the direct Exeter railway, but the Railway mania of the period, and his connection with some commercial speculations, necessitated the winding up of his affairs (1845).[3]

Consulting engineer[edit]

Braithwaite had, in 1844, a share in a patent for extracting oil from bituminous shale, and works were erected near Weymouth which, but for his difficulties, might have been successful. Some years before, 1836–8, Captain Ericsson and he had fitted up an ordinary canal boat with a screw propeller, which started from London along the canals to Manchester on 28 June 1838, returning by the way of Oxford and the Thames to London, being the first and last steamboat that has navigated the whole distance on those waters. The experiment was abandoned on account of the deficiency of water in the canals and the completion of the railway system, which diverted the paying traffic. In 1844, and again in 1846, he was much on the continent surveying lines of railway in France, and on his return he was employed to survey Langstone Harbour in 1850, and to build the Brentford brewery in 1851. From that year he was principally engaged in chamber practice, and acted as consulting engineer, advising on most of the important mechanical questions of the day for patents and other purposes.[3]


Braithwaite was elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries in 1819, a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers on 13 February 1838, and at the time of his death he was one of the oldest members of the Society of Arts, having been elected into that body in the year 1819; he was also a life governor of seventeen charitable institutions.[3]


John Braithwaite married Caroline or possibly Caroline Amelia (1803 - 1878) and together they had at least 10 children (6 sons and 4 daughters):

Eliza Emma (b. 1824); John (b. 1825); George (b.1826); Clara Ellen Sophia (b. 1828) Frank (b. 1829); Harriet Frances (b. 1831); Richard Charles (b. 1832); Frederick John (b. 1835); Caroline Anne (b. 1836) and Edward Henry (b. 1838).

John died suddenly at 8 Clifton Gardens, Paddington, on 25 September 1870, and his remains were interred in Kensal Green cemetery.[2] His wife died in 1878.


  1. Supplement to Captain Sir John Ross's Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West Passage, containing the suppressed facts necessary to an understanding of the cause of the failure of the steam machinery of the Victory 1835. To this work Sir J. Ross published a reply in the same year.
  2. Guideway Steam Agriculture, by P. A. Halkett, with a Report by J. Braithwaite 1857[3]

See also[edit]