Looking downstream on the right bank, an obelisk erected in 1838, is the Monument to Henry Bell who designed the paddle-steamer Comet. Launched at Port Glasgow in 1812, it provided the first regular steamship service on the Clyde.
Henry Bell (1767-1830) and his pioneering steamship, Comet, paved the way for the Clyde’s place as a centre of shipbuilding and marine engineering though his own business ventures mostly ended disastrously.
Engineer Henry Bell
A contemporary said of Henry Bell, ‘His mind was a chaos of extraordinary projects, the most of which, from his want of accurate scientific calculation, he never could carry into practice.’ He was certainly something of a visionary and a jack of all trades; he spent time as a stone mason, millwright, carpenter, ship modeller and engineer, latterly working in Glasgow. He became fascinated by the then experimental technology and potential of steam propelled ships. He corresponded with and may have assisted the American steamship pioneer Robert Fulton who, in 1807, introduced a steamboat service in New York. However, Bell failed to persuade the Admiralty to take any interest in his ideas about steam propulsion. While continuing to experiment and speculate, he and his wife moved in 1807 to Helensburgh where they ran an inn and superintended the public baths.
In 1811, Bell commissioned a Port Glasgow shipbuilder to build a 30-ton wooden paddle steamer with a 3hp engine. He named her Comet after a spectacular comet that had appeared the previous year. In August 1812, after a trial voyage from Port Glasgow to the Broomielaw and then back down to Greenock, during which the boat made 5 knots against a headwind and dramatically cut the usual journey time, Bell inaugurated a regular passenger service between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh. No longer did ferries need to be so dependent upon wind and tide. This was the first commercial steam passenger service in Europe.
Lengthened and improved, the Comet then ran a service to Oban and Fort William via the Crinan Canal, but in 1820 she was shipwrecked off Oban. A successor Comet sank after a collision with considerable loss of life. Bell’s pioneering venture was soon superseded technically and eclipsed by rivals but he had shown the way.
Bell was not a successful businessman and ended his days in poverty, dependent upon a public subscription on his behalf, supported by Thomas Telford among others, and an annual stipend from the trustees of the Clyde Navigation. The Monument was erected in 1838 on the initiative of James Lumsden, later Lord Provost of Glasgow, who had been on the Comet’s maiden voyage. It stands in the grounds of Dunglass Castle (ruin). A further obelisk monument was erected on the seafront at Helensburgh in 1872.
A full size replica of the Comet, constructed for 150th anniversary in 1962 by shipyard apprentices, is installed at Port Glasgow. The original engine was salvaged and is now in the Science Museum, London. The salvaged engine from the second, ill-fated Comet, can be seen at the Riverside Museum.