Henry Bell

In 1808 Bell and his wife moved to Helensburgh, where they purchased the public baths and a hotel. Bell's wife managed their business interests in the town, while Bell himself focussed on his passion to build a successful steamboat, now encouraged by the success of Fulton in New York.
In 1811 Bell commissioned a Port Glasgow shipbuilder, John Wood, to build a paddle steamer which he called Comet. She was to be a 30 ton vessel with a 3 horsepower engine. Comet made her delivery trip on 6 August 1812 , travelling the 21 miles upriver to the Broomielaw Glasgow. Two days later she made the first commercial steamboat journey in Europe, covering the 24 miles from the Broomielaw to Greenock in a little under five hours against a headwind. The fare was "four shillings for the best cabin, and three shillings for the second." This was the start of a regular service between Glasgow, Greenock and Helensburgh. 
The Comet was wrecked in strong currents near Craignish Point, near Fort William in December 1820. Its engine was salvaged and went on to serve in a brewery in Greenock. It is now on display in the Science Museum in London. Henry Bell built a second Comet but it did not prove a commercial success.

Bell died in Helensburgh and was buried in the kirkyard at Rhu. He was much respected by fellow marine engineer Robert Napier (1791 - 1876), who erected a statue over his grave in 1851 and was a major contributor to the cost of building the Bell Monument in Helensburgh (1872).


Born at Torphichen, Bell was the son of a mill-wright. After school he spent 3 years learning to be a stone-mason, then was apprenticed to his uncle, a mill-wright.
He then became interested in nautical matters, 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 (1761 - 1821). In 1790 at the age of 23 he returned to Glasgow to work as a carpenter, his mind "a chaos of extraordinary projects" nearly all of which were never completed. 
His interest turned to steam powered boats, and he was a regular correspondent with Robert Fulton, the American engineer who later built the North River Steamboat and used it to operate the world's first commercial steamboat service, in New York on 17 August 1807.

1767 - 1830

In 1800 Bell tried without success to get the British Admiralty to support studies into the use of steam power in ships. He was also very keen to understand the work of William Symington and the boats he had built. He was particularly interested in discovering how the Charlotte Dundas had worked, talking at length with those involved in its design and construction.
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This page last modified on Tuesday, April 06, 2010

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