A history of cornwall online - through its objects
Steam boilers and safety lamps
Photography started early in Cornwall and became an important way of staying in touch as more people emigrated overseas. This chair was a studio prop and had interchangeable backs. It was first used by Michell and Son of St Austell in 1870 who subsequently relocated their business to Liskeard.
Oxy hydrogen Blowpipe
One of the remarkable achievements of the scientist Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, born in Bude in 1793, this oxy-hydrogen blowpipe produced a bright light, 'limelight'. Limelight was used to illuminate theatres until the end of the 19th century and lit the House of Commons for 60 years.
Mine Engine Boiler
Pumping water out of Cornish copper mines became a great challenge in the 18th and 19th centuries as mines went deeper. Cornish inventor Richard Trevithick developed a far more efficient steam engine than earlier designs. This early Trevithick boiler is from a mine engine of the 1820s.
William Murdoch Bust
In 1779 Scottish engineer William Murdoch came to work in Redruth. A prolific inventor, he improved the efficiency of steam engines used in Cornish mines and invented household gas lighting.
Once the 'Nerve Centre of the Empire', Porthcurno Telegraph Station connected Britain to the rest of the world through 150,000 miles of underwater telegraph cables. George Spratt, Assistant Superintendent, kept this fascinating diary from 1870 until 1900.
Andrew Pears was born in Mevagissey around 1768 and apprenticed as a hairdresser in Fowey. He went to London to seek his fortune and began to experiment with making rouges, creams and soaps. He invented Pears Soap which soon became a household name.
Inspired by witnessing the wreck of HMS Anson in 1807, Helston man Henry Trengrouse's design saved the lives of many thousands of people. A rocket carrying a strong rope was fired between the cliffs and the wrecked ship and brought ashore the crew and passengers on a chair.
From clocks to Baby Belling cookers, Belling is now an international brand. This clock was made by the first John Belling at Bodmin in 1753 and clock-making became a thriving trade in Cornwall. Five generations of Bellings lived and worked in Bodmin.
Davy Safety Lamp
It is strange that renowned chemist Humphry Davy, born in Penzance, is best known today for an invention made primarily to help coal miners and rarely used in Cornish mines. This is an early example of his safety lamp, manufactured around 1817.
John Couch Adams Bust
The astronomer John Couch Adams, from Laneast near Launceston, was jointly credited with the discovery of the planet Neptune in 1846. This bust was made by Neville Northey Burnard, a well-known Cornish sculptor of the time.
Cornwall has been at the centre of scientific inquiry and invention since the 18th century, and produced some of the world’s best-known scientists and engineers, from astronomer John Couch Adamsto clockmaker John Belling.
While many inventions were prompted by the mining advances of the industrial revolution, such as Trevithick’s high-pressure steam boiler and William Bickford's safety fuse, some were a result of wanting to save lives. The Rocket invented by Henry Trengrouse of Helston helped those who had been shipwrecked safely reach the shore.
Sir Humphry Davy of Penzance, Cornwall’s most renowned scientist, was responsible for isolating several elements such as sodium and barium. His experiments resulted in the first electric light which Michael Faraday, Davy’s apprentice, later developed further. He is best known for the invention of the miner’s safety lamp in 1815, which radically reduced accidents in caused by the volatile gases released in coal mines.
Bude scientist Sir Goldsworthy Gurney is a less well-known name but his discovery of limelight—created when hydrogen and oxygen were blown into a cylinder of calcium oxide—transformed theatre stage lighting in the 19th century. Another less-appreciated first for Cornwall is the development of gas lighting by engineer William Murdoch, and first used in his house Redruth in the 1790s.
Thanks to avid diarists such as George Spratt we can discover just how the tiny village of Porthcurno in the far west of Cornwall became the communication centre of the British Empire by the 1870s, as thousands of miles of telegraph cables laid from here carried millions of messages across the world and back. With mass communication came the parallel innovation in photography which was adopted in Cornwall at a very early stage in its history.
Scientific and engineering discoveries were not the only kind of innovation that happened in Cornwall. Andrew Pears of Mevagissey invented probably the most famous soap and soap brand in the world.