The painter Thomas Gainsborough was, like Sir Joshua Reynolds, part of the first wave of talented painters to emerge in mid 18th century Britain. But Gainsborough was self taught, and his two brothers were extremely talented inventors, especially Humphrey. This is from ‘John Joseph Merlin The Ingenious Mechanick’:
‘If James watt’s name is today a household word, while that of Gainsborough’s inventor brother Humphrey is largely forgotten, their contemporaries viewed matters rather differently, and Humphrey Gainsborough enjoyed a considerable reputation in his own lifetime. The inventor R L Edgeworth, who was a neighbour of his near Henley wrote: ‘I do not think that I have ever known a man of more inventive genius’, while a notice in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1785 described him as ‘one of the most ingenious men that ever lived, and one of the best that ever died.’
He was the inventor of a perpetual motion clock reported in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1785 as being powered by musket balls, ‘the inactive wheels were intended to fetch up the bullets by means of a vane, which was to be kept in motion by a current of air directed against it’. He also built a weighing machine for the town of Henley, and though offered posts in the Anglican church, he became an independent minister who spent much of his time on civil engineering projects.
‘He was the builder of the first pound locks on the Thames, and undertook improvements to local roads. But he is now remembered for his scheme for an improvement to the steam engine, patented by James Watt in 1769. The nature of the improvement is not known. Applying in 1775 for a patent, Gainsborough came into conflict with Watt, who entered a caveat which prevented Gainsborough from obtaining a patent until the Solicitor-General could be satisfied that his invention differed from Watt’s. Gainsborough was prevented by his own and his wife’s ill health from attending meetings in London to discuss it, and he died shortly afterwards. He claimed his was superior, and had been ‘ill used’ by Watt.
He made considerable improvements to Park Place, formerly owned by the Prince of Wales and it was widely visited and admired. ‘The premiums Gainsborough was awarded by the Society of Arts in 1761 and 1766 for a tide-mill and a drill-plough respectively, demonstrate the serious interest taken in his work.’
His obituary in the Gentleman’s Magazine of 1785, though written by his friend Phillip Thicknesse, claimed ‘Perhaps of all the mechanical geniuses this country or any other has produced, Mr Gainsborough was the first.’