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Sir John Robison - Designer

On 14 May 1819 a small crowd of bystanders, some eager, some just curious, gathered by the Monklands Canal near Coatbridge to witness a unique event: the launching of an iron barge. Later the flagship of the famed Forth and Clyde Canal passenger fleet, this pioneer vessel was destined to change shipbuilding through the introduction of iron construction and precision assembly techniques.

Being horse drawn, the new vessel, appropriately named Vulcan (after pagan Rome's patron god of blacksmiths), was described officially as a passenger-carrying dumb barge. She served for many years between Edinburgh and Glasgow, carrying up to 200 passengers in relative comfort on the smooth inland waters. The eight-hour, city-to-city service compared favourably with the alternative: an exhausting coach ride on unmetalled and indifferent roads.

The passenger boats had first-class and second-class cabins, a small kitchen and two primitive toilets, presumably draining directly into the canal. Such style and service encouraged passenger numbers, around 200,000 a year in the late 1820s.

The Vulcan was designed by Sir John Robison, secretary of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Robison's extensive social and professional connections meant that he was able to draw on the skills and knowledge of experts as diverse as James Watt, Thomas Telford, Joseph Black and Captain John Schank, a noted early experimenter on the shape of ship's hulls.

Perhaps most significantly, Robison was friendly with the ironmaster John Wilkinson, who developed the iron smelters of Coalbrookdale in Staffordshire. In 1787 Wilkinson had built the Trial, a small barge believed to have been constructed of cast-iron plates bolted to timber frames, and most likely shaped in the traditional form of the English canal narrow boat, but able to withstand hard usage, a point not lost on Robison.
The Vulcan had beautiful lines. She was constructed of strips of 24-in [610-mm] iron plate, straked vertically, flush butted and riveted to hand-wrought iron frames The concept was brilliant, and was well executed by Thomas Wilson and his two assistants John and Thomas Smellie. After two years of design and planning, the hull was erected and launched in just six-and-a- half months. Outfitting and finishing were completed within a further four-and-a-half months. These are remarkable times, considering that every plate, frame and metal part was forged by hand on the blacksmith's anvil. No ironworks in those days could roll angle iron or other sectional material.

After a few years of passenger operation, the introduction of faster canal 'fly boats', coupled with increasing competition from the railways,heralded the end of the Vulcan's first career. Stripped of her accommodation, she was relegated to freight carriage and was even seen under sail on the Clyde before finally going to the breakers in 1873.

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