The original engine of Henry Bell's paddle steamer

1812 in Glasgow
David Napier
John Robertson

The original engine of Henry Bell's paddle steamer, ‘Comet’, by John Robertson and David Napier, Glasgow, Scotland, 1812

The paddle steamer Comet was the first steam vessel to run commercially in Europe. It was built for the hotelier, Henry Bell, who commissioned a steamship to bring guests from Glasgow to his hotel at Helensburgh.

This journey had previously taken some five or six hours in favourable sailing conditions of tide and wind but often took substantially longer, using four-man rowing boats and making use of sails when the wind was favourable. Bell had previously experimented unsuccessfully with a number of manual and windmill-driven paddle systems to replace the oars.

The Comet was used for a variety of coastal journeys but was not powerful enough for the weather and tides met on the west coast of Scotland. She was driven ashore in 1820 where the hull broke up.

The engine, having been removed and used to provide power in a Glasgow factory, was rescued, after a fire, by the Glasgow engine builder John Napier. His firm restored it, with a respect for authenticity rare at that time, and presented it to the South Kensington Museum. It was installed by its original designer, John Robertson, in time to celebrate its 50th anniversary.


Marine Engines
Object Number:
cast iron and bronze (copper, tin alloy)
overall (estimated): Height = 2350 mm x Width = 2100 mm x Depth = 1400 mm,
R.J. Napier and Sons Ltd.