© Science Museum/Science and Society Picture Library
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 but often took substantially longer; it was customary to use four-man rowing boats and to make use of sails when the wind was favourable. Bell had previously experimented with a number of manual and windmill-driven paddle systems to replace the oars but his efforts had been unsuccessful.
The Comet was used for a variety of coastal journeys but was not powerful enough for the weather and tides of the west coast of Scotland and in 1820 she was driven ashore when her hull broke up.
Her 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 fiftieth anniversary.