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Sir Samuel Bentham (11 January 1757 in Englandmarker - 31 May 1831 in Londonmarker, Englandmarker) was a noted Englishmarker mechanical engineer and naval architect credited with numerous innovations, particularly related to naval architecture, including weapons. He was the only surviving sibling of philosopher Jeremy Bentham, with whom he had a close bond.

Early life

Samuel Bentham was the only surviving sibling of Jeremy Bentham, five other siblings having died in infancy or early childhood, and their mother dying in 1759. At the age of 14, Bentham was apprenticed to a shipwright at Woolwich Dockyardmarker, serving there for 7 years.



In 1780 he moved to Russiamarker, where he was employed in the service of Prince Potemkin, who had an establishment designed to promote the introduction of various arts of civilization. Initially hired as a shipbuilder, he soon discovered other opportunities to use his talents as an engineer and inventor, constructing industrial machinery and experimenting with steel production. He also designed and constructed many novel inventions, including an amphibious vessel and an articulated barge built for Catherine the Great.

He was also decorated for his part in a decisive victory in the war against the Turks, and commanded a battalion of 1,000 men in Siberiamarker. He eventually came to have complete responsibility for Potemkin's factories and workshops, and it was while considering the difficulties of supervising the large workforce that he devised the principle of central inspection, and designed the Panopticon building which would embody that principle and was later popularized by his brother Jeremy.

In 1782, Bentham travelled along the Siberian route to Chinamarker, visiting Kyakhtamarker and its Chinese pendant Naimatchin, and then spending over a month at the border fluvial city of Nerchinskmarker, where he was able to study Chinese ship designs, particularly those of junks. Back in Europe, he campaigned for the introduction of watertight compartments, an idea which he acknowledged he had got from seeing large Chinese vessels in Siberia.

Samuel returned to England in 1791, and for the next few years was involved with his brother Jeremy in trying to promote the Panopticon scheme and he designed machinery for use in it. It was during this period that he met his future wife, Mary Sophia Fordyce, the daughter of Scottish doctor and scientist George Fordyce, a friend of Jeremy Bentham. The two were married in October 1796.

In 1795 the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty asked him to design six new sailing ships with "partitions contributing to strength, and securing the ship against foundering, as practiced by the Chinese of the present day". These were built at a ship-yard at Redbridge, Hampshire, and incorporated a number of other novel features such as interchangeable parts for masts and spars, allowing easy maintenance while at sea.

Inspector General of Naval Works

In March 1796 Bentham was appointed Inspector General of Naval Works, responsible for the maintaining and improving the Royal dockyards, a post which involved a lot of travel. He produced a great many suggestions for improvements, which included the introduction of steam power to the dockyards and the mechanisation of many production processes. However, his superiors at the Navy Board were resistant to change and many of his suggestions were not implemented.

Bentham is credited with helping to revolutionise the production of the wooden pulley blocks used in ships' rigging, devising woodworking machinery to improve production efficiency. His efforts were augmented by those of Marc Isambard Brunel and Henry Maudslay, and marked the arrival of mass production techniques in British manufacturing at the Portsmouth Block Mills.

Return to Russia

In 1805 Bentham returned to Russia, this time on government business, and remained there for two years with his family, chartering an entire ship to take his establishment, his servants, and his companions. Samuel's mission for the British government in Russia was blocked by constant obstacles, and he returned home in 1807 without having achieved any of his official objectives. During this time he supervised the construction of a Panopticon.

Vauxhall Bridge

Bentham also designed a full cast-iron nine-arch bridge for the Butterly company, for the Vauxhall Bridgemarker in Londonmarker, which was to become the first iron-built bridge over the Thames. The choice of cast iron was said to be because it was "cheaper than masonry", but some of the inspiration for the bridge has also been traced to Bentham's experience of China, where numerous such arched iron-cast bridges existed. The design was eventually abandoned after doubts about its quality, in favour of a "cast iron arches on masonry piers" design by James Walker. The bridge was completed in May 1813.


Bentham discovered upon his return to England that his post as Inspector General had been abolished while he was absent, and indeed came to believe that he had been sent to Russia solely to get him out of the way while the post was abolished. In 1814, he and his family relocated to the south of France, where they lived until 1826.

The Bentham family travelled a great deal in France before settling in 1820 at the Château de Restinclières, in the région of Languedoc-Roussillonmarker. Their new house was large, with extensive grounds, and Bentham planned to cultivate the land for profit, with his son George managing most of the operation. Bentham also imported agricultural machinery as yet unknown in France, and installed a complex system of irrigation on his land. They were reasonably prosperous, but eventually returned to England in 1826, one factor in their decision being a threatened lawsuit from neighbouring farmers, who claimed that Bentham's irrigation system was diverting the local water supply.

In England, Bentham spent most of his time writing about naval matters, and conducting experiments on hull shapes. His son George Bentham, (born 1800), became a noted botanist.


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