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William Kennish

Inventor, Explorer, Polymath

A prolific and pioneering inventor who discovered a route to link the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in Panama. Author of evocative Manx poetry.

Kennish was born on a farm in Cornaa in 1799. A self-described ‘illiterate Manx Peasant’, he joined the Royal Navy in his early twenties as a seaman with little English.  Within a few years he had risen to the rank of Master Carpenter and begun work on the first of many inventions. Kennish-W.jpg

In April 1832, following experiments on board the HMS Hussar, Kennish first published his most commended invention, ‘a Method for Concentrating the Fire of a Broadside’, which was a system intended to improve the aim of naval artillery with the use of a marine theodolite. Later that year, the design was awarded the Gold Isis Medal of the Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce. In 1837, Kennish published the Method as a book, along with a number of other related inventions.
 
Kennish developed a number of other solutions to naval problems, including a recommendation to paint ships grey to prevent heat distortion; three new types of pumps; an artificial horizon; a method for drowning the magazine of a warship; a pneumatic sounding instrument; a method for condensing steam from an engine cylinder; a new shape of screw propeller; a pneumatic tube for delivering letters; and a diving machine.  While his designs were often noted for their ingenuity, Kennish was thwarted by a lack of means to test out his ideas and the limitations of manufacturing at the time.
 
Having retired from the Navy, Kennish returned to the Isle of Man in 1844. He found employment as the Ballasalla Parochial School teacher, introducing an ambitious curriculum of mathematical and scientific subjects.  The same year he published Mona’s Isle, a semi-autobiographical collection of poetry that was inspired by Manx history and culture. Today the collection is recognized as an important repository of now-lost traditions and superstitions. 
 
During this period Kennish campaigned for the improvement of the Island’s harbours. He gathered over 3000 signatures from captains, masters, fishermen and ship and boat owners for a memorial to the Harbours Board in London, who praised him for his ‘great exertions and unprecedented zeal’; he also used his own contacts to present the memorial to a number of Admirals, as well as the Treasury.  He also designed a harbour of refuge at the Sound, which would be created by linking the Isle of Man to the Calf of Man and extending a large curving harbour wall out from the Calf towards Spanish Head. 
 
After five years in the Isle of Man, Kennish emigrated to America, where he filed a patent for a hydraulic valve gear; the sale of the rights to the invention allowed his wife and six children to join him. The following year he developed new designs for a diving machine and built a prototype which was exhibited in New York.
 
In 1850, as Chief Engineer and Manager of New York company the Hope Association, Kennish embarked on expeditions in South America investigating the possibility of linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The result of the first four expeditions was a proposed canal route via the Atrato and Truando rivers, a proposal that would not require any locks. The proposal was published in 1855 in New York as The Practicability and Importance of a Ship Canal to connect the Atlantic & Pacific Oceans, and in 1857 the US Congress passed legislation that allocated funds to an official survey to corroborate Kennish’s findings. Although the survey broadly supported Kennish’s proposal, the events of the American Civil War intervened and stalled any further developments. 
 
After the expeditions, Kennish developed a career as an independent engineer and continued to invent, taking out a number of patents in the US and Britain. He died of pneumonia in New York on 19th March 1862.

Manninagh Dooie - True Manxman