One of the problems with the first propellers was the drag experienced when under sail. This was because ship owners and operators weren’t exactly 100% confident in the new steam boilers and screw propellers. They saw the propeller as a back-up for when they were becalmed, the sails always there to provide perfect propulsion for when it was blowy. Of course, when you are under full sail, the last thing you want is a big propeller pushing against the water you are wanting to rush through.
And so, screw pioneers developed the screw lifting mechanism. This would pull the propeller up into the hull of the ship when the sails were being unfurled and all was well. The only problem with this system was that propellers are bloody heavy and it would take a lot of sailors to haul one up. Naturally, this was (sort of) solved by using the machinery that was driving the propeller, but it all took time.
Then along came an amazing man called Fothergill. He had been a navy man, sailed everywhere on all manner of ships, saw the world and fought many battles. He had medals from his time in India, in China and in Russia. He was a sort of all action hero.
He even took part in the survey of the coast of Tartary which was mostly where Russia is today as well as a couple of astronomical voyages to plot the passage of various planets and stars. I guess you could say he was the sort of guy who was up for any new challenges. One of those challenges appears to be the propeller problem.
He left the Royal Navy in 1859 when he took Holy Orders and became a Vicar in Watford. It was here that he started work on what became known as the Fothergill Self-Feathering Screw.
His propeller was ingenious. It used the force of the water to move the blades of the propeller independently in order to reduce resistance to almost zero when the engines were turned off. When they were once more started up, the shaft would turn and the blades would once more lock into place moving in the opposite direction. (Sort of like a normal screw that tightens one way then loosens the other until it falls free.)
He patented it in 1865 and made everyone very excited about it. He exhibited at the 1870 Great Exhibition in London and won a medal. I bet he was well chuffed by it all.
The only sad thing about Vicar Percy’s invention was that it came at a time of great leaps in ship propulsion and the need for a self-feathering screw was quickly negated by the removal of sails with the advent of better, more economical engines. Even so, his propeller is a true engineering marvel, not to mention the little model of it which he built and we have in the museum.
Living back in Essex (from whence he originated) Percival Fothergill died in 1888 aged only 56, having lived a very full life. A forgotten Victorian engineer if ever there was one.