Rennie’s Master – Andrew Meikle

Samuel Smiles in Lives of Engineers, refers to him as “Rennie’s Master” but Andrew Meikle was of course, much more than that. Born at Wester Keith near Saltoun in East Lothian in 1719, the only surviving son of James Meikle, he arguably became the best known member of the Meikle engineering family. A 1686 Act of the old Scottish Parliament enabled his grandfather, John Meikle, to develop Scottish iron founding, and his father James achieved some fame – but little fortune – through creating the famous Saltoun barley mill in association with Andrew Fletcher. During his enforced Dutch exile, the latter had recognised the superior methods being employed by the Dutch in processing barley. Fletcher wrote home to his Saltoun based brother and arranged to have James Meikle sent to Holland to determine how barley could similarly be processed in Scotland.

Following his marriage, Andrew Meikle set up home and workplace at Houston Mill on Phantassie Estate near the River Tyne at East Linton. Like his father, he was an ingenious engineer and at Phantassie, in addition to some limited farming, he conducted numerous engineering experiments including refinement of working windmills but consistently, over many years, his constant concern was to perfect an effective means of threshing, winnowing and dressing grain – threshing being essentially the separation of a grain crop such as wheat, oats or barley from its associated straw – process which had been manual and labour intensive for centuries. When Meikle set up at business at Houston Mill, there were very few mills of any kind in the county but his skill as a millwright, and reputation as a mechanic spread and he was regularly consulted during the construction of any new mill.

In pursuance of his prime objective to create a threshing device, he was assisted in diverse ways by several others including Robert Mackell with whom he jointly registered a patent in 1768 for a new machine designed to dress and cleanse corn. For some time Meikle might well have been seen as “Rennie’s Master” when he allowed the young John Rennie, the son of his Phantassie landlord, to work beside him at Houston Mill and there develop his considerable personal engineering skills before going off to London to find fame and fortune.

The patented 1768 machine was only moderately effective and a dissatisfied Meikle continued to strive for improvement. He was assisted indirectly in that aim by other engineers throughout Britain who were concurrently working on the creation of an effective threshing machine. In particular, Mr Oxley of Flodden had made significant progress and details of his experiment were obtained by Sir Francis Kinloch of Gilmerton who caused a model to be made from Oxley’s specifications – with a view to further improvement.

Kinloch had several discussions with Meikle concerning the new water driven device before it was eventually transferred to Houston Mill and there tested by the power of Meikle’s mill stream. Unfortunately, the new structure could not withstand the water pressure and was destroyed. Sir Francis later produced a larger model but that too proved ineffective.

Meikle's threshing machineThat failure made Meikle even more determined to successfully create an effective threshing machine and eventually, in 1787, he did so. In retrospect, it is surprising that he took so long because, in his successful machine he introduced metal parts to create strength. A significant factor in the success enjoyed by the Meikle family over the generations was their use of metal in engineering functions – as in fact earlier exemplified by James Meikle in construction of the Saltoun Barley Mill – where hitherto wood had been the norm.

Andrew’s new machine became known as the Drum Threshing Machine and, although the first model was water driven, eventually other drivers were introduced. Refinements after Meikle’s era resulted in many threshing machines becoming portable and, by the 20th Century, were predominantly motor driven.

The first threshing machine created on Meikle’s new principle was for for Mr Stein, a farmer at Kilbeggie in Clackmannanshire – with the proviso that should the new water driven machine prove unsuitable for purpose – then no payment would be made to Meikle. In fact the machine proved to be a success and remained so for a considerable number of years.

Although he was 68 years of age when he constructed his Drum machine, during the ensuing years he went on to create many other examples including one for his Rennie landlords – which was in fact horse powered. He also designed and built the still often painted and photographed Preston Mill at East Linton. During the twenty years following registration of his patent, over three hundred Meikle designed machines – variously powered – were constructed in East Lothian.

Meikle however made very little money from his invention. At the time Intellectual Property rights were seldom recognised and Meikle’s patented design was openly misappropriated by many other constructors both at home and abroad. Sir Francis Kinloch, albeit unsuccessfully, even made claim to credit for the invention but fourteen years had elapsed from the time of his failed experiments involving Meikle.

Houston MillMeikle lived into his tenth decade before dying aged 92 at Houston Mill on 27th November 1811. A simple monument was erected there to his memory and he was buried in Prestonkirk churchyard. He had been somewhat infirm during his last few years and, because he had not benefited from his invention as he should have, became dependent on charity. Friends, predominantly Sir John Sinclair M.P., President of the Board of Agriculture, in recognition of Meikle’s contribution to farming, raised a large sum on his behalf to cover Meikle’s retirement years but, despite writing an extensive will, Andrew Meikle left little disposable estate.

Note: the photographs are of various threshing machines, not Andrew Meikle’s!

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