Belfast Telegraph

Back Then: Doagh legend John Rowan was top gear when it came to steam power

Linen spinner who taught himself engineering

By Eddie McIlwaine

Versatile engineer John Rowan built ploughs, threshing machines and other farm implements which were new fangled in his day. But did he invent the first car?

Well if you look at a statue erected in honour of this entrepreneur in his home village of Doagh you would think that he did.

There is no doubt that Rowan (1787-1858) designed and built a steam-powered road vehicle "on an entirely new principle" in 1835. It was introduced to public gaze on January 5, 1836 and Rowan predicted when he drove it through the streets of Belfast to the amazement of huge crowds that it would commence road trips as soon as he got a backer for mass production.

Alas his dream came to nothing as potential investors shook their heads and turned him down. Perhaps if John had been a better driver they might have been impressed. But how does the creator of what he claims is the first car learn to manipulate the controls?

My research shows that the first steam-powered car was built as early as 1769 by Frenchman Nicolas Cugnot. He had set out initially to build a vehicle to haul cannon and ended up with what was supposed to be a car only it looked more like a big three-wheeler trike.

However, that statue in Doagh was still well deserved after his death in Belfast at the age of 71 in 1858. This linen spinner who taught himself engineering shrugged off his disappointment with his road vehicle and opened the Doagh Foundry which became a spectacular success.

He pioneered a lot of advertising ideas looked on as novel in those distant times. For instance, on July 23, 1841 there appeared in newspapers an advert for 'improved threshing machines' which the Foundry manufactured and was able to fit up at the shortest notice. The advert stated that these were popular in this part of the world because they were easily worked and did not go out of repair.

The good folk of Doagh treated John as a hero and loved to drop into his smithy - which he also ran in early days - for a chat. Drop into Doagh in these modern times and you'll find a dozen or so locals willing to talk about Rowan and his many talents. And there are some who will insist that their inventor's car was first, never mind the Frenchman.

Belfast Telegraph


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