ROBERT ERSKINE, SURVEYOR-GENERAL OF THE CONTINENTAL ARMY
By Bob Rupert - Posted at the Journal of the American Revolution:
Robert Erskine was born in Dumfermline, Scotland, to Ralph and Margaret Erskine on September 7, 1735. Ralph Erskine, being a Presbyterian minister, raised Robert to be thrifty, God-loving, determined, and well-educated. In 1748 and then again in 1752 he was enrolled in the University of Edinburgh. There are no records of his performance or if he even completed his studies. Upon leaving the university he moved to London and found employment that allowed him to get by. In 1759, he formed a business partnership with a Mr. Swinton selling hardware and farm tools. In 1760, hoping to do business in the American colonies, Swinton travelled to the Carolinas with a significant consignment of merchandise. Erskine never heard from him again and was forced to file for bankruptcy. Using his mechanical talent, he invented and patented a “Continual Stream Pump.” His plan was to use the profits from the sale of the pumps to payoff all of his creditors. Unfortunately, he needed £600 up front to market his invention—this forced him to abandon the plan. In June 1762, almost twenty of his creditors filed a grievance against him. He was detained by the London debtors’ court but soon freed on his own recognizance and a promise once back on his feet to settle his accounts.
In 1764 Erskine received a letter from the first company that might find his pump useful:
I hereby acknowledge to have received of Mr. Robert Erskine, inventor of a New machine for raising water, an account of the principles on which the said machine is founded and by which it operates, to send to the Directors of the Salt Works of Westphalia, for them to judge which [whether] such a machine will be proper for their use. Bert’d Rappard
This eventually led to the manufacturing of the pump by William Cole, an instrument maker in London. During this time Erskine also honed his skills as a draftsman and invented the Platometer, an instrument used, “to find the latitude & variation of the needle at Sea any time of the day by two observations of the Sun & any time of the night by taking the altitude to two known fixed Stars at the same time.”