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Lukin, Lionelfree

  • H. M. Chichester
  • , revised by R. C. Cox

Lukin, Lionel (1742–1834), lifeboat designer, was born at Dunmow, Essex, on 18 May 1742, the youngest son of William Lukin, of Blatches, Little Dunmow, and Anne, daughter of James Stokes. His father belonged to an old Essex family, one of his ancestors being Henry Lukyn (1586–1630), who is described by Anthony Wood as a mathematician, and who is mentioned by Thoroton in his History of Nottinghamshire as having 'dwelt before the wars at South Holme' (369). On his mother's side he was descended from a Lionel Lane, one of Blake's admirals.

Lukin was for many years a fashionable London coach builder in Long Acre. He became a member of the Coachmakers' Company in 1767, and did not finally retire from business until 1824. He was twice married, and with his first wife, born Walker, and widow of Henry Gilder of Dunmow, had a daughter, and a son of the same name, who patented several inventions, and died in 1839. Lukin appears to have been a man with a taste for science and possessed of a fertile mechanical mind.

Being a personal favourite of the prince regent and connected with William Windham, secretary of state for war and the colonies, Lukin had many opportunities to bring some of his inventions to public attention. Among these was an 'unsubmergible' boat. He began by making certain alterations to a Norway yawl which he purchased in 1784, the efficacy of which he tested as far as was practicable in the River Thames. He obtained a patent in 1785 for his invention, by which 'boats and small vessels … will neither overset in violent gales or sudden bursts of wind, nor sink if by any accident filled with water' (patent no. 1502, 1785). The patent specification explained that this was to be accomplished by fitting

to the outsides of vessels … projecting gunnells sloping from the top of the common gunnell in a faint curve towards the water … and from the extreme projection … returning to the side in a faint curve at a suitable height above the water-line. The projections are very small at the stem and stern, and increase gradually to the dimensions required.


The specification further provided that ports of the inside of the boat should be filled up with airtight and watertight compartments or with cork or other light material that would repel water, whereby 'the boat or vessel will be much lighter than any body of water it must displace' Lukin submitted his invention to the prince of Wales, the dukes of Portland and Northumberland, Admiral Sir Robert King, Admiral Schank, and Admiral Lord Howe, who gave him strong encouragement but no official support.

Lukin's first boat, the Experiment, was tested by a Ramsgate pilot but, after crossing the channel several times in rough weather, the boat disappeared—it may have been confiscated in a continental port. His second boat, the Witch, was tested by Sir Sydney Smith and other naval officers, and its qualities were publicly displayed at Margate. But Lukin had to contend with seafaring prejudices, and his 'unsubmergible boats', though they attracted attention, were in little demand. Apart from one built for the Bamborough Charity, only four were ordered, one of which proved very useful at Lowestoft.

In 1790 Lukin published a description of his lifeboat, with scale-drawings. Some time after the date of Lukin's patent a lifeboat was built (not patented) by Henry Greathead, who was rewarded with a parliamentary grant. Lukin declared that Greathead's boat was in general built according to the principles set out in his patent, and had no additional safety features. In 1806 a Mr Hailes put forward the claims of Wouldham of Newcastle as an inventor of lifeboats, and Lukin wrote three letters in 1806 in the Gentleman's Magazine, in which he set out his claims to priority. These he afterwards published as a pamphlet dedicated to the prince of Wales, entitled The Invention, Principles of Construction, and Uses of Unimmergible Boats (1806).

Lukin also invented a raft for rescuing persons from under ice, which he presented to the Royal Humane Society, and an adjustable reclining bed for patients, which he presented to various infirmaries. He invented a rain gauge, and kept a daily record of meteorological observations for many years until his sight failed in 1824. He died on 16 February 1834 at Hythe, Kent. A headstone, marking his grave in the parish churchyard, described him as the 'inventor of the lifeboat principle.' A memorial window in the local parish church was unveiled on 3 October 1892.


  • GM, 2nd ser., 2 (1834), 653
  • The Times (8 Nov 1890), 6
  • private information (1893)
Gentleman's Magazine