William Davies Evans, Welsh inventor

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Wales has produced some amazingly talented people over the years. Although he is now largely forgotten, none of them was more interesting – or, arguably, more prolific – than the chess expert, inventor and sailor William Davies Evans.

He was born on 27 January 1790 at St Dogwells in north Pembrokeshire, the son of farmer John Evans and his wife Mary Davies.

When he was 10 years old, the family moved to Castle Pill on the banks of Milford Haven, close to the area where the new town of Milford was already beginning to take shape and develop.

In those days Milford was both a ship building centre and a whaling port. Trading vessels were always berthing at the docks or beating in from the Atlantic and, very quickly, the young William Evans became fascinated by the sea and by ships.

William Evans was probably educated at Haverfordwest Grammar School – the records have been destroyed and it is not possible to make a definitive statement. However, it is known that in 1804 he left school, well grounded in mathematics, and, with the Napoleonic Wars still raging, went to sea to fight for king and country. He was just 14 years old.

Evans continued in the Royal Navy, learning his trade and advancing through the ranks, until the end of the war in 1815. Then like many sailors at the time, he was suddenly left without a job – but unlike many others, his prospects were good.

Rather than remain unemployed, kicking his heels around Milford, Evans immediately transferred to the postal service, working on postal packet ships taking mail across the Irish Sea. By 1819 he had risen to command the packet ship Aukland, regularly engaged in transporting letters and parcels between Milford and Waterford.

By now, Evans had become an accomplished chess player. He had first come across the game soon after he left the Navy and adroitly learned the moves. It was an excellent way, he thought, of passing the long off-duty hours in the cramped cabins and mess decks of the Aukland.

It was on board his ship that Evans worked out the chess move that now bears his name – the Evans Gambit. While he was on leave in London in 1825 Evans played a game against the renowned Irish chess player Alexander Macdonnell.

For the first time, the Evans Gambit was revealed. It worked, Macdonnell was beaten and Evans' name was suddenly renowned in all the chess clubs of the capital.

Since 1825 the Evans Gambit has been regularly used by players all over the world but it is for another invention that William Davies Evans received his greatest accolade.

He had spent years at sea and knew how dangerous it was to sail at night. In an attempt to improve safety and reduce the risk of collisions he came up with a system of tri-coloured lights that could be shown by all ships when travelling at night.

The value of the invention was soon realised and it was not long before it was being used by all sailors and shipping companies. The British government, in gratitude, awarded Evans a gift of £1,500. With the tri-coloured lighting system in use across the world, even the Czar of Russia was impressed. He presented Evans with a gold pocket chronometer and cash to the tune of £200.

William Davies Evans finally retired from the sea in 1840. He had been a sailor for nearly 40 years and now decided that he would spend his time in the chess clubs of London, playing the game he loved, and travelling abroad.

He died on 3 August 1872 in Ostende, Belgium and was buried in the old cemetery of the town. His gravestone records his achievements as a sailor and seaman, as the inventor of a famous chess move and also as the originator of the tri-coloured system of lights that had made sailing at night so much safer.

Unfortunately, the inscription on his gravestone was wrong, stating that Evans was 80 years and six months old when he died. He was, in fact, 82 years old.

William Davies Evans was a Pembrokeshire sailor of great skill and renown. But it is as an inventor that his real talent lay. He needs to be better remembered and applauded.

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