Edgeworth, Richard Lovell (1744–1817), landowner, inventor, and writer, was born 31 May 1744 in Bath, Somerset, second son and seventh among eight children of Richard Edgeworth, lawyer and landowner, and his wife Jane, daughter of Samuel Lovell, a Welsh judge. Of the children only three, himself and two sisters, survived childhood. He was educated privately, then at the school of Dr Lydiat in Warwick, and again privately before attending TCD, Corpus Christi College, Oxford, and the Middle Temple, London (September 1762). While at Oxford he stayed with the family of Paul Elers, an old friend of his father. He eloped with the eldest daughter, Anna Maria. Although under age, they married in Scotland in 1763. Their parents later consented to the marriage and they had a second ceremony. There were one son and three daughters from this marriage; the eldest daughter was the celebrated author, Maria Edgeworth (qv).
During his terms at the Middle Temple, Edgeworth became acquainted with Sir Francis Delaval, a well known rake of the time. To win a bet, Edgeworth invented (c.1767) a mechanical telegraph system to convey the results of races at Newmarket to London faster than the fastest courier. This was some twenty years ahead of Chappé, the Frenchman to whom credit for invention of the telegraph is conventionally given. When not in London, Edgeworth lived at Hare Hatch near Reading, Berkshire. There he dabbled with mechanical devices, such as the moving or caterpillar track, which he patented, and built a novel carriage. This brought him into contact by letter with Dr Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of the scientist Charles Darwin. Dr Darwin lived in Lichfield and, having invited Edgeworth to visit, introduced him to other members of a group known as the Lunar Society. These included the manufacturers Matthew Boulton and Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen, and James Watt of steam-engine fame. In due course Edgeworth moved to Lichfield, where he played an important role in the local artistic and cultural life.
Although married, Edgeworth fell in love with Honora, daughter of Edward Sneyd, a young lady who was a star of Lichfield society. To avoid temptation, he travelled to France in 1771/2. While in Lyons, he assisted with the diversion of the river Rhône. He devised a barge which deposited rocks and soil to build up the new banks at points where the fast-flowing river was washing away all the material being placed there by older methods. His first wife died in England (March 1773) and Edgeworth travelled back to his family and friends in Lichfield. He married Honora Sneyd on 17 July 1773; by her, he had one son and one daughter. Edgeworth and his wife developed a system of education for their family which was an improvement on the principles of Rousseau, which he had adopted for his eldest son. Honora died of consumption 30 April 1780. Edgeworth then married (26 December 1780) her sister Elizabeth. This marriage produced five sons and four daughters. They continued the education of the growing family along the principles established earlier. While living in England, Edgeworth was an active member of, and wrote a number of papers for, the Royal Society over the years and was elected a fellow in 1781.
When the family returned to Ireland in 1782, Edgeworth faced the problem of draining the bog land which comprised the main part of his estate in central Ireland. The cutting of drainage channels and fertilising of the reclaimed land could be eased by the use of carts, but these, if built to conventional designs, had a tendency to sink into the soft ground. Although he had already patented a jointed endless track, he developed a system of movable rails to spread the loads. Having an adequate supply of horses and a limited supply of fuel, he did not turn his fertile mind to the problem of mechanical power; but had he done so, or needed to do so, the history of transport might have been very different.
Edgeworth moved back and forward between Ireland and England over the next ten years. In 1794, around the onset of the troubles that preceded the rebellion of 1798, Edgeworth resurrected his ideas for a telegraph system to warn the government of a possible French invasion of Ireland. He invented a portable system which could be easily deployed wherever it was needed, thereby reducing the cost to the government. This was demonstrated to the lord lieutenant and chief secretary, was well received, but was not adopted, much to his displeasure. However, in 1803 the new administration carried out full-scale trials between Dublin and Galway but still did not adopt the system on a national basis.
Edgeworth was returned to the Irish parliament in 1798 for the seat of St Johnstown, a pocket borough in the gift of his friend Lord Granard (qv). He favoured union with Britain on economic grounds, but believed that most people opposed it, and so voted against the proposed act. He was also deterred from voting in support of the second act by the open bribery and corruption of the government party in forcing through the measure.
Elizabeth Edgeworth died of consumption in November 1797. Edgeworth married for the fourth time on 31 May 1798. This time his bride, Frances Beaufort, was Irish and the daughter of a clergyman. She bore him three sons and four daughters. He spent his remaining years involved in the literary works of his daughter Maria and in practical experimentation. His work on the reclamation of the bogs continued, and he added much to the knowledge of construction of roads and carriages. For his work on the latter subject he was elected to honorary membership of the Dublin Society. He died 13 June 1817 in Edgeworthstown.
As well as numerous articles in magazines and the Transactions of the Royal Society and the Royal Irish Academy, listed in Clarke, Edgeworth wrote on a number of subjects: Practical education; or Harry and Lucy (Lichfield, 1780); Essays on practical education (2 vols, London, 1798); A rational primer (London, 1799); Speeches in parliament (London, 1800); Essay on Irish bulls (London, 1802); Professional education (London, 1808); ‘Report on district no. 7’ in Second report of the commissioners for improving the bogs of Ireland (London, 1810); Essay on the construction of wheels and carriages (London, 1813); Early lessons (2 vols, London, 1816); Experiments on carriage wheels (Dublin, 1817); School lessons (Dublin, 1817); and Memoirs (Dublin, 1817). A portrait by John Comerford (qv) is in the NGI.