Jump to content
Sign in to follow this  

Iron Workers And Tool Makers

Recommended Posts


From 1863 First Edition :


The most relevant chapter reproduced below :



"It may be averred that as certainly as the age of iron superseded

that of bronze, so will the age of steel reign triumphant over


"Aujourd'hui la revolution que devait amener en Grande-Bretagne la

memorable decouverte de Benjamin Huntsman est tout a fait

accomplie, et chaque jour les consequetces sen feront plus vivement

sentir sur le confinent."--LE PLAY, Sur la Fabricatio n de l' Acier

en Yorkshire.

Iron, besides being used in various forms as bar and cast iron, is

also used in various forms as bar and cast steel; and it is

principally because of its many admirable qualities in these latter

forms that iron maintains its supremacy over all the other metals.

The process of converting iron into steel had long been known among

the Eastern nations before it was introduced into Europe. The Hindoos

were especially skilled in the art of making steel, as indeed they

are to this day; and it is supposed that the tools with which the

Egyptians covered their obelisks and temples of porphyry and syenite

with hieroglyphics were made of Indian steel, as probably no other

metal was capable of executing such work. The art seems to have been

well known in Germany in the Middle Ages, and the process is on the

whole very faithfully described by Agricola in his great work on



AGRICOLA, De Re Metallica. Basle, 1621.


England then produced very little steel, and was mainly dependent for

its supply of the article upon the continental makers.

From an early period Sheffield became distinguished for its

manufacture of iron and steel into various useful articles. We find

it mentioned in the thirteenth century as a place where the best

arrowheads were made,--the Earl of Richmond owing his success at the

battle of Bosworth partly to their superior length, sharpness, and

finish. The manufactures of the town became of a more pacific

character in the following centuries, during which knives, tools, and

implements of husbandry became the leading articles.

Chaucer's reference to the 'Sheffield thwytel' (or case-knife) in his

Canterbury Tales, written about the end of the fourteenth century,

shows that the place had then become known for its manufacture of

knives. In 1575 we find the Earl of Shrewsbury presenting to his

friend Lord Burleigh "a case of Hallamshire whittells, being such

fruites as his pore cuntrey affordeth with fame throughout the

realme." Fuller afterwards speaks of the Sheffield knives as "for

common use of the country people," and he cites an instance of a

knave who cozened him out of fourpence for one when it was only worth

a penny.

In 1600 Sheffield became celebrated for its tobacco-boxes and

Jew's-harps. The town was as yet of small size and population; for

when a survey of it was made in 1615 it was found to contain not more

than 2207 householders, of whom one-third, or 725, were "not able to

live without the charity of their neighbours: these are all Begging



The Rev. JOSEPH HUNTER, History of Hallamshire.


It must, however, have continued its manufacture of knives; for we

find that the knife with which Felton stabbed the Duke of Buckingham

at Portsmouth in 1628 was traced to Sheffield. The knife was left

sticking in the duke's body, and when examined was found to bear the

Sheffield corporation mark. It was ultimately ascertained to have

been made by one Wild, a cutler, who had sold the knife for tenpence

to Felton when recruiting in the town. At a still later period, the

manufacture of clasp or spring knives was introduced into Sheffield

by Flemish workmen. Harrison says this trade was begun in 1650. The

clasp-knife was commonly known in the North as a jocteleg. Hence

Burns, describing the famous article treasured by Captain Grose the

antiquarian, says that--

"It was a faulding jocteleq,

Or lang-kail gully;"

the word being merely a corruption of Jacques de Liege, a famous

foreign cutler, whose knives were as well known throughout Europe as

those of Rogers or Mappin are now. Scythes and sickles formed other

branches of manufacture introduced by the Flemish artisans, the

makers of the former principally living in the parish of Norton,

those of the latter in Eckington.

Many improvements were introduced from time to time in the material

of which these articles were made. Instead of importing the German

steel, as it was called, the Sheffield manufacturers began to make it

themselves, principally from Dannemora iron imported from Sweden. The

first English manufacturer of the article was one Crowley, a

Newcastle man; and the Sheffield makers shortly followed his example.

We may here briefly state that the ordinary method of preparing this

valuable material of manufactures is by exposing iron bars, placed in

contact with roughly-granulated charcoal, to an intense heat,--the

process lasting for about a week, more or less, according to the

degree of carbonization required. By this means, what is called

BLISTERED STEEL is produced, and it furnishes the material out of

which razors, files, knives, swords, and various articles of hardware

are manufactured. A further process is the manufacture of the metal

thus treated into SHEAR STEEL, by exposing a fasciculus of the

blistered steel rods, with sand scattered over them for the purposes

of a flux, to the heat of a wind-furnace until the whole mass becomes

of a welding heat, when it is taken from the fire and drawn out under

a forge-hammer,--the process of welding being repeated, after which

the steel is reduced to the required sizes. The article called ******

steel is made after a somewhat similar process.

But the most valuable form in which steel is now used in the

manufactures of Sheffield is that of cast-steel, in which iron is

presented in perhaps its very highest state of perfection. Cast-steel

consists of iron united to carbon in an elastic state together with a

small portion of oxygen; whereas crude or pig iron consists of iron

combined with carbon in a material state.*


MUSHET, Papers On Iron and Steel.


chief merits of cast-steel consist in its possessing great cohesion

and closeness of grain, with an astonishing degree of tenacity and

flexibility,-- qualities which render it of the highest value in all

kinds of tools and instruments where durability, polish, and fineness

of edge are essential requisites. It is to this material that we are

mainly indebted for the exquisite cutting instrument of the surgeon,

the chisel of the sculptor, the steel plate on which the engraver

practises his art, the cutting tools employed in the various

processes of skilled handicraft, down to the common saw or the axe

used by the backwoodsman in levelling the primeval forest.

The invention of cast-steel is due to Benjamin Huntsman, of

Attercliffe, near Sheffield. M. Le Play, Professor of Metallurgy in

the Royal School of Mines of France, after making careful inquiry and

weighing all the evidence on the subject, arrived at the conclusion

that the invention fairly belongs to Huntsman. The French professor

speaks of it as a "memorable discovery," made and applied with

admirable perseverance; and he claims for its inventor the

distinguished merit of advancing the steel manufactures of Yorkshire

to the first rank, and powerfully contributing to the establishment

on a firm foundation of the industrial and commercial supremacy of

Great Britain. It is remarkable that a French writer should have been

among the first to direct public attention to the merits of this

inventor, and to have first published the few facts known as to his

history in a French Government Report,--showing the neglect which men

of this class have heretofore received at home, and the much greater

esteem in which they are held by scientific foreigners.*


M. Le Play's two elaborate and admirable reports on the manufacture

of steel, published in the Annales des Mines, vols. iii. and ix., 4th

series, are unique of their kind, and have as yet no counterpart in

English literature. They are respectively entitled 'Memoire sur la

Fabrication de l'Acier en Yorkshire,' and 'Memoire sur le

Fabrication et le Commerce des Fers a Acier dans le Nord de



Le Play, in his enthusiastic admiration of the discoverer of so

potent a metal as cast-steel, paid a visit to Huntsman's grave in

Atterclifle Churchyard, near Sheffield, and from the inscription on

his tombstone recites the facts of his birth, his death, and his

brief history. With the assistance of his descendants, we are now

enabled to add the following record of the life and labours of this

remarkable but almost forgotten man.

Benjamin Huntsman was born in Lincolnshire in the year 1704. His

parents were of German extraction, and had settled in this country

only a few years previous to his birth. The boy being of an ingenious

turn, was bred to a mechanical calling; and becoming celebrated for

his expertness in repairing clocks, he eventually set up in business

as a clock maker and mender in the town of Doncaster. He also

undertook various other kinds of metal work, such as the making and

repairing of locks, smoke-jacks, roasting-jacks, and other articles

requiring mechanical skill. He was remarkably shrewd, observant,

thoughtful, and practical; so much so that he came to be regarded as

the "wise man" of his neighbourhood, and was not only consulted as to

the repairs of machinery, but also of the human frame. He practised

surgery with dexterity, though after an empirical fashion, and was

held in especial esteem as an oculist. His success was such that his

advice was sought in many surgical diseases, and he was always ready

to give it, but declined receiving any payment in return.

In the exercise of his mechanical calling, he introduced several

improved tools, but was much hindered by the inferior quality of the

metal supplied to him, which was common German steel. He also

experienced considerable difficulty in finding a material suitable

for the springs and pendulums of his clocks. These circumstances

induced him to turn his attention to the making of a better kind of

steel than was then procurable, for the purposes of his trade. His

first experiments were conducted at Doncaster;*


There are several clocks still in existence in the neighbourhood of

Doncaster made by Benjamin Huntsman; and there is one in the

possession of his grandson, with a pendulum made of cast-steel. The

manufacture of a pendulum of such a material at that early date is

certainly curious; its still perfect spring and elasticity showing

the scrupulous care with which it had been made.


but as fuel was difficult to be had at that place, he determined, for

greater convenience, to remove to the neighbourhood of Sheffield,

which he did in 1740. He first settled at Handsworth, a few miles to

the south of that town, and there pursued his investigations in

secret. Unfortunately, no records have been preserved of the methods

which he adopted in overcoming the difficulties he had necessarily to

encounter. That they must have been great is certain, for the process

of manufacturing cast-steel of a first-rate quality even at this day

is of a most elaborate and delicate character, requiring to be

carefully watched in its various stages. He had not only to discover

the fuel and flux suitable for his purpose, but to build such a

furnace and make such a crucible as should sustain a heat more

intense than any then known in metallurgy. Ingot-moulds had not yet

been cast, nor were there hoops and wedges made that would hold them

together, nor, in short, were any of those materials at his disposal

which are now so familiar at every melting-furnace.

Huntsman's experiments extended over many years before the desired

result was achieved. Long after his death, the memorials of the

numerous failures through which he toilsomely worked his way to

success, were brought to light in the shape of many hundredweights of

steel, found buried in the earth in different places about his

manufactory. From the number of these wrecks of early experiments, it

is clear that he had worked continuously upon his grand idea of

purifying the raw steel then in use, by melting it with fluxes at an

intense heat in closed earthen crucibles. The buried masses were

found in various stages of failure, arising from imperfect melting,

breaking of crucibles, and bad fluxes; and had been hid away as so

much spoiled steel of which nothing could be made. At last his

perseverance was rewarded, and his invention perfected; and though a

hundred years have passed since Huntsman's discovery, the description

of fuel (coke) which he first applied for the purpose of melting the

steel, and the crucibles and furnaces which he used, are for the most

part similar to those in use at the present day. Although the making

of cast-steel is conducted with greater economy and dexterity, owing

to increased experience, it is questionable whether any maker has

since been able to surpass the quality of Huntsman's manufacture.

The process of making cast-steel, as invented by Benjamin Huntsman,

may be thus summarily described. The melting is conducted in clay

pots or crucibles manufactured for the purpose, capable of holding

about 34 lbs. each. Ten or twelve of such crucibles are placed in a

melting-furnace similar to that used by brass founders; and when the

furnace and pots are at a white heat, to which they are raised by a

coke fire, they are charged with bar steel reduced to a certain

degree of hardness, and broken into pieces of about a pound each.

When the pots are all thus charged with steel, lids are placed over

them, the furnace is filled with coke, and the cover put down. Under

the intense heat to which the metal is exposed, it undergoes an

apparent ebullition. When the furnace requires feeding, the workmen

take the opportunity of lifting the lid of each crucible and judging

how far the process has advanced. After about three hours' exposure

to the heat, the metal is ready for "teeming." The completion of the

melting process is known by the subsidence of all ebullition, and by

the clear surface of the melted metal, which is of a dazzling

brilliancy like the sun when looked at with the naked eye on a clear

day. The pots are then lifted out of their place, and the liquid

steel is poured into ingots of the shape and size required. The pots

are replaced, filled again, and the process is repeated; the red-hot

pots thus serving for three successive charges, after which they are

rejected as useless.

When Huntsman had perfected his invention, it would naturally occur

to him that the new metal might be employed for other purposes

besides clock-springs and pendulums. The business of clock-making was

then of a very limited character, and it could scarcely have been

worth his while to pursue so extensive and costly a series of

experiments merely to supply the requirements of that trade. It is

more probable that at an early stage of his investigations he

shrewdly foresaw the extensive uses to which cast-steel might be

applied in the manufacture of tools and cutlery of a superior kind;

and we accordingly find him early endeavouring to persuade the

manufacturers of Sheffield to employ it in the manufacture of knives

and razors. But the cutlers obstinately refused to work a material so

much harder than that which they had been accustomed to use; and for

a time he gave up all hopes of creating a demand in that quarter.

Foiled in his endeavours to sell his steel at home, Huntsman turned

his attention to foreign markets; and he soon found he could readily

sell abroad all that he could make. The merit of employing cast-steel

for general purposes belongs to the French, always so quick to

appreciate the advantages of any new discovery, and for a time the

whole of the cast-steel that Huntsman could manufacture was exported

to France. When he had fairly established his business with that

country, the Sheffield cutlers became alarmed at the reputation which

cast-steel was acquiring abroad; and when they heard of the

preference displayed by English as well as French consumers for the

cutlery manufactured of that metal, they readily apprehended the

serious consequences that must necessarily result to their own trade

if cast-steel came into general use. They then appointed a deputation

to wait upon Sir George Savile, one of the members for the county of

York, and requested him to use his influence with the government to

obtain an order to prohibit the exportation of cast-steel. But on

learning from the deputation that the Sheffield manufacturers

themselves would not make use of the new steel, he positively

declined to comply with their request. It was indeed fortunate for

the interests of the town that the object of the deputation was

defeated, for at that time Mr. Huntsman had very pressing and

favourable offers from some spirited manufacturers in Birmingham to

remove his furnaces to that place; and it is extremely probable that

had the business of cast-steel making become established there, one

of the most important and lucrative branches of its trade would have

been lost to the town of Sheffield.

The Sheffield makers were therefore under the necessity of using the

cast-steel, if they would retain their trade in cutlery against

France; and Huntsman's home trade rapidly increased. And then began

the efforts of the Sheffield men to wrest his secret from him. For

Huntsman had not taken out any patent for his invention, his only

protection being in preserving his process as much a mystery as

possible. All the workmen employed by him were pledged to inviolable

secrecy; strangers were carefully excluded from the works; and the

whole of the steel made was melted during the night. There were many

speculations abroad as to Huntsman's process. It was generally

believed that his secret consisted in the flux which he employed to

make the metal melt more readily; and it leaked out amongst the

workmen that he used broken bottles for the purpose. Some of the

manufacturers, who by prying and bribing got an inkling of the

process, followed Huntsman implicitly in this respect; and they would

not allow their own workmen to flux the pots lest they also should

obtain possession of the secret. But it turned out eventually that no

such flux was necessary, and the practice has long since been

discontinued. A Frenchman named Jars, frequently quoted by Le Play in

his account of the manufacture of steel in Yorkshire,*


Annales des Mines, vols. iii. and ix., 4th Series.


paid a visit to Sheffield towards the end of last century, and

described the process so far as he was permitted to examine it.

According to his statement all kinds of fragments of broken steel

were used; but this is corrected by Le Play, who states that only the

best bar steel manufactured of Dannemora iron was employed. Jars adds

that "the steel is put into the crucible with A FLUX, the composition

of which is kept secret;" and he states that the time then occupied

in the conversion was five hours.

It is said that the person who first succeeded in copying Huntsman's

process was an ironfounder named Walker, who carried on his business

at Greenside near Sheffield, and it was certainly there that the

making of cast-steel was next begun. Walker adopted the "ruse" of

disguising himself as a tramp, and, feigning great distress and

abject poverty, he appeared shivering at the door of Huntsman's

foundry late one night when the workmen were about to begin their

labours at steel-casting, and asked for admission to warm himself by

the furnace fire. The workmen's hearts were moved, and they permitted

him to enter. We have the above facts from the descendants of the

Huntsman family; but we add the traditional story preserved in the

neighbourhood, as given in a well-known book on metallurgy : --

"One cold winter's night, while the snow was falling in heavy flakes,

and the manufactory threw its red glared light over the

neighbourhood, a person of the most abject appearance presented

himself at the entrance, praying for permission to share the warmth

and shelter which it afforded. The humane workmen found the appeal

irresistible, and the apparent beggar was permitted to take up his

quarters in a warm corner of the building. A careful scrutiny would

have discovered little real sleep in the drowsiness which seemed to

overtake the stranger; for he eagerly watched every movement of the

workmen while they went through the operations of the newly

discovered process. He observed, first of all, that bars of blistered

steel were broken into small pieces, two or three inches in length,

and placed in crucibles of fire clay. When nearly full, a little

green glass broken into small fragments was spread over the top, and

the whole covered over with a closely-fitting cover. The crucibles

were then placed in a furnace previously prepared for them, and after

a lapse of from three to four hours, during which the crucibles were

examined from time to time to see that the metal was thoroughly

melted and incorporated, the workmen proceeded to lift the crucible

from its place on the furnace by means of tongs, and its molten

contents, blazing, sparkling, and spurting, were poured into a mould

of cast-iron previously prepared: here it was suffered to cool, while

the crucibles were again filled, and the process repeated. When cool,

the mould was unscrewed, and a bar of cast-steel presented itself,

which only required the aid of the hammerman to form a finished bar

of cast-steel. How the unauthorized spectator of these operations

effected his escape without detection tradition does not say; but it

tells us that, before many months had passed, the Huntsman

manufactory was not the only one where cast-steel was produced."*


The Useful Metals and their Alloys (p. 348), an excellent little

work, in which the process of cast-steel making will be found fully



However the facts may be, the discovery of the elder Huntsman proved

of the greatest advantage to Sheffield; for there is scarcely a

civilized country where Sheffield steel is not largely used, either

in its most highly finished forms of cutlery, or as the raw material

for some home manufacture. In the mean time the demand for Huntsman's

steel steadily increased, and in l770, for the purpose of obtaining

greater scope for his operations, he removed to a large new

manufactory which he erected at Attercliffe, a little to the north of

Sheffield, more conveniently situated for business purposes. There he

continued to flourish for six years more, making steel and practising

benevolence; for, like the Darbys and Reynoldses of Coalbrookdale, he

was a worthy and highly respected member of the Society of Friends.

He was well versed in the science of his day, and skilled in

chemistry, which doubtless proved of great advantage to him in

pursuing his experiments in metallurgy.*


We are informed that a mirror is still preserved at Attercliffe, made

by Huntsman in the days of his early experiments.


That he was possessed of great perseverance will be obvious from the

difficulties he encountered and overcame in perfecting his valuable

invention. He was, however, like many persons of strong original

character, eccentric in his habits and reserved in his manner. The

Royal Society wished to enrol him as a member in acknowledgment of

the high merit of his discovery of cast-steel, as well as because of

his skill in practical chemistry; but as this would have drawn him in

some measure from his seclusion, and was also, as he imagined,

opposed to the principles of the Society to which he belonged, he

declined the honour. Mr. Huntsman died in 1776, in his seventy-second

year, and was buried in the churchyard at Attercliffe, where a

gravestone with an inscription marks his resting-place.

His son continued to carry on the business, and largely extended its

operations. The Huntsman mark became known throughout the civilised

world. Le Play the French Professor of Metallurgy, in his Memoire of

1846, still speaks of the cast-steel bearing the mark of "Huntsman

and Marshall" as the best that is made, and he adds, "the buyer of

this article, who pays a higher price for it than for other sorts, is

not acting merely in the blind spirit of routine, but pays a logical

and well-deserved homage to all the material and moral qualities of

which the true Huntsman mark has been the guarantee for a century."*


Annales des Mines, vol. ix., 4th Series, 266.


Many other large firms now compete for their share of the trade; and

the extent to which it has grown, the number of furnaces constantly

at work, and the quantity of steel cast into ingots, to be tilted or

rolled for the various purposes to which it is applied, have rendered

Sheffield the greatest laboratory in the world of this valuable

material. Of the total quantity of cast-steel manufactured in

England, not less than five-sixths are produced there; and the

facilities for experiment and adaptation on the spot have enabled the

Sheffield steel-makers to keep the lead in the manufacture, and

surpass all others in the perfection to which they have carried this

important branch of our national industry. It is indeed a remarkable

fact that this very town, which was formerly indebted to Styria for

the steel used in its manufactures, now exports a material of its own

conversion to the Austrian forges and other places on the Continent

from which it was before accustomed to draw its own supplies.

Among the improved processes invented of late years for the

manufacture of steel are those of Heath, Mushet, and Bessemer. The

last promises to effect before long an entire revolution in the iron

and steel trade. By it the crude metal is converted by one simple

process, directly as it comes from the blast-furnace. This is

effected by driving through it, while still in a molten state,

several streams of atmospheric air, on which the carbon of the crude

iron unites with the oxygen of the atmosphere, the temperature is

greatly raised, and a violent ebullition takes place, during which,

if the process be continued, that part of the carbon which appears to

be mechanically mixed and diffused through the crude iron is entirely

consumed. The metal becomes thoroughly cleansed, the slag is ejected

and removed, while the sulphur and other volatile matters are driven

off; the result being an ingot of malleable iron of the quality of

charcoal iron. An important. feature in the process is, that by

stopping it at a particular stage, immediately following the boil,

before the whole of the carbon has been abstracted by the oxygen, the

crude iron will be found to have passed into the condition of

cast-steel of ordinary quality. By continuing the process, the metal

losing its carbon, it passes from hard to soft steel, thence to

steely iron, and last of all to very soft iron; so that by

interrupting the process at any stage, or continuing it to the end,

almost any quality of iron and steel may be obtained. One of the most

valuable forms of the metal is described by Mr. Bessemer as

"semi-steel," being in hardness about midway between ordinary

cast-steel and soft malleable iron. The Bessemer processes are now in

full operation in England as well as abroad, both for converting

crude into malleable iron, and for producing steel; and the results

are expected to prove of the greatest practical utility in all cases

where iron and steel are extensively employed.

Yet, like every other invention, this of Mr. Bessemer had long been

dreamt of, if not really made. We are informed in Warner's Tour

through the Northern. Counties of England, published at Bath in l80L,

that a Mr. Reed of Whitehaven had succeeded at that early period in

making steel direct from the ore; and Mr. Mushet clearly alludes to

the process in his "Papers on Iron and Steel." Nevertheless, Mr.

Bessemer is entitled to the merit of working out the idea, and

bringing the process to perfection, by his great skill and

indomitable perseverance. In the Heath process, carburet of manganese

is employed to aid the conversion of iron into steel, while it also

confers on the metal the property of welding and working more soundly

under the hammer--a fact discovered by Mr. Heath while residing in

India. Mr. Mushet's process is of a similar character. Another

inventor, Major Uchatius, an Austrian engineer, granulates crude iron

while in a molten state by pouring it into water, and then subjecting

it to the process of conversion. Some of the manufacturers still

affect secrecy in their operations; but as one of the Sanderson

firm--famous for the excellence of their steel--remarked to a visitor

when showing him over their works, "the great secret is to have the

courage to be honest--a spirit to purchase the best material, and the

means and disposition to do justice to it in the manufacture."

It remains to be added, that much of the success of the Sheffield

manufactures is attributable to the practical skill of the workmen,

who have profited by the accumulated experience treasured up by their

class through many generations. The results of the innumerable

experiments conducted before their eyes have issued in a most

valuable though unwritten code of practice, the details of which are

known only to themselves. They are also a most laborious class; and

Le Play says of them, when alluding to the fact of a single workman

superintending the operations of three steel-casting furnaces--"I

have found nowhere in Europe, except in England, workmen able for an

entire day, without any interval of rest, to undergo such toilsome

and exhausting labour as that performed by these Sheffield workmen."

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Good find !

there is a nice etching in the 1901 edition.

Share this post

Link to post
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
Sign in to follow this  

  • Create New...