Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Huntsman, Benjamin

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search

HUNTSMAN, BENJAMIN (1704–1776), inventor of cast steel, was born of German parentage in Lincolnshire in 1704. He became a skilful mechanic, and eventually started in business as a clockmaker in Doncaster. He also made and repaired locks, jacks, and other articles requiring delicate workmanship. His sagacity caused him to be looked upon as the 'wise man' of the neighbourhood. He even practised surgery as an empiric, and was regarded as a clever oculist, but he always gave medical aid free of charge.

In introducing several improved tools Huntsman was much hindered by the inferior quality of the common German steel supplied to him, which he also found unsuitable for the springs and pendulums of his clocks. He therefore determined to make a better kind of steel. His first experiments were conducted at Doncaster, but in 1740 he removed for greater convenience of fuel to Handsworth, a few miles to the south of Sheffield, and there pursued his investigations in secret. His experiments extended over many years. Long after his death many hundredweights of steel were found buried in different places about his manufactory in various stages of failure, arising from imperfect melting, breaking of crucibles, and bad fluxes. His idea was to purify the raw steel then in use by melting it with fluxes at an intense heat in closed earthen crucibles. When Huntsman had perfected his invention, he endeavoured to persuade the cutlers of Sheffield to employ it. They refused, however, to work a material so much harder than the ordinary steel, and for a time the whole of the cast steel that Huntsman could manufacture was exported to France. The Sheffield cutlers ultimately became alarmed at the preference shown by English as well as French consumers for cast-steel cutlery. But Sir George Savile, the senior member of parliament for the county of York, refused the request of a deputation of Sheffield cutlers to use his influence with the government so as to prohibit the exportation of cast steel, on learning that the Sheffield manufacturers would not make use of the new steel. Had Savile yielded to the deputation, it is probable that the business of cast-steel making would have been lost to Sheffield, for at that time Huntsman had advantageous offers from some manufacturers in Birmingham to remove his furnaces thither. Obliged to use the cast steel, the Sheffield makers strove by bribery and otherwise to learn the secret of Huntsman's invention. As Huntsman had not patented his process, his only protection was in preserving it as much a mystery as possible. 'All his workmen were pledged to secrecy, strangers were carefully excluded from the works, and the whole of the steel made was melted during the night.' 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, disguised as a tramp, appeared shivering at the door of Huntsman's foundry late one wintry night, when the workmen were about to begin, obtained permission to warm himself by the furnace fire, and when supposed to be asleep watched the process.

The increased demand for Huntsman's steel compelled him in 1770 to remove to larger premises of his own erection at Attercliffe, north of Sheffield. He died in 1776, in his seventy-second year, and was buried in Attercliffe churchyard. His son, William Huntsman (1733-1809), continued to carry on the business, and greatly extended it. Huntsman was an excellent chemist, and had good knowledge of other sciences. The Royal Society wished to elect him a fellow, but he declined the honour. Although of eccentric habits and reserved in his manner, he practised a large benevolence. In religion he was a quaker.

[Smiles's Industrial Biog., 1879, pp. 102-11; F. Le Play in Annales des Mines, 4th ser. iii. 638. ix. 218.]

G. G.