John_Wilkinson_(industrialist)

John Wilkinson (industrialist)

John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson (1728 – 1808) was an English industrialist who suggested the use of cast iron for many roles where other materials had previously been used.

Biography

Early life

John Wilkinson was born in Clifton, near Workington, Cumberland, the son of Isaac Wilkinson, who was then the potfounder at the blast furnace there, one of the first to use coke instead of charcoal, which was pioneered by Abraham Darby. John and his brother William, who was 17 years younger, were raised in a non-conformist Presbyterian family. His sister Mary married another non-conformist, Joseph Priestley in 1762. Priestley also played a role in educating John's younger brother, William.

When John was 17, he was apprenticed to an ironmonger at Liverpool and became an ironmonger himself about five years later. John probably worked with his father in his foundry (which included a blast furnace) at Bersham in Denbighshire, but in the late 1750s he established, with partners, ironworks at Willey, near Broseley in Shropshire.

Professional life

In 1761, he took over Bersham Ironworks as well. In 1766 he established the Bradley works in Bilston parish, near Wolverhampton. This became his largest and most successful enterprise, and was the site of extensive experiments in getting raw coal to substitute for coke in the production of cast iron. At its peak, it included a number of blast furnaces, a brick works, potteries, glass works, and rolling mills. The Birmingham Canal was subsequently built near the Bradley works.

Among his products were cannons. These were difficult to cast as the presence of 'honeycombs' (blow holes) was unacceptable to the Board of Ordnance. Traditional cannons had been cast with a core, but in 1774 Wilkinson proposed casting them solid and boring out the core afterwards. Cannons had long been bored to remove imperfections in the casting, but casting them solid and boring out the core after made them much better cannons. Wilksinson also invented and patented in 1775 a new kind of boring machine, that drilled a more precise hole. Unfortunately for him, his invention was not novel, and his patent was eventually repealed.

Another important product was steam engine cylinders. Because his cylinders were so accurately bored, he became the main supplier of these for Boulton & Watt, and also licensed steam engines from them to assist in his ironworks. He also encouraged them to provide steam engines to operate forges, and rotary engines for driving mills, the first rotary engine being installed at Bradley in 1783.

Unknown to Boulton & Watt, Wilkinson was also producing complete "pirated" engines. This was leaked to them by Wilkinson's younger brother, William, after he returned from Europe in the late 1780s and the two had had an argument over their partnership in certain works. Boulton & Watt sued him. As their steam engine patent would soon expire, they established their own Soho Foundry at Smethwick so as to sell complete engines, rather than merely designing them and collecting a royalty.

In 1779 Wilkinson was also a major shareholder in the Iron Bridge, encouraging the other shareholders to make the bridge entirely from iron, though it was Abraham Darby III, rather than he, who actually built it. In 1787 he launched the first iron barge, constructed in Broseley. He patented several other inventions.

By 1796, when he was 68, he was producing about one eighth of Britain's cast iron. He became a titan: very wealthy, and somewhat eccentric.

His "iron madness" reached a peak in the 1790s, when he had almost everything around him made of iron, even several coffins and a massive obelisk to mark his grave.

Family life, and death

John married Ann Maudsley in 1759. Her family was wealthy and her dowry helped to pay for a share in the New Willey Company. After the death of Ann, his second marriage , when he was 35, was to Mary Lee, whose money helped him to buy out his partners. When he was in his seventies, his mistress Mary Ann Lewis, a maid at his estate in Brymbo, gave birth to his only children, a boy and two girls. He died on July 14 1808 at his works in Bradley, Staffordshire, probably from diabetes. He was buried at his estate, Castlehead, near near Lindale-in-Cartmel in Cumbria.

He left a very large estate in his will (more than ₤130000), which he intended to make his three children the principal heirs, with executors to manage the estate for the children. It was largely dissipated by lawsuits and poor management by 1828. His corpse in the iron coffin was moved several times over the next decades, and is now lost.

References

Soldon, Norbert C. John Wilkinson (1728-1808), English Ironmaster and Inventor, Studies in British History, Vol 49, Edwin Mellen Press, (1998) ISBN 0-7734-8268-7.

External links

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