Birmingham: ‘an immense workshop, a huge forge, a vast shop’ (de Tocqueville).

Richard Prosser (1838-1918), who spent his working life at H.M. Patent Office, told the history of the British Industrial Revolution through the patents registered between 1722 and 1852. In Birmingham: Inventors and Inventions (1881) he draws upon his experience to record the patented major and minor inventions from the West Midlands that contributed to Britain’s industrialization. With a more than a touch of local pride he claims that ‘very few realise’ that until the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 Birmingham and the West Midlands were the provincial leaders in the number of patents which the Office granted, and the city’s total of 776 granted between 1722 and 1852 testifies to an inventiveness which only Manchester and the North East rivalled (Prosser, 3).

Because ‘Brummagen’ artisans were pioneers in metalwork, especially in iron, many of the patents involved metal inventions. John Leland and William Dugdale, two pre-eighteenth-century observers, commented on the town’s manufacture of iron goods. Leland, who visited in 1538, recorded that ‘There be many smithes in the towne that use to make knives and all maner of cuttynge tooles, and many lorimers that make byts, and a greate many naylors. So that a great parte of the towne is mayntayned by smithes’ (96-97). Dugdale, the antiquarian, visited during the Interregnum (1649-1660), observing that the area was widely known as a place ‘very eminent’ for its iron goods (897). In the eighteenth century, Brummagen artisans developed a substantial national trade in ‘buckles, guns, toys and other metal ware (Mokyr, 18). According to Willey's History and Guide to Birmingham (1868), the ‘manufactures of Birmingham are almost infinite in their variety… From a pin to a steam engine, from pens to swords and guns, from ‘cheap and nasty’ wares sold at country-fairs by cheap Johns to the exquisitely beautiful and elaborate gold and silver services which adorn mansions of the rich...all things are made in this hive of industry, and give employment to its thousands of men, women, and children (vi). Statistics from History and Directory of Birmingham for 1849 show that Birmingham artisans included 12 edge tool manufacturers, 18 metal rollers, 2 steel pen manufacturers, 32 heavy steel toy and tool manufacturers, 49 iron founders, 51 silver and plated wire manufacturers, 53 nail manufacturers (brass, cut, forged, horse, malleable iron, and brass beaded), and 97 gun and pistol manufacturers. According to Jones, by the end of the eighteenth-century Birmingham served as the hub of an integrated regional economy (22) with ‘a specific hardware vocation’(25).

Commentators on Birmingham’s development often accorded the town a special status. Samuel Johnson, though not always flattering to Birmingham, dubbed it 'the seat of the mechanic arts' (Boswell, ii. 464n), and in 1780, in the preface to his History of Birmingham William Hutton noted that from relative obscurity Birmingham had become widely known as 'a place very eminent for most commodities made of iron' (p. vi.). By 1791 it had become known as ‘The First Manufacturing Town in the World’ (Hopkins, 26). Later, Samuel Jones reported to the Commissioners of the Birmingham Street Act that in 1849 the town featured 224 steam engine chimneys, 297 furnaces, 50 muffles, annealing pots and stoves, 22 puddling and tube furnaces, 6 glass houses, and 2 gas works (48). But even though William Hutton regarded it as ‘one of the most singular places in the universe’, the town had ‘never manufactured an history of herself, who has manufactured almost everything else’. Perhaps he was promoting his own project when he noted that for many years 'not one among her numerous sons of industry’ has snatched ‘the manners of the day from oblivion’, grouped them ‘in design, with the touches of his pen’ and exhibited ‘the picture to posterity’ (vii.).

However, the above comments and descriptions of Birmingham industry are simply observations, not explanations. As it turned out, it was not ‘a son of industry’ who produced a most perceptive explanation of Birmingham’s success. Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859),the French political scientist, historian, and politician who visited Birmingham in 1835, praised its artisans’ energy, inventiveness, and Mammon worship:

We found as much goodwill here as in London; but there is hardly any likeness between these two societies. These folk never have a minute to themselves. They work as if they must get rich by the evening and die the next day. They are generally very intelligent people, but intelligent in the American way (i.e. inventive). The town itself has no analogy with other English provincial towns; the whole place is made up out of streets like the rue du Faubourg St-Antoine. It is an immense workshop, a huge forge, a vast shop. One only sees busy people and faces brown with smoke. One hears nothing but the sound of hammers and the whistle of steam escaping from boilers. One might be down a mine in the New World. Everything is black, dirty, and obscure, although every instant it is winning silver and gold. [Journeys to England Ireland 94]

Here de Tocqueville identified what drove the mass production of ‘almost everything’ (Hutton, vii): high inventiveness and energy. In 1881, looking back over two hundred years of Birmingham industry, Prosser’s Birmingham Inventors and Inventions testifies to the inventiveness of the great inventors like John Wyatt (1700-1776) and Lewis Paul (?-1759) and also of the small-time inventors whose contributions we should not overlook. The following selections from History and Directory of Birmingham (1849) and Prosser’s Birmingham Inventors and Inventions (1881) illustrate (1) the variety of the city’s inventiveness; (2) the way that both great and small furthered technological development; (3) how they responded to the different demands which manufacturers looked to them to fulfil; and, finally, (4) how they catered for the fashions created by the manufacturers.

The work force was plentiful, and consumers were only too ready to buy. The History and Directory of Birmingham records that in 1849 the following artisans and small businesses operated in the city: Silver and Plated Wire Manufacturers, 51; Iron Founders, 50; Tool Makers, 49; Steel Pen Manufacturers, 40; Engineers and Machinists, 36; Hinge Manufacturers, 26; Hook and Eye Makers, 22; Metal Rollers 18 including ‘G. F. and P. H. Muntz; Railway Coach Builders’, 5; Railway Contractors, 5; Iron Masters, 4; Railway Handle Manufacturers and Platers, 3; Railway Spike Makers, 2; Railway Break and Connecting Iron Manufacturers, 1; Railway Whistle Maker, 1.

The 1767 ‘Directory’ commented on the Brummagen penchant for metal: ‘Trinkets, Seals, Tweezer and Tooth-Pick cases, Smelling Bottles, Snuff Boxes, and Filigree Work, such as Toilets, Tea Chests, Inkstands, &c &c. The Tortoise Shell Maker makes a beautiful variety of the above and other Articles; as does also the Steel; who make Cork screws, Buckles, Draw and other boxes; Snuffers, Watch Chains, Sugar knippers (sic) &c. and almost all of these are likewise made in various metals’ (56). Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), who played a key role, impressed foreign visitors ‘by the speed and ingenuity with which he was able to cater for, and even anticipate, the whim of fashion’ (Jones, 13).

Examples of Patents Registered in Birmingham

Between 1722 and 1852 Birmingham inventors, who exploited new forms of metal technology, took out 127 patents for household items, including inkstands: (1840, (twice), 1842, 1845, 1846, and 1847; lamps: 1812, 1838, 1840, 1841, 1842 (twice). Some modernised cooking apparatus. For example, John Heard patented a free standing range for roasting, boiling, and baking, ‘complete with warming compartment’ (174); in 1806 Ralph Sutton patented a method for cooking by steam or hot water (163); in 1821 John Slater a ‘Kitchen Range’ (177); in 1840 Richard Prosser, the father to Richard Bissell, and James Rippon ‘Stoves and Cooking Apparatus’ (212); John Britten in 1849 for ‘Cooking ranges and apparatus, bread-slicers, sugar nippers &c’. The inventors gave equally important domestic items the same treatment: there were patents for ‘Bedsteads’: one in each year 1831, 1836, 1841 (metallic), 1843; two in 1848; two in 1850, and one in 1851. There were patents for umbrellas and parasols: 1780, 1786 (twice), 1802 (twice),1808 (twice), 1809, 1810, 1811, 1821,1823, 1826, 1840, and 1852. Henry Holland patented his umbrella with hollow ribs and stretchers in 1840 and exhibited it in the Great Exhibition of 1851. A Mr. Fox (of Sheffield) patented an improved version in 1852.

Clearly the inventors applied their metal-working skills to domestic goods, work that reflected the revolution in iron making. John Baskerville, who described himself as a ‘Japanner’, patented ‘Metal plates and mouldings’; John Talbot, ‘Filesmith’, patented a ‘Machine for grinding metal bars’ in 1778; and Joseph Ashton, ‘Founder’, patented cast iron buttons in 1786. In an age of military expansion, armaments expectedly accounted for 30 patents, but surprisingly only a few of the early one belonged to the major revolution developing in the cotton industry. Lewis Paul, ‘gentlemen’, patented ‘Spinning cotton’ in 1738 and a ‘Carding engine’ in 1748. And in the railway age, apart from patents for various kinds of steam engine, patents for materials directly related to the new railway totaled only 10. These included a patent which Joseph Gillott, steel-pen maker, and Thomas Walker, machinist, took out in 1839 for ’Safety-valves; railway carriage buffers; wheels and axles for carriages; spark arresters; substitute for crank’. John Todd and William Johnston’s 1846 patented a means of ‘Arranging the rails in engine or railway carriage sheds, and an improved switch box’, and in 1848 John Britten’s patented ‘Stoves, ventilating apparatus, gas burners, carriage windows, door springs and fastenings’ (221). William Church, who considered the everyday business of British railways, received a patent in 1850 for ‘Cutting pasteboard, and numbering and printing railway tickets’.

Despite the its filth and smoke, Birmingham became an attractive place to work, and consequently not every Birmingham inventor came from the city. For instance, William Small (who received a patent for improvements to clocks in 1773) came from Scotland. He went to America, became Professor of Natural Philosophy at the University of Williamsburg, but finding that the climate did not suit him, came to England, settling in Birmingham as a physician. Benjamin Franklin introduced him to Matthew Boulton, and he became close friends with another Scotsman, James Watt of steam engine fame (1736-1819), with whom he worked closely on clock mechanisms. Matthew Boulton, who devised means of creating ‘Ormolu’, laying enamel onto buckles, and coining machinery, came from Lichfield, as did William Withering (digitalis); and William Brown (‘Electric telegraphs and cocks’, 1849) came from London. William Church, a most prolific and versatile inventor, was an American born in Vermont who moved to Birmingham for the opportunities that it offered to a man of his talents. In 1824 he patented ‘Printing machinery’, ‘Casting metals’, and ‘Augers and boring bits’; in 1825 ‘Casting metals under pressure’ and a second version of ‘Printing machinery’; in 1827 ‘Spinning machinery’; in 1829 ‘Covered buttons’; in 1830 ‘Furnaces for steam boilers, evaporating pans, &c.’, and a method for ‘Using corrugated iron in building ships, carriages, gasometers, &c.’; in 1831 ‘Nail-making machinery’; in 1832 ‘Steam carriages’ and again a ‘Nail-making machine’; in 1833 ‘Steam engines and boilers’; in 1835 ‘a Knife sharpener’, ‘Marine engines, paddle wheels, boilers, furnaces, &.’; in 1840 ‘Hooks and eyes’; and in association with Samuel Aspinwall Goddard and Edward Middleton, ‘Fire arms, ordnance, and rifling machine for fire arms’ in 1852.

This account would be incomplete without mentioning Roebuck, who in 1760 patented the process of ‘Making malleable iron’, from pig iron using coal instead of charcoal. He established an ironworks at Carron in Stirlingshire, Scotland, where he not only introduced Watt to Boulton but also introduced the conversion of cast iron into malleable iron by burning coke derived from bituminous coal. Prosser credits him ‘with the first practical application of the fact that lead would resist the action of sulphuric acid, and of ‘establishing a new manufacture within the realm’ to quote the words of the Statute of Monopolies’ (16).

James Watt whose name is now in common usage for a unit of electrical energy, was a major inventor whose work others developed. Describing himself as ‘engineer’ he patented ‘Copying letters’ in 1780, ‘Steam Engines’ in 1781, 1782, 1784, and ‘Furnaces’ in 1785, and, following his lead, in 1812 Philip Chell, Engineer, patented a ‘Rotary pump and rotary steam engine’; in 1819 and in 1820 William Burton, Engineer, patented a ‘Revolving furnace grate and steam engine piston’; in 1825 John Broomfield, Engineer, and Joseph Luckcock, Gentleman, patented a ‘Feathering paddle wheel and rotary steam engine’; and in 1837 William Taylor and Henry Davies, Engineers, both from the West Midlands, patented ‘Boiler feeding apparatus’, ‘rotary steam engines, and propelling mechanism for ships’. These examples exemplify both the collegiate work pattern that sustained imaginative improvements of existing inventions and the capacity for thinking out-of-the-box which characterized the industrial inventors and powered Britain’s Industrial Revolution.

That engineers should follow Watt’s development of the steam engine is to be expected, but it not only the engineers did so. Some inventors did not acknowledge craft boundaries. In 1780 James Pickard, Button Maker, patented a ‘Crank for Steam Engines’, a device for converting reciprocal into circular motion, and a borrowing from the traditional method of turning the treadle-wheel; in 1826 John Barron, Venetian Blind Maker, patented a method of ‘Feeding fuel to furnaces’; in 1817 and 1830 Benjamin Cook, Gilt Toy Maker, patented ‘Calico printing rollers’; in 1823 Thomas Attwood, banker, took out a patent for the same; and, most illustrious of all, Matthew Boulton, later to become world famous for ‘Boulton & Watt’ steam engines, began with ‘buttons, watch chains, and other trinkets’, invented ‘the in-laid steel buckles which shortly afterwards became the fashion’ (13), patented a ‘Coining press’ in 1790 and a ‘Hydraulic Ram’ in 1797. That a button maker should become a leading engineer and that a Venetian blind maker should involve himself in engineering was not surprising in nineteenth-century England. These neb demonstrated their inventiveness and versatility in a time when a man could move from ‘trinkets’ to steam engines, from making buttons to crank, and from bankering to calico printing rollers.

The Example of Birmingham Buttons

Brummagen button makers spectacularly exemplified this aspect of the Industrial Revolution. New industrial technology responded to the demand for decoration and fashion accessories. Before Elias Howe, Jr. (1819–1867) received a patent in 1851 for the revolutionary zip fastener, or ‘Automatic, Continuous Clothing Closure’, British button makers took out fifty-three patents between 1770 when John Smith, Jeweller, patented ‘Buttons’ and 1852 when George Twigg, Button maker patented ‘Buttons and clasps’. And button makers varied their materials. In 1778 Henry Clay, Japanner, patented ‘Papier maché buttons’; in 1786 John Eginton, Engraver, ‘Wood buttons’; in 1787 Joseph Rabone, Button maker, ‘Bone and Ivory Buttons’; in 1790 Henry Clay added ‘Slate or stone buttons’ to his ‘Papier maché buttons’; and as evidence of the technology involved in the production of buttons, in 1832 Thomas Wells Ingham, Die Sinker, patented a ‘Press for making horn buttons’, John Francis, Founder, ‘Cast iron buttons’, and Joseph Alston, Ironfounder, Buckle Maker and Button Maker, a method for ‘Casting buttons and buttons shanks’. John Lawrence, Silversmith, took the new technology in to a venerable area and patented ‘Spring girths for saddles’.

The list of those who took out patents for buttons reveals their + different skills: jeweller, japanner, toymaker, buckle maker, hook and eye maker, merchant, goldsmith, stamper, piercer, machinist, engineer, warehouseman, tool maker, founder, jobbing smith, silversmith – and one Charles Thomas Lutwyche, a gentleman, made gold and silver chains.

Today’s iron founders testify to Birmingham’s industrial heritage. In 1852 John Hand patented a method for plating cutlery ‘by which the operation was performed at a comparatively low temperature, thus obviating the risk injuring the temper of the blade’ (Prosser, 146) and took over the company belonging to James Slater, who patented a very elaborate cooking range in 1821. Elkington & Co, founded in Birmingham in the 1810s as Elkington and Geddes by Henry Elkington, ‘gentleman’ who patented ‘Steam engines, furnaces and boilers’ in 1837, now make hot brass pressings; and ‘Benton and Stone’, founded by Richard or Robert Benton, a land agent who patented ‘Propelling and retarding carriages on railways’ in 1842, sell Art Metal ware, and gas fittings. Some businesses however did not stay within national boundaries but went global.

Evolution of a Firm from Muntz Metal Company to W. Elliott and Sons

Around 1829 George Frederick Muntz (of ‘Muntz’s metal’ fame) established Muntz Metal Co., which specialized in wire drawers, rolling mills. It then had a chequered career consistent with the development of capitalist expansion through take-over. In 1842 they renamed themselves ‘French Walls Works’; in 1846 now named ‘G. F. & P. H. Muntz’ they produced metal rollers; in 1852 they became ‘Muntz Metal Company, manufacturers of patent yellow metal for sheathing ships’, and then in 1853 ‘W. Elliott and Sons’. In 1862 the company was incorporated as Elliots Patent Sheathing and Metal Co. Ltd., and in 1866 it took over the business of Charles Green, ‘Patent Brass Tube Maker’ who had patented ‘Railway wheel tyres’ and ‘Railway wheels’ in 1848. In 1873 they traded as ‘P H Muntz & Co (Yellow Metal)’, and in 1874, voluntarily wound up a new venture, ‘Elliott's Patent Sheathing and Metal Co’ and transferred the business to a new company ‘Elliott's Metal Co.’ In 1914 the company advertised itself as ‘Manufacturers of copper and brass plates etc. Specialities: copper and brass plates, sheets, tubes, rods and wire for all purposes and condenser plates and tubes of all alloys; also yellow metal in all forms. Specialise in hot working brass tubes and plates in any mixture, ‘Calido’ brand’.

I.C.I. Metals had extensive interests in Birmingham industry and acquired Elliott's Metal Company in 1928 and Allen Everitt and Sons, makers of brass, copper, and condenser tubes, in 1930. They also owned British Copper Manufacturers, and before I.C.I Metals acquired Elliott’s it had acquired ‘William Cooper & Goode, brass, copper, and white-metal rollers’ in 1918, Hughes Stubbs Metal in 1916, and Muntz's Metal. ‘Elliots’ took over Hughes Stubbs Metal Co. Ltd in 1916 and ‘William Cooper & Goode’ in 1918. When, in 1928, ‘ICI Metals Division’ (later ‘IMI’) acquired Elliots’, they paid £8 billion. The Muntz brothers’ small-time provincial operation is now part of a Dutch multinational company which employs 46,000 people and manufactures paints and ‘performance’ coatings for an international market (‘IMI’ promotional materials).

The Averys left a most spectacular heritage. In 1731 James Ford founded a steelyard manufactory near Birmingham and took advantage of John Wyatt’s unpatented invention of the compound lever weighbridge. His business passed through various family hands until in 1813 Joseph Balden passed the business on to his cousin, William Avery, who brought in his brother Thomas. They traded as ‘W&T Avery, scale and weighbridge-makers’. In 1829 they acquired ‘Slaters, makes of precision decorative needle-cases’. They also acquired Matthew Boulton’s Soho Manufactory. They, too, are now a global company: Avery-Weigh Tronix which supplies bench scales, checkweighers, counting scales, forklift truck scales, load cells, weigh bars, platform/floor scales, truck scales and weight indicators to construction, chemical and petro-chemical’ food and beverage, manufacturing, mining and aggregates, transport and logistics, and waste and recycling industries in over eighty countries.

Related material

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Last modified 1 June 2020