John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson (1728–1808) was an English industrialist who pioneered the use and manufacture of cast iron and cast-iron goods in the Industrial Revolution. He was the inventor of a precision boring machine that could bore cast iron cylinders such as those used in steam engines, which bored for James Watt's engines. His boring machine has been called the first machine tool. He also developed a blowing device for blast furnaces that allowed higher furnace temperatures, increasing their capacity.
John Wilkinson was born in Little Clifton, Bridgefoot, Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), the eldest son of Isaac Wilkinson and Mary Johnson. Isaac 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 half-brother William, who was 17 years younger, were raised in a non-conformist Presbyterian family and he was educated at a dissenting academy at Kendal, run by Dr Caleb Rotherham. His sister Mary married another non-conformist, Joseph Priestley in 1762. Priestley also played a role in educating John's younger brother, William.
In 1745, when John was 17, he was apprenticed to a Liverpool merchant for five years and then entered into partnership with his father.
From 1755 John Wilkinson became as a partner in the Bersham concern and in 1757 with partners, he erected a blast furnace at Willey, near Broseley in Shropshire. Later he [built other factories] at New Willey,[..] Broseley, Snedshill, Hollinswood, Hadley, Hampton Loade, [..] Bradley. He became known as the Father of the extensive South Staffordshire iron industry with Bilston as the start of the Black Country. In 1761, he took over Bersham Ironworks as well. Bradley 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.
His Principle Invention:
- Boring machine for steam engines
James Watt had tried unsuccessfully for several years to obtain accurately bored cylinders for his steam engines, and was forced to used hammered iron, which was out of round and caused leakage past the piston. In 1774 John Wilkinson invented a boring machine in which the shaft that held the cutting tool extended through the cylinder and was supported on both ends, unlike the cantilevered borers then in use. With this machine he was able to bore the cylinder for Boulton & Watt's first commercial engine, and was given an exclusive contract for the provision of cylinders. [..]Wilkinson's achievement was a milestone in the gradual development of boring technology, as its fields of application broadened into engines, pumps, and other industrial uses.
John Wilkinson made his fortune selling good quality goods made of iron and reached his limit of investment expansion. His expertise proved useful when he invested in many copper interests. In 1761 the Royal Navy clad the hull of the frigate HMS Alarm with copper sheet to reduce the growth of marine biofouling and prevent attack by the Teredo shipworm. The drag from the hull growth cut the speed and the shipworm caused severe hull damage, especially in tropical waters. After the success of this work the Navy decreed that all ships should be clad and this created a large demand for copper that Wilkinson noted during his visits to shipyards. He bought shares in eight Cornish copper mines and met Thomas Williams, the 'Copper King' of the Parys Mountain mines in Anglesey. [..]Wilkinson and Williams worked together on several projects. They were amongst the first to issue trade tokens ('Willys' and 'Druids') to alleviate the shortage of small coins. Jointly they set up the Cornish Metal Company in 1785 as a marketing company for copper. Its aim was to ensure both a good return for the Cornish miners and a stable price for the users of copper. Warehouses were set up in Birmingham, London, Bristol and Liverpool.
To help his business interests and to service his trade tokens, Wilkinson bought into partnerships with banks in Birmingham, Bilston, Bradley, Brymbo and Shrewsbury.
Wilkinson had a good reputation as an employer. Wherever new works were established, cottages were built to accommodate employees and their families. He gave significant financial support to his brother-in-law, Dr Joseph Priestley. He became a church warden in Broseley and was later elected High Sheriff of Denbighshire. In schools that had no slates he was able to provide iron troughs to hold sand for the practice of writing and arithmetic. He provided a cast-iron pulpit for the church at Bilston.
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 Hall, gave birth to his only children, a boy and two girls.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, which still stands in the village of Lindale-in-Cartmel in Lancashire (now part of Cumbria). He was appointed Sheriff of Denbighshire for 1799.
He died on 14 July 1808 at his works in Bradley, probably from diabetes. He was originally buried at his Castlehead estate at Lindale.
He left a very large estate in his will (more than £130,000), to which he intended to make his three children the principal heirs, with executors to manage the estate for them. However his nephew Thomas Jones contested the will in the Court of Chancery. By 1828, the estate had largely been dissipated by lawsuits and poor management. His corpse, in its distinctive iron coffin, was moved several times over the next decades, but is now lost.
John Wilkinson is a man who is responsible for the development of both semi-raw materials (high quality iron & steel) and the machine tools that shaped them. Machine tools, such as metal-working lathes, that are vital to our modern high-tech industrial economy. Unlike some of the other industrial tools in our high-tech society these machine tools are based on really simple principles that anyone can understand and explore for themselves. One way to think of a machine tool, like a metal-working lathe, is to think of it as a potters wheel that is turned through 90 degrees.
They are both devices that:
1. Hold a raw material (be it a lump of clay or a lump of steel),
2. Rotate this raw material around a single axis (the potters wheel on a vertical axis, the lathe on a horizontal one).
3. Allow the artisan to shape the raw material to whatever shape he wants (be it a clay pot, or a threaded bolt).
It's a really simple principle but provides the opportunity to manufacture a whole range of goods, including semi-finished goods (for other manufacturers), tools (such as drill bits), and finished/consumer goods. This principle and others like it are what men like Wilkinson leave to posterity. Posterity that we now are living in and are much better off for it. While we may not see the direct results of something like a metal working lathe in our everyday lives, we certainly do benefit from it.