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On this day in history in 1776, died Benjamin Huntsman.
Huntsman was an industrialist who invented the crucible method of making steel of uniform quality, and brought about mass steel production.
Benjamin Huntsman was born on 4th June 1704, at Epworth, Lincolnshire, the third son of a Quaker farming family. As a youth, he showed an aptitude for mechanical dexterity, and so at the age of 14, he was apprenticed to a clockmaker. In 1725, he opened his own workshop in Doncaster, where he made clocks, medical instruments and, as a sideline, practiced as an oculist.
At that time, the steel required for his artefacts had to be imported from Germany. Huntsman found that this product was unsatisfactory for the delicate springs and mechanisms of his products. He began to experiment in steel production on a small scale in Doncaster and, in 1740, moved to Handsworth, near Sheffield, where he could obtain supplies of coke for smelting. He succeeded in producing a uniform product, free from impurities and harder than any steel then in use. He tried to sell his creation to the Sheffield cutlers, but they found it less malleable than the material they were used to, and continued to use imported steel. Huntsman, undeterred by their refusal to sanction his product, travelled to France, where he found an abundance of customers willing to take his material.
The French cutlers found Huntsmanís steel ideal for mass production and soon were exporting cutlery to Britain, threatening to put the Sheffield manufacturers out of business. The Sheffield men were then obliged to move to mass production methods, and to use Huntsmanís steel. As demand increased, in 1770 he moved to Attercliffe, an area which later became the main location for the Sheffield steel industry. Huntsman never patented his process. A story goes that one night a tramp arrived at his works and begged permission to spend the night by the works fire. Huntsman generously allowed him to stay and even provided the starving man with some bread. But it turned out that the beggar was a rival iron-founder, who used the opportunity to work out Huntsmanís process.
Later in life, Huntsman was offered membership of the Royal Society, but his Quaker principles led him to turn down the offer. He died on 20th June 1776, and is buried at Attercliffe. [Hilltop Chapel, Attercliffe Road, Sheffield, Yorkshire, S9 3RS]
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