It’s sad, that in the 21st century, we refer to Benjamin Huntsman as the purveyor of cheap beer and a night out in Sheffield city centre. It’s equally sad that our only lasting memorial to Benjamin Huntsman is this J.D. Wetherspoon pub on Cambridge Street (aside from the sculpture in Meadowhall, and a block named after him at the Northern General Hospital).
However, Benjamin Huntsman invented a process that gave Sheffield pre-eminence in the production of finished steel and led to the growth of an industry that the city will always be famous for.
Benjamin Huntsman was born in Lincolnshire in 1704. His parents were of German extraction, settling in this country a few years before he was born.
His ingenious mind allowed him to become an expert at repairing clocks, and eventually set up business in Doncaster as a clock maker and mender. Described as being “shrewd, observant, thoughtful and practical,” he was regarded as the “wise man” of the neighbourhood.
His work, however, was hindered by inferior metal supplied from common German steel, material supplied for the springs and pendulums of his clocks.
These circumstances made him turn his attention to making a better kind of steel, his first experiments conducted at Doncaster, but as fuel was difficult to be had, he removed to Sheffield in 1740.
Huntsman settled at Handsworth, then a few miles south of the town, and he pursued his investigations in secret. The task was massive, not only to discover the fuel and flux suitable for the purpose, but to create a furnace that could sustain a heat more intense than had ever been known.
His experiments lasted years, and it was only after his death that the numerous failures were brought to light, in the shape of many hundredweights of steel, found buried in the earth around his factory.
At last his perseverance was rewarded, and his invention perfected. The melting was conducted in fire-clay pots, or crucibles, placed in a coke melting-furnace (at temperatures of 1,600°c/2,900°f), high enough to permit the melting of steel for the first time.
After he had perfected the process, Huntsman realised that the new metal might be used for other purposes, other than clock springs and pendulums. He canvased Sheffield’s tools and cutlery trade, but they obstinately refused to work a material much harder than that which they had been accustomed to use.
Foiled in his endeavours to sell steel at home, Huntsman turned his attention to foreign markets, and soon found he could readily sell abroad.
The honour of employing cast-steel for general purposes, belonged to the French, who quickly appreciated the advantages, and for a time the whole of Huntsman’s production was exported to France.
It was only after that Sheffield’s cutlers became alarmed at the reputation cast-steel was acquiring abroad, and formed a deputation to wait upon Sir George Savile, one of the members for the county of York, to use his influence with the Government and prohibit the export of cast-steel.
When Savile found out that Sheffield manufacturers wouldn’t make use of the new steel he positively declined to comply with their request.
Looking back, it was fortunate for Sheffield that he didn’t.
Huntsman had already received favourable offers from Birmingham to relocate his furnaces there, and had he done so, the Sheffield steel industry might never have grown as it did.
The Sheffield makers eventually realised that they would have to use cast-steel if they were to compete with cutlery from France. And then began the efforts of the Sheffield men to wrest his secret from him.
Because Huntsman hadn’t taken a patent out on the process, his only protection was secrecy.
All his workmen were pledged to silence, strangers carefully excluded from the works, and the whole of the steel melted in the night.
However, it is said that the person who first succeeded in copying Huntsman’s process was an iron founder named Walker who carried on business at Grenoside.
Walker adopted the “ruse” of disguising himself as a tramp, feigned great distress and abject poverty, and appeared shivering at the door of Huntsman’s foundry late one night, asking for admission to warm himself by the furnace fire.
The workmen took pity on him, and they permitted him to enter.
Within months, Walker was also making cast-steel, and others quickly followed, but the demand for Huntsman’s steel steadily increased, and in 1770, he moved to a large factory at Worksop Road, Attercliiffe.
He died in 1776, aged 72, and was buried in the churchyard at Attercliffe. His son, William Huntsman (1733-1809) took over the business and it grew into one of Sheffield’s biggest steel firms, before being swallowed up by larger competitors in the mid-20th century.