Materialising Sheffield - re-presenting the past  
steel ingots

Benjamin Huntsman – Early Life

Benjamin Huntsman and the world of eighteenth-century science

Early Eighteenth-Century Steel Production


Industrial Secrecy and Espionage

6. Opposition of the Sheffield cutlers

7. Huntsman’s works at Handsworth and Attercliffe

Swedish Visits to the Attercliffe Works

The evolution of the Attercliffe Works in the later 18th Century



3. Early Eighteenth-Century Steel Production

In little over a century, Sheffield made the transition from a small market town specialising in cutlery wares and edge tools into the world's greatest steel manufacturing city. The reasons for this dramatic transformation are complex, yet had it not been for the invention of a Yorkshire clock-maker, the city's development may have been very different.

Benjamin Huntsman's invention of crucible cast steel paved the way for all modern steel casting and alloying processes, without which the developments of the last century would have been inconceivable. Friedrich Engels even attributed the development of England's industrial might to Huntsman's discovery, by virtue of the high quality tools and machinery it made possible.

Although cutlery and steel-making had been practised in Sheffield long before the introduction of Huntsman's process, it was the latter that provided the catalyst for the city's developing steel industry, without which the later heavy industries of the Don Valley -- the source of Sheffield's great fortunes -- would almost certainly not have developed there.

Huntsman's crucible process is a deceptively simple idea. Pieces of common cementation steel are placed in a clay crucible or "pot", melted down in a sufficiently hot air furnace, and the molten metal finally poured into a cast-iron ingot mould. However, the technological barriers to its development were considerable. Never before had a practically sized furnace reached such temperatures, nor were the clay crucibles of the day strong enough to withstand the intense heat needed to melt steel. These were the challenges to which Huntsman devoted much of his life.

The process had an extremely long lifespan compared to most inventions, remaining in commercial use for over two hundred years. Until the 1860s, all steel castings from the smallest ingots to the largest castings of many tons weight were still made of metal poured from individual crucibles, and for applications dependent on special alloy steels its use continued well into the twentieth century. Sheffield almost monopolised the world market for cast steel, and over the two centuries of its production, the bulk of the world's crucible steel came out of Sheffield.





illustration: Reaumur

illustration: Geisler Manuscript (click on image for translation)