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



4. Development of the furnace

After almost a decade of experimentation, Huntsman had achieved a scale and quality of production that was commercially viable. In 1751 he established his first purpose-built works at Attercliffe, a village on the outskirts of Sheffield, at a time when his process had become one of the most sought after industrial secrets of the eighteenth century. Numerous attempts were made to discover it both at home and from abroad, and by the 1760s his first serious commercial competitors were operating furnaces in Sheffield.

The theft of Huntsman's secret is represented by two distinct traditions. Of these, the best known is the story of the shivering beggar who arrived at Huntsman's furnaces on a freezing winter night in search of shelter and warmth.

Steel melting was at that time covertly carried out during the hours of darkness, and the sympathetic furnace-men on duty allowed the stranger to rest in the warmth of the melting shop. However, the beggar was in reality one of Huntsman's competitors, Samuel Walker, and by feigning sleep he observed the whole process, learning enough that on his departure the following morning he took the secret with him. He immediately set to work building his own furnaces and was soon producing steel to rival Huntsman's.

This oral tradition is supported to a certain extent by documentary evidence. In 1750, Samuel Walker built a "House and Furnace for refining steel in at Grenoside", taken to be the result of his subterfuge. However, it was not until 1771 that any further furnaces were built by Walker which suggests that the original furnace had met with limited success.

On the other hand, the date of 1750 or earlier would locate the espionage at Handsworth, where the furnaces directly adjoined Huntsman's cottage, making it less likely that such a simple ruse could have succeeded, particularly as the furnace hands had all been "pledged to inviolable secrecy".

The second lesser-known but more sinister account portrays Huntsman as the recipient of the secret and first appeared in a short book Essays on Iron and Steel (1773) by Henry Horne, a London cutler. Surprisingly he made no mention of Huntsman's name in connection with crucible steel, but instead ascribed the invention to a mysterious "gentleman residing in the Temple" who subsequently passed on the secret to a gold lace maker, "one Waller from London", who employed it to make improved steel rollers for flattening gold wire.

Dissatisfied with success in his own trade, Waller contracted a cutler of Covent Garden to manufacture cast steel razors. Due to the high mirror polish of the steel, these proved popular and Waller soon acquired "a pretty large number of customers at the west end of the town, where he became a considerable hawker". His unexpected success alarmed the other razor manufacturers, and a number of them conspired to build their own steel furnace and break Waller's monopoly.

The book's author, Henry Horne, took up the challenge and, despite considerable difficulties, claimed to be soon producing steel "vastly superior" to Waller's, with which he supplied the London cutlers "at a very moderate price".

Faced with this competition, Waller left for the North of England with the intention of selling the secret at the highest price. Finding no takers at Birmingham, he continued to Sheffield where after several rejections, he met "some keen friends" who extracted the secret from him for a sum of money, and were soon producing superior steel to Waller. It was not long before Horne found his customers turning to Sheffield, where they could purchase steel from eight to ten pence a pound, undercutting his own trade.

With a clear interest in the affair, Horne's version of events cannot be regarded as impartial, and as such has been often discredited. Horne certainly manufactured cast steel, although there is nothing in his account to suggest a date earlier than 1765, by which time others in Sheffield were also practising the art.

John Waller himself published a pamphlet in which he claimed to have discovered the steel casting process towards the end of 1737, some years prior to Huntsman. Although his account betrays a practical appreciation of the problems that he would have encountered in attempting the process -- including the identification of crucible manufacture as a key secret -- most of his claims are unsupportable. Waller claimed to have presented his findings before the Royal Society, although no records survive to confirm this. However, it does correspond to another oral tradition in the Huntsman story, in which Huntsman is said to have turned down the offer of a Fellowship by the Royal Society due to his Quaker principles.

The truth probably incorporates elements from all of the above stories. It is likely that the Royal Society, having heard of Huntsman's invention, invited him sometime around 1750 to present his findings with the possibility of a fellowship. At this stage, some details of the process may have been transmitted in confidence to a small group of Fellows, including the "gentleman residing in the Temple" who later passed them on to Waller for his own use. Subsequently Waller, realising the value of the process, attempted to market it elsewhere and published his own version of its discovery in order to conceal the subterfuge. Finally, the "keen friends" who Horne claimed extracted the secret from Waller may well have been Huntsman's rivals, the Walker family.

What is certain is that the controversy over cast steel was real, and that much was at stake. Waller's appeal obviously fell on deaf ears, as Huntsman continued to increase his trade and reputation, while the name of John Waller and the London cutlers faded away.





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