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



6. Opposition of the Sheffield cutlers

In stark contrast to the excitement over the secret of cast steel manufacture was the distinct lack of enthusiasm reputedly shown by the local cutlers and toolmakers. At this time, most cutlery would have been made of forged cementation steel or imported "German steel", both familiar and readily available materials.

Huntsman's steel, made by melting down relatively small quantities of cementation steel, was much more expensive due to the special skills, time and labour involved in its production. Its higher carbon content meant that it was also harder, and more difficult to work at the forge, as it required especially careful tempering. Given the traditional conservatism of the Hallamshire cutlers, and the relatively low prices obtained for their products, there is little surprise that this new material was received so coolly.

Consequently, during the early years of his steel manufacture, much of Huntsman's production was exported to Europe -- France in particular -- where it commanded a price up to ten times that at home. The extremely high cost of the steel reflected both its superiority over the other materials then available and its limited availability, but also meant that its use was limited to special applications where expense was no object, such as the manufacture of precision tools, watch springs and luxury items such as razors.

The trade with Europe was not without consequence for the other Sheffield manufacturers, who soon began to resent the growing popularity of imported cast steel wares. Their response to this threat was an attempt to stifle Huntsman's business by petitioning Sir George Savile, the local Member of Parliament, to prohibit the export of cast steel. However, it is said that when Savile learned of the Sheffield cutlers' reluctance to use the new material, he refused to take the matter any further.

The date of the cutlers' protest is not specified, but it must have fallen between the years 1759, when Savile was elected to the commons, and 1764 when the Cutlers' Company effectively endorsed the use of Huntsman's steel by establishing their own crucible furnaces. Indeed, from 1764 onwards a number of new crucible steel ventures emerged in rapid succession, indicating that at least some of the Sheffield cutlers had begun to work with cast steel.

The cutlers' opposition to Huntsman's steel may have been precipitated by technical differences. Crucible steel demanded more care in forging and tempering than cementation steel and the European steels to which the Sheffield cutlers were accustomed, particularly in the process of welding to wrought iron. This involved the forging of a sharp cutting edge of steel onto a more durable back of iron, which combined the advantages of both metals as well as making best use of the expensive steel. However, Huntsman's steel required a lower temperature and would disintegrate if forged at the usual welding heat of iron.

Whether as a result of the cutlers' unwillingness to adopt new working methods, or as a deliberate slur upon Huntsman with the intention of damaging his business, the rumour that crucible steel–the most costly of all–could not be welded quickly became widespread. Even in France, where cast steel had been most enthusiastically adopted, Jean Jacques Perret wrote in his Mémoire sur l'Acier that "cast steel cannot be used for objects that need to be welded to iron, as it can only be united to other steel and even then care is required if it is to succeed".

The myth that cast steel could not be welded persisted for over 40 years after the establishment of Huntsman's business, until Sir Thomas Frankland conclusively demonstrated to the Royal Society that by separately heating iron and cast steel to the correct temperatures they could be readily fused together.





illustration: Samuel Smiles

NPG 1856
Samuel Smiles
by Louise Jopling-Rowe (née Goode)
Date: circa 1880s
Medium: chalk
Measurements: 23 1/2 in. x 19 1/2 in. (597 mm x 495 mm)