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



8. Swedish Visits to the Attercliffe Works

Word of Huntsman's invention quickly spread to Europe, as cast steel began to be adopted by cutlers and instrument makers in France and elsewhere. A French report of 1798 indicates that Huntsman had begun to export steel about the same time as his establishment of the Attercliffe works, and it was not long before the first foreign visitors began to arrive.

These encounters could not have been accidental or opportunistic, as Sheffield was yet renowned as an industrial centre, nor were Huntsman's works easy to find. So when the Swedish industrialist Reinhold Rücker Angerstein entered Sheffield in August 1754, it was with the objective of discovering Huntsman's secret. He was the first of many Scandinavian 'industrial spies', the son of a wealthy ironmaster and Director of Steelworks for the Jernkontor (Iron Bureau), on whose behalf he undertook a long tour of Europe and Britain. While his travel diaries record in considerable detail the industrial development of England and Wales, including many of the latest developments, the entry for Sheffield is unusually brief. Angerstein stayed in the town for less than a day, and it has been suggested that he was driven out of Sheffield for showing too much interest in the crucible process.

The Swedes were naturally eager to acquire this new technology, particularly as their own iron was the only suitable raw material for cast steel. In 1761 Johan Ludvig Robsahm made the next attempt with some success, being granted almost unlimited access to Huntsman's works. Robsahm was shown inside the steel casting shop and the adjacent horse-driven grinding mill, and was even allowed to see some finished crucibles, but under no circumstances where or how they were made,

Four years later, Gabriel Jars, the French author of the well-known Voyages Metallurgiques, passed through Sheffield and witnessed the manufacture of cast steel. He did not specifically mention Huntsman, but his description has generally been interpreted as a visit to the Attercliffe works, and his account was the first to list the range of uses to which crucible steel was put.

Arguably the first successful attempt was that of Benct Qvist Andersson in 1767, who gathered enough information to enable him, on returning to Sweden, to establish a crucible furnace at Ersta near Stockholm. The resulting report is particularly valuable due to its almost explicit connection to Huntsman's works, providing a detailed observation of the early process and accompanied by the first known drawings of a crucible shop. Although these relate to the furnace designed and built by Andersson, their general dimensions can be taken as representative of the earliest Sheffield works, seen during his visit.

Another Swedish traveller, the engineer Erik Geisler, came to Sheffield in 1772 and, although he did not mention Huntsman by name, can be surmised to have visited his steelworks. The drawings he made during his visit are of particular interest, and were used as the basis of this reconstruction of Huntsman's Attercliffe Works.

Apart from Jars, the French generally had little luck in gaining access to crucible furnaces. For example, the La Rochefoucauld brothers who visited Sheffield in February 1785, seemed to have overlooked (or been denied access to) crucible steel manufacture entirely, although they visited works at which cementation steel was made. The various tracts on the subject published during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries also indicate that the process remained a mystery to the French, despite their efforts to become self-sufficient in steel.

Even after the 'secret' of cast steel manufacture had become more generally known, and the product widely available as an article of international commerce, visitors still came to see Huntsman's works, now motivated by a combination of curiosity and reverence. The Attercliffe works had become almost a site of pilgrimage on every foreign industrialist's tour of England.

Svedenstierna made his now well-known tour of Britain during 1802-3, observing a wide spectrum of industrial processes. Although he observed the crucible process in two works, he took care not to give any account of it in his diary, in order to keep the secret from the Germans and French. By this time, the production of cast steel had become a matter of international importance, and given the difficulties that the French government was still experiencing in securing its own supply of the metal, the continued caution of the Swedish and British manufacturers was not unwarranted.

Johann Conrad Fischer, probably the most determined tourist of all, first arrived at Huntsman's works in 1814, returning to Sheffield a number of times over the following four decades. He was himself a steelmaker, having independently developed a method of cast steel manufacture in response to an international competition, and had established a substantial business in his native Switzerland. His journal entry relating to the first visit is particularly fascinating as an insight to the everyday operation of Huntsman's business, and after seeing the famous steelworks, Fischer wrote in his diary: "Now I have achieved everything that I set myself as the object of my journey".




illustration: Geisler Manuscript (click on image for translation)