John Wilkinson (industrialist)

From Academic Kids

John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson (17281808) was a British industrialist who suggested the use of iron for many roles where other materials had previously been used.

His "iron madness" reached a peak in the 1790s, when he had almost everything around him made of iron, even several coffins and a massive obilisk to mark his grave.

Wilkinson was born to a part-time ironworker and inventor, and by 1748 had saved enough money himself to build his own blast furnace near Wolverhampton. Abraham Darby had introduced the process of using coke to smelt iron instead of the much more expensive charcoal in 1709, but the process was still not well understood and Wilkinson struggled to get it to work. After considerable effort he eventually managed to adapt the process to his furnace, and then joined his father's foundry in Bersham.

His father's main products were cannon, cast from a single piece of iron with hole in the middle. Even minor imperfections in the casting could result in the hole being off-circle, leading to the cannon balls jamming in the barrel and, often, explosions. Although bored cannon had been made for many years from bronze, the less expensive irons being used were too difficult to work in this fashion.

In 1761 he took over his father's foundry, and opened a new smelting plant in what would later become Ironbridge. His new plant was one of the first to use a steam engine, licensed from Boulton & Watt, to power the blowers and hammers. It was not long until he adapted the engine to power a new boring machine as well, introducing his bored cannons in 1774/5 which proved to be popular. He also modified the design to produce cylinders for new steam engines, and Boulton & Watt sent almost all of their licensing customers to him.

Unknown to Boulton & Watt, Wilkinson was also producing complete "pirated" engines. This was leaked to them by Wilkinson's younger brother, William, after he returned from Europe in the late 1780s and the two had a fight. Boulton & Watt sued, and established their own factory in Stoke-on-Trent to sell completed engines, instead of just the design itself.

In 1779 Wilkinson reappeared as a major shareholder in the Iron Bridge, encouraging the other shareholders to make the bridge entirely from iron. In 1787 he launched the first iron barge and two years later he patented a method to make rifled Wilkinson


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