John "Iron-Mad" Wilkinson was an English industrialist who pioneered the use and manufacture of cast iron and cast-iron goods in the Industrial Revolution. He was the inventor of a precision boring machine that could bore cast iron cylinders such as those used in steam engines, which bored for James Watt's engines. His boring machine has been called the first machine tool. He also developed a blowing device for blast furnaces that allowed higher furnace temperatures, increasing their capacity.
John Wilkinson was born in Little Clifton, Bridgefoot, Cumberland (now part of Cumbria), the eldest son of Isaac Wilkinson and Mary Johnson. Isaac was then the potfounder at the blast furnace there,one of the first to use coke instead of charcoal, which was pioneered by Abraham Darby.
John and his half-brother William, who was 17 years younger, were raised in a non-conformist Presbyterian family and he was educated at a dissenting academy at Kendal, run by Dr Caleb Rotherham.His sister Mary married another non-conformist, Joseph Priestley in 1762. Priestley also played a role in educating John's younger brother, William.
In 1745, when John was 17, he was apprenticed to a Liverpool merchant for five years and then entered into partnership with his father.
When his father moved to Bersham furnace near Wrexham in 1753 John remained at Kirkby Lonsdale in Westmorland where he married Ann Maudesley on 12 June 1755.
From 1755 John Wilkinson became as a partner in the Bersham concern and in 1757 with partners, he erected a blast furnace at Willey, near Broseley in Shropshire.Later he built another furnace and works at New Willey. He made his home in Broseley in a house called 'The Lawns' which became his headquarters for many years. He had houses either side of 'The Lawns' which served for administration, one being named 'The Mint' used for distribution of the thousands of tokens, each valued equivalent to a halfpenny. In East Shropshire he also developed iron works at Snedshill, Hollinswood, Hadley and Hampton Loade. He and Edward Blakeway also leased land to build another at Bradley works in Bilston parish, near Wolverhampton.He became known as the Father of the extensive South Staffordshire iron industry with Bilston as the start of the Black Country. In 1761, he took over Bersham Ironworks as well. Bradley became his largest and most successful enterprise, and was the site of extensive experiments in getting raw coal to substitute for coke in the production of cast iron. At its peak, it included a number of blast furnaces, a brick works, potteries, glass works, and rolling mills. The Birmingham Canal was subsequently built near the Bradley works.
Bersham became well known for high-quality casting and a producer of guns and cannon. Historically cannons had been cast with a core and then bored to remove imperfections, but in 1774 Wilkinson patented a technique for boring iron guns from a solid piece, rotating the gun barrel rather than the boring-bar. This technique made the guns more accurate and less likely to explode. While bronze cannon were already being bored from the solid, the boring of large naval iron cannon was novel. The patent was quashed in 1779 (the navy saw it as a monopoly and sought to overthrow it) but Wilkinson still remained a major manufacturer.
In 1792 Wilkinson bought the Brymbo Hall estate in Denbighshire, not far from Bersham, where furnaces and other plant were installed.After his death and the decline of his industrial empire, the ironworks lay idle for some years until in 1842.It became once again an important works and eventually became Brymbo Steelworks, which continued to operate until 1990.
Boring machine for steam engines
James Watt had tried unsuccessfully for several years to obtain accurately bored cylinders for his steam engines, and was forced to used hammered iron, which was out of round and caused leakage past the piston. In 1774 John Wilkinson invented a boring machine in which the shaft that held the cutting tool extended through the cylinder and was supported on both ends, unlike the cantilevered borers then in use. With this machine he was able to bore the cylinder for Boulton & Watt's first commercial engine, and was given an exclusive contract for the provision of cylinders.Until this era, advancements in drilling and boring practice had lain only within the application field of gun barrels for firearms and cannon; Wilkinson's achievement was a milestone in the gradual development of boring technology, as its fields of application broadened into engines, pumps, and other industrial uses.
While the main market for steam engines had been for pumping water out of mines, he saw much more use for them in the driving of machinery in ironworks such as blowing engines, forge hammers and rolling mills, the first rotary engine being installed at Bradley in 1783. Among his many inventions was a reversing rolling mill with two steam cylinders that made the process much more economical.
John Wilkinson took a key interest in obtaining orders for these more efficient steam engines and other uses for cast iron from the owners of Cornish copper mines. As part of this interest he bought shares in eight of the mines to help provide capital.
Hydraulic blowing engine
In 1757 Wilkinson patented a hydraulic powered blowing engine for blast furnaces. Wilkinson's design was essentially the same as the one described in 1313 by the Chinese Imperial Government metallurgist Wang Zhen in his Treatise on Agriculture.
Family life, and death
John married Ann Maudsley in 1759. Her family was wealthy and her dowry helped to pay for a share in the New Willey Company. After the death of Ann, his second marriage, when he was 35, was to Mary Lee, whose money helped him to buy out his partners. When he was in his seventies, his mistress Mary Ann Lewis, a maid at his estate in Brymbo Hall, gave birth to his only children, a boy and two girls.
By 1796, when he was 68, he was producing about one-eighth of Britain's cast iron.He became "a titan" – very wealthy, and somewhat eccentric. 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 obelisk to mark his grave, which still stands in the village of Lindale-in-Cartmel in Lancashire (now part of Cumbria). He was appointed Sheriff of Denbighshire for 1799.
He died on 14 July 1808 at his works in Bradley, probably from diabetes. He was originally buried at his Castlehead estate at Lindale.
He left a very large estate in his will (more than £130,000), to which he intended to make his three children the principal heirs, with executors to manage the estate for them. However his nephew Thomas Jones contested the will in the Court of Chancery. By 1828, the estate had largely been dissipated by lawsuits and poor management. His corpse, in its distinctive iron coffin, was moved several times over the next decades, but is now lost.