Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Lincoln's part in the story

 It all began with agriculture; as the urban areas began to grow, so they needed more food. Equally as rural dwellers moved to take industrial jobs, so farmers needed mechanised help.

Lincolnshire’s problem was mud. Put a steam traction engine on a field and it would get stuck under its weight. The ploughing answer was to use a static engine and then with a rope drag the plough across the field.

The pragmatic engineers of the county stuck with what worked. We can see this in the catalogue of the Great Exhibition of 1851 where I spotted Clayton and Shuttleworth with 'an improved registered grinding mill for all grain and an improved combined threshing, shaking, riddling and blowing machine’ and Richard Hornsby with his steam engine. Hornsby did not invent the steam engine, that belongs to Newcomen, Blenkinsop, Hackworth and Watt, but he developed it so successfully that, 'for some years, he had a virtual monopoly in its manufacture’.

Marshalls and Robey both entered the field in the forties with steam engines. Marshalls would go on to manufacture tractors, famously the Field-Marshall. Robey appears at the Glasgow exhibition of 1901 with electricity generation with a horizontal cross-compound engine powering a Mavor & Coulson dynamo producing 350 kw at 550 volts.

Ruston and Proctor came together after the Exhibition giving Joseph Ruston the vehicle needed for his entrepreneurial flare. There is a book titled One Hundred Years of Good Company which tells the story of Rustons with a little fictional narrative alongside the harder history. The book includes an account of Ruston travelling to Russia to sell them steam pumps to drain the land ready to plant grain. Being an entrepreneur always with an eye to an opportunity, Ruston heard that a man nearby wanted to pump oil out of the ground; what better than a Rustons pump. That man’s mainstream business was trading in Shells – the rest as they say is history.

Rustons and Hornsby later came together and the Rustons book suggests that Ruston and Hornsby can lay claim to the first ‘diesel’ engine – indeed before diesel. These spread around the globe frequently for electricity generation as in lighthouses.

But back to mud and Richard Hornsby pre-Ruston. In 1908, Hornsby produced a 70 hp. vehicle that ran on chain tracks, and it was demonstrated at the Royal Review showing how well it could cross soft muddy ground; the Prince of Wales was said to have been impressed. Sadly Lincolnshire farmers were not convinced and Hornsby sold his patent to the Holt Company in the USA. This company later adopted the name Caterpillar.

The track technology was of course used by William Tritton in the tank. Lincoln. like the rest of the country leant its shoulder to the war effort in two world wars. Sopwith Aviation, of Kingston upon Thames, is perhaps the most iconic of the First World War aircraft makers, and the Sopwith Camel fighter the most successful fighter, with some 5,825 built. Many were subcontracted, with over one thousand being built by Ruston & Proctor in Lincoln, with further examples produced by fellow Lincoln engineering companies, Robey & Co and Clayton & Shuttleworth. Claytons also made the Handley Page O/400.

The jet-engine-powered aircraft was perhaps the greatest engineering development of WW2. It also found spectacular use as gas turbines powering the then new oil industry. I was privileged to meet the managing director of Ruston Gas Turbines for twenty five years and he told me how the team in Lincoln, working under Bob Feilden with a watchful eye from Frank Whittle, developed the gas turbine with encouragement from Arnold Weinstock of Ruston’s then owner, GEC. Rustons gas turbines were used by 80% of the world’s oil industry.

In Lincoln, there was also a timber fabrication company whose building was taken over by AEI and then GEC and became home to British semiconductor manufacture. Now, as Dynex, it is a leading manufacturer of complex power semiconductors. A former finance director suggested to me that had Weinstock been braver it could now be a mass producer of semiconductors. Plus ca change.

The University of Lincoln is now home to one of the newest departments of engineering supported by Siemens, the current owners of the Rustons business.



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