My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Monday, December 18, 2023

My talk to the Leicester Historical Association on How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing world

I want this evening to talk about my quest to discover How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World.
My quest began in April 2014. I brought down from the loft two big box containing scrapbooks which my mum had compiled of my dad’s war. I had always known that they existed but small boys have little interest in scrap books. This time though I turned the pages and found myself speechless. My dad had headed up supply of army vehicles and weapons in WW2 and my mum had been his PA. The albums told an incredible story – the number of vehicles used by the army grew from 40,000 to 1.5 million. I researched and discovered that just about every British motor company had made not only vehicles but anything from tin hats to ammunition. It was a War on Wheels and that was the name of my first book published in 2016. 

This evening, instead of a power point, I thought I would use some of the books I drew on to illustrate the talk. This one is brazen publicity as is the next. I promise not all! After the talk I will post both the text and the bibliography on my blog
But back to the quest. I had caught the bug: what had happened in the first world war? Just about every British engineering company put its shoulder to the war effort. That book was called Ordnance

Where had the companies come from and where did they go to?
To try to answer the first question I worked back and got to 1851 and the Great Exhibition in London’s Hyde Park. This as I’m sure you know was an adventurous idea by Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole aided by others.  The organising committee included such grandees as William Cubitt the builder, Joseph Paxton who designed the massive crystal palace for the exhibition, Robert Stephenson the railway engineer and Charles Wentworth Dilke – editor of the Times. It was to be a ‘Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations. A great people inviting all civilised nations to a festival to bring into comparison the works of human skill.’
There were 100,000 exhibits from 14,000 individuals and companies from the United Kingdom and overseas, with some 60% from the home nations. The Crystal Palace covered some 900,000 square feet and welcomed six million visitors over that summer of 1851.
My great grandfather, Richard Williams, was manager of surgical instrument makers Weiss & Son at 62, The Strand just over the road from where he had been born half a century earlier. Richard had been secretary of the group of instrument makers responsible for their part of the exhibition. 
I found a copy of the full exhibition catalogue online and it read like a list of old friends – the names of companies known but some long forgotten. Ransome farm machinery, Gillow furniture, Savory and Moore medicines, Maudsely and Napier engineers, Butterley steel which incidentally had an underground wharf on the Cromford canal. Naysmith of the steam hammer fame. Elliott & Sons instruments. William Hollins who would later produce Viyella  and Samuel Courtauld.
I had to find where they had come from and where they went. Some of the names took me back to the start.
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate . This was perhaps Britain in the late seventeenth century. Land owners were rich and the rest weren’t. I suggest that this conservative scene may have continued uninterrupted had it not been for the sea. The British couldn’t resist the temptation of taking to boats to see what was beyond the horizon. Having reached land, being British, the instinct then was to trade. It worked wonderfully, the wealthy landowners could use some of their wealth to buy the beautiful things that adventurers brought home. It wasn’t only beautiful things, it was exotic tastes like tea and sugar. It transformed the lives of the wealthy; the adventurers didn’t do too badly either; wealth began to leak into a small but growing part of the population: the merchant class; the nation of shopkeepers so derided by Napoleon.
The demand for shipping grew. Some forty years of research have been brought together in Anthony Slaven’s British Shipbuilding 1500-2010; 

Ship building, like wool, is fundamental to our island story. Slaven suggests that, all around our shores, there were many carpenters who turned their hand to the building of small boats. Their use was restricted to coastal waters, and, perhaps, as far as the Low Countries, France and possibly Portugal and the Mediterranean. Trade with the Far East was conducted overland, as evidenced by the Silk Road. The late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries saw the ‘great voyages of discovery’, and much longer voyages to the spice islands, Africa and China. This is subject explored extensively elsewhere and so I didn’t dwell on it in my book. 

With all this shipbuilding forests were being denuded at an alarming rate. Forests which were also a store of energy for heating and cooking as well as smelting ore to find metal from which all manner of device could be made. If wood or charcoal could no longer be used, what was the alternative.
Those canny Brits living in the north east already knew the answer, for they had been collecting seacoal, as opposed to charcoal, from beaches for centuries. What’s more, they found that if you scraped the surface you could find more seacoal underneath. It was filthy and gave off noxious fumes but it provided heat when heat was needed.
None of this story is strictly linear, but some things did follow as a consequence of others. 
Beautiful cloth was imported from India and this made sense because cotton grew there and they had been making it into wonderful garments for centuries. British textile merchants, who had for centuries run their supply chain of wool and flax spinners and weavers, recognised an opportunity. Why not let Lancashire spinners and weavers make the cloth from imported cotton? 
It was an opportunity not to be missed until Napoleon came along
British merchants had developed a nice little continental market for their cotton cloth. The Napoleonic wars scuppered that and prices collapsed. Somehow costs had to be reduced. There wasn’t enough scope in paying yet less to the weavers and spinners – who were becoming desperate

Something else was needed: mechanisation. 
The British had always been finding better ways of doing things. John Kay with his flying shuttle; James Hargreaves with the spinning jenny, Samuel Crompton’s mule and Richard Arkwrights mechanised factory. 

These machines demanded metal for their construction. 
Elsewhere in the forest, as they say, iron masters were finding better ways to produce metal and better metals in the form of brass and steel. All this demanded more coal and more coal demanded deeper mines. Deeper mines brought twin problems of flooding with water and foul air. Metal provided the solution in the hands of men like Newcomen, Blenkinsop and Hackworth, first with the atmospheric engine to pump the water to the surface. Ever ingenious, this water was then used to power waterwheels which, in turn, could power a lift to bring the hard won coal to the surface and onwards to the canal and the final customer. 
But back to the mill. All this mechanisation in textile manufacture was fine so long as you were near a fast flowing  river and could harness its power to drive waterwheels to work machines. What was needed was rotational power that did not need a fast flowing river and this brings us to Birmingham.
This is and was  a remarkable place. In the seventeenth and eighteen century it was a town of workshops. Accounts from the time tell of innumerable chimneys puffing out smoke as all manner of metal was worked into tools, weapons and toys – those items of delight that so thrilled the monied classes. The very special thing about Birmingham was that each workshop carried out a single process, with the item passed on to the neighbour for the next process and so on. It was classical division of labour, a production line, if you like. The other special thing about Birmingham was a man named Watt in partnership with Boulton. Watt did of course crack the problem of rotational motion powered by steam. 
Now there was no stopping this people.
Rotational motion powered by steam worked a dream in cotton mills, and the percentage of cotton clothing worn by the British and Europeans increased dramatically. 
It was itself a revolution but one not without its dark side as the cotton was grown by slaves and the working conditions in the mills and mines for men, women and children were appalling. This has been explored extensively elsewhere and although fundamental to the industrial revolution and indeed our history, I won’t talk more about it this evening. 
It is interesting to try to identify just what it was that drove the massive increase in cotton consumption. One school of thought puts it down to domestic demand; people wanted clothing they could wash. Or was it the export markets? I suspect a bit of both. But back to steam.
We had the factories, could steam also help the transport problem? Roads were dangerous and often potholed, Canals were great, but slow. In step  Trevithic, Stephenson and Isembard Kingdom Brunel and the railways beckoned.
The railway entrepreneurs like Thomas Brassey and George Hudson built a more densely populated rail system than was absolutely essential. Yet investors kept piling and an astonishing infrastructure resulted. Britain not only built railways in Britain but in France and elsewhere. We exported rails to the USA and indeed worldwide

Trains dramatically reduced travel times, but what if there was a quicker way to send a message?
Scientists on both sides of the Atlantic had long been experimenting with electricity, but in Britain it was Cooke and Wheatstone who demonstrated that a signal could be transmitted along a wire; some suggest before Morse. Soon telegraph wires extended beside railway lines cementing the connected country. 
Electrical wires needed insulation which was provided by a rubber type substance from southeast Asia called Gutta Percha, the main producer of which would become BTR, the company that bought Dunlop – that though is jumping ahead.
Britain wasn’t just a country, it was the heart of an empire extending across the globe. British ships sailed and steamed everywhere with iron and steel steadily taking the place of wood for ship construction. The Empire could be drawn ever closer with telegraph and this is where Siemens stepped in. This was the British Siemens led by William, later Sir William, as opposed to the German company bearing the same name, run by his brother. The British Siemens Brothers made cable by the mile at their Woolwich factory, later part of AEI and then GEC. Soon the empire was linked.
Yet, telegraph was to be a splash in the ocean as far as the use of electricity was concerned. We come across a man named Ferranti working in the Siemens laboratory. From there he went on to power generation and, in his early twenties, a phenomenally ambitious scheme to provide electricity for London from a new power station at Deptford.

Telegraph was great if you could run cables, but what about ships? Just think of the commercial advantage if ships could be contacted en-route. Here another man of Italian birth steps in. Marconi created a business enabling ships to communicate with land stations using radio. 
Time and again we might admit surprise at the names of those most influential in the story, for many were not ‘British’. The peoples of these islands welcomed and offered opportunity to men, for most were then men, who had been born elsewhere. Perhaps it was our openness to the world more than anything that resulted in our place in the world of manufacturing.
The manufacturing ecosystem screamed for yet more power. I turn first to two Britons – James Young who found a flammable liquid seeping out of coal seams down in the mines, and Joseph Ruston top of my list manufacturing heroes. 
Joseph Ruston was one of the founders of the Lincoln firm, Ruston and Hornsby. He was the complete businessman: innovative, a great salesman and financially astute. There is a delightful book One Hundred Years of Good company which tells the story of Rustons with a little fictional narrative alongside the harder history.
Well , this book tells a story 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 and what better than a Rustons pump. That man’s mainstream business was trading in shells – it did of course become the massive Shell Oil Company.
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 and indeed the statue of liberty.
In any sane world British engineers would have developed the internal combustion engine to add power to carriages.  Instead the island was plagued by rich idiots recklessly driving steam powered vehicles on the roads. Government stepped in to limit speeds with the Red Flag. This gave the French and Germans time to take the lead in inventing the motor car. As is often the case the British did rather well following the footsteps of others. Harry Lawson bought the Daimler patents and created the first British motor factory in an old cotton mill in Coventry. 

Others quickly followed. 
The route to the motor car derives quite possibly from the sewing machine. This piece of apparatus evolved over a period with input again on both sides of the Atlantic, eventually taking shape under patents taken out by the America Singer. 
A word about patents. It would be remiss not to acknowledge the role played by William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth I trusted advisor. He masterminded British patent law which provided protection to those who wished to exploit their inventions here. Many chose Britain in preference to their native land for this reason.
Those working with sewing machines used their new found knowledge to branch out into bicycles and here names like Humber, Hillman Singer and Starley emerge. From bicycles came motor bikes and then motor cars.
For the motor car, alongside Lawson and Daimler, I might place Lanchester very much not an entrepreneur and definitely not a business administrator but a brilliant engineer. He built the first vehicle that was not simply a horseless carriage. Harry Ricardo, who himself designed the engine for the tank, said of the Lanchester that he could vouch for their ‘quietness, lack of vibration and smooth ride.’
The name Harry Lawson brings in those of other entrepreneurs who sailed near to and sometimes over the line. Ernest Terah Hooley was one such described by the Economist as the Napoleon of finance. 
Cars needed tyres and in steps John Dunlop with his tyre for bicycles. It wasn’t Dunlop though who drove the business from Ireland onto the world stage and motor cars. It was the du Cros family and Hooley; and much later Eric Geddes. It was Hooley who launched Dunlop as a public company, making millions as a result. He went on to build the Trafford Park industrial estate in Manchester.
Cars also needed lights and other electrical equipment and in steps Joseph Lucas, first with lights for bicycles but then for cars

But also engineers like Humber and Hillman, designers like Louis Coatalen.
There were many others. Morris in Oxford. Austin who started out in Wolseley making sheep shearing equipment. Wolseley later became part of Vickers of which more later. There were also Rolls-Royce and WO Bentley of course. 
If internal combustion engines could be used to power transport on land, why not ships and why not in the air; indeed why not on rail? Once again the British weren’t first but they prospered in the slip stream.
In relation to ships, the invention by Newcastle man CA Parsons of the steam turbine may have delayed the move by British shipbuilders to internal combustion. Steam turbine ships were very good.
Genius with steam also encouraged the British to stay with coal powered railway locomotives – after all with the Flying Scotsman and the Mallard, it was a remarkable industry.
Clearly the same wasn’t true of aircraft and in the years before the First World War we began to see those much loved icons: de Havilland, Hadley Page, AV Roe, Sopwith and Hawker.
Tragically and ironically, war played a huge part in the history of British manufacturing. Aside from the loss of young lives, the drain on the exchequer especially after the second world war placed great pressure on the governments that spurred the export drive in its wake. 
Looking at war driven technological advances, the Crimean war inspired William Armstrong to invent the rifled barrel for big guns, vastly improving their accuracy, and encouraging advances in metallurgy. Armstrong would join with Whitworth and then Vickers. 
Advances in medicine are well known. War also inspired Donkin to develop the tin can for preserving food especially for the Navy. Napoleon could claim the initial credit since he had sponsored a competition to produce a means of storage of meat for his sailors. The competition was won by a glass container; Donkin’s metal one worked rather better in practice.
The Boer war developed the use of telegraph transforming the way infantry and cavalry worked together.
The First World War had a massive influence. At the start, the War Office had specified Bosch magnetos for all war office vehicles. In stepped Peter Bennett of Thomson Bennett which were the only UK manufacturer of such parts. Lucas spotted an opportunity and bought the company, massively increasing its production. Almost as important, Bennett would go on to run Lucas in the interwar years with great success. 
Inevitably expertise with explosives grew with people like Nobel and Abel. A whole string of munitions factories were created. Heavy engineering flexed its muscles with companies like Vickers, John Brown, Cammell Laird and Beardmore. The young motor industry stepped up with large numbers of lorries, motor bikes and cars. Textile manufacturers churned out tons of uniforms. 
Lincoln’s William Tritton invented the tank, made by manufacturers across the land. In truth under the inspiration of Lloyd George the whole national industry went to war. 
I spotted a toy tank in a national trust house we visited a couple of years ago. It has a strong message about toys which were barely visible in any quantity before the twentieth century. There may have been a horse tricycle from G&J Lines, but more likely a wooden toy bought from a street trader. After 1900, they may have had a Mechanics Made Easy set and accompanying instruction manual. Frank Hornby, a Liverpool office worker, had been making perforated metal strips for his sons. These could be connected by means of small bolts and nuts to make anything from model trains to bridges and cranes. The adoption of the name Meccano came in 1907. 

Harbutt’s Plasticine was first manufactured in 1900. For wealthier families, the main source of toys was Germany with manufacturers such as Steiffe for Teddy Bears and Marklin for tinplate. The British firm Bassett-Lowke designed and supplied clockwork trains, but often had them manufactured in Germany. Between the wars, the absence of German suppliers boosted British toy makers into world leadership
Telegraph and telephone were used by the country mile but also radio especially for contact between the ground and aircraft overhead. 
The interwar years witnessed change on a grand scale.
At first there was a short post war boom but then old industries suffered as former customer nations found they could make it themselves – so textiles and shipping. Then the massive infrastructure of war production had  to be redeployed. Shipyard owners rationed themselves to share out the reduced volume of work. Thousands of skills workers were laid off. The consumption of whisky fell and producers such as the Distillers Company sought new uses for their plant – industrial alcohol made from molasses was one answer.
New industries prospered. The chemicals giant ICI was created in 1926 and would fund research which would, within a decade, lead to the invention of polythene and Perspex, using that industrial alcohol. Courtaulds took a licence for the production of rayon from vegetable material and soon transformed the dress of the British from cotton and wool to rayon – once again historic skills of spinning and weaving came in. The Celanese company of Derby took this further by using chemicals derived from cracking oil. 

I don’t know whether magnificent head offices were a hint of something to come.
Elsewhere Lever Brothers were making more than soap, Burroughs Welcome were developing medicines although Glaxo still focused on baby milk – how it would change!

English Electric and Associated Electrical Industries were both products of the interwar years. It is interesting though that these giant electric companies owe their childhood years to America.
Motor cars went from strength to strength
 Radio thrived, once businesses realised they could make money out of it. The BBC was formed by radio manufacturers in the 1923. To begin with the number of amateur licences far exceeded those who simply wanted to listen. A great many of the early radios were home made, but then we have names like Ekco and Pye. Gramophone recording kept pace with radio but television would follow later. There were British fingers in each of the pies.

In the mid-thirties, rearmament saved shipping, but also aircraft. Companies such as Avro, Supermarine, de Havilland, Vickers and Shorts were busy again.
There is a case for saying that the Second World War lasted for ten years for British manufacturers. It produced an astonishing set of advances. 
Motor manufacturers stepped up to the mark even more, producing everything from tanks, tin hats and ammunition to vehicles of all kinds – they made aircraft in the shadow factories built in the thirties in anticipation of war. Out of aircraft production came the jet, brain child of Frank Whittle which took to the air in the Meteor.
Radio manufacturers produced thousands of sets for all three services; they developed and manufactured radar and many other devices not least the Collosus computer that cracked the enigma code.

The potential of nuclear power was explored by ICI and others. Interestingly Frank Kierton, who went on to run Courtaulds, was part of the ICI team. Nylon, based on chemicals derived from oil was invented. British Nylon Spinners, owned jointly by ICI and Courtaulds, exploited the American invention. Glaxo and Wellcome produced penicillin initially using a natural fermentation. It would not be long before penicillin was joined by pharmaceuticals also derived from oil. 
Aluminium, which had been produced in the UK since the late 19th c, had been used by the ton in aircraft manufacture and would go on to be used in London’s tube trains.
Post war, there was no respite. Exports were needed in unimagined quantities to balance the nation’s books. It was tough on an exhausted population for rationing became ever fiercer. For exports, plastics mushroomed as more oil was refined to meet demand. Polythene began to be seen in the home. Giant chemical works appeared. What might be termed the gluttony of hydrocarbons got under way.
The motor industry yet again came into its own. The problem was how to meet the pent up demand. The American market was hungry for Jaguars, Austin Healey and MG and the Sunbeam Talbot. This strong demand laid the foundations of troubles to come as demands for higher wages were accepted just to keep production moving. Coventry was a busy place. Steel works struggled to keep pace. Shipyards were rationing orders to cope with demand. Again storing up problems for the future. The absence of competition meant that technical advance was slow or not existent. Old work practices were re-embraced. 
A man named Bamford made his first excavator from a converted tractor. 

The Vickers Viscount and de Havilland Comet took to the air
The jet engine powering  aircraft also found spectacular use as gas turbines powering the new oil industry. I was privileged to meet Kelvin Bray, managing director of Ruston Gas Turbines for twenty five years and he told me how the team in Lincoln, working under 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
The post war era saw Brush at the Falcon Works in Loughborough manufacture generators, transformers and railway locomotives. Brush later became part of Hawker Siddeley.
Rolls-Royce at Derby had powered so many aircraft with the iconic Merlin engine amongst others. Their motor cars transported royalty. The post war era saw wonderful motor cars but also Rolls-Royce jet engines and work on nuclear power for submarines.

This part of my story ends with the Festival of Britain, an occasion of great hope for the future. For my book it forms a bookend to mirror that of the Great Exhibition. 
The Festival itself was to be unlike the Great Exhibition; in the words of the Festival director:
We were going to tell a story not industry by industry, still less firm by firm, but the consecutive story of the British people in the land they live in. Each type of manufacture and each individual exhibit would occur in the setting appropriate to that part of the story in which it naturally fell e.g. steel knives and sinks in the home part of the story, steel machines in the industry part of the story, steel chassis in transport, and so on.
Exhibits were chosen as products of good design, functional efficiency and manufacture. We had moved on to a world of design and people like Robin Day with his iconic plastic chairs.
I found surprising the emphasis given to the manufacture of textiles. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, given the importance of textiles to the whole industrialisation process. In 1914 it was said that Britain produced enough cloth to clothe half the world’s population.  In 1951, the future of textiles was considered strong – they were to lead the export drive. How things have changed. 
There was an emphasis on new materials: aluminium, fibreglass and all manner of rubber highlighted by Dunlop. There was a focus on what we now call green energy: nuclear and hydroelectric.
A Design Review was compiled of some 24,000 products chosen for good design, functional efficiency and manufacture. It was to be a showcase for the nation. It also provides the spring board for my current book, Vehicles to Vaccines, which explores what happened next. Contrary to popular opinion it is not all doom and gloom, British manufacturing, although employing many fewer people, may well be approaching another golden era.

Saturday, December 9, 2023

Talk to Leicester branch of the Historical Association

 Delighted to have been invited to do a virtual talk about How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. 

I have dispensed with PowerPoint and will talk with reference to my secondary sources - the book was written in lockdown, although I did have some earlier research of primary sources. 

I plan to post the text of my talk and a list of the books after the talk 

Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Vehicles to Vaccines published 4 December 2023

am delighted to announce that Vehicles to Vaccines has been published by APS Books.

British Manufacturing was the envy of the world; it led the way. In time other nations caught up and indeed overtook the British in value of output. In 1951, manufacturing employed one third of the workforce; in the twenty-first century this has fallen to just ten percent. Britain now ranks eighth in the world league table of manufacturing nations. What had happened?

I explored the years up to 1951 in my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World (HBSTMW) which looked at the story of British manufacturing through the prism of the Great Exhibition of 1851. In this volume I seek to explore what happened since.

The Festival of Britain of 1951 gave a message of hope to a country worn down by war and yet more rationing. The future was to be as bright as the colours of new materials for the promised homes, hospitals and schools. Power was to be nuclear and hydroelectric. The world’s vehicles were British, be they ships, aircraft or wheeled. The world though was also picking itself up from the devastation of war with new factories and shipyards competing in export markets. What might be called the gluttony of hydrocarbons began with massive oil tankers taking to the seas and plastics finding their way into every part of life. 

In this world of change, British manufacturing didn’t stand still. In this book I delve into manufacturing, sector by sector drilling down into some key companies.

You can buy Vehicles to Vaccines from Amazon

The cover image was given by Hone-All Ltd and it is if their Jones & Shipman machine which with upgrades is still in use 

How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...