1704 – 1776
Benjamin Huntsman was born in Lincolnshire, England, the third son of Quaker farmer William Huntsman. From an early age he showed great interest in all mechanical things and an aptitude for their repair. At fourteen he was apprenticed to a clockmaker. This was a popular occupation amongst Quakers at that time and something at which they excelled. He established himself as a clockmaker in Doncaster and was appointed to look after the town clock.
Occasionally he also practised as a surgeon and oculist amongst the less affluent and refused all fees for his services.
He was dissatisfied with the quality of the metal in the clock and pendulum springs that he was using so he started to experiment on how to improve it. The steel that was used at that time was known as “cementation” steel and came from Germany, although small quantities had been produced in Yorkshire from about 1642. The quality of the steel was variable because it was made by forging a number of bars bound together. He spent a number of years trying to obtain a suitable product and had many failures. Finally Huntsman found a way of melting the steel. He discovered that glass makers used clay crucibles for melting glass, and that these crucibles could withstand higher temperatures than the crucibles used in the brass foundries. The temperature needed to produce molten steel was much higher than that required for brass, and these clay crucibles were able to produce molten steel for the first time.This allowed the constituent parts to mix together properly resulting in a superior product.
In 1742 Huntsman moved to Handsworth on the outskirts of Sheffield as the large quantities of coke needed for the melting of steel were available there. In 1751 he set up as a steel maker. He and his son William developed a thriving business although Benjamin was not particularly interested in making profits from his work and therefore did not achieve the commercial success of some of the later steel makers. He did not take out a patent on his steel production method as he felt this to be at odds with his Quakerism.
Despite considerable efforts by Huntsman his cast steel did not find favour with manufacturers in Sheffield as it was harder to work with. They showed no interest in either the method of casting steel or the product produced.
However his work attracted attention abroad and a number of visitors came to see what he was doing. The new steel that he was making was hard but flexible and could be used in the manufacture of tools, razors and cutlery. It soon became very popular in Europe, particularly in France, where it was used in the manufacture of cutlery.
Soon Huntsman Steel cutlery was being exported from France back to England. The response of the Sheffield manufacturers, whose businesses were now in jeopardy, was to try to have the export of Huntsman steel prohibited. They approached Sir George Saville, the local Member of Parliament and asked him to petition the government, but he refused to take the matter any further. The Sheffield manufacturers were therefore forced to reconsider the use of cast steel for their products. This generated was considerable interest in Huntsman's unpatented manufacturing process and it is said that unfaithful employees of his were bribed to reveal the secrets of how it was made.
There is a story that a tramp arrived at the factory one night and begged for shelter. Huntsman took him in and provided him with food. He was in fact a rival steel maker named Walker who used this opportunity to find out the process by which Huntsman made his steel. By 1763 the Huntsman trade-mark had become known and famous. He was offered a Fellowship of the Royal Society but declined it as he felt it was against his Quaker principles to be honoured in this way. He also refused to have his portrait painted as he felt this was not what a Quaker should do.
The firm moved to larger premises in the Northern part of Sheffield where they made considerable profits from the manufacture of metal buttons.
Benjamin Huntsman died at Attercliffe on 20th June 1776 and was buried in his wife’s grave at the chapel yard. He is recognized as the man most responsible for Sheffield’s pre-eminence in the manufacture of steel.