Benjamin Huntsman, an English inventor and businessman, is known for his 1740 invention of the crucible process for casting steel. This process resulted in steel with a more uniform composition and greater purity than any type of steel previously produced. Because of these properties, it made superior tools and cutlery. While this process is expensive and cumbersome compared to modern advances in steel making, it was the most significant development in steel production at that time.
Benjamin Huntsman was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1704. His parents emigrated from Germany just a few years prior to his birth. As a youngster, Benjamin showed a flair for mechanical crafts. He became extremely adept at repairing clocks and set up a clockmaking business in Doncaster. He also practiced other general mechanical repairs and was a skilled surgeon. He became widely known for both these attributes.
In his craft, he set about improving the tools that he worked with. He became frustrated by the inferior quality of steel he obtained from Germany. This was especially true for the intricate springs and pendulums he needed to build for his clocks. In desperation, Huntsman began experimenting with his own steel production in order to upgrade the quality. After several unsuccessful attempts to fire up his furnace to a suitable temperature, he moved to Sheffield, England so that he would have a better fuel supply.
Huntsman was very secretive about his experiments. He finally perfected the crucible steel process and realized that it would be effective in making superior cutlery and tools. Unfortunately, there is no written record of the methods he adopted to overcome the difficulties he encountered during the development of the process. There must have been many problems because the process of manufacturing high quality cast-steel is an elaborate and delicate procedure. He had to discover the proper fuel, build an adequate furnace and make a crucible that could withstand more intense heat than anything previously known in metallurgy. Yet he was able to overcome all of these impediments and make excellent grade steel.
The crucible process technique that Huntsman developed for producing fine steel involved heating small pieces of carbon steel in a closed fireclay crucible placed in a coke fire. The temperature he was able to achieve with this method was high enough to melt steel, producing a homogeneous metal of uniform composition. Huntsman was extremely secretive about this process, but he did not patent it. In 1750, a competitor, Samuel Walker, discovered his method. While Walker profited considerably from the process, he was never able to usurp Huntsman's role as the producer of the best steel.
The demand for Huntsman's steel increased rapidly requiring him to move his factory to a new site in Attercliffe, England in 1770. This area later became the main location for the huge special-steel making industry of Sheffield. The Royal Society of London wanted to enroll Huntsman as a member in recognition of the merit of his invention of the crucible steel process. But he turned the honor down citing that it would conflict with his desire to work in seclusion and would also be against his principles as a member of the Society of Friends (Quakers).
Benjamin Huntsman died in 1776 at the age of 72. He was buried in the local churchyard in Attercliffe.
JAMES J. HOFFMANN