Benjamin Huntsman 1704 – 1776

Benjamin Huntsman was born in Lincolnshire, England in 1704. His parents had moved here from Germany shortly before his birth.

As a boy, Benjamin showed a flair for mechanical crafts. As a young man,he set up a clock-making business in Doncaster (about 20 miles north of Sheffield). He also practised as a surgeon and occulist as well as carrying out general mechanical repairs.

Like most of the people who manufactured steel products, he obtained his steel from Germany. Unfortunately, he found that this material was not suitable for the springs and pendulums of the clocks which he was making. He began experiments to produce a better quality of steel but had difficulty in obtaining suitable fuel for his steel making furnace.

In 1740, he moved to Sheffield where there was a better supply of the coke he needed as a fuel. He first settled in the district of Handsworth just to the south of the centre of Sheffield where he carried out his experiments in secret.

After many years of experimenting, he finally perfected his crucible steel process and realised that this process could be used to make superior tools and cutlery. When he tried to interest the local cutlers in using his steel for their products, he had little success.

The Sheffield cutlers refused to work with his steel which was harder than that which they were used to. Huntsman then turned his attention to the French who were quick to take advantage of the new steel and bought all his produce.

When the Sheffield cutlers found that their markets were being lost to the superior quality French cutlery, they tried to obtain a government order to prevent Huntsman exporting his crucible steel. Fortunately for Sheffield’s development, they were unsuccessful in this attempt. Just as Huntsman was contemplating a move to Birmingham, the Sheffield cutlers abandoned their moves to block his steel making business and stated using his steel to make their own products.

The demand for Huntsman’s steel increased rapidly and in 1770, he moved his factory to a new site in Attercliffe in the Don Valley. This area later became the main location for the huge special-steel making industry of Sheffield.

The Royal Society wanted to enrol Huntsman as a member in recognition of the merit of his invention of the crucible steel process. Benjamin turned down this honour because he felt 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 years. He was buried in the local churchyard in Attercliffe. His steel making business was carried on by his son who increased its business on its reputation for producing the best cast steel that is made.