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John Roberts (1791-1840)

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John Roberts (c1791-1840) was a collier who invented a smoke hood (fire escape helmet).

The following newspaper accounts have been transcribed, retaining original spellings:-

19th February, 1825

IMPORTANT INVENTION. John Roberts, the inventor of the hood, mouthpiece, &c. who has recently demonstrated the utility of his apparatus at Bolton and Preston, repeated the experiment in this town on Wednesday last. The scene chosen for his operations was the cast-iron drying stove the iron foundry of Messrs. Radford and Waddington, in David-street, the dimensions of which are about 15 feet by 10, and 7 feet high. On the fire in this stove were laid a pound of sulphar, a quantity of cotton steeped in foul and rancid oils, and other mephitic substances ; and, in order to render the smoke and vapour as great and as dense as possible, some wet hay was also laid on the fire. When the effect that combustion of these materials was at its greatest height, Roberts fearlessly entered the stove with his apparatus on. He continued in full twenty minutes, and would have remained longer if he had not been requested to come out. The gentlemen present expressed themselves perfectly satisfied of the complete success of the experiment, and of the very great importance of the invention. Among them we noticed Samuel Grimshaw, Esq., our Boroughreeve, Mr. Richard Thorpe, and Mr.George Hudson, Surgeons; Mr. Joseph Morton, Secretary of the Manchester Fire Insurance Office, Mr Jewsbury of the of England, and Messrs. Duck, sen. and jun. the Sun Fire Offices; besides Messrs. Thos. Caldwell, J. Harding, J. Barlow, Radford and Waddington, and several other gentlemen extensively engaged in manufactures. In order to remove all doubt on the subject, as to the efficacy of this apparatus resisting the effects of noxious and irrespirable vapours, as well as to satisfy themselves that no deception had been practised by the operator, lying on his face on the floor within the stove, using any other means than such as his apparatus afforded for avoiding the effects of the vapour, Adam Farrar, active fireman, and foreman of the Royal Exchange engine, being provided with similar apparatus, was directed to accompany him upon going into the stove a second time. They remained in ten minutes without the slightest inconvenience to the fireman, during which time they both stood erect; and the fireman declares would have no hesitation (so far as smoke and vapour are concerned) in entering any building on fire when provided with this aparatus. The fireman subsequently entered the stove without the apparatus ; but as soon as he could hold his breath no longer he was obliged to return. Another person who was present was almost suffocated with merely going within the door for a few seconds.

Thus we think the efficacy of this aparatus in resisting the effects of noxious and mephitic vapours is now fully established; and if so, we know few modern inventions more likely to be fraught with beneficial results to the public. Its importance in cases of fire is obvious. Roberts is a poor and almost illiterate man, who worked several years in the Earl of Balcarras’ colliery, near Wigan, and the world is indebted for this valuable invention to his persevering attempts for many years past to supply a preservative against that bane of miners and colliers—the firedamp. His object is to get to London order submit his aparatus for the inspection and approval of the different Fire Insurance Companies, and to lay it before the Society of Arts ; but his means are so limited that he is unable to bear the expenses even of a journey thither; and we regret to add that the encouragement he has already met with, is by no means commensurate with the importance of his invention to the community. He is a plain unobtrusive man, and requires to be taken by the hand. We certainly do think that this would be an object not unworthy of the leading men among the scientific and the wealthy of our townsmen, who might very soon raise a considerable subscription, which would enable him to proceed to London, and avail himself of all the benefits arising from his invention, by securing a patent for it.

Since writing the above, we have learnt that several gentlemen have determined to exert themselves in his favour; and that it is contemplation that he should repeat his experiment here, in the course of the next week. He demonstrated the efficacy his aparatus, under the same circumctances, and with equal success, in a stove, at the foundry of Messrs. Paley and Co., Heatley-street, Preston, last week. [1]

26th February 1825

IMPORTANT INVENTION. Roberts repeated his experiment here on Wednesday, at Messrs. Radford and Waddington's foundry. The success was not equal to that on the former occasion, which was satisfactorily accounted for the imperfect construction of some new apparatus which he got made for the occasion, in order to enable two or three persons to accompany him into the stove. It was expected that something considerable would have been obtained for him on this occasion but we regret to say that the sum received scarcely, if at all. paid the expense he had been at in advertising and purchasing the new apparatus. "No man is a prophet his own country" says the adage; and the most important occurrences lose their interest by being frequent and becoming familiar. .................

.............Since writing the above, we yesterday witnessed a repetition the experiment, by the express desire of the directors of the Manchester Fire Office, who requested Dr. Henry to attend on the occasion, in order to report his opinion of the practical utility of the invention, and the results of his experiments upon portions of the vapour obtained near the floor, about half-way between the floor and the ceiling, and near the ceiling of the stove. The Doctor has politely favoured us with those results, from which it appears, that the air the stove had lost much less oxygen, and received a much smaller addition of carbonic acid, than might have been expected. He was, however, perfectly satisfied, from his being exposed to the rush of the smoke, when the door was occasionally opened, that no one could have remained in the stove, without some protection from the vapour, longer than the breath could be voluntarily suspended. The result of the Doctor's experiments is interesting from another point of view, namely, that it proves that air may be as completely vitiated and rendered unfit for respiration, by adding to it what is noxious, as by the subtraction of its respirable ingredient.

Although the exhibition was comparatively a private one, there were present Dr. Davenport Hulme, Mr. Dalton, the Directors of the Manchester Fire Office, Mr. Peter Clare, Mr. Whatton, and many other gentlemen extensively engaged in commerce and manufactures; all of whom expressed themselves perfectly satisfied with the result. As the object was to ascertain the practical utility of this invention, the temperature of the stove was not increased beyond 120 degrees, (it was upwards of 200 at Preston), and all noxious or deleterious ingredients were dispensed with ; foul cotton waste, and wet hay only, being placed on the fire. He remained in full twenty-four minutes without any inconvenience whatever. When he came out his pulse were 120. We are happy to observe that so respectable and powerful a body as the directors of the Manchester Fire Office have interested themselves in favour of this poor fellow and satisfied as they now must be of the utility of this invention in cases of fire, we doubt not they will do something handsome for him the town, and further his views in London by recommending him to the notice of such persons there as are capable of promoting his interests. We cannot close these few remarks without deprecating in the strongest manner the paltry and insidious attempt that has been made by a certain individual in this town to obtain from this unsuspecting poor man a correct description of his apparatus, and his mode of employing it. To effect this, we are assured, upon the best authority, that he was invited to "partake of a beef steak," after his exhibition on Wednesday last; and that a saddler was placed within hearing, while he was artfully drawn into conversation on the subject, in order that he might learn, from what he heard, how to construct a similar apparatus ! [2]

[Perhaps Dr Henry and a Mr Dalton were William Henry and John Dalton?]

12th March 1825

....we understand that the Manchester Assurance Company have presented Roberts, the ingenious inventor of the Hood and Mouthpiece, with £50. He has set out for London, in order to exhibit before the principals of various Fire Offices there ; we trust it will not be an unproductive journey.—Bolton Express [3]

18 April 1840

THE LATE JOHN ROBERTS. The death of this ingenious man, the inventor of the "safety-hood," is thus announced in a Lancashire paper: "On Saturday, the 14th ult., at Bilston, Staffordshire, aged 49, Mr. John Roberts, a native of St. Helen's. He was the inventor of the fire-escape-hood, or the miner's hood, and greatly improved by Sir H. Davy's safety lamp." About twenty years ago, when Roberts invented his admirable safety-hood, he was a common miner in the Whitehaven collieries, and inhabited one of those small cottages adjoining the gates of the glass-house yard, Ginns. His first experiment was made in a building in the yard, the floor of which was covered with a quantity of straw, thickly strewn with sulphur. The straw was set on fire, and when the atmosphere was so oppressive as to drive the bystanders from the door-way, Roberts, equipped in his hood, entered, and the door being closed, remained upwards of 20 minutes without inconvenience in a place where no living creature could have existed one fourth of the time. By those, however, (to their shame be it spoken) who ought to have duly appreciated the merits of his invention, Roberts and his hood were treated with neglect, and had not the editor of the Whitehaven Gazette, interested himself in his behalf, he might have remained unnoticed and unknown. He was introduced to the notice of the late J. C. Curwen, Esq., who, we believe, was the means of bringing the invention under the inspection of different scientific bodies in London, Dublin, and Paris, before whom Roberts put the powers of his hood to the test in many severe experimental trials. He was warmly applauded by the gentlemen who witnessed these trials, and was rewarded in a handsome manner for his invention. The Society of Arts presented him with a gold medal. As a means of preserving life in mines after an explosion, and in buildings when on fire, -inasmuch as it enables the wearer to remain for a considerable time in safety in situations where it would be impossible to breathe an instant without such a safeguard, -the safety-hood is unquestionably entitled to rank amongst the most useful inventions of modern times. How far it has been introduced into practical use we are not prepared to say, but certain we are, it is deserving of, and will one day obtain, a due meed of public celebrity. An interesting notice of Roberts and his invention appeared in Chambers' Journal four or five years ago. [4]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 19th February 1825
  2. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, Saturday 26th February 1825
  3. Lancaster Gazette, Saturday 12th March 1825
  4. Carlisle Journal, Saturday 18th April 1840