Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 162,842 pages of information and 245,375 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Samuel Bentham

From Graces Guide

Samuel Bentham (1757-1831) was a naval architect and inventor

1757 Born in London, the youngest of the seven children of Jeremiah Bentham (1712–1792), an attorney, and his wife, Alicia Woodward Whitehorne Grove (d. 1759). Samuel and his brother Jeremy Bentham were the only two children in the family to survive infancy.

1763 Attended Westminster School

1771 He left school to become a naval apprentice to William Gray at Woolwich. Here he found he was inclined towards the administrative and constructional work of the navy.

1777 On completion of his apprenticeship he continued to learn about shipbuilding by working in the dockyards at Portsmouth and at sea.

1779 As a consequence of his abilities he was sent by the First Lord of the Admiralty to visit various ports and dockyards in Northern Europe. In Russia he was particularly well received and while he was there he took charge of Prince Potemkin's factories which, at that time, were being very badly mismanaged. Bentham drew up plans for a "central inspection house" in the factories, an idea which his brother, Jeremy, later spent much time developing (later described as the Panopticon).

1787 While he was in Russia he built and equipped a flotilla of ships; he developed special non-recoil guns which he had built and mounted in the ships. His contribution to the Russian victory over the Turks was recognized by his promotion to colonel, and the award of a knighthood of the Russian order of St George.

As there were very few skilled workmen in Russia at that time Bentham started working on the problem of "transferring skills" by means of machines. He thought that it should be possible to build machines which worked by unskilled labour, yet could produce the same results as skilled workmen.

So while Bramah and Maudslay were at work in London on their metal-working machines for making locks, Bentham in Russia, was working along very similar lines as applied to wood-working machines.

1791 he returned to England and took out his first patent for wood-working machines.

1793 Bentham took out another patent, which has been called "one of the most remarkable patents ever issued by the British Patents Office", for it set forth the whole scheme of woodworking machinery for making blocks.

1796 As a result of his recommendations to the Admiralty regarding the savings his machines (sawing, planing and block-making machines) could make in the dockyards, he was created Inspector General of Naval Works and given authority to put his recommendations into effect.

1796 Married Maria Sophia Fordyce

At that time pulley blocks formed one of the most important items of naval supplies. A single frigate required as many as 1,500 of them and the Admiralty were purchasing about 100,000 per year. Bentham erected a factory in Portsmouth Dockyard for the manufacture of blocks by his method, but before he began to build the machines he met Marc Isambard Brunel. Brunel showed drawings of his own designs to Bentham who immediately recognised them as being superior to his own. He recommended their adoption to the Admiralty with the result that Brunel was commissioned to build and install them. Some of Bentham's machines were retained, but only for the roughing-out operations, all the finishing being done on Brunel's more intricate machines. It was when the work of building his machines began that Brunel, who was a clever and original designer but no mechanic, realised his need for someone capable of building them.

Hearing of Brunel's difficulty, a friend of his, a M. de Bacquancourt, introduced him to a young engineer named Henry Maudslay who was eventually commissioned to carry out the whole contract. The total number of machines was 44 and at that time constituted one of the most ingenious and complete collections of tools ever invented for making articles in wood. By the aid of this machinery 10 unskilled men did the work of 110 skilled workmen and in so doing saved the country enormous sums of money.

The block-making machines were installed at the Naval Dockyards at Portsmouth (see Portsmouth Block Mills) and later Chatham, as well as a number of Naval dockyards overseas. Some of the machines were still in regular use during the 1940s

Bentham's ideas for improvement covered every aspect of dockyard organization, including the size of the dock basins, the layout of various offices, and measures to minimize the risk of fire in the yards.

Bentham proposed to use floating gates for docks, under the name of floating dams, which may have led to the later development of floating docks[1]

1799 he proposed the use of a steam engine to drive a bucket dredger. Later it was built and was put in to use in April 1802. He then approved a more powerful engine by Richard Trevithick but an explosion at Greenwich in 1803 led to the cancellation of the order. [2]

1805 Bentham was sent back to Russia when the British government mistakenly believed that the tsar was willing to allow British warships to be built at Archangel, to overcome the shortage of oak timber in England, but no such arrangement had been made. Instead he undertook various private enterprises including supervising the erection of a wooden panopticon at Ochta.

1807 During his absence the naval commissioners of revision recommended that the inspector-general should become a member of the Navy Board, with the title of civil architect and engineer, and the office of inspector-general was abolished in October 1807, a decision which Bentham discovered on his return in November.

c.1807 Featured in the painting of 'Men of Science Living in 1807-8', reproduced as an engraving by George Zobel, and William Walker[3]

1812 After disagreements with John Rennie about the state of the naval docks, Bentham was dismissed.

1814 Bentham moved his family to France, eventually settling near Montpellier where his inventive mind continued to develop new ideas

1826 The Bentham family returned to England.

1831 April 30th. Died in London. Aged 76.[4]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1867/07/05
  2. Richard Trevithick by H. W. Dickinson and Arthur Titley. Published 1934
  3. National Portrait Gallery [1]
  4. Preston Chronicle - Saturday 07 May 1831
  • [2]
  • Biography of Samuel Bentham, ODNB