Johnson Jex (1778-1852), was a blacksmith, and a remarkably ingenious self-taught watch and clockmaker, and master of many other mechanical arts. He lived and worked in Letheringsett, Norfolk.
1778 Born in Billingford, Norfolk, the son of William Jex, a Blacksmith, and his wife Chrisiana Johnson
1841 Listed as a Blacksmith in Letheringsett.
An 1852 Obituary
1852 Obituary from the Norfolk Chronicle
'JOHNSON JEX. A STUDY FOR THE MILLION.
'We announced last week the death of Johnson Jex, the learned blacksmith of Letheringsett, known to many as a mechanical genius of uncommon merit.
'A short account of his life and of his mechanical inventions will, doubtless, interest our readers, for he did not belong to the "crowd of those who are faithfully stamped, like bank notes, with the same marks, with difference only being worth more guineas or fewer." A single sentence may serve to give a faithful and comprehensive description of this remarkable man — he was pre-eminently an ORIGINAL THINKER. He took nothing for granted, but reasoned deeply upon every subject which presented itself for his consideration.
'Johnson Jex was the son of William Jex, a blacksmith, and was born at Billingford, in this county, in or about the year 1778. In his boyhood he was sent to day-school, but has often been heard to say, that although he was sent off to school for years, he never went three months in his life. He frequently walked to Foulsham instead, to look at the shop window of Mr. Mayes, watchmaker, who resided there. He did not even learn to read or write it school, but taught himself afterwards. His mechanical talent manifested itself at a very early age. When about five years old he was left alone in a room at his grandmother's, at Cley next the Sea, and employed his time taking a lock off a drawer, with old knife, "to see what was in it." With regard to Jex's first experiment in clock-work, the following anecdote is related. When about 12 or 13 years of age, a watchmaker came to his mother's house to clean her clock. Jex watched him whilst he took it in pieces, cleaned the works, and put them together again. No sooner had he left than he determined to try whether he could not do the same. He at once went to work, and completed his task with all the skill and exactitude of an experienced hand. (He did not mention this occurrence till several years after.) From that time began to turn his attention watch and clock making, and without having served an apprenticeship, eventually attained great excellence in the art.
'When about 13 years old, he became acquainted with Mr. Mayes, of whom mention has already been made. Mr. M's attention was first attracted towards Jex by frequently observing him look in at his window. He at length asked him what he wanted? Jex replied, he "wished to see that thing" — pointing to a newly invented instrument for either watch or clock making. Mr. Mayes showed it him, but did not allow him to touch it. Jex declared he "could make one like it," and accordingly did so in about month. Mr. M. was delighted with the talent and ingenuity displayed by the boy, and from that time took great pleasure in showing him anything connected with his business. At his death he left Jex a legacy of £50, as a proof the high esteem entertained for him.
'In early life Jex was no means robust in health, and afterwards declared his belief, that working with the bout-hammer, at the blacksmith's anvil, had been the means of strengthening his constitution and saving his life.
'Some particulars of Jex's early history are given in Young's "General View of the Agriculture of the County of Norfolk." We subjoin the following extract within about the year 1802: —Under the head implements, must not conclude without mentioning a person of most extraordinary mechanical talents. Mr. Jex, a young blacksmith it Billingford, at 16 years of age, having heard that there was such machine as a way-measurer, he reflected by what machinery the result could be produced, and set to work to contrive one: the whole was his own invention, it was done, as might be expected, in a round-about way, a motion too accelerated, was corrected by additional wheels; for throughout the complexity, such accurate calculations were the basis of his work, that when finished and tried, it was perfectly correct without alteration. His inventive talents are unquestionable. He has made a machine for cutting watch pinnions, a depthening tool, a machine for cutting and finishing watch-wheel teeth, of his own invention ; a clock barrel and fusee engine, made without ever seeing one of the kind. He made a clock ; the teeth of the wheels cut with a hack saw, and the balance with a half round file. He has made an electrical machine, and a powerful horse-shoe magnet. Upon being shewn, by Mr. Munnings, a common barrow-drill, the delivery by a notched cylinder, invented and wrought an absolutely new delivery, a brass cylinder with holes, having moveable plugs governed by springs, which clear the holes or cups, throwing out the seed of any size with great accuracy; and not liking the application of springs on the outside of the cylinder, reversed the whole; and in a second, now making, placed them most ingeniously within it. He has not yet failed in any thing he has undertaken : he makes every thing himself: he models, and casts them in iron and brass, having a powerful wind-furnace of his own invention. It is melancholy to see such genius employed in all the work of a common blacksmith. However, he is only 23 years of age, and I am mistaken greatly, if he does not, ere long, move in a much higher sphere. This is not a country in which such talents can long be buried; a mind so occupied has had no time for vicious habits, he is a very sober, honest young man, and bears an excellent character.
'Unhappily for the interests of science, the talents which excited admiration at so early an age, and which expanded with the growth of years, were destined to remain for ever buried in obscurity. Shortly after Young's notice of him was written, Jex removed to Letheringsett, near Holt, where he worked as a common blacksmith till within the last 30 years. Since that time he has employed workmen in the practical part of his business, but he continued till his decease to live in the house adjoining the blacksmith's shop. His mother, to whom he was devotedly attached, was his companion until her death, which took place 20 years ago. Since then he has led a life of complete solitude — a scientific anchorite. No monk, bound by the vows of his order, ever devoted himself more completely to the service of his church than did Johnson Jex to the pursuit of science. For this he "lived, moved, and had his being." His thirst for knowledge of every kind was so great, that no obstacles in the way of its attainment appeared insurmountable. His natural taste for mechanism led him to devote the greater part of his time to this branch of science, and some of his inventions were evidences of a splendid intellect, conjoined with the power of severe and continuous application. The first watch ever constructed by Jex, was made after he had settled at Letheringsett, for his friend, the Rev. T. Munnings, of Gorget, near Dereham. Every part of this watch, including the silver face, and every tool employed in its construction, was of Jex's own making. At Mr. Munnings' request he engraved outside the watch these lines:
"I, Johnson Jex, a blacksmith bred,
"With some strange crankums in my head,
"And tools on which I could depend
"By me invented; for a friend
"This time-piece made from end to end.
"If this your mind should still perplex,
"Behold my name— 'tis Johnson Jex."
'This watch was stolen by housebreakers, and the particular scapement adopted by Jex in its construction, cannot now be ascertained. It is believed, however, to have resembled that known to watchmakers as the "horizontal scapement", as he actually made a ruby cylinder for this watch. This fact was mentioned to Arnold and Earnshaw, two celebrated London watchmakers. The former declared that a ruby cylinder could not be made out of the metropolis, and that only two or three Italians in London could make such a thing. Mr. Earnshaw said it might be possible to have a ruby cylinder made in the country, but it was not probable, and he expressed a great wish to see the "village blacksmith" who had achieved such a triumph of skill, offering at tbe same time to show him all possible attention. It was through the advice of Mr. Munnings that Jex once exhibited some agricultural implement of his own invention at the Holkham sheep shearing. Owing, however, either to its complicated structure or to some personal pique between Mr. Munnings and Mr. Coke, its value was not appreciated. This so disgusted Jex that he declared he would never again bring any his inventions before the public, and to this resolution he firmly adhered.
'One of the greatest efforts of Jex's inventive powers was the construction of a gold chronometer, with, what is technically termed, a "detached scapement" and compensating balance. This was made long before he ever saw or heard of the " detachment scapement," the principle of which has since been so successfully applied by Arnold and Earnshaw. Jex turned the jewels himself, made the cases, the chain, the mainspring, and indeed every part of the watch except the dial. The very instruments with which he executed this wonderful piece of mechanism were of his own workmanship! It is only by watchmakers themselves that this triumph of skill can be adequately appreciated. They know that no single man is ever employed to make a complete chronometer, but that different parts of the mechanism are entrusted to different hands, and that many are employed upon a single watch. Several watchmakers refused to give credence to the statement when first told that Johnson Jex, blacksmith, had made a chronometer by his own unassisted skill — more especially when informed that he had disdained to tread the beaten path,— a servile imitator-, but had applied an entirely new principle in its mechanism. The late Mr. Cozens, of London (whose name is familiar to most watchmakers), actually furnished Jex with the gold in its rough state, from which he manufactured the chronometer. It was made for the late Sir Jacob Astley. By curious coincidence it afterwards fell into Mr. Cozens' hands, and was purchased as a curiosity by Mr. Blakely, of Norwich, in whose possession it still remains. Inside the case are engraved the words, "An original invention by Johnson Jex." This chronometer was exhibited a few years ago at the Norwich Polytechnic.
'Such was Jex's thirst for information, and such was his resolution to clear every obstacle which impeded his progress, that, to read some French works on Horology, he mastered, unassisted, the French language, when about 60 years of age. He then read the books in question, but found that they contained nothing which was new to him, he having become thoroughly acquainted with the subject by previous study of Fnglish authors.
'Another of Jex's inventions was a Lathe, of extraordinary power and ingenuity, which remained in his possession until his death. By means of this Lathe he was enabled to cut the teeth wheels mathematically correct, into any number, even odd, up to 2000, by means of a dividing plate. He also constructed a Lathe, on a minute scale, for turning diamonds, which was very complicated in its structure. He also invented an air tight furnace-door, for his own green-house, admirably constructed, that the fire would keep light from Saturday night till Monday morning, thus obviating the necessity of his attending to it on the Sunday.
'About ten years ago he invented a method of opening green-house windows, for Mr. Cozens Hardy, which means they can be set open at any required width, and so fastened that the wind has no power over them. The contrivance is extremely simple, and yet effective, that it deserves a patent, and ought to be universally adopted. In addition to being a watchmaker, he was also an iron and brass founder, a glass-blower, a maker of mathematical instruments, barometers, thermometers, gun-barrels, air-guns, &c. The latter he considered extremely unsafe, one of them having burst in his hand, after having been submitted to very severe proof. Jex understood electricity, galvanism, electro-magnetism, &c, and had a thorough knowledge of chemistry so far as the metals are concerned. He had in his workshop an electrical machine, which he once employed in a ludicrous way. He had been very much annoyed by a dog, which kept constantly paying him visits, and was decidedly "more free than welcome." Jex resolved to cure the dog of this propensity, and accordingly charged his machine, and then baited the wire attached to it with piece of meat. When next the dog appeared it eagerly seized the dainty morsel, but a severe shock in its nose so terrified the animal that it instantly took to its heels, and from that time forth was never seen in Jex's yard.
'Amongst other sciences Jex understood astronomy, and could calculate the time by the fixed stars. In taking astronomical observations he was accustomed to make use of his own door-post and chimney opposite. His knowledge of astronomy, and of everything else, was SELF-ACQUIRED. He made telescopes and metallic reflectors, which are universally acknowledged to be of extremely difficult construction. He puzzled his brains for some time on the question of "perpetual motion," but at length gave it up as unattainable.
'We feel ourselves utterly incapable of doing justice to Jex as man of science. It is probable that comparatively few of his successful experiments were ever made known to any other person, consequently many of his most important inventions have doubtless died with their author. It is melancholy to reflect upon such a waste of talent. He was often urged to seek a suitable field for the exercise of his powers, but could never be induced to leave the secluded village in which he fixed his home. He never visited London, and it is even believed that he was never out of the county which gave him birth. He had a great dislike of travelling, and never saw a railway train, although he lived within 12 miles of a station. Some sixty years ago, when he was a mere boy, Jex first heard steam spoken of as motive power of irresistible force. The boy thought its power was over estimated and resolved to test it by a most original experiment. He first partially filled a gunbarrel with water, which he stopped up with a strong plug; he then put the barrel into the blacksmith's forge, and in process of time steam was generated, and the plug of course forced out. Jex needed no further experiments to prove the power of steam! He was a first-rate arithmetician, and could work very complicated calculations. His reasoning powers were of the finest order; nevertheless, paradoxical as it may appear, he was in some things extremely superstitious. For instance he would never begin anything on Saturday, and he used to say that therein he followed his mother's example. He was naturally a timid man, and excessively afraid of contagion, yet he lived in state of filth which was sufficient of itself to generate disease. He never allowed a woman to enter his house for the sake of cleaning it, and his rooms consequently contained the accumulated dust of years. His disposition was shy and retiring, but whenever he met with any one whose tastes were similar his own, he would converse for hours with the greatest delight, upon any subject connected with the arts and sciences. He was a man of the strictest integrity, and of unimpeachable veracity. He was entirely destitute of the love of money, and sought out truth for its own sake, and with no view to any personal gain. Such an example is rare indeed in this grasping and selfish age. He was kind to the poor, and rarely sent a mendicant away without relief. He was naturally very humane, of which he following is one proof. He used to keep bees, but could not endure the idea being obliged to burn them in order to get the honey. He therefore invented a new kind of bee-hive, which entirely prevented the necessity of petpetrating what he considered to be an act of cruelty.
'As a proof of the sterling uprightness of Jex's dealings,we must mention a highly characteristic incident. He was fond of music, and meeting with a second-hand barrel organ purchased it or £6. When he got it home he fancied the price he had given was below its real value, and therefore sent the person of whom he had bought it £2 additional. This may be thought by some too trivial a circumstance to be recorded here, but will not by those who remember that every "extensive prospect may be seen through small openings." The character of Johnson Jex is one in which the moral philosopher may find ample scope for the exercise of his analytical powers. He was a "man of mark," from whose great intellect burst the barriers of opposing circumstances, and forced for itself a way into light and liberty. He reminds us forcibly of Burns' familiar lines,
"The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that."
'Jex's personal appearance was prepossessing: he was about the average height, and well proportioned, he had a pleasing expression of countenance, and when engaged in conversation a very animated one. His eye was bright and intelligent, and he had a remarkably fine head, a cast of which has been taken by Bianchi, an artist of this city.
'Johnson Jex was addicted to no vice whatever, but though strictly moral in all his actions, we fear he was not governed by the higher principles of religion. On this subject, however, it becomes us to be silent, remembering that his immortal spirit is in the hands of that Being who can alone discover the secret springs of action in that most wonderful of all mechanism - a naked human heart. Jex was hardly ever known to attend public worship. The last sermon he heard was one preached many years ago, at Cromer (where Jex happened to be spending a few hours) by the Rev. W. Brock, with whom he was personally acquainted. Mr. Brock's text was "We preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews, a stumbling block, and unto the Greeks foolishness, but unto them which are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the of God, and the wisdom of God." He listened with marked attention, and afterwards expressed himself highly delighted with the sermon.
'In 1845 Jex had a stroke of paralysis, from the effects of which he never entirely recovered. His intellect gradually lost much of its original power, and in the last year or two especially, a very marked alteration was perceptible. He was again attacked with paralysis in November last, and his death took place on the 5th of this month, and his remains are interred in Letheringsett churchyard.
'Thus lived, and thus died, Johnson Jex, whose history forcibly exemplifies the truth of Gray's lines
"Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
"The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear;
"Full many flower is born to blush unseen,
"And waste its sweetness on the desert air." '
Some 1908 Correspondence
From the Norfolk News
THE MASTER OF THE ROLLS AND JOHNSON JEX.
To the Editor,
Sir — I have read with interest the correspondence in your paper with reference to Johnson Jex. The watch referred to is in possession, together with a lathe and measuring instrument, and the beginning of a watch ordered by my father, but not completed by Johnson Jex, owing to a stroke of paralysis. These articles I have deposited for a month in the Castle Museum, so that any of your correspondents interested in the matter can inspect them on application to the Curator. Accompanying these articles in an explanatory memorandum, dictated by my father shortly before his death.
I am, yours faithfully, HERBERT H. COZENS-HARDY, 50, Ladbroke Grove, W.
April 9th, 1906.
'To the Editor.
Sir — I am much obliged to Mr. Sydney Cozen-Hardy for his courteous reply to my letter. Mr. Hardy says I assume a blacksmith’s craft is incompatible with highly skilled “mechanical workmanship.” Exactly so! Even had Jex possessed the inventive genius of Edison or Marconi, he would still have lacked the delicacy of touch and skill absolutely necessary in making a chronometer. Now chronometer escapement-making has long been divided into three distinct branches, viz., piloting, planting, and springing, the springer generally being accepted (by a custom the trade) as the maker of the chronometer, his business being to see that the whole of the different parts were correct, and apply the balance spring and adjust for isochronism and temperature; and, if a pocket one, in four or even six different positions. Many of these men are of high scientific attainments, who have spent many years in elucidating the many difficult and perplexing problems they constantly encounter. Yet we are asked to believe all this was a mere trifle to this blacksmith, who not only did all this, but also made the case, mainspring, chain, and turned the jewels and every part except the dial, and that even the tools that did the work with were his handiwork.
A Norwich watchmaker informs me that many vears ago he used to clean a watch of Jex’s reputed make for the late Mr. Cook, chemist, St. Giles’s Street. He gave me a few particulars as to style and general finish of the watch, a large gold one, with an elaborate silver dial, and of splendid workmanship all through. The escapement was a Savage’s two-pin (the most difficult of all lever escapements to make). Experience had taught manufacturers that the friction of two gold pins caused rapid wear, so they substituted a broad ruby stone in the roller (as was the case this watch). Now. could Jex have made a sufficient number of this class of watch have found by experience its defects? If not, he must have been clever indeed to at once hit on the only remedy. - Yours truly, Mark W. Edwards, Denbigh Road, Norwich, April 7th.
‘TRIPLE PRISMATIC ENGINE LATHE : JOHNSON JEX Informs the Proprietors of Mills and Manufactories that he turns Axles, Shafts, Spindles, Cylinders, working Barrels, Valves, Dutch Cones, Spherical and Plane Surfaces, Pyramids, Circles, Squares, Pentagons, etc., divides and cuts Pinions, Wheels and Patterns with any number of Teeth from 6 to 2000 and upwards and cuts screws of all kinds, from a Watch-screw to the largest Press Screw, left or right, single, double, or triple, square or angular thread, cylindrical or conical and to any required number of turns per foot or inch. The accuracy with which all these operations can be performed by the above Lathe is highly deserving of the attention of all persons who employ Mechanism in their various manufactures.
J.J. casts Mill Brasses by a new and superior process which can only be had at his Foundery at Letheringsett, near Holt.'
'TO COVER THIS SEASON, 1847, AT LETHERINGSETT, NEAR HOLT, at a Sovereign each Mare, SNOWBALL, The property of Mr. Johnson Jex, Blacksmith, &c.
This Horse was got by Lord Hastings' spotted Pony (late Colonel Say's, of Downham). For symmetry, constitution, and temper seldom equalled, and with dark coloured Mares experience has proved that some of his stock will be variously spotted, and of great value, which is finely shown by one of his progeny, that beautiful and unique Colt belonging to J. Banks, Esq.,' Holt.'. Evidently Jex's interests weren't limited to the mechanical arts, horology, astronomy, agriculture, horticulture..... !
'Letheringsett, near Holt
to Amateur & Practical Mechanics, Watch and Clock Manufacturers, and others.
TO BE SOLD BY AUCTION,
by J. Colman. On Tuesday and Wednesday, February 10th and 11th.
By direction of the Executor, all the very Valuable LATHES, TOOLS, BOOKS, WATCHES, Very Superior Steel-mounted, Sunk Patent Breech, DOUBLE GUN, Damascus barrels ;
Piano Fortes, Barrel Organ, a Capital WHITE entire HORSE (SNOWBALL),
And Other Effects, of the late MR, JOHNSON JEX,
COMPRISING a magnificent Dividing and Wheel Cutting Engine, and triple Prismatic Bar Lathe, self-acting for surfacing and screw cutting, with micrometer and repeating indices. The Dividing Engine is capable of producing any number up to 2000, multiplies or not, and is self-acting. An extraordinary Gem Turning and universal watchmaker's lathe, with compound slide rest for straight and circular work; Mounted Diamond Tools for ditto; a Clockmaker's Lathe, with rose engine and slide tool carriage, together with two extra mandrils and carriages to the same bar, and a variety of apparatus, &c., &c.; 12 very superior Silver Watches, and 14 Second-hand ditto; Hundreds of Volumes of Books, &c., &c.
Catalogues, fully describing the above-named rare and very valuable Property, may be obtained, ten days prior to the Sale, by forwarding six postage stamps to the Auctioneer, Holt.
ORDER OF SALE:-
On Tuesday, All the Lathes, Tools. Machinery, Gun, &c. On Wednesday, The Books, Watches, Piano Fortes, Organ, Horse, Household Furniture, &c.'
'To Machinists. TO BE SOLD A BARGAIN, a superior LATHE, made by the late Johnson Jecks. To be seen at Messrs. G. and W. Stevens, Orford Hill, Norwich.'
An interesting review of Jex's life and work appeared in an article by David W. Durst for the Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society. We learn that his forebears on the Johnson side were tanners and lime kiln owners. On his mother's side, the Cook family were coal merchants in Cley. By 1802 johnson Jex had moved from Billingford to take over his grandfather's old smithy at Letheringsett. Around 1817 he took on workmen to do smiths' work. Brass and iron foundrywork were added to the capabilities of the business. In 1822 he was advertising to undertake turning work (using the now-preserved lathe).
The NIAS article mentioned 'A reluctance when dealing with people: a shyness, made him unambitious and reclusive; this was sad because an unknown number of his ideas or inventions died with him.'
After his death, some of Jex's tools were sold by auction.
The complex 'triple prismatic' lathe/gear cutting machine referred to above was, until recently, on display at the The Museum of Norwich at the Bridewell . Unfortunately, it was not thought worthy of retention in Norwich. Fortunately its importance was recognised by the Science Museum, who acquired it. It is not currently on display. For more information, see Johnson Jex: Lathe.
In addition to his large lathe, a very small lathe and a micrometer reading to 0.001", having a screw of 50 tpi, were on display at the Bridewell Museum, Norwich until c.2012. See photo above (which also includes Jex's micrometer/caliper in the background).
The small lathe is very small indeed, the faceplate/chuck being only about 1.4" (35 mm) in diameter. A photo is also included here. Some aspects of this machine are baffling. The 1852 auction included 'An extraordinary Gem Turning and universal watchmaker's lathe, with compound slide rest for straight and circular work; Mounted Diamond Tools for ditto; a Clockmaker's Lathe, with rose engine and slide tool carriage, together with two extra mandrils and carriages to the same bar, and a variety of apparatus, &c., &c.'. The one illustrated is presumably the former. The compound slide rest has no less than five micrometer adjustment screws. It also has a feature which allows the tool holder to be reciprocated by a hand lever, as in a manual shaping machine, or by leadscrew. It also appears to have co-axial spindles which can be driven independently.
In the 1908 correspondence transcribed above, we read the patronising statement: 'Mr. Hardy says I assume a blacksmith’s craft is incompatible with highly skilled “mechanical workmanship.” Exactly so! Even had Jex possessed the inventive genius of Edison or Marconi, he would still have lacked the delicacy of touch and skill absolutely necessary in making a chronometer.' While one can speculate on his ability to make a chronometer, the quality of construction of the machines leaves no doubt about the standard of his workmanship and his delicacy of touch. He was clearly a highly-skilled perfectionist, but presumably he did not undertake blacksmithing and instrument work on the same day!
Sources of Information
- 1841 Census
- 1851 Census
- Norfolk Chronicle - Saturday 17 January 1852, via The British Newspaper Archive
- Norfolk News - Saturday 11 April 1908
- Norfolk Chronicle - Saturday 7 September 1822
- Norfolk News - Saturday 3 April 1847
- Norwich Mercury - Saturday 7 February 1852
- Norfolk Chronicle - Saturday 9 August 1856
-  Norfolk Industrial Archaeology Society: Letheringsett - The Industrial History of a Norfolk Village by David W. Durst, 2013