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Inventors and Innovators

Sunset at Kit Hill by Barry GambleIn its mining heyday Cornwall was a centre of world-changing innovation and engineering. A number of leading minds worked long hours to pioneer solutions for some of the greatest problems of the day. Initially, many of the steam engine erectors and engineers came from outside Cornwall. They were originally agents or representatives of the pioneering Midlands foundries, which had supplied most of the parts for the early beam engines. Some settled in Cornwall to work.

Joseph Hornblower was one of the first engine erectors to work in Cornwall and is recorded as having installed a Newcomen atmospheric engine at Wheal Rose, near Truro in 1725. In time his son, Jonathan, assumed his father’s duties and, after relocating to Cornwall in 1745, also erected several Newcomen engines.

The most important incomers were the engineers sent to Cornwall by Boulton & Watt.

Jonathan’s son, Jabez Carter Hornblower, later erected engines for Boulton & Watt but was successfully sued by the partnership in 1796 for infringement of their patent of 1769. This governed the use of a separate condenser connected to a steam cylinder by a valve.

Of all these incomers, the most important were the engineers and erectors sent to Cornwall by Mathew Boulton and James Watt in the later decades of the 18th century. William Murdoch was one, and he came to Cornwall as their chief engineer.

Local talent

Engineers of distinction from Cornwall and Devon soon appeared. Richard Trevithickwas the son of one of the mine captains at Dolcoath and was brother-in-law to Henry Harvey of Hayle. Arthur Woolf left Cornwall in 1785 to work for Joseph Bramah’s engineering works in Pimlico (London) and subsequently worked as an engine erector and engineer until his return to Cornwall in 1811. There were many others, including: William Sims, the self-taught son of an engine man, James Sims; John Hocking, Michael Loam, William West, the Michells, the Eustices, Samuel Grose, Billy Jenkin, the Tonkins, James Bullen and others on whose expertise rested the efficient running of Cornwall’s mines. They became highly respected in their field with some earning considerable wealth from their activities.

Problem solvers

The development of deep, hard-rock mining during the 18th century repeatedly threw up problems for which practical solutions had to be found. Other people’s ideas and skills were sometimes imported, whilst local mine owners, merchants, miners and engineers, in an inherent empirical tradition, were constantly experimenting, improving and cumulatively innovating.

  • 1702  Robert Lydall of Truro developed an improved reverberatory tin furnace
  • 1762  Sampson Swaine of Camborne developed a moorstone boiler which combined the production of steam with the reduction of low-grade copper ore to a partial smelt
  • 1772  James Budge developed the tapered barrel whim
  • 1805  John Taylor designed the mechanised copper ore crusher that became known as the Cornish Roll. These were first manufactured by Mount Foundry in Tavistock and first applied to ore-dressing at the important copper mines of Wheal Friendship and Wheal Crowndale in west Devon
  • 1812  Arthur Woolf's steam stamps were erected at the Carn Brea mines

Whilst the best-known developments in mining technology lay in the field of steam engines, engineers from Cornwall and Devon were also responsible for numerous important improvements to boilers, mine pitwork, pumps, hydraulics, surveying equipment and ore-dressing.

  • 1829  The Brunton arsenic calciner was installed at Wheal Vor
  • 1830  The first hydraulic ore dressing jig was introduced at Fowey Consols Mine
  • 1840  Wire rope haulage was introduced at South Frances
  • 1844  The Brunton Belt Concentrator (a forerunner of the Frue Vanner) was installed at Devon Great Consols
  • 1844  The Oxland process was developed for the removal of wolframite from tin ores
  • 1856  The hydraulic classifier was invented by Isaac Richards
  • 1860  Vincent invented the rag frame
  • 1870s Harvey’s of Hayle developed the pneumatic stamps
  • 1880  Michell & Tregonning invented the barrel pulveriser (forerunner to the ball mill)
  • 1912  The James tin concentrating table was first manufactured by Holmans


World leaders in innovation

In 1792 Murdoch was the first in the world to use gas to light a domestic residence at his Redruth home.

The 19th century also saw the emergence of a substantial gunpowder-making industry; the invention and manufacture of the safety fuse by William Bickford (whose company was to dominate world production for decades); the expansion of Perran Foundry and Harvey's of Hayle into international suppliers of mining equipment; and the eventual emergence of Holmans of Camborne as world leaders in the field of rock drills and compressed air equipment. William Murdoch was the first to use gas to light a domestic residence at his Redruth house in 1792; Humphry Davy established himself as a pioneering British chemist; Goldsworthy Gurney ran a steam-driven coach from London to Bath in 1829 before turning his attention to lighthouses; and Richard Trevithick trialled a practical steam road carriage in 1801 and produced the world’s first successful steam locomotive.