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 150,335 pages of information and 235,380 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.

Bryan Donkin (1768-1855)

From Graces Guide
1819. Revolution Counter. On the completion of a revolution of the mechanism controlling the first digit, the mechanism controlling the second digit was moved one step forward.
Dividing engine/screwcutting lathe. Illustraion from 'Machinery' magazine. See text

Bryan Donkin (1768-1855), of Bryan Donkin and Co was an inventor, manufacturer, and engineer. His reputation led him to be involved as a consultant on many civil engineering projects, such as Isambard Brunel's design of pumping machinery for the Thames Tunnel. He was involved in several other major technologies including printing, canning, and scientific instruments. He had a remarkable ability to bring the promising concepts of other inventors to practical fruition, thanks to his persistence, ingenuity, and rigorous approach.

Described by George Escol Sellers as 'the most advanced mechanical engineer of the time, and it is to his inventive ability, zeal, and persistent application through a period of over 30 years, that the world is indebted for the perfecting of the crude ideas of Robert and Didot, and producing the self-acting web paper machine in such perfection ....'[1]

1768 born at Fountain Hall, and baptised at the church of St. John Lee near Sandhoe in Northumberland. The location of Fountain Hall is uncertain. Bryan's father, John Donkin, was a land agent and surveyor, was an acquaintance of John Smeaton.

1788 Bryan Donkin moved to Sevenoaks as agent for the Duke of Dorset at Knowle Park.

1792 Dissatisfied with his position, he consulted Smeaton, who advised him to serve an apprenticeship with a Dartford millwright, John Hall.

1798 Hall advanced £250 to Donkin to set himself up as a paper mould maker.

1798 Donkin married Mary Brames (d. 1858), sister of Mrs John Hall; they had five sons, John, Bryan, Thomas, (all of whom entered the family firm), William and Henry. They had four daughters Mary Ann, Sarah, Jane and Maria.

1801 John Gamble brought the drawings for a paper making machine to England from France and sold a share in the patent to the brothers Henry Fourdrinier and Sealy Fourdrinier; John Hall was invited to build the machine and passed the project to Bryan Donkin who started to build the machine in 1802, initially at Hall's plant and then at a new works at Spa Lane, Bermondsey, financed by the Fourdriniers, which was completed in April 1803 - see Bryan Donkin and Co.

1807 Donkin leased the Bermondsey works and began to produce the papermaking machines on a royalty basis - see Bryan Donkin and Co.

1808 Patent granted to Bryan Donkin for the invention of the steel pen, made in a small works at Fort Road, Bermondsey[2]. Subsequently sold the patent and the works to his friend Joseph Bramah, being occupied in perfecting the continuous paper-making machines of which he also held patents[3]. The paper machine in his patent was driven by a water wheel.[4]

1809 Birth of his son Bryan

1810 Received a gold medal from the Society of Arts for a tachometer for measuring the speed of machines.

c.1810 Donkin, Hall, and Gamble formed a business to acquire the English patent on canning from Peter Durand; Donkin was in charge of developing the process at Bermondsey. Donkin's adaptation of the process involved gradually heating the meat in tin cans in a bath of chloride of lime, thereby achieving complete sterilization. They also resolved the problem of how to solder the lids onto the tins. With the approval of the canned product by the Prince Regent, the process was a success. Donkin's tinned meat was taken to the Arctic by Sir James Ross in 1829, and by Sir John Franklin in 1845.

By 1812 nineteen papermaking machines had been sold, a number that had increased to 191 by 1850.

1813 With Richard Mackenzie Bacon, a Norwich journalist and musician, Donkin secured a patent for an improved printing machine - see Bacon and Donkin. The machine was adopted by the Cambridge University Press but was not successful.

1817 Donkin was involved with Thomas Telford in the Caledonian Canal, supplying the engine and machinery for a dredger

1819 Received a gold medal for a counting machine. Another invention was a dividing machine which was displayed in the Museum of Science and Art at South Kensington.

1819 The partnership in food preservation was dissolved in respect of John Hall[5].

1820 With Sir William Congreve and John Wilks, his then partner, he developed a method of printing stamps in two colours; further work was commissioned by the Excise and Stamp Office and by the East India Company.

1821 Bryan Donkin became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[6]

1821 A Partnership with Charles Brightly, of Bungay, in the County of Suffolk, Printer, as Patentees of an improved Machine or Printing-Press, for printing from types, plates, or blocks, was dissolved; the business was carried on by Brightly alone.[7]

1821 The partnership between Bryan Donkin and John Gamble, in preservation of food, was dissolved[8], Gamble continued the business himself.

1821 Donkin made a unique geometric lathe, or "rose engine", which was used to manufacture compound printing plates[9]

1822 Donkin was instrumental in founding the Institution of Civil Engineers. In 1828 Telford and Donkin advanced the Institution 200 and 100 guineas respectively to enable it to gain a Royal Charter.

1822 Built dredger for the Gotha canal

1822 Donkin adopted T. B. Crompton’s 1821 patent for drying paper continuously over steam-heated drying cylinders, thereby producing a paper machine design broadly in the form used today.

1824 On the exportation of machinery [10][11][12]

1826 Made a high precision dividing engine/screwcutting lathe. Described and illustrated in 'Machinery' magazine [13]. An earlier account was provided by Holtzapffel [14]Close view of correcting mechanism here, p.3843.

1827 Built a dredger for the Calder and Hebble Navigation

He was commissioned to make an estimate of the development costs of Charles Babbage's calculating machine.

1836 Elected a fellow of the Royal Society, later becoming Vice President.

1846 Retired from business

1851 His work on the papermaking machine was recognised with a gold medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851[15].

1855 died at his home, 6 The Paragon, New Kent Road, London, on 27 February.

Bryan Donkin Archive Trust

'Formed in 1999 The Bryan Donkin Archive Trust was established to advance the education of the public by the provision of artefacts associated with the history of the great 19th century engineer Bryan Donkin and his mechanical engineering company for exhibition in museums and other such like places.' Trust's website.

2016 Biography

A much-needed, in-depth biography of Bryan Donkin, running to over 300 pages, has been written by Maureen Greenland and Russ Day and published in 2016[16]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. [1] 'Early Engineering Reminiscences (1815-1840) of George Escol Sellers', edited by Eugene S. Ferguson, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 1965
  2. The Times, 18 September 1930
  3. The Times, 18 September 1930
  4. [2]Donkin drawing
  5. London Gazette; the business was continued by Donkin and Gamble [3]
  6. 1821 Institution of Civil Engineers
  7. London Gazette 10 March 1821
  8. London Gazette [4]
  9. [5]
  10. Mechanics Magazine 1824/03/13
  11. Mechanics Magazine 1824/03/20
  12. Mechanics Magazine 1824/03/27
  13. [6] Machinery (USA) August 1910, pp.985-6
  14. [7] Mechanics Magazine, Volume 45, 1846, p.518 ff.
  15. National Portrait Gallery
  16. 'Bryan Donkin - The Very Civil Engineer 1768-1855' by Maureen Greenfield and Russ Day, Phillimore Book Publishing, 2016. Available from B.D. Book Associates
  • Biography of Bryan Donkin, ODNB [8]
  • Biography of Bryan Donkin, in "A biographical dictionary of civil engineers in Great Britain and Ireland, vol.1 1500-1830", edited by A. W. Skempton [9]