Sir Bernhard Samuelson (1820 – 1905)

Bernhard Samuelson promoted the international diffusion of technology in the iron and steel and mechanical engineering industries, and advocated in Great Britain the high standards of technical education that he observed elsewhere in Europe.

Born in Hamburg, the son of a Jewish merchant trading in Liverpool and Hull, and educated privately in a Yorkshire vicarage, he served a six-year apprenticeship in the office of a Liverpool merchant. In 1841 he took charge of the continental business of Sharpe, Steward & Co., mechanical engineers of Manchester, and in 1846-48 set up their works at Tours.

He returned to England in 1848, and, probably through his brother Martin who was working as an assistant to C B Dockray, engineer of the Buckinghamshire Railway, heard of a foundry, the Britannia Works, at Banbury, Oxfordshire, that was for sale after the death of James Gardner, inventor of the Banbury Turnip Cutter. With the aid of the local banker, Timothy Rhodes Cobb, to whom he referred in 1858 as ‘my oldest friend in Banbury’, he took over the works in 1849, and was assisted in its management by his brother Alexander. In 1851 he gained a license to manufacture the McCormick reaping machine, one of the outstanding products from the United States that was displayed in the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace. The reaper and the turnip cutter were the basis of the firm’s expansion. The labour force at Banbury grew from 27 in 1849 to 400 by 1865 and 500 by 1871, and by 1861 was producing some 18,000 machines pa, 5000 of which were turnip cutters.

Reaping and mowing machines won prizes at Gurdainville, Montauban and Quimper in France during the 1870s, Berlin in 1868, in Canterbury, New Zealand in 1877 and at the Paris Exhibition of 1900. Mowing machines won plaudits in Ireland and at Franeker in the Netherlands, and after the Congress of Berlin in 1878 trainloads of reapers were despatched to Odessa by way of Hull. In 1853 Samuelson attended the Cleveland Agricultural Show, where C B Dockray introduced him to John Vaughan, the pioneer of the iron industry in that part of Yorkshire. The following year Samuelson erected two blast furnaces at South Bank, Middlesborough, and subsequently acquired mines that supplied the furnaces with ore and coal. He sold the South Banks work in 1863 and immediately erected a 16 ha complex at nearby Newport, where by 1870 there were 8 furnaces.

In the 1870s he acquired collieries at Hedleyhope and iron ore mines at Spawood. Samuelson contributed substantially to the development of blast furnace technology, by demonstrating that output could be increased and fuel consumption reduced by extending the diameter rather than the height of furnaces, and by increasing tuyere temperatures. He built coke ovens that incorporated advanced systems of by-product recovery.

His published scientific papers included an account of the ironworks at Terni, Italy. In 1870 he began the construction of a forge complex, the Britannia Works, at Middlesborough, where he installed 120 puddling furnaces. The works was sold to Dorman Long in 1879. He observed the Siemens Martin steelmaking process in France, but his attempt from 1869 to use the process to produce rails at the North Yorkshire Ironworks, Thornaby, proved unsuccessful, and led to financial losses. Samuelson sat as MP for Banbury for a few months in 1859, and from 1865 until 1895.

From 1867, at the request of successive governments, he made regular visits to continental Europe to observe technical education, chaired a parliamentary enquiry into the subject in 1868, and was a member of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction in 1882-4. He reported to the Foreign Office on iron trade with France in 1867, and took a strong interest in patent laws, railway legislation and international exhibitions.