John Dickinson (1782–1869)

The mechanisation of the laborious process of making paper by hand was developed by several inventors around 1800. In France, Nicholas-Louis Robert developed a method for pouring paper pulp onto a continuous wire screen in 1798. This was improved by Bryan Donkin for two English papermakers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who gave their name to the ‘Fourdrinier process’ patented in 1807. John Dickinson took a different approach: using suction to pull pulp onto a wire cylinder. He patented it in 1809 and it was used in paper and card making internationally. He produced many other inventions in papermaking and created a manufacturing empire.

Dickinson grew up in London, where his father was a Royal Navy captain with administrative duties and lodgings in the Tower of London. His mother came from a French-Huguenot family of London silk weavers. At the age of 16 he was apprenticed to a stationer and by 1804 he had his own business selling paper to booksellers and publishers. He soon turned his mind to inventing. His first patent was for an improved cartridge paper for firing canon that did not smoulder: it improved efficiency and reduced accidental firing. He then patented a device for cutting paper with sharp-edged wheels instead of a guillotine – a method still used in trimming paper today.

His cylinder-mould papermaking machine was patented in 1809. Air was drawn through holes in a brass cylinder. When the cylinder was partly submerged in pulp it sucked wet fibres onto a wire mesh that covered it before releasing them onto felt to make a continuous sheet. This had the effect of aligning the fibres, which made the paper smoother and stronger than paper from other processes. Dickinson purchased the water-powered Apsley Mill at Hemel Hempstead, north of London, and set up his first factory in partnership with the publisher George Longman. He soon bought the nearby Nash Mill as well. He continued to invent improvements, introduced steam engines and in 1818 added Batchworth Mill, where he processed rags for papermaking. In the next decades he built two new mills nearby, established a mill at Manchester for processing waste cotton from textile factories and built a mansion to his own design overlooking Nash Mill. Other inventions included gummed envelopes and silk strands embedded in paper to authenticate postage stamps.

Dickinson’s scientific standing was recognised when he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1845. He retired in 1858 and died a very wealthy man a decade later. His company continued for nearly two centuries.