Aaron Manby (1776–1850)

Aaron Manby was a British ironmaster and engineer who introduced the manufacture of steam-engines to France. He was responsible for developments in engines, iron ships, iron structures and gas lighting.

Manby’s father was a wealthy ironmonger and slave-owner in Jamaica with a transatlantic business but Manby was born in the English midlands where his mother’s family lived. His father died soon afterwards. As a young man he was employed in a bank in the south of England.

By 1812 he was the managing partner of the Horseley Iron and Coal Company at Tipton, near Birmingham. He may have gained capital from his mother and knowledge of the iron industry from his father’s family. The Horseley company was already about 40 years old and integrated mining, iron smelting and iron manufacture. Manby expanded it and developed an engineering works. It became well-known for making iron bridges and canal aqueducts for the engineer Thomas Telford. Manby became an early member of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He took out a patent for the established practice of casting slag into building blocks for construction.

The most important of Manby’s innovations at the Horseley works were concerned with the iron steamship. In 1821 the company built a 36-m long iron paddle-steamer named The Aaron Manby. This was the first iron steamship and the first iron vessel to go to sea. The design was developed by Charles Napier with Manby and his son Charles. It was built at Tipton, taken apart and carried by canal to London to be rebuilt and launched. In 1822 it crossed the English Channel and went up the River Seine to Paris. Among the ship’s innovations were its steam engines, which were of the oscillating type in which a pair of cylinders drove cranks directly. Their compact form was ideal for ships. The principle had been suggested by William Murdoch in 1785 but Manby was the first to patent it and produce oscillating engines commercially. The company made them for both iron and wooden steamships.

Manby also turned his attention from around 1819 to industrial opportunities in France. In 1822 he opened an engineering works at Charenton near Paris. By 1825 it employed 500 people. It made France independent in the manufacture of steam engines. With his works manager Daniel Wilson, Manby took out a patent in France for making gas and storing it in portable tanks. They created a company to provide the first public gas lighting in Paris. In 1826 Manby and Wilson took over the historic iron furnaces at Le Creusot and redeveloped them along with their Paris operation under the title Société Anonyme des Mines, Forges et Fonderies du Creusot et de Charenton.

The French company went bankrupt in the financial crisis of 1833. In around 1840 Manby returned to England. He sold the Horseley ironworks a few years later. His eldest son Charles continued as a highly regarded civil engineer in France and Britain. Three other sons were also civil engineers.