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John Wilkinson - His Impact and Legacy

John Wilkinson was a leading figure of the Industrial Revolution. His boring machine made the accurate cylinders that brought Watt's steam engine to life. With his encouragement, James Watt designed the first steam engine that could power machinery. Industry could break free from its reliance on waterpower and be situated close to its raw materials or its markets.

Wilkinson patented his own inventions: a steam powered rolling mill and a cupola furnace for making high quality castings. His brilliance in making engine parts helped mechanise the industries that made Britain the leading industrial power in the 19th century. Meanwhile, his cannon boring machine and skill in rifling supplied the Royal Navy with the most accurate cannon in the world.

Wilkinson explored new techniques in iron making up to his death in 1808. He was buried in an iron coffin beneath an iron obelisk in Cumbria. His nephew disputed Wilkinson's will that left the business in trust to his mistress, Anne Lewis, and their three children. In 1823 The Court of Chancery, after fifteen years of legal wrangling, decided in favour of Anne and the one loyal trustee, James Adams.

Meanwhile the business had suffered: Bersham Ironworks closed in 1812. Only Brymbo Ironworks survived to carry the ambitions of Wilkinson, the King of Ironmasters, into the future.

The cylinder and the fitting of the piston were beyond my most sanguine hopes. It seemed to be truth itself.

James Watt on the importance of Wilkinson's cylinders to his steam engine.

Model of a John Wilkinson 1775 boring mill. - © Science & Society Picture Library

Watt's steam engine, cylinder made at John Wilkinson's ironworks, 1788. - © Science & Society Picture Library