A specialist wire manufacturer is marking its tercentenary by showcasing its innovative past, writes Jessica Brookes.
Since its establishment in 1720, Webster & Horsfall, based in Hay Mills, has been developing wire and wire rope used in a plethora of objects, from World War II bicycles to teeth braces.
Webster & Horsfall were the first to adapt crucible steel to produce high carbon steel piano wire, invented a heat treatment process for producing high tensile wire, and, alongside fellow sister company Latch and Batchelor, invented flattened strand and locked coil mining ropes.
For Charles Horsfall, the 6th generation of Horsfall and Chairman of the business, the company has been involved in critical moments of history.
When asked what the company’s most crucial invention was, he responded: “The standout two are, the enabling of the first Transatlantic telegraph cable and patented steel wire production which dominates the world of high tensile wire today.”
Webster & Horsfall produced high tensile steel wire used in the first successful transatlantic telegraph cable, running under the Atlantic Ocean and enabling faster communication between North America and Europe in 1866.
Mr Horsfall is clear that the firm’s inventions have made a huge mark across the world.
He said: “I believe that Webster & Horsfall has impacted hugely on local and global history, both in wire production development and resulting products which powered the Industrial Revolution and is still a dominant force in modern life.”
Webster & Horsfall’s locked coil wire rope, through their Latch & Batchelor brand, was used in the construction of the Warragamba Dam in Sydney, Australia, and the company also manufactured 80,000 miles of wire used in anti-submarine netting, aircraft and balloon cables in the First World War.
A display of the firm’s wire innovations and history is on show at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, with the exhibition open until 4 October 2020.
Former Webster & Horsfall employee and retired businessman, Sandy Robertson, alongside Birmingham City Council, has been archiving Webster & Horsfall’s avalanche of documents, papers, photographs, drawings and letters which are included in the exhibition.
Reflecting on what he has learnt after spending years archiving Webster & Horsfall’s long and illustrious past, Sandy said: “The great thing about the history of this company is innovation and it has been like that since it started.
“During the 18th century in Birmingham there was a lot of innovation, driven by most of the people who were running businesses.
“John Webster, who founded the company, was very much an innovator and he wanted to take control of the production processes used to create the iron goods he was selling.
“In amidst the major developments of the steel industry, you found the Websters very much at the forefront.
“The innovations that this company was responsible for enabled the combustion engine, aeroplane flights and even space travel. All of this needed a very special quality of wire.”
Webster & Horsfall’s current innovative project is Tyseley Energy Park (TEP), developed in association with the University of Birmingham.
The park produces renewable electricity from a waste wood biomass plant and aims to drive further industrial growth in a sustainable way. The clean energy derived from the park powers Webster & Horsfall’s specialist manufacturing operation.
The energy park also includes the UK’s first low and zero carbon refuelling station. This year the University of Birmingham plans to build a £10m Energy Innovation Centre on TEP. This will provide businesses with the chance to develop their technology, and act as a centre for energy, waste and low-carbon transport system training.
Another Horsfall family member, David Horsfall, 7th generation, is responsible for developing the park.
David, director of property at TEP, said: “The park is a transitional energy pioneer developing innovative infrastructure and technology solutions to deliver renewable heat and power, energy storage solutions, clean transport fuels, and advanced waste processing to the city of Birmingham.
“Through a collaborative partnership with business, academia, government and industry, TEP is transforming infrastructure, and creating the models and solutions needed in the 21st Century.
“These solutions are helping to drive clean, green growth in Birmingham and the region, underpinning the transition to a zero carbon future and tackling key societal challenges such as energy poverty, poor air quality, electricity grid constraints and unemployment.”
This article was originally published in the April 2020 edition of Chamberlink.
Pictured: Machine 59 (1997) © Arthur Lockwood. From the Birmingham Museums Trust collection.
Original article here Greater Birmingham Chambers site