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Bryan Donkin
(22 Mar 1768 - 27 Feb 1855)

English mechanical engineer and inventor.


Bryan Donkin

Obituary from Proceedings of the Royal Society (1855)

[p.586] MR BRYAN DONKIN was born at Sandoe, Northumberland, on the 22nd of March, 1768. His taste for science and mechanics soon showed itself; and he was, almost as a child, continually to be found in his little workshop, making thermometers and ingenious contrivances connected with machinery of all kinds. This mechanical turn of mind was ultimately encouraged by his father, who was agent for the Errington and other estates, and who had formed the acquaintance of John Smeaton, the eminent engineer, from having frequent occasion to consult him on questions relating to the bridges and other works on the Tyne.

On leaving home, the son began life in the same business as his father, being engaged for a year or two as Land Agent to the Duke of Dorset at Knowle Park, Kent. Soon, however, the bent of his genius showed itself, by his leaving the Duke's agency, and going to consult Mr. Smeaton as to the best course to pursue to become an engineer. By Smeaton's recommendation, he apprenticed himself to Mr. Hall, of Dartford, and was soon able to take an active part in Mr. Hall's works; so that, in 1801-2, be was entrusted principally with the construction of a model of the first machine for making paper, the execution of which had been put into Mr. Hall’s hands by the Messrs. Fourdrinier.

The idea of this machine originated with Mr. Roberts, and formed the subject of a patent obtained by Mr. Gamble, which was assigned to Messrs. Bloxam and Fourdrinier. After some time had been spent and considerable expense incurred, many attempts were made to set the model to work, but in none of these trials was any paper produced fit for sale.

The model remained at Mr. Hall's works until 1802, when Mr. Donkin agreed with Messrs. Bloxam and Fourdrinier to take the matter in hand; and, having taken premises at Bermondsey (still occupied by his sons), he made a machine, and erected it, in 1804, at Frogmore, Herts. On putting this machine to work, it as found [p.587] successful, but yet far from perfect. A second machine was made by Mr. Donkin, and erected, in 1805, at Twowaters, Herts, in which he introduced further improvements, although much still remained to be done. However, in 1810, eighteen of these complex machines had been erected at various mills, some of which are even now at work; and, at this period, having overcome the practical difficulties, Mr. Donkin erected in this, and various foreign countries, many similar machines, which rapidly superseded the method of making paper by hand. Thus for eight years Mr. Donkin gave his time and skill almost wholly to this one object; and his perseverance was crowned with signal success; for although the original idea was not his, the credit of its entire practical development is due to Mr. Donkin.

The paper machine, of which at this time about two hundred have been made and erected by Mr. Donkin and his sons, ranks amongst the most useful and complete of mechanical contrivances; carrying the process uninterruptedly from the liquid pulp to the perfect sheet of paper, ready for writing or printing. The merit of these and of the latter improvements introduced by the Messrs. Donkin was recognized by the award of the Council Medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Mr. Donkin was also one of the earliest to introduce improvements in printing machinery. In 1813, he, in conjunction with Mr. Bacon, secured a patent for his Polygonal printing machine; and one was erected for the Cambridge University. It was then also he invented and first used the composition printing-rollers, by which some of the greatest difficulties hitherto experienced in printing by machines were overcome.

Mr. Kœnig and Mr. Cowper both used these rollers in their patent printing-machines, with Mr. Donkin's permission, which must be considered an act of the greatest liberality, since without these rollers no such machine can work. With the Polygonal machine, from 800 to 1000 impressions were produced per hour; but it never came into extensive use, as the construction was expensive, while the work produced was of a quality beyond that required in machine printing.

Mr. Donkin was also much engaged with Sir William Congreve, in 1820, in contriving a method of printing stamps in two colours, with compound plates, for the prevention of forgery; and, with the [p.588] aid of Mr. Wilks, who was then his partner, be produced the beautiful machine now used at the Excise and Stamp Offices, and by the East India Company at Calcutta.

Amongst the many inventions and ingenious processes in the promotion of which Mr. Donkin materially assisted, was the method of preserving meats and vegetables in air-tight cases. His attention was called to this subject in the year 1812, when he established a considerable manufactory for this purpose in Bermondsey. The introduction of this process has been of great public benefit; and on long sea voyages meat preserved in this way has become a necessary part of the stores of every well-appointed vessel.

Mr. Donkin was an early member of the Society of Arts, of which he was one of the Vice-Presidents; and as Chairman of the Committee of Mechanics, an office he held for many years, the soundness of his judgment and the urbanity of his manners made him much esteemed and beloved. He received two gold medals from the Society; one for his invention of an instrument to measure the velocity of rotation of machinery, the other for his admirable counting engine.

Although our space will not allow us to notice the various other inventions and improvements in machinery due to Mr. Donkin, we cannot pass over in silence his exquisite dividing and screw-cutting engine.

Mr. Donkin was much engaged during the last forty years of his life as a civil engineer, and was one of the originators and a Vice-President of the Institution of Civil Engineers, which was founded by one of his pupils, Mr. Henry Palmer, with a few other gentlemen; and Mr. Telford with Mr. Donkin obtained the Royal Charter for that body. In 1838 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and repeatedly served on the Council. He was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was held in such esteem by that body, that they placed him in the Chair on the occasion of receiving their Charter. He had, moreover, a small observatory in his garden, where he spent much of his leisure time: and it was to his own transit that he first applied his novel and beautiful level.

For many years Mr. Donkin was a magistrate for the county of Surrey, and, up to within a short time of his death, was very [p.589] regular and assiduous in the discharge of his duties. His life was one uninterrupted course of usefulness and good purpose; and he died on the 27th of February, 1855, after enjoying the general esteem and respect which render old age serene and happy.

Obituary from Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, octavo series, Vol VII (from 23 Feb 1854 - 20 Dec 1855), publ. 1856, pages 586-589. (source)


See also:
  • 22 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Donkin's birth.
  • 24 Jul - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Fourdinier's British patent.

Nature bears long with those who wrong her. She is patient under abuse. But when abuse has gone too far, when the time of reckoning finally comes, she is equally slow to be appeased and to turn away her wrath. (1882) -- Nathaniel Egleston, who was writing then about deforestation, but speaks equally well about the danger of climate change today.
Carl Sagan Thumbnail Carl Sagan: In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) ...(more by Sagan)

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Richard Feynman: It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly. ...(more by Feynman)
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