In 1708 John Webster of Birmingham was in business as a wholesale ironmonger, and his astute marriage to an heiress founded an enterprise that has lasted for two and a half centuries.
The bride, Sarah Ward of Shenstone, provided capital and family connections in the Staffordshire iron trade which John swiftly exploited. Acquiring Iocal mills he began bar iron and wire manufacture, and one of them, Penns Mill, became world famous under his talented successors.
His son Joseph extended the business into steel. In 1761, after the death of his father, he developed crucible steel as a means of producing steel wire and a few years later was the first British manufacturer ever to succeed in this. The reputation for music wire which followed his achievement has endured to the present day and is for ever associated with the Websters of Penns.
Joseph II died in a hunting accident at the time of the French Revolution and in the long crises of the war with France, his valiant widow Phoebe continued the business with a teenage son. She was also helped both by Napoleon and the Royal Navy who between them stifled German competition
for the London piano trade.
There were other troubled times in all three centuries that the company has spanned but not the least of the Websters achievements was their ability to find heiresses to finance them when needed. In 1855 they also found James Horsfall whose heat treatment discoveries revolutionised wire manufacture and gave world preeminence for the rest of the century.
The Websters owed their success as steel makers to their long continuity and experience, to their painstaking workmanship and the purity of their materials. Their crucible pots were finely machined and accurately charged with powdered iron and birchwood charcoal, and they produced 28Ib ingots of exact analyses and quality that has never yet been improved on.
From 1816 onwards Joseph III was experimenting with additives, and in 1825 he produced a high manganese steel wire which was tougher and more ductile than its predecessors. This effectively roasted German competition from London for a further twenty years.
However, wire produced at that time – even from crucible steel – suffered from creep as it was drawn soft after annealing and its tensile strength was insufficient to give, or maintain, the hard clear note that the piano makers, needed.
By 1850 James Horsfall’s experiments in hard drawing wire, heat treated and quenched from elevated temperatures, produced double the tensile strength previously known and a 90% reduction of area which precluded stretching in tension. Patented wire is a term now in worldwide use and it refers to James’s 1854 patents which became reality owing to the nature of his processes and the quality of the Webster steel which made them possible.
The subsequent partnership was an obvious one and it was based on friendship as well as on common interests.
The partners were soon interested in oceanic telegraph cables which, by 1860, required high-grade steel on a scale dwarfing all previous usage. The subject was-critical after the 1858 Atlantic callIe had failed owing to the inability of the iron cover wire to carry its own weight in the deep-sea laying
operation. The lack of harmony between the two contractors was also a factor and they had laid up their respective halves of the cable in opposite directions. Both were customers of the Websters.
Knowing these matters, James declined to quote fo, the wire for the second attempt unless he had the whole of the business and that to his own specification in crucible steel. This brought him the largest order ever received by Webster and Horsfall, 1600 tons for delivery within twelve months, followed by a repeat order when the cable was lost during the final stages of laying it in 1865.
Another year was to pass before the new cable was ready and this time it was laid successfully – the steamship Great Eastern completing the Atlantic crossing in just fourteen days.
But the ultimate test which excited rope engineers the world over after the success of the 1866 cable was that Webster and Horsfall patent steel wire proved to be the only material capable of lifting and recovering its ill-fated predecessor lost two miles down in the depths of the ocean. Involvement with wire rope continued with the formation of our associate company Latch & Batchelor in 1891 founded by A. Latch, T. C. Batchelor and H. H. C.
Horsfall to develop Batchelor’s patent of lock coil rope in 1884 and flattened strand in 1888, both to prove world leaders.
With letters patent to their name and the Atlantic cable contract behind them, Webster and Horsfall continued to consolidate their position as leading wire manufacturers. With the expansion of light engineering in this country and the development of the internal combustion engine, the company extended its production into wire for high-duty springs of all types.
This change of emphasis was accelerated by the advent of two world wars which demanded wire for such diverse applications as radar equipment, parachutes, gun recoil springs, dashboard instrumentation and night-flying devices.
The need for speciality wire continues to grow and current production consists mainly of high-duty, spring quality carbon steel, silicon chrome and stainless steel wire-drawn to order.
Today’s spring manufacturers require wire that is tailor made for their own designs of ever increasing complexity and it must meet the exacting specifications of their products. The wire must run trouble free, however severe the forming process and it must provide indefinite fatigue life when
the springs are in service.
Steel manufacturers themselves for over a century, Webster & Horsfall nowadays buy their requirements from specialist British and continental mills. They have long experience of them. The insistence on purity, perfection of surface finish, and exactness of analyses and micro structure sets a standard of excellence without which the present performance of spring materials would be impossible.
The minimum size of ordinary production is .004″. This, 0.1mm, is the bottom of the range. Between these extremes an infinite variety of round, shaped and flattened wire can be produced, exact to size where needed.
Despite the spanning of three centuries the procedures of wire drawing have only been altered by the use of more durable tools and machinery. With wear resistant dies, electric power and improved transmission techniques, high speeds and long runs have been possible. Nowadays the operator has an immense amount of equipment at his disposal.
The individual’s responsibility is high and the skill required in the handling of hard wire is as great as ever it was. Tradition comes into it and, like artistic talent, many wire drawers believe that the skills they need are inherited. Experience at Penns and Hay Mills supports this view and our best wire drawers so often have belonged to families who have long connections with the company.
The skill of a fine wire drawer handling, say, .010 music wire is obvious but however great the skill, he will be a failure without the attitude of mind and the infinite patience which all the true wire drawers possess. They also need critical judgment, intuition and quick reactions. Recognition of ability, supported by well established training procedures ensures the perpetuation of our skills for future generations.
The testers stand between the production departments and the customers. They are the protectors of both, by ensuring total compliance to the customer’s order. They are equipped with modern apparatus for physical testing to meet all wire specifications in general use, including 200% nondestructive testing. This involves stringent control procedures with the testing stations linked to the laboratory who have technical supervision of all production.
The laboratory is also a service department for customers and there is a record system that spans many years to give invaluable technical support data.
…And still first
Wire capacity is about 10,000 tons a year, but Webster and Horsfall sales are determined by the numbers and variety of the orders rather than their weight. Most of them are well under 50 kgs and orders of an ounce, or a few feet, have the same meticulous care as all others.
Our associate company Latch & Batchelor, specialists in mining ropes, require round and intricate shaped wire of the highest integrity. Latch & Batchelor also supply stainless steel rope and offer a complete range of engineering rope with all the associated services. Both companies are approved with British Coal and many other quality assurance authorities, including the Ministry of Defence and Civil Aviation Authority.
Hay Mill’s wire is found in most plants and machinery; mechanical equipment can hardly operate without it and its usage is general in motor cars, aircraft, the electronics and electrical industries, and weaponry. Webster & Horsfall is the only British manufacturer still supplying piano wire on any scale. We also produce wire to the minutae of perfection required for surgical needs.
The lists of usage of high grade wire of all classes, kinds and analyses, is endless and is ever increasing. Our company has met and will continue to meet all demands placed upon it for quality wire.