Wilkinson was an English industrialist who pioneered the use of cast iron, an essential new material of the Industrial Revolution.
Wilkinson was born in Clifton, Cumberland. His father Isaac was a part-time ironworker and inventor. By 1748, Wilkinson had saved enough money to build his first blast furnace in Bradley, near Wolverhampton. He was so successful that in 1772 he bought the manor and estate of Bradley, adding to the works there.
In the early 1760s, John and his brother William inherited their father's ironworks in Bersham, north Wales and founded the New Bersham Company. Bersham soon led the world in the field of iron technology. Later John joined up with James Watt in the manufacture of steam engines. For some twenty years they enjoyed a near-monopoly, with Boulton & Watt insisting that customers bought parts from the Wilkinson foundry. This cosy relationship ended when in the late 1780s, when William and John fell out. William supplied Boulton & Watt with details of the pirate engines John had been building on the side. They sued, and established the Soho works in Stoke-on-Trent as a means of independent production.
Wilkinson was also influential in the design of cannon. The traditional method involved casting a one-piece cannon with a core. Since the hole was cast, it often introduced imperfections into the cannon which have catastrophic consequences for those using it. In 1774-1775, Wilkinson invented a cannon-boring machine which produced safer and more accurate cannons. He later patented a method to make spiral groves in cannons that would project the ball further and straighter.
Wilkinson was a major force behind the construction in 1779 of an iron bridge, the world's first, across the River Severn at Coalbrookdale. In 1787, Wilkinson launched the first iron barge. His iron obsession reached its peak in the late 1790s, when he paid to have iron windows, a pulpit and other fittings installed into a Methodist chapel in Bradley. He was known as 'Iron-Mad Wilkinson'.
Wilkinson died in 1808 a wealthy man. He was buried in an iron coffin.
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