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Surgical instruments and the development of the steel trades in eighteenth-century Britain

This paper explores the relationship between surgical instruments and steel-using artisans. It poses questions about the relationship between the design of instruments, their manufacture and marketing in Britain, and technological change in the steel
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  1 Fitting for Health:The Economy of Medical Technology in Europe and its Colonies, 1600-1850 Surgical instruments and the development of the steel tradesin eighteenth-century Britain Chris Evans and Alun Withey Between the 1680s and 1740s, Britain moved from the margins of European steel-making to be itsmost dynamic centre. From being almost entirely dependent upon imports from Germany, Britishusers of steel found themselves able to draw upon very large quantities of domestically producedsteel. This abrupt transformation was thanks to the spread of the cementation method of production, an English speciality that yielded a serviceable but not high-grade metal (blister steel).But alongside blister steel English makers also produced a range of special steels, each with closelydefined attributes, which were used for high-end purposes. We focus upon these elite brands in thispaper.Technological development in the steel sector was driven by the needs of specific artisans who wereunusually demanding of the steels that they used. Steel was not, for them, a generic industrial rawmaterial; they made use of boutique brands, each of which promised particular qualities: hardness,or durability, or uniformity of composition, or elasticity. It is our contention that the manufacturersof medical paraphernalia played a central role in this process. The makers of surgical instrumentsrequired a material that could be honed to an extremely sharp edge, while the manufacturers of devices intended to correct deformity needed elasticity for their rupture trusses or neck swings. Infact, in the second half of the eighteenth century, surgical instrument makers increasingly demandednew steels tailored to their own unique requirements. Benjamin Huntsmans crucible steel is thebest-remembered of these, but Huntsman was just one of many manufacturers who preparedspeciality steels for niche markets.As W. Weston Davies noted, the surgical instrument trade was itself split into three different areasof specialisation: the first was that of tools requiring a sharp cutting edge, such as scalpels, lancets,  2  saws and knives; the second were non-cutting instruments including probes and specula; the thirdwere articulated or spring forceps. 1 Enhanced steels could make an immediate impact on both theform and function of instruments in each of these categories. John Kirkup, for example, notes thealteration in certain amputation instruments as a direct result of the properties of cast steel. Acurved amputation knife with its newly keen edge meant that surgeons could cut through tissuesmore quickly. This mitigated at least some of the risk to the patient caused by hypovolemic shock.But a surviving catalogue of English-made instruments c.1800 also gives some idea of the impact of steel in the smaller components of non-cutting instruments such as springs, screws and pipes.Forceps were sold with an improved steel spring, while the metals elasticity was also evident inImproved steel trusses with spring pads. 2  Metallurgical developments were intertwined with the needs of the medical faculty in complexways. The quest for new types of steel went hand-in hand with specialisation on the part of instrument manufacturers. Just as surgeons split off professionally from barber-surgeons, so themakers of surgical instruments were increasingly distinguished as a subset of razor makers, theancestral trade. Equally, new steels not only affected how instruments were made and handled, theyallowed aesthetic considerations to influence the design of instruments, as is borne out by manysurviving examples.This late eighteenth-century lithotomy instrument signed by Zavigny is made almost entirely fromsteel, including a polished steel lever, steel hoops and springs. It came in a fitted case made frommodish sharkskin, lined with red velvet and silk.Highly polished, blemish-free blades of the sort that could only be made from crucible steel alsoassisted in the elaboration of professional identity among surgeons: the possession of a set of glittering, finely-finished instruments became one of the marks of a gentleman practitioner.The use of steel articles in medicine usefully highlights key aspects of the steel trade, fromorganisational diversity to technological change and, as we shall see, the quality controls imposed byboth supplier and purchaser. An investigation of steel also allows us to uncover a dedicated supply 1 W.H. Weston Davies, The Surgical Instrument Maker: an historical perspective,  Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 8 2 (January 1989), p. 41 2  A Catalogue of Chirurgical Instruments Made and Sold By J.H. Savigny, No. 28, King-Street, Covent Garden  (London, 1800), pp. 14, 2 0, 22 .  3  chain that arose to serve the medical profession. One of the main subjects of this paper will be thatof razors and razor-makers. It is easy to regard razors as purely cosmetic instruments but they in factsit at an interesting junction between surgery and toilette. Razor-makers shared a common ancestrywith the surgical instrument trade, and in practice there was little differentiation in the eighteenthcentury since instrument-makers made and sold razors as a matter of course. Razors, of course,were essential for barbering, with all its concomitant medical associations. The Technology of Surgery and Medicine Demand for new medical technologies was indeed demanding. Blister steel was not suitable for themanufacture of razors and fine-edged instruments because carbon, the source of steely hardness,was not evenly distributed throughout the metal and because strings of slag in the metal could actas fracture points. The solution came, according to the historiographical orthodoxy, with thedevelopment of cast steel by Benjamin Huntsman in the 1740s. By melting blister steel Huntsmanwas able to achieve a uniform distribution of carbon and skim off the slag residue. The Huntsmanprocess was, in this view, paradigm-shifting in its effects and catapulted Sheffield to a position of world-leadership in steel production.Yet there are good grounds for questioning this sequence. Blister steel became abundant in the earlyeighteenth century but it was far from the only product on the market. There was also a range of what might best be described as boutique steels: metals that were particular to one workshop, oremployed in just one, niche market. One or two of these are known to us, like shear steel, theoutcome of repeatedly forge-hammering blistered bars. Most of these boutique products, however,are entirely mysterious. There was, for example, the right Dartford Steel, a parcel of which wasauctioned in London in 17 2 1. Dartford Steel, it was claimed, exceeded all Venice or German Steelfor a fine Edge, as also for Strength and Substance of Body. It was a unique material, of which onlythe famous Mr Kemp knew the secret and Kemp, being dead near two Years, was in no position toproduce more. 3 The fame of Mr Kemp has not endured and the methods that he used in makingDartford Steel are lost to us. Much the same might be said of the watchmaker Mr Monk who, fiftyyears later, was hailed by the author of   An Introduction to the Mechanical Part of Clock and WatchWork  as a gentleman who has added greatly to the improvement of our business in many parts,[and who] has a sort of steel that is superior to any that ever was made, that I know of. 4 Indeed, the 3    Applebees Original Weekly Journal  , 2 7 May 17 2 1. 4 Thomas Hatton,  An Introduction to the Mechanical Part of Clock and Watch Work  (177 3 ), p. 3 89.  4steel made by Monk was compared favourably with Huntsmans cast steel, which at present made,is not so good as at first, and some think it the worst sort used.Benjamin Huntsman enjoyed a considerable reputation in his lifetime but his contemporaries did notnecessarily see Huntsman steel as pre-eminent or as the outcome of an epochal technologicalbreakthrough. As Liliane Pérez has pointed out, it is very doubtful whether Huntsman saw himself asan inventor. It is not a claim he ever made in the extensive correspondence he had with theBlakeys, the Parisian merchants who dealt in tools and toys. Huntsman talked of his steel as ahigh-quality brand, not as the outcome of a process that was unique to his firm. 5 Indeed, Huntsmannever patented the crucible process he employed  perhaps because crucible methods were morewidely used than later, Sheffield-centric historians have been willing to admit. Certainly, there wererival steel makers who disputed Huntsmans claim to priority. Henry Horne, a London cutler andspring-maker and the author of  E  ssays concerning Iron and Steel  (177 3 ), claimed that the crucibleprocess usually attributed to Benjamin Huntsman srcinated in the capital, not the provincialobscurity of Sheffield. The credit rightfully went to Londoner John Waller, a roller of gold and silverwire, who had by Great Labour and Study in Philosophy and Chemistry accomplished the Refiningof Steel. 6 His success had come, so Waller claimed, in 17 3 7. 7 Henry Horne expanded on the story.He had taken up the crucible process himself at his steel manufactory in White-Cross-Alley. Indeed,Hornes mastery of cast steel was attested to by William Blakey, the Parisian merchant who was alsoa customer of Huntsman. Writing against those who doubted the effectiveness (or even the reality)of cast steel, Blakey offered himself as an eye-witness: But to leave you in no doubt of the existenceof English cast steel, I will tell you that I have seen it made in London, chez Mr Horn, the famousmanufacturer of watch springs and pendulums. 8   5 Liliane Pérez, Steel and toy trade between England and France: the Huntsmans correspondence with theBlakeys (1765-1769), Historical Metallurgy  , 4 2 : 2 ( 2 008), 1 2 7-47, especially 1 3 9. 6 The National Archives, T1/ 3 5 2 /77, petition of John Waller, December 175 2 . 7 John Waller,  An Appeal to the Nobility and Gentry, in regard to the Gold and Silver Lace, Brocades, E  mbroidery, and Gold and Silver Ribbon of this Kingdom (London, 1755), p. 6. This story was repeated inStebbing Shaw,  A Tour to the West of  E  ngland in 1788 (London, 1789), pp. 2 08-09, where it was claimed thatcast steel srcinated with one Waller some 40 or 50 years ago. 8 William Blakey, Réflexions sur les progrès de la fabrique du fer et de lacier dans la Grande Bretagne (Paris,178 3 ), 2 7- 2 8.  5This was a technologically creative world in which medical artisans were increasingly prominent. Infact, such was the depth of their metallurgical knowledge that some were esteemed as experts insteel by contemporaries and peers. In many ways this made sense; medical artisans knew theirmarket, knew their individual customers and understood perfectly the often precise and exactingqualities needed in the construction of their products. Razor makers, who often doubled as surgicalinstrument manufacturers, enjoyed particular respect. In the correspondence of Matthew Boulton,renowned toy manufacturer, luminary and aesthete, one letter in particular makes this point. In a1764 missive from a potential supplier the merits of an American make of bar iron were discussed.Its suitability for conversion to steel was to be judged by Mr Sevigni, a famous cutler in Pall Mall. 9  This was John Henry Savigny, part of a family dynasty of cutlers, razor and surgical instrumentmakers, whose business continued well into the nineteenth century. Savignys reputation wassomething that he actively promoted in print. He issued  An essay on the mystery of tempering steel  in 1771, which was a translation of the French savant Réaumurs  The art of converting bar iron intosteel  . He followed this with his Treatise on the use and management of a razor  (c.1780), the titlepage of which identified Savigny as the Instrument-Maker to St Georges Hospital. It was Savigny,incidentally, who was responsible for the first illustrated catalogue of surgical instruments to bepublished in England.Another razor-maker of note, James Stodart, played a very well-documented role in thedevelopment of steel alloys. Stodart, who traded from The Strand in London, specialised in surgeonsinstruments and razors, often made from wootz , the highly rated crucible steel from India. He wasengaged in systematic metallurgical research in the first two decades of the nineteenth century andacquired a weighty enough reputation to secure election as a fellow of the Royal Society. 10 In theyears immediately preceding his death in 18 23 Stodart was working in collaboration with MichaelFaraday at the Royal Institution. 11 Together, they published a succession of papers on steel. Theiralloy of steel and silver (harder than the best cast steel, or even than the Indian wootz, with no 9 Birmingham Archives, Matthew Boulton papers, MS 3 78 2 /1 2 / 23 / 33 , William Allen to Matthew Boulton, 2  April 1764 10 Sir Robert Hadfield, Faraday and his Metallurgical Researches, With Special Reference to Their Bearing onthe Development of Alloy Steel  (London, 19 3 1), pp. 3 9-4 2   11 Frank A.J.L. James (ed.), The correspondence of Michael Faraday. Volume 1, 1811-1831 (London, 1991), pp.191-9 2 , 195-98, 2 09, 23 8-4 2  
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