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British Industrial History

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William Bertram (Woolwich)

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of Woolwich Dockyard

1855 ' Important Discovery.— Welding of Iron Plates.
A patent has very recently been granted to a Mr. Bertram, a practical engineer employed in the dockyard at Woolwich as foreman of the factory. His invention consists of a perfectly new and more economical process of firmly joining together slabs of sheet iron work for the purposes of making boilers, building ships, and erecting bridges, &c., without the use of rivets. This novel method of welding the iron, instead of joining it by the rough means hitherto in use — that of rivetting — is carried out by fusing the two edges of the plates to be adhered, and striking them simultaneously on both sides. By this means the atructure is rendered materially lighter, and much stronger. Some experiments have been tested by order of the Lords of the Admiralty, in presence of the officers of the dockyard at Woolwich, who are authorised to report thereon. The result of their deliberations will shortly be made known. It has been hitherto considered impossible to make an unlimited surface of iron ; hence the system of riveting has been so far perpetuated, but is now about to be superseded by this invention. The greater requirements of strength now necessary, as evinced by the numerous boiler explosions, and the defectiveness of the riveting system in shipbuilding, which does not admit of the strength required, gave Mr. Bertram the idea that some important improvements might be made available, and thus far his exertions have succeeded, so as to warrant the belief that his new system will be universally introduced where the old principle has so long been found faulty, and through which such innumerable accidents have occurred.' [1]

1855 'A few days ago we alluded to an invention in boiler making of Mr Bertram, head of the machinery department at Woolwich, by which the plates are welded together instead of being rivetted. The following is the mode by which this is accomplished The plates are scarfed, and laid together with sufficient overlap, and are then hung in a perpendicular position, and temporarily clamped together in their proper places. Two small forges are slung from the roof or from crossbeams erected for the purpose, one forge being applied to each side of the plates. These act in the manner of a blowpipe, and soon bring the iron to a state of fusion, and when this is accomplished, the fires are smartly slid to one side, and two men hammer at the welding part until becomes sound as any portion of the plate. The supply of air for the forges is conveyed from a fan blast through small portable pipes.' [2]

1856 'WOOLWlCH.... The invention of Mr. Bertram (recently a foreman in the factory department here) for welding iron plates instead of riveting, has been tested during several days at the Victoria Ironworks, Greenwich, in the presence of numerous gentlemen, some of whom are connected with large foundries in the north of England. The first trials were not successful, as it was difficult to obtain the proper heat ; but subsequent experiments proved the value of the invention, and on applying a test the iron plate broke, but the junction effected by the welding process was perfectly secure. Mr. Bertram has been offered 5000l. by the French government for half his patent, but has declined these terms.'[3]

To the Editor of "The Kentish Independent." 3rd February, 1860.
Sir,— I beg to bring before the notice of the public, through the medium of your columns, the fact that a marine steam boiler was completed by my patent process of welding, in July, 1857 ; that it has not a rivet to it, and was made made under the greatest disadvantages of means and mechanical appliances. It will shortly be exhibited for public inspection.
As interesting to engineering readers, I may mention that this boiler of the cylindrical form, 4 feet diameter, 8 feet long, with internal tube 2 feet 2 inches in diameter, bell-mouthed at tbe front, increasing to a D form 3 feet 6inches at tbe fire box, from which small tubes of l 3/4 in. diameter proceed to the end of the boiler. This boiler was proved to 180 lbs. on the square inch, and the form was selectad, after mature deliberation, as a test of the possibility of the process, which is now, by many irrefragable proofs, no longer disputable.
My object in bringing this before tbe notice of the public, and especially of our naval and military anthorities, is to reiterate the correlative fact referred to by me in a letter addressed to the War Office in the year 1855, namely, that this process of welding is equally applicable in the construction of ordnance, a subject highly important to tbe nation at large, and interesting to our town in particular.
Regarding this subject, therefore, under thie aspect (for the War Department refused my offer to demonstrate he applicability of my process to ordnance in Royal Arsenal) and as containing elements of a very extensive improvement in iron manufactures, the importance of which can scarcely be over-rated, I trust you will not consider this letter irrelevant to the purposes to which your columns are devoted, but that you will give it insertion.
I am, Sir,
Your obedient servant, W.BERTRAM

'N.B.—The Butterley Company is now preparing, under my license, by the same process, the largest deck beams, in one piece, ever manufactured, and many of the beams have already been delivered. These are for the new steam rams now building, and to be built, for the government.' [4]. Writer's address: 5 Upper Hardin Upper Street, Woolwich.

1860 ' Iron. — Considerable Interest is at present felt in the success of a patent taken out some five years since by Mr. Bertram, then foreman of the steam factory in her Majesty’s Dockyard, Woolwich, for welding iron. Experiments were first made with boiler plates in Woolwich Dockyard, as welded by this process, when it was found that the welded plates, though the means at the disposal the patentee were exceedingly rude, stood a far greater pressure than plates single or even double rivetted. In fact, wherever the welded process was perfect, it was found that the iron gave way more readily at other points than at the point of junction. The illness of the patentee for a long time prevented him from carrying his design into practical operation; but having now recovered, he has again devoted his energies to the subject, and has succeeded in making a circular boiler of four feet diameter, which has been tested to a pressure of 150 lbs. on the square inch, without exhibiting the slightest indication of weakness. It was also connected to a boiler in which the guage indicated a pressure 50lbs. on the square inch. The boiler alluded to is a marine one, multitubular, with plate 7-16ths of aninch in thickness. The inventor asserts for his patent an applicability of the process to almost every form to which the use of iron can be applied, and which rivetting is at present adopted. He states his conviction, that it can not only be applied to articles of domestic use, to boilers, land and marine engines, but also to the construction of the strongest forms of artillery, of beams of whatever size and strength, and the construction of the hull of an entire vessel, so as to render her strength homogeneous throughout the entire hull. There can be no doubt whatever that it forms a most important era in the manufacture of boilers, inasmuch as it saves the expense of rivets and rivetting, which, in addition to the cost and the waste they induce, materially weaken the strength the plates, and are liable to continual leakage. If the patent can be applied to the construction of ships, it must greatly increase their solidity, and the leakage which arises, from defective rivets an impossibility'.— Steam Shipping Chronicle. [5]

1860 'In the article headed "Iron-plated Frigates" reference was made to the deck beams of the ironplated ram Defiance, at present under construction by the contractors, Messrs. Palmer and Co., at Jarrow, on the Tyne. The beams were stated to have been made of Butterby's [ Butterley's) patent beam iron. Mr. Bertram, of Woolwich, requests us to say that he is the sole patentee of solid iron beams, and that the Butterby Company are working under his license for 1,000 tons of which they have already rendered him an account as equivalent to 710 tons. [6]

1868 An article in Engineering entitled 'Boiler Plate Welding by Gas' regretted the lack of take-up of Bertram's welding process in boiler construction, but noting that it was used by the Butterley Co for producing massive girders, 3 ft deep with 12" flanges, by welding together two T-irons. The original patent was dated 1854, and the Privy Council had agreed to extend it for 7 years (beyond 1868).[7]

1870 Engineering continued to champion Betram's efforts, and reported that his 1857 welded boiler, constructed using 'flame welding', had been placed in the Patent Office Museum. They noted that Betram had struggled against pecuniary and health difficulties, and hoped that those who had benefitted from application of his system might promote a belated reward for him.[8]

1871 Engineering provided further information on Bertram's process (Patent No. 2692, 1854), describing it as 'Welding by Flame'. [9]. The article quoted Bertram's description of the process from his patent:-
'And in order to bring up the parts about to be welded one to the other to a welding heat (as they must be heated and welded in their positions which they are to occupy in the structure) two portable forges or blast furnaces are used, one on either side of two sheets or parts which are to be welded together. These forges or furnaces each consists of a vessel or chamber to contain fuel, having an opening on one side to receive the end of a blowing pipe, and on the opposite side another open1ng, so that when the blast of air is sustained, and the opening has the sheets or parts resting before it, the flame and heat will be projected and concentrated against the surfaces of the iron, and as the other similar blast furnace is held and used on the opposite side of the iron, the two pieces in contact (which are to be welded together) will become heated to a welding heat, so as to be welded together, by hammermen striking opposite each other, or the one pressing and the other striking ; or in place of hammermen, when required, I propose to employ two steam hammers suitably arranged and supported to act opposite each other, or one steam hammer and an anvil, to resist its action whilst welding the parts together.'

The article continues with information about the beams made by Butterley: 'These beams, as many of our readers are aware, are composed of two T-irons, the webs of which are welded together. The edges of the webs are inserted in the grooves of a "glut" of H section rolled of puddled bar, this glut piece with the edges inserted in it being raised to a welding heat by a pair of Mr. Bertram's furnaces. A short length being thus heated, the welding is effected by the blows of a pair of hammers, driven from the shafting, which strike simultaneously at the opposite sides of the glut piece. A simi1ar plan is followed for inserting the gusset-pieces by which the knees at the ends of deck beams are formed, and many of the members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers will remember seeing the whole system in operation during their visit to the Codnor Park Works of the Butterley Company, last August. Mr. Bertram gets a small royalty on these beams, and this is we believe the sole return he now receives for the valuable process he originated and matured notwithstanding that the process 1tself is undoubtedly more or less directly infringed, we trust unintentionally, by a number of firms in different parts of the country. Ihe fact is, that, on the one hand, Mr. Bertram's process has been so long before the public, that the public have begun to consider it as their own, not his; while, on the other hand Mr. Bertram himself has for many years past had a hard struggle against ill health and pecuniary difficulties, and has been unable to enforce his just claims. This, we venture to say, is not as it should be....'

Note: In 1877 Lavington Evans Fletcher of the Manchester Steam Users' Association wrote to Engineering, noting that welded boilers were being increasingly introduced for crane and portable purposes, and he wished to call attention to the 'untrustworthiness of such a mode of construction.' He pointed out that whereas the drawbacks of riveted joints were understood and allowed for, it was not possible to examine the integrity of a welded joint. Further, a hydraulic test was of limited value in proving the integrity, given that unseen cracks could grow under the effects of thermal and pressure cycling.[10]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Bolton Chronicle, 17 November 1855
  2. Greenock Advertiser - Tuesday 27 November 1855
  3. London Evening Standard - Thursday 18 September 1856
  4. Kentish Independent - Saturday 4 February 1860
  5. The Evening Freeman, 7 April 1860
  6. Sun (London), 13 October 1860
  7. [1] Engineering, 18 Dec 1868
  8. [2] Engineering, 28 Jan 1870
  9. [3] Engineering, 3 March 1871, pp.159-160
  10. [4] Engineering, 1 June 1877, p.419, letter from Lavington E. Fletcher