The Magic of Cornwall
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William Bickford 1774 - 1834

William Bickford was born in Ashburton in Devon in January 1774. He moved to Truro as a currier and leather merchant, later moving to Tuckingmill near Camborne.

Although not involved in the mining industry he became concerned about the number of accidents that were occurring in the tin mines due to increased production and the lax safety measures employed.

Black Powder was used to blast the rock away when making new workings and the fuse employed was usually set by the use of straws or goose quills bound together and filled with powder. His first idea was to put the main explosive in a tube made of parchment and to attach a small parchment tube containing the powder as a fuse. This proved to be unreliable. One day in 1831, while visiting James Bray, a friend of his and a rope maker, in Tolgarrick Road in the Tolvadden Valley, Bickford observed the rope being made by the twisting of separate strands and he had an idea he might be able to adapt this process to make a fuse.

He designed and patented a machine that would wind strands of jute around a central core of gunpowder. Finally the fuse was coated with varnish to make it waterproof. When the shot-firer lit one end it burnt at a steady rate and didn't go out. He only needed to cut the correct length to give sufficient time to get clear.

Later that same year some of the prototype fuses were tested in the mines and found to be highly successful. So Bickford took out a patent on 6th September 1831 for 'The Patent Safety Rod' to be changed later to the 'Safety Fuze'. Bickford traveled around the mines demonstrating his invention and winning approval from the mine owners for the efficiency and safety of the new fuse. Unfortunately he became paralysed and died in 1834 just before the factory was opened. In its first year of production the factory produced 45 miles of fuse.

The factory became Bickford-Smith & Company, later to become Toy, Bickford & Co when Joseph Toy joined the Company. Toy would take the company to America in 1836 where it eventually became the Ensign-Bickford Company with headquarters in Connecticut.

At its peak the Tuckingmill factory produced 104,545 miles of fuse. The factory is now closed and has been replaced by industrial units. There is however a plaque on the old buildings commemorating Bickford's invention.

Hundreds of lives have been saved by the use of the safety fuse. The basic process is still the same today, virtually unchanged from its inventor's first idea.

Resources

Dyno Nobel - Fuse and Explosive manufacturers

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