Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bramah, Joseph

BRAMAH, JOSEPH (1748–1814), inventor, was born in 1748 at Stainborough, a village near Barnsley in Yorkshire. He was the son of a farmer, and was, according to Dr. Smiles, originally intended to follow the plough, but an accident which unfitted him for farm work led to his being apprenticed to the village carpenter. His mechanical talents soon showed themselves, and at the end of his apprenticeship he went to London, where, after working for some time at a cabinetmaker's, he set up in the trade on his own account. Being employed to fit up some water-closets on the method invented by Mr. Allen, he was led by the imperfections of the system to devise improvements on it, and thence, in 1778, came the first of the long series of patents taken out by him. The closet described in the specification of that patent, with certain improvements devised by the inventor, has continued in use, it may be said, until the present day.

His next invention was his lock; this was certainly a great advance on any locks then known, and for long had the reputation of being unpickable. In 1851, however, at the time of the Great Exhibition, Hobbs, an American, picked the lock, and thereby obtained the reward of 200l. offered by Bramah to anybody who should perform this feat, The lock, however, was, and indeed is, a most excellent one, and continues to bear a very high reputation.

Bramah's most important contribution to mechanical science was his hydraulic press, patented in 1795. The power which he gave to engineers by this invention of converting into a steady continuous pressure of practically unlimited amount a number of comparatively small impulses, was an entirely new one, and was capable, as it afterwards proved, of enormous development. That this development was not unforeseen by the projector is evident from the proposals he made in several of his patents, proposals which in many cases have only recently been carried into effect. In giving due credit to Bramah for his great inventive genius, it is but proper that mention should be made of Henry Maudslay, to whom is due one particular detail by which the working of the press was rendered possible, the device by which the ram of the press was enabled to work water-tight within the cylinder, whatever the pressure might be, while it was permitted to return freely as soon as the pressure was taken off.

It may be said without disparagement that Bramah's mind, though most ingenious, was not highly original, for the germs of all his inventions might be found in the work of others. The hydraulic press is but a practical application of the principle of the hydrostatic paradox; his water-closet, as above mentioned, was an improvement on Allen's; his lock was suggested by that of Barron, patented ten years before. Still, the bent of his genius was eminently practical, and he was singularly happy in applying scientific discoveries to practical purposes, or in seizing hold of the idea of an imperfect invention and completing it. Besides these, he was the author of a host of minor inventions, among which may be mentioned the beer-engine, the ever-pointed pencil, the machine for numbering bank-notes, the little apparatus once well known for mending quill pens, and the planing machine. He was also one of the first who proposed to apply the screw for the purpose of propelling vessels. In all he took out eighteen patents, some of them covering a number of distinct inventions.

Bramah died at Pimlico, 9 Dec. 1814 (Gent. Mag. 1814, ii. 613).

[The chief sources of information about Bramah are a memoir by Dr. Cullen Brown in the New Monthly Magazine for April 1815, and a short Life in Dr. Smiles's Industrial Biography. For a description of his improvements in locks, reference may be made to his own Dissertation on Locks, or to E. B. Denison's Clocks and Locks.]

H. T. W.