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DONKIN, BRYAN (1768–1855), civil engineer and inventor, was born at Sandoe, Northumberland, 22 March 1768. His taste for science and mechanics soon showed itself, and as a child he made thermometers and ingenious contrivances connected with machinery. He was encouraged by his father, who was agent for the Errington estates and an intimate acquaintance of John Smeaton. On leaving home the son was engaged for a year or two as land agent to the Duke of Dorset at Knole Park, Kent. By the recommendation of Smeaton, he next apprenticed himself to Mr. Hall of Dartford, and was soon able to take an active part in Mr. Hall's works, so that in 1801–2 he was entrusted with the construction of a model of the first machine for making paper. The idea of this machine originated with Louis Robert, and formed the subject of a patent by John Gamble, 20 April 1801, No. 2487, which was assigned to Messrs. Bloxam and Fourdrinier. This model did not, however, produce paper fit for sale, but Donkin in 1802, under an agreement with Bloxam and Fourdrinier, made a machine which in 1804 he erected at Frogmore in Kent. A second machine was made by him and put up at Two Waters, Hertfordshire, in 1805, which although not perfect was a commercial success. By 1810 eighteen of these complex machines had been supplied to various mills, and the original difficulties having now been overcome they rapidly superseded the method of making paper by hand. Although the original idea was not Donkin's, the credit of its entire practical development is due to him. In 1851 he constructed his 191st machine. The merit of his work was recognised by the award of the council medal at the Great Exhibition of 1851 (Official Catalogue of Great Exhibition, 1851, i. 218, 282, 314, and Reports of Juries, 1852, pp. 389, 420, 433, 938). He was one of the earliest to introduce improvements in printing machinery. On 23 Nov. 1813 he, in conjunction with Richard Mackenzie Bacon, secured a patent, No. 3757, for his polygonal machine, and one was erected for the Cambridge University. He then also invented and first used the composition printing roller, by which some of the greatest difficulties hitherto experienced in printing by machines were overcome. With the polygonal machine from eight hundred to a thousand impressions were produced per hour, but it never came into extensive use, as the construction was expensive. He was much engaged with Sir William Congreve in 1820 in contriving a method of printing stamps in two colours with compound plates for the prevention of forgery, and with the aid of John Wilks, who was then his partner, he produced the beautiful machines used at the excise and stamp offices and by the East India Company at Calcutta. In 1812 he devised the method of preserving meat and vegetables in air-tight cases, when he established a considerable manufactory for this purpose in Bermondsey. In long sea voyages meat prepared in this way became a necessary part of the ship's stores. He was an early member of the Society of Arts, of which he was one of the vice-presidents and chairman of the committee of mechanics. He received two gold medals from the society, one for his invention of an instrument to measure the velocity of rotation of machinery, the other for his counting engine. Among numerous ingenious contrivances brought out by him must be mentioned his dividing and screw-cutting engine. During the last forty years of his life he was much engaged as a civil engineer, and was one of the originators (in 1818) and a vice-president of the Institution of Civil Engineers, from which he retired in 1848. On 18 Jan. 1838 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and repeatedly served on the council. He was also a member of the Royal Astronomical Society, and was held in such esteem by that body that they placed him in the chair on the occasion of receiving their charter in 1831. He had moreover a small observatory in his garden, where he spent much of his leisure time, and it was to his own transit-instrument that he first applied his novel and beautiful level. He died at 6 The Paragon, New Kent Road, London, 27 Feb. 1855. His wife Mary died 27 Aug. 1858, aged 87. His son, John Donkin, born at Dartford, Kent, 20 May 1802, was a partner with his father and John Wilks, and took part in many of their inventions. He became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers 1824, and was also a fellow of the Geological Society (Min. of Proc. of Instit. of Civil Engineers, 1855, xiv. 130). He died at Roseacre, near Maidstone, 20 April 1854.

[Proceedings of Royal Society, 1856, vii. 586–9; Border Magazine, October 1863, 243–244; W. Walker's Distinguished Men of Science (1862 ed.), 75–7, with portrait No. 40; copies of reports and letters on Donkin, Hall, and Gamble's preserved provisions, 1817; Mansell's Chronology of Paper and Papermaking (1876), 59, 61, 79, 82, 121; Woodcroft's Alphabetical Index of Inventions (1854), pp. 167–8.]

G. C. B.