Woodcroft, Bennet (DNB00)

WOODCROFT, BENNET (1803–1879), clerk to the commissioners of patents, born at Heaton-Norris, Lancashire, on 29 Dec. 1803, was the son of John Woodcroft, merchant and silk and muslin manufacturer, who carried on business at Manchester and Salford. His mother, named Boocock, came of a Sheffield family. At an early age he learnt weaving at Failsworth, a village about four miles from Manchester, subsequently studying chemistry under John Dalton (1766–1844) [q. v.], and becoming a partner in his father's business about 1828. In 1826 he took out a patent for propelling boats, and in 1827 he patented an invention, of great commercial value, for a method of printing yarns before being woven. These were succeeded by his ingenious increasing-pitch-screw propeller, 1832; improved methods of printing certain colours in calico and other fabrics, 1836 and 1846; improved ‘tappets’ for looms, his most successful invention, 1838; and his varying-pitch screw propellers, 1844 and 1851. The pecuniary return of these patents was extremely small to the inventor, though several of the inventions were of considerable profit to others. During his residence at Manchester he became intimate with the eminent mechanicians of the town, including (Sir) Joseph Whitworth [q. v.], James Nasmyth [q. v.], Richard Roberts [q. v.], Eaton Hodgkinson [q. v.], and (Sir) William Fairbairn [q. v.] In 1841 he was in business as a patent tappet and jacquard manufacturer, and about 1843 started as a consulting engineer and patent agent, removing in 1846 to London, where he carried on the same business at No. 1 Furnival's Inn. He was appointed in April 1847 as professor of machinery at University College, London, and held the post until July 1851, though without conspicuous success. Upon the passing of the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852 he was chosen for the post of superintendent of specifications, and on 1 Aug. 1864 was appointed clerk to the commissioners of patents, with sole charge of the department. His administration was marked by remarkable ability and liberality, and he may be said to have originated and carried out the whole existing system. In the space of five years he printed and published the whole of the specifications from 1617 to 1852–14,359 in number. Copies of these, and the current specifications, together with his elaborate indexes and other publications, including an admirable series of classified abridgments of specifications with historical introductions, were presented to every considerable town in the country, as well as to many foreign and colonial libraries. Among his official publications were a valuable ‘Appendix to the Specifications of English Patents for Reaping Machines,’ 1853; and a series of reprints of scarce pamphlets descriptive of early patented inventions, 1858–72. He was mainly instrumental in starting the Patent Office Library, opened in March 1855, and now become one of the best technical libraries in the country, and of the Patent Office Museum, opened in June 1857. Incorporated in the museum is a large collection of portraits of inventors and discoverers, of which Woodcroft began the formation soon after his appointment. His personal contributions to the museum and library were numerous, and show the great interest he took in the history of inventions. He was the means of rescuing from oblivion the first marine steam engine ever made, that invented by William Symington (1763–1831) [q. v.] He retired from the public service on 31 March 1876. He was a member of the Society of Arts from 1845 to 1858, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1859. He died at his house in Redcliffe Gardens, South Kensington, on 7 Feb. 1879, and was buried at Brompton cemetery. He left a widow but no children.

His non-official publications were:

  1. ‘A Sketch of the Origin and Progress of Steam Navigation,’ 1848, 4to, which appeared afterwards as a paper on ‘Steam Navigation’ in the ‘Transactions of the Society of Arts,’ 1852.
  2. ‘The Pneumatics of Hero of Alexandria, translated (by J. G. Greenwood) for, and edited by, B. Woodcroft,’ 1851.
  3. ‘Amendment of the Law and Practice of Letters Patent for Invention,’ 1851.
  4. ‘Brief Biographies of Inventors of Machines for the Manufacture of Textile Fabrics,’ 1863, 12mo, originally published in 1862 by Messrs. Agnew of Manchester as the text to a series of portraits of inventors.

[The Engineer, 14 Feb. 1879 (memoir by Mr. R. B. Prosser); Manchester Guardian, 11 Feb. 1879; Times, 14 Feb. 1879; Journal of the Society of Arts, 21 Feb. 1879; Brit. Mus. and Patent Office Library Catalogues.]

C. W. S.