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[bram' uh] inventor
Joseph Bramah was born in Stainborough, Yorkshire, England, on April 13, 1748, the son of a farmer. After the most basic of elementary educations, his father put him to work on the farm. When he was sixteen Joseph broke one of his ankles so badly that he was lamed for life. No longer able to work on the farm, his father apprenticed him to the village carpenter, and Joseph soon became a first-rate craftsman. Although he received no pay as an apprentice, he was able to earn pocket money by making and selling violins in his spare time. He eventually saved up enough money to allow him to go to London, where he found work with a cabinetmaker. He subsequently managed to put enough money together to open his own cabinetmaking shop.
A born tinkerer, Bramah used the money he earned making cabinets to design, improve upon, and invent a variety of useful products.
Flushing Water Closet Alexander Cumming, a London watchmaker, patented a flushing water closet in 1775, and Bramah was soon kept busy installing the device in people's homes. But Cumming's valve system was unsatisfactory, and Bramah determined to improve upon it. The Bramah Water Closet, patented in 1778, quickly became the leader in the field of sanitary plumbing, and remained in that position for the better part of a century. The handle (F) that released the contents of the soil pan was connected with a wire that opened the valve of the cistern above, releasing the flush of water.
diagram of Bramah's Water Closet
Burglar-Proof Lock Bramah set out to design and build a lock that was virtually burglar-proof. It was a long and slow process -- especially since he had to make special tools to create the delicate mechanism -- but, in 1784, the work paid off and Bramah patented his lock. The first commercial Bramah Lock was created in 1787, and was inscribed: "This lock requires 479,001,600 keys to open under all its variations." Bramah was so confident that his lock was burglar-proof that he posted a sign in his shop window offering a £200 reward to any person who could pick it. The reward remained unclaimed until 1851, when an American lock maker, after spending fifty hours in the endeavor, finally succeeded. The Bramah Locks company still manufactures and sells locks from its London offices to this day.
plate from Bramah's book showing one of his lock
Bramah's original patent lock, 1787
Hydraulic Press In 1785, Bramah patented the hydraulic press, a highly important workshop machine that made it possible to magnify pressure smoothly and steadily from comparatively slight impulses. Robert Stephenson used Bramah's pump to hoist the gigantic tubes of the Britannia Bridge into position. Bramah's hydraulic press was the forerunner of the presses which today stamp out parts for automobiles and other products.
Beer Pump From his work on the hydraulic press, Bramah went on to invent a pump by which beer or other liquors can be raised from casks in a cellar to the counter over which it is sold. Patented in 1797, his rotary motion pump was subsequently adapted for use in fire engines.
Planing Tools A wood-planing machine invented by Bramah was used at the Woolwich Arsenal for more than eighty years. He followed this with a machine for planing metals by means of revolving cutters. The greatest tool maker of his day, a great many modern tools are still made on the lines or methods laid down by Bramah.
Automatic Bank Note Printing In 1806, the Bank of England asked Bramah to make them a machine for printing the numbers and dates on bank notes. Within one month Bramah had devised a machine which, by its action as it worked, changed the figures and printed them in proper numerical succession. His machine was so successful that it saved the labor of one hundred clerks, and machines of this type, with subsequent improvements, are still used for similar work.
Penmaking Machine Bramah originated a device for cutting quill feathers into lengths so that each feather could yield up to four segments, each of which could become a quill nib in its own right. The nibs could then be slipped into a specially designed holder. Bramah's machine remained in use until James Perry began making steel pens in 1819.
Bramah obtained several Other Patents, including a method for making paper by machinery; an improved method of making carriage wheels; and a preparation for making timber rot-proof.
One of Bramah's last inventions was a hydrostatic press capable of tearing up big trees by the roots, which was put to work tearing up trees at Holt Forest in Hampshire. While superintending this work Bramah caught a cold, which developed into pneumonia. He died at Holt Forest on December 9, 1814.
Most of the items discussed on this page were invented with the help of Bramah's shop foreman, Henry Maudslay.
Feldman, Anthony and Peter Ford Scientists and Inventors, The People Who Made Technology from Earliest Times to Present Day New York:Facts on File, 1979
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This page was last updated on December 19, 2018.