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Manchester Inventors

John Mercer

John Mercer, Lancashire Inventor of the Mercerisation process

John Mercer, nicknamed "Awkward John", was born in Great Harwood in 1791 and was one of the country's great textile chemists, the inventor of a process which was named after him - 'mercerisation'. Mercer also produced some of the earliest known coloured photographs. He had actually worked as a bobbin winder from age 9 after both of his parents died in his early childhood.
Mercerisation is a process, which Mercer developed between 1844 and 1850, whereby cotton fabric is given a silk lustre finish by treating it with caustic soda. By Mercer's process, when cotton cloth is immersed in caustic soda, then washed, the fibre becomes more silk-like and produces a far superior dyed finish. This followed his invention of 1844 for a formula for red ink for which he received £10,000.
Despite the evident efficacy of his process, mercerisation was not implemented in his lifetime, probably due to several unfortunate aspects of the procedure - it was expensive and it tended to shrink the cotton cloth. It was only later when another inventor, Horace Lowe, improved the technique sufficiently by keeping the material under tension whilst being mercerised, and applied a more thorough washing process to remove the caustic soda, that it became a viable textile process.
John Mercer's last surviving child, Maria died in 1913 and left £5000 to the town of Great Harwood. which was used to build Mercer Hall (now Mercer Hall Leisure Centre). Mercer House and Park in Clayton-le-Moors were left for use as a public museum and park under the terms of a charitable trust established in 1916 under the will of Maria Mercer.

We are indebted to Mr Bob Calvert for correcting some earlier error and in providing information regarding Mercer Hall.

Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie

Leslie Patrick Abercrombie

Born 6 June 1879 in Ashton-on-Mersey, Leslie Patrick Abercrombie was an important and celebrated town planner of the first half of the 20th century. Educated at Uppingham School, Rutland, Patrick trained as an architect before becoming the Professor of Civic Design at the Liverpool University School of Architecture in 1915, and later Professor of Town Planning at University College London. He went on to gain numerous awards for replanning of cities throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, including Plymouth, Hull, Bath, Edinburgh, Dublin and Bournemouth.
He was closely involved in the founding of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England (CPRE) and in December 1926 he was its Honorary Secretary. But he is probably best remembered for his post-World War II replanning of London. He created the County of London Plan in 1943 and the Greater London Plan in 1944, both of which bear his name - the "Abercrombie Plans".
In 1945 he worked with Sir Edwin Lutyens in replanning Hull, even though the plan was eventually rejected by the town council. His various far-reaching plans fostered the creation of numerous so-called "New Towns" including Harlow and Crawley and the largest 'out-county' estate, Harold Hill in north-east London. Abercrombie was knighted in 1945 for his work on post-war planning.
Following this he was commissioned by the British Government to redesign Hong Kong and in 1956 he was commissioned by Emperor Haile Selassie to draw up plans for the capital of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa.
In 1948 he became the first president of the newly formed group the International Union of Architects, or the UIA (Union Internationale des Architectes). The group now annually awards the Sir Patrick Abercrombie Prize, for excellence in town planning. He died on 23 March 1957 in Aston Tirrold, Didcot, Berkshire (now in Oxfordshire).

Thomas Highs

Born in Leigh, Lancashire in 1718, Thomas Highs, (the name was probably Heyes, misspelled by the registrar), is one of the lesser known inventors of the Industrial Revolution. A member of the Swedenborg religious sect, by trade Highs was a reed maker, who, in many ways he can be regarded as the true genius of the Industrial Revolution. A brilliant inventor but a poor businessmen he never had the resources to patent his inventions, despite having developed the forerunner of both the Spinning Jenny and the Water Frame. He gave his preliminary design for the Spinning Jenny to James Hargreaves, who subsequently developed it and took the credit for its invention.
Similarly, High's Water Frame was later built by John Kay and Richard Arkwright. Highs was by all accounts a humble man, unambitious and without the drive to acquire patronage for his inventions, a fact that prevented him from either reaping his just rewards or from establishing the fame and respect which he deserved. On the back of Highs' work, Sir Richard Arkwright lived to acquire a fortune while Highs lived out the remainder of his life in relative obscurity and poverty. Highs later claimed that Kay and Arkwright had both stolen his own ideas.

James Bullough

James Bullough was born in 1800 in Accrington, Lancashire, a West Houghton weaver whose inventions were to help him amass a considerable personal fortune. Unlike many other weavers he saw the benefits of mechanised methods of production and embraced new technological developments while other weavers were rejecting them. He began to improve his own loom by inventing various components, including the so-called 'self-acting temple', as well as a simple effective warning device which rang a bell whenever a warp thread broke on his loom.
Bullough lived for a time in Blackburn and collaborated with William Kenworthy at Brookhouse Mills - here they developed an improved power loom, the celebrated "Lancashire Loom", based on Bullough's designs. However, he was forced to move out of Blackburn by angry handloom weavers, who feared that his new inventions would put them out of work (in the event, their assumption was prophetical). Bullough later started a partnership with John Howard at Atlas Work in Accrington. Here he invented the "slasher", which brought the company great success and to him personal wealth. In 1841 Kenworthy and Bullough invented the weft-stop motion, which halted the lathe of the loom if a shuttle became trapped in the warp, making it easier for a weaver to supervise more than one loom.
Kenworthy and Bullough's patented improvements to the power loom were to make the Lancashire Loom the mainstay of weaving for more than a century. Howard and Bullough’s factory dominated the Accrington skyline. It became one of the country’s largest manufacturers with much of its export trade being distributed by waterway on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. By now a very wealthy man, Bullough bought the Isle of Rhum off the Scottish coast near Mallaig in 1886 for the sum of £35,000. In 1897 his son George Bullough commissioned the building of Kinloch Castle on the island. In 1957 Lady Monica Bullough sold the island to the nation for £23,000. It is now a National Nature Reserve.

Eric Laithwaite

Professor Eric Laithwaite

Professor Eric Laithwaite was born in Atherton in 1921 and was educated at Manchester University, where he completed his PhD and DSc. Laithwaite was the designer of the world's first magnetically levitating train - the 'MagLev'. Having built a mile of track, the MagLev train was thoroughly tested, but the project was eventually abandoned, the prototype having reached speeds in excess of 100mph, yet in 1973 the government cancelled the project, blaming the high development costs for little return.
Laithwaite's linear motor created a magnetic field capable of propelling objects with friction-free movement, and it was to be the basis of his life work. Laithwaite was a former professor of Heavy Engineering at Imperial College, London, who had worked on the development of automatic pilot systems during the Second World War at the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough. In 1990 he accepted a visiting professorship at Sussex University.
Shortly before he died, on 27 November 1997, at the age of 76, he was working with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in America on a space launch system powered by one of his linear motors. Of his many publications his "The Engineer in Wonderland" is probably the best remembered.

Robert Hope-Jones

Robert Hope-Jones, organ builder - the Wurlitzer

Robert Hope-Jones was a prolific inventor who is probably best remembered as the developer of the Wurlitzer organ. He was born on 9th February 1859 in the village of Hooton Grange, on the Wirral Peninsular of Cheshire. As a young man, and already a keen church organist, he was appointed chief electrician with the Lancashire & Cheshire Telephone Company, which allowed his inventive genius to come to light; his work on a low voltage electrical circuits gave him the idea to apply the principle to the church organ. This developmental work resulted in a string of Patents, that in 1894 for the Diaphone, followed in 1897 by a patent for a foghorn for use in lighthouses, which is still in use to the present day. By 1893 he had founded the Hope-Jones Electric Organ Company Limited. In the 1890s he perfected the electric action for pipe organs and was working with Henry Royce, (of Rolls Royce fame), who made all the electric action coils for the Hope-Jones pipe organs until 1896. The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust has samples of Royce's work for Hope-Jones. Hope-Jones also worked with Eustace Ingram during 1901 to 1902, trading as Ingram, Hope-Jones & Company.
In 1903, on hearing of his revolutionary methods of organ building, several American companies grew interested in his work, and Hope-Jones and his wife moved to live and work in the USA. Eventually, Hope-Jones sold his patents to the Wurlitzer Company in North Tonawanda. Their 'Wurlitzer Hope-Jones Unit Orchestra', as it was first called, was an instrument designed to sound as much like an orchestra as possible, but to be played by a single person; a sort of early pre-electronics synthesiser. Wurlitzer records show that eventually, having lost control of his invention, Hope-Jones was in dispute with the Wurlitzer management, due to his constant interference on the shop floor and failure to carry out company orders, (though this is disputed by contemporary family members - see the footnote below). The company account tells of his being banned from the factory. The whole scenario is repeated in more detail in the latest records from the factory produced by the American Theatre Organ Trust in their latest book. The ban forced Hope-Jones to leave North Tonawanda, and to move to New York, where he took his own life on the 13th of September 1914 by inhaling Coal Gas.
Although many other firms in the USA and England began to build these theatre organs, none of then caught the public's imagination so much as the 'Mighty Wurlitzer'. Thus the Wurlitzer Theatre Organ came into being. The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust, have created a Hope-Jones Museum and a Heritage Centre at Peel Green in Eccles. Their website is at:

We are indebted to Done Hyde, Chairman of The Lancastrian Theatre Organ Trust for providing and verifying much of the detail used here. However, in all fairness, we thought it only proper to point out that a family descendant, also named Robert Hope-Jones, disputes some of the above facts and wrote the following to us:

"He (Robert Hope-Jones) did not stop production at the Wurlitzer plant - production was mainly held up by problems relating to trial and error with early installations, a shortage of Hope-Jones' key employees, under-funding and the Wurlitzer family becoming increasingly impatient with RHJ and demanding of his thinly spread time."

In such an acrimonious dispute as evidently occurred, both the Wurlitzer company records and the Hope-Jones family account, quite naturally, take different views of the events which took place and their causes. We may therefore never definitively know for certain what actually happened to force the split at the Wurlitzer factory. It is for others better qualified than we to judge which account best reflects the truth.


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This page last updated 27 Jan 12.