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Portrait of Bryan Donkin
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Very few people outside Dartford are familiar with the name of Bryan Donkin, an inventor and engineer who was apprenticed to John Hall of Dartford in the early years of the 19th century. Donkin, described by one commentator as 'an extremely ingenious and clever Mechanist', revolutionised the world's paper industry, by playing a leading part in the invention and production of a paper-making machine. This revolutionary new machine was able to produce continuous rolls of paper. Previously, all paper was manufactured sheet by sheet, a slow and labour-intensive process.

Canning factory
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Donkin's talents were not restricted solely to the paper industry. He played a leading role in the establishment of the world's first food-canning factory in 1811 - a revolutionary step in the long-term preservation of foodstuffs.

The history of the continuous paper-making machine goes back at least to 1799 when a Frenchman, Nicholas-Louis Robert, experimented with the construction of a new type of machine. The resultant device was not particularly successful, so Robert sold the patent to Leger Didot, a paper-mill owner, for the grand sum of 25,000 francs. An English patent for Robert's machine was taken out in 1801. Two brothers, Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier, who managed London's leading firm of wholesale stationers, saw a model of Robert's machine and were most impressed. They immediately realised that this embryonic machine had the potential to transform the paper-making industry. The two brothers possessed the entrepreneurial and marketing skills but lacked the technical know-how. They therefore enlisted the help of the Dartford -trained engineer Bryan Donkin.

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Fourdrinier machine
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Donkin had been apprenticed to John Hall, Dartford millwright and engineer, as early as 1792. The Fourdrinier brothers initially approached John Hall for help with the perfecting of Robert's prototype. Hall experimented with this new technology for six months in 1801-2, but had little success. Bryan Donkin worked on the project. The Fourdrinier brothers were so impressed with his skill and enthusiasm that they 'head-hunted' him. By 1802 Donkin had left Dartford and moved to Fort Place, Bermondsey, where he established a workshop financed by the Fourdriniers. For the next five years, Donkin worked hard on the project. Prototype machines were installed at the paper-mills which the Fourdriniers owned at St Neots, Frogmore, and Two Waters in Hertfordshire. By 1806 Donkin had perfected an amazing continuous paper-making machine that was a technical and commercial success. The basic principle of his machine was the formation of paper on an endless belt of woven wire. Thus the separate moulds which had formed an integral part of the hand-made process were no longer required.

The Fourdrinier brothers invested over £60,000 in the project, of which £31,667 represented costs incurred by Bryan Donkin. Hardly surprisingly, the Fourdriniers were declared bankrupt in 1810. A lengthy legal wrangle followed as to whom had ownership of the patent. The successful Anglo-French partnership came to a sudden halt. Eventually the courts decided that the machine should be called the 'Fourdrinier', even though Dartford's Bryan Donkin had done much of the hard work to nurture the machine from inception to completion. Everyone seemed to agree that the machine owed its existence and success to the former Dartford apprentice.

Donkin was not thwarted in his ambition. His firm in Bermondsey became the main manufacturers of paper-making machinery in Europe. By the 1860s they had manufactured and installed 191 paper-making machines in Britain and northern Europe. Donkin was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of the distinguished place which he held in the world of engineering.

Bryan Donkin, the young Dartford apprentice, reached the top of his profession and made a truly outstanding contribution to the manufacture of paper - a product which has revolutionised our domestic lives and the world of written and printed communications.

Next topic: John Marshall


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