Jobs, Gates, Bezos? Meet Harry Brearley – A Visionary Sheffield Bloke!

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The names of Apple’s Steve Jobs, Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are all associated with game changing, industry changing, even world changing ideas. Well, I’d like to add another…..step forward one Harry Brearley. Who? Sheffield’s Harry Brearley who 100 years ago today ‘invented’ / discovered ‘stainless steel’!

It’s one of those day to day things we use (a bit like our iPods!) and benefit from, without noticing and even take for granted – Today, 36.4 million tonnes of stainless steel are produced around the world, and it’s all down to this bloke from Sheffield (as they say around here!).

Harry Brearley’s story is an interesting one and the theme of innovation runs all the way through it. You may also recognise the challenges and issues associated with innovation that we face today all the way through it! It has amazing parallels with the Steve Jobs storydoubt, ridicule, resistance to change, luck, passion, persistence, partnering, vision and sheer hard work.

He was born in 1871, the son of John Brearley, a steelworker, and his wife, Jane Brearley and left Woodside school at the age of twelve to get his first job as a labourer in the same steelworks as his dad. He managed to get a job as general assistant in the company’s chemical laboratory, and studied at home and in evening classes, to specialize in steel production techniques and associated chemical analysis methods.

By his early thirties, Brearley had earned a reputation as an experienced professional and for being very astute in sorting out industrial metallurgical problems and providing practical solutions. In 1908 he was asked to lead a research project when two of Sheffield’s principal steelmaking companies innovatively agreed to jointly finance a common research laboratory called Brown Firth Laboratories.

He worked hard on tackling the big problems of the day – and in 1912 was asked to work on the erosion and fouling of rifle barrels of guns by a manufacturer whose guns were rusting too quickly In response Harry set out to discover an erosion resistant steel and began experimenting with different steel alloys and could always be seen bent over a microscope analysing the results.

The story is that he identified ‘rustless steel’ by accident with some ingots that were left outside, and he quickly recognised the potential for this in Sheffield’s cutlery industry. Unfortunately, not everyone else did! His employers weren’t interested (sound familiar? This still happens today!), but Harry trusted his own judgement, and started obtaining patents for his discovery.

He also set up his own business with a friend called Amalgams that led to the making of table knives. However, the doubters persisted. Even the cutler he got to make them wasn’t convinced. When told they would be rustless, he replied “Bloody likely, it’d be contrary to nature”!

Harry also came across resistance from the other cutlers across the city, and the talk of the town was that Harry Brearley was ‘the man who invented knives that won’t cut’! The reality was that they were actually stuck in their old ways and didn’t produce the cutlery to the correct temperatures and specifications that he suggested – they knew best apparently!

However, this didn’t put Harry off, and being a man of considerable conviction he purchased one hundred weight of chromium steel from his employer and arranged for it to be made under his own careful supervision into rustless steel cutlery by a local cutlery firm.

It was here that he found an ally. The cutlery manager of R.F. Mosley & Co., Ernest Stuart, recognised that rustless cutlery could have real potential. Harry supervised the production of a number of batches of cutlery, which he gave to his friends, asking them to return them “if fruit, condiment or food marks them”. None were returned.

A mural honouring Harry in his home town of Sheffield

A mural honouring Harry in his home town of Sheffield

It wasn’t just in producing their product that they excelled, it was also in the marketing of it! In the process of testing the corrosion resistance of Harry’s new steel alloy with vinegar for himself, it was Ernest Stuart who commented that stainless steel would be a more marketable name than rustless steel….. and ‘stainless steel’ was born!

Harry returned to his employer adamant that this kind of steel had enormous potential. However, the conservative directors at Firth & Brown Steels proclaimed that “rustlessness was not so great a virtue in cutlery, which of necessity must be cleaned after each using”, and so he was again ignored, and even reprimanded for being over enthusiastic!

Harry resigned from the Firth & Brown Research Laboratories in dispute over ownership rights of the invention of stainless steel in 1915, which the company claimed full ownership of due to the fact that he was an employee. Harry became works manager at another steelworks in Sheffield, Brown Bayley’s, where he continued to develop stainless steel.

Later that year, a 75-year old man from London, who had read of Harry’s work and frustration, approached him with a proposition. He believed that there was a huge opportunity for stainless steel in the U.S.A. and there were no patents. They obtained the US patent, but needed help to maximise it across the Atlantic, and so Harry reluctantly returned to his former employers and formed a new venture partnership with them. The ‘Firth Brearley Stainless Steel Syndicate’ was born!

Sheffield has a lot to be proud of…. Jessica Ennis, Sheffield United, Hendersons Relish, Def Leppard, Pulp and The Arctic Monkeys, not forgetting of course, Michael Palin, A S Byatt, Helen Sharman (The first Brit in space!), Peter Stringfellow and Bobby Knutt, but it’s Harry Brearley who is right up there!

Sheffield and the world has a lot to thank Harry for, so when people mention Steve Jobs, Bill Gates or any other ‘modern’ business leader, just remind them of Harry Brearley – a visionary, innovative, 3D Thinking Sheffield ‘Bloke’!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Andy Hanselman
Hi there! I help businesses and their people create competitive advantage by 'Thinking in 3D'! That means being 'Dramatically and Demonstrably Different'! I research, speak about, write about and work with businesses to help them maximise their sales and marketing, their customer service and their customer relationships.

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