William Bickford, inventor of the safety fuse

William Bickford, inventor of the safety fuse

William Bickford invented the safety fuse for igniting gunpowder, an invention that saved many lives. Cornish mines did not suffer from explosive gasses, but there were many miners killed by misuse of gunpowder. Early fuses were often tubes of reeds filled with powder and were extremely unreliable. Either they exploded too early not giving miners time to get away, or took too long to ignite and killed miners who assumed the fuse had gone out.

William Bickford was born in Ashburton, Devon in January 1774. He moved to Truro as a currier, preparing leather. He then moved on to Tuckingmill near Camborne in the Cornwall mining area.

As a leather merchant he had no connection with the mining industry. But he saw many accidents occurring because of faulty or unreliable fuses. One day watching a rope maker, his friend James Bray who owned a rope factory in Tolgarrick Road. spinning his threads, he realized that a strand of yarn, impregnated with gunpowder could be included in the rope to make a reliable, predictable fuse.

He designed a machine, which would do on an industrial scale, the job of winding rope around a central core of gunpowder. The winding another strand of rope in the opposite which stopped the fuse untwisting. The rope was waterproofed by varnishing it. By just cutting the required length, the time of fuse delay could be accurately predicted. Once the end was lit the rope burnt at a steady rate, and did not go out.

In 1831 he took out a patent on his "safety rods" and manufactured them in a factory at Tuckingmill near Camborne. In its first year his factory produced 45 miles of fuse. This shows the scale of mining, as only a few feet would be needed for one blast. Bickford died son after this in 1834 just before the fuse factory opened.

It took some time to get miners to use these safer fuses, as the older, unpredictable ones were cheaper. Eventually common sense prevailed and the mining industry moved over to the safety fuses

The basic process of making the fuse remains virtually unchanged . Bickford-Smith & Company, in Cornwall, England, took their operation to America in 1836, and the safety fuse manufacturing facility in Simsbury, Connecticut would become The Ensign-Bickford Company.

In 2003 The Ensign-Bickford Company merged with Dyno Nobel ASA, with the new entity to be called Dyno Nobel. Dyno Nobel can now boast the most complete range of initiation systems available on the market today - including the industry's most advanced electronic initiation system.

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