I WAS in the City of London Cemetery when Superintendent Gary Burks pointed out the memorial above to me, dedicated to George Wright Binks. As you can see, his family claimed he invented wire rope. If he had, you might have expected something even more elaborate on his grave, given the wealth this might have brought him.
Binks was a foreman ropemaker at Woolwich Dockyard in the mid-1830s when Andrew Smith was pioneering wire-rope manufacture in Millwall. Smith used the ropewalk techniques of the existing hemp industry to make wire ropes for ships’ rigging and has the first patent for it in 1836.
In 1840, engineer Robert Stephenson opened an experimental rail system called the Blackwall Railroad (much of the route and its bridges are now part of the Docklands Light Railway). It used stationary steam engines feeding hemp cables off and on drums at each end of the line.
Smith’s wire ropes soon replaced the hemp ones but they kinked badly and Robert Newall, another rope maker, who was making wire ropes by machine rather than the hand-twisting method, was brought in. His ropes worked much better on the Blackwall Railroad but Smith took Newall to court for patent infringement.
Newall won the legal battle, as his was an obviously superior product, but the two companies then merged after Smith went bankrupt in 1849. (And steam locomotives were brought into use on the Blackwall Railroad.) Newall’s design of rope was used for the standing rigging of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s iron-hulled SS Great Britain, launched in Bristol in 1843 as the largest merchant vessel ever built.
Meanwhile, in about 1853, Binks had gone into partnership with James Stephenson in Millwall to make wire rope. The partnership broke up around 1860, when Stephenson started making submarine cable at Cuba Street, and Binks Brothers setting up in Strafford Street in 1863. The firm was taken over by British Ropes Ltd in 1970.
In 1852 Smith went with his son, also called Andrew, to California where the Gold Rush needed wire ropes for mining. The father returned home in 1853, but the young Andrew (Smith Hallidie – taking the name of a favourite uncle) enjoyed a gold rush of his own when he patented a cable car system in 1871 for the hilly streets of San Francisco. It used an endless wire rope driven by stationary engines, the same principle as the Blackwall Railroad. Hallidie stood for election to the California State Senate in 1873 and in 1875 as mayor of San Francisco but was defeated both times. However, he enforced his cable car patents worldwide and died in 1900 a very wealthy man.
So did George Wright Binks invent wire rope? He certainly experimented with it as early as 1834 and he is credited with persuading the Royal Navy to replace hemp rope with wire, following a successful demonstration with the first wire-rigged ship, the schooner Marshall out of Grimsby. That was certainly a significant step and one his family can rightly be proud of.