Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVIII No. 3, May 16-31, 2018

A patent that ruined Heath the inventor

by Dr. A. Raman

The Porto Novo Iron Works

(Continued from last fortnight)

Page 7 top

By 1833, Heath’s debt to the Government was a whopping Rs. 571,000. The Porto Novo Iron Works raised capital, with some of the EEIC surgeons in Madras becoming shareholders. The Advocate General of Madras drew up the contract for shareholders. The Porto Novo Iron Works became the Indian Steel and Iron Company in 1833. Neither dividends nor interests appear to have been paid to the shareholders at any time.

By 1838, the Company sank into intense debt. Heath suffered substantial loss. He sailed to England, where he floated the East Indian Iron Company, a public limited company, empowered by the British Parliament. Robert Brunton joined Heath at this stage. Brunton’s joining seems to have enabled Heath and his iron works to tide over troubled times. Brunton devoted his energy and enterprise in improving the quality of the pig iron, by resorting to more economical tactics of smelting. Finished iron was exported to Britain, which soon received favourable reports from several British ironmasters, who found the Porto Novo material was of top-class for the manufacture of annealed castings and boiler plates. It was reported:

“The plates made with this (sic. Porto Novo material) iron …were found of such good quality, that they were used in the construction of Brittannia bridge by Stevenson.”

Gradually some signs of prosperity were showing, with the pig iron produced in Porto Novo shipped to UK free, since the boats carried the iron as ballast during their return haul to the UK. In short, a tonne of pig iron produced at a cost price of £ 3 was sold in Britain at £ 6.

In 1840, an improved process in iron production was found in France: the gas emanating from the furnace was re-used as fuel, which enabled greater money savings in the generation of steam and reheating and repuddling iron. Brunton went to Paris and then instituted a combined steam engine for rolling mills and blowing apparatus. The conversion of iron in these furnaces was very rapid and the quality of iron exactly like the best Swedish iron.

Nevertheless, the new process had a flaw as well, which was diagnosed slightly later – the level of heat energy the furnaces discharged was so high that they ceased functioning regularly and required periodical repairs. By 1849, losses incurred at Porto Novo rose to Rs 822,240. Heath returned to England in 1849 and lived in Sheffield until his death in 1851.

The Government at Fort St. George took over the administration of the works in 1853. Records indicate that the East Indian Iron Company (the Porto Novo Iron Works) produced 2150 tonnes of pig iron in 1855, yet continued to suffer substantial losses.

The Board of Directors of the East India Iron Company directed that a new location for the firm was necessary. Beypore, along the Malabar Coast, near Calicut, was identified. The responsibility of building the Beypore precinct was entrusted to George Brunton, nephew of Robert Brunton. George established the Beypore precinct by putting up blast furnaces, a rolling mill for merchant iron, and a train of rollers for the railway rails. However, George had to leave this enterprise, which he had enthusiastically built, because of a serious misunderstanding between him and the Board of Directors of the East India Iron Company.

With George’s departure, the Directors decided to revert to the old method of converting iron in the puddling furnaces by firing charcoal. The iron produced in later years using charcoal with high sulphur content was still of good quality and much of what was produced here was procured and used by the gun-carriage factory in Madras. In the next few years charcoal supply was in shortage, mainly because of injudicious felling of trees in the neighbourhood, which had an adverse effect on this factory’s performance.

Shortage of charcoal resulted in the Directors of the East India Iron Company shifting wrought-iron production to Beypore, so that they could supply the rails for the then nascent concept of Madras Railways. This decision resulted in vacating the Porto Novo precinct and moving every machine – except one blast furnace – to Beypore.

The story of Porto Novo Iron Works technically ends here, although some efforts were made at Palampatti (Salem) in the next few years, because by then Henry Bessemer’s process (1856) had hit the science of metallurgy like a thunderbolt.

In May 1838, when Robert Brunton was superintending the Porto Novo Iron Works, trials using steam locomotives in generating required energy were attempted. Ambrose Foster and William Avery of New York were making great strides in improving the efficiency and performance of stationary steam engines to generate power in the 1830s. In 1831, Foster and Avery applied for a patent of their design of a ‘reacting steam engine’.

Arthur Thomas Cotton (1803-1899), a senior engineer of the Madras Army, who pioneered the building of dams (popularly referred as anicuts) and weirs in Madras Presidency, launched trials in various towns of the Madras Presidency using Foster-Avery steam engines for power generation. A Foster-Avery engine was used at Porto Novo Iron Works after being suitably adapted.


The most remarkable dimension in the story of Heath and his efforts to make iron and steel is that the Porto Novo factory was the only large-scale iron and steel factory in the whole of India in the 1830s.

Bessemer in his autobiography speaks positively on the efforts and intelligence of Josiah Heath. He says,

“Josiah Marshall Heath, a civil servant under the Indian Government, who, noticing in the native Wootz steel-making of India the marvellous effect of manganese, conceived the idea of producing steel of superior quality from inferior brands of British iron by its use in the cast-steel process then extensively carried on in Sheffield.

“In consequence of this successful invention of Heath’s, no British iron that has been smelted with mineral fuel is ever made into cast steel in Sheffield without the employment of carburet of manganese.

“Heath’s licensees said, ‘This is not precisely your patent, Mr. Heath,’ and they claimed the right to carry out this suggestion without paying him any royalty. This was the cause of some eight or nine years of litigation, by which poor Heath was ultimately ruined, although his patent was established by a final decision of the House of Lords, alas! only too late, for Heath died a broken-hearted, ruined man, wholly unrewarded for his valuable invention.

The Central and Egmore Railway stations in Madras have been built using the Porto Novo steel, and an unverifiable Internet site indicates that the seal and logo of the Porto Novo Iron Works are visible in some of the iron beams today.


Please follow and like us:
Pin Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay Updated