In 1808, a patent was granted to Donkin, for the steel pen which was the first recorded patent on the subject, and as he set up a factory and made the pens upon a considerable scale for several years, it may be fairly claimed that he was the originator of this particular instrument. The business with the patent was subsequently sold as a going concern to Joseph Bramah for £350 in 1811, probably to finance the purchase of the engineering works from the Foundrinier brothers.
Rotary Printing Machine
One of Bryan Donkin’s earliest associates in business was Richard Mackenzie Bacon, the two collaborated in patenting in 1813 what was probably the first successful rotary printing machine, and in 1815 formed a partnership to work the patent. One machine was set up at the works of the Cambridge University Press, where it turned out excellent work for some time; but as a machine it was too delicate for the constant work of a printing office, and so failed to develop into a commercial success, incidental to this machine was the invention of the elastic inking rollers, such as have since been used in every form of printing machine, the composition being a mixture of glue and treacle.
Another well known man of his day with whom Donkin was connected in one of his enterprises was Sir William Congreve, 1772-1828. In 1820 Congreave obtained a patent for printing in two or more colours, the immediate object being to make imitation and forgery more difficult, particularly in connection with printing official tax stamps and bank notes from dies. A special printing machine was designed which was manufactured by Bryan Donkin and Company. Donkin built two special machines for the purpose, the pantograph; to cut the apertures on the upper plate, the projections on the lower plate and the lettering and design on the combined plate, and the rose engine with which to cover the surface of the duplex die with the complicated anti-forgery patterns so beloved of bank note makers.
During the time when Donkin was busily engaged in perfecting and improving the paper making machine, a process that had been patented in France for preserving meat and other foodstuffs, was brought to England with the result that the English rights were purchased by Donkin, Hall, and John Gamble for £1000. Experiments were at once started at Bermondsey and by 1813 the partners had successfully developed the process of preserving food by canning and were invited to take samples to Kensington Palace where it was tasted by the Prince Regent and other members of the royal Household. From that time the business developed rapidly, a quantity of meat was supplied to the Royal Navy and depots established in seaport towns. The Science Museum has an early example of Bryan Donkin’s tin cans.
In mechanical engineering the more scientific side of the profession was also not neglected by Donkin. in 1810 he received a gold medal from the Society of Arts for a tachometer for measuring the speed of a machine and in 1819 another gold medal, from the same society, for a counting machine and was spoken of as the leading mechanician of his time.
Dividing Engine and Screw Thread
Through most of his working life Donkin was devoted to the development and improvement of the dividing engine to facilitate the division in minute and exact graduations on mathematical scales and for originating a remarkably accurate screw thread.
In 1817 he was called upon to give evidence before the Parliamentary Committee on steam boats.
He also gave evidence, in 1824, before the Committee of the House of Commons to inquire into the state of the Combination Laws and their effects. These laws were restrictively applied against Trade Unionism and Donkin’s attitude to them was, for the time, one of considerable liberality.
Arbitration, Consultancy and Fellow Engineers
From many entries in Donkin’s diaries it would appear that he had considerable income from consultations and arbitrations, chiefly on engineering matters, and others concerned with wharves, piers and waterpower in general, settling disputes about people taking water or holding it up and spoiling the water-power of other neighbours on various rivers. Donkin’s correspondence records a great number of undertakings which have since become historical, in which he was connected with Telford, Rennie, Bramah, Boulton and Watt, Murdock, Simpson, Maudsley, Congreve, the two Brunels, Nasmyth, and others.
The Thames Tunnel
The firm was also closely connected with Brunel in the construction of the Thames Tunnel. This work was commenced in 1825, and three years later was closed in consequence of inundation.
In 1835 it was re-commenced, and finally opened to traffic in 1843. Part of the shield and other apparatus used in connection with the work was adapted by the company.
The scinece museum also has a Donkin Slide Rule.