How Benjamin Franklin helped the inventor of the wheel

MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: Further research into the burial records of what was once known as Croydon Parish Church has revealed intriguing connections to Benjamin Franklin, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson. Minster historian DAVID MORGAN takes up the story

Benjamin Franklin: a friend and inspiration to John Viney

A simple memorial on a long-lost headstone in the Croydon Parish Church graveyard is the starting point for this tale, which includes a founding father, two Presidents of the United States, an Irish clergyman visiting London, an admission to St Thomas’ Hospital for industrial injuries and a bankruptcy.

It also contains the vision and drive of a man who passionately believed in his creating excellence.

According to church records, the memorial stone commemorated John Viney, who died on July 27 1792. It also marked the grave of his wife, Rebecca, who died on August 14 1791.

John Viney was described, admittedly by himself, as the “Inventor of the Patent Wheel”.

John Viney (or Viny, as it was also often spelt) could be found in the 1770s in his workplace south of Blackfriars Bridge in London. The London Gazette contained an advertisement for its readers about “John Viny and Joseph Jacob, Wheel Manufacturer and Co-partners.”

Viney and his partner Jacob held patents, and claimed to be inventors of the patent wheel

The two of them certainly worked hard for their business. In 1776, they were advertising their coach-building skills in France. A leaflet outlined the sort of horse-drawn carriages they could make, as well as a list of satisfied English clients with whom they were happy for potential customers to liaise directly.

It was entitled “Manufacture de Roues de Voitures, D’une nouvelle Construction, Etablie sur le Chemin de Black-Fryars, près du Pont-Neuf de Londres.”

Viney’s partner was also a man to seek improvements for their business. On the patent register for the time, Joseph Jacob had three patents, dated 1769, 1771 and 1774, all for the improvements of carriage building.

We don’t know how many people worked for the firm, but we do know the name of one of them: John Hunt. On May 2 1776, Hunt was admitted to St Thomas’ Hospital suffering from fractured ribs. No home address was given, only the name of the company “Jacob and Viny, Coach Manufactory”.

Other evidence about the firm comes from some unexpected sources.

Dr Campbell, an Irish clergyman and antiquarian, made a visit to London in 1775 and kept a diary of his time here, from February 23 to May 9.

The obelisk at the end of Blackfriars Road was a tourist attraction in the 1770s

He wrote that on April 13, after a rainy start, the weather cleared up and he went for a walk over the river and down the Blackfriars Road with a Dr Scott “to see the obelisk” and “the future city”.

That obelisk can be seen today on the roundabout at St George’s Circus, Southwark. It was originally positioned there in 1771, to mark the first purpose-built traffic junction in London, and the formal end of Blackfriars Road.

As the pair walked back up the road towards the bridge, Campbell recorded that he came across a man named Viny, “the timber vendor”. Describing him as a “curious man” who explained his business with “great courtesy”, Campbell regretted not knowing more about “wheel carriages”.

Viney’s sales pitch proved to be a good one though, as he persuaded Campbell to purchase a new saddle from his saddlemaker, a Mr Clark.

More important historical figures than Dr Campbell, though, were to visit Viney’s yard.

John Adams, who was to become the second President of the United States, visited London in 1786 and he, too, kept a diary.

He wrote that in the April of that year he had been over Blackfriars Bridge to see “Viny’s manufacture of Patent Wheels made of timber”. Adams went on to describe Viney as being very intense about his work and that Viney was most grateful to Benjamin Franklin, who had suggested to him how carriage wheels could be made in a better way.

John Adams: a visitor to Viney’s yard

Accompanying Adams on his walk to Viney’s yard that day was the American Minister to France – the young nation’s ambassador – who also happened to be in London at the time: Thomas Jefferson.

With such eminent supporters, what could possibly go wrong with the Viney’s business?

Benjamin Franklin was a prolific man of letters, and his papers provide several answers. Franklin’s friendship with Viney had begun way back in 1768. He wrote about how concerned he had been in 1778 about Vimy’s bankruptcy and his split with Jacob.

The rift was over a dispute concerning a patent about these improved carriage wheels. Viney had worked on the idea after Jacob had rejected it, but it was his partner who had patented it.

In a subsequent court case, which was not concluded until 1782, Viney was victorious and issued a public announcement stating that “he was the Original and Sole inventor of the Wheel, commonly called the Patent Wheel”.

He subsequently began to advertise his wheel, “in its highest perfection of Beauty and Durability”, placing adverts in various London papers such as the Morning Intelligencer and Parker’s Gen Advertiser in January 1783. These adverts were also issued as broadsheets, at least one of which found their way to America and into the possession of Franklin.

The formal notice of Viney’s bankruptcy

Viney had also written that he was so grateful to the people who had supported him financially after the bankruptcy by agreeing to a subscription scheme which raised £1,800 – worth more than £310,000 by today’s values.

He felt utterly betrayed by Jacob and it was only through this financial support that he could keep the business going. Among the 17 people who supported Viney financially were four dukes and a bishop.

So what was so special about these wheels?

It was that the rim would be made with just one piece of wood that could be bent and shaped. Franklin had realised that wood could be moulded under certain conditions and told Viney that he had seen wheels in Holland that were made in this fashion.

Viney was always up for a challenge and drawing deeply on his pipe, so Franklin described, set about finding a way to manufacture them. The advantages of the wheel were to create a smoother ride for the passenger, lessen the wear and tear on the roads and tracks, as well as saving the carriage owner money because the wheels wouldn’t need replacing so often.

Even before the bankruptcy, Jacob and Viney’s firm was involved in some interesting transport innovations. A report at the time names a Mr Ovenden who invented a method of wheeled transport without using a horse. His prototype was made in the Blackfriars Road yard. It was a forerunner of the bicycle, although the man and his invention have long since been forgotten by history.

Thomas Jefferson: was another prominent figure to visit Viney’s yard

As well as his role as a founding father of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a noted 18th century scientist and inventor. He was also a particular friend and associate of John Viney and it is through his papers and letters, now held in the US national archives, that we have been able to find out more about our Blackfriars Road entrepreneur.

In 1760, John Viney married Rebecca. They had three daughters: Rebecca (nicknamed RJ) born in 1763, Elizabeth (Bess) born in 1764, and Mary (the “Pin Basket”) in 1778.

The crisis of Viney’s bankruptcy would have been exacerbated because his wife was the sister of Joseph Jacob, the object of so much of her husband’s distress.

The “unnatural reverse conduct of the Jacobs”, described Viney’s disbelief towards a man with whom he had shared so much. In happier times, their eldest daughter had even been given Jacob as a middle name.

In 1790, Viney received a personal letter from Philadelphia to inform him of the death of Franklin. The American, whose idea to bend wood had come from noticing how the dimensions of a mahogany box in his possession had shrunk when he took the English gift home back to America, had been an inspiration.

More research is needed to find out why John and Rebecca Viney were buried in Croydon. Was it that they lived here at the end of their lives? Certainly, they would have wanted to be buried in the most prestigious church in Surrey.

Whatever the reason, the story of the “inventor of the wheel” deserves to be remembered.

Read more: From Massachusetts to the Minster: Americans in Croydon
Read more: The Miller’s tale of Mendelssohn’s visit and a lifetime of music

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1 Response to How Benjamin Franklin helped the inventor of the wheel

  1. Lewis White says:

    Fascinating story, of wheels, early crowd funding, and another aspect of American/ Croydon links.
    Clicking one of the links above about this American connection, I realised how privileged we are to have the grave of the painter John Singletion Copley in Croydon Minster. I am sure that his popularity is going to re-build — a great painter. Thanks to David Morgan and Inside Croydon for this hugely interesting set of articles.

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