Born 22 April 1789 at Carreg-hwfa toll-gate-house, Llanymynech, second of the seven children of the gate-keeper (and shoemaker) Richard Roberts and his wife Mary (Jones, of Meifod). In the parish school the curate noted and fostered the mechanical instinct which had led the boy of 10 to construct a spinning-wheel for his mother. After a spell as barge-man on the canal, the lad worked in the Llanymynech limestone quarries; when about 20 he was a pattern-maker in a Bilston iron-works; in 1814, after working at Liverpool and Manchester (to evade enlistment in the militia), he walked to London to work in iron-works at Lambeth; but in 1816 he returned to Manchester and took a small workshop in Deansgate. About 1822-3 he took a partner named Hill (for two of the subsequent years he was at Mulhouse in France), but in 1828 he was in partnership with Thomas Sharpe. Sharpe d. in 1842, and Roberts was on his own till 1845; from 1845 till 1851 he was joined by a Fothergill, but the partnership was not successful, and Roberts then set up as a consulting engineer, subsequently (1861) removing to London (Adam Street, Adelphi), where he died 11 March 1864; he was buried in Kensal Green. He was twice married; his daughter, Elizabeth (1835 - 1869), tended him in his last years. He had latterly fallen into adversity; at the time of his death a subscription for him had been set up, and the proceeds were handed over to his daughter, who was also granted a Civil List pension of £200. He was a tall and burly man, curt in speech, pronouncedly Welsh in accent, and possessed of a phenomenal memory.
Roberts was purely and simply an inventor. For one thing, money was for him a secondary matter; he invented instinctively without troubling overmuch whether the invention was commercially practicable — though in fact he took out a patent almost annually for twenty-eight years, be did not bother to patent many of his inventions. In the second place, he never specialized — inventions occurred to his mind wherever he looked. A dictionary is no place for detail in this matter (the authorities cited below describe some of his inventions fairly fully), but it may be mentioned here that he made improvements in textile machinery, steam-engines, railways, ships and ships’ gear, lighthouses, clocks, etc. — he even devised a steam motor-car, which however did not run a prosperous course. One authority avers that ‘he was one of the greatest mechanical inventors of the [19th] century.’ Nor did he hold aloof from the public life of Manchester : he was at ‘Peterloo’ in 1819, was one of the founders of the Manchester Mechanics’ Institute, was a member of the famous Philosophical and Literary society of the city, and became a member of the Borough Council when Manchester was incorporated in 1838.
Published date: 1959
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