Walton Autobiography

Extract from Frederick Walton’s Autobiography


After many troubles, too numerous to mention, I returned to England. During- my absence my manager at Staines had invented a method of making: a sort of inlaid linoleum by triturating coloured linoleum mixtures, and by means of stencil plates producing very elegant designs in imitation of carpet fabrics. These were consolidated by hydraulic presses of great power and made into sheets. This was a considerable surprise to me for as early as 1862, when I patented the ordinary linoleum, I had indicated in my patent that inlaid linoleum could be made by cutting pieces of the fabric of different colours, but did not patent any mechanical means of doing this. Before I left for the U.S.A. I had made a contract or agreement with the company that I would invent such a machine and that they should be the sole owners of the patent. I therefore reminded them that this contract existed, and did my utmost to induce them to fulfil their engagement. They did not refuse to do so, but they put me off for months and months with evasive excuses; the fact being that they had spent large sums on what I will call the “carpet inlaid,” and could not very readily accede to my requests, which had become demands. I may say that my agreements with the company gave them the right to any future invention whatsoever that I might make, and the chair- man often remarked jokingly, “We have got Walton mortgaged, body and soul.”

I was very patient under these repeated failures to carry out their engagements with me, but I objected to be so treated. Accordingly, I took the agreement to my lawyer, telling him all the facts of the case, and asking his advice as to the remedy. He said, “Under all the circumstances of this agreement, I think a Court of Law would award you £20,000 for non-fulfillment,” I replied, “I do not want damages, but release,” and I asked him to draft a document to that effect. It was not in my opinion strong enough, and I added the words; “And the said Frederick Walton shall be at liberty to do what he pleases with any of his new inventions.” I did not for a moment think that they would release me, but, to my surprise, they signed the release at the next board meeting.

Probably they did not think that, at my advanced age, I should become a serious competitor, even if I carried out my inlaying process for making linoleum, which I still claim, produces the true inlaid. My reputation after successful dividend paying at Staines enabled me to satisfy a few friends that there was money to be made in inlaid linoleum of Linoleum Floorcloth. Still, I did not realize what a difficult business I had undertaken, nor the large amount of capital that might be called for, neither did I anticipate the problems that would need to be solved.

This occurred in the year 1898, when I was 65 years of age. Trade was very active at that time, and it was very difficult to obtain empty factories. At length I found the works famous as the spot where Bessemer proved his widely known steel process. The site of the factory- had the advantage of being on the Thames, and in direct river communication with London, but otherwise it was no bargain. The foundations, being on the river bed, were bad, and the work involved in order to get a solid basis for an inlaying machine was more costly than the work above ground. It would, however, have been foolish to put such heavy and intricate machinery on any but solid foundations.

I am, I fear, traveling too fast; the machine had to be invented. I came across a foreman engineer, who was employed at a small repairing works at Chelsea; at first I borrowed him from his employer. His name was Schmedle (a Swiss German), corrupted later to Smedley. He proved to be a good mechanic, and a devoted employee. He had little or no inventive capacity, but he was a man who would carry out what he was told, whether he believed in its success or not. This is a fine type of workman for an inventor to have at his disposal, because an inventor, in order to be sure of his experiments and their result. One who thinks he knows better must not fool. Moreover, the genius of the original direction of the inventor’s ideas often, even if mistaken, eventually leads to success.

The inventor conceives, but he is a foolish man if he believes he can do everything. I was not trained as an engineer; what I knew I had learned in the course of my work. I was therefore glad of the assistance of a trained engineer when it became a question of putting my inventive ability into practice. I knew by experience that, unless I tested each feature of my proposed invention, I could not tell what large sums might ultimately have to be found by the capitalists.

Even with all this care, many years elapsed and much money was spent before success crowned my efforts. To commence operations, I rented a small empty factory in Bleeding Heart Yard, Hatton Garden. Here I had to erect a small engine, boiler, and the shafting necessary needed to drive a pair of mixing machines. My first idea was to use an octagonal cylinder, arranged with a number of cutting knives, that would cut out the pieces forming the designs, and place these pieces on a fabric prepared to receive them. The machine worked well, but the momentum necessary to drive the massive cylinder was prejudical to its steadiness. However, I invited one of the largest linoleum manufacturers of the north to see the machine. He was so far impressed that be asked me to meet him at a well-known engineering establishment in Manchester, and pro- posed that they should make the machine for Linoleum Floorcloth.

I then went to see my father, who was living at that time on his Welsh property. Whilst I was there I received a telegram, not from the linoleum manufacturers, but from the engineers: “We think you should let Mr … have the first machine without royalty.” I was intensely annoyed at such a barefaced proposition; the more so, as coming from an engineer, and I sent a wire: “Certainly not.” For some time I heard no further from this gentleman, and then he complained that this machine would not produce enough. I said, “Possibly not, but I can make a machine that will.” However, I suppose he did not believe that I could do so, and the matter went no further. He ultimately came to regret having lost the control of this important industry.

I felt that I ‘must devise some means to avoid the momentum I have already referred to, and, on reflection, I could see no other plan than that of adopting a continuous circular motion to replace the intermittent one. I also realized that my financial income, although considerable, would not enable me to undertake such an important business alliance. I proceeded, therefore, to form the Greenwich Inlaid Linoleum Co., with the suffix “F. Walton’s New Patents,” to distinguish it from the old connection with my esteemed and respected friends, the Staines Linoleum Co. I do not think it is easy to explain the intricacies and mechanical difficulties of this unique machine. It exists, and for me it is my greatest work. I may say that, but for the financial help and and several years of patient belief in my inventive abilities on the part of my directors, it could never have been accomplished. I may be pardoned if I say I am proud of it, An engineer of note said to me, after seeing this machine, “I cannot understand any man having the audacity to undertake such a piece of work.” It was indeed true, and it cost between four and five years of ‘persistent labour, energy and determination to accomplish.

To give some idea of the work involved: The whole system of oxidizing oil, involving the employment of scrim, as first used, had to be abandoned, as the smallest amount of fibre present in the “cement” tended to alter the composition, and rendered it useless for the new process. I had therefore to invent a new method of oxidization. It will easily be conceived that extreme accuracy in the matching of one piece of inlaid with another is essential. This could only be obtained by the invention of what I called the “foundation plate,” in which each section of the cutting rollers was made. Every section of the cutting rollers had to be exactly alike, and they were used. year after year. The making of this plate, or part of a circle, was very expensive, some pattern-is costing £1,500 to £2,500 apiece before completion. It may be imagined that the question was asked: “How could it pay?” I guaranteed that the first machine would make 25,000 yards a week. Now a machine produces as much as of Linoleum Floorcloth 50,000 yards a week, and there are three machines at work at Greenwich. The linoleum composition is adhesive, and the difficulty was to avoid the clinging of it to parts of the machine, and’ yet at the same time to cause the sections of a design to adhere to one another. The pressure, also, had to be so adjusted as not to distort the geometrical lines which characterize “Greenwich Inlaid,” and this was not an easy problem to solve.

But I should weary my readers if I entered into all the details of the problems to be solved in the making of perfect inlaid linoleum. I will therefore proceed to more interesting subjects. After ‘five years, during which time our balance-sheets showed a yearly loss of anything between £5,000 and £20,000, my directors decided that it was only fair to the shareholders to invite them to see the results of their long patience, and its possible reward. The chairman of the company, with his natural energy, chartered a steamboat to bring them to Greenwich pier. One of our most capacious and convenient buildings was fitted up as a dining room, and numerous invitations were sent out. The usual toasts and thanks to our chairman having been honoured at the luncheon, the guests were invited to see the machine in full work, and I was requested to explain the process. I did what I could, though the noise was considerable, and some of the gentlemen showed their appreciation of the work, and the visitors generally seemed gratified,


After all the excitement was over, a singular incident was recalled to my memory. Not less than thirty years before, whilst at Staines, I fell not exactly ill, but I lost energy and my work became a trouble to me. I thought a rest and change would do me good, and I decided to go to London for a time. After some search, 1 found rooms in the house of a Mr.——, with his wife and two daughters. The wife frequently consulted a clairvoyant, and had great faith in her ability. She often said, “Mr. Walton, I am sure that my clairvoyant would cure you.” As I had not similar faith, I only smiled and joked at her superstition (as I thought it). After many requests, I consented, however, at length, out of courtesy to my well wisher, to go and see the lady in question. My hostess took me across the river to a row of houses in Lambeth, such as are occupied by working people. There I was introduced to a fragile looking, unhealthy sort of working man. He said he would put his wife into a trance, and after he had done so we were invited to enter her room. She began at once to speak as follows: “This gentleman is very inventive, but, in the latter Linoleum Floorcloth part of his .life, ho will do a much greater work than he has done up to now. I do not know any- thing about machinery, never having been in a factory, but I can see a huge machine and patches of colour are issuing from it; there are a great number of gentlemen on platforms round it; this gentleman is explaining the machine to them, and they are congratulating him, etc. In another room I can see powder of various colours being prepared.” Thin description so vividly describes the scene at the shareholders’ inspection already mentioned that the recollection of it came back to me. At that time I remember thinking how ridiculous and improbable it all was. I ought to state that, before going to see the clairvoyant,

I asked Mrs.—— whether she had ever-mentioned my name, or my business to this woman, as if she had done so I would not go. She assured me most emphatically that she had never told the clairvoyant anything about me, and that I could rely upon her word. I mention this incident as a most remarkable case of long antecedent clairvoyance, and I can vouch for its absolute truth. I have not ventured to describe my inlaying machine in detail, on account of the difficulty of making it understood. I have often had the pleasure of explaining it to visitors, and, except in the case of mechanical engineers of great experience, they have failed to carry away with them such an accurate knowledge of what they have seen as to enable them, for instance, to describe the essential features of it to their friends. I hope therefore that my kind readers will pardon this omission.

I have now described certain of my inventions and given an account of the companies formed to carry them out; a mere sketch of my life work. I have had a long life, and my excellent doctor here in France, after careful examination, assures me that I may live many years yet. When I think of the extraordinary progress of science and scientific research that has taken place since I was born, I am filled with wonder, and I am tempted at times to allow my fancy to dwell upon what may happen in the years to come, As an infant I watched the making of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, and my mother assured me that she often took me in her arms to the window to see the earthworks in progress for the embankments near our house. This was the starting of the railway activity, and since that time most of the Continent of Europe, especially France, and also the United States of America, have become a network of railways. In my young days gas was the only public system of lighting in use in towns. There was no electric light, no motor vehicles were to be seen, no electric power for trams or factories, no gramophones and no cinema theatres, and finally no use of the air to carry messages incalculable distances. Indeed, the whole conditions of life have been revolutionized since my boyhood. We shall soon be able to travel comfortably of Linoleum Floorcloth and safely in’ the air from England to India or to the Argentine, at the rate of perhaps 100 to 150 miles in the hour, even in spite of the storms and hurricanes which often disturb our equanimity on land. Who would not wish to live long enough to see what science, now she is free and untrammeled, may accomplish in the future? There is one important modification of our views of life and its meaning (and here I am treading on dangerous ground, and those who adhere to the Old Theology may differ from me) that I must mention, namely, the history of man’s ancestry, as set forth by Darwin, Spencer and Huxley, and generally accepted by scientific men of all countries. Great revolutions in thought are in the air, for there seems to be no question that our animal origin is undoubtedly proven. But why should this affect the question of morality, since our responsibility to the Father of All remains unchanged? There has been much talk of late of the brotherhood of nations, but, alas’ are we not still like beasts, slaying one another “as creatures of the slime” in long past days, before the dawn of history? I may be wrong, but I firmly believe that nothing short of a long evolution, extending over countless centuries or even millions of years, will bring us to that perfection which many of us see in our dreams, but which can never be realized except in the imagination of those who picture what they most desire. In expressing these views, I know many of Linoleum Floorcloth my friends will not agree with me, but I am only giving the results of much study to arrive at the truth, and I regret that many cling to the old traditions for fear that they may become lost in the fog of warring opinions if they venture to inquire for themselves. It is not my desire to influence those who, perhaps from their youth, have held to the old • traditions. The growth of religion is a natural growth like that of language, and both are but a form of evolution, like many things associated with our progress in intelligence. My object in adding these final words is only to emphasize the wonderful changes which have occurred during the last 90 years, and I am in deed thankful that I have had time and opportunity to modify the views that I held in my youth.

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