62. “A Controverted and Debated Question”: Mr Holden, Mr Lister, and the Square Motion Combing Machine

Front cover of The Square Motion Combing Machine, letters by Holden and Lister (ref HOL 5/2)

Front cover of The Square Motion Combing Machine, reprinting letters by Holden and Lister (ref HOL 5/2)

This little pamphlet tells the story of a bitter dispute between two Grand Old Men of Victorian Bradford: Sir Isaac Holden and Samuel Cunliffe Lister (Lord Masham).  It reprints letters written by the two men during the 1870s to the Bradford Observer and other local newspapers arguing about the origin of the “square-motion” wool comb, following “some reflections by Mr Lister upon Mr Holden in a letter during the County Election of 1872”.  The pamphlet was printed at Holden’s instigation circa 1887 when the argument flared up again.

We already met Isaac Holden, courting his second wife Sarah during the late 1840s.  At this time, Holden linked up with Lister, a successful inventor and industrialist to develop a commercially viable wool comb, an innovation which had so far eluded inventors.

Detail of the 1848 Memorandum of Agreement between Holden and Lister (HOL 1/4/2)

Detail of the 1848 Memorandum of Agreement between Holden of Bradford and Lister of Manningham, in which they agree to have equal shares in the profits of the French wool combing enterprise(HOL 1/4/2)

Lister filed a patent for what became the square-motion wool comb and the two set up a partnership agreement for an enterprise in France which would use and improve the new comb, Lister supplying capital and machines, Holden dedicating his time to running the business.  The first factory at St Denis was followed by others at Croix and Rheims; the original design was perfected and patented; great profits were made, setting the foundation of Sir Isaac’s immense wealth.  However, the business relationship was never easy.  In 1858, Holden bought Lister out for £74,000.  For the rest of their lives, they would continue to argue about the origins of the square-motion comb and what had really happened between them during the 1840s and 1850s.

The letters in the pamphlet show how public, painful, personal and bitter the dispute became.  Holden argued he had developed square motion before he formed links with Lister, Lister insisted that Holden was just a book-keeper whom he had used to run the French enterprise, too ignorant of the mechanics of wool-combing to invent the machine, and that a patent was more than an idea.

The Holden Papers contain a wealth of correspondence, legal and business papers  shedding light on the complex issues involved.   They include the original partnership agreement of 1848, many of the important letters referred to by Lister and Holden in their arguments, press cuttings (including letters reprinted in the pamphlet), and notes made by Holden.

(I’ve simplified the story of the technical innovations of Holden and Lister and the various patents and legal issues involved:  Technology and Enterprise by Honeyman and Goodman offers a useful introduction and is widely available in academic libraries).

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3 responses to “62. “A Controverted and Debated Question”: Mr Holden, Mr Lister, and the Square Motion Combing Machine

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  3. Pingback: 78. Isaac Holden et Fils: images of the Usine Holden, Croix, France | 100 Objects

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