Blacksmithing is an ancient craft that is making a resurgence in the United States and the developed world. People are studying the craft of blacksmithing like never before and the need for information, instruction, tools and facilities are at all time highs. I love everything about this trend because it takes us back to our roots when men and women made things from the raw materials they had at their disposal. As with anything of interest, inevitably, people like me want to know who the awesome people were back in the day who did the things we are excited about in the present. I got to thinking about this awhile back and began compiling a list of blacksmiths from history with cool stories and interesting lives. I’ve made this list of 25 of the world’s most famous blacksmiths to share some of the personalities that I’ve come across in my research. Some of these people are long gone, some only exist in ancient lore and a few are alive and blacksmithing to this very day.
In the Holy Bible, Genesis 4:22 tells us that Tubal-Cain was a “forger of all instruments of bronze and iron” or an “instructor of every artificer in brass and iron.” Although this probably means that he was a metal-smith, the Bible also suggests that he may have been the very first artificer in brass and iron. T. C. Mitchell suggests that he “discovered the possibilities of cold forging native copper and meteoric iron.” Tubal-Cain has even been described as the first chemist. It seems that his very name may be tied to the area from which he came as noted in Ezekiel 27:13 which states, “Javan (Greece), Tubal, and Meshech (Meshek), they were thy merchants: they traded the persons of men and vessels of brass in thy market.” This means that the name Tubal-Cain “may be a variant of the same tradition which lists Tubal in the table of nations” found in Genesis 10, as a land well known for metalwork.”
Other researchers believe that Tubal-Cain’s work was in part the making of weapons of war which makes perfect sense to me. Rashi notes that he “spiced and refined the Cain’s craft to make weapons for murderers.” The Antiquities of the Jews by Flavius Josephus states that “Tubal exceeded all men in strength, and was very expert and famous in martial performances, … and first of all invented the art of working brass.” Therefore, no matter how we look at it Tubal-Cain is the earliest worker of metal that we know of. He may not have been a very nice dude, but it seems that he gets credit for setting us on the path to where we are today with the craft of blacksmithing.
2. Wayland the Smith
In the Northern Germanic tribal region we now know as “Norse” came a mythology that featured a legendary blacksmith named, Wayland the Smith described by Jessie Weston as “the weird and malicious craftsman, Weyland”. He was known by a lot of other names as well, but all of them were in various languages none of which I speak or write, so I will spare you the pain of trying to read languages that aren’t even spoken any longer. Needless to say Wayland was the man! In Old Norse sources, Wayland the Smith is featured in a number of historic sources of poetry. This legendary character is also depicted on the Ardre image stone VIII. In Old English sources, he appears in Deor, Waldere and in Beowulf and the legend is depicted on the whale bone chest known as The Franks Casket.
3. Thomas Davenport
Article by Dr. Frank Wicks, published in the July 1999 edition of Mechanical Engineering Magazine. Copyright 2010 ASME.
In the spring of 1833, a self-educated but impoverished blacksmith in Forestdale, Vt., by the name of Thomas Davenport heard some curious news. This news, as it turned out, would not only change his life but would eventually change the life of almost everyone on earth. Davenport’s curiosity led to his invention of the first rotating electric machine. Today, we would describe it as a shunt-wound brush and commutator dc motor.
Thomas Davenport, inventor of the electric motor, was a self-educated blacksmith with a passion for reading.
The momentous news that roused the blacksmith’s curiosity was that the Penfield and Hammond Iron Works, on the other side of Lake Champlain in the Crown Point hamlet of Ironville in New York state, was using a new method for separating crushed ore. The process used magnetized spikes mounted on a rotating wooden drum that attracted the millings with the highest iron content. Higher-purity feedstock could be fed to the furnaces, improving their productivity and the quality of the iron they produced. This was important, since the recent introduction and expected rapid expansion of railroads were dramatically increasing the demand for quality iron.
This process had been developed by Joseph Henry of Albany, N.Y. It used an electromagnet that he had designed to magnetize the spikes; in fact, Henry’s electromagnet was said to be powerful enough to lift a blacksmith’s anvil. Its use in the iron ore separation process was the first time that electricity had been used for commercial purposes, thus beginning the electric industry.
Thomas Davenport had no prior knowledge of discoveries in magnetism and electricity when this new process stimulated his interest. He had been born in 1802 on a farm outside Williamstown, Vt., the eighth of 12 children. His father died when Thomas was 10. Schooling opportunities were minimal, and at the age of 14 Thomas was indentured for seven years to a blacksmith. His room and board and six weeks per year of rural schooling were provided in return for service in his master’s shop. The work was hard, but the boy was later remembered for his curiosity, his interest in musical instruments, and his passion for books.
Once he was liberated in 1823, Davenport traveled over the Green Mountains to Forestdale, a hamlet in the town of Brandon, Vt., where there was an iron industry. He set up his own marginally successful shop, married the daughter of a local merchant, and started a family.
His only means of learning was self-education. When the news from the ironworks piqued his curiosity, he acquired books and journals, and started reading about the experiments and discoveries that were beginning to unlock some of the mysteries of electricity and magnetism.
It was more than 80 years since Benjamin Franklin, in 1752, had experimented with static electricity from Leyden jars and with electricity from the sky, by flying a kite over Philadelphia during a storm.
Davenport’s model of an electric “train.” The circular track is 4 feet in diameter. Power was supplied from a stationary battery to the moving electric locomotive, using the rails as conductors for the electricity.
A new era had started in 1800, when Alessandro Volta demonstrated an electric pile, which was a battery that produced electricity directly from a chemical reaction between two different metals. Static electricity batteries such as the Leyden jar had provided only sudden electric pulses during discharge. For the first time, investigators could draw a continuous electric current for hours, instead of relying on an erratic spark in a Leyden jar.
In 1820, the Danish experimenter Hans Oersted showed that Franklin had been half-wrong in his conclusion that electricity and magnetism were unrelated. Oersted observed that the needle of a nearby compass moved when he closed the circuit through a wire and battery. This demonstrated that electricity was causing magnetism. Andre-Marie Ampere in France soon showed that the magnetic effect could be multiplied by coiling the wire. William Sturgeon went the next step in 1825 by wrapping an uninsulated coil of wire around an insulated horseshoe-shaped iron core, thus making the first electromagnet, which lifted about 5 lbs.
Now that it was shown that electricity could produce magnetism, the reverse question arose: whether magnetism could produce electricity. The first attempts consisted of holding a magnet near a wire. No electricity was observed. Then, in 1831, Michael Faraday succeeded in producing electricity by means of magnetism when he moved a disc perpendicular to a magnetic field. Almost simultaneously, Joseph Henry, inventor of the ore-separation process that so excited Davenport, used a more powerful lifting magnet of his own design to show that electricity could be produced from magnetism by changing the strength of the magnet.
The discovery that magnetism could cause electricity was a vital step toward the modern electric world. The only previously demonstrated techniques for producing electricity had been the limited-potential static electric generator of von Guericke and the chemical reaction battery of Volta.
Joseph Henry was to become the only American to have his name applied to a unit of electricity: A henry is a measure of electric inductance. Henry had started his pioneering work in electricity and magnetism as a professor at Albany Academy in 1826. In 1833, he moved on to Princeton. He ended up as the founding secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, where he served from 1846 until 1878.
While at Albany, Henry developed an electromagnet that could lift a phenomenal 2,000 lbs. He did this by wrapping a mile of insulated wire in several parallel circuits around a soft iron core that he procured from the Crown Point Iron Works, the company for which he eventually designed the machine that used his ore-separating electromagnet.
The iron separation technique developed by Henry was, in a sense, the magnetic equivalent of the cotton gin. That device, invented in 1794 by Eli Whitney, used spikes on a rotating drum to comb the seed from the fiber. For the first time growing cotton was profitable, because a single worker could produce 50 lbs. of pure cotton per day. Threshing machines were being built on a similar principle. The ancient process of beating the wheat with a wooden flail to separate the grain from the chaff was to be replaced by spikes on a rotating drum.
Davenport Invents the Motor
Soon after he learned of the Henry magnet, Davenport traveled the 25 miles to Crown Point on a horse to witness the wonders of magnetic lifting power. The amazing sight further inflamed his interest. He decided to travel another 80 miles south, to Albany, to meet Henry, only to find out that he had moved down to Princeton.
Returning home out of money, Davenport called upon his brother, a peddler, to join him with his cart for another trip to Crown Point. Once there, they auctioned the brother’s products and traded a good horse for an inferior one to obtain money to buy the magnet. When they got home, the brother suggested trying to recover the cost by exhibiting the magnet for a fee.
Davenport traveled 25 miles to Crown Point on a horse to witness the wonders of magnetic lifting power.
Thomas Davenport had other plans. He unwound and dismantled the magnet as his wife, Emily, took notes on its method of construction. He then started his own experiments and built two more magnets of his own design. Insulated wire was required, but only bare wire was available. Emily Davenport cut up her wedding dress into strips of silk to provide the necessary insulation that allowed for the maximum number of windings.
The electricity source for the magnets was a galvanic battery of the type developed by Volta. It used a bucket of a weak acid for an electrolyte. The bucket contained concentric cylinders of different metals for electrodes; these were wired to provide external electric current to the magnet.
Davenport mounted one magnet on a wheel; the other magnet was fixed to a stationary frame. The interaction between the two magnets caused the rotor to turn half a revolution. He learned that by reversing the wires to one of the magnets he could get the rotor to complete another half-turn. Davenport then devised what we now call a brush and commutator. Fixed wires from the frame supplied current to a segmented conductor that supplied current to the rotor-mounted electromagnet. This provided an automatic reversal of the polarity of the rotor-mounted magnet twice per rotation, resulting in continuous rotation.
This Patent Office model of Davenport’s motor now sits in The Smithsonian Institution in Washington. Reading about experiments and discoveries sparked Davenport’s interest, and led to his invention of the electric motor.
The motor had the potential to drive some of the equipment in Davenport’s shop, but he had even bigger ideas. The era of the steam locomotive and railroads was just beginning, but already boiler failures and explosions were becoming frequent, tragic occurrences. Davenport’s solution was the electric locomotive. He built a model electric train that operated on a circular track; power was supplied from a stationary battery to the moving electric locomotive using the rails as conductors to transmit the electricity.
When Davenport traveled to Washington to obtain a patent, however, his application was rejected: There were no prior patents on electric equipment.
He started a tour of colleges to meet professors of natural philosophy who might examine his invention and provide letters of support to the patent office. His travels took him to the new Rensselaer Institute in Troy, N.Y., recently founded (in 1824) as the nation’s first engineering school by Stephen Van Rensselaer.
The last of eight generations of land-owning patroons, Van Rensselaer had been a commissioner overseeing the construction of the Erie and Champlain canals, opened in 1825. The school had been charged with a mission to qualify teachers for instructing the sons and daughters of farmers and mechanics in developing methods of applying science to the common purposes of life.
Davenport met Rensselaer’s founding president, Amos Eaton, a distinguished lawyer, botanist, geologist, chemist, educator, and innovator, who was amazed by the motor and by the self-educated blacksmith who had built it. Eaton arranged an additional exhibit for the citizens of Troy, and Stephen Van Rensselaer himself bought Davenport’s motor for the school. The nation’s first engineering school now possessed the world’s first electric motor.
With the sale of his motor, Davenport was able to buy a quantity of already insulated wire, and he returned home to build another motor. He traveled to Princeton to meet Joseph Henry and then to the University of Pennsylvania to meet Professor Benjamin Franklin Bache, Benjamin Franklin’s grandson and an outstanding scientist.
The self-educated blacksmith, having now impressed the most prominent men of learning in the country, returned to the patent office with letters and a working model. His troubles were not yet over, however. The model was destroyed by fire before it was examined. He built another and tried again. At last, the first patent on any electric machine was issued to Thomas Davenport for his electric motor on Feb. 25, 1837.
The scientific community and the media responded with great excitement and high expectations. Benjamin Silliman, the founder of Silliman’s Journal of Science, wrote an extended article and concluded that a power of great but unknown energy had unexpectedly been placed in mankind’s hands. The New York Herald proclaimed a revolution of philosophy, science, art, and civilization: “The occult and mysterious principle of magnetism is being displayed in all of its magnificence and energy as Mr. Davenport runs his wheel.”
Davenport set up a laboratory and workshop near Wall Street in hopes of attracting investors. Samuel Morse, who in 1844 would commercialize the telegraph, came to observe. To further advertise his motor, Davenport established his own newspaper, The Electro-Magnet and Mechanics Intelligencer, and used his electric motor to drive his rotary printing press.
The motor was a spectacular technological success, but it was becoming a commercial failure. No one knew how to predict the amount of energy in chemical batteries, and a battery-powered motor could not compete with a steam engine. Funds were promised but not delivered. Bankrupt and distressed, Davenport returned to Vermont and started writing a book describing his work and his vision for his electric motor. He died in 1851 at the age of 49, leaving only a prospectus.
The Motor Keeps Running
What Davenport could not anticipate, and what no one else would describe for another 20 years, was that his motor would be turned by water or steam power and would operate in reverse, as an electric generator. Within 40 years of his death, electric-powered trains and trolleys had become common, with Davenport’s machine creating electricity at the power station and his motor then converting this electricity back to mechanical power to move the cars.
Thomas Edison invented the electric lightbulb in 1879, using a chemical battery to power his experiments, but he recognized the need for central generating plants and distribution systems to provide electricity to customers. In 1882, his Pearl Street station in lower Manhattan used steam engines to drive shunt-wound brush and commutator dc generators of the type that Thomas Davenport had invented 45 years earlier. Recognizing that expanding demand would require a massive new manufacturing and service industry, Edison started a manufacturing facility in Schenectady that would become the General Electric Co. The company’s first products were motors and generators that copied the design and principles of Thomas Davenport’s motor.
When Edison died in 1931, it was suggested that all the electricity should be turned off for five minutes in recognition of the great inventor, but such an action was judged to be practically impossible. The ultimate tribute to Edison was that within his lifetime the benefits of his inventions had become such a vital part of daily life.
Davenport died 30 years before the world was ready for his invention. Today, the electrification of the world and electricity’s myriad of now-vital uses can be seen as the greatest technological marvel in human history. Electric light has extended full human activity to 24 hours per day. Electric-powered refrigeration is now taken for granted. Air conditioning has made the most inhospitable regions comfortable for year-round living and spawned new major cities. Our communications, computing, and information systems could not exist without electricity. Thomas Davenport, though little remembered today, played a vital part in making all of this possible.
4. John Fritz
Often called the “Father of the U.S. Steel Industry”, John Fritz was an American pioneer and innovator of iron and steel technology. The John Fritz Medal was established in 1902 to celebrate his birthday and in very cool fashion, John Fritz himself turned out to be the first recipient. Born on August 21, 1822 in Londonderry Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania, John Fritz was the oldest of seven children. By the age of 16 John Fritz was apprenticed as a blacksmith.
In time he worked and was able to become a mechanic, working for the Norristown Iron Company. In 1854 John Fritz took a job with Cambria Iron Company, where he ultimately designed the very first three-high rolling mill, one of his many great achievements. He became General Superintendent and Chief Engineer of the Bethlehem Iron Works in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1860 and among other things was responsible for installing a Bessemer Converter for the company.
John Fritz, the accomplished blacksmith served as President of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Honorary Vice-President for life of the Iron and Steel Institute of London, President of the American Institute of Mining Engineers, recipient of the Bessemer Gold Medal, member of the American Society of Civil Engineers, recipient of the Elliott Cresson Gold Medal and the John Fritz Gold Medal of the United Engineering Societies and Honorary member of the American Iron and Steel Institute. Fritz was awarded a number of honorary degrees from a number of universities, namely Columbia University, Temple University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Stevens Institute of Technology.
5. Alexander Hamilton Willard
A member of the Corp of Discovery, a special U.S. Army unit that made up the nucleus of the Lewis and Clark expedition, Alexander was an enlisted man, entering the U.S. Army as an artilleryman in 1800. History tells us that Alexander Hamilton Willard endured a number of mishaps during the Lewis and Clark expedition including one where during an unsuccessful search for Baker Bay, Willard and a man named George Shannon were ordered to set up camp and wait for the main party to arrive. While the two men were sleeping on the beach, a small band of Native Americans stole their guns leaving them unarmed. Luckily the main party returned at the right moment and was able to encounter the Native Americans who quickly turned over the stolen guns. Although Willard was in good standing with the expedition leaders, he received a “Court Martial on the Trail”, the harshest punishment given to any member of the Corps of Discovery. He was charged with lying down and sleeping while at his guard duty post, a military crime that was punishable by death. however, Alexander Hamilton Willard was not to die but instead be punished by receiving 100 lashes on four consecutive days at sunset. His punishment was issued on July 12, 1804.
In July, 1805, Alexander Hamilton Willard was attacked by a “white bear” during a portage (carrying supplies overland) around the Missouri River Falls near modern day Great Falls, Montana. William Clark along with three other men were able to chase the bear away. In memory of the attack, an island in the vicinity of the Missouri River Falls later became known as White Bear Island.
While serving in the Corps of Discovery, Willard assisted John Shields as a blacksmith, doing all kinds of metal work including working to repair guns. In 1808, Meriwether Lewis hired him as government blacksmith for the Sauk and Fox Indians. Apparently doing quite well at the job he was appointed to the same position for the Delawares and Shawnees in 1809. Willard later served in the War of 1812.
As part of the most ancient platform of Roman religion and myth, Vulcan is the god of fire (both beneficial and hindering fire). This includes all types of fire, even that of volcanoes, and that used in the manufacturer of art, weapons, iron, and the armor dedicated to the gods and to heroes. His forge was believed to be located in Sicily, at the base of Mount Etna. Images of Vulcan often show him wielding a blacksmith’s hammer.
Ancient Romans thought of Vulcan in a similar manner as the Greek blacksmith god Hephaestus (#9 in this list), and Vulcan became most notably associated, much like Hephaestus, with the constructive use of fire in metalworking. A small fragment of Grecian pottery depicting Hephaestus was found at the Volcanal (area of what is now the Roman Forum dedicated to Vulcan) and was carbon dated to the 6th century BC, suggesting that these two blacksmith gods were associated by this time in history. Although both blacksmith gods are associated with fire, Vulcan was more closely associated with destructive fire than was Hephaestus. Therefore, it is safe to say that a major concern of Vulcan’s followers was to encourage the god to keep harmful fires far away from his loyal worshipers. The Vulcanalia, a festival dedicated to Vulcan and celebrated on August 23 each year, was held at a time when the summer heat placed crops and granaries most at risk of burning. During the Vulcanalia festival large bonfires were created to honor Vulcan. People threw live fish or small animals into the fires as a sacrifice, which were meant to take the place of humans. Vulcan was one of the gods the Roman’s placated after the Great Fire of Rome in the year 64 AD. Because of this fire, the Emperor Domitian established a new altar to Vulcan on Quirinal Hill. It is said that in an effort to appease Vulcan, a red bull-calf and red boar were added to the list of live animal sacrifices during the Vulcanalia primarily in that section of Rome.
The Volcanalia on August 23 was not the only festival dedicated to the blacksmith god Vulcan. On May 23, the second of the two annual Tubilustria or ceremonies for purification indicated by the blast of special trumpets called tubae, was observed in reverence to Vulcan.
Vulcan was the son of Jupiter and Juno, and was husband to both Maia and Venus. Vulcan, the blacksmith god, forged the thrones for the other gods on Mount Olympus as well as the thunderbolts of his father Jupiter. As the son of Jupiter, the king of all gods, and Juno, the queen of the gods, Vulcan would have been muscular and handsome, but it is thought that baby Vulcan was tiny and ugly with a red, upset and crying face. Juno was so disgusted by the sight of baby Vulcan that she hurled him off the top of Mount Olympus.
Vulcan fell down for a full day and night but eventually landed in the sea. One of his legs broke when he hit the water, and it never quite developed properly. Upon hitting the surface of the water, Vulcan sunk quickly to the cool blue depths of the sea where the sea nymph, Thetis, found him, felt compassion for him and took him to her underwater grotto to raise him as her own son.
Vulcan had a very happy childhood as he played with dolphins and had pearls for toys. Later on during his childhood, he found the remnants of a fire left by a fisherman on the beach and became fascinated with a red hot coal, still burning and glowing. Mythology tells us that Vulcan quickly shut this red hot coal inside of a clam shell and took it back to his underwater grotto and made a fire with it. Captivated, Vulcan stared at the fire for many hours. The next day, he discovered that if the fire was made hotter with a rush of air from a bellows, some stones would sweat iron, silver or gold. On day three Vulcan pounded the metal into shapes as bracelets, chains, swords and even shields. Vulcan made pearl handled knives and spoons for Thetis, his adoptive mother. Vulcan then made a silver chariot for himself. He made bridles for seahorses so that they could transport him to wherever he needed to go very quickly. Vulcan is said to have even made slave girls out of gold to cater to his every desire and do his bidding.
Roman mythology says that later on, Thetis attended a party on Mount Olympus and wore a beautiful necklace of silver and sapphires that Vulcan had made for her. Juno took note of the necklace and asked where she would look to get one like it. Thetis acted nervous and flustered which ultimately caused Juno to discover that the baby she had once rejected and had thrown from atop Mount Olympus had grown into the most skilled blacksmith.
Juno, in a fit of rage, demanded that Vulcan return home but he refused. Vulcan did however send Juno a beautifully constructed chair made from silver and gold and ornately inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Seeing the chair, Juno was pleased by the gift. However, as soon as she sat in the chair, hidden springs and bands of metal wrapped her body and held her captive. Being a sinister trap designed for Juno, the more Juno struggled to free herself, the tighter the chair gripped her.
After three days of Juno being trapped in Vulcan’s chair, Jupiter decided to make Vulcan a deal. He vowed that if Vulcan released Juno from the chair he would give him Venus the goddess of love and beauty as a wife. Excited at this prospect, Vulcan agreed and he and Venus were married. He then built his blacksmith forge under Mount Etna on the beautiful island of Sicily. It was a commonly held belief that any time Venus was unfaithful, Vulcan would grow very angry and would pound the red-hot metal on his anvil with such great force that smoke and sparks would rise up into the air from the top of Mount Etna, creating a volcanic eruption.
So as you can see Vulcan pretty much rocks and the Romans thought of him as a pretty powerful and fearsome god. As I mentioned earlier, Vulcan was part of the most ancient platform of Roman myth and religion. Worship of Vulcan eventually fell out of favor but we remember him today as the great and powerful blacksmith god.
7. Tom Joyce
Tom Joyce is a legit genius and master blacksmith and artist who is still very much alive and well. Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and now living in Brussels, Belgium, Tom Joyce is world renowned for his work that is featured in many galleries, museums and landscapes around the globe.
Joyce said that, “as a pre-teen adolescent, unearthing disparate shards of once complete objects, made from diverse materials, and attempting to visualize the whole form from fragments, has instructed my practice as an artist to the present day.” In 1970 Tom Joyce began an informal apprenticeship with neighbor, letterpress printer and blacksmith Peter Wells, at age 14 when his family moved to El Rito, New Mexico. Joyce learned how to handset type on old foot-operated printing presses from the 19th century. He was taught the fundamental aspects of hand forging while he assisted Peter Wells on a project for the Museum of New Mexico’s Print Shop and Bindery where they worked to restore historic printing equipment.
Joyce was offered the blacksmith shop at age 16 when Peter Wells decided to relocate his printing business. Joyce made the decision to quit high school in order to devote his time fully to learning the trade of artistry and blacksmithing. At this time he began developing a classically oriented curriculum by researching and observing pieces of historic ironwork in the many storage collections of museums throughout New Mexico. Tom Joyce was able to support himself and his craft through the completion of commissioned works purchased by a wide array of buyers.
Needing more space and more inspiration, Joyce moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1977 and created a larger studio in which he could create contemporary objects to be placed in people’s homes, in architectural settings, and to be displayed as public art. in 1979 Tom Joyce began an apprenticeship program where he offered training to students from all areas of the U.S. and abroad. In 1996 he received a McCune Foundation grant which allowed him to expand the program to include “at risk” middle and high school students which gave many youth in the state of New Mexico the once in a lifetime opportunity to learn metalworking techniques at no cost, in after-school classes.
Since his very first lecture in 1982 at the University of Wisconsin, Tom Joyce has given presentations at more than 100 institutions, universities and college campuses around the world. Tom Joyce, while lecturing at the First International Festival of Iron in Cardiff, Wales, was honored with the Highest Honorary Fellowship into the Worshipful Company of Blacksmiths by being bestowed with the Addy Taylor Cup. This was the first time that award was given to a blacksmith who was not British since 1571 when the charter was formed.
8. Jan Liwacz
Jan Liwacz was born on October 4, 1898 in Dukla, Poland. Liwacz is an amazing and impressive historical figure in my opinion. Not only was Jan Liwacz a master blacksmith but he was also prisoner at the notoriously brutal Auschwitz concentration camp, which along with other concentration camps, was known for the infamous iron sign saying “Arbeit macht frei” which hung over the camp’s main entrance gate. Jan Liwacz was forced to forge this sign for his captors. The sign translated from German says, “work sets you free.”
Jan Liwacz was first detained and then arrested on October 16, 1939 in Bukowsko, Poland. He was kept in a number of different prisons in various cities including: Sanok, Krosno, Kraków and Nowy Wiśnicz. He was brought to Auschwitz concentration camp early on in its use during World War II. He arrived at Auschwitz on June 20, 1940 and was assigned the early camp number of 1010. Because Jan Liwacz was a blacksmith and knew how to work metal, he was assigned to a manufacturing unit to work in the fabrication and repair of the camp’s infrastructure elements, working on things like gratings, fences, handrails, gates, banisters, chandeliers). During his time at Auschwitz, he was sent to solitary confinement at the 11th Penal Block, first in June 1942 and then again in March 1943. Altogether Jan Liwacz spent five weeks in solitary confinement at Auschwitz. Finally on December 6, 1944 Liwacz was transferred to Mauthausen-Gusen concentration camp in Austria, where he was kept at the Melk and Ebensee subcamps.
After U.S. troop liberated the Ebensee camp on May 6, 1945, Jan Liwacz left on foot for Poland with Alfons Wrona, his cell-mate from Auschwitz. He finally settled in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland. Once back in Poland, Jan Liwacz began working at a local forge owned by a man named Paul Wolf. When the Wolf family, probably from Germany, was expelled from Poland in 1946, Jan stayed there as an artist blacksmith. In 1953, along with a number of other blacksmiths, and at no charge, Jan Liwacz hand forged a fence for the Holy Trinity sculpture which is located on Freedom Square in Bystrzyca, Poland. After his retirement, Jan Liwacz taught artisan blacksmithing at a local trade school. Jan Liwacz died in 1980 and was laid to rest in Bystrzyca Kłodzka, Poland. On the 110th anniversary of his birth, in 2008, an exhibition was held in Bystrzyca Kłodzka presenting on the life and works of Jan Liwacz.
Hephaestus, the Greek god of fire, had a great palace on Mount Olympus which contained his workshop which housed his anvil and twenty bellows that worked at his command. Hephaestus crafted many of the amazing and ornate equipment used be the gods. In fact, pretty much any finely wrought metalwork that contained mystical powers that can be found in Greek mythology is said to have been forged by the hands of Hephaestus. He is known to have designed Hermes’ winged helmet and sandals as well as the Aegis breastplate, the renowned girdle of Aphrodite, Agamemnon’s staff of office, the armor of the Greek hero warrior Achilles, as well as Heracles’ bronze clappers, the chariot of Helios, the shoulder of Pelops, and the bow and arrows of Eros. In later recordings, Hephaestus worked with the help of the chthonic (subterranean) Cyclopes. His primary apprentices or assistants in his forge were the Cyclopes Brontes, Steropes and Pyracmon.
Hephaestus built automatons (metal human droids or robots) of metal to do his bidding and to work on his behalf. Hephaestus gave his apprentice Cedalion to blind Orion to be his guide. In a number of versions of Greek myth, Prometheus stole the fire that he gave to man from Hephaestus’ great blacksmithing forge. Hephaestus also created the gift that the gods gave to man, the woman Pandora and her pithos (large container). Being a skilled blacksmith, Hephaestus created all the thrones in the Palace of Olympus. As we learned earlier, ancient Roman myth gave this distinction to Vulcan who was associated with Hephaestus as they were counterparts between Roman and Greek mythology.
Ancient Greek myth and the poems of Homer verified in stories that Hephaestus possessed a special power to produce motion in the metallic creations he forged. For example, he made the gold and silver lions and dogs that guarded the entrance of the palace of Alkinoos so that they could attack intruders who tried to enter.
In one vein of ancient Greek mythology, Hera, his mother, ejected Hephaestus from the heavens because he was “shrivelled of foot”. This mythological feature mirrors that of Vulcan and Juno at Mount Olympus. It is said that Hephaestus, like Vulcan, was tossed into the ocean and was raised by Thetis, the mother of Achilles, and the titan goddess Eurynome. Of all the gods exiled from Olympus, only Hephaestus was able to return. Like Vulcan, it is said that Hephaestus gifted his birth mother Hera a magic throne that trapped her when she sat upon it. After a number of days Dionysus decided to get Hephaestus drunk on wine, put him atop a donkey, and brought him back to Olympus to free Hera from the throne.
The myth of Hephaestus was a common theme among the ancients as we know. Being the blacksmith god of fire, metalworking, architecture and sculpture, Hephaestus was revered by the Greek people and was worshiped as such for many generations.
10. Kiyochika Kanehama
Kiyochika Kanehama is a living master blacksmith and swordsmith living on the island of Okinawa, Japan. According to my research he is the only licensed swordsmith in Okinawa and his work is considered to be of the highest quality. There is not a lot of information available about Mr. Kanehama’s personal life and history, but it is known that his forge is attached to his house and that you can visit his forge by appointment. It is customary, as I understand it, to purchase something when you make an appointment to meet with an expert metalsmith of this caliber as they tend to go out of their way to demonstrate the caliber of their work to you. Keep in mind that swords of this quality may run you as much as $15,000 but Kanehama does make items that cost less. It is advisable not to go bothering Kiyochika Kanehama with a visit to his home if you are not in the market for a sword or other bladed instrument like a dagger or letter opener that will cost at least a few hundred dollars.
“When I saw my first sword, at a friend’s home in 1974, I was stunned by its power and beauty,” said Kanehama. “I was a college student, studying accounting, but knew instantly I had another calling.” Mr. Kanehama commenting on his first encounter with a treasured sword said, “when I encountered an old sword which was registered as Japanese National Treasure, I was captured by its beauty and warmth. The elegant curve of the blade fascinated me. I discovered … that Japanese swords are not mere weapons, but they are manifestations of the spirit of Japanese culture.”
Kanehama has told interviewers that he makes a sword that ends up in the hands of a buyer about once a year because the majority of his swords do not meet his expectations.
Kiyochika Kanehama says that Okinawa has a long held tradition of nonviolence so swords are not really in demand where he comes from and he respects this cultural value immensely. Kanehama says, “that’s why, even though it is my ultimate desire to devote myself in making swords, I am looking at other ways I can use my talent. To make a living and to continue to make swords, I began to expand my work to other items, such as letter openers and paper weights, something that people can afford and use in their everyday lives,” Kanehama mentioned.
One great aspect to focusing on forging smaller items is that Kanehama’s wife, Junko, works beside him as part of the process by incorporating her mastery of traditional Okinawan lacquerware. This use of her skill allows her to give a traditional and unique appearance to the cases and hilts of the bladed instruments made by her husband Kiyochika Kanehama.
And with regard to the smaller pieces he make, Kanehama told reporters, “don’t be fooled. Although much smaller than the katanas, the letter openers have the same spirit as the swords.”
“The blade which is made out of the same tamahagane, (raw steel made from a particular grade of iron ore) and is forged through the same procedure,” Kanehama said. “It holds the same beauty and can convey the genuine quality of the larger swords. It is a slight deviation from swordmaking, but we need to do this to make a living. At the same time, it is good because these new items are solely for peaceful use.”
David Allen of Stars and Stripes was the author of an article I used in my research of Kiyochika Kanehama and a number of the quotes, a photo and specific bits of information on the master swordsmith were derived from an article written by Mr. Allen.
Here is a video of Kiyochika Kanehama forging a sword.
11. Philip Simmons
“Philip Simmons is a poet of ironwork. His ability to endow raw iron with pure lyricism is known and admired throughout, not only in South Carolina, but as evidenced by his many honors and awards, he is recognized in all of America.” -John Paul Huguley, Founder, School of the Building Arts (now the American College of the Building Arts)
Philip Simmons was born on June 9, 1912, in Wando on Daniel Island, South Carolina. Simmons was raised by his grandparents but at the age of eight, was sent to live with his mother in the city of Charleston and was enrolled as a student at Buist School.
As he walked home from school, Philip Simmons often took notice of the city’s ironwork and found himself intrigued by it. The neighborhood where Philip Simmons lived was a central hub for the many craftsmen who worked to build and repair the metal workings at waterfront businesses. At this early age, Philip Simmons started to frequent the blacksmith forges, shipwright shops, and other craftsmen work spaces in the area. Despite it all, it was the draw of the blacksmith forges that interested him more than anything.
Of all the Charleston, South Carolina’s iron workers, Philip Simmons was the most awarded and celebrated blacksmith of the 20th Century. Simmons gained his most relevant and essential education from a nearby blacksmith of no relation named Peter Simmons. Peter Simmons owned a bustling shop at one end of Calhoun Street and this is where Philip Simmons learned the craft of the blacksmith. It was in this busy shop on Calhoun Street that Philip Simmons gained the skills and developed the talent that would sustain him as an artistic treasure throughout his career.
The beautiful city of Charleston, South Carolina is literally riddled with the amazing iron work of Philip Simmons. From one end to the other, his ornamental gates, window grills, fences and balconies live on as a testament to his 1938 transition into the specialized field of ornamental ironwork. Philip Simmons died in 2000 leaving behind him a legacy of truly precious craftsmanship in the iron pieces that carry his mark.
12. Ben Lilly
The legend of Ben Lilly is big! He knew it too. He once commented, “my reputation is bigger than I am. It is like my shadow when I stand in front of the sun in late evening.” Ben Lilly or Ol’ Lilly as he was called was quite possibly the most famed tracker and hunter of apex predators in the long history of North American big game hunting. He was also the last mountain man to be active in what is now called the historical American Southwest. A staunch Christian with an unquenchable thirst for absolute freedom to live as he wished, Ben Lilly was described as a man with an “unfathomable Southern wild character.” I can imagine that Ol’ Lilly would have had a lot of interesting stories to tell. He was known to have worked as a blacksmith in Memphis, TN and then in Louisiana before giving it all up to live as a mountain man. Lilly made his own knives using his blacksmithing skills and gained notoriety for supposedly fighting and killing bears and mountain lions with only his knife. In fact, as a guide for President Theodore Roosevelt on one of his hunting expeditions, Ben Lilly regaled the President with recall of his many epic experiences and this impressed the President so much he is mentioned in some of Roosevelt’s writings saying:
“I never met any other man so indifferent to fatigue and hardship. The morning he joined us in camp, he had come on foot through the thick woods, followed by his two dogs, and had neither eaten nor drunk for twenty-four hours; for he did not like to drink the swamp water. It had rained hard throughout the night and he had no shelter, no rubber coat, nothing but the clothes he was wearing and the ground was too wet for him to lie on, so he perched in a crooked tree in the beating rain, much as if he had been a wild turkey. He equaled Cooper’s Deerslayer in woodcraft, in hardihood, in simplicity–and also in loquacity.”
Ol’ Lilly was notorious for his large animal hunts, he trained dogs to hunt game and he loved to live out in the wilderness where he felt free and at liberty to live as he pleased. Lilly roamed and hunted from Arizona to Idaho and from Chihuahua, Mexico all the way to Louisiana and as a result of his epic adventures and travels became the centerpiece for a great volume of American folktales and folklore. At a stout 5’9″ tall and weighing about 180 pounds, Ben Lilly was known for his strength and stamina which never seemed to leave him even in old age. He was described as, “spare, full bearded, with mild, gentle eyes and a frame of steel and whipcord.” Because of his religious beliefs, Ben Lilly did not partake of smoking nor the consumption of alcohol or coffee, which make him unique among his companions and friends. Ol’ Lilly did, however love to eat bear and is reported to have favored cougar meat, above all other meats. Similar to some Native American belief systems Ben Lilly believed that eating the meat of a large animal allowed him to assume some of the power that animal possessed. He was a prolific and well known houndsmen at the time in North America, and was demanding but loving with his packs of hunting hounds which were mostly Southern catahoula and coonhound breeds. In 1908, Lilly left the U.S. for Mexico and then followed the Sierra Madre mountains, into the Mexican state of Coahuila, where he is known to have hunted grizzly bears while becoming the central figure in a number of local tales that remain to this day. Most notably there is a folktale of him pursuing a large troublesome grizzly recognizable by a white star on its fur that had been terrorizing the locals of Camino Real. He gave a description of the grizzly hunt while in Coahuila, Mexico:
“Old man Sanborn set me on him. They was grizzlies, four of them, and I tracked them down by myself and killed them. They was desert bears, light colored with a stripe down their back, but desert or mountain they didn’t get away and I killed the four of them, brought their skins back to Sanborn.”
Prior to 1911 Ben Lilly trekked back across the border into the U.S. and settled in the Gila Wilderness of New Mexico. In 1911 Lilly gained employment with the government and a number of local cattle ranchers to track and kill predators which ended up earning him the most money he had ever made in his entire lifetime. Ben Lilly is credited with killing the last grizzly bear in the Gila Wilderness. In 1912 Ben Lilly is known to have been working as a hunter and trapper for the Apache National Forest in Arizona. Living near the town of Clifton, Ben Lilly was earning $75 a month at the time. Between the years of 1916 and 1920 he worked for the U.S. Biological Survey as he would send specimens of the animals he killed to the U.S. Biological Survey (today it’s the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), and the National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C. The variety of specimens Ol’ Lilly submitted to the agencies included mountain lions, brown bears, black bears, various species of deer, otter, and even some rare animals like the Mexican gray wolf and the ivory-billed woodpecker. Probably the most well known of the specimens hunted by Lilly that went to the Smithsonian Institution was a record-sized grizzly bear that he killed in northeast Arizona.
Ben Lilly died at eighty years of age on December 17, 1936 at a ranch in an area known as Pleasanton, which is close to Silver City, New Mexico. Ol’ Lilly is buried in the historic Memory Lane Cemetery in Silver City. The famed adventurer’s tombstone epitaph reads, “Lover of the Great Outdoors.”
Ben Lilly sounds like my kind of guy with the exception of trying to personally kill every large predator in the continental United States. Of course those were different times and people’s values and priorities often shift over time so I can’t hold that against Ol’ Lilly. I’d love to find and buy an original knife he forged and hunted with, that would be a great relic to have.
13. Alex W. Bealer
Alex W. Bealer is one of my favorite authors of blacksmithing and woodworking books. He was a legitimate old-time craftsman of wood and metal and lived in Atlanta, Georgia. He authored The Art of Blacksmithing (one of my favorite books), Old Ways of Working Wood, The Tools That Built America, and The Successful Craftsman. These are some of the better books to help a new blacksmith or wood worker to get started and Alex W. Bealer’s blacksmithing books are among those that I have been recommending on this blog for a number of years now.
Alex W. Bealer was born in Valdosta, Georgia, but was raised in the city of Atlanta. While in Atlanta, Bealer graduated from Boys High School in 1938. Bealer also earned a degree in English from Emory University. He entered the United States Marine Corps in 1943, during World War II, and rose to the rank of captain. He served in the Pacific theater during World War II and was recalled for active duty during the Korean War as well. After his time in the military, Alex W. Bealer made his living as an advertising executive. Woodworking and writing were his passions but were not his full time career at that time. Alex W. Bealer, blacksmith, woodworker, writer and researcher died working in his shop in 1980 and was laid to rest in Arlington Memorial Park in Atlanta, Georgia.
14. Simeon Wheelock
Simeon Wheelock was a notable blacksmith from Uxbridge, Massachusetts, who is remembered primarily for his service as a minuteman in the Massachusetts militia during the battles of Lexington and Concord at the start of the American Revolutionary War. Living through the Revolutionary War, Simeon Wheelock was killed while on militia duty protecting the Springfield Armory during Shays’ Rebellion.
Simeon Wheelock was active in the Massachusetts militia in the 1700s and served during the French and Indian War in 1760. He married a woman by the name of Deborah Thayer and they settled in Uxbridge the same year. Together the Wheelock family would have eight children. Simeon worked as a blacksmith in a shop next to his house, which is still standing as a historical building in Uxbridge. Wheelock, was involved in town politics as well and served as the Uxbridge Town Clerk for five years.
As the American Revolutionary War grew inevitable, in 1774, Wheelock became a member of the committee of correspondence in Uxbridge. Serving as a first lieutenant in Captain Joseph Chapin’s company of Massachusetts minutemen, Simeon Wheelock answered the alarm to arms on April 19, 1775, and fought members of the British army at the battles of Lexington and Concord. Later during the American Revolutionary War, Simeon Wheelock served as Lieutenant in Captain Samuel Read’s company. His regiment was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Tyler from the alarm of December 8, 1776 until January 21, 1777. His regiment was based in Providence, Rhode Island.
Simeon Wheelock passed from this world by unfortunate accident on September 30, 1786 at the age of 45. While again answering the call of his state, this time in Springfield, Massachusetts, his horse slipped on the ice while engaged in the suppression of Shays’ Rebellion which was a series of protests in 1786 and 1787 by American farmers against state and local enforcement of tax collections and judgments for debts owed.
Gorō Nyūdō Masamune is most commonly recognized as the greatest swordsmith in Japan’s long history. He forged primarily swords and daggers, which, in the Japanese Soshu tradition are called tachi and tantō respectively. Masamune’s birth and death dates are not precisely known but most historians agree that his swords were made during the late 13th and early 14th centuries or approximately 1288–1328. His family name is unknown although there are a number of claims from various families but these are thought to be ways to increase the standing of those family names and are widely considered to be falsified.
Masamune, more than likely worked in the Sagami Province in the final days of the Kamakura Period (1288–1328). He is believed to have been formally trained by a number of legendary swordsmiths from the Bizen and Yamashiro provinces. Some possible swordsmith instructors could be Saburo Kunimune, Awataguchi Kunitsuna or Shintōgo Kunimitsu. Either by birth or by adoption, Masamune was the father of Hikoshiro Sadamune, who in his own right is considered one of the most famous Sōshū masters.
A prestigious award for swordsmiths is named for Masamune and is titled “the Masamune prize.” This award is bestowed upon the winner of the Japanese Sword Making Competition. While the award is not necessarily presented every year, it is always presented to a swordsmith who has forged a truly exceptional piece of work.
Some of Masamune’s most famous swords by name:
- Kotegiri Masamune
- Hōchō Masamune
- Honjo Masamune
- Fudo Masamune
16. Seppo Ilmarinen
Ilmarinen, known as “the Eternal Hammerer” was a blacksmith and inventor in the poetry collection derived from ancient runes known as the Kalevala. Ilmarinen is a god and an archetypal artificer based in Finnish mythology. Ilmarinen is an immortal and is able to create practically anything, but despite this power and everlasting life, seems to have had a little trouble with the ladies. Ilmarinen is shown to have worked with the metals that were known at the time. These include brass, copper, iron, gold and silver. The greatest of Ilmarinen’s creations include crafting the dome of the skies above and the forging of the Sampo which is a magical artifact that brings good fortune to the one who possesses it. Unfortunately the sampo was lost in battle so who knows, maybe it’ll show up in a Finnish yard sale some day.
17. Didier Diderot
Didier Diderot, born September 14, 1685 in Langres, France was a notable blacksmith and craftsman. He was also the father of the world renowned encyclopedist, author and philosopher of enlightenment Denis Diderot.
Didier Diderot was born into a family of well known craftsman. He was particularly well known as a precision craftsman and specialized in the fabrication of medical and surgical cutting instruments like scalpels. His scalpels were sought out and bought by teaching doctors from all over. Diderot’s contributions to the improved quality of surgical procedures through the fabrication of exceptional surgical instruments is profound.
18. Mark Aspery
Mark Aspery is one of my favorite authors on the craft of blacksmithing. He travels the world educating blacksmiths on the finer aspects of the craft and draws great numbers of people to his seminars and presentations. Mark’s work is well established and his understanding of the craft of blacksmithing makes him one of the world’s most sought after authorities on the art and science of blacksmithing. His texts are instructive, well written and thorough. He has a gift for educating others and leverages that gift both through personal appearances and through his writing. Marks work is truly world class and his educational approach will cut years off of a blacksmith’s learning process.
Some of Mark Aspery’s best books are listed here:
- The Skills of a Blacksmith Vol. 1 – Mastering the Fundamentals of Blacksmithing
- The Skills of a Blacksmith Vol. 2 – Mastering the Fundamentals of Leaf-work
- The Skills of a Blacksmith Vol. 3 – Mastering the Fundamentals of Traditional Joinery
I can tell you that every blacksmith I’ve met and interviewed has directed me to delve into the work and writing of Mark Aspery. Their forges and shops have his books in them and they refer to them constantly as they help to develop blacksmithing skills in those who are learning with them. Mark Aspery is both a quality educator and a world class blacksmith.
19. Lorenz Helmschmied
Lorenz Helmschmied was part of one of the most celebrated blacksmithing families in all of Europe. Their primary specialization was the fabrication of body armor for esteemed clients like the Habsburg court which included the Holy Roman Emperors Frederick III and Maximilian I. Lorenz Helmschmied created some of the most technically complex and artistically innovative armors of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Documents show Lorenz was an apprentice armorer starting in 1469, and was working as a master armorer from the year 1477. It is in 1477 that the Augsburg city tax records make first mention of his creation of expensive suits of armor for the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick III.
Sometime in the 1480s, Lorenz created incredibly innovative and unique matching sets, of armor for Frederick and his son who was to be the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. It was in February of the year 1480 that Archduke Maximilian called on Lorenz Helmschmied to come to Ghent (present day Belgium) to work for him during various military campaigns in the Burgundian Netherlands. Lorenz was to remain in the Low Countries until May of 1481. He is mentioned in Burgundian court records as “Leurens de Helmestede armurier demeurant en la ville de Hapsburg en Allemaigne” which, of course, was a great honor and responsibility. One garniture (matching sets of armor) that Lorenz created for Maximilian during this time in history is on display even today in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria. Another set of matching armor suits is the elegant example of the attenuated “late-gothic” style of armor that can be seen as part of the collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts. Lorenz Helmschmied was officially invested with the title and privileges associated with the position of court armorer in 1491. He held this position for the rest of his life as did Conrad Seusenhofer, an armorer from Innsbrook, Austria. The Habsburg imperial armories contained many of the incredible armor pieces created by the Helmschmied workshop during Lorenz’s Helmschmied’s lifetime. These pieces include protections for both a man and his horse and also feature many types of specialized plate armor for tournament and field combat. These and other Helmschmied produced armor pieces can be viewed at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria and the Royal Armoury of Madrid, Spain.
20. Francis Whitaker
Article from the New York Times written by Douglas Martin and published on October 31, 1999.
Francis Whitaker, a blacksmith who never shod a horse but who helped preserve the 3,000-year-old craft of molding iron and elevated it to the level of an art, died Oct. 23 at a hospital in Glenwood Springs, Colo. He was 92.
Before his own proficiency and that of the hundreds he would teach brought him fame, he studied as an apprentice with the great smiths of Europe and America. Over his long career, he hammered thousands upon thousands of iron bars into artistic shapes to adorn buildings throughout the United States. And in his 70’s, when the craft appeared to be dying, he began a mission to pass his Old World techniques and esthetics to young smiths lured by the magical malleability of the metal. Just a month ago, he helped his son Stephen fashion andirons for a house he was building in California.
At his explicit request, he grasped a hammer at the moment of his death.
”Iron has a strength no other material has,” Mr. Whitaker once said, ”and yet it has a capacity for being light, graceful and beautiful. It has this capacity — but no desire. It will do nothing by itself except resist you.
”All the desire, and all the knowledge of how to impart this desire to the iron, must come from the smith.”
Some of Mr. Whitaker’s thousands of delicate, oddly fluid creations can be seen at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on Liberty Street in Manhattan, as well as at the former Central Savings Bank building at Broadway and 73d Street; on the intricate gates of the Spanish Revival homes of Carmel, Calif., and on a balcony in Aspen, Colo., that is so sensitively made it appears almost feathery.
Mr. Whitaker, a big, robust man with appropriately bulging biceps, was named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1997, but his proudest achievement was working with the hundreds of young artisans eager to follow in his footsteps. He and the handful of other surviving blacksmiths had feared that the acetylene torch and the arc welder, tools developed during World War II, would make working iron as simple as cutting wood or putting a jigsaw puzzle together. Efficiency threatened art.
But by 1976, increasing numbers of young blacksmiths were banding together to preserve ornamental blacksmithing, an architectural tradition with roots going back to 14th-century Europe. At a conference of the new Artist-Blacksmith Association of North America, Mr. Whitaker had a sort of epiphany.
”By the end of the conference,” he said, ”I knew I had a mission. I had never seen so many people hungry for knowledge.”
He established the Francis Whitaker Blacksmith Schools, one at the Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colo., where he lived, and one at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, N.C. He taught at more than 150 blacksmith workshops and wrote many articles and a book, ”The Blacksmith’s Cookbook: Recipes in Iron.” He corresponded extensively with many aspiring blacksmiths.
”If it wasn’t for Frank, nobody would be doing this as a profession or even as a token craft,” said Dorothy Stiegler, a blacksmith who lives in Carmel.
She remembered him telling her how a great blacksmith must look at a hunk of iron and perceive a candlestick or an animal head hidden in the middle. She also recalled him as an exacting taskmaster. ”Now make 100 of these and you’ll probably have it,” he would say after a lesson.
The effect was to help rescue a dying profession. ”It really was on the wane,” said Tom Joyce, a 43-year-old blacksmith in Santa Fe who was heartily encouraged by Mr. Whitaker. ”There weren’t many blacksmiths of his generation who were willing to share information like that.”
Mr. Whitaker was born in Woburn, Mass. His father was an architecture critic who became the first editor of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects. His mother, a suffragist who was once beaten in a demonstration, demanded that her four children know the value of hard work and taught them to cook, wash dishes and darn socks.
By the end of his junior year at an Alabama boarding school, Mr. Whitaker had had enough of formal education. Through his father’s connections, he was accepted as an apprentice by Samuel Yellin in Philadelphia, perhaps America’s most famous architectural blacksmith at the time. He brought few preconceptions.
”All I knew about blacksmiths at that time was that they were usually brawny men who sweated a lot and they put shoes on horses,” he said.
He was dissatisfied with being part of a 200-person shop with large commissions from the Federal Government, because he had no opportunity to take a project through to completion. So after completing that apprenticeship, he went to Berlin as an apprentice to Julius Schramm, also a master blacksmith. In addition to sharpening his skills, he became interested in designing artistic ironwork.
He then found his way to Carmel, where enthusiasm for Spanish Revival architecture was strong in the 1920’s and 30’s and where he found a ready market for his ironwork.
During World War II, Mr. Whitaker taught welding in shipyards. He became friends with John Steinbeck, with whom he played cards on the beach. He inspired the pivotal character in Steinbeck’s story ”The Chrysanthemums,” and was also the model for the heroic Connor Larkin in the Leon Uris novel ”Trinity.”
Always a strong environmentalist, he was on the City Council in Carmel, as he was in Aspen, where he moved in 1963, when he began to feel that Carmel was losing its small-town charm. After he questioned the commercialism of Aspen, he moved to Carbondale in 1988.
While in Aspen, he married Portia Curlee, who traveled to blacksmithing events with him. She died in 1988. He is survived by a son, Stephen, of Davis, Calif., and a daughter, Sheila Hutchins, of Monterey, Calif.
He is also survived by four stepsons, all of whom have the last name Curlee: Charles, of Houston; Paul, of Grand Junction, Colo.; John, of Eagan, Minn., and James, of South Bend, Ind.
Sarah Harkins, a good friend of 50 years, said she and Mr. Whitaker had been planning a train trip to Spain this summer, like many train trips they had taken.
His brother Rogers, a writer for The New Yorker magazine, who died in 1981, had been one of the world’s most famous train travelers, logging 2.7 million miles by rail during his lifetime. He wrote about the trips under the pseudonym E. M. Frimbo.
Relatives and friends recalled Francis Whitaker’s words before his recent stomach surgery.. ”Fix it,” Mr. Whitaker told his doctors. ”There is still so much I have to do.”
21. Fujiwara Kanenaga
Renewed interest grew in the craftsmanship of Fujiwara Kanenaga after the Japanese surrender during World War II. The Fujiwara Kanenaga made sword carried by General Tomoyuki Yamashita was confiscated by General Douglas MacArthur when Yamashita was convicted of war crimes. The sword is now on display at the West Point Military Museum. Fujiwara Kanenaga was a highly acclaimed swordsmith who is thought to have developed his own unique type of stainless steel. It is unclear if this is a similar type of stainless steel to that we know of today, but needless to say, this 17th century swordsmith was a master of the craft indeed. Throughout the centuries the Samurai have cherished the swords of Fujiwara Kanenaga and have considered them to be of the highest quality.
22. Elihu Burritt
Elihu Burritt is an interesting character to me partly because we are distant relations.
Elihu Burritt came into the world on December 8, 1810, in the city of New Britain, Connecticut. As an adult Elihu Burritt was actively involved in many causes especially those surrounding civil liberties, opposing slavery, working for temperance, and working to achieve world peace. The positions and beliefs held by Elihu Burritt and the accomplishments he attained caused President Lincoln, in 1864, to appoint him to the position of United States consul in Birmingham, England. Elihu Burritt first trained as a blacksmith, and people everywhere called him “Learned Blacksmith” as a nickname. In fact, Elihu Burritt is believed to have been the inspiration for Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Village Blacksmith.
At one point, Elihu Burritt worked for a local forge and earned $12 a month. At this time, his fame as a linguist began to develop rapidly. One fateful day, Elihu offered his services as a translator of German to William Lincoln of Worcester who had a letter than needed to be translated. Being impressed by Elihu Burritt’s language ability, William Lincoln passed on the newly translated letter to Governor Edward Everett who read it aloud before a teachers’ institute. During his presentation, Governor Edward Everett gave Elihu Burritt the name, “Learned Blacksmith” and it stuck! Although he was respected and accomplished as a scholar, Elihu Burritt preferred, as he told Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, to consider himself a humble member of the working class. Burritt said, “I shall covet no higher human reward for any attainment I may make in literature or science, than the satisfaction of having stood in the lot of the working man.” That’s a cool dude if you ask me!
Elihu Burritt’s role as U.S. consul required him to report on “facts bearing upon the productive capacities, industrial character and natural resources of communities embraced in their Consulate Districts” and in order to get a good feel for the people and culture he was working with, Elihu traveled great distances from his home in Harborne in southwest Birmingham, England, primarily on foot. He decided that the best way to understand his new home was to walk it and so that is what he did.
During a trip abroad in 1846 and 1847, Elihu was appalled by the suffering of the Irish working class during the Great Famine (Potato Famine). He decided to found a peace organization known as the League of Universal Brotherhood in 1846. In 1848 Elihu Burritt organized the first international congress of the Friends of Peace in Brussels, Belgium. In 1849, a second “Peace Congress” met in Paris and was presided over by Victor Hugo. Burritt attended a number of “Peace Congresses” namely in Frankfurt in 1850, London in 1851, Manchester in 1852 and Edinburgh in 1853. The outbreak of the Crimean War and the American Civil War influenced his views greatly.
Burritt came up with the notion that Britain, which had introduced the uniform penny post in 1840, should create an international “ocean penny post” and reduce the cost of mailing a letter overseas from one shilling (twelve pence) to threepence. Burritt argued that this singular action could increase international correspondence, international trade, and therefore would positively impact universal brotherhood. While postal rates were systematically reduced, but his goals were not entirely achieved during his lifetime. Elihu Burritt published 37 books and articles including a well known work of literature called “Sparks from the Anvil.”
Elihu Burritt died on March 6, 1879 in New Britain, Connecticut.
23. Antonio Missaglia
Antonio Missaglia and his brother were noted blacksmith craftsman that were active as armorers during the 1400s primarily in the northern Italian area around the city of Milan. Missaglia’s last name was a nickname taken by the artist based on where he was born. His family’s original last name was Negroni and his purpose for assuming a new name is not known. I’m sure everyone who is gaining notoriety may want to change their name at some point if their family is filled with a bunch of weirdos, but whether or not this was the case with Antonio, one can only speculate. What is known is that both Antonio and his brother Tommaso created armor by trade, primarily for nobles and knights in the region surrounding Milan. Some of Missaglia’s pieces can be seen at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
24. Peter Madsen Peel
Peter Madsen Peel, born in 1820 was a founder of the city of Mt. Pleasant, Utah.
He was also the city’s first blacksmith, and a recognized civic leader. Today, you can see a replica of his blacksmith shop which is right next to the Relic Hall in Mt. Pleasant. The shop includes a fully operational forge. Peel was born in Aakirkeby, Denmark. In 1853 or 1854 his family emigrated to the United States, living first in Lehi, Utah, then, in 1858, moving to the area of Sanpete County during the Utah War. Peel and a number of other notable figures founded Mt. Pleasant, Utah in 1859.
In addition to being a founder of the city and also the first blacksmith in Mt. Pleasant, Peel was an investor in an early mill and was the first president of the Birch Creek Irrigation Company. He was also a Mormon leader in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
25. Kunz Lochner
Kunz (Konrad) Lochner (1510–1567) was a well established master armourer from Nuremberg, Germany. Like Lorenz Helmschmied, Kunz was the son of a well known armourer of the same name and his family was made up of a long line of blacksmiths. His reputation as a blacksmith and armorer was stellar and in 1543 he began work for Ferdinand I, the Holy Roman Emperor, and the next year he started working at the court of the future Maximilian II. The Kunz Lochner shop produced many of the most magnificent parade armors and ornamental metal fittings that were made during the entire renaissance period. Many of Kunz Lochner’s works exist today and can be found in the United States and Europe at museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Livrustkammaren.
Whew! That’s a lot of iron being smashed and shaped over a lot of years, on the Earth and in the minds of people from the Bronze Age to today. It’s cool to think of all the things that changed throughout the world during the lives of these great blacksmiths in history and how they have played a role in creating that change. From tools that have helped build the great cities of The Old World, to medical instruments that brought about advances in medicine, and from the weapons that brought about monumental shifts in political power across the globe to the equipment needed to farm and feed generations of people working to forge a better life, blacksmiths and the craft of blacksmithing have been at the center of it all.
Please connect with me on my social media pages! Just click an image!