British industrialist John Wilkinson was a major force behind the construction in 1779 of the world’s first iron bridge, across the River Severn at Coalbrookdale.
Then, in 1787 he launched the world’s first iron barge on the the River Severn in Broseley, Shropshire, England.
Wilkinson’s successful manufacture of cannon, mortars and shells has been presenting him with transport problems. “There are as yet no railways; the roads are almost impassable for such heavy items in bulk; wooden barges can be fragile.”
The new iron barge has been designed and made at Wilkinson’s own foundry at Coalbrookdale. It is the world’s first iron boat. It seems to the onlookers inconceivable that such a heavy metal object should float even if empty. And loaded with cannon and shells? Ridiculous.
But Wilkinson is able to write soon after the event about his daring invention: ‘It answers all my expectations, and it has convinced the unbelievers who were 999 in a thousand.’
His iron obsession reached its peak in the late 1790s, when he paid to have iron windows, a pulpit and other fittings installed into a Methodist chapel in Bradley. He was therefore aptly known as ‘Iron-Mad Wilkinson‘.
When iron first makes a widespread contribution to boat-building – in the 19th century, in the form of the ironclad – it is as an outer protection for wooden warships against enemy cannon and the danger of fire.