Early years

James Fern Webster was born at the Starch House, Cinderhill, Basford. He never attended school and received his education from his mother. Although handicapped by the lack of schooling he was destined to make his own way in the world by self-taught methods (his annotated chemistry books bear witness to this) and eventually to be acknowledged as an authority on and a pioneer in diverse branches of science and industry.

At the age of ten he made a small steam engine and horrified his mother by diverting steam from the  copper (domestic washing boiler). Little did this promising young inventor dream that when he developed into manhood, a model of a patent steam engine would be exhibited at the Polytechnic Museum in South Kensington, London.

Whilst a young man in his teens, gas attracted his attention and as a result of displaying ingenuity with gas devices he was appointed as gas engineer at the Nottingham Asylum. During his employment as gas engineer he continued his research work and invented an apparatus for manufacturing gas. Alongside this he continued his interest in the railways. So much so that in 1847 his first patent was granted for an ‘atmospheric buffer to be applied to carriages and for other vehicles travelling upon railways’. Four years later another patent was taken out for a stationary buffer (now held at the Birmingham Science Museum).

New ventures

After leaving Nottingham, Webster went to reside in Leicester where he opened the Worswicks Works (James Webster & Co.). At these Works he carried out numerous experiments and was successful in producing a gas for lighting purposes (patent granted in 1850). He left Leicester for Birmingham and continued his research that culminated in the formation of the Oxygen Gas Company Ltd. inaugurated to exploit Webster’s patents with a capital of £100,000. Webster received £25,000 for patent rights. One patent that illustrates the diversity of his work at this stage was the ‘Colmet Gas Burner’ that had self-sustaining water slide pendants.

Many and diverse patents followed. These include pressure and water gauges for steam boilers; gas fittings; preparation of paints and varnishes; and the production of metallic alloys. 67 patents were credited to Webster during the period 1847 to 1893. He was a prolific inventor.

A trial of Webster’s gas cooker invention took place at the highest point of the Lickey Hills, Bromsgrove. The apparatus was set up with a rug on an adjacent tree to prevent the wind from extinguishing the flame. In less than half an hour a plentiful supply of soup was heated ready for eating. This was followed by steak, chops and cutlets that were cooked to perfection for 15 guests. The ‘trial’ concluded with whiskey punch heated in the same way!






Early Years