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New Acquisition: 18th-century Steelyard

Spring, 1996

The Museum has purchased an important eighteenth-century English steelyard (Inventory no. 20,532), which enhances both its collection of weighing instruments and, more surprisingly, its collection of the work of local clockmakers.

The steelyard is stamped with the maker’s name ‘W BALL / BISTER’; and it came to the Museum’s attention through an enquiry as to whether we knew anything about this local craftsman. In fact the Museum has three clocks bearing the name, which are probably the work of three generations of the same clockmaking family. Until now, however, the family was not known to have made anything other than clocks; so the steelyard is an example of how an object can carry information not known from other historical sources.

There are records of an apprentice blacksmith in London named William Ball (or Bull), who served under several masters, one of them from 1710 to 1713 being John Picard, a well known maker of weighing instruments. It is not certain whether this is the same person who made this steelyard; but the name of Bicester (spelled in the usual eighteenth-century way) on the steelyard leaves no doubt that the instrument was made in this small Oxfordshire town.

Traditionally, the church clock and the steelyard would both have been products of the rural blacksmith, but the eighteenth-century blacksmith increasingly specialized in only one product. Between the extremes of general and specialist blacksmiths, there were provincial craftsmen who were specialists but whose speciality embraced a diversity of products; a contemporary example in Bicester was Edward Hemins, also best known to posterity and the Museum as a clockmaker, but who was a bellfounder, gunsmith, and locksmith too – in other words, a kind of scientific blacksmith capable of making almost any technically demanding mechanism required by the local community.

The maker of the steelyard, then, is the same William Ball who made one of the Museum’s longcase clocks, about 1710, and/or (for it could be either the same man or his son) who made the small wall-hanging alarm clock of the 1730s.

The steelyard is made of wrought iron, 32 inches (725 mm) long, and has a capacity of 220 pounds. It is a turnover steelyard, meaning that it can be used both ways, having graduations on two sides of the diamond-sectioned arm, known correctly as the ‘blade’. One set of graduations runs from 2 to 50 pounds in units of a quarter pound, the other from 40 to 220 pounds in units of one pound.