Faces of Tamworth: Shearing machine inventor William Silver

THE Tamworth region has had a long association with the sheep industry, but did you know the city lays claim to the man behind the Silver shearing machine?

Perhaps it was the tradition that an Australian had invented the shearing machine in 1867 that inspired William Silver to turn away from general engineering and windmill making to create a shearing machine of his own.

By September 1889, he was ready to let the public see it, according to A Chronological History of Tamworth.

A shearer named Robert Gollege demonstrated Silver’s new machine at a gathering in Denning Lane (now known as Rawson Avenue).

In the development of the machine, Silver had been assisted, financially, by the auctioneer Nathan Cohen and his partner, “Cleve” Solomon, and by the brewer, Charles J. Britten.

The Tamworth Observer of September 25, 1889 carried the following account of proceedings:

“Mr William Silver, coach and buggy builder, has for the past two years been developing a new sheep shearing machine. So great an improvement is this machine upon its contemporaries that no time is lost in having it patented, not only in this but in all countries where wool growing is a staple industry. Several trials were made at the works of Mr Silver.”

The paper went on to explain that the new machine consisted of an improved flexible shaft. 

“ ... made from a cat gut core encased in a protective covering formed of mild steel ribbon, would in a helix, or of a steel tube split helically. The cat gut core consisted of pieces of cat gut of between three and twelve inches in length carrying at one end an eye and at the other end a hook attachment. A type of universal joint was formed, unable of coming apart unless the hook and the eye both fall at right angles to one another, which was impossible when encased in a case or sheath. Exactly the same principle was used in the flexible shaft as was employed in the jointing of that shaft to the wrist joint or universal joint of the hand piece. An original vibratory motion was imparted to the cutter. The driving arrangements were originally a wooden wheel which was used to drive the machine instead of the iron wheel on the overhead shafting.”

The demonstration in Denning Lane was very well received.

Two weeks later, on October 8 and 9, 1889, Gollege again demonstrated the machine, this time at the Spring Show of the Liverpool Plains Agricultural & Horticultural Society and again, it was enthusiastically received.

Nathan Cohen then arranged for a demonstration of the shearing machine at the Harrison, Jones & Devlin Wool Store at Circular Quay in Sydney on October 29, 1889.

One sheep was shorn in five-and-a-quarter minutes, and another in four minutes.

Critics received the machine well and considered it an improvement on the Wolseley.

It was rumoured that a company with capital of £64,000 had been floated to market the invention and further exhibitions were held in Melbourne.

When William Silver returned to Tamworth by rail 11 days later on November 9, 1889, he was met at the railway station by a large and enthusiastic crowd.

They watched as the Mayor, Alderman Charles H. Veness presented him, on behalf of his fifteen employees, with an Illuminated Address.

During January 1890, people came from various parts of Australia to see 20,000 lambs shorn with “Silver” machines on the eight stands at Bective Station.

On 21 and 22 May 1890, two graziers and an engineer acted as judges in a contest at Muswellbrook between the “Wolseley” and “Silver” machines.

The judges ruled that both machines had their faults but that the “Silver” was “more economical and suitable for shearing purposes”.

At another competition at the Narrabri Show ten weeks later, the “Silver” was again judged the better machine.

Following these successes, William Silver and “Cleve” Solomon left for England on 28 October 1890 to take out patent rights and to superintend the manufacture of what, with some minor improvements, was called “Silver’s Patent Shearing Machine”, capable of shearing fifteen or sixteen sheep an hour. William Silver returned eight months later and appeared to have become yet another victim of the Depression of the early 1890s. T

he solicitor, William Smith recorded in his diary for 15 July 1893 that William Silver had gone to Sydney to take out another patent, “original and improved ... the first one having passed into the hands of the mortgagors”.

Silver made a second trip to England on 22 March 1894.

His business included not only the patent rights and manufacture of his “Silver” machine but also of a further improved type called the “Paragon”.

By 4 December 1894, he was back in Tamworth.

He obviously continued to refine his design because in September 1899, without being specific, he advertised “an improved type of shearing machine”.

While awaiting the arrival of his machines from England, he busied himself with other ventures. He had already invented an improvement to windmills, railway coupling, and an improved railway axle lubricator.

Two or three years earlier, he had also set up a planing and joinery works and now advertised himself as a coach builder, wheelwright and blacksmith. He also ran a steam-powered saw mill.

The first shipment of the William Silver shearing machines arrived from England on June 5, 1901.

They apparently went into general use because some eight years later, at the Tamworth Show held on Number One Oval in February 1909, William Carmichael demonstrated the Silver “No Rock” wide-cut shearing machine.

He is said to have shorn a lamb in sixty-five seconds and five lambs in ten minutes.

All of the animals were Shropshires, brought in from C. J. Britten’s “Woodhouse” property at Appleby.

Although “Silver” machines found their way to Bective, Piallaway, Walhallow, Yanda (Bourke), Belaringar (Nevertire), Canning Downs (Queensland) and several stations in Victoria, William Silver would have been disappointed with the final outcome of his venture.

His financial returns almost certainly did not justify the amounts he had spent on the promotion of his machines.

Moreover, the demonstrations he organised often served to let others copy his invention, and to improve on it.

In spite of their initial success, the “Silver” machines gradually lost popularity, to be replaced completely by other types.

There were two reasons for their fall from grace The first was that Silver’s cutters were thirteen teeth wide. Shearers’ Union power was later to outlaw the use of cutters with more than ten teeth. (It was not until three-quarters of a century later, despite Union opposition, that the use of cutters with more than ten teeth became accepted practice.)

The second reason was that shearers found the early “Silver” machines to have one big fault - the rocking of the handpiece which made it difficult to control.

Despite the “No Rock” claim for the machines used at the 1909 Tamworth Show, the fault remained and was frequently commented on, particularly by the shearers at Goonoo Goonoo Station.

Other shearing machine inventors conceived a solution to this problem which had not occurred to William Silver. A screw, inserted in a certain part of the handpiece, gave the shearer greater control.

Without this control, “Silver” machines gradually lost out to competing brands.

As a result of his invention in 1896 of a railway coupling and, in 1901, of an improved railway axle lubricator, William Silver was made an Honorary Member of the Parisian Academy of Inventors and was awarded the Academy’s Great Gold Medal and Certificate of Honour. See (Z-128).

Silver died on October 3, 1926, aged about 72.

His wife, Mary Ellen Silver, survived him by fifteen years.

His sons, William Charles Silver and Leslie Keith Silver, employing a blacksmith named Arthur Constable, continued their father’s general engineering business but not his sawmilling interests.

- Information sourced from A Chronological History of Tamworth

How you can nominate someone for The Northern Daily Leader's Faces of Tamworth campaign