William Bickford was born in Devon in 1774. He worked in leather preparation in Truro, before moving to Tuckingmill near Camborne. Although he had no previous connection with the mining industry, Bickford was distressed by miners’ injuries caused by the methods of setting off explosives to break up large amounts of rock. He decided to put the explosive into a parchment cartridge to which he attached a small parchment tube containing powder as a safety fuse. This proved to be totally unreliable and no safer than the methods already being used.
One day he saw some rope-makers twisting the separate strands of rope together and thought he might be able to use this method to make a safer type of fuse. In 1831 he patented a machine which first wound strands of rope around a core of gunpowder in one direction and then wound another layer of rope in the reverse direction. This was designed to prevent the rope untwisting. The resulting fuse was varnished to make it waterproof. One end was lit and the fuse burnt along its length steadily without going out. The person laying the explosives only needed to cut off sufficient length of fuse to give time to distance himself from the resulting explosion.
Bickford’s factory in Tuckingmill made 45 miles of fuse in the first year of production. A hundred years later the same factory, which had been enlarged, made over 100,000 miles of fuse. Sadly, William Bickford did not live to see the success of his invention, dying in 1834 shortly before the factory opened. His safety fuse has saved hundreds of lives and prevented many serious injuries. It continues to do so today, saving lives and preventing injuries - Ensign-Bickford Company