Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
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Source: April 1967 Volume 14 Number 3, Pages 53–56

The Bishop Platinum Company

John Hanft

Page 53

The J. Bishop Company Platinum Works is a small, highly respected and eminently successful company operating in the specialized field of precious metals. It is a company which has long deep roots in Chester County. Bishop celebrates its 125th anniversary next year, and 101 of those years have been spent in Chester County. The "J" stands for Joaquim who was a machinist and instrument maker at the University of Pennsylvania. He had been born in Oporto, Portugal, in 1806 of English parentage. His father was a Director of Royal Fabrics, temporarily living in Portugal. Because of the French wars, the family moved in 1810 to Baltimore, then to Philadelphia a year later. At the age of 20 Joaquim went into the jewelry business as an apprentice somewhat against parental wishes, working for the old firm of Bailey's - now Bailey, Banks, and Biddle. Six years later, in 1832, he went to the University of Pennsylvania as an instrument maker and assistant to Dr. Robert Hare. Dr. Hare was a specialist in the electrochemical field, and Bishop assisted in the design, and built many of the pieces of apparatus used in that pioneering field.

At the request of Dr. Hare and others in the scientific world of the day, Joaquim Bishop left the University in 1842 and founded a Company to make philosophical instruments and to try platinum working, using Dr. Hares oxyhydrogen torch in a chemical manner. This torch made possible for the first time the melting of platinum to simplify platinura fabrication and make platinum more readily available. This was a great help to the growing inorganic chemical research field.

Platinum was first discovered in the mountains of Colombia in the 1730s by the Spaniards and they named it "platina" or "little silver." In the avid search for gold, it was given little attention and was used only for ornamentation, but the Swedes discovered that platinum resembled gold in its physical properties. Yet there was small demand for it except from counterfeiters, who, because of its weight, were able to make gold-plated

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doubloons from it. In 1788 platinum brought 14¢ an ounce; today Bishop's standard price is $100 an ounce, and the open-market price has fluctuated up to $140 an ounce. Dr. Hare's persistence in perfecting the processing of platinum and Joaquim's business venture helped bring platinum to its rightful place. After some years of operation in Philadelphia at 20 Laurel Street, between Second and Third, and Spruce and Pear Streets, Mr. Bishop determined to locate himself somewhere in the country away from "that objectionable class who want all sorts of jim-cracks made and repaired." So he moved first to Bryn Mawr and, looking for still more seclusion in 1865, at age 59, relocated to Sugartown in Willistown Township. There he established his residence and business in which native platinum was refined, melted, and worked into various appliances to be used in analytical chemistry and other sciences.

Although he filled orders for experimental devices and standard apparatus from all parts of the United States, he worked in relative obscurity to those around him. One story had it, about 1878, that a Chester Countian was looking for information as to the working of platinum, and went all the way to St. Louis only to learn that the only establishment of its kind in the United States was in his own home County of Chester, a fact of which he had been totally ignorant.

In 1880, an account in the West Chester Local News of a visit to the "Old Chemist," as they called him, then 74, records that his building was small and unpretentious. On the ground floor was the smith shop and melting room. The second floor workroom contained a lathe, two small rolling mills, work bench, a cabinet of tools, platinum in various shapes, and adjoining laboratory. The third floor contained a large rolling mill and a draw bench. An assistant, Edwin T. Cox, was busily at work, which included making plates for the United States Geological Survey.

In 1903, the firm moved to Malvern where the chemical sales office and platinum chemical plant is located today at Warren and Channing Avenues. In 1951, a tube mill in East Whiteland on Makin Road just south of Route 30 was built. This was expanded in 1959 and a new administrative office added in the past year.

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Bishop employs 500 people and, while platinum and its family of metals rhodium, iridium, osmium, and ruthenium have been the firm base on which Bishop built its trade, more than one-half of the Company's annual dollar volume, which is moving up to the neighborhood of $50-million, and three-fourths of its employees are involved in the stainless steel, nickel and exotic alloy products being produced in Frazier (sic). In 1931, Bishop went into this field which started with the development of stainless steel hypodermic needles introduced in Europe in 1928, drastically reducing the demand for platinum-alloy hypodermic tubing. Moreover, diversification was desirable due to the continual shortages of platinum, of which Russia was the major miner. Bishop purchased in 1929 by Johnson Matthey, a British owned fabricator of precious metals. This London-based company, as one of its 29 interests, mines platinum in South Africa which it refines and provides to Bishop.

Bishop is now headed by Vincent Makin who came from Massachusetts about a year ago. As Vince Makin says, "J. Bishop is still better known at Cape Kennedy than locally." But there is a tremendous growth underway at Bishop as the demand for the peculiarly indestructible precious metal platinum rises. Platinum products can withstand the rigors of atomic space age uses, when other metals melt or corrode. It is soft enough to be rolled or drawn into tubes but so inert that it resists reaction with most chemicals, and it takes 3217 F. to melt it. Platinum is easily recovered and reused. Bishop works it into wire as thin as .000375 in. thick, puts coatings .0001 in. thick on iron, and produces stainless tubing .008 in. O.D. by .002 in. wall thickness.

As old Joaquim felt akin to the peace and solitude of Chester County, so now Bishop management feels there is a particular character and solidarity to the community that makes it typically American and that produces employees capable of high precision work, employees with principles of industry, integrity, and tolerance.

We should be proud that we have in our midst, relatively unknown to most of us, an important nationally known firm, which next year celebrates its 125th anniversary as a company, with over 100 years in Chester County.

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References (from which the above comes almost intact):

J. Bishop Platinum Works brochure "From the Beginning."

Greater Philadelphia Magazine, Oct. 1965.

West Chester Local News, Feb. 17, 1880.

Footnote: Mr. Ellis E. Comfort of Paoli, Pa., passed away October 4, 1966. He had started working at J. Bishop Company in 1936 and rose to become President of the Company until retirement 2 years ago.

First building Malvern of the J. Bishop platinum works


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