Remembering a pioneer in flour milling

by Teresa Acklin
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the death of a man who revolutionized the flour milling industry. Heinrich (Henry) Simon was a father, husband, engineer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and pioneer of an innovative flour milling process, a "gradual reduction system," that would replace the inefficient grindstone (millstone) process.

Born in Germany, Mr. Simon moved to Zurich and attended the Swiss Federal Technical College, earning an engineering degree. After returning to Germany briefly to serve in the military, Mr. Simon moved to Manchester, England in 1860. He accepted various jobs to practice engineering and became a naturalized British citizen before opening a small business as a consulting engineer in the mid-1860s.

Soon after, he was approached by an old college friend, Gustav Daverio, who wanted Mr. Simon to help sell his newest product, a three-high roller mill. This sparked Mr. Simon's interest in the possibilities of a flour manufacturing revolution.

At the same time, the introduction of porcelain and chilled iron roller mills was revolutionizing the milling industry in Austria and Hungary. But British millers who tried these mechanical roller mills were having poor results. Simply replacing the old grindstones with roller mills was not enough, Mr. Simon realized. An entirely new, fully integrated system was needed.

In the late 1870s, Mr. Simon created the gradual reduction system, which is still used in all flour mills today. He knew that a continuous, automatic mill was necessary in making milling as efficient and prosperous as possible.

In 1878, he signed his first contract for a complete roller mill facility integrating the gradual reduction system with the British milling company McDougall Brothers, the forerunner to Ranks Hovis McDougall. This marks the origin of Henry Simon, Ltd.

Even though McDougall's new mill had better production rates than any other mill in England, Mr. Simon was criticized for publicly predicting that the mechanical roller mill would entirely replace the grindstone.

Three years later, he celebrated one of his biggest successes after completing his first flour mill — and probably the first in the world — that used mechanical handling instead of manual labor for transporting products from one machine to another. This huge step transformed flour milling from a batch process to an automatic and continuous process. Within a year, he was receiving a steady flow of orders to convert mills from the grindstone process to the roller mill system.

At the Paris International Exhibition in 1885, Mr. Simon won the Grand Prix, earning international acknowledgment for his advances in flour milling technology. The next year, he published a booklet, "Roller Flour Milling," which claimed that 160 millers had adopted the "Simon system." This was the first time the automation of a mill was explained to an international audience.

By 1892, Mr. Simon had built 400 mills in various countries, such as Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Germany, Portugal, South Africa and South America. The next year he established a branch of his flour mill engineering business in Australia under the name Henry Simon (Australia), Ltd.

With Francois Carves, he created a second company in 1880 called Simon-Carves to produce and market a by-product coke oven, which helped modernize the iron and steel industry.

As Mr. Simon sensed his health declining in 1897, his keen business instincts led him to incorporate Henry Simon, Ltd. into a public company, dividing the shares among six people. When he died two years later in 1899 of heart failure, he had built the largest flour mill engineering business and made the Simon system famous around the world.

The control of the business passed to his second son, Ernest, who continued its development and philanthropy and was eventually given the title Baron Simon of Wythenshawe.

The company remained an independent industry leader for 110 years, until it was sold in 1988 to The Thomas Robinson Group. In 1991, Henry Simon, Ltd. gained another parent as Robinson Milling Systems was acquired by the Satake Corporation of Japan, the well-known rice milling engineers.

To learn more about Mr. Simon, see the book, "In Search of a Grandfather: Henry Simon of Manchester," written by the subject's grandson, Professor Brian Simon, in 1997.

"The biography, which devotes considerable attention to the large Simon family (Henry had seven children) and to his contributions to education and community, also clarifies that current mill building falls far short of what even that single pioneer accomplished," wrote Morton I. Sosland, editor-in-chief of World Grain and its sister publication, Milling & Baking News, in a review of the book shortly after its release.

Currently, "a buoyant market for flour is encouraging considerable investment, but it is a pale shadow of what a technological revolution wrought in global milling more than 100 years ago," Mr. Sosland said.

— Emily Wilson