Hicks, James Joseph (1837–1916), manufacturer of scientific instruments, was born 4 November 1837 at Rosscarbery, Co. Cork, the only son of George Hicks, flax worker and farmer, and Gillian Hicks (née Coakley), whose father owned the mill in which George worked. The second of three children, he had two sisters, Mary and Julia. The family was poor, and when James was young he was sent to relatives of his mother in London, where he was brought up. He attended school until he was fourteen, then in 1852 was apprenticed to and lived with Louis P. Casella, a noted maker of thermometers and other specialist glassware and apparatus.
By 1860 Hicks was foreman at Casella's plant and actively involved in the design and improvement of instruments. He set up his own business around 1861. To supplement his income in the early days of self-employment, he designed and manufactured objects not connected with the scientific instrument industry. He filed patents on many of the items he designed, including china handles for brushes and mirrors and stopper-dispensers for perfume bottles. On account of the range of products he manufactured (clinical thermometers, syringes, hydrometers, lenses, meteorological apparatus, barometers, altimeters, and theodolites) he was honoured with membership of various bodies, including the British Meteorological Society (1864) and the Spectacle Makers’ Company (1893). He was constantly inventing and improving clinical and meteorological instruments. The high quality of his clinical instruments derived from the fact that he imported and stored glass tubing in order to mature it. When the glass was subsequently used to make instruments, it gave more accurate, reliable readings.
Hicks's business was very large and successful: in the 1880s he employed over 200 men and boys, and by the early 1890s over 300 people, in his factories at Hatton Garden and later at a purpose-built factory at Clerkenwell. Acutely aware of marketing his products, he took every opportunity to attend trade fairs and exhibitions to promote his business. Between 1876 and 1913 he was present at eight Royal Society exhibitions with new apparatus he had developed. An astute businessman, he explored new markets for his business by exhibiting abroad in America (1876, 1892), Australia (1896–7), South Africa (1899), Paris (1900), New Zealand (1906), and India, Ceylon, and Egypt (1910). He won awards for his instruments at the Philadelphia exhibition (1876) and the International Inventions Exhibition (1885) and a gold medal at the Paris Exhibition (1900).
Conscious of the possibility that unscrupulous people might copy his designs, Hicks took great care to protect his rights with trademarks, registered designs, and patents in the USA, Britain, and some European countries. He was also quick to take legal action against any who infringed the patents, particularly in respect of clinical thermometers. In 1882 he fought and won the largest patent suit ever heard in the United States circuit court over the shape of a thermometer bore, produced by F. G. Otto, which Hicks claimed infringed his patent. The case ran for three years and cost £13,000, and he had to give evidence in court for fourteen days.
The success of Hicks's business ventures can be attributed to his talent for innovation but also to his skill at exploiting new markets and his fierce protection of his products. In a competitive business where profit margins were tight, at one point he had a near monopoly on an essential instrument, the clinical thermometer; by 1914 he had manufactured 13 million of them. Hicks claimed proudly that none had ever been rejected after testing. Irish agents for his products were Dixon Hempenstall, 12 Suffolk Street, and later Norman & Co., 29 Wicklow Street. In 1910, at the age of seventy-three, he approached W. F. Stanley and opened discussions for a merger between the two companies. Arrangements were completed in 1911 and Hicks remained a director of the new company, which retained his name, for the remainder of his life.
Hicks was ahead of his times in terms of industrial relations, and he organised regular social events for the workers at his factory, including football and cricket matches and annual summer outings to the countryside, the first of which took place in 1872. Shrewd to the last, he always made sure to invite important guests to these company events, for example the editor of the leading trade newspaper, the Optician. He, his wife, and their son George always attended the gatherings, where George distinguished himself with his musical skills. In a wider community sense, Hicks gave generously to local charities, regularly donating to the building of churches.
He married Emma Sarah Robertson, a milliner, on 19 June 1862 and they had three children, Helen Julia (b. 1864), George James (1866–1963), and Alice Maud (1876–1937). His wife suffered for years from bronchitis and related illnesses, and she died on 19 February 1899. A staunch Roman catholic, Hicks was made a knight of the Order of St Gregory the Great (1898) by order of the pope, following a pilgrimage to Rome with parishioners from Islington. He died 25 October 1916 at home in Margate, Kent, and was buried at Ramsgate. He is remembered in his local church, St John the Divine, Islington, by a plaque. Several portraits of him were featured in various editions of the Optician, which regularly carried advertisements of his products and ran features on his business.