Negretti & Zambra – A History (Part One)

Part 1 – The Early Years

After a suggestion that I should consider changing my business name to Negretti & Zambra owing to the amount of the company's instruments that I regularly present for sale, I thought it would be fitting to focus my first article on the history of this fine company to give some perspective on just why they feature so prominently amongst my stock. The following article has become quite a lengthy piece so my intention is to release this in two episodes, the first covering the early years of the company and the latter part covering the remaining years. I hope you enjoy them both.

This historic scientific instrument making company was first formed in 1850 during the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign, however there is rarely any great consideration of the historical context that led up to the partnership being formed. This pre-history helps to explain why a company that seemingly started from nothing, managed to burst onto the scene in 1850 and just a year later go on to win the only prize medal for meteorological instruments at The Great Exhibition of 1851.

Enrico Angelo Ludovici Negretti (Henry Negretti) and Joseph Warren Zambra were both descended from families which hailed from the area around Lake Como. This region of Northern Italy saw huge levels of emigration to the UK during the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century, enriching us with many adept craftsmen who brought their meteorological instrument making skills with them.

Fig 1 – Lake Como

Evidently welcome, it took very little time for these Italian influences to affect the design of English weather instruments and their wheel barometer designs became a British staple from 1780 onwards. You may notice that almost all early examples will have names such as Gatty, Cetti, Casartelli, Aiano, Polti, Ronchetti, Somalvico & Tagliabue all of whom produced a range of instruments. Such was their influence that, if they don’t, they are likely to have been Italian made and sold to a retailer with an alternative name engraved.

For those Italian emigres that made London their new home, the area around Holborn was cheap enough to live and had an already established reputation for instrument making prior to their arrival. The nearby Hatton Garden eventually became a centre for instrument makers and was also where the first Negretti & Zambra premises was to be situated. Familial ties remained strong with Italy and also with other emigres that spread their wings further afield to regional centres of the UK and an industry was built of jobbing makers specialising in specific instrument parts and selling them to larger London or regional makers for finishing, an early example of division of labour that gained much popularity throughout the Nineteenth Century. This is occasionally evident from signatures and markings. (Note the Tarelli of Northampton marked clock wheel barometer which I have in stock that bears a penned note to Mr Tagliabue in the inner door.)

The early Nineteenth Century expansion of the railway and ease of travel in Britain allowed the London retailers opportunity to employ regional agents (or hawkers as they were then derisively called by the local competition) to attempt to obtain wider business opportunities outside of their physical bases. It was one of these agent roles that was first taken up by Joseph Cesare Zambra, the Father of the Joseph Warren Zambra under the employment of the then prosperous Cetti family of London. Born in 1796, Zambra was originally engaged in the building trade prior to his arrival in the UK in 1816 and it is likely that his emigration was facilitated by family bonds already existent with the Cetti family in Italy. Zambra’s new role required him to cover the Eastern regions outside of London and five years later he is stated as marrying Phillis Warren, a farmer’s daughter from the area around Saffron Walden in Essex. It was here that Joseph Cesare Zambra settled and started his own regional instrument making firm and a year later in 1822, the place where Joseph Warren Zambra was born.

The Negretti family’s arrival in the UK preceded the Zambra’s. The surname can be found on barometers dating back to the Late Eighteenth Century and during this early period, they were largely based in the West Country in regional centres such as Plymouth and Bristol. Henry Negretti was born four years before his business partner in 1818 in Lake Como and subsequently moved to the UK with his family in 1830. The young Henry was soon apprenticed to Angelo Tagliabue, a member of another established and successful Italian family. Louis Casella, another talented instrument maker and close competitor of the Negretti & Zambra business was also apprenticed at a similar time and was eventually the successor to Tagliabue’s business. These close relationships will also become more evident later.

Based at 17 Leather Lane in London, Tagliabue's premises seem to have been turned over or rented out to the Pizzi family by the turn of the 1840’s and Negretti worked for Valentino Pizzi and then Jane Pizzi following her husband’s death in 1841. By this time, Negretti was an adept glass blower and through his technical abilities, went on to form a partnership with Pizzi which was renamed to Pizzi & Co. It is unclear how this partnership ended but by 1845, the company of Negretti & Co was formed and Henry Negretti continued to run this business until the formation of Negretti & Zambra five years later.

Fig 2. – Early Engraving of Leather Lane, London

Fig 3. – Leather Lane as it is today (Note: Nothing remains of the right hand side but the building line to the left seems to remain)

Zambra, who had presumably trained under his Father in Saffron Walden moved with his family to London in 1840 when he was eighteen. Their premises were listed at 23 Brooke Street which was also inhabited by a Joseph Pini. This situation may be the reason that the young Zambra sought a partnership outside of the family with John Tagliabue at 11 Brooke Street.

Figure 4a & 4b – Early Victorian Wheel Barometer by Joseph Cesare Zambra at 23 Brook St. (Father of Joseph Warren Zambra) – currently undergoing servicing prior to sale.

Amongst the vast array of individuals involved up to this point, you may have noticed that the name of Tagliabue is now a common surname associated with both Henry Negretti and Joseph Warren Zambra and it is clear that the pair would have known of each other’s existence by 1843 when Zambra formed his partnership with the family. Both had also attended The London Mechanics Institute (now Birkbeck College) around this time, an institution founded in 1823 to teach working men science & technology.

Apart from the obvious personal relationships that the future partners had in common with one another, the exact reason why Henry Negretti formed a partnership with Zambra remains unclear. Zambra has generally been considered, at least in the early stages, of slightly lesser status and this seems to be borne out by the representation on their very early instruments where the company name is presented as, H. Negretti & Zambra, which is probably a hangover from the previous company name of H. Negretti & Co. Whether Zambra brought funding to Negretti’s already well established business is unlikely to be understood fully, he was however known to have been a trained glass blower so the pair had a common and essential skill for the creation of meteorological instruments and on the 23rd of April 1850, the fledgling company of Negretti & Zambra was formed with new premises at 11 Hatton Garden.


Figure 5 – Henry Angelo Ludovici Negretti

Figure 6 – Joseph Warren Zambra

It can only be presumed that Negretti’s earlier business provided a very solid and already successful grounding for this new company and their first year of trading must have involved much preparation for their exhibition stand at the Crystal Palace which would run from the 1st of May to the 15th of October 1851.

The company occupied Stand 106A and were entered into Class X, described in the official catalogue as “Philosophical, Musical, Horological & Surgical Instruments” and beside them were numerous recognisable and distinguished makers of the period such as Dollond, Newton & son, Andrew Ross, Smith & Beck, CW Dixey & Powell & Lealand. Their focus was unsurprisingly centred on meteorological instruments and the catalogue states that numerous products such as, Standard Open Cistern Barometers, Self-Registering Barometers, Pocket Sympiesometers, Sixes Self-Registering thermometers, Hygrometers and Pressure Gauges could be found at their stand. For their efforts, the company would eventually be awarded the only prize for meteorological instruments at The Exhibition, no mean feat given the amount of instrument makers noted in the Exhibition catalogue.

The hard work and effort also paid further dividends for the partnership when soon after The Exhibition they were bestowed with a Royal Appointment from Queen Victoria for the production of meteorological instruments. The receipt of an Exhibition Prize Medal and a Royal Appointment in a company’s first year of business was an astonishing achievement and the effect on the company’s growth thereafter was equally positive.

Figure 7 – An example of the Great Exhibition Prize Medal

The 1850’s were a prolific period for Negretti & Zambra, their cash books from the first half of the decade show that they were now supplying many of the older and more established Italian émigré London businesses such as Tagliabue, Pini, Ronchetti, Pastorelli and even the Casella business which had been formed following the death of Angelo Tagliabue (Negretti & Casella’s former master) in 1844. It is also notable how many established English businesses they were supplying, many of which were co-exhibitors at the Exhibition such as Smith & Beck, Horn & Thornwaite & Carpenter & Westley. Regional businesses such as JB Dancer, Abraham, Chadburn, Gardner & J Davis & Son were also trade customers. The image below shows an engraving of the early Negretti premises at 11 Hatton Garden proudly showing the Royal Appointment at the door and if it’s not artistic licence, the amount of product on display was almost incomprehensible!

Figure 8 – Negretti & Zambra’s premises at 11 Hatton Garden.

Customers also included The Royal Observatory at Kew, The British Meteorological Society and numerous Governmental and Military Departments and it is likely that many of the patents and new inventions conceived during this early period were at least in part created through collaborations based upon specific requirements, a custom that dates back to the earliest era of scientific instrument making. Owing to the partner’s glass blowing skills, thermometers were an immediate speciality of the company and during the 1850’s they patented numerous self-registering examples for specific uses such as mining, marine and for solar observations. The Patent Maximum thermometer was given special mention in the Report of the Astronomer Royal in 1852:

“We have for several years been very much troubled by the failures of the Maximum Self-registering Thermometer. A construction invented by Negretti & Zambra appears likely to evade this difficulty, the specimens of this instrument we have tried answer very well”

In relation to this particular thermometer, the company also gained an “Honourable Mention” for the invention at the 1855 Paris Exhibition. Although not present, the thermometer was amongst a number of instruments displayed by The Kew Observatory at the event.

Perhaps the simplest yet most recognisable invention was of the application of white enamel to the backs of thermometers. This seemingly obvious development allowed more accurate measurement of the mercurial line and also enabled the development of ever thinner glass bores increasing the sensitivity of the thermometer in general. This invention eventually became the standard for all thermometers beyond that point.

Figure 9 – A selection of original Negretti & Zambra Patents.

By the mid-point of the Decade, the Great Exhibition structure had been relocated from Hyde Park to Sydenham where it stood until it was sadly destroyed by fire in 1936. Negretti and Zambra’s relationship with the Exhibition structure continued and they maintained a showroom at the new location. Having also secured the rights to print images of the original exhibition, the company also set up photographic studios at the new establishment becoming the official photographers for the Crystal Palace Company. Their Carte de Visites became popular with wealthy visitors and the number that can still be found today is testament to the amount of trade this must have generated for the company.

Figure 10 – Negretti & Zambra’s showrooms at Crystal Palace

The latter half of the 1850’s were just as prolific and their work with Admiral Fitzroy paved the way for some of Negretti & Zambra’s most successful and now sought after instruments. Having retired from sea, a career which including the command of HMS Beagle during the historically important voyage with Charles Darwin and a spell as Governor of New Zealand, Fitzroy turned his attention to improvements in Meteorology under The Board of Trade and in 1857 requested the company to provide a design for a stick barometer that would be fit for installation at sea coast stations throughout the UK. He also commissioned the company to construct a double bulb deep sea thermometer which was eventually developed to withstand pressures of up to seven tons below sea.

Fitzroy’s new position at the Meteorological Office and his previous experiences in the Royal Navy had shown him the importance of precise methods of weather prediction for mariners and his intent was to make these expensive instruments accessible to individuals involved in the maritime and coastal industries. The resulting instruments were initially supplied through the Meteorological Office and paid for by the Government but Negretti & Zambra were certainly advertising the early porcelain scaled version to the general public in 1864 as recorded in the company’s, “Treatise on Meteorological Instruments”. Their advertising stated that, “many poor fishing villages and towns have therefore been provided by The Board of Trade, at the public expense, and through the humane effort of Admiral Fitzroy, with first class barometers, each fixed in a conspicuous position, so as to be easily accessible to all who desire to consult it”.

Figure 11 – Admiral Robert Fitzroy

By 1859, Fitzroy had also become involved with the RNLI and the sea coast barometer or the Fitzroy storm barometer as it later became known was provided through Governmental funding and voluntary contributions to RNLI stations throughout the country. These examples are far less common and were provided with distinctive scale plates.

It wasn’t until Fitzroy’s untimely death by suicide in 1865 that Negretti & Zambra started to use the Admiral’s name in conjunction with the barometer, effectively leading to the birth of the Admiral Fitzroy’s Storm Barometer. With the immediate popularity of Fitzroy’s weather predictions and the more widespread availability of the barometer in general, Negretti & Zambra used the name in preference to the old “Sea Coast Barometer” naming convention and although it gained disapproval from Fitzroy’s successor at the Meteorological Office, the company may have felt somewhat entitled to use the opportunity given their close relationship with the man.

In the same period as the development of The Sea Coast barometer was taking place, Patrick Adie was also engaged by The Kew Observatory to develop a new marine stick barometer. The catalyst was a conference in Brussels wherein numerous nations met to discuss a way of producing an accurate instrument for weather measurement at sea. The outcome was a design which was taken up by The Board of Trade as a standard on both land and sea for many years. Admiral Fitzroy was not however, a supporter of this barometer due to the use of metal for the trunk construction. He deemed it too prone to breakage from movement or from gun fire. The latter issue was the catalyst for him developing the gun marine barometer in conjunction with Negretti & Zambra with whom he was already actively engaged. Although it was not quite so widely used as Adie’s design, the marine barometer was evidently a success. A report from Captain Hewlett of The Royal Navy to Admiral Fitzroy reads:

“In the third series of experiments, Mr Negretti being present, five of the new pattern barometers were subjected to the concussion produced by firing a 68 pounder gun with shot and 16lb’s of powder.”

The final year of the decade also coincided with the expiration of Lucien Vidie’s patent for the aneroid barometer. Negretti & Zambra were amongst the first to take advantage of this new freedom and Fitzroy also commissioned them to work on a smaller and more convenient example of this ground breaking instrument. As a result, the company became the first instrument making company to perfect the downsizing of the aneroid barometer for portable use. These early examples are somewhat thicker than the later and more common pocket barometers but the developments made at this early stage created another hugely successful and very marketable product for the company.

Figure 12 – Lucien Vidi – Inventor of the aneroid barometer capsule.

Given all of the developments during this busy decade the company also made the decision to release the first edition of their huge Encyclopaedic Illustrated & Descriptive Catalogue. Its preface gives some indication of the company’s intentions.

“Our endeavour has been to make the work, not merely a list of prices, but in reality a guide for those who are purchasing Scientific Instruments and apparatus generally. All instruments are well described, some more fully than others, depending upon the importance of the apparatus or article under consideration”

From a marketing perspective, the provision of explanatory details relating to their products made everything much more accessible to the general public. This simplification was not only useful to encourage sales, it also provided better general scientific understanding to those who read it. It remains today a hugely useful reference for those interested in instruments of the period and many of its successive volumes remain readily available in facsimile. The originals are somewhat rarer.

Figure 13a & 13b – The front and inside cover of the late 1880’s edition of the catalogue

What is interesting to note is the huge similarity between the catalogues of Negretti & Zambra, Louis Casella and J Hicks. No other studies of the history of these companies seem to have picked up on this comparison but in some cases, the catalogue entries are simply carbon copies of one another. What may first be considered as simple plagiarism by other parties may actually be better explained by the continuation of the close relationships between Anglo Italian families throughout the Nineteenth Century. As we have previously discussed, Louis Casella would have been a close associate of the Henry Negretti given their training under the Tagliabue family. Casella eventually married into the Tagliabue family and ultimately took over his very successful business after his death. Hicks was not of Italian extraction but this equally successful Irishman, was trained under Casella during the 1850’s before finally starting his own business in 1861. How their business relationship was conducted sadly remains unknown at this time, Casella and Hicks may just have been main agents for Negretti & Zambra but it is more likely that they shared ideas and developed instruments in tandem with one another. The rate in which Negretti & Zambra were growing during this period would surely suggest that they required some additional support to produce as many instruments as they did.

Further evidence would need to come to light to understand this symbiotic relationship more fully but we do know from the cash books that Casella was certainly trading with them. The word for word use in some cases of their catalogues would however suggest a much closer association. A very good example of this relationship may be evidenced through the design of the company’s storm barometers of which I have two, one by Negretti & Zambra and another by Hicks. You can see that the pair are almost identical save for the writing at the top of the dome on the scale. The fact that these three companies were perhaps the most successful of their era would suggest that they also very successfully worked together in cornering the market.

The close of 1859 completes the early years of this historic company and in part two which will be available next month, I intend to complete the company’s history. If you have enjoyed the article, I would be very pleased to have your feedback and if you have any further questions or indeed suggestions, please feel free to get in touch.

Kind Regards


Jason Clarke Antiques

+44 (0)7815 046645



I began collecting aneroid barometers ~5 years ago. You were kind enough to reply about a very early Dent/Vidi barometer you were selling. Since then, I’ve greatly appreciated the histories you have written—the N&Z History, too. My hat off to you, sir!

Scott February 22, 2024

Absolutely Fascinating,I did my apprenticeship at the Foster Instrument company makers of industrial pyrometers,so I am fascinated with N Z ‘s history

Howard Bishop April 30, 2023

Hi Jason
Very instructive your insight into NZ business at hatton garden london and competitors along the way like casella dolland j hicks newman also famous manufacturer supplier during their hey days.

Edley April 15, 2023

I was a sales and Application Engineer for N&Z in the 1960s just after the main factory moved from Kings Cross to Aylesbury. The london works still employed skilled glass blowers, and meteorological instruments were still in the catalogue. The company was still trading too. Paul Negretti was Chairman and Peter Negretti MD. I think Paul had been mayor of Westminster at one time and was a player of Real Tennis. Peter had been trained through the factory The main business was industrial with main customers in milk textiles large diesel engines, photographic, food, brewing etc. There was talk of amalgamation with George Kent and Evershed and Vignoles to better compete with American companies such as Honeywell and Fox oro. Eventually taken over by Megget for the small but high tech airraft instrument side ( fuel flowmeters for Comet aircraft etc).
I have catalogues from 20s and from my time with them which formed the base of a successful and enjoyable career mainly with GSK and BNFL

Ray Smith May 25, 2022

Thank you for taking the time and care Jason. Really enjoyed and its well overdue for such a famous and class leading manufacturer.

Ian Rance February 26, 2022

Hi Jason
This is a very interesting and well researched and written article.

Clearly there are many 19th Century and earlier instrument makers about which very little has been written, and I have often considered whether a book describing some of them might be a possibility. However although I have had two books of my own published In the past, I have not felt able to undertake the vast amount of research that would be required for a book focusing on even a small number of instrument makers.

By contrast however your article though shows what is possible research wise, and whilst providing much interesting information on N&Z, also clearly indicates many of the links that existed between apparently competing makers at the time. Very impressive Jason and I look forward to the next instalment

Kind regards

Warren Berry February 25, 2022

Jason, I found your read very interesting. As previously stated, I saw that name frequently but knew nothing about them. How I wish I can go back to Victorian London. I am looking forward to your continuation of this read. Thank you for sharing it with me.



David Albino February 25, 2022

Well done Jason, I like your information format,I’ve learnt a few things about ,n and z,this is good ,to know,the history,of the firm, and you have done a nice job,finding the info. As a collector,of n and z,. Best regards mick.

Michael crook February 25, 2022

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