Chapter 14: The Machine Makers
When Joseph Bramah hired Henry Maudslay to help him make locks, little did he know his assistant would go on to change the world. Maudslay hired and trained a new generation of engineers who gave us everything from standardized tools to the powerful industrial machines of the future.
Sources for this episode include:
Allitt, Patrick N. “The Industrial Revolution.” The Great Courses. 2014.
Rosen, William. The Most Powerful Idea in the World: A Story of Steam, Industry, and Invention. University of Chicago Press. 2010.
Thompson, E.P. "Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism." Past & Present, No. 38 (Dec., 1967), pp. 56-97
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If you were to ask me what the most important machine for industrialization was, you might expect me to say the Steam Engine or the Spinning Jenny or the Seed Drill. And don’t get me wrong, all of them were very important.
But I’d say the most important machine was something that came earlier: The mechanical clock.
As I mentioned in Chapter 2, mechanical clocks were first put in monasteries in the 14th Century. Smaller, spring-based clocks begin appearing in the 16th Century and Galileo came up with the pendulum clock concept in the 17th Century. Also, in the 17th Century, clocks started triggering bells that could alert the whole town to the new time.
These various kinds of clocks had three major impacts on the development of industrialization.
First of all, they greatly improved our systems of transportation and communication. At first this was in the form of navigation, allowing Europeans to build their global empires and invest in war capitalism. But as time progressed, it was also applied to the railroads and telegraph infrastructure going up, and yeah, we’re going to get to the myriad of implications that had down the road.
Second, clocks created a new sense of urgency in the new factory system. In the old days, time management was task oriented. You milked your cows or tended your fire according to the position of the sun in the sky. You didn’t have to rush because, well, who did you answer to? Yourself. Farmers and cottage industry workers didn’t have to worry too much about their time management simply because their time was largely their own.
Before the Industrial Revolution, workers tended to work hard for about 6 to 12 hours at a time, Wednesday through Saturday. Sunday they’d take off for the sabbath in the morning, followed by drinking in the evening. Monday they referred to as “Saint Monday” – a day they took off from work to drink. Those towns that really enjoyed Saint Monday often went ahead and celebrated “Saint Tuesday” too. And I think you can guess what happened on Saint Tuesday.
That all changed when folks stopped working for themselves and started working in the factory of a capitalist. Now it was the capitalist’s time, and he got to decide how you spent it. And that meant he was going to get as much of your labor out of that time as he could.
Among the capitalists who made this the norm was our friend from last week, Josiah Wedgwood. At Etruria, he started a new tactic that would soon become common place throughout the working world – making employees “clock in” to the job. Those who showed up late for their shift would be docked pay. The hourly wage was born.
In fact, it was the worldview about time that was changing. In 1751, Benjamin Franklin published a note in his Poor Richard’s Almanac about a woman with a shoemaker husband who liked spending his time at the local alehouse. “In vain did she inculcate to him, That Time is Money.” The story was recounted to Franklin by a Lunar Society member named John Whitehurst.
And Whitehurst was behind the third reason why the clock was so important to the development of industrialization. He was a clockmaker. And as a clockmaker, he had to learn a great deal about mechanical engineering. It sent him down a personal path of practical scientific growth. He advanced knowledge in physics, minerology, pneumatics, hydraulics, weights and measurements, and geology. In the process he not only made clocks, but thermometers, barometers, and navigational instruments, including a precision compass.
James Watt was a similar sort, who applied his clockmaking skills to building the first useful steam engine.
And so began a new legacy in Great Britain: That of men who built the machines and the tools of the future.
This is the Industrial Revolutions
Chapter 14: The Machine Makers
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Shortly after the end of the first Industrial Revolution, Great Britain hosted a Great Exhibition. Organized by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert, it was called the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations.” The world was recognizing the technological and commercial advancement that had just taken place over the previous 80 some years.
And as I write this, I realize we should devote a whole episode to the Great Exhibition at some point.
Anyway, one of the attendees was a guy by the name of Alfred Charles Hobbs. An American locksmith, Hobbs had made a name for himself back in Boston by showing bank managers that their locks weren’t all that difficult to pick, and they should really just buy one of his.
At the exhibition was a lock that had gone unpicked – by this point – for 67 years. In fact, it had a challenge written on it, “The Artist who can make an Instrument that will pick or Open this Lock shall Receive 200 Guineas The Moment it is produced.” Hobbs accepted the challenge.
The lock had 470 million possible combinations. It took him a total of 52 hours, over the course of 14 days, but eventually he got it open. It proved both his brilliance, and – at the same time – the security of the lock. No burglar – even a master lock-picker – could reasonably get in if it takes two weeks to pick the lock.
Hobbs received his reward of 200 guineas, paid out by the brothers running the shop that held the lock. It had been designed way back in 1777 by their father, Joseph Bramah.
Born in 1748, Bramah was the son of a farmer up in Yorkshire. He was apprenticed to a cabinet-maker and then moved to London to set up his own shop.
As it turned out, Bramah was something of a prolific inventor. Among his inventions was an engine for pumping beer out of barrels into taps, a planing machine, a machine for making paper, a machine for printing bank notes with sequential serial numbers, and a fountain pen.
He also came up with an improved version of a flushing toilet – something a Scottish watchmaker named Alexander Cumming had made possible a few years earlier, but was still prone to freezing in cold temperatures. Bramah fenagled a solution to that problem. Not only did thousands of such toilets go into use across the country, it’s also still more-or-less the design of the toilets we use today.
Okay, a quick time-out to appreciate the importance of this achievement. Up until this point, humans have relied on Medeival-style privies and outhouses. These new water closets could get rid of the foul smells and prevent a build-up of human waste in the streets. And as industrialization created urbanization, the spread of the flushing toilet only got more and more important.
But perhaps Bramah’s most significant invention was the hydraulic press, which uses a pair of cylinders and pistons to create a huge amount of pressure. Today, it allows us to flatten sheet metal, make powders, thin glass, and smash stuff – like cars.
If you aren’t familiar with the hydraulic press, pause this episode and go to the Hydraulic Press Channel on YouTube. It’s an amazing channel with videos of a hydraulic press smashing every object you can imagine – anvils, bowling balls, dynamite – just don’t try it at home.
Now, the hydraulic press is an excellent example of the new machines coming out in this era – machines with totally industrial purposes. But it was Bramah’s work as a locksmith that would really help reign in this era.
Bramah was awarded a patent for his (nearly) unpickable lock in 1784 and, that same year, started his new company, Bramah Locks – setting up shop at 124 Piccadilly in the heart of London.
In an age of increasing wealth among the upper classes – including the new, growing bourgeoisie – but an age of increasing destitution among the working classes, theft was an ever-increasing problem. As a result, it was a good time to be a locksmith, and Bramah made a fortune. Over the next five years, his Bramah Lock would become among the most sought-after.
But the lock had a super-complicated design, requiring about 100 separate, small metal pieces. To meet the demand for his locks, Bramah would need to find a way to mass produce them with absolute precision.
Then in 1789, the 40-year-old Bramah met an 18-year-old metalworking prodigy who would forever change Bramah’s business – and, really, the world. His name was Henry Maudslay.
Yes, you probably remember Henry Maudslay from last week’s episode. He was the guy Samuel Bentham brought in to the Portsmouth Block Mills project to build the machines envisioned by Marc Isambard Brunel.
Born in Woolwich, Maudslay grew up working on the docks. His father was a munitions laborer for the Royal Navy’s arsenal there. And when Henry was 12-years-old, his father got him a job as a “powder monkey”, loading gunpowder into shells.
But then Maudslay became apprenticed to a blacksmith, where he was so good at his work that he became a local legend. Among the men who heard the legend of young Henry Maudslay was a German-born blacksmith named William Moodie, who Bramah had recently brought in to advise on how to mass-produce the Bramah Lock.
So Moodie recommended Maudslay to Bramah, and what Maudslay came up with for him was game-changing – a new kind of lathe.
Now, that might not sound too game-changing at first. Lathes have been around since antiquity. It’s a machine in which a tool – like a drill or sanding surface – is connected and turned on an axis of rotation. As a result, there is symmetry to the drilling or the cutting or the sanding on the object.
The problem was, the old lathes were made of wood, and so they would shake while in use, and they’d wear out pretty fast. They were also usually operated by a foot pedal, which could be a problem if the lathe operator wasn’t consistent in his pedaling.
Maudslay introduced two major changes to the lathe.
His lathe was made entirely of iron. It would operate steadily, and it was much more durable.
His lathe would be powered not by foot or hand, but by a steam engine. That meant there would be nearly perfect consistency in the work. Maudslay was able to get an exact number of revolutions per minute time after time.
With the new lathe came a previously unimaginable degree of precision. It allowed Bramah’s company to cut precise screws for his locks. It’s possible that Maudslay also created a new rotary file along these lines, which could shape some small metal parts.
Over the years, Maudslay proved to be an ingenious and devoted employee to Bramah, helping him with all kinds of other inventions, including the planing machine and the hydraulic press. But by 1797, Maudslay was still only earning 30 shillings a week, and after marrying one of the servant girls in the Bramah shop and building a family with her, he needed a raise. In a moment Bramah would later regret, he refused, and Maudslay quit.
Ultimately, Bramah was in the business of selling locks and Maudslay had discovered a higher calling – building the industrial tools of the future.
He set up shop near Oxford Street, before moving into a larger location at Cavendish Square. Among other things, his company joined the efforts of Marc and Bentham, building new woodworking machines for the Portsmouth Block Mills.
He would also go on to work with Marc on an underground tunnel that would go beneath the River Thames. Maudslay and his company made the tunneling shields and pumps, although he wouldn’t live to see the tunnel completed. Used by the London Underground today, the Thames Tunnel is just down river from Tower Bridge.
Maudslay’s bread-and-butter, though, came from building marine steam engines for the new ships of the Royal Navy, starting in 1815. Inspired by Robert Fulton’s work in America, the Brits were finally ready to apply this technology to water transportation.
But perhaps his most significant invention was an improved micrometer. First invented back in the 1630s, and then improved by James Watt in the 1760s, the micrometer measures short distances. Like, extremely short distances. Maudslay invented the first bench micrometer that could accurately measure objects to the nearest one-thousandth of an inch. He called it the “Lord Chancellor” because, in the British legal system, the Lord Chancellor is the highest authority. Therefore, if you needed to know exactly how long the threads of your screw were, you were best off consulting Maudslay’s Lord Chancellor. There was no higher authority.
As a result of his inventions, Maudslay just about perfected the manufacturing of machine parts, including nuts, bolts, and screws.
But Maudslay was not the last of the great tool makers of the age. In fact, over the years, he trained several engineers whose accomplishments would rival his own.
It’s hard to say how many industrial engineers Henry Maudslay trained, but one of the earliest notable ones was David Napier. Born in a town on the Firth of Clyde, northwest of Glasgow, Napier was from an ironsmithing family. It’s not known exactly when, but at some point in his late teens or early 20s, he moved south to London, where Maudslay hired him.
After working for Maudslay, he started his own precision engineering company, where he produced machines for sugar manufacturing, printing, and the manufacturing of guns and bullets. He also made a coin-weighing machine for the Bank of England. In 1848, his son joined him and the company was renamed D. Napier & Son. Later on, the company would be one of the first making motors and aircraft engines.
Another Maudslay trainee was Joseph Clement, the son of a hand-loom weaver from Westmorland. Initially, Clement had followed his father in weaving, but outside of the new mills it was a dying industry. So instead, he went into metalwork and eventually moved south to London. There he was initially hired by Bramah as a draughtsman. But when Bramah died in 1814, he was picked up by Maudslay.
With Maudslay, Clement helped design some of the first marine steam engines. He eventually left to make lathes and other woodworking machines. At one point he was actually hired by Charles Babbage to help design and build the Difference Engine, a mechanical calculator and a precursor to Babbage’s later Analytical Engine – the world’s first mechanical computer.
Then there was the Welshman, Richard Roberts. The son of a shoemaker, Roberts had received his basic education from a local priest and some draughtsman training from a road surveyor for Thomas Telford. Before moving to London, Roberts had worked as a boatman on Telford’s Ellesmere Canal, as well as in a quarry and as a patternmaker at an ironworks.
But as the Napoleonic Wars were raging, he was drafted for the local militia – a draft he dodged. He first went to Liverpool, then Manchester, before finally getting as far from the authorities as he could, to London. Maudslay hired him as a fitter and turner, and Roberts soaked up Maudslay’s philosophy about accuracy and mechanization.
After leaving Maudslay’s shop, Roberts became a prolific mechanical engineer. He made huge advancements in machine tools including rotary cutters, planers, and a tool for punching rivet holes in iron plates. He also went into textile manufacturing, inventing a new power loom for weaving and a self-acting spinning mule. He also developed a partnership with Thomas and John Sharp – Sharp, Roberts & Co. – which went on to make locomotives, iron ships, iron bridges, and turret clocks.
Perhaps the most famous of Maudslay’s assistants was Joseph Whitworth. The son of a nonconformist minister, Whitworth had served as an apprentice to his uncle, who ran a cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire.
Whitworth was fascinated by the machinery in the mill, and he set his mind to learning about mechanics as a result. It was hoped that he would become a partner in the mill, but Whitworth had grander ambitions. He eventually moved to London where Maudslay hired him.
In Maudslay’s shop, Whitworth shined as a mechanic. Not only did he help with the development of several precision tools, he also created a new way to cast the iron parts for Maudslay’s machines that made them lighter but sturdier.
After leaving Maudslay’s firm, Whitworth continued making new lathes and he helped Clement with his work on the Difference Engine. His developments with plane technology were perhaps most impressive. He was able to flatten metal parts about as much as could be flattened before the development of microtechnology in the 20th Century.
One of the most significant things he did was introduce a new kind of rifle – the Whitworth rifle – to replace the muskets of the past. Not only was this .451 caliber rifle smaller and lighter, but the barrel included a 1-in-20 inch twist inside. As a result, the bullet would spin as it left the barrel, creating a more stable flight. Rifles could now fire with significantly greater accuracy. The concept of sharpshooting and sniping was born. And in the coming Crimean and American Civil Wars, the body counts would be alarming to say the least.
But what Whitworth was most famous for was something called British Standard Whitworth – BSW.
Up until this point, different machine tool makers used different designs for their tools. For the end users – really, anyone involved in industry by this point – it was maddening. If you had a steam engine made by Company X, for example, and one of the screws was damaged, it could only be replaced with a screw provided by Company X or the vendor for Company X. Otherwise the screw wouldn’t fit.
Along with Clement, Roberts, and other Maudslay alumni, Whitworth was a strong proponent for standardization such parts – nuts, bolts, and screws. So, in 1841, he sat down and wrote up what he thought should be the standards. Screw threads should be set at a 55 degree angle with very specific depths and radii. By the 1870s, as the railroads became increasingly frustrated with the different systems being used, they said, “yeah, Whitworth was right.” By the 1890s, everyone was using BSW.
In the years since, it’s been replaced by a new standard based on the metric system – British Standard Pipe – except in the US and Canada because “c’mon, we’re American, we refuse to use any and all metric systems.”
But even though it’s not metric, we too use a standardized system. These systems have created a world where the mass production of standard, interchangeable parts, have allowed us to build an array of complex machines – from airplanes and industrial equipment to cars and household appliances.
For Whitworth’s contributions to science and industry – as well as for his charity and support of education – he was knighted, awarded the Albert Medal, and eventually elevated to a baronage.
Then there’s one of the last of the Maudslay protégés.
Remember Patrick Miller of Dalswinton? The banker who first worked with William Symington to build steamboats up in Scotland? Well, before he met Symington, he had arranged a loan for painter named Alexander Naysmith to travel to Italy to learn from the great artists there.
When he returned, Naysmith was a prolific portraitist, and his career saw him put Scotland’s incredible landscapes to canvass. He also painted a few portraits of his friend, the Scottish poet, Robert Burns.
In all, Naysmith had six daughters and two sons. His eldest son and all six daughters followed their father and became notable artists. But his younger son, James, was more geared toward mechanics. As a child, James loved tinkering and building models. He went so far as to set up a mini-foundry in his bedroom, casting small metal parts.
By the time he was 17, James had heard tales of Maudslay’s innovative workshop in London and begged his father to send him there for an apprenticeship. But it was an apprenticeship his father was unable to afford. So, instead, the young Naysmith built his own high-pressure steam engine, and took it down to London to show Maudslay, hoping it would land him a job.
Maudslay hired him as an assistant workman, earning 10 shillings a week. Even though Maudslay died just two years later, Naysmith would continue to work for his firm and continue learning.
Then, in the 1830s, he moved to Manchester and started his own firm with a clerk named Holbrook Gaskell. Together, Naysmith, Gaskell, and Company built one of the premier factories of the first Industrial Revolution: The Bridgewater Foundry. So-named because it was situated off the Bridgewater Canal, the foundry made huge machine tools, including hydraulic presses, shapers, planers, and Naysmith’s most important inventions, the steam hammer and the pile driver.
Naysmith loved machines. He once wrote of them that machines, “never got drunk, their hands never shook from excess, they were never absent from work, they did not strike for wages, they were unfailing in their accuracy and regularity.”
This is going to be a theme we return to regularly throughout this podcast. The age of the machine was underway. And it would produce story after story of machines not just supplementing human beings and their labor, but replacing them. We’ll see these stories in work stoppages and in romantic ballads and in science fiction.
But before we go there, I want to stay on the trunk of the tree, and I want to focus on one more area of scientific advancement that was driving new developments in industrialization. Chemistry – next week on the Industrial Revolutions.
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