Machinists & Lathes in Georgian England

Shop in which Lathes are used to make screw threads from Denis Diderots's Encyclopedia

Prior to last quarter of the 18th century the tools of the millwright, as the machinist of that day was known, consisted mainly of the hammer, chisel, file, and plane with the addition of a wooden rule and calipers for the making of measurements, but already included a crude lathe. With the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the lathe would become more and more important and precise. The name millwright comes from the master craftsman's origin as the builder of waterwheel and windmill powered grain mills, which produced flour. Precision manufacturing was at first, however, left to the watch and instrument makers who used small lathes that were as great a work of art as their watches and scientific instruments. Instrument maker Jesse Ramsden (1735-1800) is the most noteworthy in the history of lathes for his development of fine and even threads. Lathes were, of course, also used in furniture turning.

Millwrights repairing a mill by W H Pyne
Millwrights repairing a mill.

Benjamin Huntsman (1704-1776) working at Handsworth, near Sheffield, developed a purer and harder steel, known as crucible steel, for use in tooling. John Wilkinson invented a cylinder-boring device in 1774 that stands as the first modern machining tool. It would enable the far better known James Watt to build a full-scale steam engine.

Most lathes were driven by the operator with a foot pedal. For the turning of large or heavy objects on a lathe, such as table legs, the ‘great wheel’ was developed. These great wheels were often six feet or more in diameter and usually free standing in a position some distance from the lathe itself. Driven by a large cranked handle, sometimes one on each side, the lathe powered by one or two men who cranked the ‘great wheel’ as required enabled a relatively small amount of labor to rotate a heavy object. The mechanical advantage of the large wheel rotating once per several rotations of the smaller wheel attached to the lathe eliminated the drudgery that would result in rotating a large object with a foot pedal driven lathe. This separation of the power source from the lathe left the turner free to concentrate on the application of tools to the rotating piece on the lathe.

Turners Shop with Great Wheel in 1771 from Denis Diderot's Encyclopedia

The waterwheel was adapted to the driving of lathes in Northwest England in the early nineteenth century as a response to the huge demand for wooden bobbins used by the cotton spinning mills. The waterwheel and later the steam engine was used to provide a drive shaft that wood turners and early machinists used to power their lathes. Manufacturers often leased partitioned spaces to craftsmen in their factories. A belt would transfer the spin of the overhead drive shaft to the lathes.

New approaches to manufacturing were first applied in the United States to the production of firearms in a method using very precise lathes and other machines to produce components that could be used interchangeably. This allowed existing guns to be quickly repaired by replacing the damaged parts with parts held in stock rather than having to prepare replacement parts individually. Captain John H. Hall pioneered the production of standardized parts for the Harper's Ferry Arsenal that came to be called the American system of manufacture. Further improvement came with the development of the turret lathe in 1840 followed by the milling machine in 1861. Sir William Fairbairn (1789-1874), a millwright, wrote Treatise on Mills and Millwork in 1861, which laid out the latest methods of that day.

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