Birth of The Machine Tool

In 1775, Inventor and industrialist James Watt of the Handsworth, England based industrial concern Boulton & Watt had a problem. Watt had made significant improvements in efficiency to the steam pump that Thomas Newcomen had invented, but did not have the means to shape the interior of his large piston cylinders with the precision necessary to make an efficient seal.

Another inventor/industrialist, the iron master John Wilkinson, had already invented a boring bar for making cannon. Wilkinson adapted the bar into one of the first adequately precise boring machines. To demonstrate his faith in his capabilities, he purchased the first Boulton and Watt pump that was bored with this machine to power the bellows for his expanding iron forge. Wilkinson continued to produce the cylinders for Boulton & Watt for over twenty years with an unprecedented level of precision and repeatability.

Innovation born of genius was the hallmark of the industrial revolution. These two features, precision and repeatability, were key to its success.

At the close of the 18th century, most machine parts were still being shaped by hand, crafted by a craftsmen, millwrights and blacksmiths. In England these occupations were highly regimented and developed in an institution was known as the guild system. But the rapid growth of industry taking place in England, America and north-western Europe demanded precision and repeatability impossible to achieve by these means for the rapidly increasing scale and scope of the day. Men such as Wilkinson and Watt rose to meet these demands and literally made the first machines which made machines.

Though the term would not be coined until nearly a century later, these tools for cutting metal, mills and lathes in the most general sense, were the first machine tools.

The industrial revolution was only one aspect of a number of inter-related changes occurring in 18th century England. There was an abundance of wealth from the preceding centuries won from many profitable enterprises of colonialization and trade. Advances in agriculture had created a population explosion which led to a surge of able bodied men and women into urban areas. Changes in banking had enabled a great deal of the new wealth to be available for investment and enterprise in a number of concerns for mining, metalworking, textiles and other industries.

Mines were opened, forges and factories were built and buisnesses were started all with an eye on the fierce competition of the day. In such an environment, innovations to boost productivity and reduce man-hours began at an exciting pace.

"We hardly realize the crudity of the tools available in the eighteenth century. In all machinery the principal members were of wood, as that could be worked by the hand tools then in use. The fastenings and smaller parts only were of metal, and consisted of castings and forgings fitted by hand. There were some lathes of the very simplest types...Such lathes were almost useless for metal cutting, as they lacked both the necessary power and holding device strong enough to guide a tool. There were a few rude drilling and boring machines, but no planing machines. The tool equipment of the machinist or millwright, consisted chiefly of a hammer, chisel and file." {1}

Yet only a generation after John Wilkinson began boring cylinders for Boulton & Watt's pumps, the basic forms of all of the machine tools used in the present day had been invented, built and put into production by English and American engineers.

It is very difficult to cite every inventor and advancement in the development of early machine tools as they were often the result of a number of parallel evolutions with little official record keeping. Moreover, these early innovations were almost exclusively engineered for a specific internal application rather than for sales of general purpose machines.

It was not until 1860 that the term "Machinist's Tools" was even first referenced in the eighth American census.

As machine inventors began to direct energies to producing machine tools for sale, rather than for their original applications, these machines were copied, often poorly and illicitly, which created the need for new patent laws to settle furious legal wars between engineering concerns as to who invented what.

"Nearly every great improvement has been invented independently by a number of men, sometimes almost simultaneously, but often in widely separated times and places. Of these, the man who made it a success is usually found to have united to the element of invention a superior mechanical skill, who first embodied the invention in such proportions and mechanical designs as to make it commercially available, and from him its permanent influence spreads." {1}

Thus, an exhaustive list of all of these early contributors, and detailed technical explanations of each innovation, are entirely beyond the scope of this essay.

James Wilkinson, as previously introduced, was a master iron smith and invented the boring machine. As his firm was already an established manufacturer of cannon for the royal navy, his was one of the earliest examples of a modern machine shop.

Joseph Bramah, a lock smith and cabinet maker, invented a slide-rest guided by a lead screw and change gears, crucial operational features of modern lathes. Bramah's young partner, the brilliant engineer Henry Maudslay, soon opened his own machine shop in which a generation of the more well known of the first English machine tool engineers started their careers.

Maudslay invented a planer to perform face-milling and with another Bramah employee, Joseph Clement, helped develop standard screw threads and a screw cutting lathe.

Mauldslay also lended his expertise to Marc Brunel and Samuel Bentham of the English royal navy, to develop a complete set of block making machines for the Portsmouth shipbuilding industry. There were forty-four of these machines which each performed single or sets of operations. The machines did the work of 110 skilled workers and produced over 130,000 blocks a year, a figure greater than that of six traditional dockyards.

Yet another employee of Henry Maudslay was James Nasmyth who famously invented the steam hammer. In the 1840's, Nasmyth helped to invent an index milling shaper. Nasmyth's shaper produced gears with necessary precision for mathematicians and engineers, such as Clement, who were standardizing sets of gearing that modernized mechanical propulsion.

As tools and methods improved rapidly into the 19th century, the tools for measurement lagged behind. Joseph Witworth, often referred to as the foremost tool builder of the 19th century, helped to develop modern measurement devices based on a system of "end-measurements". His tools were the first ever to be able to measure to a millionth of an inch.

In 1854 Witworth stood on a parliamentary committee on small arms which had invited the American gun manufacturer Samuel Colt to tour the munitions factory at Enfield.

"He lectured the members of the committee as if they had been school boys, telling them that the regular British gun was so bad that he would be ashamed to have it come from his shop. Samuel Colt's audacity, however, did not offend the members of the committee and they decided to visit his American factory at Hartford. They did; and were so impressed that the British Government purchased in America a full set of machines for the manufacture of arms in the Royal Small Arms factory at Enfield, England, and took across the sea American workmen and foremen to set up and run these machines. A demand sprang up in Europe for Blanchard copying lathes and a hundred other American tools, and from this time on the manufacture of tools and appliances for other manufacturers, both at home and abroad, became an increasingly important industry of New England. " {2}

England benefited earliest from a large skilled labor source. In contrast, the United States of America was a very new government in a largely agrarian society, very much struggling and of limited means. Even as Thomas Jefferson envisioned a society based on the prosperity and growth of the gentleman agricultural landowner, the young nation, New England especially, was acutely hungry for domestic industrial growth.

After the American revolution the English Parliament imposed a number of tariffs and other trade restrictions which, far from stifling the fledgling American economy, spurred it into action. One of the first industries to demonstrate this "Yankee ingenuity", was the cotton textile industry which, until the revolution, supplied English looms with much of its raw materials as much as early manufacturing tools were imported from English tool makers.

David Wilkinson, Sylvanius Brown, Samuel Slater, Alfred Jenks and Eli Whitney were all influential innovators in early American manufacturing. Most likely by using, copying and improving on English designs, these men invented many of the machines which revolutionized the textile industry in America. The machine which had the greatest impact in this industry was Whitney's cotton gin, but failing to secure the patent-rights, Whitney turned to the field of munitions where he made perhaps the greatest contribution to machine tool manufacturing of the day.

"In 1798, American Eli Whitney, secured a US government contract (for $134,000) to produce 10,000 army muskets. Whitney refined and successfully applied the "Uniformity-System" of production using inter-changeable parts. However, Whitney met bureaucratic disbelief and delays in implementing his ideas. He overcame these obstacles by convincingly demonstrating to President John Adams the workability of the inter-changeable parts concept. He showed Adams that randomly selected parts would fit together as a whole working musket. Whitney then single-handedly designed and built all the machinery to produce the weapons...all before a solitary worker entered the factory." {3}

Eli Whitney's great systematic vision for a modern machine factory undoubtedly benefited from his neighbor Simeon North who also won a government contract for manufacturing firearms. It is argued that it was North and his nephew who designed the Whitney Milling Machine and other devices which were crucial to early American arms making. Both Whitney and North’s munitions factories take the credit for establishing the U.S. arsenals at Springfield, Massachusetts and Harper's Ferry, Virginia. This feat was a grand testament to the effectiveness of a standardized system of interchangeable parts which caught the attention of the world's armies and then by all aspects of manufacturing.

The North-Whitney debate is also a prime example of how illicit copies and forgeries of successful machines were perpetrated at a great rate to satisfy the demand for industrial growth.

The Stevens family established another of the earliest New England Machine shops. John Stevens III, in addition to being an engineer, was a legislator who co-wrote the Patent Act of 1790 to help establish copy writes to protect the intellectual property his innovations.

Thomas Blanchard was another engineer whose innovations were used to stock the Springfield Arsenal. He invented a lathe that could quickly and precisely copy any pattern for turning irregular rifle barrels by following a keyed model that guided the tool.

The firm Robbins & Lawrence also made a milling machine that was improved upon by Douglas Lincoln of the Phoenix Iron Works in Hartford. This machine became universally known as the Lincoln miller. Together Lincoln's mill and Blanchard's lathe, among other other machines, won fame cutting parts for the Colt Armory in Hartford.

Samuel Colts new facility in Hartford was built in 1853. This factory, its machines and operation, was the genius of Elisha K. Root, Colt's brilliant mechanic and superintendent. Root's improvements on all of the existing available equipment and his system of gauges, fixtures, jigs and measurement, created the world's highest-grade privately owned armory which immediately caught the attention of the English House of Commons the following year.

Following Colt's audience in England and Joseph Witworth’s subsequent tour of the Hartford plant, the English government purchased "the American System" wholesale,

"157 machines for the manufacture of guns...75 millers, 23 drilling machines, five tapping machines, 7 edging machines...special machines for threading, rifling, turning, boring, and so on...the Ames Manufacturing Company went over to England to install the new system and operate the new plant and alone is said to have exported four to five hundred stocking machines of the Blanchard type on these early foreign orders. Within the next fifteen or twenty years nearly every government in Europe was supplied with American gun-making machinery, all planned to operate on the interchangeable system, which was known everywhere as 'the American system' {1}"

By 1861 The Colt Armory was the world's largest private armorer and also began to produce other items such as bicycles, sewing machines, typewriters, and of course, machine tools.

Frances A. Pratt and Amos Whitney who founded the Pratt & Whitney corporation, spent time employed with Colt. Like Colt, Pratt and Whitney exported gun making machines to Europe selling over $2 million in the 1870's. The firm also provided backing for the creation of the Rodgers-Bond comparator which was an essential tool in the development in modern linear measurement. Pratt and Whitney were industry leaders in making lathes and thread milling machines among hundreds of other machines into the 20th Century.

E.P. Bullard worked for Colt as well as Pratt & Whitney before eventually designing the widely used Bridgeport knee-type boring mill, the first small-scale boring machine that could perform millwork on the face plate of a lathe and is one of the most common basic machines that is found in the modern machine shop. This simple, yet extremely efficient machine also was the forerunner to today's multiple station vertical spindle machining centers.

Christopher Spencer too came from the Colt Armory and perfected the automatic turret lathe which Robbins & Lawrence created. This lathe remains a standard tool for turning bar-stock work today.

Machine tool manufacturing had begun to move west from New England in the middle 19th century. Worchester R. Warner and Ambrose Swasey met while working at Pratt & Whitney and founded the Warner & Swasey corporation in Cleveland as did E.C. Henn and Hakewessel of the National Acme Manufacturing Company which developed the multi-spindle automatic lathe.

Frederick Howe and the Brown & Sharpe company built many lasting innovations including the turret head screw machine and the universal miller which could machine the flutes in twist drills. Before joining up with Jospeh R. Brown and Lucian Sharpe, Howe had worked for the Robbins and Lawrence firm which helped develop the horizontal turret principal used by Elisha K. Root at Colt.

In addition to the turret screw machine, Brown had invented the linear dividing engine, a machine for graduating rules, and the vernier caliper in the early 1850's. These innovations led to the design of a precision index gear cutting machine.

Mr. Sharpe established a graduated standard for wire sizing now known as the AWG.

Another firm in Ohio, Cincinnati Screw and Tap, was founded by Frederick Geier. Geier's partner, Fred Holtz, built a mill with a counterclockwise rotating spindle and operating controls which became industry standards. The company became Cincinnati Milling Machine Company, a machine tool leader in the 20th Century.

Pennslyvania, rich in coal, iron ore, and rivers, became another center for machine tool manufacturing. The Bement & Sellers Industrial Works was founded in Philadelphia. William Sellers invented the spiral geared planer and helped develop a standards for screw threads and the thickness and hardness of machine parts such as bolts and nuts.

Bemnet & Sellers began to manufacture machines much larger and more robust than their counter-parts built in New England. For instance, they build an 8 foot tall and 128 foot long lathe to bore and turn sixteen inch cannon for the U.S. department of the navy. The lathe weighed half a million pounds and attracted attention from engineers from all over the world.

By the 1860 U.S. census, the machines introduced in this essay had already become very standardized. Increasingly they were manufactured and marketed for general purpose use and were able to be adapted to wide variety of applications. The machines became increasingly automated by mechanical means, guided by contouring jigs and cams and driven by variable feed spindles and gearing. These innovations would not be bested until the advent of servo machanisms and numeric control in the mid 20th century.

The increasing variety of standardized parts that could be produced on machine tools were being implemented in the next generation of machines. The machine tool industry had come of age and for the first time could be partially quantified.

"A quantitative study of the American machine tool industry in the latter half of the nineteenth century faces a data problem of formidable proportions. This results not only from the lack of statistical information,
common to many areas of research of that period, but primarily from the fact that it was not until the end of the period that a distinct machine tool industry emerged in the sense of group of firms whose principal product was machine tools. By the time that the sixth U.S. census was taken in 1860, in which "machinist's tools" were first recorded as an industry, the capabilities of American machine tool manufacturers were counted as "17 manufactories, a capital of $536,150, and 455 hands, and the value of the manufacture was $540,292" {4}

Machine tools which had scarcely existed 75 years previously had made possible the second phase of the industrial revolution. This second phase, which brought increased power plants in the form of advanced steam engines and later electrical motors and controls, would in turn power the exponential growth of industrialization in the western world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

"Hell, Yes! Industry Quest! Hell, Yes! Industry Quest! Hell, Yes! Industry Quest! Hell, Yes! Industry Quest!"


{1} extensive information for this essay was available from the essay "English and American tool builders" by Joseph Wickham Roe, of the Oxford University, 1898. Electronic scans are available at the following links and

other sources include




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