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Lathes To Computers

This is a great article on the history of machine tools and machine work. But it is also a history of the growth of early america and the United States. A Thank You needs to go, first to the author-unknown, to American Machinist for originally publishing this article, also to The Wayback Machine for archiving it, and to Pedro for finding it at The Wayback Machine and emailing me. My position here is that this article needs to be available for interested machinists and others to read, I don't think either of the other sites will be doing that. I gladly make it available while making no benefit from it -Note: The ads at the top of my pages are Angelfire's not mine. Enjoy, Pat McGuirk

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Former link to the article at the American Machinist site.

Article was originally printed: American Machinist, August 1996

An Industry Evolves: lathes to computers
A look at the developments, the innovators, and the forward-looking companies that have defined the machine-tool industry

The machine-tool industry got its start in England in 1774 when the first real machine tool was developed - a boring machine, devised by John Wilkinson, that produced the cylinders that made the Watt steam engine possible. This was about a quarter century before machine tools were produced in America.

Colonial restrictions.

In the early 1700s, the British Parliament made a series of decisions that, although intended to keep the colonies agrarian, provided an impetus to the development of machine tools in this country. The first act, passed in 1719, prohibited metalworking in the colonies, but did not stop the kind of handicraft industries in operation at the time such as brick kilns, breweries, glass works, paper and grist mills, and printing.

In 1750 an act was passed to encourage the importation of pig iron from North America, but limited the port of entry to London. Prior to this time, duty was paid on about 2,000 tons per year of pig iron from the colonies to England. Although the 1750 act removed the duty, the effect of the act was a stronger prohibition on manufacturing in the colonies. After June 24, 1750, there was to be "no mill, or other engine for slitting or rolling iron, or any plating forge to work with a tilt hammer, or any furnace for making steel."

At this time, from Massachusetts to Maryland, there existed four slitting and rolling mills, 12 tilt hammers, and five steel furnaces. There was no such equipment in Virginia, or any of the other Southern colonies.

This, and other restrictive legislation, led ultimately and inevitably to the Revolution which, of course, terminated all such restrictions. But, in England, they were replaced by tightened regulations on the export of both machinery and craftsmen that could help in the development of industry in the former colonies.

America responded in July 1789 by putting in place the first tariff act, which imposed some of the highest rates on slit and rolled iron, castings, mails, spikes and wool cards (the wire brushes used for carding wool). The intent of these tariffs was to stimulate the production of these items in the new nation. America was very much on its own.

In this country, the combination of an abundance of resources of land and raw materials and a critical shortage of labor, put a premium on any type of labor-saving device. This established an American attitude that would endure and later become crucial.

Wilkinson's lathe.

About 1783, 39-year-old Oziel Wilkinson (no relation to the British boring-machine developer) moved to the small village of Pawtucket. In his Pawtucket shop, Wilkinson made anchors, in addition to nails and general hardware. He also made farm tools and road-building tools at his forge. Oziel and his wife had 10 children, but the fourth child, David, became the most famous. At age six, he was heading nails with a rig his father devised for him. At 25, David built a steam engine and used it to propel a boat from Winson's Cove (some three miles from Providence) to Pawtucket, and back again. This was probably the first steamship in America.

In 1794, David Wilkinson developed a screw-cutting lathe with a slide rest. He obtained a patent on this lathe in 1798. The original design was about 20-ft long with a slide rest with three bearing points weighted to keep them firmly on the bed.

On a widely used smaller version, built in 1806, the bearings were arranged to make it easier to produce accurate work although trial cuts and final file contouring were necessary. Two bearing points were in line on the front prismatic way while the third rested on a slat rib at the back of the bed. Once the front way had been made as nearly straight as possible, the flat way could be contoured with a file to correct for irregularities that remained in the prismatic way. Trial cuts on a test piece would be used to govern file contouring.

In this way, the unavoidable errors of handwork were made to cancel each other. Thus, with this lathe, American mechanics of ordinary ability were able to inexpensively produce an unlimited quantity of slide-rest lathes. This goal had long eluded European mechanics.

Later, Wilkinson abandoned the rollers used under the slide in his original design and added a hanging weight to compensate for the lighter weight of the slide rest. "It worked like a charm," Wilkinson wrote later.

Although the total number of these lathes then in use is unknown, more than 200 were in use in government workshops in 1848.

Arms for a new nation

The first arms production in America is credited to Hugh Orr, a young Scot who started an iron works in Bridgewater, Mass., about 1738 to produce scythes and other edge tools. During the Revolution, Orr produced arms and supervised a second factory at Bridgewater to produce cannon, which were cast solid and then bored to the proper size. When, in 1775, the British imposed an embargo on arms and ammunition to the colonies, Congress urged the individual colonies to take steps to produce firearms. As a result, in addition to Orr's operations at Bridgewater, Stephen Jenks began to produce small arms in North Providence, R.I.

The next year Pennsylvania established a factory near Harrisburg to produce gun locks; barrels were purchased from gunsmiths. Maryland and the Carolinas offered to purchase all the muskets that gunsmiths could produce.

Springfield, in western Massachusetts, was considered a safe yet convenient place for military stores and, in 1778, Congress established a cannon factory. This plant attracted the artisans who had moved to the town to supply the military depot. Before the Revolution was over, magazines for arms had also been established at four other locations: West Point, N.Y; Philadelphia and Carlisle, Pa.; and New London, Va.

Guns remained a critical requirement after the Revolution. They were needed on the frontier, for hunting, and for defense. Moreover, relations with other countries were deteriorating.

The national arsenals. In 1791, Alexander Hamilton, at the request of Congress, presented a major report on manufacturers in which he recommended that national arsenals be established to store arms. Although he thought it desirable to establish government factories for producing arms, rather than depending entirely on individual enterprise, he suggested that a certain number be purchased each year to ensure the maintenance of the manufacturers that already existed.

Springfield was selected as the site for the first armory, which began operation in 1795. The master armorer was Robert Orr, son of Hugh Orr, who had produced 500 muskets for the Province of Massachusetts Bay in 1748. Within a few years, the Springfield Armory was employing 68 men and producing 4,000 muskets a year.

With the funds remaining from the original appropriation, a second central armory was established at Harpers Ferry, Va. Joseph Perkin, who ran a gun shop in Philadelphia and was the superintendent of the then closed arsenal at New London, was appointed superintendent of the Harpers Ferry armory. Private armories. According to the law creating the two armories, guns produced there were to be only for federal forces, not for state militias. Still the supply was inadequate and, in 1798, Congress passed an act appropriating $800,000 to purchase arms and ammunition from private sources. Among the contracts that were let were two that were to prove crucial. One was a contract for 10,000 muskets given to Eli Whitney, whose cotton gin had just changed the face of the South. Later contracts went to Simeon North for 2,000 pistols.

Several major additions to the group of private armories were made later, including Remington in 1816; Robbins, Kendall & Lawrence in 1845; and Colt's Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing in 1848. These manufacturers managed to develop, through a series of painful stages, an effective combination of machines and gages to provide true interchangeability of parts. And, by combining this technology with the factory system and the division of labor introduced in America by Samuel Slater, they created a system that spread from America to the entire industrial world as the "American System" of manufacturing.

Quest for interchangeability. A system of interchangeability based on hand filing, such as that introduced by Whitney, is difficult to sustain. It is possible for demonstration lots, but not for production day after day. What was still needed was a method of consistently machining parts. This would come with the development of the milling machine.

The first milling machine was probably made in 1818 and was described by Edward G. Parkhurst in American Machinist in 1900. Parkhurst, who as a superintendent at Pratt & Whitney invented the rod feed for screw machines, had seen the machine in 1851 when it was still in operation.

The next important step in the development of milling machines took place at Harpers Ferry Armory between 1819 and 1826 and was the work of John Hall who arrived in 1818 to establish his independent rifle works within the armory. Arms were produced with truly interchangeable parts that required no marking. Most numerous and most important of the production equipment were three types of machines that were called cutting engines for straight cutting, curved cutting, and lever cutting. The straight-cutting machines were plain milling machines. The curved-cutting machines were profile milling machines that have a rise and fall of the table in response to a pattern placed under the table. All that is known about the lever-cutting machines is that they were "similar in principle to some forms of hand-milling machines."

Hall's system of producing interchangeable parts did not rely entirely on the milling machine. He devised systems of case-hardened gages. One set was in the hands of the workers; a second set was used by the inspector; and a third-or master set-Hall kept in his office to check the working gages. In 1828 a contract was given to Simeon North to produce 5,000 Hall rifles in his Middletown, Conn., factory, the parts to be interchangeable with those produced at Harpers Ferry.

Progress in the ability to achieve uniformity included many other people. Springfield Armory played a leading role in this progress. Roswell Lee, superintendent at Springfield from 1815 to 1833, actively tried to introduce improved methods and sought to transfer ideas both to Harpers Ferry and to the private firms.

Lee was also quick to adopt ideas from private firms. At the request of a major contractor, a local mechanic-Thomas Blanchard-devised a lathe with a cam motion for tracing a master pattern to solve the problem of oval turning the base of a barrel.

When Lee heard of this, he invited Blanchard to the Springfield Armory and supplied shop space to provide Blanchard with steady employment so the inventor could perfect his machines. Among the many machines that resulted was the famous Blanchard stocking machine-an awkward-looking, ungainly, but highly efficient machine for turning the irregular shape of the wooden stock of a rifle. Until then, stocks had to be carved by hand.

Spread of the "American system." The story of how the "American system" of manufacture spread from Harpers Ferry to New England to Europe is the story of the meteoric rise and fall of a new producer of guns: Robbins & Lawrence of Windsor, Vt.

In about 1844 the young firm won a contract to produce 10,000 rifles in three years. Although, at the time, they had no plant, no capital, and no machinery, the principals knew a great deal about the manufacture of guns. Richard S. Lawrence was a brilliant mechanic. They got his equal when they hired Henry D. Stone and acquired an even better mechanic when they hired Frederick W. Howe. The contract was completed 18 months ahead of schedule and another for 15,000 guns soon followed. In 1851, the company exhibited a set of rifles produced under the second contract at the World's Fair in London's Crystal Palace. The guns, with unmarked, interchangeable parts, generated great interest and were awarded a medal.

In 1855, Robbins & Lawrence received orders from England for 157 machine tools to equip a new armory at Enfield. These machines were extensively copied in England and Germany. The Robbins & Lawrence machines that went to Enfield were the first substantial export of machine tools from America. Large orders followed, from many countries and to many different machine-tool builders. This was a major turning point in American industry.

About the same time that Robbins & Lawrence was opening export markets for the American system, Samuel Colt was constructing an impressive new plant in Hartford to manufacture his new weapon with a revolving series of chambers firing through a single barrel. He had to erect a mile-long dike that was 100-ft wide at its base to keep the Connecticut River from flooding the property. Behind this embankment, Colt built seven buildings, five with four stories and two with a single story. The building had cast-iron columns to support the line shafting. The shafting was 15-in. in diameter and served as a continuous pulley so machines could be placed under it as close together as possible. The shafting was powered by five steam engines providing a total of 900 hp. Under this line shafting and its forest of belts were 1,500 machine tools, the majority of which had been invented and constructed on the premises.

Among the people who matured at the Colt works and went on to head their own companies were Francis Pratt, Amos Whitney, Charles Billings, Christopher Spencer, William Gleason, and E. P. Bullard.

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