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Machine Trades Throughout History

Human beings are natural toolmakers. We could never have survived our primitive beginnings with only our puny muscular strength to rely on. Somewhere in the past, one of our ancestors picked up a stone and tied a stick to it or sharpened a piece of flint to use as a knife and thus created tools. With these and other extensions of our natural powers, we could survive and make progress that was marked by tools and machines, which became increasingly complex as we learned more about the laws of nature. Of course, it was only when we discovered and began to use metals like copper and iron and their alloys that our real ingenuity as toolmakers became apparent.

By the middle Ages there already existed a large body of knowledge in the fashioning of metals. The mechanics of Europe, Asia, Africa, and other parts of the world could work iron and steel to make the finest swords and weapons as well as body armor for the warriors. Metalworkers knew enough of the laws of physics and mechanics to build machines for pumping water, milling flour, cutting and forging metals, printing books, and besieging fortified castles and cities. Machine tools, like the lathe and the drill, had been used for centuries, although in primitive forms. What was lacking, however, was cheap power in large and dependable amounts. The only power available was generated by slaves or animals or provided by capricious winds and falling water.

A most instructive and interesting survey of the industrial world of eighteenth-century Europe is provided by the great French Encyclopedia of the Trades, Crafts and Industries of that period. The eminent French philosopher, Denis Diderot, took twenty-five years to complete this work, which consists of thirteen large folios or books. They contain drawings, diagrams, engravings, pictures, and descriptions illustrating practices and procedures in such trades as metalworking, cannon founding and finishing, textile weaving, cabinet-making, masonry, and many others commonly practiced in France at the time. These illustrations show graphically the trade practices that transformed raw materials into finished and usable products. For the machinist, most interesting would be the engravings showing the mechanics of the day as they proceeded step by step in their work, as in the casting and finishing of cannons and the diagrams of the machine tools of the day. The thirteen original volumes of Diderot's encyclopedia have been published in the United States but condensed into three folios, which can be seen in many of the larger libraries of our country.

By the eighteenth century, an industrial revolution was well on its way in England and in parts of continental Europe that was to transform societies whose economies were based on agriculture into highly industrialized communities by the end of the nineteenth century. Many basic inventions such as the spinning Jenny and the automatic weaving loom in the textile industries led to the beginnings of the factory and manufacturing systems we know today. All this created a growing demand for cheap, dependable, and plentiful power, which the crude, low-powered, and undependable steam engines of the early days could not supply. In Scotland and England a machinist named James Watt (1736-1819) turned his attention to this problem. Watt was an inventive genius, an instrument maker with several inventions to his credit, whose devices were used by the very active astronomers and scientists of the day.

Watt created several devices that solved the problem of a power source for the steam engine. He added a steam condenser, made the engine into a double-acting one in which the piston was driven back and forth by the steam and by ingenious valving, transformed this action into a rotary one, added a regulator to the valves, added a governor to regulate steam flow and to provide a safety measure, and by solving these problems, designed an improved boiler.

With these and several other ideas, he finally arrived at a safe, dependable, powerful steam engine which was the main source of power for the industrialized world until well into the twentieth century when the steam turbine and the internal combustion engine took over.

While Watt had solved the technical problems of a workable and dependable steam engine, his greatest difficulty now lay in getting the parts of the engine machined so that they would fit and work together. For example, the crude machine tools of the day could not cut or bore the large steam cylinder of Watt's engine round and close enough to prevent steam under pressure from escaping past the piston, which was supposed to move within the cylinder.

At this point John Wilkinson (1728-1808), the greatest iron master and metalworker in England at that time, came to Watt's aid by developing and building a boring machine that did the job sufficiently well to make the steam engine workable. In James Watt's own words:

It was this marvelous advance in heavy machine tool technique that transformed Watt's designs to a practical reality and laid the solid foundation for the great industrial changes of the next century. Furthermore, as happens often in the history of human progress, Wilkinson's improved boring machine was followed by a torrent of inventions and improvements that completely transformed the machine tools and measuring devices of the day.

The modern, versatile king of machine tools, the lathe, began to emerge from its ancient form. The milling machine was invented, drill presses were improved, grinders came into being, the turret lathe was invented and improved, the metal planer appeared, and a host of other machines and devices were added to the machine shop. In addition, measuring became more precise with the invention of the micrometer, the vernier, the height gauge, and many other precision measuring devices. Finally, with the appearance of the practical dynamo and motor, an electro-generator was hitched to the steam engine and our modern machine age began.

Thus, with the advent of cheap, almost unlimited, and dependable power, a complete revolution began not only in production methods but also in the field of metalworking. Machine tools were rapidly improved and new ones invented. Consequently, by the close of the nineteenth century, there was in the United States a large body of journeymen machinists, proud of their trade and restless-often moving from job to job according to their moods. Among them were many specimens of that marvel of human skill and ingenuity, the "Yankee mechanic." The emergence of the automobile, the springboard by which many of these mechanics rose to fame and fortune, provided further impetus.

These skilled mechanics of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century esteemed their crafts. Contemporary accounts tell us that the toolmaker of seventy-five years ago was the king of the shop and he bore himself like one.

They wore top hats and frock coats to work, carried gloves and walking sticks. They didn't wear these while they worked-but they wore them on the street to show they were proud of their profession ... on the job they wore a dinky white apron ... in the old shops, the row of pictures of men in top hats in the front hall of the shop wasn't of the board of directors-it was of the toolmakers, and was a guarantee of ability ... Remember, that a good man doesn't have to get all dirtied up to prove he's working.

The twentieth century has been the age of discovery. Machinists now have at their command undreamed-of facilities, such as electrical power and controls, hydraulic devices, electronics, automatic machine tools using numerical controls, carbolic cutting tools, and others, all of which have provided them with marvelous new machine tools, measuring devices, steels, metals, and plastics. The one-eighth of an inch accuracy of which James Watt boasted now has given way to measurements often held to ten thousandths of an inch and even closer. The skills of machinists have kept pace with the progress of science and invention. The scope of their job opportunities has been widened immeasurably. New, formerly undreamed of metals are being allowed to challenge their skills. New, almost fantastic devices are being designed daily to challenge their ingenuity.
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