After 1775, the growth of manufacturing industries made new demands on engineers. More steam engines were needed to power mills and workshops and manufacturers required greater efficiency – more work done per ton of coal burned. New consumer goods required specialised and highly accurate production machinery to cut and form steel, brass and iron. These needs stimulated the design of new, highly accurate machine tools – machines for making machines.
New steam engines required new machine tools to build them.
Watt-type steam engines needed an accurately bored steam cylinder, so that the piston fitted tightly into it. This was difficult to achieve however. Felt, paper pulp and even horse muck was used to form a seal between the two but all proved inadequate. One alternative – smoothing the inside of the cylinder by hand using abrasives was time-consuming and costly.
John Smeaton built a cylinder-boring machine in 1769 but this wasn’t very accurate. It was followed by John Wilkinson’s machine of 1775 which used a cutting tool mounted on a heavy rotating bar that was supported at both ends while the open-ended cylinder remained static.
Such was the accuracy achieved by Wilkinson’s machine that for 20 years all the cylinders for Watt’s engines were cast at Wilkinson's foundry. The spread of the steam engine would not have been possible without it.
In 1790 Joseph Bramah (1748–1814) was wrestling with the problems of manufacturing his new type of lock, patented in 1784. The lock was so complex it had to be expensively handmade, making it virtually unaffordable. Henry Maudslay was recommended to Bramah as the man to mechanise the lockmaking process.
Bramah was initially wary of offering ‘slender looking lad’ Maudslay the job. But within a year Maudslay had built a suite of lockmaking machines for Bramah. He had quickly achieved what Bramah, using hand techniques, had failed to achieve in six years.
John Farey later described Maudslay’s machines as a ‘systematic perfection of workmanship … at that time unknown in similar mechanical arts’. The machines were so valuable to Bramah that he kept them in a secret workshop, away from prying eyes.
Henry Maudslay had, for the first time, applied mechanised production methods to several components of an intricate assembly. Working for Joseph Bramah was a launch pad to a career of innovation in machine tool design.