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The Development of Machine Tools

The early British engineers were masters of precise machinery; L.T.C. Rolt describes how sophisticated mass-production overtook them from America.

Even if a layman has occasion to visit an engineer’s machine shop, he emerges with no very clear idea of what is going on. His walk down a long machine-lined aisle while his guide shouts incomprehensible explanations above the roar and chatter of the machines leaves him stunned and bewildered.

But for all their bewildering complexity, most modern machine tools are either adaptations, or greatly refined versions, of three tools, the lathe, the drilling machine and the grindstone, whose origins go back into pre-history. It is broadly true to say that until the eighteenth century the lathe and the drilling machine were used to shape or to bore wood or the softer stones and were powered either manually or by foot treadle.

The only significant exception to this generalization was the water-powered cannon-boring mill which was introduced about 1540. The so-called ‘hammer ponds’, which today remind us of the vanished iron industry of the Sussex Weald, were in most cases used, not to power hammers, but to drive primitive boring mills.

With hindsight, we can now appreciate the true significance of these early cannon-boring mills. Their message was that for working the harder and more stubborn iron the old man-powered tools were not good enough and that something more massive and power-operated would be demanded by the second Iron Age. But this Industrial Revolution would demand something more than mere power; it would call for power combined with increasing accuracy.

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