The Mechanical Genius and Works of the late Sir Joseph Whitworth

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Source: Manufacturer and Builder, June 1887

Mechanical Engineer > War Department

The following tribute to the memory of one of the greatest engineers that England has produced, was read at a late meeting of the Engineers’ Club of Philadelphia. We quote it in extenso:

Mr. John Fernie, C.E., member of the Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, etc., of England, delivered a most entertaining and instructive address upon “The Mechanical Genius and Works of the late Sir Joseph Whitworth.”

Full of years, of honors, of wealth, which he gained by the most unremitting toil and industry, there passed a way to the majority, on the 22nd of January last, one of the greatest of modern engineers.

I first made Mr. Whitworth’s acquaintance at Birmingham. Birmingham is one of the great manufacturing cities of England, standing on the edge of the 10-yard coal-bed, of what is called the Black Country. The abundance of cheap fuel and the energy of its people early developed it into a workshop of the most various industries, in iron, brass, silver and copper, principally known on this side for its guns, great manufactories of glass, of lacquered ware and electro-plate, of railway carriages and steam engines. Birmingham stands in the center of England, geographically; politically, it has a great voice in the affairs of the nation. It is a great liberal center, represented in Parliament by John Bright and Joseph Chamberlain; but to the engineer it has greater attractions, for here lived Matthew Boulton, who rescued James Watt from the clutches of Roebuck, and whose wealth and influence established the success of the steam engine; and here comes in a link which unites Pennsylvania to these old times. The Lunar Society founded by Watt and three other members; Dr. Darwin, whose name will never be forgotten, the genial progenitor of the greatest philosopher of our day; Matthew Boulton and Dr. Priestly, who discovered oxygen, who studied electricity in the light of Franklin’s discoveries, and who, when driven out of Birmingham by a rough mob, came over to the great State we live in and found a home and friends.

With these advantages and this precedent, it only seemed to follow in the natural order of things that some sixty years afterwards George Stephenson and a few kindred spirits should come to Birmingham to found an Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Our first presidents were the Stephensons, father and son. Our next president, William Fairbairn, was one of the most distinguished engineers of his day. He may very properly be called the Father of Experimental Mechanics. He was not much of a speaker, but he was an authority on almost every mechanical subject; on the strength and form of girders, steam boilers and tubes; on iron ships, on riveted joints, on the strength of cast and wrought iron; he was famous for his mill work; he gave us the first riveting machine, and his most famous design, the bridge over the Menai Straits, had been recently completed when he became our president.

Joseph Whitworth, who succeeded him, was one of a group of mechanical men who had done great work in their day – James Nasmyth, who invented and perfected the steam hammer; James Kennedy, who made the first inside cylinder engine with its crank shaft; Robert Napier, who made the first Cunard steamships; and John Penn, a great marine engine builder. All these men, except Mr. Nasmyth, became our presidents, and Mr. Whitworth, though physically the weakest in health, survived them all, except Mr. Nasmyth, who still lives in Kent at a good old age.

Joseph Whitworth was trained in a cotton-spinning machine shop in Manchester, and when he had finished his apprenticeship he went to London to get a better knowledge of his business than he could get in Lancashire. Those who have studied the life of Watt will remember that he did the same thing. So, in later years, Mr. Nasmyth tells us in his delightful autobiography how he went to London to improve himself in the mechanic arts, and what he learned at Maudsley’s, and what exquisite work was made there. Joseph Whitworth employed as a workman, soon distinguished himself by his skill, and was for some time employed in Mr. Maudsley’s private workshop, where his finest work was done.

It was as a workingman, fighting his way upward in the world, that he made his greatest invention – how to make a true, plane surface. The reasoning out of the process by which this was effected, “the superposition of three different planes and the cutting away of the higher points by a scraper, as compared with the old plan of filing and grinding, brought about a revolution in the workshops of the world,” was most astonishing as the work of an uneducated man, for what the ancient mathematicians supposed and dreamt about, “a perfect plane,” this man accomplished while toiling at his bench in Maudsley’s workshop. Mr. Whitworth, after leaving Maudsley’s, was employed at Holtzapfel & Clement’s Works, and it was in the latter that he was employed on Babbage’s famous calculating machine.

Having perfected himself as a workman, he now started in Manchester as a tool-maker, and very soon made his name known as one who only did the very best work. No one could have started at a more opportune time. Railways and steamboats were developing all over the world, and good tools could hardly be made quick enough, and he very soon realized a large fortune. It would be impossible for me to tell all that he did in the way of his improvements in tools, and I hasten on to his improvements in screw threads.

Mr. Whitworth was early impressed with the idea that if it were possible for all engineers to use the same sized taps and dies, not only a very great saving would be effected, but all work would be much better done. He therefore made a collection of all the screw threads of the different firms in England, and from these laid down a system which was a compromise of them all, was at once adopted by the railways, and very soon became as universal as if it had been by an act of Parliament. Only those who remember the chaos which existed before Whitworth’s system came into use, can have any idea of the confusion and waste of time and money which existed when everybody had their own thread and pitch, and declared that theirs was the best in the world.

Mr. Whitworth’s next great work was in establishing a system of fine measurement. To the great exhibition of 1851 he sent a measuring machine capable of measuring to the one-millionth part of an inch, and some years afterwards, in a paper read at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, advocated the adoption of the inch as the standard of measure for all mechanical engineering work, and that, instead of dividing it into eighths, it should be divided into tenths, etc. I may here briefly state that I was the first to adopt this system. I did my fine measurements with a machine after my own style. I proved that the system he sought to establish was a practicable one, and my adoption of it, as an independent worker, perhaps brought it more quickly into general use.

Mr. Whitworth had now accomplished the following great improvements in mechanical science 1. His plane surface. 2. His system of uniform screw threads. 3. His system of fine measurement.