Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws

Joseph Whitworth was one of the greatest Victorian Mechanical Engineers. His contributions to engineering are arguably as important as those of George Stephenson or Brunel.
Christopher McFadden

Sir Joseph Whitworth was one of the greatest Victorian mechanical engineers. His contributions to the world arguably rank alongside George Stephenson and Isambard Kingdom Brunel. His achievements weren't as conspicuous as railways or steamships but were equally as important.

Some of his important developments were his standardized of some machine tools that enabled railways and steamships to actually be built. His contributions to engineering were recognized in his day and are still highly regarded today.

Whitworth is not well known for his inventions but more for his great ability to perfect existing ideas. Often to extremely high standards. Joseph, to most. is best remembered for his promotion of true plane surface and, of course, the British Standard Whitworth system for screw threads.

Whitworth also devised the Whitworth Rifle. This was often called the "sharpshooter" because of its superb accuracy and is considered one of the earliest examples of a sniper rifle. Joseph Whitworth's promotion of standard measures and interchangeability also started an engineering revolution. 

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Source: Rstory/Wikimedia Commons

Joseph the taskmaster

Joseph was a very determined and headstrong man. His sheer force of character was often used to get his own way. It was said by his contemporaries that he was a difficult man to work with. This was partly due to him being a perfectionist. He demanded perfection and was highly intolerant of 'second best'.

Joseph was a hard taskmaster who openly spoke his mind. In a letter to her husband in 1846, Jane Carlyle wrote of Whitworth:

"Whitworth, the inventor of the besom-cart and many other wonderful machines, has a face, not unlike that of a baboon; speaks the broadest Lancashire; could not invent an epigram to save his life; but has nevertheless 'a talent that might drive a genii to despair' and when one talks to him, one feels to be talking with a real live man'."

His later years were consumed by his love of walking, riding, and billiards. He would also spend his winters in the French Riviera where he died in January of 1887.

After his death, most of his fortune was bequeathed to the people of Manchester. The Whitworth Art Gallery and Christie Hospital were partly funded by Whitworth's estate. Several streets are named in his honor in Manchester. 

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Source: Rept0n1x/Wikimedia Commons

Early years

Joseph Whitworth was born in Stockport, Chesire on the 21st December 1803. his father was a schoolmaster and dissenter who would later become a Congregationalist minister. John was home taught by his father until he was 12 years old

He would then become a pupil at the William Vint's Academy at Idle near Leeds. The academy itself was run by dissenters who used new teaching methods of a more practical nature. This earned the academy a very good reputation at the time. At the age of 14, Sir Joseph Whitworth began an apprenticeship with his uncle, Joseph Hulse, at a cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire. 

This apprenticeship was with an eye to him eventually becoming a partner at the mill. Here John became fascinated by machinery and he soon mastered the techniques of the spinning industry. Even at this tender young age, John was highly critical of the industries rough standards of accuracy.

This forged within John a lust to become a practical engineer who would work with machines. In 1821 at the age of 18, John Whitworth left the mill against the wishes of his family. John decided to join Crighton and Company. They were a leading machine making company in Manchester at the time. 

John would continue to work with several other engineering companies in the same area until he decided to move to London in 1825. Here he secured a position at Henry Maudslay's works at Lambeth Marsh.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Henry Maudslay. Source: P. S. Burton/Wikimedia Commons

Henry Maudslay the mentor

Henry Maudslay's own career began as a blacksmith making machinery for Joseph Bramah in 1789. Joseph Bramah was famed for his invention of a burglarproof lock. It was so successful, in fact, that it would remain unpicked for sixty-seven years. It is still in use in one form or other today.

The secret of this lock was the great precision used in its manufacture. It was this level of precision that would greatly influence Henry Maudslay later on when he formed his own company. Henry would put a lot of stock into precision in his own machines.

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In the early 18th century machines were generally primitive and were often man-powered, usually by foot. There were no overarching standard measures and parts needed to be individually engineered. Simple things like nuts and bolts were made to fit as a pair and were not interchangeable.

Henry Maudslay was among one of the first to understand the need for some form of standardization. He also recognized that a system of interchangeability of machine parts was also needed. He was also one of the first to realize the importance of a true plane surface, for obtaining precision in machine tool production. 

The sincerest form of flattery

Despite this, Henry's major contribution to engineering was the large screw-cutting lathe. Although the first was developed in 1770 by Jesse Ramsden, Henry's was far superior, however. So much so that it becomes widely used when compared to any of its predecessors.

Unsurprisingly, Joseph Whitworth chose Maudlay's works as his initial starting place for what was to become a very successful career indeed. 

Many other great engineers had the same idea. The likes of Richard Roberts, the inventor of the planing machine, Joseph Clement, the inventor of the water tap and James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer, for example.

It has been said that Maudslay's works became the breeding ground for men whose fame as engineers would equal his own' But it was Sir Joseph Whitworth who went on to do the most to perfect and popularise Henry Maudslay's ideas.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Whitworth Sniper Rifle Source: FlickreviewR /Wikimedia Commons

From apprentice to master

After completing his tour of duty at Maudslay's works, John would go on to work at Holtzapfell's and the Joseph Clement's works. He would return to Manchester in 1833 where he would begin his own company. His first sign proudly displaying "Joseph Whitworth, the Tool-Maker from London".

Joseph decided to specialize in the manufacture of machine parts. Most other engineers at the time made complete machines for their own use which were not generally for sale. His first works were in a small room in a mill. This space was rented, but the following year he moved to a larger premises in Corlton Street.

His first wage bill in May of 1833 was a measly £2, 10s. Thanks to his own labors his take home cash had now risen to £50. That was almost double the average wage by 1834.

During the early years of his business, he would spend more than this on equipment for his workshop. His time at the Vint's Academy had, fortunately, equipped Joseph with an excellent understanding of business affairs. Partly because of this his business subsequently prospered. Joseph's early work consisted of minor repair jobs. He also took on small jobs the likes of taps, dies, screw braces, a winepress and beam compass. His first major order soon came. It was a flute textile machine rollers machine. 

From strength to strength

Due to the rapid growth of the railway industry in the 1830's, there was great demand for machine tools. Manchester, among other large industrial cities, was a terminal point for the first public railway and a hub for local industry. In particular, textiles that were booming in the area. 1834 would see Joseph take out his first patent. This was for his screw cutting machinery. He would go on to apply for and take out 47 patents by 1878.

Mechanisation was rapidly expanding during a time that is said to have been a glorious time for engineers. By 1834 his workforce totaled around 15. This had increased to around 368 by 1854. And by 1874 his success had led to his ability to employ more than 750 workers.

The company's growing size meant it needed to relocate in 1880 to a larger premises. Whitworth found a suitable site in Openshaw. By this time his limited company had a workforce totaling over a thousand people.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Holtzapffel foot powered grinder Source: Jonp154 /Wikimedia Commons

Joseph was not a one trick pony

Sir Joseph Whitworth, like all engineers, reveled in tackling challenges. He would throughout his career take on various unusual items. One good example included the Besom Cart. This was a horse-drawn street sweeping machine that he patented in 1842. He also patented a knitting machine in 1846. 

His most important contributions were, however, his improvements to machine tools that sped up productions and improved accuracy significantly. Joseph was the first to push for both longitudinal and cross feeds using a single lead on one lathe. He would also patent the claspnut. This was a device used to connect the lead screw to provide a fast carriage return.

Joseph Whitworth's machines would become renowned for their great design and high degrees of accuracy. Each and every one would embody the man's talent and genius. Devices of his own invention would usually be incorporated into them, such as the claspnut. His machines would also prove to be resilient and practical. He realized early on that machines had to be built to a very high standard if they were to produce parts of equal quality.

Joseph would use true planes as the foundation of his work. These would play a very important role at Maudslay's works. It was here, after all, that Sir Joseph Whitworth turned his attention to the methods of producing true planes and conceived the idea of scraping instead of grinding.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Whitworth Hall in Manchester was named in honor of Joseph Whitworth by Alfred Waterhouse. Source: Stevo1000/Wikimedia Commons

Joseph Whitworth's obsession with precision

Joseph published his first paper 'Plane Metallic Surfaces or True Planes' in 1840 on this very subject. At this time True planes were still being produced by grinding and he pointed out that this was in fact detrimental. Joseph Whitworth, however, stressed that 'all excellence in workmanship depended on the use of true plane surfaces'.

As a result of his labors, Joseph Whitworth's surface plates would become well established by the mid 18th Century. They would also form the basis of an engineering revolution at the time.

Joseph was determined to achieve the highest of precision whenever possible. He would go on to construct a machine that could measure an accuracy of 0.0001 of an inch. He also developed another device that could detect differences of less than one-millionth of an inch, Impressive.

At that time, the standard method of measurement was the use of calipers and graduated rules. Engineers had become accustomed to working in 'bare' or 'full' measures until, that was, the 1830's. An article would later be written in the Manchester City News in 1865 stating that "Mr. Whitworth's foot rule, on which he had the thirty-second parts of an inch marked, was regarded as a curiosity, and many did not hesitate to affirm that to work to such a standard was an unnecessary refinement".

Joseph was one of the first people to point out the advantages of decimalization. For reasons obvious to us today.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Screw-making machine from 1871. Source: Jake73~commonswiki/Wikimedia Commons

Decimalisation and precision

Sir Joseph Whitworth would go on to use his measuring machines to develop his own system of standard gauges. But it should be noted that standard gauges had been in use since 1825. He pointed out to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1841 and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1856, during his presidency, that standard gauges, graduated to a fixed scale should be used as a constant measure of size.

The obvious benefit of this 'revelation' was that manufacturers could now mass-produce standardized, interchangeable parts at reduced costs. A literal win, win, win situation.

This led to a very quick step to the ability to produce a standardization of screw threads. Although the screw-cutting lathe was by now commonplace, manufacturers would each use their own thread sizes, despite Maudslay's earlier attempts to introduce uniformity of threads.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Graphic representation of formulas for the pitches of threads of screw bolts Source: HokieRNB/Wikimedia Commons

His famous screw threads

Joseph produced a paper in 1841 proposing a universal system for screw threads. Within it, he had collected a variety of screws and proposed universal thread using their average pitch and depth. This average was later dubbed the "Whitworth thread". It was the worlds first standardized screw thread with defined depth and pitch. The resultant thread gave the 'V' thread a mean 55 degrees with the number of threads per inch also defined per diameter.

His thread was first introduced in his own workshop and was in universal use by 1858. It was not until 1880, when his standard gauges and screw threads were in common use, that they were officially adopted by the Board of Trade. 


The Whitworth Rifle

When the Crimean War broke out in 1853, Whitworth turned his attention to arms production. Although he was a firm pacificist he firmly believed in the deterrent principle of defense. The British Army approached Whitworth in 1854 asking him to design and build machine tools for the mass production of the armies standard issue Enfield Rifle. 

After carrying out extensive tests at his home at the expense of the British Government, 20 patents would later be awarded to Joseph relating to arms production between 1854 and 1878. Joseph was very disappointed with the performance of the Enfield Rifle. To this end he decided to design and produce is own rifle, the Whitworth Rifle. This was a much smaller weapon with a considerably more effective hexagonal bore compared to the Enfield. The Times reported in 1857 on the official tests that "The Whitworth Rifle excelled the Enfield to a degree which hardly leaves room for comparison".

Despite its clear superiority to the Enfield Rifle, the design was rejected by the Ordinance Board in 1859. There reasoning was due to its smaller bore size and lower caliber. Whitworth's Rifle was used by the Rifle Brigade and large orders were also received by from the French Government. The Ordinance board would later accept the Martini-Henry Rifle much to the dismay of Joseph Whitworth. The Martini-Henry was based on the basic principles of his own rifle.


Whitworth's cannon

In 1862 Sir Joseph Whitworth also developed a powerful breech-loading cannon. Once again a bitter dispute began with the Ordinance Board when this was also rejected because it was not of the traditional design. The cannon was, however, supplied to France, New Zealand, and other foreign governments. It was even used in the American Civil War.

Sir Joseph Whitworth made some other critical contributions to mechanical engineering and firearms. He discovered that guns made from ductile steel would wear and lose their shape over time. Hard steel guns, on the other hand, would tend to explode when they were less than perfectly cast. He noted that to solve the problem manufacturers need to cast ductile steel into ingots without creating air pockets. These air pockets would otherwise make the metal 'unsound'. 

His solution was to adapt Bessemer's principle of hydraulic pressure casting. He patented the method in 1874 and the process would become known as 'Whitworth steel'. 

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Whitworth's 12-pounder breech-loading artillery piece. Source: Rcbutcher/Wikimedia Commons

The celebrated engineer

Joseph was officially recognized in his day as one of the foremost mechanical engineers. At the Great Exhibition of 1851, he won many awards. more so than any other exhibitor. 

Joseph would be elected as the President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1856. This was in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the development of industrialization and mechanical engineering. This was later followed by his election as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1857.

In 1863 he became an Honorary LL.D at Trinity College in Dublin. 1866 saw him once again elected as President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineering.

In 1867, at the Paris Exhibition, Joseph was awarded three bronze medals for his machine tools. He was also to become one of only five British 'Grand Prix' award winners. In 1868 Joseph Whitworth was conferred as an honorary D.C.L. by Oxford University and in 1868 he was awarded the Legion of Honour by Napoleon III of France. The same year he was also awarded the Albert Medal from the Society of Arts.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Memorial plaque to Joseph Whitworth at Darley Dale, Derbyshire. Source: JMiall/Wikimedia Commons

In 1872 Joseph was made a Commander of the Brazilian Imperial Order of the Rose. At the London International Exhibition, he won a silver medal in 1873 and a bronze in 1874. 1874 would also see Whitworth awarded a Royal Medal by Carlos VII of Spain.

His legacy

In 1853 Joseph Whitworth was appointed to serve on the Royal Commission to visit the New York International exhibition. He was so impressed by their working practices and their willingness to use labor-saving machinery that on his return he united with George Wallis and wrote 'The Industry of the United States in Machinery, Manufacturers and Useful and Ornamental Arts'. 

The following year Whitworth introduced some of the ideas from the American system. What we now called mass production, to his works. His facilities were extended and laid out in a much more systematic fashion. He also introduced new machinery to save time and labor.  It has been said that he was the founding father of modern production engineering in his day. Mechanisation and mass production were completely dependent on the engineering principles put forward by Sir Joseph Whitworth and the machines, which he and others were producing at that time.

In 1923, the then President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers founded the Whitworth Society. This Society still exists today and they meet twice a year.

Sir Joseph Whitworth: Master of Screws
Whitworth's Grave (center) in the grounds of St. Helen's Parish Church, Darley Dale. Source: Kxd192/Wikimedia Commons
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