Grace's Guide To British Industrial History

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Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 163,139 pages of information and 245,599 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 147,919 pages of information and 233,587 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.

Joseph Whitworth

From Graces Guide
Joseph Whitworth (1803–1887).
Joseph Whitworth (1803–1887).
Joseph Whitworth (1803–1887).
Joseph Whitworth (1803–1887).

Sir Joseph Whitworth, Baronet (1803–1887) of Joseph Whitworth and Co was an English engineer and entrepreneur.

1803 December 21st. Joseph Whitworth was born at Stockport, the son of Charles Whitworth (1782–1870) and Sarah (1780–1814), the daughter of Joseph Hulse. His father was a loom frame-maker in the textile industry who, when his wife died in 1814, put his three young children in the care of foster parents and took advantage of an offer to train for the Congregationalist ministry. See Whitworth Genealogy. Joseph was aged 11 at the time, and appears never to have spoken to his father again.

1817 Aged 14. Joseph was indentured as an apprentice at a cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire, with the view of becoming a partner. This was Amber Mill at a place called Toadhole Furnace near Oakerthorpe, Derbyshire. He was there until 1821. His uncle, the owner of Amber Mill, was Joseph Hulse.

1821 Aged 18. At a young age he developed an interest in machinery and started work as a mechanic for Crighton and Co in Manchester.

1822 Worked for Marsden and Walker

c1823 Worked for Thomas Houldsworth and Co

1825 February 25th. Aged 22. At Ilkeston, Joseph married Fanny Ankers (1800–1870), the daughter of a barge-master of Tarvin in Cheshire

1825 Started at the London workshops of Henry Maudslay.

Later he worked for Holtzapffel and Co, Wright and Sons and Joseph Clement. At Clement's workshop he helped with the manufacture of Charles Babbage's calculating machine. Probably at Holtzapffel he met Henry Wright who was son of a well-known millwright at L. W. Wright and Co

1833 Aged 30, he returned to Manchester, where he first rented in Port street and then, in May 1833, he rented a room with steam power at 44 Chorlton Street, and put up a sign, ‘Joseph Whitworth, tool-maker, from London’. This later became Joseph Whitworth and Co. He commenced his own business manufacturing lathes and other machine tools, which were renowned for their high standard of workmanship. At his works in Manchester, Whitworth also designed rifles and artillery. [1]

1834 Patent sealed: 'To Joseph Whitworth, of Manchester, machinist, for improvements in an apparatus for cutting screws.—Sealed 27tb February—6 months for inrolment.'[2]

1836 'Joseph Whitworth, of Manchester, in the county palatine of Lancaster, engineer, for certain improvements in machinery for spinning and doubling cotton, wool and other fibrous materials. Sealed Nov. 19, 1836.-Six months.[3]

1837 Patented a variable speed drive for lathes. Described and illustrated in the American Machinist in 1903 [4]

1830s He developed an economical method of producing accurate plane surfaces, using colouring matter (the forerunner of today's 'engineer's blue') and scraping techniques on three trial surfaces. Some claim that the same three plate method already existed, using grinding techniques, giving less accurate results. The development led to an explosion of development of precision instruments using these flat surface generation techniques as a basis for further construction of precise shapes. 'The following is his own account, of his idea of "a true plane," and of the mode in which he applied it: "Up to that time the most accurate planes had been obtained by first planing and then grinding the surfaces. They were never true. My first step was to abandon grinding for scraping. Taking two surfaces, as accurate as the planing tool could make them, I coated one of them thinly with colouring matter, and rubbed the other over it. Had the two surfaces been true, the colouring matter would have spread itself uniformly over the upper one. It never did, so, but appeared in spots and patches. These marked the eminences, which I removed with a scraping tool till the surfaces became gradually more nearly coincident. But the coincidence of two surfaces would not prove them to be planes. If one were concave and the other convex, they might still coincide. I got over this difficulty by taking a third surface, and adjusting it to both of the others. Were one of the latter concave and the other convex, the third plane could not coincide with both of them. By a series of comparisons and adjustments I made all three surfaces coincide, and then, and not before, know that I had true planes."'[5]. See also observations in the 1888 obituary below.

1840 Aged 37. His next innovation was a measuring technique called "end measurements" that used a precision flat plane and measuring screw, both of his own invention. The system, with a theoretical resolution of one millionth of an inch, was demonstrated at the 1851 Great Exhibition.

1840 New patents: 'Joseph Whitworth, of Manchester, engineer, and John Spear, of the same place, gentleman, for certain improvements in machinery, tools, or apparatus for cutting and shaping metals and other substances.- Sealed 17th November - six months for inrolment.'[6]

In 1841 Whitworth advocated the first nationally standardized system for screw threads. His system became widely adopted. See below.

1848 Death notice: 'On the 31st ult. at Northowram, aged 39 years, Charlotte, eldest daughter of the Rev. Charles Whitworth, and sister of Mr. Joseph Whitworth, machine maker, of this city.'[7]

1850 Whitworth received many awards for the excellence of his designs, and was financially very successful. In 1850, then a Fellow of the Royal Society and President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, he built a house called The Firs in Fallowfield, south of Manchester.

1853 Whitworth was appointed a member of the Royal Commission to the New York Industrial Exhibition. George Wallis was another member. He subsequently wrote a special report which embodied the results of observations made in the course of a journey through the industrial districts of the United States. He noted that 'The labouring classes are comparatively few in number; but this is counterbalanced by, and indeed may be regarded as one of the chief causes of the eagerness with which they call in the aid of machinery in almost every department of industry. . . . It is this condition of the labour market, and this eager resort to machinery, where it can be applied, to which, under the guidance of superior education and intelligence, the remarkable prosperity of the United States is mainly due'.

1854 Whitworth and George Wallis were witnesses to the Select Committee on Small Arms. [8]

In 1854 he bought Stancliffe Hall in Darley Dale, Derbyshire.

1855 Whitworth designed a large Rifled Breech Loading gun with a 2.75 inch (70 mm) bore, a 12 pound 11 ounce (5.75 kg) projectile and a range of about six miles (10 km). The spirally-grooved projectile was patented in 1855. This was also rejected by the British army, who preferred the guns from Armstrong, but was also used in the American Civil War.

1856 Aged 53. Joseph Whitworth was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers

1856 Subscribed £25 to the Smith Testimonial Fund, commemorating the work of F. P. Smith in promoting the screw propeller.

1859 Whitworth was commissioned by the War Department of the British government to design a replacement for the Pattern 1853 calibre .577-inch Enfield rifle, whose shortcomings had been revealed during the recent Crimean War. The Whitworth Rifle had a smaller bore of 0.45 inch (11 mm) which was hexagonal, a longer bullet and tighter rifling than the Enfield, and its performance during tests in 1859 was superior to the Enfield's in every way. The test was reported in The Times on April 23 as a great success. However, the new bore design was found to be prone to fouling, so it was rejected by the British government, only to be adopted by the French Army. Some of these rifles found their way to the Confederate states in the American Civil War, where they were called "Whitworth Sharpshooters". Queen Victoria opened the first meeting of the British Rifle Association at Wimbledon, in 1860 by firing a Whitworth Sharpshooter from a mechanical rest. The rifle scored a bull's eye at a range of 400 yards (366 m).

1861 Living at Stancliffe Hall, Darley (age 57 born Stockport), an Engineer (Master). No family listed although he is shown as married. Four servants. [9]

Whitworth had an enduring interest in trying to improve the cleanliness and health of the city, and patented a street sweeping machine. Another illustration arose in 1861: 'MANCHESTER COUNCIL. A meeting of the Council was held on Wednesday, at the Town Hall, ..... PROPOSED EXPERIMENTS UPON SEWAGE. Upon the minutes of the lamp and scavenging committee being submitted for approval, Councillor JOHN HEYWOOD drew the attention of the Council to a letter which had been written by Mr. Joseph Whitworth to the committee. Mr. Whitworth asked for leave to divert the sewage from nine waterclosets, and to prevent it going into the River Medlock, in order that he might experiment upon the practicability of making it into some kind of manure. This privilege the committee had refused to Mr. Whitworth. He thought It was unadvisable, when gentlemen like Mr. Whitworth were anxious to make experiments which might benefit the whole country, to prevent them.- Alderman GOADSBY moved, as an amendment, that the proceedings be approved of with the exception of that part which referred to Mr. Whitworth's letter.- After some discussion, upon the suggestion of the Town-clerk, the following resolution was passed by the Council: That, considering the great importance of the subject involved, the lamp and scavenging committee be requested to consider the application made to them by Messrs. Whitworth and Co., to be allowed to utilise the night-soil from their works that now pass into the public sewers.'[10]

While trying to increase the bursting strength of his gun barrels, Whitworth patented a process called "fluid-compressed steel" for casting steel ingots under pressure. There are references to hollow projectiles of compressed steel in the press in 1866 [11]

1867 At the Paris Exhibition he was awarded one of the five ‘grands prix’ allotted to Great Britain.

1868 A strong believer in the value of technical education, Whitworth backed the new Mechanics' Institute in Manchester, which was to become UMIST, and helped found the Manchester School of Design. In 1868, he founded a scholarship for the advancement of mechanical engineering. In recognition of his achievements and contributions to education in Manchester, the Whitworth Building of the University of Manchester's Main Campus is named in his honour.

In September 1868, after witnessing the performance of one of the Whitworth field-guns at Châlons, Napoleon III made him a member of the Légion d'honneur, and about the same time he received the Albert medal of the Society of Arts for his instruments of measurement and uniform standards.

1869 Aged 66. He was created a baronet.

1870 October 18th. Frances, his first wife dies. 'Whitworth, 28th ult. at the Forest House, Delamere, Lady Frances Whitworth, aged 70 years' [12]

On 12 April 1871 he married Mary Louisa (1829–1896), daughter of Daniel Broadhurst, and widow of Alfred Orrell of Cheadle.

In 1872 he moved to Stancliffe Hall with his second wife.

In 1874 he converted his extensive works at Manchester into a limited liability company Joseph Whitworth and Co.

Whitworth & Co built a new engineering and steel works at Openshaw near Manchester. Some of their castings were shown at the Great Exhibition in Paris ca. 1883.

1887 January 22nd. Died aged 84 at Monte Carlo, where he had travelled in the hope of improving his health. He was buried at the church of Darley (or Darley Dale) St Helen in Derbyshire. A detailed obituary was published in the American magazine The Manufacturer and Builder (Volume 19, Issue 6, June 1887). He directed his trustees to spend his fortune on philanthropic projects, which they still do to this day.

1896 Mary Whitworth survived her husband, dying on 26 May 1896 and, there being no children from either marriage, the baronetcy became extinct.

1897 Joseph Whitworth and Co was merged with Armstrong, Mitchell and Co to become Armstrong Whitworth

Screw Threads

In 1841 Whitworth proposed the first nationally standardized system for screw threads. Its adoption by the railway companies, who until then had all used different screw threads, led to its widespread acceptance.

In the UK the dominance of the Whitworth thread system was eventually challenged by Unified threads, and then displaced following the official adoption of the metric system. However the Whitworth form remains dominant in international pipe thread standards, except in the USA.

Inevitably the British Whitworth thread system would not find official acceptance in the USA, and a system was adopted based on the work of William Sellers. Various advantages were claimed for that system, not all of which stand up to scrutiny. However the American Machinist reported in 1912[13] that the Whitworth form dominated in the USA for locomotive boiler stays. One of the stated reasons was 'the undoubted fact that the Whitworth thread makes a stronger bolt for both tension and vibratory strain'. In fact this was an over-simplification. Whitworth had formulated his thread dimensions to suit the commonly-used materials of the day (wrought iron, cast iron, brass). With the wider adoption of steel, it was found that threads of finer pitch - still using the Whitworth form - were stronger. These were developed into the British Standard Fine threads.

Both coarse and fine systems came into wide use, the coarser threads being "British Standard Whitworth", abbreviated to BSW and governed by BS 84:1956. The Whitworth form was also used for pipe threads (originally called 'Gas thread', later BSP).

Machine Tool Structures

Whitworth is credited with introducing the 'box' or hollow frame structure for machine tool beds and columns.[14]. Prof John E. Sweet wrote in the American Machinist in 1903 that 'Whitworth adopted the rectangular box section for machine framing in the early days of his machine tool industry. Sellers adopted it, experiments showed that the same material put in that form was thirteen times more rigid against bending than the common style plate and cross girder plan, and yet our machine tool builders persist in following the old plan.'[15]

Machine Tool Feed Mechanism

Whitworth invented an arrangement for machine tools whereby the method of feeding the tool could be changed manual to self-acting simply by turning a handwheel to engage a friction clutch. It was applied to a variety of machines including lathes and drills. A writer in the American Machinist described it as 'One of the earliest and most ingenious feeding motions for spindles'. However, he felt that its non-survival showed that it failed to meet the requirements for practical use.[16]

1887 Obituary [17]

1888 Obituary [18]

JOSEPH WHITWORTH was born at Stockport on the 21st of December, 1803. His father, Charles Whitworth, was a schoolmaster; his mother was a daughter of Mr. Joseph Hulse. At his father’s school Joseph Whitworth received his early education.

When twelve years old he was sent to the school of a Mr. Vint, at Idle, near Leeds, where he remained a year and a half. His uncle was a cotton spinner in Derbyshire, and at the age of fourteen young Whitworth was sent to learn the business. He had a decided taste for mechanics, and during the four years he was under his uncle he mastered the construction and working of every machine in the place, so that there was none which he could not make or mend. But his taste was too strong for the arrangements his relations wished to make for his future.

He made up his mind to be a mechanic, and in 1821 went to Manchester to work in the mechanics’ shop of Crighton and Co. His first ambition was to be a good workman, and he often in later years said that the happiest day he ever had was when he first earned journeyman’s wages.

In 1825 he married Fanny, youngest daughter of Mr. Richard Ankers, and shortly afterwards came to London, to the workshop of Messrs. Maudslay. He soon won a position as one of the best workmen, and while here he made his first great discovery, which consisted in the mode of construction of a set of perfect plane surfaces. Up to that time the most accurate planes had been obtained by first planing and then grinding the surfaces. They were never true, and young Whitworth became possessed with the idea of making a true plane. At the next bench sat a Yorkshireman named John Hampson, a good workman and a good fellow, who took an interest in his young companion’s work. One day as they worked Whitworth ventured on an idea. 'If these planes were true, one of them ought to lift the other.' 'Tha knows nowt about it,' was the cynical reply of steady-going experience. Whitworth kept on at his problem, working quietly at his lodgings. His first step was to abandon grinding for scraping. 'Taking two surfaces,' he said, when telling the story afterwards, 'as accurate as the planing tool could make them, I coated one of them with colouring matter and then rubbed the other over it. Had the two surfaces been true, the colouring matter would have spread itself uniformly over the upper one. It never did so, but appeared in spots and patches. These marked the eminences, which I removed with a scraping tool until the two surfaces gradually became more coincident'

But while his skill as a workman was thus being made the most of, Whitworth‘s mind was not idle. He saw that his first thought was not enough. Two surfaces might lift each other by fitting perfectly and yet not be true planes. One might be convex and the other concave. A new light came. Make three surfaces. If each will lift either of the others they must be planes and must be true. After another stage of skilful labour the three planes were made and the test fulfilled. The Sunday after the problem was solved Whitworth called on his old mate. 'John,' said the young man, 'come to my house ; I’ve something to show you.' The true planes were exhibited. 'Ay! tha’s done it,' said John. That was probably the greatest moment in a great life. Joseph Whitworth had perceived that a true plane was the first thing needed for the improvement of mechanical construction. He set to work to produce it, and by sheer clear thinking and honest work he did produce it. The invention was characteristic of the man. It was an ideal of perfection first conceived as desirable, and then once for all finally and absolutely realised. This is the distinguishing mark of Whitworth’s genius. Having once seen a want, and having grappled with the problem, he thought the matter out and solved it.

On leaving Maudslay’s, Whitworth worked at Holtzapffel’s, and afterwards at Clement’s, where Babbage’s calculating machine was at that time in process of construction.

In 1833 he returned to Manchester, where he rented a room with steam power, and put up a sign 'Joseph Whitworth, Tool Maker, from London,' thus founding n workshop which soon became and has to this day remained the model of a mechanical manufacturing establishment.

In 1840, at the meeting of the British Association, held in Glasgow, Whitworth read a Paper on 'Plane Metallic Surfaces, and the Proper Mode of Preparing them,' in which, besides explaining in detail the method employed in the preparation of true planes, he pointed out some of the departments in which their application was destined to prove of incalculable value. 'A true surface,' he said, 'instead of being in common use, is almost unknown; few mechanics have any distinct knowledge of the method to be pursued for obtaining it ; nor do practical men sufficiently advert either to the immense importance or to the comparative facility of the acquisition. . . . The want of it in various departments of the arts and manufactures is already sensible. The valves of steam engines for example, the tables of printing presses, stereotype plates, surface plates, slides of all kinds, require a degree of truth much superior to that they generally possess. In these, and a multitude of other instances, the want of truth is attended with serious evils. . . . . The extensive class of machinery denominated tools affords an important application of the subject. Here every consideration combines to enforce accuracy. It is implied in the very name of the planing engine. The express purpose of that machine is to produce true surfaces, and it is itself constructed of slides, according to the truth of which will be that of the work performed. When it is considered that the lathe and the planing engine are used in the making of all other machines, and are continually reproducing surfaces similar to their own, it will manifestly appear of the first importance that they should themselves be perfect models.'

Whitworth seems to have set before himself from the beginning an ideal of perfection in mechanical construction beyond the mildest dreams of his early contemporaries. The true plane rendered possible an accuracy which was a new thing in the mechanical world. The next step was to introduce a system of measurement of ideal exactness. At the time referred to, a good workman had done well if the shaft he was turning or the cylinder he was boring was 'right to the 1/32 of an inch.' This was, in fact, a degree of accuracy as fine as the eye could usually distinguish. Whitworth felt that it was altogether inadequate, and resolved to trust to the sense of touch. If two plugs be made fitting into a round hole they may differ in size by a quantity imperceptible to the eye or to any ordinary process of measurement ; but in fitting them into the hole the difference between the larger and the smaller is felt immediately by the greater ease with which the smaller one fits. In this way a child can tell which is the larger of two cylinders differing in thickness by no more than 1/5000 of an inch. It was to this perception of differences by comparison with a standard through the sense of touch that Whitworth appealed. Standard gauges, consisting of a hollow cylinder and a pair of solid cylinders to fit but differing in diameter by the 1/1,000 or the 1/10,000 of an inch, were given to his workmen, with the result that a degree of accuracy inconceivable to the ordinary mind became the rule in the shop. To measure these minute differences was a harder matter. A child, it has been said, can tell which of the two cylinders fits the hole the more loosely and is therefore the smaller. But by how much do the diameters differ?

To ascertain this, and indeed to render the construction of the gauges possible, Whitworth made his measuring machine, which is an application of his first work, the true plane. A system of planes is arranged so that of two parallel surfaces the one can be moved nearer to or further from the other by means of a screw. The turns of the screw measure the distance over which the moving plane has advanced or retired. Suppose, then, a bar of steel is placed between the two surfaces, and the moving surface is advanced until the two surfaces hold the bar and prevent its falling. Experience shows that the bar will fall if the distance between the surfaces is increased by an incredibly small amount.

Thus in the machine used in the Whitworth workshop the Screw has twenty threads to an inch. It is the axle of a large wheel divided along its circumference into five hundred parts. If, then, the wheel be turned one division, the movable surface is advanced or retired by 1/500 of a turn of the screw - that is, by 1/10,000 of an inch. This slight difference is at once perceptible at the bar between the surfaces, for it makes the difference between the bar being firmly held and its dropping. Some of Whitworth‘s measuring machines have gauged in this way fractions smaller than the millionth of an inch.

In the year 1841 Whitworth read at The Institution of Civil Engineers, a Paper on 'An Uniform System of Screw Threads.' At the time when he began his career as a manufacturer, the screws used in fitting up steam engines and other machinery appear to have been manufactured without any system. There was no rule regulating the proportionate strength of the thread and centre part of the screw, nor settling either the pitch, the depth, or the form of the screw thread. Whitworth perceived the advantages which would arise from uniformity of system. He made an extensive collection of screw-bolts from the principal workshops throughout England, and in this way ascertained the average dimensions of the screws in common use. Upon this basis he established his system of screw threads, which had already in 1841, been adopted exclusively on many of the railways, and in some of the most extensive engineering establishments in England and Scotland. Seventeen years later he was able to record the universal adoption of the system he had recommended.

In 1842 Whitworth produced a street-sweeping machine, which, after being in operation for ten months in Manchester, was reported to have changed that town from one of the dirtiest into one of the cleanest of the large English towns. The apparatus consisted of a series of brooms attached to two endless chains running over an upper and a lower set of pulleys, which were suspended in a light frame of wrought-iron behind a cart. As the cart wheels revolved they gave a rotatory motion to the pulleys carrying the endless chain, and the series of brooms attached to them, which, being made to bear on the ground, successively swept the surface, and carried the soil up an incline over the top of which it dropped into the cart. The machines were for some time in use in Manchester, Newcastle, and Birmingham, and were considered to be cheaper, more efficient, and more convenient than hand labour. He presented a description of this apparatus to the Institution.

Between 1840 and 1850 Whitworth invented and patented a number of new machines, of which the most important were the duplex lathe, and the reversing tool of the planing machine.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 gave Whitworth his true place in the public estimation, for the remarkable collection of engineers’ tools, and of his various inventions which he there brought together - among them the measuring machine - gained him the reputation of being the first mechanical constructor of the time.

In 1853 Whitworth was appointed a member of the Royal Commission to the New York Industrial Exhibition. The incomplete state of the machinery department prevented his reporting upon it, and the special report which he drew up after his return to England embodies the results of observations made in the course of a journey through the industrial districts of the United States. The details of this report have now probably only a historical interest, but some of Whitworth‘s general conclusions deserve to be permanently recorded. 'The labouring classes,' he wrote, 'are comparatively few in number; but this is counterbalanced by, and indeed may be regarded as one of the chief causes of the eagerness with which they call in the aid of machinery in almost every department of industry. . . . It is this condition of the labour market, and this eager resort to machinery, where it can be applied, to which, under the guidance of superior education and intelligence, the remarkable prosperity of the United States is mainly due'

In 1856, Whitworth was President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and during the meeting at Glasgow delivered from the chair an address in which most of his favourite ideas are briefly explained. He sets out from the want which probably at that time was his principal difficulty of 'iron of great strength free from seams, flaws, and hard places.' It was to the production of such a material that he looked to escape the error of excessive size in the construction of the moving parts of machines. 'It should be,' he said, 'an axiom in mechanics, that whatever has motion should be as light as circumstances will admit.'

Having called attention to what he considered the two great elements in constructive mechanics - the true plane, and the power of measurement - he proceeded to discuss the question of proper gradations of size in all the various branches of the mechanical arts. 'I think,' he said, 'no estimate can be formed of our national loss from the over-multiplication of sizes. Take, for instance, the various sizes of steam-engines - stationary, marine, and locomotive. In the case of marine engines, the number of sizes up to 100 HP. will probably not be short of thirty, where ten, perhaps, would be ample. If so, look at the sums expended in patterns, designs, and in the number of tools for their manufacture. Nor is this all ; for if there were only ten sizes instead of thirty, there would be three times the number made of each pattern; and, as you know, the very soul of manufacture is repetition. By attention to this the ship owner would be benefited by getting a better engine at a less price. In the case of locomotives and carriages I would urge the subject on the attention of our members the engineers of the great lines of railway-the London and North-Western, the Midland, the Great Northern, for instance. I hope they will permit me to suggest that they should consider and determine not only the fewest possible number of sizes of engines a d carriages that will suffice, but also how every single piece may have strictly defined dimensions. This question is also well worthy the attention of our architects and builders. Suppose, for instance, that the principal windows and doors of our houses were made only of three or four different sizes. Then we should have a manufactory start up for making doors, without reference to any particular house or builder. They would be kept in stock, and made with the best machinery and contrivances for that particular branch; consequently, we should have better doors and windows at the least possible cost.' From these reflections he was led on to the subject of decimalizing weights and measures. He was in favour of the adoption of the inch as the unit or integer of lineal measure, and thought that 'smal1 accurate standards of length of the decimal parts of an inch would be of much service to some trades.'

In the same address occur passages which show that Whitworth was keenly alive to the economical and social consequences of mechanical improvement. 'The large outlay of capital,' he said, 'invested in machinery to increase production, makes it impossible to curtail the hours of working machinery as much as could be desired. In some cases, two sets of work-people have been employed in relays, each working eight hours a day ; and this system, perhaps, may in time be extended, although it is attended with certain inconveniences. If, however, the relay system could be so improved and organized as to allow more time for the better education of young operatives, none would more cordially rejoice than myself. I believe that mechanics, though a mere material power in itself, may, if rightly used, become a moral lever, by which, like Archimedes of old, we may seek to raise the world.'

At the meeting of the same Institution held in 1857, Whitworth, who was still President, communicated a Paper, 'On a Standard Decimal measure of length for mechanical engineering work, &C.,' in which the idea thrown out at Glasgow was expanded and developed. He explained his method of measurement by the sense of touch, and his system of gauges. The gauges gradually obtained a widespread use, and in 1881 were adopted by an Order in Council as Board of Trade standards.

In the beginning of the year 1854 the Board of Ordnance requested Whitworth to design and give an estimate for a complete set of machinery for manufacturing rifle muskets in their contemplated new factory at Enfield. With this request, in the comprehensive form in which it was made, he did not feel himself justified in complying. It was then proposed that he should undertake the construction of the machinery for making the rifle barrel only. Before giving an answer he stated that he wished to visit the establishments of the principal gun makers, and obtain from them all the information he could. He found great differences of opinion among the gun makers, and the information he received was so contradictory that he was unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion. He subsequently offered to make a series of experiments in order to ascertain on what principles rifle barrels and their projectiles ought to be constructed, and to supply a single set of machinery for their manufacture, provided a gallery for shooting was erected under his direction, where he might make the necessary experiments and obtain facts which would enable him to form a correct judgment.

After some delays the Government acceded to Mr. Whitworth‘s suggestion, and the gallery was built, and finally completed in March, 1855.

Early in 1857 Mr. Whitworth was able to report the conclusion of his experiments, and to offer for trial the rifle barrel which he had constructed upon the principles which in the course of his investigations he had established. The official trial of the Whitworth rifle, and its comparison with the Enfield took place in April, 1857, and The Times Report (April 23, 1857) stated that 'in accuracy of fire, in penetration, and in range, the Whitworth excels the Enfield to a degree which hardly leaves room for comparison.'

Whitworth began by rejecting the clumsy systems of rifling previously in vogue, and at once introduced in his experimental barrels a system that he considered mechanically perfect. The ordinary methods of grooving caused the whole of the work of guiding the bullet to fall upon the grooves of the barrel, and the projections of the bullet. Whitworth, by using a barrel of which each side was a straight line, distributed the guiding power over the whole circumference. A section of his barrel is a hexagon with the angles gently rounded. The hexagon turns as it passes along the barrel, but at every point of the bullet’s course to the muzzle it must lie evenly in the grasp of all the sides. The bullet was cast to fit the hexagonal barrel, so as to avoid the distortion of shape that results from expanding a soft bullet into grooves.

This system, in which the bore is a rotating polygon, was applicable to barrels of all sizes, from a lady’s rifle to a 100-ton gun. Whitworth always asserted that no other method gives the same certainty of producing the effect desired - that is, the regular rotation of the projectile on its axis - and that no other form of barrel can be manufactured with the same accuracy.

Using this system of rifling, Whitworth made a barrel having the same degree of twist as the Enfield rifle then in use - viz., one revolution in 78 inches. The barrel was 30 inches long. 'Upon this barrel,' he wrote, 'the utmost care and attention were bestowed, and it was made as perfect as possible, for I was anxious to test its utmost capabilities. The results however, were altogether unsatisfactory. The obvious advantages of using long projectiles led me to make very many experiments with them. I at first tried them with rifles having a slow turn, and found that whenever their length much exceeded that of the ordinary-sized conical bullet they invariably turned over in their flight. I endeavoured to remedy this defect by using metals and combinations of metals of different densities, so as to place the centre of gravity in every position that was likely to give more steadiness to the flight. But no change of shape, or combinations of metals, or alteration of the position of the centre of gravity enabled me to use a very long projectile - they all turned over on leaving the barrel, as was made apparent by the marks left by them on passing through paper screens placed near the muzzle. Having exhausted all my resources in prolonged but ineffectual endeavours to use the rifle with the 78-in. turn for long projectiles, I resolved to try the effect of increased rotation by employing a quicker turn. With the view of ascertaining what loss of elevation there might be in consequence, I made a barrel 39 inches long, with what I considered at the time an unusually quick turn of one in 10 in., which gave nearly four turns for the barrel, instead of the half turn previously adopted. On trying the barrel with four turns in comparison with the military rifle having half a turn, I found to my great satisfaction, that it gave an equal elevation. This and subsequent experiments, made with barrels rifled with still quicker turns, prove beyond all doubt that the requisite amount of rotation might be given to the various projectiles without any sacrifice of elevation. . . . I also found, as I expected, that I had no difficulty in firing projectiles of any desirable length without their having a tendency to turn over.' He tried barrels with one turn in 20 inches, one turn in 10 inches, one turn in 5 inches, and one turn in 1 inch. In this way he exhausted the subject, and proved that increased rotation neither diminished the range nor heightened the trajectory.

Having thus discovered the means of firing a bullet of any length so as to keep its axis during its flight in the true direction, the next point to settle was what length of bullet gave the best range. The final result was in favour of a bullet of from 3 to 3.5 calibres in length. The essential factor thus obtained, the proportion between the length of the bullet and its diameter was, according to Whitworth, the basis of all gun construction. Upon this basis, at any rate, he constructed his rifle. He had been asked by Lord Hardinge to make his barrel to fire a bullet weighing 530 grains, the weight of the Enfield bullet. Given the shape of the bullet and its weight, its diameter is a matter of calculation. Whitworth having decided on a length of three diameters, and the weight being given by Lord Hardinge, the calibre of the rifle was thus fixed. It was 0.45 inch, considerably smaller than the Enfield, which was 0.577 inch. Hence the Whitworth rifle was known as the 'small bore.' The rifle barrel asked for by the Government had thus been made.

It was repeatedly tried, both by Government Committees and at Wimbledon, and its advocates consider that its superiority was established beyond question. But on being referred to a Committee, this body, in 1859, reported that 'the bore of the Whitworth rifle was too small for use as a military weapon.' Compare with this the report of another Committee of Officers made in 1862, 'that the makers of every small-bore rifle, having any pretensions to special accuracy, have copied to the letter the three main elements of success adopted by Mr. Whitworth, viz., diameter of bore, degree of spiral, and large proportions of rifling surface.'

In 1869 a Special Committee reported to the War Office that the calibre of a breech-loading rifle should be 0.45 inch, as appearing to be the most suitable for a military arm. This conclusion is directly contrary to that arrived at in 1869, but coincides exactly with what Whitworth recommended in 1867.

In 1864 a Committee of Officers recommended that breech-loading arms should be adopted for the British service, but Mr. Whitworth was not asked to submit a breech-loading rifle. After a series of committees and trials, the Martini-Henry rifle was adopted in 1871. The Martini-Henry is a combination of the Martini breech mechanism with the Henry barrel, in which some of the principles demonstrated by Whitworth in 1857, viz., the long bullet and quick twist, were adopted. The 0.45 inch bore, which Whitworth had proved to be right for the 530-grain bullet, was retained, but the weight of the bullet was reduced by the Committee to 480 grains. The shooting of the Martini-Henry, therefore, never equalled that of the Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle of 1857 with the 530-grain bullet, for which it was designed.

If a lighter bullet was to be introduced, the proportions of the rifle needed to be modified to suit the altered conditions. Whitworth therefore made a breech-loading rifle to fire the reduced weight of bullet (480 grains) and the same charge of powder (85 grains) as the Government Martini-Henry. For the lighter bullet he reduced the bore from 0.45 inch to 0.4 inch, and increased the rifle twist from one turn in 20 inches to one turn in 15 inches. The polygonal bore of this rifle has twelve sides instead of six, as the twelve-sided form better suits the rifled cartridge designed for it. This rifle, the last made by Whitworth, is probably the most accurate weapon at present in existence.

His experiments, undertaken with a view to the construction of a rifle, led Whitworth to attempt the construction of guns. He had perfect confidence in the truth of the principles which he had ascertained by experiment, and in the soundness of his own method of rifling. Accordingly, his gun differed from his rifle only in size and in such respects as are the necessary consequences of a difference in size. The ballistic performance of the gun, like that of the rifle, surpassed all that had been previously recorded. Neither the one nor the other, however, found favour with the military advisers of the Government. A Special Committee was appointed to report on the Whitworth and Armstrong guns, and after a long series of trials, in 1864 and 1866, presented a voluminous Report. Whitworth's friends consider that in these trials the Whitworth gun proved its superiority in range, penetration, accuracy, and endurance. But the gun was not adopted by the Government.

It was after the termination of this contest that Whitworth made the greatest of his later discoveries. Experience had taught him that hard steel guns were unsafe, and that the safeguard consisted in employing ductile steel. A gun of hard steel, in case of unsoundness, would break up with terrific results, whereas a gun of ductile steel would bulge and tear under the action of pressure, but would not fly into pieces. When ductile steel, however, is cast into an ingot, it is found in practice that nearly the whole length of the ingot will be subject to honeycomb or air-cells, and will be unsound. Whitworth discovered that the difficulty of obtaining a large and sound casting of ductile steel might be successfully overcome by applying extreme pressure to the fluid metal. A further guarantee of soundness consists in the substitution which he effected of the hydraulic press for the steam hammer in the subsequent process of forging. Upon this subject may be quoted an impartial authority, the report of the Gun Foundry Board, appointed in 1883 by the Government of the United States. 'The Board was allowed the privilege of carrying on its investigations within the works, where, under orders from Sir Joseph, his representatives exhibited, with explanations, the operations carried on in this unique establishment. It may be distinctly asserted that the experiences enjoyed by the Board during its visit amounted to a revelation. . . . In speaking of the Whitworth establishment at Manchester as unique, and of the process of manufacture at that place as a revelation, reference is specially made to the operation of forging. . . . The system of forging consists in compressing the liquid metal in the mould immediately after casting, and in substituting a hydraulic press for the hammer in the subsequent forging of the metal.'

The two processes are thus described by the Gun Foundry Board:- 'The flask is made of steel, and is built up of sections united by broad flanges bolted together in such numbers as to accommodate the length of the ingot to be cast. All moulds are cylindrical in form. The interior of the flask is lined with square rods of wrought iron, longitudinally arranged, which form, when in place, a complete cylindrical interior surface. Where the square edges of these rods meet they are cut away, both on the inside and on the outside, and, at intervals of 2 inches, small holes are drilled through between the rods, forming a channel-way from the interior to the exterior for the passage of gas and flame. The interior is then lined with moulding composition. The flange at the bottom of the flask, as well as that at the top, is perforated with small holes, which act as a continuation to the perforations between the segments of the lining for the escape of gas. The casting is made directly into the mould from the top. On the completion of the casting, the mould is moved (by means of a railway at the bottom of the casting-pit, which is a deep trench running parallel to the position of the furnaces) to a position under the movable head of the press, which is allowed to descend until the tup is in contact with the metal in the mould, and in this position it is locked; a shower of metal is induced, which ceases almost as soon as commenced, by the complete closing of the mould. The first impress felt by the metal is due to the weight of the head of the press alone. This pressure is gradually increased from below by hydraulic action, applied by four rams upon the table on which the flask rests, until the pressure exerted amounts to 6 tons per square inch. The interval from the commencement of the pressure until the maximum is reached varies with the size of the ingot, being for a 45-ton ingot as much as 35 minutes. During this time the flow of gas and flame from the apertures in the flanges of the flask, at top and at bottom, are (sic) continuous and violent, exhibiting the practical effect of the compression. This pressure is applied by the direct action of steam and pumping engines, and is indicated by a dial. At the end of this time the pump is taken off, and a uniform pressure of about 1,500 lbs. per square inch is established by attaching an accumulator to the press, and allowed to remain until the metal is sufficiently cooled to insure no further contraction in the mould. The contraction in length in the mould during the action of the pump, while the maximum pressure is being reached and sustained, amounts to one-eighth of the length of the ingot. After this effect has been produced, there is no further advantage derived from the pressure in the way of eliminating impurities, but the contraction, in cooling, still goes on, and the pressure by the accumulator is considered necessary in order to follow up the metal as it contracts, for the purpose of preventing cracks being inaugurated at the end, and on the exterior of the ingot, by the adhesion of particles of the metal to the sides of the mould When cooled and reheated, the ingot is brought under the influence of the forging-press. This press is hydraulic, with a moving head having the main hydraulic cylinder fixed in it, and it is provided with an arrangement of mechanism for raising and lowering the moving head of the press, and for locking the same in any desired position. The press has four hollow pillars screwed part of their length, which are attached to the base of the press by nuts. On the top of the pillars is fixed a cast-iron head or table, supporting two hydraulic lifting cylinders, the rams of which are fitted with cross-heads carrying four suspension bars. These bars pass through the moving head, and are connected at the lower ends by cross bars, which are fastened to the pressing ram. The moving head works between the base and the top or fixed head of the press, and is raised or lowered by the admission or exit of water from the under side of the rams of the lifting cylinders. The moving head can be firmly and rapidly locked at any height from the base which may suit the work to be operated upon. The moving head, as already mentioned, carries a forging or compressing cylinder, which forces a ram down upon the work. By attaching the compressing cylinder to, and making it part of, the moving head, a short stroke can be employed when forging objects which may vary in size from a few inches to several feet in diameter.'

The soundness of steel produced by these processes has been subjected to very severe tests. In October, 1872, 1.5 lbs. of powder were exploded in a cylinder made of Whitworth fluid-compressed steel, with no other escape for the gas generated than a vent 1/10 inch in diameter. The cylinder was accurately measured, both externally and internally, before and after the explosion, which caused no alteration in any of its dimensions. The vent, however, had been enlarged in diameter from 1/10 inch to 1/5 inch.

The name of Whitworth is inseparably connected with the progress of technical education in England, which at no time received a stronger impulse than from the foundation of the scholarships offered as a permanent national endowment in the following letter :-

'28, Pall Mall, Manchester, 18th March, 18G8.

'Sir,- I desire to promote the engineering and mechanical industry of this country by founding thirty scholarships of the annual value of £100 each, to be applied for the further instruction of young men, natives of the United Kingdom, selected by open competition for their intelligence and proficiency in the theory and practice of mechanics and its cognate sciences.

'I propose that these scholarships should be tenable on conditions to be defined by a deed of trust regulating the administration of the endowment fund during my life, and that thereafter the management of this fund, subject to the conditions specified therein, should vest in the Lord President of the Council or other Minister of public instruction for the time being.

'I venture to make this communication to you in the hope that means may be found for bringing- science and industry into closer relation with each other than at present obtains in this country.-I am, &C.,

'To the Right Hon. B. Disraeli, M.P.


The scheme of endowment here set forth was carried out, and the founder, up to the close of his life, continued to take a deep interest in its management. Ten years later he wrote to the Secretary of the Science and Art Department, suggesting considerable alterations in the conditions of the tenure of the scholarships, and offering to defray any additional expenses which might be involved in the change.

The record of Sir Joseph Whitworth's public services would not be complete without a reference to his endeavours to reach a just solution of the problem involved in the relations between capitalist and workman. Speaking on this subject in 1877, he said:- 'The relations between foremen engineers and employers have lately become of a much more intimate character, particularly in concerns that have availed themselves of the Limited Liability Act. The foremen engineers have themselves become employers. Three years since, on the 31st of this month, I converted my business into that of a company under the Limited Liability Act, but not in the usual sense where the public are asked to take shares. In my company, myself, the foremen, and others in the concern, twenty-three in number, hold 92 per cent. of the shares, and have the practical control, while the remaining 8 per cent. of shares are held by others. . . . There was no goodwill to be charged for, and the plant was taken at a very low valuation. The shares of £25 were offered, as many as could be taken, to the foremen, draughtsmen, clerks, and workmen. The foremen, besides their salary, receive a percentage upon all that is earned above 5 per cent. For the workman who has not the means to buy shares, arrangements have been made that will, I think, solve some of the difficulties between capital and labour. When the workman who intends to save receives his wages, he deposits with the clerk appointed what he thinks fit. This money is employed in the concern as capital, and whatever dividend is paid to the shareholders, the workman is paid for his deposits in the shape of interest on them. It has been said that these terms are more favourable to the workmen than to the shareholders; but the shareholder provides only capital, and as the workman devotes both his labour and capital, the terms ought to be more favourable. If the workman, from sickness or other cause, wants to withdraw what he has deposited, he can, by giving three days’ notice, receive one-fourth ; six days’ notice a half, and twelve days’ notice the whole of what stands to his credit. When a workman leaves he must withdraw his deposit ; and if he holds shares he must sell them to the company at the price he paid for them.'

Whitworth’s great mechanical and scientific activity, and his unbounded liberality in the foundation of the Whitworth Scholarships, were not without some public recognition. In 1857 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, and was made LLD. (Dublin) and D.C.L. (Oxford). In 1867 he received at the Paris Exhibition one of the five great prizes allotted to England. In 1868 he was appointed by Napoleon III to the Legion of Honour. In 1869 he was created a baronet.

Sir Joseph Whitworth’s first wife died in 1870, and in 1871 he married Mary Louisa, widow of Mr. Alfred Orrell. For about a quarter of a century Sir Joseph lived at The Firs, Fallowfield, where the well-known shooting gallery still recalls him to the neighbours. His later years were spent at Stancliffe, near Matlock, in the county of his boyhood and early manhood.

He was a great gardener, and used to spend a considerable part of the summer in superintending the transformation of a series of unshapely quarries into one of the most wonderful parks in England. When his advancing age made it difficult to bear the trying climate of an English winter, he formed the habit of wintering in the Riviera. But he was not fond of going abroad, and attempted to establish a Riviera climate for himself by constructing a large conservatory at one end of his house. With the aid of the promenade thus provided, he was able to remain at home during the winter of 1885-6. The following winter, however, he spent at Monte Carlo, where he died on the 22nd of January, 1887.

At the meeting of Council on the 25th of January, reference was made to his death in the following terms, a copy of the minute being ordered to be sent to Lady Whitworth:- 'The death of Sir Joseph Whitworth, Bart., F.R.S., having been reported, it was moved by Sir John Coode, Vice-President, seconded by Mr. Berkley, Vice-President, and 'Resolved, that the Council of the Institution of Civil Engineers desire to offer to Lady Whitworth their sincere sympathy and condolence in the bereavement she has sustained by the death of her husband, Sir Joseph Whitworth, Bart., F.R.S., Member of Council; and to place on record their high appreciation of the distinguished services rendered by their late colleague during many years in promoting the advancement of the practice and teaching of mechanical science - the primary object of the Institution.'

It remains only to be added that Whitworth joined the Institution as an Associate on the 23rd of February, 1841, his proposer and seconder then certifying that he was worthy of the distinction 'because of the eminence he has attained in the construction of tools and machinery'; that he was transferred to the class of Members on the 11th of January, 1848, when he had been for fourteen years in business on his own account, and had acquired distinction 'in the construction and adaptation of machinery,' one of the functions of the Civil Engineer as defined in the Charter; and that he was elected a Member of Council at the Annual General Meeting on the 18th of December, 1855 - a position he retained till his death, with the exception of six years, 1864-70.

He bequeathed to the Institution eighty fully paid-up shares of £25 each in the Company called 'Sir Joseph Whitworth and Company, Limited,' shares which under the special circumstances the Council were advised they could accept, and which have been duly registered in the name of 'The Institution of Civil Engineers'

Sir Joseph Whitworth was a man of simple and healthy tastes. Apart from his mechanical work and his garden, he found amusement in his farm and in his horses and cattle, having been in his early days a great rider. He was also a man of strong unbending will, and his unfortunate treatment by the Ordnance Department was perhaps in part due to his inflexible determination. He would not modify a model which he knew to be right out of deference to committees, who, he considered, were incomparably his inferiors in technical knowledge, and who, being officials, were liable to take offence at the plain speaking of one who regarded official and infallible as far from synonymous. His tastes were definite, and he knew well the boundaries - which, however, were by no means narrow - of his intellectual interests. But especially to those who shared his mechanical tastes he was a delightful companion, clear and direct in all his expressions, and revealing, even in the smallest matters, the characteristic of genius - an infinite capacity of taking pains.

The story of Sir Joseph Whitworth's inventions, which has here been briefly told, is an illustration of the truth that the secret of progress lies in method, in the rational adaptation of means to ends. In whatever branch of activity men are content to work at random, neglecting to ascertain the necessary conditions of the problem, or the natural laws that govern the matter of their labours, advancement is seeming rather than real, and lives are thrown away in needless toil. But an examination of the nature of the problem, and an analysis of the difficulties it presents, reveal principles to which effort must conform, and open a way along which every step is a step in advance. Whitworth's early inventions form a series of far-reaching advances in mechanical construction, resulting from the application of a sound method to a few apparently simple problems. The history of the construction of the Whitworth rifle throws additional light upon the due of method. It shows how in a special branch of applied mechanics the investigation and establishment of principles furnished the constructor with an infallible guide, and enabled him to produce results which, after a lapse of nearly thirty years, appear to be final. Sir Joseph Whitworth's treatment of his work people, and his munificent foundation of the scholarships which bear his name, are, like his discoveries, the outcome of an effort to extend the influence of reason into every department of action. The world has record of very few lives that have contributed more largely than Whitworth's towards what he conceived to be the great task of humanity-to establish the supremacy of intelligence over the material universe. The great benefactors of mankind, however, have seldom been granted that happiness which might have come from the due appreciation of their work by their contemporaries. Sir Joseph Whitworth was no exception to this rule. His later years were embittered by the idea that injustice had been done him by the British Government, at whose request he had devoted many of his best years to the advancement of rifle and gun construction. He lived long enough, however, to see his rivals adopting one of his most valuable later inventions - his method of casting and forging steel - and he had his consolation in the consciousness that his work was done, not for an age, but for ail time.

1887 Obituary [19]

SIR JOSEPH WHITWORTH, Bart., D.C.L., LL.D., F.R.S., was born on 21st December 1803, at Stockport, and received his early education in a school kept there by his father, Mr. Charles Whitworth.

When twelve years of age he was sent to Mr. Wint's school at Idle near Bradford; and two years later went to his uncle in Derbyshire to learn the business of a cotton spinner, where he stayed four years and attained the position of manager.

In 1821 he went to Manchester, and worked four years in the shops of Crighton, Marsden, Walker, and other employers.

In 1825 he went to London, and worked during the next eight years in the shops successively of Maudslay and Holtzapffel and Wright; and also for Clements, who was associated with Babbage in the construction of his calculating machine. While working at Messrs. Maudslay's he succeeded in producing his set of three true-plane surface-plates made by scraping. On this mode of producing a true plane he afterwards read a paper to the British Association in Glasgow in 1840.

Returning in 1833 to Manchester at the age of thirty, he started on his own account as a tool-maker in premises in Chorlton Street. The next twenty years were devoted principally to the improvement of machine-tools, and during that period the whole series of machines known by his name were designed and perfected. The duplex lathe, the reversing tool of the planing machine, and the standard gauges of size, wore the results of his labours between 1840 and 1850. Ho also devised and constructed a street-sweeping machine, which was introduced into Birmingham and other large towns, where it proved highly efficient. At the Great Exhibition of 1851 his collection of engineering tools attracted great attention on account of their excellent design and admirable workmanship.

In 1853 be was appointed one of the Royal Commissioners to the New York Exhibition; and his subsequent report on American manufactures directed special attention to the suitability of the machinery which he had seen at the State Armoury, Springfield, Massachusetts, for the production of fire-arms.

Impressed with the evils of the unsystematic and wasteful modes of procedure then prevalent in most engineering establishments, he saw that the cure lay in the general acceptance of uniform standards of measurement, and in such accuracy of workmanship as would render objects of professedly similar dimensions exactly correspondent with one another within certain determined limits of error, and would ensure that facility of interchange of parts which experience has since proved to be an essential feature of successful engineering practice. His views respecting the value of true planes and correct measurement, and their influence on mechanical production, were set forth in the presidential address which be delivered at the Glasgow meeting of this Institution in 1856 (Proceedings 1856, page 125). He carried them out by supplying his workmen with more delicate gauges than they had previously used, and enforced the observance of these more exact measurements.

In 1857 ho gave a paper on a standard decimal measure of length for mechanical engineering work (Proceedings 1857, page 134), in which he proposed an equivalent decimal scale in thousandths of an inch, for doing assay with the confusion attending the existing anomalous wire and plate gauges; and also a corresponding series of standards of size for taps and dies. In connection with this paper he presented to the Institution a standard decimal 30-inch steel measure, and a decimal wire gauge. Already in 1855, during the Crimean war, the production ill ninety days of the engines for ninety gunboats had constituted a feat which had been rendered possible only by the general adoption of the Whitworth standards, and by the consequent power of obtaining from different engineering shops the separate parts of the engines each firm reproducing ninety copies of one or more individual patterns, with such accuracy that the several parts could be put together at once on delivery, without having to undergo any further fitting for completing the erection of the engines.

The system of standards he gradually elaborated in connection with his famous measuring machine, in which by means of the gravity-piece the sense of touch is enabled to take precedence of sight, and by the use of an accurate screw-motion and a graduated index-wheel differences of only the one-hundred-thousandth of an inch are readily detected.

A still more delicate machine subsequently made, capable of rendering perceptible a difference of even one two-millionth of an inch, was described by him and its working exhibited at a meeting of this Institution (Proceedings 1859, page 121).

Another engineering matter of vast importance, with which his name is intimately associated, is the introduction of a uniform system of screw threads. By collecting an extensive assortment of screw bolts from the principal English workshops, he deduced as a compromise an average pitch of thread for different diameters; and also a mean angle of 55°, which he adopted all through the scale of sizes. The Whitworth system of screw threads so established was rapidly adopted into general use throughout the United Kingdom and in many foreign countries.

In 1855, with a view to furnishing the government with designs for a complete set of new machinery for the manufacture of small-arms at Enfield, he was requested to carry out practical experiments on the various forms and proportions for rifle barrels and projectiles. For this purpose a shooting gallery 1500 feet long by 16 feet wide and 20 feet high was built at Fallowfield, Manchester; and experiments were there carried out for determining the best size of bore, the kind of rifling, the length of projectile, and other points requiring attention for ensuring good shooting. The Whitworth rifle, which was the result of these experiments, was first tried at Hythe in April 1857, and at all ranges proved greatly superior to all its competitors.

At the first meeting of the National Rifle Association at Wimbledon on 1st July 1860, the first shot was fired by Her Majesty the Queen from a Whitworth rifle rest at 400 yards, and hit the target within 1.5 inch of the centre; and at most of the subsequent annual meetings the Queen's prize of £250 was shot for with the Whitworth muzzle-loading rifle, until superseded by the Martini-Henry rifle in 1871.

His experiments with small-arms led him on to the construction of big guns and projectiles, in both of which he effected remarkable improvements, and attained a world-wide reputation as a maker of ordnance of extraordinary range and accuracy. In this connection he gave a paper in 1866 on the proof of guns by measurement, with description of the instrument employed (Proceedings 1866, page 105). His steel guns throwing flat-headed and conoidal shot were largely supplied to foreign governments, especially to South America, where they are said to have been used more effectively than any other kind. Experiments at Shoeburyness in 1868 with a 9-inch Whitworth gun gave a maximum range of 11,243 yards (6 - 38 miles) with a 250-lbs. shell at an elevation of 33 degrees. For making guns of the toughest material possible, and obtaining steel of the requisite hardness and freedom from flaws, he subjected the molten metal to intense hydraulic pressure during the time of its setting. This fluid-compressed steel and its application to the manufacture of guns were described in a paper to this Institution in 1875 (Proceedings, page 268).

In 1883 the Gun Foundry Board of the United States, after paying a visit to his extensive works at Openshaw, near Manchester, gave it as their opinion that the system there carried out surpassed all other methods of forging, and afforded better promise than any other of securing the uniformity so indispensable in metal for guns. Gun-tubes he manufactured of hollow cylindrical castings, drawn out to the desired length; even for muzzle-loading guns he preferred to make a hollow tube, and to close the breech with a screw, rather than to bore out a solid forging. For armour ho advocated steel plates, studded with hard steel screws or rings, with the twofold object of breaking the shot and of limiting the extension of any cracks developed by the blow; the "Polyphemus " armoured rain and torpedo vessel is covered with plates of Whitworth chilled steel.

In 1857 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; and received the honorary degrees of LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin, and D.C.L. of Oxford University. For his display of ordnance and of engineering tools at the Paris Exhibition in 1867 ho was awarded one of the five great prizes allotted to England; and in 1868 he was appointed by the French Emperor to the Legion of Honour on account of his great services in the improvement of artillery. In the same year he received the Albert Medal of the Society of Arts.

In 1868 he presented to the country the sum of £100,000 for the establishment of thirty annual scholarships of £100 each for the encouragement of practical science and mechanical art (Proceedings 1868, page 163); and in the following year he was created a baronet.

He was a Member of this Institution from the commencement in 1847, and occupied the position of President in the three years 1856, 1857, and 1866. On the occasion of the summer meeting held in Manchester in 1866, the Members on his invitation visited his residence, Stancliffe Hall, Darley Dale, Derbyshire, where his later years were mainly spent.

His death took place at Monte Carlo on 22nd January 1887, at the age of eighty-three. A letter of condolence from the President and Council on behalf of this Institution. was addressed to Lady Whitworth (ante pages 33-34). A bequest of forty shares in his works was left to the Institution by his will.

1887 Obituary [20]

MR. CHARLES MARKHAM has contributed to the Journal the following notes relative to the late Sir Joseph Whitworth, who died at Monte Carlo on Saturday, January 22nd, 1887:—

"About eight years ago Sir Joseph Whitworth detailed to me with great minuteness his early career in life. Its principal features were deeply impressed upon my mind, and he told me, upon the termination of the conversation, that no one knew so much of his early life as I then did.

"His statement was, that he was born in the last year of the last century, or the first of the present, but I have now reason to believe that there is no existing record of his birth. He stated that his father was a Dissenting minister. He was sent at an early age to an uncle to be a weaver. He asked his uncle to allow him to be a blacksmith, which request was refused. He was set to work to weave a piece of cloth, and in a short time he could work every machine in the factory. Having learned to work all the machines, he again asked his uncle to allow him to be a blacksmith, and the reply was, If you ask me again you never shall be one.' This annoyed him extremely, and he returned home. "Trade at that period, he said, was intensely depressed, but his mother knew a dressmaker at Manchester who had a friend in the engineering trade, and the Manchester dressmaker obtained employment for him. He went into the shop and commenced his mechanical training, and remained there for two or three years at a very small rate of wages. He subsequently found employment in several shops, the names of which I cannot remember, but each change he made was attended with an increase in the amount of his wages.

"Sir Joseph told me that it was his ambition to become a skilful workman, and he ultimately obtained employment at the highest rate of wages then paid in Manchester; and shortly after he was made a Baronet he told me that the happiest day in his life was when he obtained the highest wages then paid to mechanics.

"Having established his reputation as a mechanic, a kindly feeling sprang up between himself and his uncle, who induced him to go to Nottingham with a view to studying the lacemaking machines. He went to Nottingham, and had only been there a short time when he heard of his uncle's death. He then went forward to London, and obtained employment at Maudsley's Works; and he was placed in a small room with three or four men, whose names he mentioned, and whom he described as excellent workmen.

"He had formed the conclusion that a surfacing-plate would tend to accuracy at work, and he spoke to Hampson (whose name is recalled to my memory by a recent biographical sketch in the Times), who replied, You know nothing about it.' "He then determined to make a surfacing-plate, and after some weeks he asked Hampson to call upon him one Sunday morning, which he did, when he showed him two surfacing-plates, and, having rubbed them together, Hampson then said, Mon, you have done it.'

"Whitworth remained at Maudsley's some time, and he subsequently undertook to do some work for a mathematical instrument maker in a given time, which appeared to be a physical impossibility. Nevertheless, he completed this extraordinary performance by the time he had promised, and then went to Manchester, and put over his door, Joseph Whitworth, toolmaker.' His subsequent career is well known in the mechanical world.

"Whitworth stated to me that he had always been fond of animals. In early life he used to breed dogs, and in after-life he took great interest in trotting-horses and the breeding of cattle.

"One of the most remarkable feats he ever accomplished was during the trials of his rifled guns on the West Coast, when he astonished the country by firing shots a distance of five miles. The experiments were made in the presence of some of the Royal Engineers. In the midst of the experiments a piece blew off the muzzle end of the gun. The gun was taken back into a coach-house, and a piece of the muzzle sawn off in about four-and-twenty hours. The gun was subsequently fired again, as if nothing had happened to it, and the fact of the accident was unknown to the Government officials until I mentioned it a few years ago to one of the engineers who was present at the trials. In this case Whitworth obtained some saws in the neighbourhood, and sent off a man at once to Manchester for other saws, and his men completed the work with marvellous rapidity.

"Sir Joseph was deeply impressed by the intense opposition that then existed to the introduction of steel for guns, and if the accident had become known, it would probably have retarded for years the introduction of a metal for gun-making which is now universally adopted. " Sir Joseph Whitworth's name will for ever be associated with the history of the development of truth and accuracy in mechanical work, as his machines and appliances now exist, in one form or another, in every engineering workshop throughout the civilised world." It only remains to be added, that in 1869 Whitworth set aside a sum of £100,000 for the purpose of founding and endowing the well-known scholarships which bear his name. He was one of the earliest members of the Iron and Steel Institute, and in the year 1880 he received the Bessemer gold medal of the Institute in acknowledgment of his great services to metallurgy. He had previously received the Albert gold medal of the Society of Arts, "for the invention and manufacture of instruments of measurement and uniform standards, by which the production of machinery has been brought to a degree of perfection hitherto unapproached."

Sir Joseph Whitworth married, in 1825, Fanny, the youngest daughter of Mr. Richard Ankers, and, in 1871, Mary Louisa, widow of Mr. Alfred Orrell, of the Grove, Cheadle, who survives him. The President of the Institute has communicated to Lady Whitworth the condolence of the Council and himself in her great loss.


A detailed account of Whitworth's life and work may be found in 'Sir Joseph Whitworth 'The World's Best Mechanician' ' by Norman Atkinson (Sutton, 1996)

An excellent 19th century review of some of Whitworth’s accomplishments in connection with surface plates, measuring standards, gauges, rifled guns, etc., is now available on-line [21]

See Also


Sources of Information

  • [6] Wikipedia
  • [7] DNB
  • [8] Whitworth Society
  • Sir Joseph Whitworth by Norman Atkinson. 1996 ISBN 0-7509-1211-1
  1. Trademarked. A History of Well-Known Brands - from Aertex to Wright's Coal Tar by David Newton. Pub: Sutton Publishing 2008 ISBN 978-0-7509-4590-5
  2. Cumberland Pacquet, and Ware's Whitehaven Advertiser - Tuesday 13 May 1834
  3. Manchester Times - Saturday 10 December 1836
  4. [1]American Machinist, 15 Oct 1903, p.1459
  5. Manchester Times - Saturday 29 January 1887
  6. Carlisle Journal - Saturday 19 December 1840
  7. Manchester Times, 8 February 1848
  8. 'From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932' by David Hounshell, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984
  9. 1861 Census
  10. Manchester Times, 10 August 1861
  11. Chester Chronicle, 4th August 1866
  12. Chester Chronicle 5th November 1870
  13. [2] American Machinist, 21 March 1912, p.453
  14. 'English and American Tool Builders' by Joseph Wickham Roe, Yale, 1916
  15. [3] American Machinist, 24 Sept 1903
  16. [4] American Machinist, 22 June 1899 pp.559-562
  17. 1887 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  18. 1888 Institution of Civil Engineers: Obituaries
  19. 1887 Institution of Mechanical Engineers: Obituaries
  20. 1887 Iron and Steel Institute: Obituaries
  21. [5] 'The Whitworth Measuring Machine' by T. M. Goodeve and C. P. B. Shelley, Longmans, Green & Co., 1877