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 162,508 pages of information and 244,521 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.

Richard Roberts

From Graces Guide
Richard Roberts (1789–1864).
Richard Roberts (1789–1864).
1817 Planing machine.
Modern replica of 1817 Planing machine
1817 lathe at the Science Museum. See also Richard Roberts: 1817 Lathe
1821. Manchester Guardian 5th May.
1856. Improvements in Looms for Weaving.
1856. Omnibus design.
1858. Mechanism for Engraving and Copying Designs.
1860. Punching machines.
Ornamental turning lathe made by Roberts, at Manchester's Museum of Science and Industry. Note: This may not be on display - photographed at the reserve store at the museum. The bed is marked 'Richd. Roberts Manchester', so presumably made before 1823 when he went into formal partnership with Sharp

Richard Roberts (1789–1864) of Sharp, Roberts and Co

Engineer and prolific inventor and manufacturer, who significantly influenced the development of a very wide range of machinery. His development of precision machine tools contributed to the birth of production engineering and mass production. He introduced significant improvements to various types of textile machinery.

1789 April 22nd. Born at Carreghofa, Llanymynech, (six miles SW of Oswestry) on the border between England and Wales. He was the son of William Roberts (c1762-1851)[1], a shoemaker and toll-keeper of the new Bridge on the Oswestry and Welshpool Tramway, and his wife Mary Jones. See Roberts Genealogy

Roberts was educated by the parish priest, and early found employment with a boatman on the Ellesmere Canal and later at the local limestone quarries. He received some instruction is drawing from Robert Baugh, a road surveyor working under Thomas Telford.

1809 Roberts then found employment as a pattern-maker at Bradley Iron Works, Staffordshire where he probably met for the first time with Thomas Jones Wilkinson

Probably in 1813, Roberts moved to a supervisory position in the pattern shop of the Horseley Ironworks, Tipton. He had gained skills in turning, wheel-wrighting and the repair of mill work.

He was drawn for the militia; to avoid this, he went to Liverpool but, finding no work there, moved to Manchester, where he found work as a turner for a cabinet-maker.

He then moved to Salford working at lathe and tool-making.

1814 Because the militia was still seeking him, he walked to London with Francis Lewis and ? Murgatroyd (who both later worked for him)

He first worked at Holtzapffel and Deyerlein and then found employment with Henry Maudslay as a fitter and turner. At Maudslay's he absorbed his master's philosophy of 'the importance of accurate machine tools where hand work was replaced by mechanisms.'

1816 Following the Battle of Waterloo the previous year, he was safe from the militia and returned to Manchester where he set up in business as a 'turner of plain and eccentric work at No 15 Deans Gate.' [2] He had a single lathe and drilling machine, upstairs in a bedroom, driven by a big wheel in the basement, and said to have been powered by his first wife

1816 Roberts built a range of machine tools, some to his own design, the first being a gear-cutting machine. For accurately checking the dimensions of the gears he adapted the sector, which he developed for sale to other engineers. Roberts adopted rotary cutters, which he had seen used at Maudslay's. This is one of the earliest records of a milling cutter used in engineering.

1817 He made a lathe able to turn work 6ft long. This had a back gear to give an increased range of speeds, and a sliding saddle to move the tool along the work. The saddle was driven by a screw through gearing which could be disengaged when the end of the cut was reached. See Richard Roberts: 1817 Lathe.

1817 He built a planing machine to allow the machining of flat surfaces. Previous to this flat surfaces were laboriously made by hand with the fitter using hammers and chisels, files and scrapers to get a true surface.

1818 Roberts moved into New Market Buildings at Pool Fold

1819/20 Listed as 'Roberts Rich. lathe and tool maker. New-market; house 5 Water st. Bridge st.[3]

c.1820 Screwcutting machine illustrated here. This, along with Roberts' 1817 lathe, had been used at Sharp, Roberts' works in Manchester, until it was bought by Beyer, Peacock and Co for use at their Gorton works. The history of these two machine tools was reviewed in 'The Engineer' in 1909 [4]It was subsequently preserved, but was unfortunately scrapped in the 1950s.

1820 Advertises 'that he has cutting engines at work on his new and improved principle, which are so constructed as to capable of producing any number of teeth required: they will cut Bevil, Spur or Worm Geer, of any size or pitch, now exceeding 30 inches diameter in Wood, Brass, Cast-Iron, Wrought-Iron or steel, and the teeth will not require fileing-up' Manufactory, New Market Buildings, Pool Fold; House 5 Water Street, Manchester [5]

1821/22 Listed as 'Roberts Rich. machine-maker, etc. New-market; h: 5 Water st. Bridge st. [6]

1821 Roberts moved his business to the Globe Works in Faulkner Street. Whilst there he improved a reed-making machine, originally invented by the American Jeptha Avery Wilkinson. He employed 12-14 mechanics but the machines were still hand-powered. Roberts received financial help from Thomas Sharp, a businessman

1821 August 30th. Visited by Joshua Field who wrote a short description 'On the ground floor are 2 forges . . . upstairs he has good lathes, screw engines, cutting engines . . . he has 3 small bed lathes and one large one . . . he has made a machine for drilling . . . he is making a turnstile like that on Waterloo Bridge for a Bridge here and a machine for making reeds. He employs about 12 or 14 men in rather a crowded shop. His machinery is turned by 3 men. . . . Hoole is there and knew me . . . '

1822 He patented a power loom. This was made entirely of iron and, being precision-made, was able to operate at high speed. They were turned out at the rate of 4,000 per year by 1825.

1822 September. In a partnership as Roberts, Hill and Co [7]

1823 Thomas Sharp and Richard Roberts entered into a formal partnership. Sharp guided Roberts into commercial ventures and their seven patents were largely profitable. Whilst developing his textiles machines, Roberts also took as partners Robert Chapman Sharp, Thomas Jones Wilkinson and James Hill. They formed two firms, Sharp, Hill and Co and Roberts, Hill and Co.

1824/25 Listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street. [8] Note: Also a Richard Roberts, ironfounder at 15 Ebden street

1824 Founder member of the Manchester Mechanics Institute

In 1824 Roberts invented his most famous machine, the self-acting spinning mule, and patented it in March 1825. Improvements were made, and Roberts took out a new patent in 1830. The machines were made in hundreds, and Roberts made extensive use of templates and gauges to standardise production.

1825 He invented a slotting machine to cut key-ways in gears and pulleys to locate them on their shafts. Previously this was done by hand chipping and filing. The tool was reciprocated vertically, and by adopting Henry Maudslay's slide rest principle, he made the work table with a universal movement, both straight line and rotary so that the sides of complex pieces could be machined.

1826 May. The two companies were amalgamated to form Sharp, Roberts and Co. The firm later became well-known for making locomotives.

1826 Sold his first planing machine

1826-27 Spends periods of time in France at the Mulhouse textile factory supplying equipment and production commenced in May 1828

1827 February. Suffered a serious illness

Later he developed the shaping machine, where the cutting tool was reciprocated horizontally over the work, which could be moved in all directions by means of screw-driven slides. Examples of his machine tools are in the collections of the London Science Museum

Roberts also manufactured and sold sets of stocks and dies to his range of pitches, so other engineers could cut threads on nuts and bolts and other machine parts.

His inventions had a seminal influence on other machine-tool engineers, including Joseph Whitworth when he came to Manchester a decade later. Sharp and Roberts took out 7 patents, which were largely profitable.

1828 Listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street [9]

1829 Listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street [10]

1830 Patented an improved version of his self-acting spinning mule, which proved the key breakthrough, establishing the principle upon which self-actors were built for over a century.

c1832 Married Eliza. Believed to be his second wife. She died between 1841 and 1851.

1833 Birth of his son, Richard William Roberts. (He died (of sunstroke) on 1863 October 19th aged 30 at Bombay. [11])

1834 Charles Beyer joined the firm.

1835 Birth of his daughter Eliza Mary (she married Paul Theodor Luboldt (son of Frederick Wilhelm August Luboldt of Gera Reuss, Germany), a General Merchant, of London, on the 16th May 1867[12] and died 9th July 1869 at Worthing[13]. They may have had a son but not living with his father after Eliza's death.)

c.1836 Invented the "loop-the-loop" railway as a toy for his children

1837 Birth of his son John F. Roberts

1838 Richard Roberts of Manchester, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.[14]

1838 December. Elected Councillor for the Oxford Ward and continued in this role until 1843

1839 Application to extend his patent of 1825.[15]

1839 March. Founder member of the Royal Victoria Gallery

1841 Roberts took out 22 patents after Sharp's death in 1841, but received little financial benefit from them.

1841 Living at Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester (age c50), an Engineer. With his wife Eliza (age 35) and their children Richard (age 8), Eliza (age 6) and John (age 4). [16]

1841 Listed as Roberts, Richard, engineer. h: 14 Cecil street, Greenheys [17].

1841 Thomas Sharp died

1843 The partnership was dissolved; Roberts carried on business as Richard Roberts and Co at the Globe Works, Faulkner Street, (later Roberts and Dobinson with Robert Graham Dobinson as partner).

1845 He was joined by Benjamin Fothergill, previously foreman at Sharp, Roberts and Co, who became a partner in the Globe Works concern [18]. Presumably the business became Roberts, Fothergill and Dobinson.

1847 Roberts took out Patent No. 11,607 for machines for punching and perforating metal plates. One of the machines featured a series of punches, whose action was programmable, using a Jacquard control system. Used first on tubes for the Conwy Railway Bridge, and then for Stephenson's Menai Bridge.

1849 'Curious mechanical contrivance' brought before the British Association by Richard Roberts of the Globe Works.[19]

1849 Roberts' "Eccentric sheet-metal and wire-gauge" described and illustrated [20]

1851 Richard Roberts is lodging at Bury New Road, Broughton (age 61 born Llanymynech), Civil Engineer and Machinist; Widower. [21]

1851 October. Multi-idea patent

1852 Roberts wound up the business of Roberts and Dobinson

1852 Roberts became a consulting engineer, first at the Globe Works, Manchester, where he interested himself in omnibus design, traction engines, and screw-propelled ships; his partner for some time was Captain T. E. Symonds, R.N.

1852 Patents

1852 Elected to the Council of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society

1853 Listed as of Roberts, Fothergill and Dobinson and living at 6 Wilton Place, Higher Broughton [22] Note: The directory information is out of date

1853 Published 'Description of certain improvements in vessels applicable to other purposes patented by Richard Roberts'

1853 Presented to the British Association meeting in Hull a paper on 'Certain improvements in the construction of steam ships . . .'

1854 October 21st. Patent. Richard Roberts, of Manchester, engineer, for improvements in machinery for preparing and spinning cotton, and other fibrous substances [23]

1855 February Presents to the Salford Royal Museum sixteen scientific models of which one half are his invention. Details of the models are listed. [24]

1855 Living at 73 Teneriffe Street, Broughton

1856 Practising from 30 Brown Street

1857 March. Expert witness at an inquest concerning a boiler explosion at Lees where six were killed. [25]

1858 Letter to the paper critical of a clock by John Bailey, a former employee. RR gives his address as 30 Brown Street, Manchester. [26]

1858 February 24th. Patent. Richard Roberts, of Manchester, civil engineer, for improvements in mechanism for engraving and otherwise copying in line paintings and other designs, flat and curved surfaces of metal, paper, and other materials. [27]. This was illustrated and described at great length in 'The Engineer'.[28]

1860 Age 71, he moved to London

He attempted developments in coal-cutting machinery.

1861 Living at 48 Princes Square, Paddington (age 71 born Llanymynech), a Consulting Engineer and Widower. With his son John F. (age 24 born Manchester), ?? ??, Royal Navy. Also a boarder and two servants. [29]

1861 September. Report. 'Mr. Richard Roberts, C.E., was entertained last week at the White Bear, by a few of his old employees. Mr. W. Heywood was voted to the chair. Among those present were James Hodgkinson, Humphrey Jones, Robert Clalow, Samuel Oddy, Job Sheppard, James Davies, William Cook, John Bailey, James Bailey, Matthew Bailey, P. Jones, Charles Milward, and Duncan Crighton. Interesting anecdotes were related respecting the introduction of the self-acting mule and other with which Mr. Roberts's name is associated Mr Oddy on making a few observations on the self-acting mule, said that, with some slight modification, the mule in use at the present day is the same in general principle as that invented by Mr. Roberts. Other gentlemen spoke on the vast amount of good Mr. Roberts had done in the mechanical world, not only in inventing machines, but also by introducing a systematic division of labour. Roberts's improvements in public clocks were also discussed and it was stated that he was the first to introduce cast-iron for wheels and bearings to reduce friction. Several speakers alluded to the great respect in which Mr. Roberts is held by all who have worked for him. Mr. Roberts said he was happy to have the pleasure of meeting so many old faces, and for their expressions of goodwill. It is intended to present an address or testimonial to Mr Roberts' [30]

1864 March 11th. Died aged 74 of Adam Street, Adelphi, London and late of Manchester. [31] On his final day he was designing a slate-cutting machine. Recognizing his services, the government granted a civil-list pension of £300 to his daughter.

1864 Obituary, page 175 of The Engineer 1864/03/18 and page 183 The Engineer 1864/03/25.

1864 March 19th. Obituary in The Manchester Times. [32]

1864 March 31st. Funeral details. 'The funeral of the late Mr. Richard Roberts C.E., took place on Saturday week, at Kensal-green. His friends in Manchester had desired that ample honour should he done to his memory and the arrangements, therefore, were in keeping with the distinguished services which he had so long rendered to the cause of mechanical science and to the world. At noon the following gentlemen assembled at the room's in Adam street, where, for the last few years, Mr. Roberts had practised his profession :— Sir Edward Belcher, C.B., Messrs. Thomas Bazley. M. P., Thomas Webster, David Chadwick, P. le Neve Foster, Henry Maudsley, Captain Symonds, R.N., Captain Selwyn, R.N., Messrs. Charles F. Beyer, J. Ramsbottom, Bennett Woodcroft. Wm. Bridges Adams, Zerah Colburn, Benjamin Fothergill, John Anderson, David Napier, Dr. Whitehead, Messrs. William Muir, John Bailey, James Fletcher, Dr. Normandy and others, all of whom, with Mr. Roberts's family followed his remains to their last resting place. Messrs. Fothergill, Ramsbottom, Anderson, Heywood, Bailey, and Fletcher acted as pall bearers. It had been originally intended that Mr. Roberts should be buried at Llanymynech, his native place, and a deputation of his old workmen had been formed in Manchester to accompany his remains thither. As it was, his former foremen attended to pay their last tribute of respect to their old master' [33]

1864 April. Tribute. 'Tribute to the Memory of the late Richard Roberts. — An influential meeting was held on Wednesday, at the house of the Society of Arts, to consider the most appropriate means of testifying to the general sense of the important services rendered by the late Mr. Richard Roberts to manufacturing industry and the arts. The following resolution was proposed by William Fairbairn, LL.D., F.R.S., seconded by Mr. Thomas Bazeley, M.P., and carried unanimously:— "That this meeting is of opinion that the eminent services which Mr. Richard Roberts has rendered to the manufacturing industry of this country and the world at large by his useful inventions, demand some substantial and permanent record, and that the most appropriate tribute to his memory would be, in the first instance, to provide for the independence of his only daughter, and that for this purpose a fund be raised by public subscription." The following noblemen and gentlemen were appointed a committee to carry the above resolution into effect: —His Grace the Duke of Sutherland, the Earl of Caithness. Lord Stanley, M.P., Lord Alfred Churchill, M.P., Sir Edward Belcher, C.B., Mr. Thomas Bazley, M.P., Mr. John Pender, M.P., Dr. Fairbairn, Colonel French. Mr. Zerah Colburn, Mr. Bonnet Woodcroft, Mr. Thomas Webster, Mr. J. Trotman, Mr. P. Le Neve Foster, hon. sec, and others.' [34]

1866 The Queen grants a pension of £200 to Miss Roberts (Eliza Mary) his daughter [35]


A thorough account of Roberts' life and work is provided by Rev Dr Richard Hills in 'Life and Inventions of Richard Roberts 1764 - 1864' [36]

A short but informative account by William H. Bailey, son of one of Roberts's foremen, John Bailey, is available online [37]

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 24 May 1851
  2. 1817-18 Pigot and Dean's New Directory of Manchester and Salford
  3. 1819/20 Pigot and Dean's Directory of Manchester
  4. [1] The Engineer, 21 Oct 1909, pp.430-1
  5. 1821 May 5th Manchester Guardian
  6. 1821/22 Pigot and Dean's New Directory of Manchester and Salford
  7. 1822 September 7th Manchester Guardian
  8. 1824/25 Pigot and Dean's Directory of Manchester
  9. 1828 Pigot's(?) Directory of Manchester
  10. 1829 Pigot's Directory of Manchester
  11. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 28 November 1863
  12. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Wednesday 22 May 1867
  13. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Thursday 15 July 1869
  14. 1838 Institution of Civil Engineers
  15. The London Gazette Publication date:15 February 1839 Issue:19707Page:297
  16. 1841 census
  17. 1841 Pigot and Slater's Directory of Manchester and Salford
  18. The Manchester Times and Gazette, 11 October 1845
  19. Practical Mechanics Journal 1848/49 p150
  20. The Practical Mechanic's Journal, 1849, p.212
  21. 1851 Census
  22. 1853 Directory of Manchester Salford
  23. Manchester Times - Wednesday 25 April 1855
  24. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 17 February 1855
  25. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 14 March 1857
  26. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 20 February 1858
  27. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 28 August 1858
  28. [2] The Engineer, 29 October 1858
  29. 1861 census
  30. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Saturday 21 September 1861
  31. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Tuesday 15 March 1864
  32. Manchester Times, Saturday, March 19, 1864
  33. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Thursday 31 March 1864
  34. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Friday 29 April 1864
  35. Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser - Tuesday 09 January 1866
  36. 'Life and Inventions of Richard Roberts 1764 - 1864' by Rev. Dr. Richard Hills, Landmark Publishing Ltd., 2002
  37. [3] 'Richard Roberts, The Inventor', by William Henry Bailey, Papers of the Manchester Literary Club (read 20th January 1879)
  • Biography of Richard Roberts, by Gillian Cookson, ODNB [4]
  • Wikipedia [5]