Grace's Guide is the leading source of historical information on industry and manufacturing in Britain. This web publication contains 132,952 pages of information and 210,198 images on early companies, their products and the people who designed and built them.
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), 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.
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.
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.'  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.
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.
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 
1821/22 Listed as 'Roberts Rich. machine-maker, etc. New-market; h: 5 Water st. Bridge st. 
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.
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.  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.
1826 Sold his first planing machine
1828 Listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street 
1829 Listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street 
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.
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.
1826-27 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.
1829 listed as Roberts, Richard, machine maker. h: 23 Falkner street 
1830 Patent for a self-acting mule
c1832 Married Eliza. Believed to be his second wife. She died between 1841 and 1851.
1833 Birth of his son Richard William Roberts. Death (of sunstroke) on 1863 October 19th aged 30 at Bombay. 
1834 Charles Beyer joined the firm.
1835 Birth of his daughter Eliza Mary who married Paul Theodor Luboldt (son of Frederick Wilhelm August Luboldt of Gera Reuss, Germany), a General Merchant, of London, on the 16th May 1867 and died 9th July 1869 at Worthing. They may have had a son but not living with his father after Eliza's death.
1837 Birth of his son John F. Roberts
1838 Richard Roberts of Manchester, became a member of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
1838 December. Elected Councillor for the Oxford Ward and continued in this role until 1843
1839 Application to extend his patent of 1825.
1839 March. Founder member of the Royal Victoria Gallery
1841 Roberts took out 22 patents after Sharp's death in 1841; all were commercial failures although one was possibly the first digitally-controlled machine tool - the heavy Jacquard-controlled plate-punching machine Roberts made in 1847 for Stephenson's Menai Bridge.
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). 
1841 Listed as Roberts, Richard, engineer. h: 14 Cecil street, Greenheys .
1849 'Curious mechanical contrivance' brought before the British Association by Richard Roberts of the Globe Works.
1849 Roberts's' Eccentric sheet-metal and wire-gauge' described and illustrated 
1851 Richard Roberts is lodging at Bury New Road, Broughton (age 61 born Llanymynoch), Civil Engineer and Machinist; Widower. 
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 Elected to the Council of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society
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 
1855 February Presents to the Salford Royal Museum sixteen scientific models of which one half are his invention. Details of the models are listed. 
1855 Living at 73 Teneriffe Street, Broughton
1856 Practising from 30 Brown Street
1857 March. Expert witness in to an inquest concerning a boiler explosion at Lees where six were killed. 
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. . This was illustrated and described at great length in 'The Engineer'.
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. 
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' 
1864 March 11th. Died aged 74 of Adam Street, Adelphi, London and late of Manchester.  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 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' 
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.' 
1866 The Queen grants a pension of £200 to Miss Roberts (Eliza Mary) his daughter 
A thorough account of Roberts' life and work is provided by Rev Dr Richard Hills in 'Life and Inventions of Richard Roberts 1764 - 1864'