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Iron Men

How One London Factory Powered The Industrial Revn and Shaped The Modern World

David Waller

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(Royal Navy cooks used to be allowed to take home the 'slush' - a mix of fat and salt from the meat they cooked: hence term slush fund)

Sailing ships needed pulley blocks for the block-and-tackle system of raising and lowering sails. A 74 gun warship needed 1400 of them; in 1800 the navy bought 100,000 of them. Each had to be made by hand, and often the workmanship was so rough that friction set fire to them.

Henry Maudslay built the first block mill - a single 32hp steam engine powered 45 machines in a line, all with guides and 'stops' so that a workman didn't have to use much judgement. The labour of 100 skilled workers was replaced by 6 unskilled men and boys.

They were the world's first set of machines built entirely of metal, in which iron shafts, wheels, gears and feed screws were moved by steam power to apply steel saws, gouges, chisels and drill bits to the wooden blocks and sheaves. (The last of these machines was decommissioned in Dec 1968).

To make these machines, Maudslay had to hand-build the components. But once he'd done that, the machines cd then be used to make the next generation of machines.

Early in his career he'd developed a slide-rest: a mechanism for holding and guiding the cutting tool. Before that, the artisan had to guide it manually, relying on strength and skill. Now the tool cd be clamped into place and moved smoothly along the object being worked, resulting in a much more accurate end product.

Repesented the transition from the craft economy to the age of the machine. From making (creating a limited number of objects) to manufacturing (producing lots of identical items).

Another early invention was a bench micrometer accurate to one thousandth of an inch. Nicknamed the Lord Chancellor, bc it was the court of final appeal. When tested in 1959 it was even more accurate than that - less than one ten thousandth of an inch. And this was from a time when engineers measured to 1/16 or 1/32 of an inch.

Precise observation and emasurement was at the heart of the Enlightenment, both in science and industry. Precision made it possible to produce exact copies of every part, so they cd be mass-produced and inter-changeable.

Maudslay built a machine for making rope at the Chatham Dockyards. Installed in 1810 and is still in use today (it was used o make ropes for Pirates of the Caribbean) marc Brunel famously inspired by the teredo navalis shipworm which bores into timber using a pair of shell-like valves, disposing of detritus through its backside. Brunel adapted that to make boring machine to dig through loose gravel for his tunnel under the Thames.

He commissioned Maudslay to build a huge digger 22 feet high and 37 feet wide. The front was divided into 36 cells, each containing a miner. They wd excavate the space in front of them, putting up small temporary walls. Then the whole contraption was winched 9 inches forward. Behind the shield came the bricklayers building the walls using fast-drying Roman cement.

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