A guest post by LH Member David Whittaker
Iron Men How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, by David Waller.
When considering the Industrial Revolution some of us, although well aware of earlier developments in that we all know about Coalbrookdale but may not know about the rest of the pre-Victorian era. Many tend to think that the most important phase of the Industrial Revolution took place in the Victorian era and associate it with “Railway mania”. They may also assume that most of this activity took place near the coal fields in northern towns. But what came before this? It was a world almost contemporaneous with well-known changing social commentaries of Jane Austin. So, it’s easy to forget that the beginnings of mass production started in the late Georgian era. Furthermore, ask most people, even those who have an interest in Britain’s industrial history, to name a famous engineering innovator. Only a few would name Maudslay. So, who were Henry Maudslay and his men? As Waller says “Amid the truly voluminous literature on the Industrial Revolution with much on the social impact of mechanisation, but surprisingly little about the machines themselves and the men who built them.” In “Iron Men” Waller endeavours to fill this gap. Much of this activity, perhaps surprisingly, took place in London.
The book starts with an account of an early example of the mass production maritime pulley block-making mill at The Royal Dockyards Portsmouth. In 1800 The Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars required more than a hundred thousand blocks per year. This drove the move to machine manufacture. These block mills were the result on the labour and vision of three men, General Sir Samuel Bentham (Jeremy’s younger brother), Marc Isambard Brunel and thirdly, the young Henry Maudslay. Maudslay moved on to London to work for Bramah’s locks in Denmark Street, then to set up his own machine shop at 64 Wells Street London, developing new and more accurate “boring machines” all the time. These were not only capable of manufacturing rapidly and consistently to fine limits but were also a thing of aesthetic beauty in their own right. In 1810 Maudslay made the move to Lambeth to build his “Most Complete Factory” The greater space allowed far larger projects to be undertaken. Here were manufactured a wide range of mechanical machines and parts including “Time Balls” as synchronising indicators for ships. The one on Greenwich Observatory is one of these.
Through the following thematic chapters, the author moves on to those associated with Maudslay. Here he covers him working with the Brunels and the Thames Tunnel, noting that Brunel’s tunnelling shield was constructed at the Lambeth factory. Then, on to Manchester and Richard Roberts, via Babbage, the great polymath, designer of cowcatchers and his attempts to build his “Difference Engine”. On to railway locomotive design improvements to Nasmyth’s steam hammer and further transportation developments. Then the standardised Whitworth screws nut and bolts. Ending with locks, labour disputes and fire arms. A fast-paced romp, each fact-filled chapter sprinkled with engineering nuggets. Interestingly, these men were mostly of humble practical backgrounds, often educated via apprenticeship and the rise of the technical schools. They had “bashed metal” and possessed an ability to visualise the various interactions of complex mechanical devices.
Waller also interestingly, in several places, likens this period to the computer technological developments of Silicon Valley.
After all this you are probably wondering what happened to Maudslay’s wonderful factory? Founded in 1810, before the battle of Waterloo the site is now that of Lambeth South tube station. Waller writes “There is nothing left to remind us of Maudslay’s presence, expect a memorial tablet erected high on the wall inside the ticket office of the tube station, which you would hardly notice if you did not come looking for it:
“On this site between 1810 and 1900 stood the works of Maudslay, Sons & Field famous for marine and general engineering and as the training place of many engineers of renown”.
“This ought to be hallowed ground for all engineers and aficionados of the Industrial Revolution, as it was for knowledgeable contemporaries.” I agree…
In conclusion, this book is very much for the general reader as well as the industrial history enthusiast. It should fill in many gaps in knowledge how everything is put together
Also it should please those like me who delight in all the “connections”. That web of people, places, things and timelines that somehow fall together to make it happen.
Lastly, one minor gripe which seemed rather ironic considering the subject matter of quality and standardisation. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book’s contents and it has certainly inspired me to investigate the life and technical innovations of Maudslay and his associates, it was slightly spoilt by the rather small type size and inconsistent quality of the print where it appears that the ink has not fully adhereed properly to the page.
Iron Men: How one London Factory Powered The Industrial Revolution And Shaped The Modern World, 244pp, by David Waller is published by Anthem Press in hardback and Kindle. ISBN 978-1-78308-544-6