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Early History of Wood-Working Machines (1870)

Modified on 2012/12/12 19:22 by Joel Havens Categorized as History

Part 1

      A portion of the historical matter contained in the Construction and Operation of Wood Working Machines, prepared by the editor of this Journal in 1870, having recently been several times quoted without even acknowledgment of its source, it has been decided to reprint the matter here, or so much of it as may have an interest to our readers. It will be proper to say that a good many of the facts presented are derived from a memoir of Sir Samuel Bentham, prepared by his wife, a very rare book, of which a copy was presented to the author by George Bentham, Esq., director of the Kew Botanical Gardens, London, son of Sir Samuel Bentham.

      "As Bentham's inventions constitute nearly all that was known of wood-cutting machines in the eighteenth century, their history at that period cannot be much else than an account of his labors and inventions, which we are sorry to say, comes down to us only through his patents and scraps of history gathered from the record of the English dockyards, where his machines were first applied to public use.

      Brigadier-General Samuel Bentham, Inspector-General of the naval works of England, received a thorough classical, and it is presumed, scientific education, at the Westminster School of London, which no doubt ranked high as an institution of learning at that time (1770). After completing his education, his predilection for naval affairs led to his being bound to the master-shipwright of Woolwich Dockyard, where he served the regular apprenticeship of seven years, becoming familiar with all kinds of practical manipulation in wood and metal, and receiving the best scientific instruction that could then be obtained. After completing the term of his apprenticeship at Woolwich, he spent some eighteen months in visiting other dockyards, to familiarize himself with peculiarities of their tools and work not known at Woolwich.

      In 1779 Bentham was directed by the Government to make a tour in the north of Europe to examine the progress of ship-building and other arts. During this tour, while in Russia, he invented the first planing machine for wood, at least the first that could be called an organized operating machine. There is no doubt but that this was the original conception of a machine for smoothing the surface and giving dimensions to wood. It is to be regretted that no accurate description of the invention, so far as perfected at that date, has been preserved. Whether it operated by what, in his subsequent patents, he terms "rotative" motion, or whether it was a reciprocating machine, is, so far as the author can learn, left to conjecture. It would, however, be inferred from his first patent in England, of 1791, that it worked upon the later principle, for "planing and making mouldings" by some means that bore a close analogy to the hand operations of the times. He communicated his invention to the British Ambassador at St. Petersburg, who advised him to keep his invention for England, which seems to have been done, as there is no account of his having made any public use of it while in Russia. He afterwards accepted a military commission in Russia, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, and became the manager, or commandant, of extensive factories for the production of glass, metals, cordage, works in wood, etc. His very successful management of these works would, from accounts, lead us to suppose that he invented many new and useful machines ; but of these there seems (in England) to be no record. He returned to England in 1791, about which time his brother, Jeremy Bentham, the celebrated writer on political economy, had received from the Government an appointment to introduce industrial prisons in England. This kind of labor being almost devoid of skill, the talents of his brother were called into use to devise machines that would make the labor more profitable, and at the same time replace, to some extent, the want of skill of the convicts. To construct these machines, most of which were for working wood, the residence of Jeremy Bentham at Queen's Square Place, Westminster (now a part of London), was, with its capacious outhouses, converted into the first manufactory of wood-cutting machines. 103 years ago this factory was established, and, as we are informed, was not found to be sufficiently large, and a building, No. 19, York Street, was also occupied, which would lead us to suppose that a great many machines were made, and that the extent of the business fully entitles it to the distinction of being called the first general factory of such machines. Professor Willis, in a lecture before the Society of Arts in 1852, states that 'there were constructed machines for all general operations in wood-work, including planing, moulding, rebating, grooving, mortising and sawing, both in coarse and fine work, in curved, winding, and transverse directions, shaping wood in complicated forms, and that further, as an example, that all parts of a highly-finished window-sash were prepared, also all the parts of an ornamental carriage-wheel were made, so that nothing remained to be done by hand but to put the component parts together.' These machines were examined by members of His Majesty's Administration, and received official notice and commendation in the House of Commons in 1794. Sir Samuel Bentham was next commissioned to visit different dockyards, and to detemine how far his machines could be applied to facilitate ship-building. At this time he refused a flattering offer from the Emperor of Russia, in order to accept this commission, choosing rather to give his country the benefit of his services than to reap a greater pecuniary reward that awaited him in Russia.

      His report was no doubt very favorable as to the employment of machines, but it was not until 1797 that the Admiralty consented to their introduction. It should have been mentioned that during the time of his manufacture of machines at Westminster and York Street, patents were taken out describing all the different operations performed. After the Admiralty decided to adopt his machines in 1797, they were manufactured under the direction of Jeremy Bentham, and forwarded from time to time to Portsmouth and Plymouth, where they performed, so far as any record shows, all that was claimed for them.

      The bills specify lathes, saws, machines for cutting, tenons for boring, also for boring bitts and squaring tools, 'and many other machines for different kinds of work.' Machines were also devised by Bentham to facilitate block making, an operation that is yet classed among the most difficult, His machines, however, for this purpose did not seem to be perfect, for in 1810 he was joined by Brunei who had invented a machine for "shaping block shells." Brunei was at that time employed under Bentham to assist in the various operations, and to perfect his own machine, which must have had the endorsement of Bentham. In 1803, Sir Samuel, as Inspector General, advised the Admiralty to adopt many additional machines that had already been approved, and to permit the erection of steam engines to drive them, and they were accordingly ordered. The several dockyards were fitted with engines for sawing, planing, boring, tenoning, mortising, etc., and apart from better construction and the greater experience in their use, it is fail to infer they had nearly all the functions found in modern machines for these purposes. Their labor-saving capacity is sufficiently attested by the fact that Brunei, who had perfected and assisted in their construction and operation, was rewarded by being allowed, as a premium for his inventions, the estimated savings of one year's work over hand labor in the dockyards, which amounted, as we are informed, to the very large sum of 16,000 pounds sterling.

      In 1813 arbitrators were appointed on the part of the Government to settle with Jeremy Bentham, who, after the examination of numerous witnesses, allowed him the sum of ,£20,000 for machines furnished to the dockyards and penitentiaries. From the testimony given before this commission we learn that 'Sir Samuel Bentham prepared a system of machinery for the employment of men without skill. In 1793 patents were taken out on these inventions. The testimony states that no skill was required in the use of these machines; they were introduced into the dockyards and worked by common laborers.' The use of the machine saved nine tenths of the labor. ‘A table could be made at one half the expense by their use,' etc., which goes to show that the machines were at least effective.

      The machines and appliances for working wood that were invented and practically applied by Sir Samuel Bentham previous to the year 1800 may be enumerated as follows:
      Machine for planing and forming mouldings — Improved planing and moulding machine (rotary)—Wedging guard for circular saws — Segmental circular saw — Conical cutters for dovetail grooves — Undulating carriage, to form wave mouldings — Compound cutter heads to work two or more sides at once — The slide rest — Tubular boring implements (core boring) — Crown saws (or cylinder saws) — Reciprocating mortise machine — Rotary mortising machine — Radius arm for sawing segments — Tracer guide for sawing irregular forms — Bevel and curvilinear sawing — Machine for grinding saw-blades —Taper gauge for sawing — Grooving table — Vertical adjustment of saws in benches — T rebating machine — Sectional cutters — Pivoted table for mortise machines — Forked or double mortise chisels — Gauge lathe, with slide rest — Rotary cutter for forming screw threads on wooden screws — Double grooving saws — Rack feed for planing machines — With many other things."

Part 2

      There is an excusable, or even a commendable, interest taken in the early history of all industries and arts. Our own country is too young to have participated in the earliest stages of many branches of skilled industry, but its history is none the less a matter of interest for that reason, and especially in respect to England, where the end of the 18th century was characterized by an activity in various inventions that has hardly been excelled in recent times, except in rapidity of evolution.

      The Editor of " Industry," having at various times during eight years past been called upon to furnish facts in the history of wood-working machines, has concluded to publish in the present and some future numbers of the magazine, with revision, the introductory section of his work on the Construction and Operation of Wood-Working Machines, published in 1872, and out of print for a dozen years past.

      It will be proper to remark that after the publication of the treatise in London, the various facts in respect to the inventions and work of General Sir Samuel Bentham in wood-converting machinery, then for the first time collected, were fully confirmed, and some added by his son, Hon. George Bentham. It is preferred, however, to adhere as closely as possible to the original text.

      The writer regrets now, as he did when the treatise was published in 1872, his inability to include a history of wood-working machines in Holland, where for reasons that need not be explained it is believed there were a number of inventions and machines employed there that should be noticed in a history of the art. One reason for so thinking is the fact of records recently made public in respect to other branches of industry, compound steam engines for example, that indicate for the Netherlands a foremost place in the mechanic arts during the 17th century.

      The present history comes down to but does not include the remarkable history of wood-working machines in this country since 1840. An attempt to compile such an account failed because of the time and labor required.

      "It is not assumed to give all the facts connected with the origin of machines for cutting wood; it would be impossible to gather them except at an expense and trouble that there is nothing to justify. It is, however, safe to assume that, unless in some part anticipated by inventions in the Netherlands, the history here given as to the origin of machines for planing, boring, sawing, and so on, is substantially correct.

      With nearly all of the constructive arts we can trace their history back to a time when they were founded by the persevering efforts of a single person, some bold spirit, whose conceptions carried him beyond his age to meet and combat the skepticism, if not the jeers and mockery, of those around him.

      The application of steam as a motive power came down to us through a number of inventors, each adding something left out by his predecessors, until the invention culminated in the labors of Watt and Trevithick. The first conceptions were crude, and gave no useful results beyond stimulating others to further efforts. A similar history attaches to engineering tools for cutting and shaping metals, and while the original idea of the use of power in such operations could no doubt, as said, be traced to a kind of fatherhood in some one person, no new art seems to have been so fully developed, or so nearly perfected, at one time and by one man as that of wood-cutting machines by General Bentham.

      In attempting to search into the history and origin of these machines there can perhaps be no more appropriate introduction than a brief personal notice of this remarkable inventor. We say remarkable, for when one considers the crude mechanical manipulation of his time and the paucity of resources that then existed, it seems impossible to find anything to suggest, or even a want to justify his labors.

      Taking the drawing as an exponent of the invention it has not been thought just to consider it as anticipating the invention of Bentham, who, if we are to judge by his other machines, would never have considered this as an operating machine for the purposes indicated. It is to be regretted that no accurate description of Benthan's invention has been preserved. Whether it operated by what in his subsequent patents he terms "rotative" motion, or whether it was a reciprocating machine, is, so far as the author can learn, left to conjecture. It would, however, be inferred from his first patent in England, of 1791, that it worked upon the latter principle, for 'planing and making mouldings ' by means that bore a close analogy to the hand operations of the times, and corresponds to the one described in the patent referred to. Bentham, with that regard for his country's interest that is common with all Englishmen, communicated his invention to the British Ambassador at St. Petersburg, who advised him to keep his invention for England, which seems to have been done, as there is no account of his having made any public use of it while in Russia.

      He afterwards accepted a military commission in Russia, with the rank of lieutenant-colonel, and became the manager, or commandant, of extensive factories for the production of glass, metals, cordage, works in wood, and so on. His very successful management of these works would from accounts lead us to suppose that he invented many new and useful machines, but of these there seems to be no record in England.

      The slide rest for turning is very fully and clearly described in Bentham's patent of 1793, and ranks among the greatest inventions in engineering implements. It gave us the engine lathe, without which our modern practice in machine fitting could not be carried on.

      The facts adduced will be sufficient to show that Sir Samuel Bentham is entitled to the distinction of "being called the father of wood-working machines in England at a date that precludes any probability of his inventions having been anticipated in other countries. Let us not forget in looking back over this history, surrounded as we are by the more perfect art, the circumstances under which these machines were made. Imagine 'catgut' bands and grooved pulleys for transmitting rapid motion, the want of skill in the workmen to carry out his designs, the want of all our modern machines, except the hand lathe, to shape metals, the imperfect knowledge of geometrical drawing that then prevailed, the ignorance, in short, of nearly all the appliances with which we are familiar, and now consider indispensable.

      We must not, however, regard the construction of the machines so remarkable as the wonderful genius displayed in the invention of the processes, apart from the machines themselves.

      In the proceeding of a trial between the Crown and James Smith in 1848, for the repeal of a patent on sawing machinery, reported in the Mechanic's Magazine, there is appended a note that pays a tribute to the genius of Bentham greater than all the honors conferred on him by the government during his life, from which we quote as follows:
      'Sir Samuel Bentham was the first to introduce saw mills into our national arsenals, the first also to lay down the principals of all kinds of machine saws that may be constructed, and which have never since been materially departed from. The specification of his patent of 1703 is a perfect treatise on the subject, indeed the only one worth quoting that has to this day been written on the subject.'

      To show the acquaintance of Bentham with the laws of force and motion, and more especially to show his style of reasoning and powers of deduction, we will quote from his specification of 1791.

      Speaking of motive agents, he says:
'By brute force I mean not only the strength of animals, but the force of inanimate objects, and even that of men, when employed in such a way as to require neither skill nor dexterity on the part of the person who executes it. By this means machines may take the place of human skill in this operation (planing) to as perfect a degree as in any of the manufactures on which invention has been employed so much to the honor and advantage of our country. Hence three capital advantages: 1st, the quantity of force used at one time can be increased at pleasure. 2nd, the force of men may in this way be exerted to a greater advantage than while confined, as in present practice, to a particular mode, by the necessity of care and dexterity. 3rd, the labor of the awkward and unpracticed may be used,' etc.

      Although his name has not been enrolled in the highest place of mechanical fame, accorded a second, or even a third place, yet it might be safely asserted that Sir Samuel Bent ham gave to the world more useful inventions than any man of his age; it might even be claimed that he has done so, leaving out the circumstances of time and conditions, but when we take these into consideration, and the value of such inventions at the first dawn of development of mechanic art in England, the proposition is reduced to a certainty. His inventions extended over nearly the entire range of useful art, manufactures of all kinds received his attention, and were all more or less indebted to his genius. Throughout the whole there can be traced a constant method, and a system of deductive reasoning, that indicate a life of labor qualified by scientific learning.

      Had the talents and genius of Bentham been directed in the field of letters or science alone, a niche in Westminster Abbey would perpetuate his fame, but in that silent field, of equal importance at least, the practical development of the useful arts, he was not brought in contact with the powers that manufacture fame. Yet his is a noble lot, enshrined as he is in the admiration and grateful remembrance of engineers, who must ever accord to him a first place as a successful inventor.

      Having traced the origin of nearly all kinds of wood-cutting machines to Bentham it would nevertheless be unfair to deny to others their share in the matter. We will therefore notice some of the machines invented during the early part of the present century, which period may with propriety be termed the beginning of the art.

Miller's Saw Mill, 1777

      The patent of Miller for a sawing machine granted in 1777, is deserving of notice as containing nearly all the elements of the modern circular-saw mill, except the propelling power. The specification being short and 'quaint' it is inserted in full, as containing in the fewest words a comprehensive description of the machine.

(British patent, No, 1,152.)
To Samuel Miller, of Southampton, Sailmaker, etc.

      'NOW KNOW YE, that, in compliance with the said proviso, I the said Samuel Miller, do hereby declare that my said invention of an entirely new machine for the more expeditiously sawing all kinds of wood, stone and ivory, is described in the manner following (that is to say):       'The machine that gives the power, a horizontal windmill. The shaft of this mill stands vertical, with four levers fixed to it at right angles with the shaft, to which levers are fixed the sails. These sails when in motion are one half of their time horizontal, the other vertical. The upright shaft being in motion communicates its power to a horizontal shaft. This shaft hath a large wheel to it, round which goes a rope or chain, which is continued to a smaller; through the small wheel goes a square bar of iron that receives the saws, -which are a circular figure. Those saws being in motion, the matter or substance they are to cut is brought forward as follows: The horizontal shaft, as mentioned before, hath a small wheel on it with a groove to receive a rope, the rope is continued to a smaller that hath a pinion to it, connected to a straight bar under the chariot, which hath teeth to match the pinion; the chariot moves in a groove likewise on a center, it hath two motions, one to advance forward, and the other sideways, which is performed by a screw annexed to the end of the chariot. This screw is turned by hand to direct the pieces against the saws, agreeable to any line wanted to be cut.'

      There is no doubt but that this patent, now one hundred and eighteen years old, indicates the first that was known of circular saws in England, and as such is entitled to no small share of interest as an invention. This machine of Miller's was a fully-organized sawing machine, fitted with a carriage having a compound movement, and, to use the modern terms of English makers, a 'rack bench' with lateral adjustment. We must, however, conclude that Mr. Miller used undoubtedly the most appropriate and comprehensive name 'sawing machine' instead of 'bench,' which technically should convey an idea of something quite different.

Bramah's Planing Machine, 1802

      Passing over the patents of Sir Samuel Bentham of 1791 and 1793, we come to that of Joseph Bramah of 1802.

      Taking into consideration the nature and scope of this patent, with its early date, and considering the subsequent history of wood machines, it is safe to say that with the exception of Bentham's, it was the most important invention made during a term of forty years. The portion of this patent of Bramah that relates to planing was the origin of what may be termed 'transverse' or 'traverse' planing machines, a type that to this day, with but little modification of his plans, is found in nearly all large factories for working wood.

      The description contained in the specification is so clear, that we can do no better than use the words of the inventor, in which he declares the principles and objects of his invention are:       'To shorten and reduce manual labor, and the consequent expenses which attend it, by producing the effects stated in my patent by the use of machinery, which may be worked by animal, elementary, or manual force, and which said effects are to produce straight, true, smooth and paralleled surfaces, in the preparation of all the component parts of work, consisting of wood, ivory, horn, stone, metals, or any other sort of materials or composition usually prepared, and render it true and fit for use by means of edge tools of every description. I do not rest the merits of this my said invention on any novelty in the general principle of the machinery I employ, because the public benefit I propose will rather depend on new effects produced by a new application of principles already known, and machinery already in use for other purposes in various branches of British manufacture. This machinery, and the new manner of using it, with some improvements in the construction, together with sundry tools and appendages never in use before, are particularly described and explained hereunder. I mean to use and apply for the purposes above stated every kind of edge tool or cutter already known, either in their present shape, or with such variations and improvements as the variety of operations I may encounter may severally call for. But the tools instead of being applied by hand as usual I fix as judgment may direct, on frames drove by machinery, some of which frames I move in a rotary direction round an upright shaft, and others have their shaft lying in a horizontal position, like a common lathe for turning wood, etc. In other instances I fix these tools, cutters, etc., on frames, which slide in stationed grooves, or otherwise, and like the former calculated for connection with, and to be driven by machinery, all of which are hereafter further explained and particularized. The principal points on which the merits of the invention rest are the following:

'First.— I cause the materials meant to be wrought true and perfect, as above described, to slide into contact with the tool, instead of the tool being carried by the hand over the work in the usual way.

'Secondly.— I make the tool, of whatsoever cutting kind it be, to traverse across the work in a square or oblique direction, except in some cases where it may be necessary to fix the tool or cutter in an immovable station, and cause the work to fall in contact with it by a motion confining it to do so similar to the operations performed on a drawing bench.

'Thirdly.— In some cases I use, instead of common saws, axes, planes, chisels, and other instruments usually applied by hand, cutters, knives, shaves, planes, and the like, variously, as the nature of the work may render necessary, some in form of bent knives, spokeshaves, or deep cutting gouges, similar to those used by turners for cutting off the roughest part. I also apply planes of various shapes and construction as the work may require, to follow the former in succession under the same operation, and which latter I call finishers.

'Fourthly.— The cutters, knives, etc., I fix on frames of wood or metal, properly contrived for their reception, and from which the}' may easily be detached for the purpose of sharpening and the like. These I call cutter frames. These cutter frames I move in cases like those on which the saws are fixed in a sawing mill, and sometimes to reciprocate in a horizontal direction, confined and stationed by grooves or otherwise, as may be found best calculated to answer the several works intended. In other instances, and which I apprehend will generally have the preference, I fix cutter frames on a rotary upright shaft, turning on a step, and carrying the frame round in a direction similar to the upper millstone, and sometimes I cause the frames to turn on a horizontal shaft just resembling the mandrel of a common turning lathe, or those machines used for cutting log-wood, etc., for the dyers' uses. When these frames are mounted in any of the foregoing directions for cutters, planes, etc., are fixed so as to fall successionally in contact with the wood or other materials to be cut, so that the cutter or tool calculated to take the rough and hilly part operates the first, and that those that follow must be so regulated as to reduce the material down to the line intended for the surface. These cutter frames must also have the property of being regulated by a screw or otherwise, so as to approach nearer the work, or recede at pleasure, in order that a deeper or shallower cut may be taken at discretion, or that the machine may repeat its action without raising or depressing the materials on which they act. The manner of thus regulating the cutter frames when on an upright shaft is particularly described below. These cutter frames may be made of any magnitude and dimensions the work requires, only observing to make the diameter of those on a rotary plane so as to exceed twice the width of the materials to be cut, as the said materials must slide so as to pass the shaft on which the cutter frame revolves when on the upright principle.'

      Comprehended in this patent, and described at great length and exactness by the inventor, is the liquid bearing for stepping vertical shafts, the subject also of a 'recent invention' that came under notice.

      Bramah, however, not only invented the liquid bearing, but went further. He performed the vertical adjustment of his cutter spindles by the same means, pumping in the liquid at will, and securing a very precise, as well as positive, method of setting his machine. This mode of adjustment does not seem to have occurred to the modern inventor, and the 'hydrostatic adjustment,' which has so many parallels in modern practice, may, for all the author knows, owe its origin to this device of Bramah's, but whether it does or not the originality of the thing with him cannot be questioned. In his time engineering discoveries and engineering knowledge were not heralded through the world as fast as known, and we must in order to be even impartial give these old inventions the benefit of all doubts that may arise as to their originality.

      Another still more important feature of this invention was what we term step gearing for varying motion, now extensively employed in modern engineering practice for regulating the feeding mechanism of lathes and other metal-cutting machines, as well as in wood machines.

      The description is so quaint and ingenious that there needs ho apology for inserting it here in full, a little allowance can, however, be suggested as to the maximum speed suggested by a compounding of these cones of wheels, as described by the inventor.

      In speaking of the carriage movement he says:
'I regulate the motion of both these parts of the apparatus, as before mentioned, by means of a new invention, which I call an universal regulator of velocity, and which is composed as follows, viz: I take any number of cog wheels of different diameter, with teeth that will exactly fit each other through the whole, suppose ten, or any other number, but for an example say ten, the smallest of which shall not exceed one inch in diameter, and the largest suppose ten inches in diameter, from one to ten. I fix these ten wheels fast and immovable on an axis perfectly true, so as to form a cone of wheels. I then take ten other wheels exactly the same in all respects as the former, and fix them on another axis, also perfectly true, and the wheels in conical graduation also, but these latter wheels I do not fix fast on their axes like the former, which are fixed. All those latter wheels I have the power of locking by a pin or otherwise, so that I can at discretion lock or set fast any single wheel at pleasure.'

      In 1808, four years later, there was granted to William Newberry, of London, a patent for a band machine. The title is that of a machine for sawing wood, splitting and paring skins, etc. Supposing this to be the origin of band saws, which, from the want of any facts to the contrary, we will assume, it was a remarkable invention, not perhaps so much for the idea of an endless saw blade, but for the fact that a machine so perfect and operative as a whole should be constructed and then lie dormant for a period of forty years.

      It is easy to imagine the hopes and expectations that agitated the mind of the inventor of a thing that gave promise, as this must have done, of becoming at once the greatest of inventions, supplanting all other methods of sawing, as well as giving a continuous movement to cutting edges for paring, slitting, etc. Nor was the inventor wrong in such hopes, if he entertained them. Little did he think it would require more than two generations to develop a thing apparently so simple. Such, however, was or is the fact, for we are just now demonstrating the capacity and adaptation of band saws, a matter that will be spoken of under its proper head.

      Feeding rolls and radial guides were provided very much as now constructed, and sufficiently complete for the uses intended; also a pivotal table having its axis in the plane of the top, a thing which most regard as a modern invention.

The Blanchard Lathe

      We come now to the patent of Boyd or Blanchard, of 1822, for duplicating forms in wood, as well as in other materials. So clearly defined was the principle or mode of operating that the courts in the many cases of litigation that arose over this patent never failed to see nor lay down in their decisions this principle of duplication. Neither the machine that forms the particular subject of the patent, nor the specification itself, need be reverted to here, as in the after history of the patent special mechanism was entirely lost sight of. The idea was that of using a model in conjunction with a blank, the outline of the model guiding the tool to produce a duplicate from the blank.

      The invention was what may be termed an original one in the sense of not being an improvement. No analogous operation, it was believed, had ever been carried on, either in wood or other material, and instead of being a machine, or being considered as a machine, it was looked upon as the beginning of a system from which has sprung hundreds of modifications, all sufficiently distinct to be called machines, and yet all operating on the principle of the original invention. Our modern courts define 'principle' in mechanics as meaning a mode of action, and hold that principles are not patentable, a rule that it would certainly trouble them to apply in the case of this patent, which related to a 'a mode of operating' beyond doubt. This patent, like that of Woodworth's for planing machines, hereafter noticed, was the subject of long and bitter controversies in the United States, where the incentives to its infringement were very great, owing to large profits arising from its application to making lasts, axe helves, gun stocks, and other irregular forms that were expensive to make by hand. The patent was twice extended, and expired only twenty-eight years ago in America.

      To show how imperfect the records are in respect to wood-working machines, and how uncertain are law decisions in such cases, James Watt constructed in 1818 very elaborate machinery for copying. One of his machines is yet to be seen at Soho, in England, embracing all and many more methods than the one before alluded to. So perfect indeed that human busts of small size were perfectly copied, and one remains in the machine, as Watt left it at his death in 1819.

      From about the year 1815 to the Universal Exhibition of London, in 1851, the manufacture of wood-working machines in England remained but a limited business, and no advance was made that at all compared with what was effected in other branches of engineering. Many machines for special uses were no doubt made and used that combined both skill and ingenuity, but upon the whole wood machines may be said to have laid dormant in England for a period of forty years.

      This is the more astonishing when we reflect that during this time the great revolution, not to say the 'origin' of engineering implements took place. Bodmer, Maudslay, Roberts, Whitworth, and others, during this time perfected the system of metal cutting and shaping machines, which have not since, and perhaps in the future will not be, materially changed. Great inventions and scientific discoveries were made, but wood machines seemed to be neglected.

      In 1844, seven years previous to the Exhibition, Win, Furness, of Liverpool, imported from the United States, and patented in England, many of the machines made by C. B. Rogers & Co., of Norwich, Connecticut. The ruling idea in these machines was economy in cost and rapid performance in the hands of skilled men, neither of which elements fitted them for the English market at that time, consequently no great use seems to have been made of the plans and modifications that they might have suggested to makers in England.

      During the Exhibition in 1851, however, the performance of the 'wood framed' American machines was such as to create astonishment. English engineers at once proceeded to reproduce the methods of these machines in a heavier form, more in keeping with their common practice, and out of it grew, as we may say, a large share of modern practice in England.

      In following the history of wood machines it might be said that from 1835 to 1852 the development of the art was transferred from the old to the new world. The American people without iron, or the means of adapting it to the many uses to which it was already applied in England, employed instead the wood of their forests, applying it to all conceivable uses in the construction of buildings, ships, machines, roads, and even the framing of steam engines, for which purpose it is even yet to some extent used. Necessity, which has been termed the mother of invention, coupled with a strong ingenuity and boldness of plan that has always characterized the American people, led to a rapid development of a new kind of wood machines for sawing, planing, boring, mortising, tenoning, and so on, besides hundreds of modifications of special machines adapted to the manufacture of carriages, ploughs, furniture, joiners' work, bent work, and other things.

      Prominent among the inventions introduced was what is known as the 'Woodworth planing' machines. This notorious monopoly lasted by regular extension and Act of Congress over a period of twenty-eight years, costing many thousands of dollars in sixty-four suits at law which followed, crippling the interests of the country to the extent of millions of dollars, to say nothing of the many inventions in rotary planing machines that would have been developed had this monopoly been removed. We say monopoly, for the patent of Wood worth was never accepted as a bona fide invention, with the scope at least that the interpretation of the courts gave it. There need be no further evidence of this given than the numerous appeals in the face of former decisions. It is true that many of these suits were in 'equity,' and did not involve directly the question of validity of the patent, but they nevertheless in nearly every instance showed that public opinion did not acquiesce in the decisions on this point. In explanation and support of the opinion expressed it must be admitted that the combination of rotary cutting cylinders and feeding rolls would in the natural development of this art have soon followed as a matter of course, and that as soon as planing by power was an industrial necessity this combination would have been invented, not by a single man only, but by a majority of as many as would attempt to make planing machines; in other words, the machine was a sequence of the state of the art, and the art was not dependent on the invention of Woodworth.

      Cutting cylinders for wood were, under several modifications, known, as we have shown in a former place, thirty-five years before. In 1811 a patent was granted to Charles Hammond, of the City of London, for improvements in machinery for sawing and planing wood, in which he fully describes the use of feeding rolls for passing lumber to circular and other saws. Similar feeding rolls were used for analogous purposes in other machines and when it became necessary to move a board continuously under a rotary cutting cylinder the public would not have had long to wait for the mechanical devices forming the subject of Wood worth's specification. In fact planing thin or flexible pieces to a parallel thickness was quite a new thing, and at variance with the established plans of planing wood. In America, however, the timber is cut into thin boards in the forest, and is apt to spring, or become crooked in dry ing, hence the importance of a roller-feeding machine for flexible stuff, a thing not before needed, and which to this day has never become a machine of great importance, except where the system of forest-sawn thin boards prevails.

      It is not the intention of the author to disparage the invention of Woodworth, and he presents these views of this old patent as coming from a practical mechanic, himself a patentee of improvements in wood machines, and as the frank expression of an opinion based upon an impartial consideration of the facts.

      Since 1850 the inventions in wood machines have followed each other in rapid succession in America. The most complicated forms in wood of regular or irregular outline are produced at a cost, and with a degree of accuracy, which cannot be attained by hand manipulation. Engineers and inventors in both Europe and America, during two or three years, have been giving to wood machines such attention as they demand and the wants of the market have forced out. Within the past ten years the art has been raised to the dignity of recognition among other branches of engineering, the scientific journals of England have given more space to such machines. Regular engineering establishments are springing up in England, America, and on the Continent, which give their attention to woodworking machines as a specialty.

      Offering an apology for this recital of what we consider the leading facts in the rise and progress of this art, we feel that the book would have been incomplete without it. The facilities for gathering facts of this kind are quite limited, especially when we consider that wood-cutting machines have grown up with civilization in all countries, and have not, like many other things, been developed in one place.

      As stated at the beginning, the early history of wood machines in the Netherlands would, no doubt, add many facts of interest, but as the manufacture of such machinery is now chiefly carried on in England, America, France, and Northern Germany, interest in its history is confined to its development in these countries.

Information Sources

  • Industry Magazine Apr 1894, pages 215-217 (Part 1)
  • Industry Magazine Apr 1895 pages 193-207 (Part 2

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