concerning the picking of locks; the use of wood in the making of iron, and iron in the making of wood; the very great importance of very small errors; blocks of all shapes and sizes; and the tool known as “the Lord Chancellor”

THE SHOP WAS SLIGHTLY off the most traveled portion of Piccadilly, across from Green Park near Half Moon Street, but hundreds, if not thousands, of pedestrians still walked past it every day. Which meant that every day during the spring of 1801, thousands of eyes saw the challenge. It was hung in the store’s window, incised on a brass contraption the shape of an oversized acorn, and read:









At the top of the acorn, in place of the cupule that attaches the nut to its tree, was the lock in question. At its bottom was the legend:







As gimmicks go, this was one of the more successful in the history of marketing.* But its object was no gimmick: the “challenge lock,” designed to be opened by a tubular key incised with slots along the long axis, would defy all challenges for fifty years. Different models were on offer almost from the beginning, containing as few as five sliders or as many as fourteen. That was the number contained in the “challenge lock,” giving it potentially 470 million possible combinations and making it virtually unpickable. Indeed, it remained unpicked until 1851, when an American locksmith finally succeeded at the Great London Exposition, supposedly taking more than fifty hours in the process. The challenge lock was such a remarkable bit of technological brilliance that an updated version of the same design is still sold by the same firm, now known as Bramah UK. Its managing director, Jeremy Bramah, is a direct descendant of the firm’s founder, Joseph Bramah, and it is no coincidence that his original lock is on display at London’s Science Museum only yards away from Rocket.

JOSEPH BRAMAH, THE SON of a Yorkshire farmer, had been apprenticed to a cabinetmaker named Joseph Allott in 1765 when he was sixteen years old, but it took another thirteen years for him to get his first patent, for a flush toilet with a floating ball and flap valve designed to prevent it from seizing up during freezing weather. It was not only an immediate success, with thousands installed across Britain, but is still recognizably the system used in most modern water closets.

Bramah may have been a late bloomer, but during the last twenty years of his life he would become an inventing phenomenon, creating dozens of highly profitable machines for the widest possible range of applications. He was also, from 1783 on, a member of the British Society of Arts, which, it will be recalled, was enthusiastic about giving prizes for inventions but opposed patenting them until the middle of the nineteenth century. One can only imagine the debates that must have been prompted by Bramah’s presence, since, in a remarkable stretch starting in 1793, he patented more than eighteen separate machines, including a fire engine; the first hydraulic press, which applied the principle of feedback in the form of a self-tightening collar to prevent fluid loss; the first beer tap (apparently designed to save publicans from carrying barrels up and down stairs); a wood-planing machine that used twenty-eight tools mounted on a vertical shaft, one of which was still in use thirty years after Bramah’s patent expired; and a machine for numbering and dating banknotes (the Bank of England would order three dozen of the machines).

Woodworking and fine cabinetry, however, were Bramah’s original sources of income, and apparently his primary source of insecurity, since he spent at least three years working on a new method of locking his workshop for the night. He received his first lock patent in 1784, for “a LOCK, constructed on a new and infallible Principle,2 which, possessing all the Properties essential to Security, will prevent the most ruinous Consequences of HOUSE ROBBERIES, and be a certain Protection.”

The lock made Bramah’s fortune. London’s upper classes were, with a good deal of justification, fearful of theft, and thus prepared to pay the equivalent of a laborer’s annual salary for an unpickable lock. His marketing brilliance and intuitive understanding of branding meant that people also valued the status conferred by ownership; several decades later Charles Dickens made a point of reminding his readers that the Gray’s Inn offices of Mr. Perker, the “cautious little” attorney in The Pickwick Papers, were secured by a Bramah lock.

However, the secret to its obduracy was a highly complicated design requiring up to a hundred separate metal pieces, each of which needed to be made to extremely accurate tolerances, and producing even the simplest Bramah locks in anything approaching the quantity demanded presented huge technical difficulties. This was a central challenge of this period of frantic invention: how to produce complicated machines in quantity.

The combination was the problem. Navigational instruments, and especially clocks and watches, were already made not only precisely, but identically; however, their market was small enough to be met on a bespoke basis. “Machines” such as buckles and millstones could be produced in bulk, but had few moving parts and a lot of room for error.

Two developments were needed to turn the custom-made machine into one that could be manufactured in quantity. Darby, Huntsman, Cort, and their competitors had tackled the first part of the problem by producing a regular supply of iron, an affordable material that could be fabricated into as many shapes as wood, but unlike wood would keep its shape even when abraded or stressed. The second was some way to turn that iron into shapes precisely and consistently. If the most important invention of the Industrial Revolution was invention itself, the automation of precision has to be one of the top three.

Appropriately enough, the development can be dated with a reasonable amount of accuracy, to the day in 1789 that the forty-year-old Bramah first met an eighteen-year-old metalworking prodigy from the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich named Henry Maudslay.

MAUDSLAY WAS BORN AT Woolwich, where his father was employed as a laborer making munitions for the Royal Navy, and soon enough the Arsenal offered employment to Henry as well, who became a “powder monkey” loading gunpowder into shells at the age of twelve. From subsequent events, we can safely assume that he was not only clever with his hands—on the sly, he forged highly prized kitchen implements for families throughout Woolwich—but careful as well, since he was in full possession of all his fingers when he left Woolwich for London six years later.

The lock design was then five years old, but the need for handcrafting made it more of a curiosity than a commercial success. Bramah was well aware of the problem, and he sought a solution from London’s best-regarded blacksmith, a German named William Moodie. Moodie was stumped, but he had heard some of the legends that were already forming around Maudslay at Woolwich and recommended him to Bramah, who satisfied himself that the onetime powder monkey was not only resourceful, but even more fanatical about precision than he was himself.

Satisfying that mania for precision wasn’t particularly easy in the last decades of the eighteenth century. Despite the enormous number of innovations that had appeared over the preceding eighty years, at the moment when Bramah met Maudslay, the most critical precision instrument in the heavy metal trades remained a good file; a diligent metalworker was still measured by his ability to take the rough edges off everything from a pocket watch’s winding screw to the turnscrew on a one-ton cannon.

The screw is one of the canonical simple machines, along with the lever, wedge, and inclined plane, with a history dating back to the Fertile Crescent, and throughout antiquity wood screws were used as presses for oil, wine, and (by the time of the Inquisition) the occasional human thumb. Yet Maudslay sensed that the screw, despite its antiquity and simplicity, was also the tool of the future. For centuries, screws had been produced using the hand tools known as taps and dies: the former to cut interior threads—the “female” side—and the latter the exterior, or “male,” threads. But until the fifteenth century, almost all of them were cut out of wood, which didn’t do much for either their precision or their durability. Even when European metalworkers started to make metal screws, their dependence on hand tools required that the metal be relatively soft—and, more important, kept the screws rare. Until screws, and other sym-metrical metal objects, could be made by a machine, they were destined to stay that way.

The machine that finally broke the logjam—the lathe—was nearly as old as the screw. It had evolved considerably during the preceding two millennia, from the Egyptian “rope bow” operated by a person pulling back and forth on a rope attached to the workpiece, to the Roman bow lathe, and finally to the spring-operated pole lathe, which represented the state of the art in wood turning from about the first century CE through the Middle Ages.

Wood turning has its own satisfactions. As anyone who has ever taken what used to be called shop class will recall, there is a beauty in watching a lathe (or its close cousin, a potter’s wheel) at work. The transformation of an irregular shape into a symmetrical one seems to feed what may be a universal love of harmony, and even the simplest lathe work—turning a block of wood into a chair leg or a baseball bat—is satisfying to watch, and even more satisfying to do. But it is limiting. The lathe remained a tool for creating only beauty until the sixteenth century, when it finally became a tool for creating other tools—and, most particularly, a tool for creating metal screws.

That was when the onetime wood turning machines acquired the mandrel—a spindle onto which the workpiece was attached, thereby transmitting rotation to the spindle rather than to the piece itself. Even more important, the sixteenth-century lathes finally started using the long leadscrew, which moved the workpiece horizontally as it was rotated. The leadscrew, combined with a steady platform for the cutting tool, was now the measure of precision in lathe work: Any piece turned on a lathe that used a leadscrew could be made as precisely as the leadscrew itself.

Using a leadscrew made any lathe work more precise, but its really revolutionary application emerged when a number of innovators figured out how to angle the cutting head to incise a continuous helical groove onto a smooth cylinder: to machine a screw. And not just a screw fastener; the reason lathes are frequently called history’s “first self-replicating machines” is that, beginning in the sixteenth century, they were used to produce their own leadscrews. A dozen inventors from all over Europe, including the Huguenots Jacques Besson and Salomon de Caus, the Italian clockmaker Torriano de Cremona, the German military engineer Konrad Keyser, and the Swede Christopher Polhem, mastered the iterative process by which a lathe could use one leadscrew to cut another, over and over again, each time achieving a higher order of accuracy. By connecting the lathe spindle and carriage to the leadscrew, the workpiece could be moved a set distance for every revolution of the spindle; if the workpiece revolved eight times while the cutting tool was moved a single inch, then eight spiral grooves would be cut on the metal for every inch: eight turns per inch.

Thus a leadscrew that was accurate to within ½″ could operate a lathe that could cut a new screw accurate to within 7⁄16″, and the new leadscrew could in turn produce one accurate to within ⅜″, eventually achieving a very high degree of precision.

Not, however, high enough for Bramah’s locks. For while the leadscrews on those lathes were made of iron, most of the lathe’s other components were made of wood. And wood, even very hard wood, shakes. It shakes enough, in fact, that even the sharpest steel blade couldn’t make a cut accurate to within 1⁄16″—an enormous error margin in a three-inch lock.

Henry Maudslay’s first, and probably greatest, contribution to the Bramah Lock Co., and to the Industrial Revolution, was his realization of the huge advantages of a lathe made entirely of iron. Not just the leadscrew and the slide rest—a platform that holds the tool post and moves the tool laterally as precisely as the leadscrew moved the workpiece horizontally—but all the platforms, bits, and supports of the lathe. Maudslay’s design integrated all of them in a manner that achieved a degree of precision greater than any could offer individually. The advantage of iron over wood turned out to be critical.

Maudslay’s perception about the superiority of iron may have come to him in the form of a Glasgow Green sort of insight, but he left no diary that would confirm its origin, or even precisely when he produced the first all-iron lathe for Bramah, though it was certainly in operation by 1791. During the 1790s, Maudslay’s key insight—that stability equaled precision, and iron was stable—was incorporated into a number of other tools he built for Bramah’s lock business, including drills, planing machines, and possibly even a rotary file: essentially one of the first mechanical milling machines, used to shape metal into nonsymmetrical shapes, just as lathes formed them into symmetrical ones. In addition, he is credited with inventing a self-tightening leather collar that made Bramah’s hydraulic press a working proposition.

However, Bramah was in the business of selling locks, not lathes, and he determined that the best business decision was to patent the things made by his new machine tools, not the tools themselves, which he kept secret as long as possible; as a result, it is rather difficult to document when, precisely, Maudslay and Bramah put them on the company’s production line. No such problem exists in documenting Maudslay’s devotion to his employer, which was far greater than his employer had for him. Even when Bramah promoted Maudslay3 to shop superintendent in 1798, he was still paying him a fairly modest thirty shillings a week, which was not enough for Maudslay’s growing family. Unable to persuade Bramah4 to part with a living wage, Maudslay left and set up shop on Oxford Street in London, where he was employing eighty men by 1800, and nearly two hundred by 1810.

And still he remained obsessed with screws and screw-making machinery.* Maudslay rightly realized that the match of screw lands to bolts or receivers was key to fastening metal pieces in large machines as well as small, and that the large machines represented a far more profitable market. He spent the decade after leaving Bramah building lathes that could produce screws of any desired pitch using the same leadscrew, and that were both large enough to make the linkage for a 48-inch cylinder steam engine and precise enough to make the quarter-inch valves that controlled their operation.

The key was the leadscrew, which reproduced its exact pitch on the material to be threaded—and introduced exactly the same inaccuracies. If the leadscrew was accurate to (for example) ¼″, then the screw, or screw fitting, it cut might make eight turns in anything from ⅞″ to 1⅛″; if it was accurate to 1⁄16″, then its fittings would make the same eight turns somewhere between 31⁄32″ and 11⁄32″. Ten years of experimentation with different combinations of gears and cutting tools eventually resulted in a seven-foot-long brass leadscrew that was accurate to within less than 1⁄16″.

By then, however, 1⁄16″ might as well have been a foot; in another example of one problem’s solution creating a new set of problems, the more accuracy Maudslay had, the more he needed. This was because, while he was iterating his way to his prize leadscrew, he had also built himself a tool that was to eighteenth-century metalworking what Galileo’s telescope was to fifteenth-century astronomy. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the tool was used not to make things, but to measure them.

Micrometers, devices for measuring very small increments, were then only about thirty years old; James Watt himself had produced what was probably the world’s first in 1776, a horizontal scale marked with fine gradations and topped with two jaws, one fixed and the other moved horizontally by turning a screw. With a pointer on the movable jaw, objects could be measured extremely accurately, up to 1⁄100″. But Maudslay’s micrometer, which he nicknamed “the Lord Chancellor,” was capable of measuring differences of less than 1⁄1000″ (some say 1⁄10,000″). When he measured the seven-foot-long brass screw, inch by inch, with the Lord Chancellor, he found that his “perfect” screw was actually inconsistent along its entire length: one inch might have fifty threads, another fifty-one, a third forty-nine, and the only reason it seemed accurate was that the irregularities had canceled one another out. This was clearly unsatisfactory to a perfectionist of Maudslay’s degree, and the screw was recut, again and again, until even the Lord Chancellor could find no error.

There is a mythic quality to the Lord Chancellor—an Excalibur of measurement, slaying the dragon of imprecision—that explains its ubiquity in stories about Maudslay and his entire era. But that very quality tends to hide its real importance. The Industrial Revolution, however it is defined, depended on Maudslay’s micrometer, and instruments like it, just as much as it did on laws protecting intellectual property or the birth of scientific experimentation. This is because sustained innovation is incrementalinnovation, and those increments are usually very small: a valve that weighs a fraction of an ounce less, a linkage that reduces coal consumption by a few pounds a day. Without instruments that could measure such small improvements in performance, invention was doomed to be rare and erratic; the mania for precision that was Maudslay’s defining characteristic made it commonplace.

Maudslay’s own inventions are impressive enough. In 1805, he patented a machine that could print designs on cotton; in 1806, he invented a new method for lifting weights with a differential motion; and in 1807, he devised a new and compact framework for supporting the cylinder of a steam engine, which permitted the use of so-called “table engines” in far smaller factory areas.

His influence is, however, larger than that, beginning with the astonishing number of other equally obsessive engineer-inventors to whom he was teacher and mentor. The best known may be the almost embarrassingly prolific Richard Roberts, who acquired patents the way Balzac wrote novels.* Another of Maudslay’s assistants, Joseph Whitworth, developed a measuring system accurate to one-millionth of an inch. This is not a misprint; until the United Kingdom joined the metric system, the standard unit for screw threads was the BSW, which stands for British Standard Whitworth.

Whitworth worked for Maudslay at the same time as Joseph Clement, who would later build, on the instructions of Charles Babbage, the prototype for the original “difference engine”—the world’s first mechanical computer. Maudslay’s son, Joseph, later became a brilliant marine engineer, patenting the double-cylinder marine engine that was widely used during the nineteenth century. Yet another Maudslay graduate, James Nasmyth, the inventor of a steam hammer that made him the wealthiest of them all, wrote floridly of his mentor, “the indefatigable care which he took5 in inculcating and diffusing among his workmen, and mechanical men generally, sound ideas of practical knowledge, and refined views of construction, has rendered, and ever will continue to render, his name identified with all that is noble in the ambition of a lover of mechanical perfection.” More prosaically, though probably just as accurately, one of Maudslay’s workmen remembered that “it was a pleasure to see him handle a tool6 of any kind, but he was quite splendid with an 18 inch file.”

However, even if Maudslay had never built an iron lathe to make Bramah his locks, never become the era’s icon of precision, or never turned his Oxford Street workshop into the place where, as one modern historian put it, “a ‘critical mass’ of inventive activity”7 was achieved, he would still have earned a large place in industrial history. And he would have earned it by building blocks.

A PILGRIMAGE TO BRITAIN’S sacred sites of industrialism would certainly include Boulton & Watt’s Soho Foundry and the Ironbridge Gorge Museums; probably the four-hundred-foot-deep mine at the National Coal Mining Museum in Yorkshire; and possibly the pumping station at Crofton. It would certainly be incomplete without a visit to the eastern shore of Portsmouth Harbor, where the Royal Navy’s largest dockyard houses museums, historically important ships, and the Portsmouth Block Mills,* the place where Henry Maudslay’s machines would make up the world’s first true steam-powered factory.

The quadrupling of the Royal Navy during the eighteenth century, like the Apollo space program of the 1960s, created a massive customer for technological innovation. This was, after all, the Age of Sail, and while guns and ammunition might be metal, getting those guns to where they could be useful required the pressure of wind on canvas. Wind was a useful source of power for mills, but its directional variability made it a capricious sort of transportation “fuel,” and a staggering amount of human ingenuity was required to make the wind blowing this way drive a three-thousand-ton ship that way. Each sail—a three-masted ship had at least nine—was raised, lowered, reefed, and turned by some portion of more than twenty miles of rope, every foot of which ran through up to a dozen different pulleys, contained within blocks of wood. The blocks consisted of shells, usually of elm, cut with several oblong slots, or mortises, each containing a hardwood pulley fitted with metal bushings spinning around a pin, usually made of iron. A single ship of the line8 required as many as fifteen hundred such blocks, ranging in length from three inches to three feet, and with nearly a thousand ships at sea by the beginning of the nineteenth century, wearing out their blocks at a rapid rate, anyone who could produce them in quantity was going to make an indecent amount of money doing so; in 1800, the navy was paying more than 8 guineas—two months of a skilled laborer’s salary—for a single 38-incher.

For centuries, blocks—shell, pulley, and pin—had been made by hand, with all the cost in time and error that implied. The first block makers to mechanize were the Walter Taylors (father and son) in 1754; eight years later, they patented their “Set of engines, tools, instruments,9 and other apparatus for the Making of Blocks, Sheavers, and Pins.” In 1786 they received another, for lubricating the apparatus. More significant was Samuel Bentham,10 whose 1793 patent for woodworking machinery included a rotary planer; a circular saw; a primitive router for dovetail grooving; bevel saws, crown saws, and radial saws; radial and reciprocating mortise machines; guides, grinders, gauges, and tables; and his own version of the slide rest lathe. The Bentham application was so frighteningly comprehensive, covering all conceivable aspects of mechanized woodworking, that the Patent Office regarded it as “a perfect treatise on the subject.”11

An innovative naval officer determined to reform his tradition-minded service, Bentham had become fascinated by the potential for machine production of naval components largely by accident. In 1786, while in Russia,12 where he had gone to take a job as a naval engineer, he was so short of skilled craftsmen that the only way to produce blocks, tackles, belaying pins, and all the other wooden impedimenta of the Age of Sail was to make the process simple enough that they could be manufactured by even illiterate and untrained serfs. Or, even better, by machines.

Bentham’s older brother, the political philosopher Jeremy, had independently developed an interest in woodworking by unskilled laborers. While he is best remembered for his utilitarian philosophy—“the greatest good for the greatest number”—Jeremy Bentham probably spent as much time thinking about prison reform as anything else,* and his fascination with prisons extended to the idea that woodworking was the perfect way to occupy the idle but untrained hands of prisoners.

In 1795, the Bentham brothers put their ideas together and drafted a contract proposing that the Admiralty use prison labor to operate the woodworking machines used to produce naval stores. Jeremy, evidently ambitious to find an even larger market for Samuel’s inventions, wrote a letter to his friend, the Duc de la Rochefoucauld, a French nobleman then in exile in North America, asking whether “a Propos of my brother’s inventions,13 do you know of anybody where you are … who would like to be taught how to stock all North America with all sorts of woodwork … on the terms of allowing the inventor [i.e. Samuel] a share of the profits as they arise?” The Frenchman evidently had no immediate help on offer, but a few years later, the letter was apparently the chief subject of discussion at a dinner party in New York City, whose guests included the recently resigned secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, and another French émigré, a former sailor and engineer named Marc Isambard Brunel.

BRUNEL HAD BY THEN crowded a fair bit into his first twenty-seven years. When he was eleven, he traveled from his birthplace at Haqueville in Normandy to attend the seminary of St. Nazaire in Rouen, where soon enough the priests realized that the boy’s vocation was more mechanical than pastoral. They sent him to live with the American consul in Rouen, a retired sea captain, to be educated in hydrography and drafting as preparation for a naval career. He was commissioned into the French Navy in 1786 and served on a dozen voyages, but when he returned from the West Indies in 1792, France’s three-year-old revolution was taking a violent turn. In the fall, Parisians had imprisoned the king and queen, and the era of mass executions known as the Reign of Terror was looming. Brunel decided to emigrate. His education seems to have nurtured interests in navigation and the United States of America equally; a year later, in September 1793, he landed in New York.

The royalist-leaning Frenchman was enthusiastically welcomed by the new republic. On the recommendation of two of his fellow passengers, he almost immediately won a job to survey a land grant near Lake Ontario and drew up plans for a canal between Lake Champlain and the Hudson River. Once he took on U.S. citizenship, he was named chief engineer for the City of New York, building foundries, laying out roads, and planning for the defense of the city’s harbor, which was the job he held when the subject of block making was broached at the dinner with Hamilton.

In Brunel’s later recollection, the flash of insight that followed struck him as he was “roaming on the esplanade of Fort Montgomery.”14 Just as with James Watt’s stroll on Glasgow Green, a machine had appeared to him, more or less fully formed, in which the mortises in the blocks could be cut by chisels moving up and down in series “two or three at a time”15 as the blocks were conveyed along a moving line.

On January 20, 1799, Brunel sailed for Britain armed with a letter of introduction from Hamilton to the First Lord of the Admiralty* and a patent specification for his machine. The First Lord arranged an immediate introduction to Samuel Bentham, by now Inspector General for Naval Works, but it took two years before he finally received a patent for his “New and Useful Machine for Cutting One or More Mortices Forming the Sides of and Cutting the Pin-Hole of the Shells of Blocks, and for Turning and Boring the Shivers.”

Brunel had broken block making into a series of steps that synchronized a dozen different woodworking processes. During one of those steps, machine-driven chisels—between one and four—cut out slots in a rectangular block of wood, while their reciprocating motion drove a gear that moved the block laterally the length of the needed mortise. In another, sheaves—the pulleys intended to fit inside the mortises—were made by a rounding saw that made a circular disc while simultaneously cutting a groove in the middle. Bentham’s own designs were ingenious enough, but the machines specified in his 1793 patent operated independently; each one could typically complete only a single step. Brunel’s plan, in essence, took the motion imparted by one machine and used it to drive another. By requiring that each step in any procedure be driven by the preceding one, he effectively automated the entire block-making system.

In the same year that the patent was awarded, Brunel persuaded Samuel Bentham to put his ideas to work at the navy’s largest dockyard, in Portsmouth. For that, he needed a toolmaker. Someone like, for example, Henry Maudslay, whom Bentham hired in 1802 to turn Brunel’s drawings into machines.

Or, more accurately, to revise them. The brilliance of Brunel’s patented idea was the manner in which it coordinated the different cutting and drilling movements, but their very coordination demanded precision that could be measured in thousands of an inch. The design, however, specified16 the use of wood for dozens of components, and vibration alone introduced errors larger than that. Maudslay, who by then knew more than anyone else living about eliminating vibration, did so by translating Brunel’s designs into cold iron. His machines—he ended up building forty-five or so—included power saws17 for roughing out pieces of elm into useful sizes; drills, mortising chisels, and scorers; rotary saws for the sheaves; and even forging machines to make the iron pins and bushings. And they were all, in the end, made of the same cast iron that had become so reliably available.

Maudslay’s fee for constructing the machines18 came to the very handsome sum of £12,000—considerably more than $1 million in current dollars—which made sense only given the contract that Brunel had executed with Bentham and the Admiralty. That agreement guaranteed19 that the machinery would allow six men to do the work of sixty, with annual cost savings in the neighborhood of £24,000, which would be used to calculate his own payment. The final accounting is almost incomprehensible—in 1808, the Mills produced 130,000 blocks at a nominal price of £54,000, but the figures that were used to calculate the annual “royalties” payable to Brunel came out anywhere between £6,691 and £26,000—and, perhaps predictably, Brunel had to chase down the money he was owed. He didn’t come close to recouping20 his own investment until 1810, when the Admiralty settled on a single payment of a bit more than £17,000.

By then, the Portsmouth Block Mills had become Britain’s most advanced industrial factory and among its most important defense plants. On the day in 1805 that Horatio Nelson left Portsmouth in search of the French fleet he would eventually find at Trafalgar, his last stop was the Mills. Three years after Nelson’s death, the Portsmouth Block Mills was producing “an output greater21 than that previously supplied by the six largest dockyards.” Just as important, it had become Britain’s best advertisement for the virtues of industrialization. The Portsmouth Block Mills was extraordinarily public, and deliberately so. Bentham had hoped to publicize the machine age by making the mills open to the public (a cause for much complaint by the engineers), and he encouraged articles about it in numerous journals and encyclopedias, including six consecutive editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. To the degree that the machines of the Industrial Revolution depended upon awareness of, and inspiration from, other machines, Henry Maudslay’s saws, drills, and chisels earned Portsmouth Block Mills its place on the pilgrimage route.

So did the engines that drove them.

Even before Bentham had put Brunel’s ideas and Maudslay’s hands to work, he had shown a powerful affection for novelty in both naval tactics—he is justly famous as an early advocate for replacing solid shot with explosive shells in naval combat—and engineering. In 1798, he introduced at Portsmouth the Royal Navy’s first stationary steam engine, a relatively small “table engine” built and installed by James Sadler, a member of Bentham’s staff, to drive one of the early rotary saws. That one was supplemented in 1800 by a Boulton & Watt beam engine housed in a separate building, despite the Navy Board’s nervous belief that these newfangled machines would “set fire to the dockyards22 [and] would occasion risings of artificers, and so forth.”

Though the first engine to drive Maudslay’s saws and chisels came from the Soho Foundry, it wasn’t to be the last. The year it was installed, 1800, was also the year that the patent for the separate condenser finally expired, thus in theory opening the marketplace to competition; and indeed, in 1807, the Royal Navy replaced its Boulton & Watt machine with a more powerful substitute from the company’s most serious challenger, Matthew Murray.

MURRAY WAS THEN ABOUT forty years old, like so many others a product of the apprentice system—in his case, to a “whitesmith” or tinker in his home of Newcastle-on-Tyne—who become a journeyman mechanic and inventor, first in the employ of a linen manufacturer named John Marshall, then in partnership with two friends named James Fenton and David Wood. In 1797, the new company, Fenton, Murray, and Wood, patented a brilliant new steam engine design, one that used a horizontal cylinder and incorporated a new valve, designed by Murray, that dramatically improved engine efficiency.

By this time, an awful lot of the big stuff in steam engine design—the separate condenser, the double-acting engine—had already been introduced, patented, and seen those patents expire. Each time this happened, the innovation in question lost its competitive advantages, with the result that the search for smaller and smaller improvements was well under way. Even so, some small improvements resulted in large profits, and one was certainly Murray’s D-valve (so called for its shape), which controlled the flow of steam. Earlier self-acting valves had been relatively heavy and required a not inconsiderable amount of the engine’s own steam power to lift—and every bit of energy that went into lifting a valve was not available for any other work. The lighter the valve, the more efficient the engine, and the D-valve weighed less than half as much as its predecessor. The valve’s shape was likewise a cost saver: it absorbed less heat than its predecessor, thus increasing engine efficiency, since every bit of heat used to heat the engine parts was no longer available to make steam.

There was no doubt of the originality of the D-valve, but in 1802, Murray patented “new combined steam engines23 for producing a circular power … for spinning cotton, flax, tow and wool, or for any purpose requiring circular power,” and this one was challenged in court by Boulton & Watt. Their victory (on a technicality: Murray had included dozens of improvements in the same patent application, and the law provided that if any one of them was not completely original, it invalidated the entire application) did not endear them to Murray. After his loss, he spent large sums advertising his originality, attempting to persuade Britons that his ideas weren’t stolen from Watt. The experience enriched the newspapers but soured him on the patent system, which he rarely used again. Even so, the conflict continued; he and his partners planned to expand their factory in Leeds, only to find out that Murray’s conflict with his Birmingham competitors did not improve with time; the planned expansion24 of Fenton, Murray, and Wood’s four-story-high circular factory—the famous “Round Foundry” in Leeds—was thwarted when Boulton & Watt bought up every surrounding acre. It soon became clear that the cultural and legal revolution that had transformed ideas into an entirely new sort of valuable commodity had created a new sort of conflict as well. The availability of patent protection was, predictably, motivating inventors to make more inventions; it was also motivating them to frustrate competing inventions from anyone else.

The argument between those who believe legal protection for inventions promotes innovation or retards it continues to this day. For both sides of the debate, Exhibit A is often the litigation between James Watt and Jonathan Hornblower.

HORNBLOWER, THE SON OF a onetime steam engine mechanic (the steam engines in question were reputedly Newcomen’s) and nephew of another,* followed them into the family business when he hired on with Boulton & Watt to install engines in Cornwall in the late 1770s. By 1781, either by native ingenuity or careful observation, he was able to draft a patent for a revolutionary new kind of steam engine that coordinated two separate cylinders, one at higher pressure than the other, and used the pressure exhausted from one cylinder to drive the other. This both increased the machine’s output by as much as a third, and, by running each cylinder in a sort of syncopated rhythm, reduced the “dead spots” where the piston reversed direction (this is known as “smoothing out the power curve”). In addition, Hornblower’s “compound engine” also incorporated a couple of less revolutionary items: a separate condenser and air pump, both of which were still protected by Watt’s original patent, to say nothing of the 1775 extension.

The new design did not catch on immediately. The patent itself was vague enough that most of what was known about the Hornblower engine was little more than speculation. It wasn’t until 178825 that Watt caught wind of a speech given by Hornblower to a group of Cornish miners, in which his onetime employee reputedly said that Watt had not even invented the separate condenser, and that they were in consequence paying Boulton & Watt an unnecessary royalty. The speech offended Watt, but it did not, by itself, threaten the dominant position of his engine design. Three years later, however, Boulton & Watt were growing concerned about both potential competition and actual infringement. In November of 1791 Watt wrote to Boulton that “the ungrateful, idle, insolent Hornblowers26 [there were three Hornblower brothers, none of whom had particularly endeared himself to Watt] have laboured to evade our Act, and for that purpose have long been possessed of a copy of our specification.” In 1796, they sued Hornblower and his partner, David Maberley, asserting infringement on the separate condenser patents.

The most illuminating aspect of the entire affair was the difference in the way that Watt and Boulton viewed it. For Watt, the theft (as he saw it) of his work was a deeply personal violation. In 1790, just before realizing the extent of what he perceived as Hornblower’s theft of his own work, he wrote,

if patentees are to be regarded27 by the public, as … monopolists, and their patents considered as nuisances & encroachments on the natural liberties of his Majesty’s other subjects, wou’d it not be just to make a law at once, taking away the power of granting patents for new inventions & by cutting off the hopes of ingenious men oblige them either to go on in the way of their fathers & not spend their time which would be devoted to the encrease [sic] of their own fortunes in making improvements for an ungrateful public, or else to emigrate to some other Country that will afford to their inventions the protections they may merit?

Despite his own confidence, he was aware of the complicated public relations aspect of his situation: “Our cause is good,”28 he wrote, “and yet it has a bad aspect. We are called monopolists, and exactors of money from the people for nothing. Would to God the money and price of the time the engine has cost us were in our pockets again, and the devil might then have the draining of their mines in place of me…. The law must decide whether we have property in this affair or not” (emphasis added).

In the event, the law did decide against Hornblower, and in favor of Boulton & Watt (though not until January 1799, only a year before the expiration of Watt’s patent) notwithstanding the testimony of none other than Joseph Bramah, the lockmaker, who stated under oath that Watt’s separate condenser offered no improvement on Newcomen’s engine, referring to the 1769 innovation as “monstrous stupidity,”29 which rubbed Watt very raw indeed. Boulton, who had only money at risk rather than pride, recommended keeping an even keel: “I think we should confine our contentions30 to the recovery of our debts, and in that be just, moderate and honourable, for sweet is the bread of contentment.”

The lessons to be derived from the Hornblower litigation are probably fewer than generally thought. The lawsuit has been used to underline the many contemporaneous perspectives on intellectual property; the abusive character of patent law; and even the geopolitics of eighteenth-century Cornwall. It certainly is not an object lesson in the wages of patent theft; despite numerous citations that find him ruined and even jailed for his troubles, Jonathan Hornblower actually ended up quite wealthy, and continued to pursue patents for steam engine improvements on his own for years.

If the case informs anything, it is actually the great virtue of an environment that recognized the value of intellectual property. Whatever the failures of any specific judicial remedies, a society that wants good ideas to triumph over bad—for superior technology to replace inferior—must promote the creation of as many ideas as possible. In the end, the compound engine was fairly rapidly “rediscovered” by a onetime carpenter named Arthur Woolf, who patented, in 1804, a new method of using steam in an expansive engine, this time by raising the temperature of the steam within the cylinder instead of the boiler, thus creating “a sufficient action against the piston31 of a steam engine to cause the same to rise in the old [Newcomen] engine … or to be carried into the vacuous parts of the cylinder in [Watt’s] improved engines.” That is, it discharged steam directly from a higher-pressure cylinder into a lower-pressure one, thereby compounding the power stroke. With the separate condenser now in the public domain, he was free of the risk of litigation.

By 1808, a compound engine had made its way to the Portsmouth Block Mills, though both Brunel and Maudslay had moved on to other ventures. The former ultimately went bankrupt, despite being paid more than £17,000 by the Navy, and in 1821 was incarcerated as a debtor. He had once again gone to the patent well, in August 1810, with a machine for mass-producing shoes and boots for the army, and when peace came after Waterloo in 1815, he was left with truckloads of unsold footwear, a reminder of the fickle nature of a fortune built on government contracts. His most ambitious endeavor, a tunnel under the Thames, would ultimately be completed by his even more famous son, Isambard Kingdom Brunel.* Maudslay, on the other hand,32 would eventually build engines for forty-five naval ships, including HMS Lightning, the Royal Navy’s first steamship, and HMS Enterprise, the first to steam to India.

Maudslay’s lasting fame, however, came from his work on his beloved lathes, where he applied the precision of one-at-a-time scientific instrument making to engineering for mass production—or what passed for mass production in the eighteenth century. While the world of British invention was forming up on the pro- versus anti-Watt debate, Maudslay stayed above it, respected, even beloved, by everyone. His 1831 epitaph read, “A zealous promoter of the arts and sciences,33 eminently distinguished, as an engineer for mathematical accuracy and beauty of construction, as a man for industry and perseverance, and as a friend for a kind and benevolent heart.”

By then, the biggest transformation of all was well under way in Britain’s steam-driven economy: In the first decades of the nineteenth century, the factories that Boulton had promised to power with Watt’s engines were manufacturing not iron, or wood, but cloth.

* Estimating the present-day value of the amount in question—of any monetary amount from the period—is problematic. The historical purchasing power of the pound sterling can be calculated either by compounding the changes in the retail price index or as a fraction of average earnings in Britain. Using the first method, the prize was worth a little less than £12,000 in 2009 currency; the second, more than £160,000. Put another way, the cost of a loaf of bread has increased by about sixty times; but the hour that a laborer had to work to earn the money to buy that loaf is now only five minutes. The huge discrepancy between the two calculations is in itself a powerful reminder of the transformative power of industrialization.

* In Yorkshire, extraordinarily precise lathe work was being performed by the scientific instrument maker Jesse Ramsden, who was able to cut a screw with an awe-inspiring 125 turns per inch—that is, a Ramsden screw rotated 125 times before it traveled a single inch, which allowed for very fine adjustments—but his achievements in telescopes and quadrants, like those of clockmakers, though known to Maudslay, were peripheral to industrialization.

* Compulsively, and often brilliantly. A single one of Roberts’s cotton spinning machines warranted no fewer than eighteen separate patents. His plate punching machine, operated by the same Jacquard system originally used for weaving, was the first digitally operated machine tool.

* Or it would be if the Mills wasn’t actually still part of the naval base itself and consequently off-limits to most visitors.

* Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon,” a multilevel prison with a central core from which guards could watch every move each prisoner made, and which has become a metaphor for the modern surveillance state, is one of his best-remembered, if creepiest, ideas. Less well known is that the original Panopticon was designed by Samuel Bentham, for use in supervising laborers at Krichev, the estate of Prince Vasiliy Potemkin.

* Earl Spencer of Althorp, a direct ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales.

* Uncle Josiah emigrated to America in 1753, where he became a judge and speaker of the House of Assembly in New Jersey before dying in Belleville, New Jersey, in 1809.

* Isambard Kingdom Brunel is so famous, in fact, that a 2002 BBC poll to select the one hundred greatest Britons placed him second, behind Winston Churchill, but ahead of Shakespeare, Darwin, and Newton (to be fair, so was Princess Diana; Watt came in eighty-fourth, behind such immortals as Michael Crawford, David Beckham, and Boy George). One result is that his father, who preferred being called Isambard during his own lifetime, is now known as Marc.

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