Thursday, 21 May 2009

Sir Alfred Herbert on Machine Tools

A Herbert lathe from the exhibition in The Herbert Art Gallery and Museum

For one whose business life has been spent in building and selling Machine Tools it would be mere affectation not to say something on this subject, at whatever strain to one's modesty. This is not a technical book and I shall as far as possible avoid technicalities.

It may be well to start with some explanation of what a machine tool actually is. A rough definition is "a power operated machine for cutting metals". To the laymen machine tools have always been something of a mystery, and even now I find people asking if machine tools are like chisels, screw drivers and the like. The answer is that these things are technically 'small tools'.

Machine tools comprise lathes, turret lathes, capstan lathes, milling machines, drilling machines, boring machines, shapers, planing machines, cylindrical and surface grinding machines and the like, each built in many sizes and in innumerable types.

The production of other engineers: locomotives, motors cars, bridges, typewriters, telephones and the thousand mechanical conveniences which flood the world are to be seen by everyone everywhere, and the general public becomes familiar with them and their uses.

But there is something mysterious and monastical about Machine Tools. They are used only in factories, behind closed doors and are invisible, and therefore unfamiliar to the multitude, except to those who have the entree to the factories and workshops in which machine tools are made or used.

In one respect the machine tool maker differs from other engineers: all engineers are dependent on machine tools and use them for turning out their infinitely varied productions. But Machine Tool makers, on the other hand, use machine tools to turn out other machine tools in what is really a process of continuous reproduction.

In a machine tool works, therefore, plant and finished products are more or less interchangeable and in some cases indistinguishable. In every other branch of engineering, while machine tools constitute the plant, the product is completely different in character.

The fundamental importance of the machine tool makes almost every form of human activity dependent on it.

Take a piece of cotton cloth, that is produced directly of course by the loom, but how is the loom made? By the machine tool.

Take loaf of bread, here again the elaborate machinery by which the flour is milled and the bread baked is made by machine tools, so are the ploughs and tractors and drills with which the wheat fields are cultivated and sowed and reaped.

The old proverb "Cherchez la femme", which indicates that cafeful search will reveal a woman at the bottom of every situation, might well be modified and brought up to date by changing it into "Cherchez la Machine Outil".

My own connection with machine tools just happened.My apprenticeship was served in a general engineering works, in which we used machine tools but never attempted to make them, and while I therefore acquired a certain familiarity with their operation, I had not the slightest idea of how they were made.

The small and very primitive engineering works at Coventry which I rather optimistically undertook to manage, was engaged in general engineering work of the crudest description. When my partner, WS Hubbard, and I subsequently bought these works with a very modest capital provided by our respective fathers, we still carried on miscellaneous jobbing work as before. But it gradually dawned on us that with machine tools being bought in increasing quantities in Coventry firms all around us, it was worth while to take our courage in both hands and to see if we could make at least some of the simpler types.

There were two other firms in Coventry who were making machine tools before us: Hatton and Willdig*, but they were both working n a small scale and we felt there was room for us in a local market that was constantly growing and which at that time was supplied mainly from Manchester and Birmingham.

* I believe Brett, who founded Brett's Stamping business was employed by Hatton. Willdigs was run by two brothers known respectively as Gentleman Willdig and Bully Willdig.

Our first attempt was to make polishing lathes into which we introduced swivel bearings, which I believe were novel. Then we made a few very crude drilling machines and next we embarked on hand lathes.

Most of the machines used in bicycle manufacture at that time were hand lathes (having a compound rest clamped on the bed without a saddle), simple drilling machines and drilling machines and these were naturally the machines that we began to make.

Our first 5" centre back geared hand lathe is, I believe, still at work in Wolverhampton. We borrowed it not many years ago to show in a Godiva procession as a foil to one of our modern machines. The present owners asked us to let tem have it back as soon as possible as it was still on constant use.

The first machines were made in two sizes - 5" and 6" centres and were made either with plain pulley cones or back gears. Plain pulley lathes up to that time had narrow pulleys to take 1.5" belts. We made them to take 3" belts and the extra power was much appreciated. All gearing had cast teeth. Later on we bought a Brainard Universal Drilling machine - an excellent tool. On tis mahine we cut all our gears and pinions and endless jobs besides.

At a later stage we bought our first Universal Grinding Machine of Browne and Sharpe. I remember our turners were very much perturbed and were rather inclined to strike because they feared that the grinding machine would deprive them of work. The also tried to persuade us that grinding was very bad practice because particles of abrasive would be embedded in the shaft and spindles and would subsequently ruin the bearings.

We had the same amusing objections when many years later we developed the grinding of lathe beds. In this case it was not our workpeople who objected, but our competitors who made great capital out of it and said that the life of our machines would be very short. I think that all of our progressive competitors have long ago adopted surface grinding themselves.

WS Hubbard and I dissolved the partnership soon after we began to make machine tools, though we still remained excellent friends. He was a very ingenious mechanic and made many inventions, among others of a machine (of which we made a number) for sorting pills. This machine rejected all pills that were too large or too small and also all that were imperfect in shape. He also invented machines for use in ribbon finishing and a particularly clever machine for automatically making and finishing the brass tags on shoe laces.

The late Arthur Marston, who had been a fellow apprentice of mine at Leicester, came to me at this stage as Works Manager. He too was a natural engineer, full of energy and courage. He was much liked by all our people and was with me for a good many years, doing most valuable work which I fully appreciated. It was a great grief to us all when he passed away quite suddenly in his sleep.

I remember our first capstan lathe very well. It was a 5" centre with a three-speed spindle single pulley headstock; the spindle admitted bars up to about 3/4" and and was fitted with a Little Giant chuck. The capstan was mounted on a compound slide rest. From this small beginning grew many sizes and types of turret lathes, increasing in power and complexity, and gradually finding their way not only into the cycle trade, but into every class of engineering works throughout the world. But for a long time the bicycle trade was our best customer and we designed a good many special machines for producing bicycle components, including hub drilling machines, hub tapping machines, spoke screwing machines, rim bending machines, rim drilling machines, frame drilling machines. Perhaps our most ambitious productions were a four-spindle semi automatic machine for drilling the four holes in bicycle bottom brackets and simultaneously turning the outside of the lugs; and a Duplex Capstan Lathe for boring and recessing hubs from forgings. The hub was chucked in a central headstock with a large hollow spindle and was drilled, bored and recessed simultaneously from both ends. The spindle was carried on comparatively large ball bearings, probably 5" or 6" in diameter. That was probably the first bearing of that size that was put into a machine tool.

Then came centering machines, and primitive grinding machines for ball races and spindles and for cutter grinding. Charles Churchill and Buck & Hickman were the first importers of machine tools. wages in America were so high that that the development of labour saving machinery was essential and great attention was given by American designers to produce machines that were not only accurate but quick and convenient to manipulate. Machine tool development was also stimulated in America by mass production of small arms and sewing machines. Browne & Sharpe were was one of the earliest American firms to turn out fine precision machinery and developed a very wide range of light machine tools, measuring instruments, cutters and accessories or all kinds. We took off our hats to them 50 years ago and we still do today.

Pratt & Whitney was another early and first-class firm of American Tool makers and shared with Browne & Sharpe the admiration of all mechanics. While the best British Machine Tools were sound and solid, and practically everlasting, their designers were conservative and needed some stimulus to awaken them. The awalekning influence came with the free importation of American machines.

Maudslay in england laid the foundation of machine tool building with the invention of the slide rest, which in one form or another is an essential part of every machine tool today. Roberts made the first planing machine, Joseph Whitworth originated the first accurate surface plates by scraping in sets of three. This practice was logically based on the geometric principle that if any two of a set of three surface plates fit, then all of them must be true planes. Whitworth also gave us the standardized screw thread and originated accurate screws and fine measuring machines. He designed and built a large range of machine tools, simple, straightforward and logical in design, of beautiful workmanship and outstanding accuracy.

Muir was another pioneer. Smiths and Coventry were early in the field and did a large business exporting machines all over the world. Hulse, Kendall & Gent, Greenwood & Batley, Buckton were all good makers. Most of these pioneers were in Lancashire or Yorkshire. In the latter county for may years a great many cheap and not very good machines were built, but there has been a startling improvement in the design and quality of Yorkshire machines. firms like Asquith, Butler, Stirk, Kitchen, & Wade, Darling & Sellon, and Dean, Smith & Grace have for many years turened out really first-class work. Archdale, who I believe came from Greenwood & Batley's of Leeds established himself near Birmingham, and his successors are today on of the most prominent machine tool making firms. Ward was employed by Archdale and left them to set up in business with Deakin, and their successors, (Ward & Co) are today one of the best-known builders of Capstan and Turett Lathes , whose keen but friendly competition keeps us from going to sleep.

Charles Taylor of Birmingham has long been a machine tool maker. I remember him for his excellent chucks and for his equally excellent machine vices.

Germany was rather late in the field - there were two outstanding firms - Ludwig Lowe of Berlin and Reineckers of Leipzig - but generally German machine tools were cheap and not particularly well-made.

From a typed manuscript with Sir Alfred's handwritten corrections - about eight pages. Date unknown.

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1 comment:

  1. This machine is very old machine but it's working in nice and making more product items.