Celebrating 100 years of the Whitworth Society Sir Joseph Whitworth

Sir Joseph Whitworth

Sir Joseph Whitworth was undoubtedly one of the great Victorian mechanical engineers, ranking alongside great men such as George Stephenson, and I.K. Brunel.

Although he did not take on large developments such as railways and steamships, he produced the machine tools, which made these developments possible. He made such an impression that his contributions are as important today as they were in his own lifetime. He is not known as well for his inventions as for his great ability to perfect existing ideas, to extremely high standards. His achievements were based upon logical methods and painstaking precision. He is best remembered for his promotion of true plane surfaces and the Whitworth screw thread. His promotion of standard measures and interchangeability brought about an engineering revolution.

Sir Joseph Whitworth was a determined man who by sheer force of character was used to getting his own way. It has been said that he could be a difficult man to deal with, a perfectionist himself, he was intolerant of imperfection. He was a harsh taskmaster who willingly spoke his mind. Jane Carlyle wrote of Sir Joseph Whitworth in a letter to her husband, in 1846. Her description was that "Whitworth, the inventor of the besom-cart and many other wonderful machines, has a face not unlike that of a baboon; speaks the broadest Lancashire; could not invent an epigram to save his life; but has nevertheless 'a talent that might drive a genii to despair' and when one talks to him, one feels to be talking with a real live man'. In his later years he found enjoyment in walking, riding and billiards. He would spend the winters in the French Riviera and it was here that he died on the 22nd January 1887.

His early life

Sir Joseph Whitworth was born in Stockport, Cheshire, on the 21st of December, 1803. His father was a schoolmaster and a dissenter, who later became a Congregationalist minister. Sir Joseph Whitworth was taught by his father until he was twelve years old, he then went on to become a pupil at William Vint's Academy at Idle, near Leeds. The academy was run by dissenters and used new teaching methods of a practical nature, which earned the academy a very good reputation. At the age of fourteen Sir Joseph Whitworth was indentured as an apprentice at his uncle's cotton spinning mill in Derbyshire, with the view of becoming a partner. He was fascinated by the machinery and soon mastered the techniques of the spinning industry. Even at this young age he was critical of the rough standards of accuracy. This led to his ambition to become a practical engineer making machines. His ambition was so strong that in 1821 at the age of eighteen he left the mill, against the wishes of his family, to join Crighton and Co. a leading machine making company in Manchester. He went on to work in several other engineering establishments in the same area as a mechanic working at a bench, until in 1825, in order to further his career, he moved to London and secured job at Henry Maudslay's works at Lambeth Marsh.

Henry Maudslay's influence

Henry Maudslay's career began as a blacksmith, making machinery for Joseph Bramah in 1789. Joseph Bramah invented a burglar proof lock, which remained unpicked for sixty-seven years and is still in use today. The secret of the lock was the precision to which it was made. When Henry Maudslay later went on to establish his own company, his work was influenced by precision, which was required for the machines, which he had designed and made for Joseph Bramah. In the early eighteenth century machines were primitive and often powered by hand or by foot. There were no standard measures, parts would have to be individually engineered. These meant that nuts and bolts would be made to fit as a pair and were not interchangeable.

Henry Maudslay was among one of the first to recognise the importance of standardisation and interchangeability of machine parts. He was also one of the first to realise the importance of a true plane surface, for obtaining precision in machine tool production. But his major engineering contribution was his large screw-cutting lathe. Jesse Ramsden developed the first satisfactory screw-cutting lathe in 1770. Henry Maudslay's lathe was far superior to any of its predecessors and as such it became widely used. It is not surprising therefore that Sir Joseph Whitworth chose Maudslay's works as the starting place for what was to become his very successful career. Many other great engineers did the same, such as Richard Roberts, the inventor of the planing machine, Joseph Clement, the inventor of the water tap and James Nasmyth, the inventor of the steam hammer. It has been said that 'Maudslay's works became the breeding ground for men whose fame as engineers would equal his own'. But it was Sir Joseph Whitworth who went on to do the most to perfect and popularise Henry Maudslay's ideas.

Joseph Whitworth The Toolmaker

After leaving Maudslay's works Sir Joseph Whitworth went on to work at Holtzapfell's and then on to Joseph Clement's works. In 1833 he returned to Manchester and began his own company, proudly displaying the sign "Joseph Whitworth, Tool-Maker from London". He was probably the first to specialise in the manufacturing of machine parts, most other engineers made machines for their own use which were not for sale. His first premises were a small room in a mill, which he had rented, the following year he moved to larger premises in Corlton Street. His first wage bill in May 1833 was a mere £2 10s, this had increased to almost £50, (double the average wage) by April 1834.

During the early years of the company he spent more than this on equipping the workshop with tools, machinery and materials. His education at Vint's Academy had given him a good understanding of business affairs and the business prospered. There was a great demand for machine tools in the 1830's, due to the rapid expansion of the railways. Manchester was the terminal point for the first major public railway and the centre of the textile industry. Rapid progress was being made in mechanisation and it was said to have been 'glorious times for the engineers'. In 1834 his workforce totalled fifteen, by 1854 this had increased to 368 and in 1874, when his works were made into a limited company he was employing approximately 750 workers.

In 1880 the company moved to larger premises in Openshaw and was employing over a thousand workers. Initially his work consisted of minor repair jobs and other small jobs such as taps, dies, screw braces, a winepress and a beam compass. His first major order was for a machine to flute textile machine rollers. In 1834 he took out his first patent for his screw cutting machinery and a further 47 patents were issued by 1878. Sir Joseph Whitworth enjoyed a challenge and produced a few unusual items such as the Besom Cart (a horse drawn street sweeping machine), which he patented in 1842, and a knitting machine which was patented in 1846. His most important contributions were the developments, which he made in machine tools, to speed up production and improve their accuracy. He was the first to drive both longitudinal and cross feeds automatically on one lathe using a single lead screw. He also patented the claspnut, used in connection with the lead screw to provide a fast carriage return.

Sir Joseph Whitworth's machines were very well designed, they were built to a high degree of accuracy, embodying ingenious devices of his own invention, such as the claspnut, and yet they were also tough and practical. He realised that a machine must be made to a very high standard if it was to produce parts of an equal standard. He used true planes as the foundation for all of his work. True planes played an important role at Maudslay's works and it was here that Sir Joseph Whitworth turned his attention to the methods of producing true planes and conceived the idea of scraping instead of grinding. In 1840 he published his first paper 'Plane Metallic Surfaces or True Planes'. At this time True planes were still being produced by grinding and he pointed out that this was in fact detrimental. He stressed that 'all excellence in workmanship depended on the use of true plane surfaces'. Surface plates became well established by the mid eighteenth century and formed the basis of an engineering revolution, largely as a result of Sir Joseph Whitworth.

Determined to achieve high standards of accuracy he constructed a measuring machine, based on Henry Maudslay's measuring machine accurate to 0.0001" and another which could detect differences of less than one millionth of an inch. The standard method of measurement at that time was by using callipers and a graduated rule. Engineers were accustomed to working in 'bare' of 'full' measures until the late 1830's. An article published in the Manchester City News in 1865 commented that "Mr Whitworths foot rule, on which he had the thirty-second parts of an inch marked, was regarded as a curiosity, and many did not hesitate to affirm that to work to such a standard was an unnecessary refinement". He was one of the first to point out the advantages of decimalisation, the common fractional system was impossible for precision work.

Sir Joseph Whitworth used his measuring machines to develop his own system of standard gauges, although standard gauges had been in use since 1825. He pointed out to the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1841 and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1856, during his presidency, that standard gauges , graduated to a fixed scale should be used as a constant measure of size. This would enable any manufacturer to mass-produce standard, interchangeable machine parts at much lower costs. From here it was a short step to the standardisation of screw threads, for which Sir Joseph Whitworth is probably best known. Although the screw-cutting lathe was by now common place, manufacturers would each use their own thread sizes, despite Maudslay's earlier attempts to introduce uniformity of threads.

In 1841 Sir Joseph Whitworth produced a paper on a universal system of screw threads. He then collected a variety of screws and proposed a universal thread using their average pitch and depth. The result was the 'Whitworth thread' with the depth and pitch of constant proportion, giving the 'V' thread a mean angle of 55 degrees and the number of threads per inch was specified for various diameters. The thread was first introduced in his own workshop and was in universal use by 1858. It was not until 1880, when his standard gauges and screw threads were in common use, that they were officially adopted by the Board of Trade.

At the Great exhibition in 1851 it was clear that Joseph Whitworth was the foremost mechanical engineer of his day when he won more awards than any other exhibitor. In 1867 at the Paris Exhibition Sir Joseph Whitworth won three bronze medals for his machine tools and one of only five 'Grand Prix' awards won by British engineers. At the London International Exhibition he won a silver medal in 1873 and a bronze in 1874. In 1853 Joseph Whitworth was appointed to serve on the Royal Commission to visit the New York International exhibition. He was so impressed by their working practices and their willingness to use labour saving machinery that on his return he united with George Wallis and wrote 'The Industry of the United States in Machinery, Manufacturers and Useful and Ornamental Arts'.

The following year he introduced some of ideas from the American system, now called mass production, to his works. His works were extended and laid out in such a way that new machinery could easily be added so as to save time and labour. It has been said that he was the founding father of modern production engineering in his day. Mechanisation and mass production were completely dependent on the engineering principles put forward by Sir Joseph Whitworth and the machines, which he and others were producing at that time.


The Crimean war broke out in 1853 and despite being a pacifist Sir Joseph Whitworth turned his attention to the production of armaments. He believed firmly in the deterrent principle of defence. The Army Ordinance Board approached Sir Joseph Whitworth in 1854 and asked him to design and build machine tools for the mass production of their standard issue, Enfield Rifle. He carried out exhaustive test in his home grounds at the expense of the government and 20 patents relating to arms production were issued to Sir Joseph Whitworth between 1854 and 1878. Dissatisfied with the performance of the Enfield Rifle, he produced his own famous Whitworth Rifle, which used a smaller, more efficient hexagonal bore. The Times reported in 1857 on the official tests that "The Whitworth Rifle excelled the Enfield to a degree which hardly leaves room for comparison".

Despite its apparent superiority, in 1859 the Whitworth Rifle was rejected by the Ordinance Board because of its small-bore size. His rifle was however used by the Rifle Brigade and large orders were received from the French Government. The Ordinance Board later accepted the Martini-Henry rifle, which had used Sir Joseph Whitworth's basic principles, and they concluded, to his dissatisfaction, that the smaller bore size was in fact suitable for a military weapon. In 1862 Sir Joseph Whitworth developed a powerful cannon and a bitter dispute began with the Ordinance Board, when this was also rejected because it was not of the traditional design. The cannon was however supplied to France, New Zealand and other foreign governments.

Sir Joseph Whitworth's last contribution to mechanical engineering was his discovery that guns made from ductile steel would wear by loosing their shape whereas hard steel guns tended to explode when they were unsound. The problem was in casting ductile steel into ingots without creating air pockets, which made the metal unsound. Sir Joseph Whitworth's solution was an adaptation of Bessemer's principle of hydraulic pressure casting. The method was patented in 1874 and the metal produced was called 'Whitworth steel'. Joseph Whitworth's achievements In 1856, Sir Joseph Whitworth was elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in recognition of his outstanding contribution to the development of industrialisation and mechanical engineering. This was then followed by a long list of awards and achievements:-
  • 1857, elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society
  • 1863, created an honorary LL.D by Trinity College, Dublin.
  • 1866, re-elected President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineering
  • 1868, conferred an honorary D.C.L by Oxford University
  • 1868, awarded the Legion of honour by Napoleon III of France
  • 1868, received the Albert Medal from the Society of Arts
  • 1872, made a commander of the Brazilian Imperial Order of the Rose
  • 1874, awarded a Royal Medal by Carlos VII, King of Spain