Skip to main content
No. 200:
An Old Machinists Handbook

Today, an industrial revolutionary reveals his mind in a handbook. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Watt's steam engines had been around for 40 years in 1825. That's the year John Nicholson published a work called The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist. Today, machinists' handbooks are collections of hard information about thread sizes, standard metal thicknesses, and working tolerances. They deal in the specifics of technology and say little about its broad sweep.

But Nicholson's work came out of the smoke of the Industrial Revolution. A dazzling profusion of new machines had come into being, and this 800-page, two-volume compendium sets out to explain them all. This is no shop guide to nut and bolt selection. The mechanics and machinists he's addressing are the engineering designers of 1825.

I thumb through the beautiful plates, and what do I see: power transmission devices, systematic studies of animal and human power output, hardware for harnessing and controlling water wheels, complex windmill systems, flour mills, steam engines, paper-making, printing, weaving, pumping, and so on and on.

The book says little about how to make these devices. Rather, it speaks to people who already knew the machine tools and processes that built this glorious inventory of machines.

Most telling of all is the inscription in the front. Let me read it to you:

In an age like the present, when the rich ... identify their interests with the welfare of the poor, ... when the wise ... [further] sound principles and useful knowledge among ... the most important, though hitherto ... most neglected, portion of the community, [no one] can view the future [without anticipating] change as brilliant in its effects, as it is honorable to those ... engaged in promoting it.

Nicholson expresses two basic sentiments of the Industrial Revolution here. One is that technologists are responsible for improving the lot of the poor. The other is that good work rewards the technologist who does it.

People who've read Charles Dickens have trouble understanding that this sort of high principle drove the people who powered the Industrial Revolution. Dickens was still in grade school in 1825, but the engines of greed were already tearing the fabric of this idealism. People sitting in offices, away from the noise and smoke, were creating the workers' hell that Dickens would begin describing 15 years later. But what we see here is the last of a breed who really did, in Nicholson's words, identify their interests with the welfare of the poor.

The Industrial Revolution was driven first by idealism. We see grace and form in Nicholson's woodcuts of machines. And when that kind of beauty is there, idealism is never far behind.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Nicholson, J., The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist; Being a practical Display of the Manufactories and Mechanical Arts of the United Kingdom. London: 1825 (2nd American Edition, Philadelphia: James Kay, Jun. & Co. Printers, 1831.)

This episode has been rewritten as Episode 1684.


Nicholson's preface




Nicholson's instruction on building a windmill

(Images above, courtesy of Larry Witte, from The Operative Mechanic and British Machinist, 1831)