Today, a revolutionary's 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
Watt's new improved steam
engines had been around for forty years in 1825.
That year, John Nicholson published a work called
The Operative Mechanic and British
Machinist. Today such handbooks are
collections of hard information about thread sizes,
standard metal thicknesses, and working tolerances.
They deal in the specifics of technology and say
very little about its broad sweep.
But Nicholson's handbook came out of the smoke of
the Industrial Revolution. A dazzling profusion of
new high technology had come into being, and this
eight-hundred-page, two-volume compendium sets out
to explain it all. This is no shop guide to nut and
bolt selection. The mechanics and machinists he's
talking to are the engineering designers of the
early nineteenth century.
I thumb through the beautiful plates looking at
power transmission devices, systematic studies of
animal and human power output, hardware for
harnessing and controlling water wheels, 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. It's meant for people who already
know the machine tools and processes behind
this glorious inventory of machines. But my eye is
drawn to the inscription in the front. Let me read it
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 in this passage. 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.
Those of us raised on Charles Dickens have trouble
believing that such high principle drove the people
behind the Industrial Revolution. But Dickens was
still in grade school in 1825. By then, the engines
of greed were beginning to tear the fabric of
what'd been idealism. People sitting in offices,
away from the noise and smoke, were creating the
workers' hell that Dickens would begin describing
fifteen years later.
What we see here is the last of a breed that really
did, in Nicholson's words, identify their
interests with the welfare of the poor. The
Industrial Revolution was one arm of late
eighteenth-century social revolution. It eventually
did produce nineteenth-century smoke and
factories, but it was fueled first by idealism.
And, as we look at Nicholson's woodcuts, idealism
is what we still see. We see the beauty, grace and
hope that created all this machinery in the first
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
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). My thanks to colleague Larry Witte for this source.
This edition is now in Special Collections, UH Libraries.
I first did a version of this episode in 1988 as Episode 200. Then I did this revised version
in 2002. In 2010, a Patrick Hoyt pointed out that Nicholson's handbook
had been made available on line in two versions.
This is an 1826 version printed in Philadelphia.
It has all the illustrations.
And here is the 1825 London version.
While it's the original, it lacks any illustration.
Images above, courtesy of Larry
Witte, from The Operative Mechanic and British
Nicholson's instruction on building a windmill
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-2002 by John H.