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
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
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
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,
This episode has been rewritten as Episode 1684.
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 © 1988-2018 by John H.