RICHARD ROBERTS Biography - Pioneers, Explorers & inventors


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Name: Richard Roberts                                                                 
Born: 22 April 1789                                                                   
Died: 11 March 1864                                                                   
Richard Roberts (22 April 1789 - 11 March 1864) was a British engineer whose         
development of high-precision machine tools contributed to the birth of               
production engineering and mass production.                                           
Roberts was born at Llanymynech, on the border between England and Wales. He was     
the son of William Roberts, a shoemaker, who also kept the New Bridge tollgate.       
Roberts was educated by the parish priest, and early found employment with a         
boatman on the Ellesmere Canal and later at the local limestone quarries. He         
received some instruction in drawing from Robert Bough, a road surveyor, who was     
working under Thomas Telford.                                                         
Roberts then found employment as a pattern-maker at Bradley Iron works,               
Staffordshire, and, probably in 1813, moved to a supervisory position in the         
pattern shop of the Horsely Iron works, Tipton. He had gained skills in turning,     
wheel-wrighting and the repair of mill work. He was drawn for the militia and to     
avoid this made for Liverpool, but finding no work there shifted to Manchester,       
where he found work as a turner for a cabinet-maker. He then moved to Salford         
working at lathe- and tool-making. Because the militia was still seeking him, he     
walked to London, where he found employment with Henry Maudslay as a fitter and       
At Maudslays he absorbed his master's philosophy of 'the importance of accurate       
machine tools where hand work was replaced by mechanisms.' [Ref to Hills, below]     
By 1816, when defeat of Napoleon had removed the threat of the militia, it was       
safe for him to return north, he had set up at Manchester as a 'turner of plain       
and eccentric work at No 15 Deans Gate.' The lathe was upstairs in a bedroom         
driven by a big wheel in the basement turned by his wife. Nothing is known of         
her origins or even name. Roberts soon moved into New Market Buildings at Pool       
Fold, and was described as a 'Lathe and Tool Maker'.                                 
Roberts built a range of machine tools, some to his own design, the first being       
a gear-cutting machine. For accurately checking the dimensions of the gears he       
adapted the sector, which he developed for sale to other engineers. Roberts           
adopted rotary cutters, which he had seen used at Maudslays. This is one of the       
earliest records of a milling cutter used in engineering. In 1817 he made a           
lathe able to turn work 6ft long. This had a back gear to give an increased           
range of speeds, and a sliding saddle to move the tool along the work. The           
saddle was driven by a screw through gearing which could be disengaged when the       
end of the cut was reached. Also in 1817 he built a planing machine to allow the     
machining of flat surfaces. Previous to this flat surfaces were laboriously made     
by hand with the fitter using hammers and chisels, files and scrapers to get a       
true surface. Following the success of his power loom (see below), in 1825 he         
invented a slotting machine to cut keyways in gears and pulleys to fasten them       
to their shafts. Previously this was done by hand chipping and filing. The tool       
was reciprocated vertically, and by adopting Maudslay's slide rest principle, he     
made the work table with a universal movement, both straight line and rotary so       
that the sides of complex pieces could be machined. Later he developed the           
shaping machine, where the cutting tool was reciprocated horizontally over the       
work, which could be moved in all directions by means of screw-driven slides.         
Examples of his machine tools are in the collections of the National Museum of       
Science and Industry, London.                                                         
Roberts also manufactured and sold sets of stocks and dies to his range of           
pitches, so other engineers could cut threads on nuts and bolts and other             
machine parts.                                                                       
Roberts's inventions had a seminal influence on other machine-tool engineers,         
including Joseph Whitworth, when he came to Manchester, a decade later. His           
efforts have been largely overlooked by later writers until now.                     
Roberts moved his business in 1821, to the Globe Works in Faulkner Street.           
Whilst there he improved a reed-making machine, originally invented by the           
American Jeptha Avery Wilkinson, and in 1822 he patented a power loom. This was       
made entirely of iron and being precision-made was able to operate at high speed.     
They were turned out at the rate of 4000 per year by 1825. In 1824 he invented       
his most famous machine, the self-acting spinning mule, and patented it in March     
1825. These were made in hundreds, and Roberts made extensive use of templates       
and gauges to standardise production.