Henry Maudslay (1771 - 1831)

maudslayHenry Maudslay has been called the originator of modern machine tools. His father William was a joiner who worked on wooden frames for cotton machines. According to Smiles, William got into some trouble over a liaison, and joined the Royal Artillery as a way to get out of the neighbourhood. He shipped out to the West Indies, but was wounded and became a shopkeeper in the dockyards at Woolwich Arsenal in London.

Henry was set to work as a "powder monkey" in the dockyards at the age of twelve. This job involved making and filling cartridges. Eventually, he went to work in the carpenter's shop, where he developed an interest in working with iron. He went often to the nearby blacksmith's shop, and eventually at the age of 15, he was allowed to work there instead of in the carpenter's shop. He soon gained a reputation for his dexterity, and his reputation spread to other shops.

The famous locksmith Joseph Bramah was looking for someone who could make the precision tools necessary for creating complex locks. Maudslay went to work for Bramah while still in his teens. Here he learned the importance of precision for making tools. He was the first to recognize the importance of making standardized machine parts that would be interchangeable. He also came to realize the importance of a true plane surface for making machine tools.

While working for Bramah, Maudslay made a padlock, and Bramah put it in the window of the store, offering a reward for anyone who could pick it. Photos of the lock are at right and below. For at least 50 years, no one could open it. Finally in 1850, an American locksmith named A. C. Hobbs opened the lock and recieved the reward, after working on it for sixteen days.

Maudslay became Bramah's foreman, and in 1791 he married Bramah's housemaid. In 1797, he asked Bramah for a raise to help support his family. Bramah refused, and Maudslay left to open his own shop.

Here he invented the slide rest lathe, a device that increased the precision of the lathe, making it in effect the first modern machine tool. In fact, this invention is regarded as the most important in the history of machine tools. In allowing large pieces of metal to be turned with uniform precision, this lathe changed wood and metalworking, manufacturing, factories and tool-making. It also changed the nature of warfare, contributing to Britain's dominance of the seas. In addition, it was used to create many orchestra instruments, most notably the modern piano.

In 1810 he moved his workshop and took on a partner, Joshua Field, and the firm became Maudslay and Field. Maudslay went on to improve the slide lathe, as well as inventing new machine tools and manufacturing flour mills, saw mills, mint machinery and steam engines.

Among his better known tools was one that could shear and punch boiler plates, a process that had previously been done by hand, often sloppily. As a result, the Royal Navy contracted him to manufacture plates for ships' tanks. Maudslay also made some advances in screw-cutting. He invented the first screw-cutting lathe, and worked on ensuring uniformity and standard pitch of screws.

Maudslay was known not only as a master craftsman, but also as a genial person and an excellent trainer. Young men came from all over England to work for him. At various times his trainees included Joseph Clement, James Nasmyth, and Sir Joseph Whitworth.

James Nasmyth, in his autobiography, discusses another important innovation of Maudslay's: the creation of uniform screws. Maudslay developed a system for standardizing the number of threads on a screw. Previously no system had been followed, and each bolt and nut was unique. This led to obvious problems when machinery had to be repaired, and one screw could not be substituted for another. Maudslay invented screw-cutting machinery that remedied this problem.

Maudslay died in 1831 after going to visit a friend in France. He caught a cold on his return, and did not recover.


Bradley, Ian. A History of Machine Tools. Hemel Hempstead, UK: Model and Allied Publications Ltd., 1972.

GSN Machine Tools Group. “Pioneers of the Machine Tool Industry: Henry Maudslay.” http://www.gsn.uk.com/maudslay.html

Lindsay's Technical Archive "Henry Maudsley [sic]" (Taken from Eminent Engineers by Dwight Goddard, 1906) http://www.lindsaybks.com/arch/maud/