Richard Roberts (1789-1864)

Richard Roberts was born in 1789 at Carreghova, Wales. His father was a shoemaker. Young Richard was put to work in a quarry at an early age, with the result that he received very little education.

Roberts displayed a mechanical aptitude early on, building a spinning wheel while he was still a boy. He was good with tools, and wanted to become a mechanic. He got a job as a pattern-maker at a neighbouring ironworks. During this time, he also developed his woodworking skills. He moved on to Birmingham, and worked at several jobs. According to Smiles, "He was regarded as a sort of jack-of-all-trades; for he was a good turner, a tolerable wheel-wright, and could repair mill-work at a pinch."

While he was working at the Horsley ironworks in Tipton, he was drafted into to militia. Not wishing to enter military service, he fled back to his home in Wales, and eventually made his way to Manchester. He didn't stay long, as he heard rumours that the militia warrant-officers were still searching for him.

He decided he would be safer in London, and eventually ended up working for Henry Maudslay's shop. After developing his skills further there, he made his way back to Manchester in 1817. He set up his own business there, and began a period of prolific invention.

His first invention was an improved sector, a device used for precisely sizing wheel blanks prior to cutting. He also invented a back-geared headstock for the lathe, a device that doubled the lathe's range of speeds. Roberts is also credited with inventing the first workable gas meter, and one of the first metal planing machines.

Though these achievements were impressive, Roberts is best known for his inventions relating to the spinning and weaving of cloth. His spinning mule replaced the work of cotton spinners, an unpopular group of workers because although they were the best paid group of textile workers, they went on strike often, bringing the work of textile mills to a halt. During a long strike in 1824, the factory managers began to ponder the idea of automatic spinning mules. Roberts was brought in to design them. After four months of hard work, Roberts invented a machine that could do the job.

Roberts gained a measure of fame through this successful invention, and his skills were in high demand in the growing industry of locomotive manufacturing. He took out several patents for devices related to the new railway system. His best-known invention in this area is the Jacquard punching machine, a device he invented in one evening to punch holes in the iron plates that were being used to build the Conway railway bridge in 1848. Previously, holes had been punched by hand, a time-consuming and error-filled process.

Roberts was a prolific inventor into his old age, but his business skill did not equal his mechanical abilities. As his contemporary Samuel Smiles phrased it, "Many have profited by his inventions, without even acknowledging the obligations which they owed to him. They have used his brains and copied his tools, and the 'sucked orange' is all but forgotten." Roberts died in poverty in 1864.

Sources:

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

GSN Machine Tools Group. “Pioneers of the Machine Tool Industry: Richard Roberts.” http://www.gsn.uk.com/roberts.html

Smiles, Samuel. Industrial Biography: Iron Workers and Tool Makers. Seattle: World Wide School, 1997 (Originally published in 1863). http://www.worldwideschool.org/library/books/hst/biography/IndustrialBiography/toc.htm