Review of ‘Joseph Whitworth : Toolmaker’, by Terence Kilburn

This review is by Julie Bunting, and was published originally in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 4th November 2002, and is reproduced with Julie's kind permission.

by Terence Kilburn
at The Joseph Whitworth Centre, Darley Dale (2002)

I have had a gap on my bookshelves just waiting for Joseph Whitworth, having missed out on the first edition of Terence Kilburn's biography. This new edition, published with the assistance of the National Lottery Awards for All Scheme, was re-launched last month at Darley Dale Arts Festival. The author has generously donated all profits to the Whitworth Trust.

The Whitworth Trust means a great deal to Darley Dale, where Joseph Whitworth had his country seat, Stancliffe Hall, from 1856 until his death in 1887. For a man 'who seems not to have enjoyed fulfilling his manorial role' in certain respects (although he flew a large flag when in residence), he was very generous to Darley Dale. Major plans came into being only after his death. The Joseph Whitworth Centre is arguably the most impressive village institute in the Peak, and the Whitworth Hospital still plays a major role in local healthcare.

As a great philanthropist in the cause of scientific and technical education, Whitworth's name lives on too in Manchester, where his work brought him millionaire status. The simple job description of 'toolmaker' hides the true worth of a perfectionist who was one of the great inventors of the early Industrial Revolution. His pursuit of the concepts of true planes, painstakingly accurate measurement, standardisation and interchangeability enabled him to bring about a revolution in mechanical engineering. He invented screw-cutting machinery, turning, boring, planing and cutting tools - one of his measuring machines could detect differences of less than one millionth of an inch. He obtained almost 50 British patents with titles such as: Machinery for knitting; Apparatus for cleaning & repairing roads or ways; Machinery for cutting and harvesting corn, grass and other crops; Guns, gun-carriages and ammunition; Wheels for railways & roads; Armour for ships & forts. This 'phenomenal man' displayed 23 exhibits at the Great Exhibition of 1851, winning more awards than any other exhibitor, and within a few years his standardisation of the screw thread, for which he is best remembered, was in universal use.

With the outbreak of the Crimean War and the American Civil War, it was to Joseph Whitworth that the Army Ordnance Board turned in connection with mass production of the Enfield rifle. He went on to produce the famous Whitworth rifle which outclassed the Enfield in accuracy, range and penetration. His cannon too was of unrivalled power, used by France, New Zealand and both sides in the American Civil War.

Terence Kilburn presents a balanced picture of the Great Briton who enabled others to go on to even greater fame but became so dictatorial that " ... no-one in his works dared to think'!

'Joseph Whitworth Toolmaker' is the first popular account of his life and work.

Review by Julie Bunting

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