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Manufacturers Index - Joseph Whitworth & Co.
Last Modified: Dec 3 2017 2:05PM by Jeff_Joslin
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Joseph Whitworth, who had apprenticed as a mechanic at his uncle's Derbyshire cotton-spinning factory and then worked for a few years as a mechanic in Manchester, moved to London to work for Henry Maudsley. Under Maudsley's tutelage Whitworth became known for his passion and skill for precision.

After leaving Maudsley's employ Whitworth worked briefly for Holtzapffel and Co., Wright & Sons, and Joseph Clement. In 1833 Whitworth moved back to Manchester and started his own business under the name "Joseph Whitworth, Tool-Maker from London". Within a few years the business was known as Joseph Whitworth & Co. , and in 1874 it became Joseph Whitworth & Co., Ltd.

Whitworth invested heavily in his own shop. Up to the mid-1830s, machine tools were made by the owner, not by a specialist firm. Whitworth was one of the first, producing, at first, precision parts for use in building machine tools, and later producing complete machines. He also continued to innovate in precision measurement and layout as well as, in 1841, developing a standard for screw threads that still bears the Whitworth name.

Whitworth developed numerous innovations in precision that we now take for granted. He developed the three-surfaces approach to producing truly flat surfaces using surface plates, engineer's blue, and scraping. He developed the first optical micrometer, which could measure to within one-millionth of an inch. He established the approach of building machine tools based on precision flat surfaces at various angles to one another. He advocated for the use of decimals in measurement rather than the then-universal fractional system. After attending the 1853 New York International Expedition and learning of the nascent mass production approach to manufacturing, he wrote a book on the subject which help spread that important idea to the UK and the rest of Europe.

Whitworth had 15 employees in 1834, growing to 368 in 1854, 750 in 1874, and over 1000 by 1880.

Manchester was an important centre for both rail and textile industries and Whitworth did a good business producing machinery for both. His first major order, in 1834, was for a machine for fluting textile-machine rollers. Although our interest is on Whitworth's more general-purpose machine tools, the company produced numerous other products. One notable product line was armaments. Whitworth designed a hexagonal-barreled rifle which was accurate when new but proved to be prone to fouling. Whitworth had a bitter rivalry with fellow armament manufacturer Sir William Armstrong, with whom he competed for government armament contracts.

Joseph Whiteworth's last major innovation was a patented method of casting ductile-iron gun barrels under hydraulic pressure, an adaptation of the Bessemer process for steel production. Whitworth died in 1887, age 84. In 1893 his old company merged with that of his bitter rival in armaments to create the Armstrong Whitworth Co.

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