Historical Science & Technology, Technology, World-Changing Inventions

A Brief History of Industrial Machining

The term “machining” refers to any of a number of processes by which raw material is cut, ground, or otherwise mechanically/physically transformed into a desired final shape via controlled material removal. Sometimes referred to as “subtractive machining,” the basic process has been used since the first caveman sharpened a stick on a rock to create a makeshift spear. In the more modern sense, machining has been used extensively since the 18th century CE and is a major part of manufacturing and other industrial processes.

The Meaning of Machining

Prior to Ye Olde Industrial Revolution, a “machinist” was a dude who built and/or repaired machines, work that was done almost exclusively by hand. By the middle of the 19th century, industry all around the world was revolting and the definition of “machinist” had become more akin to what we think of now—someone who machines material into an end product, part, or component via turning, drilling, boring, sawing, shaping, etc. Early machine tools such as lathes, drill presses, and milling machines helped launch the first wave of modern machinists.

The lathe dates back to ancient Egypt, but did not become mechanically powered—and thus far more powerful and useful—until the Industrial Revolution. The earliest lathes can be traced back to roughly 1300 BCE. These lathes were operated by a two-person team, one of whom turned the wooden workpiece with a length of rope, while the other cut shapes into the wood with sharp tools. Pedal power replaced hand-operated lathes by the Middle Ages. The first true machine lathe was a horizontal boring machine installed at the British Royal Arsenal in 1772. The horse-powered machine was used to manufacture cannons used in the Revolutionary War. So, ultimately, not a huge success.

An early mechanical lathe (circa 1919) from a Canadian metalworking factory.

An early mechanical lathe (circa 1919) from a Canadian metalworking factory.

Very early humanoids invented the first drills circa 35,000 BCE. (What highs and lows humanity has experienced in the millennia since!) These first rudimentary drills were little more than pointed sticks that were rubbed between the palms—flint points were sometimes attached. Bow- or strap-drills were developed approximately 10,000 years ago, and were primarily used to create fire. Augers were first used to drill (or dig) large holes in the heyday of the Roman Empire. The drill press was derived from the bow-drill, and early models were windmill- or water wheel-powered. The invention of the electric motor in the late 1800s led to the invention of the electric drill and drill press, early versions of which are not all that much different than those we use today.

Machining Today

While some aspects of machining equipment have remained largely the same, there are other devices that would have been wholly unimaginable to Industrial Revolutionaries. Fully-automated, CNC-powered machining centers can now do the work of a dozen or more men in a fraction of the time, and even have the capability change out their own tools if, for example, a drill bit breaks mid-operation. New machining methods, like electrical discharge machining, make full use of technologies that were barely even conceived of in the 1800s. Even the machine enclosures used today, with soundproofing, temperature control, air-cleaning HVAC systems, and other advanced features, are technological marvels by Industrial Revolution standards.

Photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions

World-Changing Inventions

Don’t Fear the Reaper

Halloween is long gone, so we’re not talking about the Grim version here—but don’t fear him, either! Instead, since it’s nearly Thanksgiving, a harvest celebration, we’re talking about the reaper that cuts and gathers (or “reaps”) crops.

Manual Reaping

Naturally, the first reapers farmers used were handheld and powered by good ol’ elbow grease. After farmers got tired of plucking ears of grain, etc., by hand, they invented sickles and scythes to cut the stalks for harvest. (A scythe is a type of reaper, which is why the Grim Reaper carries one and why he’s called that. Whaddaya know?!)

Mechanical Reaping

Artist's rendition of the Hussey Reaper in action (see below)

Artist’s rendition of the Hussey Reaper in action (see below)

A truly unsung hero of human civilization, the mechanical reaper is one of the most important inventions in the history of mankind. They helped make it possible for farmers to harvest more crops faster and easier, which in turn made it possible to sustain villages and settlements via agriculture without every single person in the group having to work the fields, which in turn allowed civilization to grow in other ways.

The first mechanical reaper was invented by the Belgae Gallics. Known as the “Gallic header,” this simple device cut the ears off grain stalks, leaving the straw behind, and was pushed by an ox or oxen. The Gallic header was essentially lost during the Dark Ages, because Dark Ages, and farmers reverted to manual reaping. Dummies.

After just a few quick centuries, in 1814, Thomas “Big Tom” Dobbs of Birmingham, England, invented a new-and-improved mechanical reaper. Dobbs’ invention consisted of a circular blade that cut grain stalks as it went and gathered the harvested grains via a pair of rollers.

It took but fourteen years for a newer-and-improveder mechanical reaper to appear. Developed by Scottish minister and inventor Patrick “Big Paddy” Bell, it used a revolving reel, a cutting knife, and a canvas conveyor belt. Bell’s reaper was widely used throughout Scotland, and eventually reached mainland Europe.

Hussey vs. McCormick

In 1833, American inventor Obed Hussey patented the Hussey Reaper, which provided a significant improvement in reaping efficiency. The Hussey Reaper could be drawn by two horses (and wasn’t particularly strenuous on the horsies), as well as a human operator and a separate human driver. It’s design left reaped fields with clean and even surfaces.

Invented by the father and son duo of Robert and Cyrus McCormick and patented in 1837, the McCormick Reaper was also horsedrawn and was specially designed to harvest small grain crops. Though it included a number of unique features, the McCormick Reaper was very similar in design to the Hussey Reaper, and Hussey and the McCormicks battled each other in patent court for many years, even as they continued to update their respective designs to outdo their competitor in the marketplace.

A McCormick Reaper reaping.

A McCormick Reaper reaping.

A mere twenty-four years later, the US Patent and Trademark Office issued their ruling. They determined that Hussey’s design was the basis for both sides’ reapers and their success. It was ruled that Hussey’s heirs should receive monetary compensation for his invention as well as a number of further innovations made by others. Simultaneously, and perhaps paradoxically, McCormick’s patent was extended for seven more years.

Hussey Reaper photo credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Foter.com / No known copyright restrictions

McCormick Reaper photo credit: UpNorth Memories – Donald (Don) Harrison via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Historical Science & Technology, Pseudoscience

The Baghdad Battery

These days, batteries are everywhere and in everything. You’ve probably got one in your pocket right now, in fact (in your phone). The origin of modern batteries can be traced back to good ol’ Big Ben Franklin in the 1700s, but the alkaline batteries that were the standard for decades did not appear until 1899. Less than two decades later, lithium batteries had been developed; lithium-ion batteries took another 60 years to appear, with rechargeables not far behind.

But way, way back when, in the Parthian period (circa 250 BCE to 224 CE), the first-ever battery was invented. Or was it?

Scroll Storage or Power Source?

The “Baghdad Battery” consists of three components: a ceramic pot, a copper tube, and an iron rod. Though its true purpose remains unclear, the most widely accepted explanation of this disparate trio is that they were used collectively to store sacred scrolls—wrap the scrolls around the rod, but the rod into the tube, and stow the tube in the pot.

A modern, commercially-available version of the Baghdad Battery.

A modern, commercially-available version of the Baghdad Battery.

However, upon its initial discovery, it was speculated that these three pieces could be combined to create a galvanic cell; that is, a battery.

Some folks speculate that, with the addition of wine, lemon juice, grape juice, or vinegar to serve as acidic electrolyte, the copper and iron materials could function as electrodes and produce an electrical current. Researchers, particularly German painter and naturalist Wilhelm “Big Willie” König, noted that a high number of objects from ancient Iraq (whence the “battery” originated) were plated with very thin layers of gold. These researchers suggest that the Baghdad Battery was used to perform an early type of electroplating.


Though at least two attempts to duplicate the Baghdad Battery’s supposed electrical potential have proved successful, the genuine artifact has since been debunked as a possible power source. Firstly, an iron-copper-electrolyte junction produces gas and, along with it, bubbles; these bubbles would create insulation around the electrode; this insulation would increase with ongoing use, making the battery progressively less effective. Secondly, even in a perfect setup, the voltage generated by an iron-copper-electrolyte cell of this size would be far lower than that required for electroplating.

König later determined that the “electroplated” items he had studied were, in fact, fire-gilded with mercury.

Photo credit: Boynton Art Studio via Foter.com / CC BY

Historical Science & Technology, War: What Is It Good For? (Absolutely Nothin'!)

Hillforts of Iron Age Britain

A hillfort (or hill fort [or hill-fort]) is pretty much just what it sounds like—a fort built into the top of a hill. Generally, hillforts featured an open central area where one or more buildings stood, with multiple ramparts of earth, stone, and/or wood surrounding the central area and proceeding down the hill to exploit the topography and gain a tactical advantage over would-be attackers. Beyond these ramparts was often a ditch or moat.

Historical evidence shows that these structures were first developed in the Late Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, and a number of these ancient hillforts still exist to this day. While the structures were common throughout Europe, here we will be focusing on the hillforts of Britain.

The Why, The How, The Whatnot

There are a number of theories relating to the emergence of hillforts in Britain. Some speculate that they were forts in the truest sense—military installations intended to keep invaders from mainland Europe at bay. Others argue that they may have been built by those same invaders to establish a stronghold on the island.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Modern view of Maiden Castle, built in the Iron Age near what is now Dorchester.

Still others suggest that the hillforts may have been constructed in response to social changes in the country, brought on by the increased use of iron. (It was the Iron Age, after all.) Because Britain’s prominent iron ore deposits were located in different regions than the tin and copper ore used to make bronze, trade patterns shifted greatly, and power shifted along with them.

Though a good number of hillforts were built during the Bronze Age, most of them were erected between 700 BCE and 43 CE (which coincides with the Roman conquest of Britain). Iron Age hillforts utilizes both natural and manmade defenses.

The ancient Britons built four main types of hillforts: contour, promontory, hill-slope, and plateau. Contour hillforts cut off the upper portion of the hill from the ground below with ramparts that followed the natural contours of the hill itself. Promontory hillforts limited the approach of outsiders through the use of natural features such as cliffs, steep slopes, rivers, etc. Hill-slope hillforts do not enclose the entire hilltop like contour forts do; instead, they are situated on the slope of one side of the hill, with the crest overlooking the structure. Plateau hillforts were built on the flat, level expanses of plateaus.

Photo credit: Alan Denney via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA


Who Knew What New Noodles Could Do?

Noodles: I love ‘em, you love ‘em, we eat ‘em all the time. Though they seem like one of those things have just kind of always been around, they of course had to come from somewhere. So who do we have to thank for our spaghetti, our ramen, our spätzle, our elbows and our bowties? Whence did the humble yet noble noodle originate?

History? More like delishstory, amirite?

History? More like delishstory, amirite?

Oodles of Ancient Noodles

Because they were “invented” so long ago, it’s hard to nail down the region and time period of noodles’ origins exactly. For the most part, evidence suggests that the ancient Chinese were the first to develop noodles, with the oldest existing evidence pointing to the Qijia culture of some 4,000 years ago. Millet noodles discovered at the Laija archaeological site in 2002 were found in an upturned earthenware bowl. For millennia, the bowl had somehow maintained a seemingly-accidental airtight space that keep the noodles, if not exactly edible, at least well-preserved enough to be recognized as millet noodles.

By the time the Han Dynasty rolled around in about 200 BCE, noodles were a well-known staple food. The earliest written records of delicious noodles yet discovered date to the Eastern Han period of 25-220 CE. It was not until the Tang Dynasty that big fat fatty noodles were cut into smaller strips, and dried cook-them-later noodles were not created until the Yuan Dynasty.

Ninth century CE Buddhist monks in Japan began were known to have developed a wheat noodle recipe derived from a Chinese recipe. Buckwheat noodles were first cooked up in Korea during the Joseon Dynasty (which began during the 14th century CE).

Ramen noodles, the stuff on which so many college degrees (and indie rock careers) have been built, first became popular in Japan in the late 1800s. Instant noodles arrived on Japanese shelves in 1958.

Whose Noodles Are Whose?

In other parts of the world, the noodle took a little longer to take shape. The Ancient roman poet Horace wrote about similar but not-quite-noodle foods as early as the first century BCE. References to other noodlesque, dough-based delicacies can be found throughout Greek and Roman writing of the period and the following centuries.

The first written record of actual pasta in Europe does not appear until the 5th century CE, when Arabian travelers developed dry pasta varieties to eat during long treks. The first mention of pasta products from Italy is dated to the 13th century CE. By that time, however, pasta had already taken on a variety of shapes, so it’s possible that “pasta” wasn’t yet 100% codified as the as the “correct” term.

German historians have discovered written records of spätzle dating as far back as 1725 CE. Medieval illustrations from the same part of the world suggest that these noodles may have existed for far longer than that, however.

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