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.

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Technology, World-Changing Inventions

A Brief History of the Paddleboat

As Mark Twain and any good, old-timey gambler can tell you, the paddleboat is where it’s at. The rotating paddles that propel these vessels across the water create a combination of sights and sounds that no other mode of transportation can offer. And, they’re a great way to dispatch any black hats that may be coming after you and your poker winnings. Whence did these glorious vehicles originate?


Probably China…

The first surviving written mention of a paddle-wheeled ship can be found in The History of the Southern Dynasties, a Chinese tome compiled in the 7th Century CE. The book was actually describing naval ships used by Admiral Wang Zhen’e against the Qiang, during the Liu Song Dynasty (ca. 420-479 CE). However, it’s entirely possible that paddleboats existed well before even this early date.

A few decades later, the ancient Chinese mathematician and astronomer Zu Chongzhi commissioned a special paddle-wheel ship for himself. This boat, known as the “Thousand League Boat,” was built on the Xinting River and presumably named for the distance one could travel before the “new boat smell” wore off.

Throughout the 6th and 7th centuries CE, numerous Chinese admirals used foot-treadle powered paddleboats in their naval campaigns. In 784 CE, Prince Li Gao developed a viable paddle-wheel warship design, and, centuries later, rulers of the Song Dynasty (circa 960-1279 CE) built entire fleets of paddleboats for their navies. Some included as many as eleven paddle-wheels on each side for greater speed and maneuverability. The Chinese continued to use paddleboats as part of their naval fleet as recently as the First Opium War (1839-1842).

But Maybe Europe?

The first mention of a paddle-wheel powered ship in European history comes from a 5th Century CE Roman military book titled De Rebus Bellicis (“On the Things of War”). The anonymous work describes an ox-driven paddleboat warship that, “drives with ease and swiftness, wherever utility summons it,” despite its size, which “prevented [it] from being operated by the hands of men.” Instead, it was powered by, “oxen, yoked in pairs to capstans, [turning] wheels attached to […] paddles” that “work with an amazing and ingenious effect, their action producing rapid motion.”

In the 15th Century CE, Italian engineer Roberto “Big Bob” Valturio had developed a new-and-improved paddleboat with five sets of paddles, all of which were powered by parallel cranks joined to one power source by a single connecting rod.

In 1704, the first steam-engine powered paddle-wheel ship was built by French mathematician, physicist, and inventor Denis “Big Denny” Papin. In fact, Papin’s vessel was the first steam-powered vehicle of any kind in the history of the world.

Building on Papin’s success, fellow Frenchman Claude-François “Big Frank” de Jouffroy oversaw the building of the world’s first paddle steamer in 1776; this ship was also among the world’s first functioning steamships. Seven years later, de Jouffroy and friends successfully piloted a new-and-improved paddle steamer up the Saône River in eastern France.

Later, in America…

The first commercially successful paddle-steamer was Robert Fulton’s Clermont, which began regular river voyages between New York City and Albany in 1807. Five years later, the first steam-powered paddleboat began sailing (?) the Mississippi River. Operating out of New Orleans, Captain Henry “Big Hank” Shreve’s boat was specially built for travelling the Mighty Mississip. By 1833, over 1,200 paddle-steamer landings were recorded annually in New Orleans.

Paddleboats driven by horses, called “team boats,” were used as ferries throughout the United States between the 1820s and 1850s. Sadly, these ships were almost entirely replaced by steamboats by the end of the 1850s.

The largest paddle-steamer ever to sail the Mississippi, the Sprague, was used to haul coal and petroleum in bulk. The Sprague was also among the last steam-powered paddleboats on the river, operating from 1901 until 1948.

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Technology, World-Changing Inventions

You Down with PTFE?

Good ol’ polytetrafluoroethylene. It’s just the best, amirite? All right, good talk. See ya next time…














…Wait, hold on. Yeah, so polytetrafluoroethylene, a synthetic fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene (don’t even get me started on that $#!t) is better known as PTFE, and even better known as Teflon®. But, because Teflon® is a registered trademark of DuPont Co. (hence the ®), and, like Band-Aids, pretty much became the everyday name for what it is, and because we hate when that kind of bulljazz happens (lookin’ at you, too, Jell-O), we’ll just keep on referring to it as PTFE.

Yeah, You Know Me

You know PTFE quite well, even if you’re unaware of it. It’s main application is as the non-stick coating on cooking pans and the like. Because it’s so slippery, it’s also used as a coating on catheters. Hopefully you’ve only experienced it when cooking and not whilst in the hospital.

Legend has it that PTFE was invented by accident. Back in 1938 CE, Roy “Big Roy” Plunkett was working at a DuPont lab in New Joisey, Whilst attempting to create a new type of refrigerant, his pressurized bottle of tetrafluoroethylene gas malfunctioned and stopped flowing before it was empty. Curious as to the cause of the failure, Plunkett eventually cut the tank in half and discovered that its interior was coated with a waxy, whitish, extremely slippery substance. A high pressure chemical reaction had caused the gas to react with iron from the inside of the bottle, creating polymerized perfluoroethylene.

This is your brain on PTFE. (Or brains, maybe? Not sure of the egg-to-brain ratio. I assume it's 1:1...?)

This is your brain on PTFE. (Or brains, maybe? Not sure of the egg-to-brain ratio. I assume it’s 1:1, so yeah, that would be brainS. Right…?)

After further R&D, the resulting PTFE material was patented in 1941; the name “Teflon®” was trademarked in 1945. By 1948, as part of a joint venture with General Motors, DuPont was cranking out more than two million pounds of their patented PTFE substance. One of its earliest uses was coating pipe valves and seals that held the uranium hexafluoride used in the Manhattan Project. The first PTFE-coated cooking pan, “The Happy Pan,” was first sold commercially in 1961.


PTFE is still most commonly used on cookware; however, it has found countless other uses since its debut. It is used to waterproof material for camping equipment like tents and rain jackets, and is often used as a spray-on stain repellent for high end fabrics.

Powdered PTFE is used in infrared decoy flares and rocket fuel igniters. In its solid form, the material can be used to make a wide range of products and parts. Though difficult, PTFE machining can produce strong but lightweight parts in almost any shape, form, or size.

Perhaps the best use PTFE was ever put to was as the inflatable roof of the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome in Minneapolis, Minnesota. But that’s a technological tale of terror for another time, Timothy.

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Blind Rivet McTell

Rivets have been around for literally 10,000 years. Okay, not literally literally, but y’know… they’ve been a thing for quite a while. These permanent mechanical fasteners are so popular that you’ve probably got a few examples on your person right now and didn’t even notice. (I am, of course, referring to the rivets in your blued jeans). But not all rivets are quite so famous. Here, we present the story of these devices’ vision-impaired variation—the blind rivet.

Once You Pop, You Can’t Stop

Blind rivets are often referred to as “pop rivets”, although that’s technically a brand name that eventually came to be synonymous with the thing that it is a brand of, like Band-Aids or Jell-O. They are tubular, with a mandrel through the center, and are installed by inserting the rivet into hole drilled through the parts it’s joining. Once in place, the end of the mandrel snaps off to leave a smooth surface. They are ideal for applications where the joint is only accessible from one side, making them “blind” from the opposite side.

Depending on what part of the country you're from, these might be "soda rivets." LOL JK.

Depending on what part of the country you’re from, these might be called “soda rivets.” LOL JK.

Few things come into this world fully-formed of course, and before becoming the beloved Stevie Wonder of the permanent mechanical fastener game, blind rivets went through a number of iterations. In 1916 CE, British engineer Hamilton Neil “Big Ham” Wylie” filed a patent for an “improved [method] of closing tubular rivets”; the patent was granted in May of the following year.

Five years later, Wylie became an advisor for Armstrong-Whitworth Ltd., a British aircraft manufacturer. In this role, Big Ham worked on metal construction techniques and continued to develop his rivet design, gaining a second patent in 1927. His new patent-worthy innovation incorporated the pull-through mandrel that allowed his rivets to be used “blind.”

A year later, the George Tucker Eyelet company introduced its “cup” rivet, a blatant rip off Wylie’s blind rivet that required a special mandrel and had to be assembled by hand. The Tucker company and Armstrong-Whitworth soon joined forces, and a modified, hybrid design was developed. The new blind rivet model was a one-piece unit that included both the mandrel and the rivet itself.

Shortly thereafter, aluminum versions of the new blind rivet were introduced, and trademarked under the name Pop rivets.

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Technology, World-Changing Inventions

600 Words on the History of Machine Tools

A “machine tool” is, as the name suggests, both a machine and a tool, one that shapes, cuts, bores, grinds, shears, or otherwise deforms metal or another rigid material. Though there are a wide variety of machine tools—from drill presses to lathes to electrical discharge machining systems—all utilize some method of constraining the material being worked and provide guided movement of the parts of the machine. (A circular saw, for example, is not a machine tool, as it allows for unguided, or “freehand”, movement.)

Most modern machine tools are electrically, hydraulically, or otherwise externally powered; very few rely on good ol’ elbow grease. That fact may make it seem as though machine tools are a relatively new invention, however, they have been around for millennia.

Early Forerunners

The first kinda-sorta machine tools are the bow drill and the potter’s wheel, which were used in ancient Egypt at least as far back as 2500 BCE. Rudimentary lathes were known throughout Europe as early as 1000 BCE.

However, it was not until the Late Middle Ages/the early Renaissance that true machine tools exhibiting the features noted above began to appear. A chap by the name of Leonardo “Big Leo” da Vinci helped pioneer machine tool technology, with further advancements championed by clockmakers of the time.

Driven By Industry

In its early days, machine tool development was spurred by a number of nascent industries which more or less needed the devices to grow. The first was firearms, because war never goes out of fashion, followed by the textile market and transportation—first steam engines, then bicycles, then automobiles, then aircraft.

Textile manufacturing was perhaps the biggest driver of machine tool innovation. Prior to the Industrial Revolution in England, most textile machinery was constructed from wood (even gears and shafts). However, these early machines couldn’t withstand the rigors of increased mechanization, and parts were replaced by cast or wrought iron. For large parts, cast iron was generally cast in molds (hence the name), but was all but impossible to work on a smaller scale. Wrought iron could be blacksmithed into shape when red hot from the forge, but after cooling was very difficult to hand-machine into the more complex shapes required.

The Watt steam engine, brainchild of James “Big Game James” Watt and the godfather of all modern engines, would never have come about without machine tools. Watt was unable to manually machine a correctly-bored cylinder for his engine until John “Big Bad John” Wilkinson invented a boring machine in 1774.

Selling Out

Portion of an advert for an early lathe machine.

Portion of an advert for an early lathe machine.

Throughout the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries CE, machine tools were generally built by the same people would use them. Eventually, people realized that there was a significant market for machine tools, and machine tool builders began to offer their creations for sale to the general public. The first commercially available machine tools were built by English steam engine manufacturer Matthew “Fat Matt” Murray, starting in 1800. Others soon followed suit, including Scottish engineer James “Big Jim” Nasmyth, English inventor Joseph “Big Joe” Whitworth, and Henry “Big Hank” Maudslay, whose skill and innovation would eventually lead him to be dubbed “the father of machine tool technology.”

Among the earliest commercially available machine tools were there the metal planer, the milling machine, the pattern tracing lathe, the screw cutting lathe, the slide rest lathe, the shaper, and the turret lathe. These devices and those that followed allowed for the realization of a long-sought after goal in manufacturing: the production of identical, interchangeable parts such as nuts and bolts. This, in turn, paved the way for mass production, assembly lines, and modern manufacturing as we know it.

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