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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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

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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Historic Events, World-Changing Inventions

Shut Up, Frankenstein: Fire GOOD!

Life before man learned to control fire was many things, but mainly it was cold, dark, and perpetually undercooked. The harnessing of fire was perhaps the single greatest turning point in the history of mankind. But just when and where did early human finally learn to make their own fire? The answer lies at least 125,000 years in the past.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Actual photographic evidence of cavemen using fire.

Come On Baby, Light My…

The earliest existing evidence of mankind—in this case Homo erectus—controlling fire dates back 1.7 million years. These claims are frequently refuted, and the veracity of it kind of depends on one’s definition of “control.” Solid, widely-accepted evidence of mankind’s intentional use, though not necessarily “control”, of fire comes to us from about 400,000 years ago. The earliest supported evidence of mankind for real, for sure, totally on purpose, actively controlling fire has been dated to roughly 125,000 years ago.

This definitive evidence includes burnt animal bones—with human-inflicted cut marks—found at Swartkrans, a National Heritage Site located 20 miles south of Johannesburg, South Africa. Even stronger evidence comes from Zambia’s Kalambo Falls area. Numerous artifacts related to the human use of fire have been found there, including charred logs, charcoal, carbonized plants, and fire-hardened wooden implements. Radiocarbon dating has established the date range of these artifacts as between 61,000 and 110,000 years ago.

Let Me Stand Next to Your…

In Asia, the Qesem Cave archaeological site near Tel-Aviv has yielded evidence of regular fire use that dates back to roughly 382,000 years ago. Evidence discovered in China’s Zhoukoudian cave system points to the use of fire by humans as far back at 460,000 years ago. Burned bones, ash, and charcoal are among the ancient artifacts found in the caves. Testing on the uniformly blackened bones shows characteristics of burning, rather than manganese staining, which could yield a similar visual effect.

I Fell Into A Burning Ring of…

Europe is lousy with evidence of later, but still plenty ancient, humans using fire. The oldest evidence comes from Beeches Pit in Suffolk, England. Uranium series dating—which sounds much more sinister than carbon dating, in an ‘80s to mid-‘90s action movie bad guy kind of way—of the site suggests that mankind utilized fire there as much as 415,000 years ago.

In Hungary, Spain, and elsewhere, various artifacts and evidence point to mankind harnessing fire around 350,000 years ago. Stone hearths found in France have been dated to 200,000 years ago, suggesting that humans of that time period had greatly advanced their control of fire and had truly made it their b!+©#.

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Historical Science & Technology, World-Changing Inventions

The Wheel Deal

Though history will ultimately show that the distinction belongs to the toaster oven, the wheel is often regarded as mankind’s greatest invention. If nothing else, the device paved the way for most other major inventions, making it the Citizen Kane of human mechanical innovations.

And, like that interminably boring yet highly influential film, the wheel seems like it’s just been around forever—never really invented, just a part of the fabric of the world since time immemorial. But deep down inside, you know it wasn’t just magically birthed upon the Earth—it had to come from somewhere. Here’s the skinny on how the wheel came to be.

Step 1: Wheel; Step 2: ???; Step 3: Fortune

Agriculture and pottery, two industries that can benefit greatly from the use of wheels, were “invented” during the Aceramic Neolithic period (circa 9500 to 6500 BCE). However, the wheel itself was not actually developed until several thousand years later, during the late Neolithic, roughly 4500 to 3300 BCE. The invention of the wheel is considered one of the leading factors leading to the rise of the Bronze Age.


Early precursors to the potter’s wheel were developed in the Middle East in the 5th millennium BCE. However, these stone or clay wheels were not true, free-spinning potter’s wheels and required considerable effort to turn. The earliest evidence of a true potter’s wheel comes from Mesopotamia circa 4000 BCE; the oldest surviving example has been dated to roughly 3100 BCE.

The earliest evidence of wheels being used for vehicles comes from the latter end of the 4th millennium BCE. Wheeled vehicles were developed nigh simultaneously by the Sumerian culture in Mesopotamia, the Maykop culture of northern Caucasus, and the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture of central Europe. The oldest surviving example of a wheel-and-axle vehicle comes from Stare Gmaine, in Slovenia; it is dated to roughly 3340 BCE.

The earliest visual depictions of wheeled vehicles come from the Halaf culture, circa 6500 BCE, but as there is no evidence of Halafians actually using wheeled vehicles, it’s probably just the result of some hippie painter getting a little crazy with the ol’ artistic license.

Roll Out

Certain evidence suggests that the Ancient Chinese developed wheeled vehicles as early as 2000 BCE. There is definitive evidence of the wheel’s use in China circa 1200 BCE, when the chariot was introduced to the region.

The oldest surviving evidence of the wheel in Britain was discovered in early 2016. A large, wooden wheel measuring roughly one meter in diameter was discovered at the Must Farm archaeological site in East Anglia, and has been dated to roughly 1100 BCE. Additional artefacts uncovered near the wheel, including a hub and a horse’s spine, suggest that the wheel was part of a horse-drawn cart. Who knew horses were into art?

Though the Olmecs and other Ancient American cultures developed wheel-like implements for children’s toys and other small-scale uses (historical examples date to roughly 1500 BCE), they did not use “full size” wheels for carts or other transportation uses. The prevailing theory as to why these cultures didn’t use wheeled vehicles is that they had no domesticated animals large or strong enough to pull carts. The only options were bison, which are notoriously difficult to domesticate, and llamas, which were not really used outside of the Andes Mountains.

Beginning in approximately 400 BCE, potter’s wheels and water wheels were used extensively in the Nubian region of Ancient Africa. Horse drawn chariots, an innovation derived from the Egyptians, were also common. Outside of Nubia, Ethiopia, and Somalia, the wheel was little used in Africa until its “introduction” by Europeans in the 19th century CE.

Construction & Variations

The earliest wheels were wooden discs with holes in them for axles to pass through. Early man quickly discovered that a single horizontal slice of a tree is unsuitable for use as a wheel, as it lacks the appropriate structural strength; instead, longitudinally-derived boards were rounded out to form circles.

These early wheels generally fell into one of two types during the Neolithic period: “circumalpine,” in which the wheel and axle rotate together; and “Baden,” in which the axle remains stationary. Spoked wheels were invented more recently (circa 2000 BCE), and allowed for lighter and faster vehicles. Spoked-wheel war chariots were developed shortly after; iron-rimmed wheels were introduced by the Celts during the first millennium BCE.

From there, very little variation, modification, or innovation occurred until the late 19th century CE, when wire-spoked wheels and pneumatic tires were developed.

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