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History of Joseph Whitworth.

Joseph Whitworth is the third Victorian engineer, entrepreneur, inventor and philanthropist in our story. However, his name would not be linked to Armstrong's until after his demise.

During his lifetime Armstrong and Whitworth's two companies were great rivals especially in the area of guns and ordinance. Joseph had many successes in his pursuit for accuracy and precision in the construction of machinery used to manufacture parts, for example, lathes and planers, also in gauges used to measure the finished product. He is however commonly best remembered for the establishment of the standard screw thread. 


Joseph was the first child of Charles Whitworth and his wife Sarah (nee.Hulse).  They were residing in John Street, Stockport,  Cheshire, and the year was 1803.  Charles was at this time a teacher but when Joseph was 11 years of age his mother Sarah died leaving Charles with three children whom he entrusted to foster parents, while he went off to train as a Congregational Minister. 


Joseph completed his schooling aged 14 and was apprenticed to his uncle Joseph Hulse who was a cotton spinner and the owner of the Amber Mill, Oakerthorpe in Derbyshire. It was planned that Joseph would become a partner in the business, but it was the machinery which really fascinated him and created the ambition to make better machinery himself. Having completed his apprenticeship he moved to Manchester and worked for four years as a mechanic in the factory of Crighton and Son a leading firm of machine makers for the textile trades. 


In 1825 now aged 22 years Joseph married Fanny Ankers some 3 years his senior, the daughter of a barge master. They moved to London and Joseph broadened his knowledge by working for a number of engineering companies over the following eight years. Amongst them Maudseley's workshop which is credited with the invention of the screw cutting lathe and at Clement's work place where he was involved in the manufacture of parts for George Babbage's calculating machine.


In 1833 he returned to Manchester and rented a room with steam power at 44, Chorlton Street putting up a sign 'Joseph Whitworth, tool maker, from London' - later to be changed to 'Joseph Whitworth and Co.'  It manufactured lathes and other machine tools to a standard of accuracy and workmanship which gained them an excellent reputation.  

Over the next ten years Whitworth's work with 'the true plane', 'end measurement', (a standard for screw threads which became British Standard Whitworth) and the use of a coloured fluid which became known to generations of engineers as 'engineers blue'. The development of gauges for accurate and consistent measurement of machined items, all contributed to the ability to produce interchangeable parts and the progress of mass production. Whitworth demonstrated accuracy to one-millionth of an inch at the Great Exhibition of 1851 and is certainly credited with the more familiar 'thou'.

Joseph was made a member of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and in 1856 became its President. The following year he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

Whitworth Rifle 1854
Whitworth Rifle 1854

The War Department (Board of Ordnance) of the British Government had a requirement to replace the 1853 Pattern Enfield rifle and approached Whitworth's to take on this task. Joseph took this request upon his own shoulders, finding out all he could of what was available from other manufacturers. This input was so diverse and contradictory that no reasonable conclusion could be reached. He therefore set to and over two years experimented with barrel length, rifling, size and weight of projectile and discovered how to prevent a bullet from turning over after leaving the rifle. All this was done in a specially built gun range for which the Government paid.


The result was a superior rifle with excellent performance but it was not accepted by the Board of Ordnance as the hexagonal rifling of the barrel was very expensive to make and found to be prone to fouling. Also the bore was smaller than was thought appropriate for battlefield conditions. However the French Army adopted them and the Confederate States in the American Civil War rather liked them as they became known as the Whitworth Sharpshooter


Whitworth 12 pound breach loaiding fieldl gun

Whitworth's had made muzzle loading cannons and guns so applied what had been learned from the rifle experiments to field guns which at that time were being developed as breech loading weapons.  Dealing with the British Army was never easy and again Whitworth guns were not taken up. Once more they featured in the American Civil War.

However there was one area in which Whitworth did succeed and that was the 'fluid compressed steel' casting of steel for gun barrels. A method which prevented a gun barrel from exploding in fragments in the event of a weakness.

Whitworth 12 pound breach loading field gun
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