Bramah’s Burglar-defying Lock—His Invention of the Hydraulic Ram—Henry Maudslay and the Slide Rests for Lathes—Brunel's Machine for making Pulley Blocks.

NEARLY all the great inventors have risen from the humblest ranks of life. Watt, Murdoch and Harrison are notable examples of self-educated men. Joseph Bramah, one of the first of the great modern lock makers and an inventor of many other useful and interesting devices, was the son of a small farmer who lived near Barnsley in Yorkshire. Born in 1748, he was the eldest of five children, and after the most elementary education at a cheap little school his father set him to ploughing and work on the farm. Like other inventors he showed his ability at a very early age, for he began by making a violin, which he carved out of a solid block of wood. The tools he used were made for him out of old files and scraps of metal by the village blacksmith. Yet Joseph would probably have remained a farm hand but for an accident.

When sixteen he broke one ankle so badly that he was lamed for life and could no longer follow the plough. So his father apprenticed him to the village carpenter, whose name was Allott, and Joseph soon became a first-rate craftsman in wood. An apprentice in those days got no pay, but Joseph managed to get a little pocket money by making violins in his spare time. One he sold for as much as three guineas, and when his time was up he had money enough to take him to London. Lame as he was, he tramped the whole distance and found work with a cabinetmaker. When he had saved some money he set up a business of his own in a little shop in Denmark Street, St. Giles, and we next hear of him as patenting an improved water cock, which soon had a good sale.

He then started the manufacture of pumps, and was able to send for his old friend, the village blacksmith, to take charge of his smithy. Attempts were made to

Wooden Lock
Ancient wooden lock and key from Khorsabad (Much reduced)

pirate his tap, but Bramah defeated them, and began to do so well that he was able to start upon an idea which had been growing upon him for some years—namely, a lock better than any made up to that time.

The most ancient key lock known is described by Joseph Bonomi in his book, "Nineveh and its Palaces." Bonomi had observed this lock on a door in a palace at Khorsabad in Mesopotamia. "At the end of the hall," he writes, "was a massive single-leaf door, closing an exit. It was locked by a heavy wooden lock of the type which may still be seen in the East. The key, also of wood, was of such dimensions that it had to be carried on the shoulder. This key operates a wooden bar, which slides from right to left and enters a square mortise in the wall."

By the courtesy of Lips Limited I am able to give an illustration of this very lock, a model of which is in their collection, and I include a drawing of one of the firm’s own locks, which depends upon the same ancient principle of the sliding vertical pins.

The upright bar with ornamented top was fastened to the inner side of the door and a sliding horizontal bar

Lock and Key
Lock and key of to-day made by Lips Ltd.

fitted into a deep groove cut in its face. The end of this bar was pushed into a slot in one of the doorposts, and was then locked by the falling of a number of loosely moving pins into holes in the bar, as shown. To open the door, a large wooden lever or key with pegs upon it corresponding with the holes in the bar was inserted into a cavity in the beam, and the upper moving pins were pressed up so that the bar was free to move. The key was introduced into the cavity from the outside of the door through an opening large enough to admit it.

We find various references to locks and keys in the Old Testament, and a similar key to that in our illustration is carved in relief upon the façade of the Temple of Karnak, in Egypt; they were well known to the Romans, and during the Middle Ages there were craftsmen in plenty who made massive iron locks, some beautifully ornamented. Few museums are without specimens of the medieval chest, furnished with its enormous lock and

A muniment chest
How our forefathers secured their treasure
A muniment chest of the 18th century. From the original in the Guildhall Museum.

substantial metal clamps and hoops. Even these, however, could not defy the expert burglar, and it was not until the end of the eighteenth century that locks were invented that could do so.

A man named Barron was the first to invent a lock of the modern type. This he patented in the year 1778— that is, just ten years before Joseph Bramah began to work upon his new lock. Bramah’s lock was the first real burglar-defying lock, the first which it was impossible to pick with a false key.

It was a long and slow process to make perfect the delicate mechanism for these new locks, and especially to make the new tools necessary for the work. Henry
Yale bank-lock
Modern Yale bank-lock with time lock, burglar-proof
Maudslay, Joseph Bramah’s foreman, helped him greatly, and at last, in 1784, their efforts were successful, and Bramah patented the lock.

The nature of this success will be understood when I tell you that there was a notice in Bramah’s shop window offering £200 reward to any person who could pick his lock, yet it remained unpicked for not less than sixty-seven years. Many tried, but no one succeeded, until in 1851 an American lock maker, after spending fifty hours in the endeavor, at last did manage to pick it. But since no burglar could afford to spend fifty hours on a lock, it may be fairly admitted that the lock was indeed thief-proof.

Bramah’s name is best remembered for his lock, but any engineer will tell you that another of his inventions was far more important. This was the hydraulic press which Robert Stephenson afterward used for hoisting the gigantic tubes of the Britannia Bridge into position.

The hydraulic press depends upon the well-known principle that water is almost incompressible. In this invention Bramah was again greatly helped by Maudslay, who devised a self-tightening collar for the piston of tne machine. From his work on the hydraulic press or ram Bramah went on to invent pumps of a new sort. One which he patented in 1797 is the well-known beer pump by which beer or other liquor can be raised from casks in a cellar to the counter over which it is sold. His rotarymotion pump was adapted to the fire engine and soon proved its value in fire fighting.

Bramah next invented a wood-planing machine. One of these was used in Woolwich Arsenal for more than eighty years. He followed this with a machine for planing metals by means of revolving cutters. He was the greatest tool maker of his age, and very many modern tools are still made on the lines or methods laid down by him.

Bramah was like Murdoch in that he never stopped inventing. In the year 1806, when the inventor was fifty-four years of age, the Bank of England applied to him to make them a machine for printing the numbers and dates on bank notes. If you look at modern paper money, such as a Treasury note, you will see that each note is numbered. Within one month Bramah had invented a machine which, by its action as it worked, changed the figures and printed them in proper numerical succession. Machines of this type, with, of course, certain improvements, are still used for similar work. Bramah’s new invention was so successful that it saved the labor of one hundred clerks.

We next hear of this busy inventor engaged on a penmaking machine. In those days the steel pen was unknown, and only quills were used. Bramah’s quill-cutting machine remained in use for some years until in the year 1819 James Perry began making steel pens in Birmingham. I might mention, however, that brass pens had been made by Harrison of Birmingham as early as 1780, but had never come into general use. It was not until 1839 that steel pens came into general use. Ten years later two thousand hands were busy on steel-pen making in Birmingham alone, and in 1836 the gold pen, now so popular, was first made in America.

To go back to Bramah, before he died he took out more than twenty different patents. One was for making paper by machinery, another for an improved method of making carriage wheels, a third for a preparation for making timber rot proof. He built a wonderful hydrostatic press capable of tearing up big trees by the roots, which did actually tear up three hundred trees at Holt Forest in Hampshire. While superintending this work Bramah caught a cold, which ended in pneumonia, and he died at the age of sixty-nine in December, 1814. Joseph Bramah was not only a brilliant inventor but a very good companion. He was always cheerful, full of jokes and laughter. He was very kind to his men, and would never discharge one if he could help it. He trained his assistants well, and from his shops came the famous Henry Maudslay, as well as Joseph Clement and other brilliant mechanics and inventors.

Henry Maudslay, who did so much to help Bramah with his hydraulic inventions, is chiefly remembered as the inventor of the slide-rests for lathes. Even in the eighteenth century, when few rich people did manual work of any kind, turning was a favorite occupation, even of royalty. George III was a first-rate hand with a lathe, knew all the mechanism, and as an old mechanic of the day said, could have made his forty or fifty shillings a week as a turner of hardwood and ivory. Lord John Hay, Lord Gray, and others were also the owners of lathes, on which they produced all sorts of pretty bits of work.

At that time the lathe worker had to depend entirely upon his hand and eye, and it was by no means uncommon for a man to spoil many pieces of good material by unskilful work. Especially in turning metal a great degree of strength is required to hold the tool firmly on the rest and keep up a steady pressure. If the slightest mistake is made, the chisel will cut too deeply and the worker must go over the whole surface again to reduce all to the level of the cut. The chances are, in such a case, that in the end the article is cut down too much and is thus spoiled.

Maudslay resolved to remedy this, and succeeded in inventing the slide-rest, which holds the tool securely and by a mere movement of a screw handle moves it along the face of the work as required. This may not at first sight appear to be a very great invention, but it soon made the most wonderful difference in the cost of machinery, for pistons, shafts, and other similar objects could be cut and smoothed with a quickness, accuracy, and therefore cheapness never before dreamed of.

David Wilkinson, an American, also invented a slide lathe which was patented in 1798, but did not come into general use for many years.

Mention of Maudslay’s invention serves to introduce one of the greatest of the inventors of the early nineteenth century, Marc Isambard Brunel, perhaps the most brilliant engineer of his or any other age.

It is, however, of Brunel as an inventor, rather than as an engineer, that I am going to tell you in this chapter. Brunel was a Frenchman, son of a small farmer in Normandy, who intended that his son should be a priest. But Marc cared only for machinery, and spent most of his time in the village carpenter’s shop, although again and again he was scolded, even beaten. It is told of him that once, when quite a boy, he saw a new tool in a shop window, and having no money he pawned his hat to buy it. At last his father gave up the idea of putting Marc into the Church, and entered him for the Navy. Then the French Revolution broke out, and young Brunel, who was a strong Royalist, slipped away to Rouen, where he got a passage on a ship going to America.

There he obtained work as a land surveyor in the wilds on Lake Ontario, and made a little money; he then went to New York and turned architect. He designed a theater; and next took work in a cannon foundry, where he gave his employers some new ideas for casting and boring big guns. Wages to-day are higher in the United States than in any other country, but a hundred years ago they were so poor that Brunel became disgusted and resolved to go to England.

He landed at Falmouth in March, 1800, and there met again Miss Kingdom, an English girl whom he had known in the old days in France. The two were married and were very happy together.

If in America Brunel had been Jack-of-all-trades he now showed that he had mastered more than one. A perfect stream of inventions poured from his fertile brain and clever hands. He devised a machine for duplicating drawings, another for twisting cotton thread and making it into balls. A third invention was a kind of sewing machine, after perfecting which he turned his attention to a project that had long been brewing in his brain. This was a machine for the making of blocks used in the rigging of ships. Every rope used in raising or lowering a sail must run through one or more of these blocks. A full-rigged ship of war, as then built, required no fewer than fourteen hundred sheaved blocks, each consisting of a shell of wood, with the sheaves (or pulley) revolving within, and metal pins fastening all together. Each of these blocks had to be made with the greatest care and precision so that it would not fail in an emergency. A badly made block might cause a ship to lose a sail, even a mast, and the consequences might be most serious.

Before Brunel’s time various attempts had been made to construct machines for block-making, especially one which was the work of Sir Samuel Bentham, Inspector General of Naval Works, but Brunel’s idea was much better.

Brunel had never had the advantage of a training in mechanics, and he found it very difficult to construct the machine which he had designed. So great, indeed, were his difficulties that perhaps the machine would never have been perfected if he had not happened to meet Henry Maudslay by a pure chance. Brunel had a friend, a Frenchman like himself, named De Bacquancourt, and this gentleman was fond of lathe work. One day when De Bacquancourt was passing Maudslay’s little shop in Wells Street he saw a piece of screw cutting in the window, and thought it so good that he went in to ask the price. He made friends with Maudslay on the spot, and the next time he saw Brunel told him of the clever English mechanic and his wonderful work.

"The very man I am looking for!" exclaimed Brunel. "You must take me to see him."

This was arranged, and Brunel on his first visit took with him a drawing of a part of his new invention, for since he knew little of Maudslay, he thought it well not to let him know too much of the idea he was working upon. Later he called again with a further drawing, and on the following day he brought a third; each time showing only a very small part of his design.

The moment Maudslay looked at this third drawing he exclaimed, "Ah, I see what you are after. You want machinery for making blocks." Brunel started, then smiled. "You are quite right," he said. "And since you have seen through my plan I will tell you all about it."

"And I will do my best to help you," replied Maudslay.

He kept his promise, and in 1801 Brunel was able to show his completed model to the Admiralty. Sir Samuel Bentham generously admitted that Brunel’s invention was far superior to his own machine, and it was quickly adopted. No fewer than forty-four of the new machines were made and installed, and it was found that with these machines ten men could do the work which previously had taken the time of one hundred and ten. Both Brunel and Maudslay gained a great reputation, and the Admiralty paid Brunel a sum of £17,000. Since upon one year’s work in block making his machines saved the country £24,000, it cannot be said that he was overpaid.

Brunel was not satisfied to rest on his laurels; he obtained work in the dockyards, and started sawmills in Battersea. These, unluckily, were burned down, and Brunel became bankrupt and was imprisoned for debt. The Government, however, granted £5000 for payment of these debts, and as soon as Brunel came out of prison he busied himself on building the first tunnel under the Thames.

Begun in 1825 this was not opened until 1843. It is interesting to note that in 1924 the eleventh of such tunnels was put in hand, and that to-day what then took eighteen years can be done in eighteen months by means of the improved appliances invented since Brunel’s time. Brunel added to his inventions, and among other ingenious devices made a knitting machine, a machine for making nails, and one for making wooden boxes. He was knighted in the year 1841.

Brunel was not only a great inventor and a great engineer: he was also a most interesting character. When in society he was fearfully absent-minded, yet when in a tight place his mind worked with the speed of lightning. Once while inspecting the new Birmingham railway he was examining the permanent way when a train came thundering round the curve upon him. The spectators were horrified, expecting to see him cut to pieces. Brunel flung himself flat on his face between the metals, and lay perfectly still, and the whole train passed over him without in any way harming him.

He was most kind to his friends. One old lady whom he often visited was very fond of playing patience, but her fingers were so rheumatic that she found it hard to shuffle the cards. Brunel set his wits to work and invented a card shuffler. It was simply a little box into which the cards were put, then a handle was turned, and in a few seconds the side of the box dropped and out came the cards thoroughly shuffled and mixed.

Brunel was what is called "double-jointed", and had the most wonderful control over his joints and muscles. He once had great fun with his tailor. When trying on a new coat, the tailor found that Brunel’s right shoulder was so much higher than the left that the fit of the coat was hopeless. He apologized humbly and took the coat away to alter it. When he tried it again he was horrified to discover that it was after all the left shoulder that was higher than the right. "I cannot think how I came to make such a blunder," said the poor man in despair. Brunel burst out laughing, and confessed that he had just been having a little joke at the tailor’s expense.

On another occasion a woman forced her way into his house, declaring that she had had an accident which had deprived her of the use of her thumb so that she could no longer earn a living with her needle. Brunel was a most charitable man, and the woman, no doubt, knew that he never turned away any one who deserved relief.

The inventor, however, was no fool, and suspecting that there was something wrong he said he would look at the damaged thumb. The woman unwrapped the bandage and showed him the thumb, apparently deformed. He gazed at it a moment. ‘Ah, very curious," he said. "Almost as curious as my thumbs;" and to the woman’s confusion he showed her his own thumbs, both in the same condition as she pretended her own to be. She turned hastily and ran out of the house, leaving Brunel laughing heartily.

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© 2000, 2001, 2002 by Lynn Waterman