Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Whitworth, Joseph

WHITWORTH, Sir JOSEPH (1803–1887) baronet, mechanical engineer, the son of Charles Whitworth (d. 16 Jan. 1870), a schoolmaster, and eventually a congregationalist minister, first at Shelley, Leeds, and then at Walton, near Liverpool, by Sarah, daughter of Joseph Hulse, was born at Stockport on 21 Dec. 1803. In 1815 he was sent from his father's school to William Vint's academy at Idle, near Leeds, where he remained until he was fourteen, being then placed with his uncle, a cotton-spinner in Derbyshire. He mastered the construction of every machine in the place, but, like Watt and Babbage, he found that the machinery was very imperfect, and true workmanship in consequence very rare. The prospect of a regular business partnership was not alluring to him; he was already conscious of the true bent of his genius, and, being unable to emancipate himself in a more regular manner, he ran away to Manchester. There in 1821 he entered the shop of Crighton & Co., machinists, as a working mechanic. His first ambition was to be a good workman, and he often in later years said that the happiest day he ever had was when he first earned journeyman's wages.

In February 1825 he married Fanny, youngest daughter of Richard Ankers, a farmer of Tarvin in Cheshire, and shortly afterwards entered the workshop of Maudslay & Co. in the Westminster Bridge Road, London [see Maudslay, Henry]. Maudslay soon recognised his exceptional talent, and placed him next to John Hampson, a Yorkshireman, the best workman in the establishment. Here Whitworth made his first great discovery, that of a truly plane surface, by means of which for all kinds of sliding tools frictional resistance might be reduced to a minimum. After intense and protracted labour at the problem Whitworth ended by completely solving it. The most accurate planes hitherto had been obtained by first planing and then grinding the surface. ‘My first step,’ he says, ‘was to abandon grinding for scraping. Taking two surfaces as accurate as the planing tool could make them, I coated one of them thinly with colouring matter and rubbed the other over it. Had the two surfaces been true the colouring matter would have spread itself uniformly over the upper one. It never did so, but appeared in spots and patches. These marked the eminences, which I removed with a scraping tool till the surfaces became gradually more coincident. But the coincidence of two surfaces would not prove them to be planes. If the one were concave and the other convex they might still coincide. I got over this difficulty by taking a third surface and adjusting it to both of the others. Were one of the latter concave and the other convex, the third plane could not coincide with both of them. By a series of comparisons and adjustments I made all three surfaces coincide, and then, and not before, knew that I had true planes’ (Brit. Assoc. Proc. 1840; Inst. Mechan. Engineers Proc. 1856; Presidential Address at Glasgow). The importance of this discovery can hardly be overestimated, for it laid the foundation of an entirely new standard of accuracy in mechanical construction.

On leaving Maudslay's Whitworth worked at Holtzapffel's, and afterwards at the workshop of Joseph Clement, where Babbage's calculating machine was at that time in process of construction [see Babbage, Charles]. In 1833 he returned to Manchester, where he rented a room with steam power in Chorlton Street, and put up a sign, ‘Joseph Whitworth, tool-maker, from London,’ thus founding a workshop which soon became a model of a mechanical manufacturing establishment. The next twenty years were devoted mainly to the improvement of machine tools, including the duplex lathe, planing, drilling, slotting, shaping, and other machines. These were all displayed and highly commended at the Great Exhibition of 1851. A natural sequel to the discovery of the true plane was the introduction of a system of measurement of ideal exactness. This was effected between 1840 and 1850 by the conception and development of Whitworth's famous measuring machine. A system of planes was so arranged that of two parallel surfaces the one can be moved nearer to or further from the other by means of a screw, the turns of which measure the distance over which the moving plane has advanced or retired. Experience showed that a steel bar held between the two planes would fall if the distance between the surfaces were increased by an incredibly small amount. For moving the planes Whitworth used a screw with twenty threads to an inch, forming the axle of a large wheel divided along its circumference into five hundred parts. By this means if the wheel were turned one division, the movable surface was advanced or retired 1/500 of a turn of the screw—that is by 1/10000 of an inch. This slight difference was found successfully to make the difference between the steel bar being firmly held and dropping. A more delicate machine, subsequently made and described to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in 1859, made perceptible a difference of one two-millionth of an inch.

By means of this gradually perfected device was elaborated Whitworth's system of standard measures and gauges, which soon proved of such enormous utility to engineers. But of all the standards introduced by Whitworth, that of the greatest immediate practical utility was doubtless his uniform system of screw threads, first definitely suggested in 1841 (cf. Minutes of Proc. Inst. Civil Engineers, 1841, i. 157). Hitherto the screws used in fitting machinery had been manufactured upon no recognised principle or system: each workshop had a type of its own. By collecting an extensive assortment of screw bolts from the different English workshops, Whitworth deduced as a compromise an average pitch of thread for different diameters, and also a mean angle of 55°, which he adopted all through the scale of sizes. The advantages of uniformity could not be resisted, and by 1860 the Whitworth system was in general use. The beauty of Whitworth's inventions was first generally recognised at the exhibition of 1851, where his exhibit of patented tools and inventions gained him the reputation of being the first mechanical constructor of the time.

In 1853 Whitworth was appointed a member of the royal commission to the New York Industrial Exhibition. The incomplete state of the machinery department prevented his reporting upon it, but he made a journey through the industrial districts of the United States, and published upon his return, in conjunction with George Wallis (1811–1891) [q. v.], ‘The Industry of the United States in Machinery, Manufactures, and Useful and Ornamental Arts,’ London, 1854, 8vo. Whitworth's share consisted of the twelve short but interesting opening chapters devoted to machinery.

In 1856 he was president of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and at the Glasgow meeting delivered an address in which his favourite projects were ably set forth. He deplored the tendency to excessive size and weight in the moving parts of machines and the national loss by over-multiplication of sizes and patterns. He contemplated the advantage that might be derived from decimalising weights and measures, a subject which led in 1857 to his paper ‘On a Standard Decimal Measure of Length for Engineering Work.’ His papers, five in number, each one of which signalises a revolution in its subject, were collected in a thin octavo as ‘Miscellaneous Papers on Mechanical Subjects, by Joseph Whitworth, F.R.S.,’ London, 1858. Whitworth had been elected to the Royal Society in 1857; he was created LL.D. of Trinity College, Dublin, in 1863, and D.C.L. Oxford on 17 June 1868.

In the meantime, as a consequence of the Crimean war, Whitworth had been requested by the board of ordnance in 1854 to design and give an estimate for a complete set of machinery for manufacturing rifle muskets. This Whitworth declined to do, as he considered that experiments were required in order to determine what caused the difference between good and bad rifles, what was the proper diameter of the bore, what was the best form of bore, and what the best mode of rifling, before any adequate machinery could be made. Ultimately the government were induced to erect a shooting-gallery for Whitworth's use at Fallowfield, Manchester, and experiments began here in March 1855. They showed that the popular Enfield rifle was untrue in almost every particular. In April 1857 Whitworth submitted to official trial a rifle with an hexagonal barrel, which in accuracy of fire, in penetration, and in range, ‘excelled the Enfield to a degree which hardly leaves room for comparison’ (Times, 23 April). Whitworth's rifle was not only far superior to any small arm then existing, but it also embodied the principles upon which modern improvements have been based, namely, reduction of bore (.45 inch), an elongated projectile (3 to 3½ calibres), more rapid twist (one turn in 20 inches), and extreme accuracy of manufacture. This rifle, after distancing all others in competition, was rejected by a war office committee as being of too small calibre for a military weapon. Ten years later, in 1869 (that is, just twelve years after Whitworth had first suggested the .45 calibre), a similar committee reported that a rifle with a .45 inch bore would ‘appear to be the most suitable for a military arm’ (the Lee-Metford arm of to-day has a .303 bore).

The inventor found some consolation for the procrastinations of official procedure in the fact that at the open competition promoted by the National Rifle Association in 1860 the Whitworth rifle was adopted as the best known, and on 2 July 1860 the queen opened the first Wimbledon meeting by firing a Whitworth rifle from a mechanical rest at a range of four hundred yards, and hitting the bull's-eye within 11/4 inches from its centre. The new rifle was adopted by the French government, and was generally used for target-shooting until the introduction of the Martini-Henry, a rifle in which several of Whitworth's principles were embodied.

In the construction of cannon he was equally successful, but failed to secure their adoption. In 1862 he made a rifled gun of high power (a six-mile range with a 250-lb. shell), the proportions of which are almost the same as those adopted to-day. But this gun, despite its unrivalled ballistic power, was rejected by the ordnance board in 1865 in favour of the Woolwich pattern, whereby the progress of improvement in British ordnance was retarded for nearly twenty years.

It was after the termination of this ‘battle of the guns’ that Whitworth made the greatest of his later discoveries. Experience had taught him that hard steel guns were unsafe, and that the safeguard consisted in employing ductile steel. A gun of hard steel, in case of unsoundness, explodes, whereas a gun of ductile steel indicates wear by losing its shape, but does not fly to pieces. When ductile steel, however, is cast into an ingot, its liability to ‘honeycomb’ or form air-cells is so great as almost to neutralise its superiority. Whitworth now found that the difficulty of obtaining a large and sound casting of ductile steel might be successfully overcome by applying extreme pressure to the fluid metal, while he further discovered that such pressure could best be applied, not by the steam-hammer but by means of an hydraulic press. Whitworth steel, as it was styled, was produced in this manner about 1870, and its special application to the manufacture of big guns was described by Whitworth in 1875 (Proc. Inst. Mech. Eng. 1875, p. 268). In 1883 the gun-foundry board of the United States, after paying a visit to Whitworth's large works at Openshaw, near Manchester, gave it as their opinion that the system there carried on surpassed all other methods of forging, and that the ‘experience enjoyed by the board during its visit amounted to a revelation’ (Report, October 1884, Washington, 1885, 8vo, p. 14).

At the Paris exhibition of 1867 Whitworth was awarded one of the five ‘grands prix’ allotted to Great Britain. In September 1868, after witnessing the performance of one of the Whitworth field-guns at Châlons, Napoleon III sent him the Legion of Honour, and about the same time he received the Albert medal of the Society of Arts for his instruments of measurement and uniform standards. On 18 March 1868 he wrote to Disraeli, offering to found thirty scholarships of the annual value of 100l. each, to be competed for upon a basis of proficiency in the theory and practice of mechanics. Next year his generous action and his merits as an inventor were publicly recognised by his being created a baronet (1 Nov. 1869).

His first wife died in October 1870, and on 12 April 1871 he married Mary Louisa (b. 31 Aug. 1829), daughter of Daniel Broadhurst, and widow of Alfred Orrell of Cheadle. Shortly before his second marriage (though still retaining the Firs, Fallowfield, as his Manchester residence) he purchased a seat and estate at Stancliffe, near Matlock. There upon an unpromising site, amid a number of quarries, he constructed a wonderful park, and he acquired much local celebrity for his gardens, his trotting horses, and his herd of shorthorns. His iron billiard-table, too (remarkable for its true surface), his lawns, cattle pens, and stables were all ‘models.’ His interest in artillery was still unrelaxed, however, and he was continually making new experiments. He was the first to penetrate armour-plating upwards of four inches in thickness, and the first to demonstrate the possibility of exploding armour-shells without using any kind of fuse. In 1873 he gave to the world his own version of the points at issue with the ordnance department in ‘Miscellaneous Papers on Practical Subjects: Guns and Steel’ (London, 8vo). The unfortunate treatment to which he was subjected was due in part, no doubt, to his plain and inflexible determination. ‘He would not modify a model which he knew to be right out of deference to committees, who, he considered, were incomparably his inferiors in technical knowledge, and who, being officials, were liable to take offence at the plain speaking of one who regarded official and infallible as far from synonymous.’ In 1874 he converted his extensive works at Manchester into a limited liability company. Whitworth, his foremen, and others in the concern, twenty-three in number, held 92 per cent. of the shares, and had practical control; no goodwill was charged, and the plant was taken at a low valuation. At the same time the clerks, draughtsmen, and workmen were encouraged and assisted to take shares (25l. each). On 1 Jan. 1897 the firm was united with that of Armstrong's of Elswick, with an authorised capital of upwards of 4,000,000l.

As he advanced in age Whitworth formed the habit of wintering in the Riviera; but he was not fond of going abroad, and in 1885 he made for himself at Stancliffe a large winter-garden, hoping that he might thus be able to spend the winters at home. He passed one winter successfully in Derbyshire, but in October 1886 he went out to Monte Carlo, and there he died on 22 Jan. 1887. Lady Whitworth died on 26 May 1896, and, there being no issue by either wife, the baronetcy became extinct. The second Lady Whitworth was buried beside her husband in a vault in Darley churchyard.

For many years before his death Whitworth made no secret of his intention to devote the bulk of his fortune to public and especially educational purposes, but died without maturing any scheme. By his will and codicils, after giving a large life interest both in real and personal estate to his widow, and making both charitable and personal legacies, he devised and bequeathed his residuary estate to his wife and his friends, Mr. Richard Copley Christie and Mr. Robert Dukinfield Darbishire, in equal shares for their own use, ‘they being each of them aware of the general nature of the objects for which I should myself have applied such property.’ After paying 100,000l. to the Science and Art Department in fulfilment of Whitworth's intention expressed in 1868 of permanently endowing thirty scholarships, the legatees, during the twelve years that elapsed after the testator's death, devoted various sums, amounting in all to 594,416l., to educational and charitable purposes. Of this amount 198,648l. was given by them to the Whitworth Park and Institute, Manchester; 118,815l. to the Owens College (besides an estate of the value of 29,404l. given to the college for hospital purposes); 60,110l. to the Manchester Technical School; 30,407l. to the Baths, Library, and other public purposes at Openshaw; 25,218l. to other Manchester institutions and charities; 104,966l. to an institute, baths, and hospital at Darley Dale (in which Whitworth's seat of Stancliffe was situate); 12,000l. to the Technical Schools and other institutions in Stockport; and 14,848l. to charities and institutions elsewhere.

Whitworth's mind was not that of a logician, but that of an experimentalist. A man of few words, he encountered each problem in mechanics by the remark ‘Let us try.’ His experiments with rifles are a striking example of the manner in which a mind of the highest inventive order gradually and surely advances towards its object. Tyndall said that when he began to work at firearms he was as ignorant of the rifle ‘as Pasteur was of the microscope when he began his immortal researches upon spontaneous generation.’ In the matter of gunnery (like Darwin in some of his special investigations) he may be said to have proved all things in order to hold fast that which was good. The patience, the step-by-step progress of investigation, the certainty with which conclusions once fairly reached are grasped as implements, the systematic form in which facts are marshalled and results arranged, all indicate, as in the case of a Darwin or a Pasteur, the capacity for taking pains over trifles, and the mastery of large principles, which go to make up a genius.

An excellent full-length portrait of Whitworth by L. Desanges is in the Whitworth Institute at Darley Dale; in the grounds adjoining stands a monolithic obelisk (seventeen feet high), erected by the inhabitants in memory of Whitworth, and unveiled on 1 Sept. 1894; upon the pedestal are portrait and other medallions. Portraits of Whitworth appeared in the ‘Illustrated London News’ on 16 May 1868 and on 5 Feb. 1887. Whitworth's exceptionally fitting motto was ‘Fortis qui prudens.’

[Memoir of Whitworth in the Proceedings of the Institution of Civil Engineers, 1887–8, vol. xci. pt. i.; Instit. of Mechanical Engineers Proc. February 1887; Manchester Literary and Philosoph. Soc. Proc. 19 April 1887; Nature, 27 Jan. 1887; Biograph, ii. 455; Eclectic Engin. Mag. New York, ii. 42, xiv. 196 (by Tyndall); Fraser's Mag. lxix. 639; Trans. of the Royal Soc. 1887; Sir J. Emerson Tennent's Story of the Guns, 1864; Foster's Alumni Oxon. 1715–1886; Smiles's Industrial Biogr.; Sutton's Cat. of Lancashire Authors; Times, 24 Jan. 1887; Manchester Examiner and Times, 24 Jan. 1887; Illustrated London News, 1887, i. 149; Debrett's Baronetage, 1887, p. 539; private information.]

T. S.