Iron cables

David Waller: ‘Iron Men’ book interview and review

Although virtually unknown today, the early 19th century innovator Henry Maudslay changed the face of engineering and paved the way for the Industrial Revolution. David Waller’s new book ‘Iron Men’ explains how.

Back in the early 19th century, London was the equivalent of today’s Silicon Valley, with a technology cluster in Lambeth inspired by one man. Although his name won’t spring to the tip of the tongue as freely as other great 19th-century engineers such as Stephenson or Brunel, his impact on how Britain became a truly industrialised nation was just as significant, and possibly more so. Today, one of the greatest of British engineers – Henry Maudslay – is something of a footnote in history, and so we should be grateful to author David Waller, who specialises in biographies of the relatively unknown as well as the unsung hero.

Waller’s latest is called simply ‘Iron Men’, an intentional double reference to the engineers who worked with iron, and the early mechanised machine tools they created, considered so outlandish in the way they mimicked human movement that they became anthropomorphised as ‘iron men’. In a nutshell, the book is about engineering and machines of the early 19th century, with Maudslay and, critically, the geographical location of London the glue that binds it all together. “People tend to think,” says Waller, “that the Industrial Revolution only happened up north in cities such as Manchester. But it’s clear that central London was the place where the high-tech industries of the day were being developed.”

He goes on to challenge another popular misconception,  which treats the terms Industrial Revolution and Victorian Age are synonymous. They’re not. There are historians, he says, who can trace the revolution back as far as the 16th century. But Waller’s concern is more recent and it centres on Maudslay, because this is where we can see the dawn of precision engineering and the machine age.

Waller says that Maudslay “invented a new style of engineering, which allowed the full power and force of the Industrial Revolution to come into being. He unlocked the potential of steam as well as making things in metal. We can see, as a result of his influence, the full-scale mechanisation of the British and ultimately the world economy in the space of a couple of generations.” The timing of events was triggered, as is so often the case with technology, by the increasing demands of armed conflict. “By the beginning of the 19th century, which is when my character was in his heyday, the pressures of the Napoleonic Wars led to quite a significant amount of industrialisation, mechanisation and innovation.”

Perhaps one of the most illuminating examples of war driving the market was the surge in requirement for simple pulley blocks from the Royal Navy. A typical ship would have installed as many as 1,400 of these items in various sizes, used for applications such as hoisting sails or controlling cannon. At its peak the navy was ordering 100,000 units per year. Every item was made by hand, often not very well, and because the country was at war, labour resources were stretched and expensive.

“It was a uniquely propitious time for a change in the way these things were made,” says Waller, who explains how Maudslay spent the best part of a decade preparing more than 40 models for the machine tools that would eventually allow the blocks to be mass produced. To the outsider this may not seem earth-shattering stuff, but the ability to produce such crucial military components had a direct effect on the nation’s war effort, “and this is Maudslay’s legacy. Some of the machines he built were still being used as recently as during the Second World War.”

What makes Maudslay’s story so fascinating is that it is one of real enterprise. Without any formal education, by the age of 14 he found himself working in the Woolwich Arsenal as a ‘powder monkey’, packing explosives into cartridges. Waller explains that “he was talent-spotted by Joseph Bramah who invented, among other things, the flushing lavatory, beer pump, hydraulic press and the famous Bramah lock”. Maudslay left the Arsenal to work for Bramah in Covent Garden where “he was put on a lot of complicated projects, including building machines to build the lock”. Despite his humble beginnings, “Maudslay had great talent as well as the opportunity to work at the frontiers of technology”.

The relationship was to founder as the two men differed over women and money. Maudslay married Bramah’s housemaid and immediately asked for a pay rise, which was not forthcoming. These events resulted in the young engineer literally setting up shop around the corner in the West End. This change in circumstances was to lead directly to Maudslay’s commission to develop machines for the Portsmouth Block Mills, which “when finished stood as one of the great achievements of the 19th century”.

Profits from the Portsmouth job were invested in the creation of a new factory south of the river in Lambeth, on a site now occupied by Lambeth North tube station (where there’s even a small memorial tablet commemorating the ‘many engineers of renown’ to have worked at Maudslay’s). With an increasing reputation for his excellence and innovation, he found that “all the talented engineers wanted to go and work there”. According to Waller, what this meant was that “Maudslay had a tremendous impact on the next generation. Which is why, in effect, he was a Victorian phenomenon. Three of the men working with him – Richard Roberts, James Nasmyth and Joseph Whitworth – were undoubtedly the most brilliant engineers of the 19th century. And they learned their trade in Maudslay’s factory.”

Anyone tempted to think that Maudslay is merely a fossilised historical figure who has been given a new lease of life by a biographer specialising in the underdog should think again. Waller is convinced and convincing when he offers up the idea that Maudslay is an early prototype of the way really successful businesses, such as Tesla or Apple, work today. “I don’t want to labour the point, but there are parallels, where these sort of companies are managed by extraordinarily talented entrepreneurs who have a vision of a market that doesn’t yet exist. This is what Maudslay’s engineers were doing.”

They were also following Maudslay’s philosophy of engineering, which is as applicable today as it has ever been and worth quoting in full: “Keep a sharp lookout on your materials; get rid of every pound of material you can do without; put to yourself the question ‘what business has it to be there?’, avoid complexities, and make everything as simple as possible.”

It’s a philosophy the author has applied to ‘Iron Men’, which is one of the best books on engineering history to be published in many a moon. *

‘Iron Men’ by David Waller is published by Anthem Press, £19.99.

We read it for you

Iron Men

In 1810, a young engineer called Henry Maudslay opened a small factory in Lambeth, just south of London’s River Thames. It was to become the centre of one of the first technology clusters, and just as modern companies such as Google and Apple can attract the best talent around, Maudslay soon found that he had the nation’s best engineers beating a path to his door. Maudslay, who according to ‘Iron Men’ author David Waller could claim to be the first precision engineer, had also created a nursery for the talents of the now legendary Richard Roberts, James Nasmyth and Joseph Whitworth. These were the first of the great machine-tool age engineers, who kick-started the Industrial Revolution and put London on the technology map. A truly fascinating and wonderfully entertaining history of early industrial engineering. Great stuff.

Extract from Iron Men

The Age of Machinery

In today’s terms, mid-19th century Britain was booming. China, Asia and Silicon Valley all rolled into one, at the literal cutting machine-tool edge of every industry that mattered, from coal and steel to textiles, railways and shipbuilding. In Benjamin Disraeli’s phrase, Britain was the workshop of the world, the undisputed technological leader, and had emerged as such, rapidly and traumatically, during the course of a few decades.

For some, including Queen Victoria and the millions that flocked to the Great Exhibition, machines bespoke exciting technological change and progress. As John Stuart Mill wrote: “the more visible fruits of scientific progress... the mechanical improvements, the steam engine, the railroads, carry the feeling of admiration for the modern, and disrespect for ancient times, down even to the wholly uneducated classes.”

The polymath Charles Babbage looked on the blast furnace of an ironworks in Leeds with a mix of awe and fear: “the intensity of the fire was particularly impressive. It recalled the past, disturbed the present, and suggested the future...”.

There is a great deal published on the heroic figures of George and Robert Stephenson or Isambard Kingdom Brunel. But while these were men of genius, who did more than anyone to create the railway age, they were not the finest mechanical engineers of the age. That accolade belongs to Henry Maudslay, a man who rose from humble origins to become the most influential mechanical engineer of the pre-Victorian period, and to those who worked with him, absorbed his ideas and spread his influence.

Edited extract from ‘Iron Men’ by David Waller, reproduced with permission

Recent articles

Info Message

Our sites use cookies to support some functionality, and to collect anonymous user data.

Learn more about IET cookies and how to control them