The Birth of the Modern Machine Shop

Think of all the things that are readily available to you, right this very instant. Did you rip your pants? Run to the store and buy a new pair. Your phone broke? No problem! If it’s still covered by its warranty, there’s a good chance you can go to the store and pick up a replacement. Or maybe your car broke down, and it needs a replacement part before it’s road-worthy again. The ready availability of all of these things can be attributed to the evolution of the modern CNC machine shop.

An example of an early cutting machine, predating CNC technology.

But where did it all begin? Chances are  we can trace the very beginning of CNC machinery back to John Stevens III, the inventory of the first screw-driven steamboat, which lead to the invention of the first steam-engine locomotive. On his estate in present-day Hoboken, New Jersey he created what might be known as the “first” machine shop, where he conducted various mechanical experiments. It is undeniable that he ultimately contributed a great deal to  the industrial revolution.

Not long after the John Stevens III and his family introduced their early version of the machine shop and the power of steam, Eli Whitney was doing something similar with his work with firearms and the cotton gin (for which he is most famous).  In both cases, his work with firearms and the cotton gin went on to solidify his contribution to modern society: the standardization of interchangeable parts.

Without standardization, large-scale mass manufacturing of anything – whether it’s the hammer for a flintlock pistol or a pair of blue-jeans – would not be possible.  It allowed manufacturers to produce copy upon copy of a single part, making the production of machinery infinitely more effective and widespread. At the same time, it allowed existing manufacturers to easily replace broken parts. Gone were the days where every machine was custom manufactured by hand in its own way. If a part broke, the same part was easily replaceable.  Eli Whitney was perhaps one of the first inventors to successfully bring standardization to the world, making what was once only possibly by a skilled artisan, possibly be a correctly designed and operated machine.

However, without machine tools this new system of interchangeable parts would never have had the chance to evolve at all. This leads to John Wilkinson’s contribution to the modern CNC machine shop, the boring machine. When James Watt invented the practical steam engine in 1776, he would have never been able to bore the cylinders required to convert steam into power. However, John Wilkinson’s boring machine gave him the mechanical cutting power necessary to flawlessly remove only the material needed to create the right sizes cylinders.

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