If you’re a fan of the modern world, you owe a debt of gratitude to John Wilkinson. Wilkinson, whose father was an ironworker and a part-time inventor, was one of those fantastic industrialists that envision the entire world using his product in as many forms as possible. In Wilkinson’s England, people would sit at iron tables eating off of iron plates using iron cutlery in iron houses. Wilkinson was such a fan of iron that he was buried in an iron coffin and had an iron obelisk for a tombstone. But it wasn’t iron tables or iron plates that led John Wilkinson to change the world… it was cannon.
Prior to Wilkinson, almost all manufactured goods were made “in-house” by individuals. By that I mean that each product – and all the component parts therein – were either made by the manufacturer or someone local to him. Take a cabinetmaker, for example. It’s entirely possible that a cabinetmaker would have made all of his tools himself, as well as all of the component parts of a cabinet, such as the nails. And when he made those nails, he might make them the length of his pinky finger or as thick as his favorite book – or any other measure he chose. He might have “outsourced” his nail production to a local blacksmith, but that blacksmith was just as likely to use some other non-standard measure (such as the diameter of a coin) to determine the length of a nail. And, of course, a cabinetmaker or blacksmith in another town might use an altogether different measure to make his nails.
Of course there were large factories, especially when it came to complex products like carriages. Making a carriage required a blacksmith, a slew of carpenters and an upholsterer at a minimum. But a factory like this was more like a collection of tradesmen working under one roof than the single entity we think of today. If an upholsterer were to leave the factory, his replacement might have completely different tools and components than his predecessor. Of course, the factory owner had the ultimate say in the quality and appearance of his products, but by and large the tradesmen were left alone to do what they did best. And most of the time, “their best” was close enough.
Unfortunately, “close enough” won’t cut it when it comes to making cannon. And back in the eighteenth century, soldiers had to worry about dying from their own cannons exploding as much as from enemy fire. Wilkinson’s foundry was one of the first to use one of James Watt’s new and improved steam engines to power the blowers and hammers. But then Wilkinson did something revolutionary: he used the steam engine to create a new type of boring machine that machined the cannon to within fantastic tolerances – millimeters to be exact… very exact. Such accuracy was almost unheard of back in those days, and it didn’t take Wilkinson long to figure out that he could make interchangeable parts for cannon and many other products. So if something broke, one could simply have a stash of spares on hand that could be easily swapped out… instead of having to track down the craftsman that originally made the part or hire a new craftsman to reverse-engineer the part.
Gunsmiths were the next to jump on Wilkinson’s bandwagon. Although the British army had been using “standardized” muskets for years, the fact that most of the parts were machined by hand meant that many parts that should have been interchangeable were not. If a part broke on a soldier’s musket, it wasn’t uncommon for him to have to try up to five different replacement parts to find one that actually worked… even though they were supposed to be the exact same part. The techniques pioneered by Wilkinson meant that gun parts should be replicated to within a couple of millimeters of spec, and any part would work in any gun.
Other products would eventually join Wilkinson’s revolution. Pocket watches, for example, were once playthings of the superrich. Once large scale production began, their accuracy increased and their price dropped, such that they were a more or less common item within 50 years.
There’s an interesting postscript to this story: “Iron Mad” Wilkinson was a believer of (and major investor in) The Iron Bridge in Shropshire, England. It was built in 1779 and was the first major iron bridge in the world. The Iron Bridge would be the direct inspiration behind the future iron bridge in Newcastle and its bigger brother in Sydney Harbor. The Newcastle Bridge is pictured on the Newcastle Brown Ale label… so if you’re tipping back a few this holiday weekend, think of John Wilkinson and how he changed the world!