Born at the turn of the nineteenth century on December 21st 1803, it did not take long before Joseph Whitworth developed a taste for machinery and engineering that would eventually make him infamous across the the rest of the 1800s. He was born in Stockport to a minister and teacher but it was his uncle, a cotton spinner called Charles Hulse, that helped encourage his apparent skills through an apprenticeship at Amber Mill in Oakerthorpe. As a teen, Joseph continued to learn and develop, this time as a mechanic in a factory in Manchester.
His time in Manchester as a young man gave him a sound basis in mechanics and when he was 21 he decided to head to London. London would not turn out to be the place to make him famous but the trip was far from a wasted one because his journey there by barge allowed him to meet a fellow passenger called Frances Ankers. The pair fell in love and married in 1825. Seven years later, Joseph gave up on his life in London and returned to Manchester where he would enjoy a series of inventions, a second marriage to Mary Louisa Orrell in 1871 and more fame than he would have ever expected.
Two inventions that would have an important role in history.
During his lifetime, Whitworth was able to put his name to two inventions that would become greatly influential in very different ways. The first was a standard for screw threads in 1841. While this may not be the most exciting British invention of the era it was one that would have an unbelievable impact on the world of manufacturing. He idea to create a standard for thread screws with a 55 degree angle was adopted by many industries including the British railway and Navy and it is accepted that this adoption of a standard had a positive effect on productivity and quality in many areas including the production of gun boats in the Crimean War. The standard became the British Standard Whitworth system – also known as BSW – and was even used in American in certain industries until the introduction of metric standards in the 1970s.
The second invention that would be synonymous with the name Whitworth was the Whitworth Rifle. To say that this gun was revolutionary in its ability would be no understatement because the Whitworth Rifle used new ideas to make the gun more appealing to rifleman and a much better choice than the Enfield Rifle than preceded it. Joseph used a new initiative of including a twisted, hexagonal barrel of 33 inches and made the body lighter in weight so that it could be carried with greater ease. The end result was a gun that could fire three rounds in a minute with great accuracy and a greater range by 600 yards than the Enfield. This accuracy was best seen when Queen Victoria fired the first shot at a demonstration that hit the bullseye and, from that meeting onward, the rifle was in demand and approximately 13,400 were produced between 1857 and 1865. A large number of these weapons fell into the hands of Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War, where they were rechristened the Whitworth Sharpshooter, and modern reproductions are still used in battle re-enactments.
Sir Joseph Whitworth’s other creations and achievements.
The invention of these two items would be enough to ensure a place in the history books for any man but they came at the end of a long, productive career that saw many other machines, system and honours. It is said that Whitworth developed a simple motto in life, “let us try” and this attitude helped him to overcome obstacles and doubters to become a prolific inventor.
Joseph had returned to Manchester in 1833 to set up a shop it it was here that he would create mechanical feats such as the knitting machine in 1835 and a horse-drawn road sweeper in 1842. While these objects clearly had plenty of appeal, it was a more complex system called the Surface Plate that would become one of his more celebrated achievements. This measuring technique was created as a way of producing accurate flat surfaces with a precision of a millionth of an inch. The system was so popular that was later demonstrated at the Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition in 1851. These works and his international success with his rifle and screw thread system meant that societies and world leaders were lining up to show their appreciation and award him with honours and titles. Whitworth was twice named President of the Institution of Mechanical Engineering, he became a fellow of the Royal Society, he was presented with medals from Brazil, Spain and France and he was knighted in 1869.
The death of Sir Joseph Whitworth and his legacy within the city of Manchester.
In his later life, inventing and mechanics had taken a well-deserved back seat and Joseph turned his attention to more leisurely pursuits such as walking and playing billiards. Much of this time was spent in the French Riviera because it was an area that he adored and that he believed would help improve his health during the winters of his old age. In 1887, Joseph died in Monte Carlo at the grand age of 83 and his body was taken back to Derbyshire to be buried at St Helen’s Church in Darley Dale.
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With no children of his own, and just the one step-son with his second wife, there was nobody to carry on the name of Whitworth or enjoy his fortune; instead, the people of Manchester benefited from his riches when they were bequeathed money towards the Christie Hospital and the art gallery that bore his name. This generosity was little surprise given his donations during his life and the creation of scholarships in his name and the city has always been proud and thankful to their adopted son, something that can be seen in the naming of streets and buildings. It is impossible to travel to Manchester without seeing the influence of Sir Joseph Whitworth but his impact on the manufacturing and history of the rest of the world should not be overlooked either.