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This memoir and portrait appeared in 'The National Portrait Gallery', published by Cassell, Petter & Galpin, London, c1878. Four series of portraits, bound in 2 volumes, were published. Each series has twenty full-page colour plates of portraits taken from photgraphs. Each portrait has the prinited signature of the subject. The accompanying texts (referred to as Memoirs) are written in the third person by an unnamed writer, and are on prominent British men from the 1800s.

Sir Joseph Whitworth, Bart. is featured in the Fourth Series.

David Minshall


It has been said by one of our greatest writers on philosophical subjects, that the introduction of famous discoveries holds by far the first place among human actions; and this was most assuredly the judgment of former ages. For to the authors of inventions the ancients awarded divine honours, while to those who did good service in the State (such as founders of cities and empires, legislators, saviours of their country from long-endured quarrels, quellers of tyrannies, and the like) they decreed no higher honours than heroic. And certainly if a man rightly compare the two, he will find that the judgment of antiquity was just. For the benefits of discoveries may extend to the whole race of man; civil benefits only to particular places; the latter last not beyond a few ages, the former through all time. Discoveries carry blessings with them, and confer benefits, without causing harm or sorrow to any. The same writer enlarges on the three kinds, or grades, of ambition, by which the energies of inventors are prompted to exert themselves. “The first,” he remarks, “is of those who desire to extend their own power in their own country, which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labour to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men. This certainly has more dignity, though not less covetousness. But if a man endeavours to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and a more noble than the other two.” There are but few people who will not agree with these remarks, and who will not at the same time go further, and allow that in perfecting his manifold inventions the subject of this memoir has been actuated by motives which entitle him to a place in the third, and consequently the highest, of those grades to which reference has been made.

Born at Stockport, on the 21st of December, 1803, Joseph Whitworth commenced his educational career at a school which was kept by his father, at which establishment he remained until he had reached the age of twelve years, when he was removed to Mr. Vint’s academy at Idle, near Leeds, where he continued his studies for a further year and a half. When only fourteen years of age he was placed with an uncle in Derbyshire, who was a cotton-spinner, and continued under the same care for about four years, during which period he acquainted himself with the working of the various machines connected with the business of cotton-spinning. In 1821 he proceeded to Manchester, where, at the works of Messrs. Crighton and Co., and others, he acquired a practical knowledge of the manufacture of cotton-machinery. Leaving Manchester for London about four years later, he spent some time with Messrs. Maudslay, the eminent engineers, and subsequently with Holtzapfel. He also worked with Mr. Clement, who about this time was engaged in constructing Mr. Babbage’s calculating machine.

Returning to Manchester in 1833, Mr. Whitworth commenced business on his own account as a manufacturer of engineers’ tools, thus founding the firm of Joseph Whitworth and Co., a firm which is now known all over the civilised world. At the outset of his independent career, Mr. Whitworth devoted his energies to the attainment of greater accuracy in mechanical work, and his labours were attended with the most satisfactory results. In 1840 he read a paper “On the Preparation of Plane Metallic Surfaces” at the meeting of the British Association at Glasgow, the object of the paper being to show how a true surface, or perfectly straight line, may be produced. “At that time,” writes Mr. Whitworth, in the preface to his “Papers on Mechanical Subjects,” “it was the custom to prepare what were intended to be used as original surfaces (presumed to be true) by grinding them; and I was anxious to direct the attention of those engaged in mechanical pursuits to the inherent defects of the grinding process, and to prove the necessity of adopting the system of correction, by which alone error is eliminated, and surfaces practically true can be produced.” The system described and advocated in this paper was afterwards universally adopted, an entirely new era being inaugurated in the history of mechanical science, and a degree of accuracy rendered possible which had hitherto been considered unattainable. The desirability of establishing a uniform system of screw-threads also engaged the attention of Mr. Whitworth at this period; and when it is understood that at the time referred to almost every engineer had a separate form of thread and pitch; that the nuts made by one firm would not fit the screws made by another, it will be admitted that the subject was one in every way worthy of the time and thought which Mr. Whitworth bestowed upon it. In the following year, 1841, a paper on this important matter was read at the Institution of Civil Engineers, with the result that since that time the system has been generally adopted in this country. It is but just to add that it was only after a considerable amount of research and a large number of experiments, that Mr. Whitworth contrived to arrange a uniform system of pitches, and determined the best form and angle for the thread. He had, however, his reward in the knowledge that his name is inseparably connected with this improvement. In the meanwhile, Mr. Whitworth was continually employed in the devising of new mechanical tools, or in bringing to perfection those which were already in use. His labours were directed, in the first place, to the accuracy of workmanship, and then to the economy of labour. Between 1840 and 1850, Mr. Whitworth produced many valuable improvements and inventions, the most important of which were the duplex lathe, the reversing tool of the planing machine, and the standard gauges of size.


But it was at the Great Exhibition of 1851, where he exhibited a collection of engineers’ tools, remarkable for their excellent workmanship and admirable design, such as had never before been brought together, that the fruits of his labour first met with their proper share of recognition. He then exhibited the measuring machine designed by him, in which the sense of touch was employed, instead of that of sight, and by which he was enabled to detect differences of only one-millionth of an inch in extent. It must be borne in mind that the object of this machine is not to make an original measurement of the total length of any bar, but to compare it in the most accurate manner possible with a nearly similar standard bar of which the exact length is known, and record, to the millionth part of an inch, any difference which may exist between them. To quote the inventor’s own words, it “is a measuring machine for the testing and measuring of standards of size of one inch in length (it should be stated that the machine now being described is constructed to receive a bar only one inch long, whilst that shown at the Exhibition, and made upon a precisely similar principle, was capable of taking in a bar thirty-six inches in length), and of all sizes below that length. The inch standard bar has two small end surfaces one-quarter of an inch in diameter, which are made true planes, perpendicular to the axis of the inch bar. The sides of this inch bar, and of the right-angled groove in which it rests in the machine, are all true planes, and so also are the ends of the two headstocks between which the bar lies. A very small surface plate, with slender arms, which I call ‘the feeling-piece,’ has on each side a true plane; this feeling-piece rests between the standard inch bar and the true plane, on the end of the right-hand headstock. The end plane is moved by means of a screw having twenty threads to the inch. To this is fixed a worm-wheel having two hundred teeth, into which an endless screw works. The endless screw has on it a micrometer wheel with 250 divisions. The screw, worm-wheel, and the divisions on the micrometer, multiplied one into the other, show that the movement of one division drives the end true plane through the one-millionth of an inch. When little or no pressure is exerted upon the planes of the feeling-piece, it will, when raised between the end of the standard inch bar and the end plane, fall by its own gravity; but by turning the micrometer wheel the surfaces are brought so nearly into contact, that at last the movement of one division will cause the feeling-piece to be suspended, so that the movement of one-millionth of an inch is sufficient to support the feeling-piece or let it fall. Perhaps the best idea I can give of the one-millionth of an inch is to state that it might be represented by the ordinary thin French writing-paper divided into about 4,000 thicknesses.” These machines are so extremely sensitive, that the one described is capable of detecting the expansion in a one-inch bar which is produced by merely touching it for an instant with the finger; and in the larger machine – provided the feeling-piece be so adjusted that the movement of one-millionth of an inch would cause it to be suspended – if, instead of the movement of the one-millionth of an inch, the standard bar be touched for one instant by the finger-nail, it will cause the bar to be suspended – the heat from the touch of the finger-nail being sufficient for that purpose. The standard of heat adopted for the national standard measures has been fixed at 62° Fahrenheit, which, in the opinion of the inventor of this machine, is too low for the purpose. He maintains that if it were increased to 70° or 80°, its uniformity would be much less liable to disturbance from the warmth of the operator’s body. It only remains to add that this admirable invention obtained for Mr. Whitworth the award of the Council Medal of the Exibition of 1851.

In 1853 Mr. Whitworth was appointed one of the Royal Commissioners to the New York Exhibition; and on his return to England in the following year he drew up a special report on American manufactures, which was presented to Parliament by command of Her Majesty. During his stay in the United States he visited the principal seats of those manufactures which came within his department; and in concluding his report he observes that the results which have been obtained in the United States by the application of machinery, wherever it has been practicable, to manufactures, are rendered still more remarkable by the fact that combinations to resist its introduction there are unheard of. The American workmen hail with satisfaction all mechanical improvements, the importance and value of which, as releasing them from the drudgery of unskilled labour, they are enabled by education to understand and appreciate. With the comparatively superabundant supply of hands in this country, and, therefore, a proportional difficulty in obtaining remunerative employment, the working classes have less sympathy with the progress of invention. Their condition is a less favourable one than that of their American brethren for forming a just and unprejudiced estimate of the influence which the introduction of machinery is calculated to exercise on their state and prospects.

Mr. Whitworth gave it as his opinion that the different views taken by our operatives and those of the United States are determined by other and powerful causes, besides those dependent on the supply of labour in the two countries. He observed that the principles which ought to regulate the relations of the employer and the employed seem to be thoroughly understood and appreciated in the United States; and that the intelligent and educated artisan is left free to earn all that he can by making the best use of his hands, without let or hindrance by his fellows. It is unnecessary to point out that the question of education has assumed a very different aspect in this country since Mr. Whitworth drew attention to it in 1854; and that, in a few years, there is small reason to doubt that English artisans will view the introduction of machinery with a satisfaction equal to that exhibited by their transatlantic confrères.


In 1854 Mr. Whitworth was requested by the Government to undertake the construction of machines for the better production of fire-arms, but he declined to do this until he had satisfied himself by experiments what the proper construction of fire-arms themselves should be. With this view, the erection of a large shooting-gallery (in Mr. Whitworth’s private grounds at Rusholme, near Manchester) was commenced in August, 1854, and finished in October of the same year. It was provided with a succession of screens, covered with light tissue-paper, by which the track of a bullet could be traced throughout its whole course. Before, however, its walls had become dried, a large portion of it was blown down during a violent storm, and it was not, therefore, finally completed until March in the following year. On commencing his experiments, Mr. Whitworth was convinced, after careful consideration, that the polygon form was the best for the interior of rifle-barrels and for the projectiles. This form, among other advantages, affords the greatest extent of rifling surface, and enables a mechanical fit to be easily obtained, and rotation is produced without depending upon the expansion of the projectile by the explosion. At the same time, the polygon form, though not dependent on the use of the expansive projectile, is well adapted thereto, in the event of that being considered desirable. When the late Lord Hardinge went to Manchester, accompanied by Colonel Hay, Commandant of the School of Musketry at Hythe, to witness some of Mr. Whitworth’s experiments, rifle projectiles, 3 inches long, were fired with great success from a barrel of the ordinary bore, rifled with one turn in 15 inches. On seeing these results, his lordship was anxious that the principles of construction, which had proved so successful with the rifle musket, should be applied to pieces of ordnance, and at his request three brass 24-pound Howitzers were sent down from Woolwich. These guns Mr. Whitworth bored and rifled hexagonally, the bore being 4 inches in diameter (measured diagonally), 4 inches across the flats, 52 inches long, and weighing 12 cwt. One of the pieces was tried, in Mr. Whitworth’s grounds, at short ranges, both point-blank and at high elevations, with different lengths of projectiles, the results being in every way satisfactory. The first completed rifle made by Mr. Whitworth was fired at Hythe in April, 1857, in the presence of Lord Panmure, the then Secretary of State for War, and his staff. The “figure of merit” (or the average distance of each shot from the centre of the group) obtained at 500 yards range was 4½ inches. General Hay states that no “figure of merit” under 27 inches had previously been obtained with any rifle; and so complete had been Mr. Whitworth’s investigations, and so accurate his calculations, that this” figure of merit” of 4½ inches has never yet been surpassed with any rifle fired in the open air. The Times report of the trial said that it had terminated in establishing beyond all doubt the great and decided superiority of Mr. Whitworth’s invention. “The Enfield rifle,” continued the report, “which was considered so much better than any other, has been completely beaten. In accuracy of fire, in penetration, and in range, its rival excels it to a degree which hardly leaves room for comparison.” In the face of such results, the adoption of the rifle into the service was naturally looked for, and must have followed almost as a matter of course, unless some reason to the contrary had been assigned. Eighteen months passed away without anything being done, and then a Committee of Officers reported to the Government that “the bore of the Whitworth rifle was too small for use as a military arm.” The Whitworth rifle was again brought prominently before the notice of the public and of the authorities at the first Wimbledon Meeting, on July 2nd, 1860, when Her Majesty the Queen opened the proceedings by firing a Whitworth rifle from a mechanical rest. The target was fixed at a distance of 400 yards, and the adjustment was so accurate that the bullet struck within an inch and a quarter of the centre of the bull’s-eye. Two years later, the Ordnance Select Committee published the results of further comparative trials of the Whitworth and Enfield rifles. At 300 yards range, the mean radial deviation of the Enfield was 12.69 inches; of the Whitworth, 3.86 inches. At 500 yards the mean deviations were respectively 19.80 and 7.29 inches; at 800 yards, 41.61 and 15.67; at 1,000 yards, 95.01 and 23.13; at 1,200 yards, 133.53 and 46.92. With regard to the matter of penetration by projectiles fired from heavy ordnance, Mr. Whitworth claimed, so long ago as 1858, that he had proved, by a large number of experiments, that the best form of projectile is one with a flat head, and that such a projectile will pursue a straight course, without deviation, through water, so as to strike a ship far below the waterline, and that it will also penetrate armour-plates which stand obliquely to its line of flight. Shot with rounded heads, when fired downwards into water, rise again by ricochet, and their course cannot be at all foreseen. This fact has been established by firing into a water tank, crossed by screens partially immersed and partially rising above the level of the water, at a target similarly arranged at the other end of the tank. In this year he rifled a 68-pounder cast-iron gun-block on his plan, and with this gun he fired a 68-pound solid shot from the deck of the Stork gunboat, at a range of 450 yards, completely through a 4-inch armour-plate, fixed on the side of H.M.S. Alfred. It should be stated that this was the first instance in which iron armour-plates were completely penetrated. Another great advance in artillery was inaugurated by Mr. Whitworth in 1862, when he fired his patent flat-fronted steel shell through a target representing the side of the Warrior. The weight of the shell was 131 pounds, the bursting-charge of powder 3½ pounds, and it pierced a 4½-inch iron plate, backed up with 18 inches of teak – a performance which at that time was looked upon with wonder. Mr. Whitworth was also the first to demonstrate the possibility of exploding armour-shells without the use of any kind of fuse. Before dismissing the subject of artillery manufacture – a subject with which, it is scarcely necessary to remark, the name of Whitworth is inseparably connected – it will be well to quote an extract from The Anglo-Brazilian Times of April 22nd, 1874. That journal states that “The Committee on Artillery Studies, after nearly two years of consideration of the various systems of cannon, have pronounced definitely in favour of the Whitworth rifle cannon as that which, from its material, the processes of manufacture, and the system, most nearly approaches perfection. The Committee emphatically condemn the French system of cast-iron strengthened by wrought-iron bands as unscientific, and practically proved inefficient. The Krupp gun, of Krupp cast-steel, strengthened with bands, they consider unreliable, notwithstanding its fine material, chiefly owing to the uncertainty and irregularity of effect which, they say, always attend the action of the hammer, however ponderous, on masses of iron. Finally, they consider the English Armstrong, Woolwich, and Whitworth cannon much superior, in construction and strength, to the best yet produced on the Continent: the Woolwich an improvement on the Armstrong, and the Whitworth far ahead of either in the essential qualities of a good gun. This superiority of the Whitworth cannon the Committee ascribe to the quality of the homogeneous steel used, to the care in its selection, to the oil tempering which it receives, to the use of the hydraulic press instead of the hammer, and to the mode of constructing and connecting the cylinders and other parts of the gun. In relation to the quality of duration, the Committee mention that, while the Krupp cannon has an average life of 600 to 800 shots, the Whitworth cannon employed by the Brazilian forces during the Paraguayan war have averaged 3,500 to 4,000 shots each, without a single case of bursting or serious damage having occurred among them.” It should further be mentioned that Mr. Whitworth has always contended that guns should be made of steel; and in the course of experiments he found that by subjecting the metal to extreme pressure when in a fluid state he could produce steel of absolute soundness. He rejects as unsuitable, in the manufacture of guns, the combination of a weak and a strong metal, such as iron and steel. In a book written by him –” Guns and Steel,” published in 1873 – he enters fully into this matter, and explains his plan for subjecting the fluid-casting to enormous hydraulic pressure, by which all the air is forced out; and in this way obtains a ductile steel that is perfectly solid and homogeneous, and that resists the action of explosive forces in a greater degree than any other form of metal. He maintains that it is possible to make guns of ductile steel possessing twice the strength of iron, and completely master of the gunpowder. The Whitworth breechloading gun, made of fluid-compressed steel, with its large powder-chamber, cannot, it is said, burst or break up into pieces. For penetrative and destructive power it is designed to fire shell of such length and capacity as no one would venture to use for a gun of mixed iron and steel; while its range will be, at high elevations, from forty-five to fifty per cent. greater than that of a muzzleloading service-gun of the same calibre.


In 1857 Mr. Whitworth was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society; the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the Senate of Trinity College, Dublin; and he was, during the same year, honoured with the degree of D.C.L. by the University of Oxford. Mr. Whitworth exhibited a fine collection of engineers’ tools and of rifled ordnance and projectiles at the Exposition Universelle at Paris, in 1867; and in consideration of the valuable services rendered by him to the cause of industry and science, one of the five “Grand Prix” allotted to England was conferred upon him. During the visit of the late Emperor of the French to the camp at Châlons, in September, 1868, His Imperial Majesty was so pleased with one of Mr. Whitworth’s field-guns which was then being tried there, that he conferred upon that gentleman the distinction of the Legion of Honour. The Albert Gold Medal has also been awarded to Mr. Whitworth by the Council of the Society of Arts, “for the invention and manufacture of instruments of measurement and uniform standards by which the production of machinery has been brought to a degree of perfection hitherto unapproached, to the advancement of arts, manufactures, and commerce.” This medal was instituted for the purpose of rewarding distinguished merit in promoting arts, manufactures, or commerce; and on the roll of its recipients are such names as those of Sir Rowland Hill, Professor Faraday, and Sir Charles Wheatstone.

Mr. Whitworth was created a baronet in October, 1869, and in the same year founded the Whitworth Scholarships, for the assistance and encouragement of young students of mechanical and engineering science. In the previous year – March 18th, 1868 – Mr. Whitworth wrote to Mr. Disraeli, stating that it was his desire to promote the engineering and mechanical industry of this country by founding thirty scholarships, of the annual value of £100 each, to be applied for the further instruction of young men, natives of the United Kingdom, selected by open competition for their intelligence and proficiency in the theory and practice of mechanics and its cognate sciences. He proposed that these scholarships should be tenable, on conditions to be defined by a deed of trust regulating the administration of the endowment fund, during his life, and that thereafter the management of that fund, subject to the conditions specified therein, should vest in the Lord President of the Council, or other minister of public instruction for the time being. Mr. Whitworth’s munificent proposal was considered by the Lords of the Committee of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council on Education, and he received a letter from their lordships, in which they accepted his generous offer, and intimated the readiness of their lordships to receive further suggestions from Mr. Whitworth as to the manner in which he proposed to carry out his scheme; at the same time, their lordships desired to be informed by Mr. Whitworth whether the Department could render him any assistance in carrying out his liberal intentions. Mr. Whitworth’s reply was to the effect that he wished the Lords of the Committee of Council on Education to undertake the examinations for these scholarships; that he would himself, with the aid of friends, be responsible for the examinations in the use of tools; and he submitted for their lordships’ consideration whether honours in the nature of degrees might not be conferred by some competent authority on successful students each year: thus creating a faculty of industry analogous to the existing faculties of divinity, law, and medicine. He expressed his opinion that such honours would prove a great incentive to exertion, and would tend considerably to promote the object in view. He also expressed a hope that the Government would provide the necessary funds for endowing a sufficient number of professors of mechanics throughout the United Kingdom. The general arrangements agreed upon for the first competition in May, 1869, are too copious to be given in detail here; but the chief points were that the scholarships should be open to all of Her Majesty’s subjects, whether of the United Kingdom, India, or the Colonies, who did not exceed twenty-six years (on the 4th of March, 1873, notice was given that after the examination of May, 1873, this limit would be fixed at twenty-two), and be held either for two or three years, as experience might prove to be advisable; that the candidates must be of sound bodily constitution; that examinations would be held in the following theoretical subjects:– Mathematics (elementary and higher); mechanics (theoretical and applied); practical plane and descriptive geometry, and mechanical and freehand drawing; physics and chemistry, including metallurgy. And also in the following handicrafts:– Smiths’ work, turning, filing and fitting, and pattern-making and moulding. No candidate would obtain a scholarship who did not show a satisfactory knowledge of all the following theoretical subjects:– Elementary mathematics, elementary mechanics, practical plane and descriptive geometry, and freehand drawing, together with the power to use one or more of the following classes of tools:– The axe, the saw and plane, the hammer and chisel, the file, or the forge. The object of Mr. Whitworth in devising the foregoing scheme was, while requiring a practical acquaintance with a few simple tools as a sine quâ non, to render the competition accessible on fairly equal terms to the student who combined some practice with his theory, and to the artisan who combined some theoretical knowledge with perfection of workmanship. As the scholarship scheme could only come into full operation by degrees, Mr. Whitworth proposed, from the fund ultimately available for the scheme, at once to create sixty exhibitions, of the value of £25 each, tenable until April, 1869, and to place them at the absolute disposal of the governing bodies of various educational institutions and towns, in order that they might award them to youths under twenty-five years of age, who might thus be aided to qualify themselves for the competition for the scholarships of £100 in May, 1869. This proposition met with the entire approval of the Committee of the Education Department, and was subsequently carried out. Some of the conditions in connection with the holding of the scholarships were altered in July, 1873. The princely nature of Mr. Whitworth’s gift will be at once apparent when it is borne in mind that a sum amounting to nearly £100,000 must be invested in order to produce the funds necessary for maintaining the scholarships of £3,000 per annum; whilst the benefit thus conferred on the cause of mechanical science is simply incalculable. Not only for a generation, but for ever, are these scholarships intended to exist; and the name of Sir Joseph Whitworth will be held in veneration by grateful students long after the memory of many other equally eminent contemporaries has died away. No donation at all approaching in magnitude to that of Sir Joseph Whitworth’s has ever been made for the furtherance of education in any shape; and it must be a source of profound satisfaction to Sir Joseph to know that he has contrived to raise himself to a position from which he can dispense, with a lavish hand, the means of enabling those who come after him to mount the ladder of fame, of which he, through sheer perseverance and intelligence, has succeeded in gaining the highest rung.

Sir Joseph Whitworth has on many occasions read papers before the various Scientific Societies, and his utterances have ever received the attention due to the words of one who is an acknowledged master of his subject. As a mechanician he stands alone, and for years past has been the standard authority on matters directly or indirectly connected with mechanics. He has devised and carried out inventions and improvements of a nature which has fairly astonished the world; and he has crowned a long and successful career by an act of munificence which will bring him the blessings of posterity. Nothing more need be said of Sir Joseph Whitworth, for even the outline of his career given here will suffice to bring the ready acknowledgment that he is entitled to rank in that third grade to which reference was made in the early portion of this sketch.

Sir Joseph married, first, in 1825, Fanny – who died in 1870 – youngest daughter of Richard Ankers, Esq.; and secondly, in 1871, Mary Louisa, widow of Alfred Orrell, Esq., of the Grove, Cheadle, and the Cottage, Grasmere.


Sir Joseph Whitworth, Bart.