Chapter 1 – History of Machinery

Chapter 1 – History of Machinery

Machines make our lives easier, faster, simpler and more convenient. 

What are machines? Human beings have been using tools since the start of time. Some may say that tools are a defining element in the development of humans, however, there are other animals and even birds which use tools. What distinguishes humans from these animals is the fact that humans manufacture and use machines. Machines are essentially complex tools, comprising multiple elements or parts to make a tool which is capable of doing more than can be achieved with a simple tool. Consider a jack hammer compared to a hand-held hammer and chisel. It is possible to dig more earth, faster and more efficiently with a jack hammer. 

The development of tools resulted in the speeding up of the development of the human race. Machine tools can be traced back to ancient times, when humans used simple tools, such as hammers, chisels, and lathes, to create objects from raw materials. The first recorded use of a machine tool was by the Egyptians, who used a bow drill to bore holes in wood and stone around 3000 BC. The ancient Greeks and Romans also developed various machine tools, such as the screw-cutting lathe, the water mill, and the hydraulic press. (i)

The Industrial Revolution, which spanned from the late 18th century to the early 19th century, was a period of rapid technological and social change that transformed the production of goods and services. Machine tools played a crucial role in this transformation, as they enabled the mass production of standardised and interchangeable parts, such as screws, nails, gears, and cylinders. Some of the most influential machine tools invented during this era were the steam engine, the power loom, the spinning jenny, the milling machine, and the metal planer. (ii)

Machine tools continued to evolve and improve in the 20th and 21st centuries, as new sources of power, materials, and control systems were introduced. Some of the most significant developments were the electric motor, the computer numerical control (CNC), the laser, the plasma cutter, and the additive manufacturing (AM) or 3D printing. These innovations enabled machine tools to perform faster, more accurately, more complexly, and more efficiently than ever before. (iii)

It is interesting to note that many of these items mentioned as significant developments form the basis of the modern signage industry. We will address the Signage Industry in a later chapter of this course.

The precursor to the computer was the calculator developed by British inventor Charles Babbage. Although this early invention was plagued with errors, it was the first step in the creation of machines which do the ‘thinking’ work of humans.  Babbage’s invention was improved by Swedish inventor and printer Georg Scheutz, with his son Edvard, in 1834. Though it was mechanically temperamental, and a more modest scale than Babbage’s version, their calculating engine successfully produced the first mathematical tables calculated and printed by machine.

The word robot wouldn’t appear until 1920, when Czech writer Karel Čapek coined the word in his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots). Derived from the Czech word robota, meaning “forced labour” or “drudgery,” he used it to describe a manufactured humanoid workforce. Decades before Čapek, however, the possibilities of mechanisation and steam power were already inspiring mechanical beings in fiction. Steam-powered mechanical men began appearing in inexpensively-produced adventure stories in the late 1860’s. The popular tales featured the heroic exploits of an inventor and his fantastic creations. (iv)

The Machine Age is an era that includes the early-to-mid 20th century, sometimes also including the late 19th century. An approximate dating would be about 1880 to 1945. Considered to be at its peak in the time between the first and second world wars, the Machine Age overlaps with the late part of the Second Industrial Revolution (which ended around 1914 at the start of World War I) and continues beyond it until 1945 at the end of World War II. The 1940’s saw the beginning of the Atomic Age, where modern physics saw new applications such as the atomic bomb, the first computers, and the transistor. The Digital Revolution ended the intellectual model of the machine age founded in the mechanical and heralding a new more complex model of high technology. The Digital Era has been called the Second Machine Age, with its increased focus on machines that do mental tasks. (v)

The Digital Age has brought about the creation of true robotics where machines are not only used to handle difficult, calculation intensive tasks, but also to do many tasks automatically and generally without the need for supervision. Not only this, but they usually do them better, faster and more efficiently than they could be done by human beings. Think of automatic welding machines in a car manufacturing plant. The work is tedious, laborious, time consuming and physically fatiguing. Robots can do the same process over and over without tiring and requiring only minimal downtime for maintenance and servicing.

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