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Sharp Brothers and Co: 1850 Description

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Note: This is a sub-section of Sharp Brothers and Co

c1850. From "Chambers' Edinburgh Journal" of the locomotive engine works of Messrs. Sharp Brothers & Co.:—

The Atlas Works are one of the largest locomotive engine manufactories in the world, and are situated in Oxford street, a short distance from St. Peter's Church. The proper permission being obtained, the visitor is first taken into the erecting room, which is on the ground floor in one of the wings of the building. It is a lofty room, from 150 to 200 feet long, illuminated by a great number of windows. The work benches are ranged along the sides, and the erecting takes place in the side divisions of the room.

The objects which most attracted our attention were several large locomotives, in all stages of development. Here was one of these iron monsters without its chimney; another without its fire-box; another had a man inside it, hammering with all his might; another was having its pistons put in; to another the side plates were being screwed on; another was being set on its legs — wheels we should say; another was being painted, and receiving its christening, the "Fire-King," the "Blazer," and such like; and finally, a crane had taken up another in its strong embrace, drawing it bodily upwards on to a strong carriage; the gates were thrown open, the team put up to the collar, and the wonderful machine sent to do its civilising, space-annulling work in the busy world outside.

Having exhausted the wonders of the erecting room, we were led to another of equal size, but less lofty, over it. The finer portions of the locomotive are here formed. Here we saw whistles, whose unearthly yell startles our green fields, all over the country, both day and night. Here were also different pieces of valve-work, now lying inactive, but soon to take a part in the active duties of engine life, for which they are preparing. Here also were men busy at work turning, grinding, and finishing the numerous stop-cocks requisite for the machine, the nicety of whose workmanship, necessary to endure the enormous pressure to which it is subjected, may well excite admiration.

The centre of this apartment was not occupied by machines, but by different pieces of the mechanism, all completed and piled up with great accuracy. Along the three sides of the room were arranged such an assemblage of vices, tools, &c., as can scarcely be conceived. The moving power to all the machines was obtained from shafts, on which a multitude of pulleys were fixed, placed near the ceiling.

After walking round the room, and inspecting the work in every condition, from the raw metal, if we may use the term, up to the finished mechanism, we were conducted into another apartment, still higher, in the same wing. Here were piles of pistons beautifully smoothed and ground; near them were axles and piston-rods, brass "bushes," massive springs, buffers, union-joints, and a variety of other things "too numerous to mention." The central portion of it was filled with a number of singular machines for drilling while the sides were, as usual, lined with their full complement of fitting apparatus.

Two machines in this room call for special notice. One class of them is the drilling, and the other a most ingenious machine called the "polygon," from its office in cutting the heads of polygon-screws. The drilling-engine is a very different invention from the ordinary lathe, being only fit for drilling small work: circumstances here call for the exercise of far more speed than can be attained in that way. It consists of a tall upright iron frame, at the back and upper part of which are the fast and loose pulleys by which the moving parts are thrown in and out of gear. The fast pulley actuates a set of wheels, which communicate a revolving motion to a spindle placed in a perpendicular manner, a little above an iron table, on which the work to be drilled is placed. At the bottom of this spindle is a socket, into which the drill is fixed. Now, suppose the hole is to be made; by pulling a handle the strap flies on to the fast pulley, and sets all the wheels in motion, and through them the revolving spindle into which the drill has been placed; the piece of metal is laid flat on the iron shelf, and by a handle or a foot-treadle the workman causes the spindle to descend, carrying the drill with it, until it touches the metal to be perforated, and continues puffing the handle, and so more and more depressing the drill, until the hole is made right through. The speed and accuracy with which the operation is effected are admirable, and the exertion to the workman is very trifling.

The "polygon" machine is a little more complicated. Its intention is to cut with perfect accuracy the heads of large screws into a polygonal form, so as to give them both neatness of appearance and a hold for the key, by which they are screwed or unscrewed. By an ingenious arrangement, it can be made to cut any number of faces on the screw-head that may be desired, and it performs its work with the most strict and unerring fidelity. The machines are generally double, so as to cut two screw-heads at one time. The piece of rough metal, being placed in its proper position, is brought by the gradual movements of the machine under the teeth of a rotatory cutter, revolving on a horizontal axis; a little conduit drops soft soap and water to lubricate the parts: both move slowly on until the entire face or side has been cut smooth, and then, by an automatic process, the machine throws itself out of gear, and stops until the attendant turns the head so as to present another side to the cutter, and the process is again repeated.

We now left this wing of the building, and were shewn into another and longer part of the establishment. A small room, partitioned of from the larger one, of which it formed a part, contained another of the beautiful mechanical ingenuities for which this firm has been conspicuous, invented by Mr. Roberts. It is a machine for cutting out cog-wheels. It consisted of a rectangular frame of iron, a central position in which was occupied by a revolving cutting instrument, acting upon a piece of circular iron, which it cut into teeth of a certain depth and size. By means of a regulating scale, on which the numbers of teeth in a wheel were provided for up to a very high pitch, it was easy to cut a cog-wheel of wrought-iron of any kind the attendant desired. Most of the pattern-cogs are cut by this machine, from which castings may be multiplied indefinitely. There were two of these beautiful pieces of mechanism in this room; which, we may mention, but few persons are permitted to enter.

Re-entering the large room, a more confusing scene than any presents itself, in the apparently innumerable shafts and straps which are seen flying with the utmost swiftness in every direction. In addition to the manufacture of different portions of the locomotive machinery which is carried on here, a large number of power-looms are made also, and are to be seen in all stages of progress.

In the turning shop below, several machines may be seen, somewhat on the principle of the "polygon," called "shaping" machines, the object of which is a sort of machine-filing process; and here much time may be profitably spent. A great number of the most powerful and beautiful lathes we have ever beheld were in full work, some at great speed, others at the slower rate, which is necessary in turning heavy pieces of metal. Many of them were self-acting.

In this room also were a number of screw-cutting lathes, capable of cutting screws of every size of thread, from an almost hair-like fineness to the coarsest kinds.

We were now led to a series of stupendous power, such as, we suppose, could scarcely be witnessed elsewhere. At one side, a huge lathe was dealing in a slow, but awful manner, with a rough but helpless customer, in the shape of a great double crank, shaving off its sides as easily as if it were cutting bread and butter, and with a horrid crunching sound! At another, a driving-wheel, perhaps five, or even six, feet in diameter, was being turned, the ground trembling as thick shavings of iron were rent off its massive rim. And another wheel was in the ruthless hands of a giant drilling-machine, which made no sort of difficulty of piercing it through and through the rim for riveting.

The next place we entered was the "grind shop." All down the room, on the ground, is a long line of grindstones, of all sorts, and of many different kinds, some very large, and others of ordinary dimensions; but all revolving with great rapidity. Many of the machines are for polishing brass work, particularly the beautiful brazen cupolas which adorn the top of the locomotive, and which it would be both costly and difficult to polish in the ordinary ways.

The foundry is a separate building, at one end of which is one of the engine-rooms, whose office it is to chive the fan of the wind-furnace, and to do other duties connected with this department. Here a very interesting process may be seen going on — the manufacturer of the massive iron wheels which support and drive the locomotive and its tender. The proper mould being made in the sand, it is found to consist of a large hollow space in the middle, from which a number of radii diverge; and this is all: there is no provision for a rim. The founder then receives from a bystander a number of pieces of wrought iron of the exact shape of the T, only that the top of the T is a section of a curve, and not straight, and the bottom or tail is bifurcated and jagged. He then lays the shank of the T-pieces in the hollow radii, in such a manner that the jagged tails project some way into the hollow centre of the mould, while the tops of the Ts lying nearly in apposition form a sort of broken rim to the wheel. The melted metal is then conveyed and poured. into the central hollow: also as liquid as water, it flows around, and fills it up, covering at the same time the projecting ends of the T-pieces, - which in this simple manner become immovably imbedded in the central boss, rendering the mass of many pieces quite as solid, and far more durable, than if every portion of it had been cast at once in a continuous stream.

In consequence of the expansion of the metal during this process, by the heat of the cast-iron, the tops of the T-pieces are notched at each end on both sides, so as to resemble two horizontal V's. These notches must next be filled up, and the wheel is therefore conveyed to the smithy, where the pieces are welded in, and where we shall overtake it presently.

One of the great "lions" of the Atlas Works is yet to come, the sight of which the stranger will find enough to repay him for the visit : this is the punching and clipping machine room. Here may be seen one of these immensely powerful engines — a tremendous iron guillotine, the descending knife of which deals as coolly with the thickest iron bars as a lady's scissors with a piece of cambric. There is no flinching of the ponderous iron arm which held the knife as it came in contact with the stubborn metal, no retardation of its motion while cutting, and no acceleration when liberated: it majestically arose again ready for another slice! At the time we saw it, it was cutting out the T-pieces for the wheels. The engine was performing perhaps about fifteen strokes a minute. There were two or three similar engines in the building, which cut out the plates for the boilers, the sheets of copper for the fire-box, mid-feather, &c.

The punching machines were similar exhibitions of skill and might, and were constructed on nearly similar general principles. A number of thick plates of sheet iron lay at the side of the building, marked at regular intervals with round white spots in the places proper for the holes. Two or three men guided these under the descending punch, fixed in the huge head of a colossal lever: the punch comes down, and, with as much facility as we should poke our fingers through a piece of blotting-paper, thrusts itself through the strong metallic sheet.

The planing-room was the next object of our attention. Some magnificent self-acting iron planing machines were here at work. One of them was about five or six feet broad, and probably twenty feet long. A large piece of metal is placed on the horizontal bed of these machines, the cutting tool is then drawn by the action of machinery across its surface, removing whatever thickness of metal is considered advisable. When it has cut down the length of the piece, the cutting. tool is lifted up, and the whole dragged rapidly back, when the tool falls into its place again, and again removes, in long ribbons of great thickness and burning heat, a fresh portion of the metal. When once set in motion, it continues in action, without requiring more than occasional attention, until the whole face exposed to the energies of the tool is planed.

In the same place also may be witnessed the formation of that massive and prime-moving portion of the locomotive — the double crank. It will surprise many of our readers to learn that this admirable piece of mechanism is forged in one solid piece, looking like a great rod, with a couple of square lumps of iron set on it in different relative positions. This unwieldy mass is taken, centred, and turned, the square lumps being left untouched. It is then taken to yet another iron colossus, called a "crank cutting engine;" it is placed upon a flat bed, and the square lumps being placed under a powerful revolving cutter, urged by machinery, and slicing out great lumps of metal, they at length assume the elbowed appearance proper to a crank, return again to the lathes, and afterwards are finished. In the same place, the cylinders of the steam-engines are turned, and bored perfectly true and smooth in the inside.

The visitor now crosses the road to that part of these immense premises where the tenders are made, for this is a distinct branch from the locomotive department. They were in a large building, in a variety of different conditions — some more, and some less advanced; and numbers of workmen were busy riveting, screwing, and fitting their parts together, and in various other ways finishing them off, down to the last coat of varnish with which the green backs and sides of some were being made to shine. To this succeeded the smithy, and here are to be found the wheels just brought over from the foundry. The tyre of the wheel having been formed out of a piece of iron, which is bent into a circular form around a circular iron table, is heated red-hot, and is then fastened on to the wheel. Holes are then drilled through the rim, and, by means of red-hot bolts the loose tyre is firmly fixed to the other, so as not to be disturbed by any future amount of work.

The last thing that is shown is the "trying-place," where, when the locomotive is completed, the steam is got up; and its driving-wheels, resting upon a couple of loose pulleys, communicate no motion to the machine, so that the mechanism has free play, and any imperfection can be properly corrected before it leaves the establishment.

Such is a brief description of the wonders of this immense place; and there are few places of greater interest in Manchester, or that are more worthy of a visit. Of mechanics, properly and specially so called, Messrs. Sharp and Co. employ about four hundred, and of workmen, of all classes (mechanics included), very nearly a thousand. The average earnings of the mechanics are about thirty shillings per week, and the average earnings of the thousand workpeople, of all classes, are about twenty-five shillings per week. There are a few instances of weekly earnings reaching sixty shillings per week, but these are quite exceptions.

The average number of locomotive engines launched from this immense establishment is, when the demand is brisk, about six in each month, although a greater number than this has been executed when foreign orders have poured in. The price of an engine and tender, furnished from these works, ranges from £2,000 to £2,500.

The manufactory is exceedingly well governed. The rules, though stringent, are framed for the real benefit of the men employed, and are, generally speaking, implicitly obeyed. This is a practice, which, though followed in other manufactories, deserves to be yet more extensively imitated. One circumstance must be particularly remarked, since it harmonises much with a wide spreading feeling in which we share — that is, that no money is allowed to be taken by the men who are commissioned to show the wonders of the place. As such money is invariably held sacred to the beer shop, it has been rightly prohibited; and notices to visitors are placed in different parts of the works, entreating them, if they feel disposed to make a present of money, to devote it to the sick-fund, the box of which is kept in the office; the result is, that you are politely and civilly treated, without any money-hunting servility, by your working companion, and. that the sick-fund is largely assisted by this resource.

See Also


Sources of Information

  • 1853 Directory of Manchester and Salford Page xxxv