Tuesday, December 13, 2005

The Origins of the Numbered Books of Machines

The odd books by Hiscox and Brown have a storied past. As can be seen below, they have their origins in earlier manuscripts and in the Theatrum Machinarum. They also have a very specific etiology that can be traced from the time of Boulton and Watt.

Jean Nicolas Pierre Hanchette (1769-1834) may have been the earliest inspiration for the works. He was working for Gaspard Monge--the creator of descriptive geometry and all around interesting fellow--when Monge received the call from Napoleon to join the Egypt expedition.

Ferguson recounts Hanhette's experience:

"Being left in charge," wrote Hanchette, "I prepared the course of which Monge had given only the first idea, and I pursued the study of machines in order to analyze and classify them, and to relate geometrical and mechanical principles to their construction." (cited in Ferguson, pg. 210) His classification of machines may have been influenced by Christopher Polhem's "mechanical alphabet" of mechanical models which was built early in the 18th century (20 out of Polhem's approximately 80 models survive and are housed in Sweden's Tekniska Museet).

Hanchette's course wasn't introduced until 1806 and his textbook wasn't published until 1811. However, his general ideas and--most importantly--a chart of the various machine components that he identified were presented to the classes and grew in popularity.

His basic taxonomy of machines identified machine components by the way they converted one type of motion into another i.e., circular into alternating rectilinear. Just as Mendeleev's Periodic Table indicated gaps in the chemist's knowledge of elements, Hanchette's classification begged for additions. They were provided by Lanz and Betancourt, Spanish scholars studying at the Ecole Polytechnique.

The story of machines now bifurcates. There was the academic route pursued by Willis and Reuleux and there was the route taken by technicians. As Ferguson notes:

"It is immediately evident to a designer that the progress in mechanisms came about through the spread of knowledge of what had already been done; but designers of the last century had neither the leisure nor means to be constantly visiting other workshops, near and far, to observe and study the latest developments. In the 1800s, as now, word must in the main be spread by the printed page." (Ferguson, pg. 216)

Hanchette's work served as one vector of dissemination. His textbook was used at Westpoint Academy. It also gained popularity in the epoch of the Lyceum and Mechanics Institutes. Jacob Bigelow, for example, was a Harvard University professor who gave popular lectures on mechanics where Lanz, Betancourt, and Hanchette were used as authorities.

The work of Lanz and Betancourt was translated into English around 1820 with the title Analytical Essay on the Construction of Machines for Rudolph Ackermann. Their chart was also reprinted in Fenwick's Essays on Practical Machines (3rd ed.) of 1822. An American reprint was Appleton's Dictionary of Machines, Mechanics, Engine-Work, and Engineering (1851) where each plate was a direct trace (i.e., mirror image) of the original plates. The figures also appeared in Spon's Dictionary of Engineering (1873) and in Knight's American Mechanical Dictionary (1874-76), even if the synoptic charts were omitted. The continued relevance of these works shouldn't be downplayed. A reprint of Knight's work is still available!

These works were the indirect ancestors of the numbered books of machines. Their parent was--surprisingly enough--Scientific American. Originally published in 1845 as a patent journal, it carried a column called "Mechanical Movements." The depicted devices were almost always drawn from the works of Knight, Fenwick, Appleton, or Spon. A competing journal called American Artisan ran a similar series starting in 1864 and published a compilation in 1868: Brown's Five Hundred and Seven Mechanical Movements. This work was continuously published until 1943, when A Manual of Mechanical Movements featured photographs of the kinematic models.

The origins of Hiscox's work is a bit more elusive. While similar in form to Brown's collection, it differs in that it profiles a far more diverse range of devices. True to form with the earlier theatrum machinarum, Hiscox provides descriptions of mechanical devices, scientific instruments, and drawing tools. He even provides an entire section devoted to perpetual motion contraptions.

In the preface to 1800 Mechanical Movements, Hiscox captures what may be the driving sentiment of all authors of mechanical works:

"The field of illustrated mechanics seems almost unlimited, and with the present effort the author has endeavored partially to fill a void and thus to help the inquirer in ideal and practical mechanics, in the true line of research.

"Mechanical details can best be presented to the mind by diagrams or illustrated forms, and this has been generally acknowledged to be the quickest and most satisfactory method of conveying the exact conditions of mechanical action and construction.

"Pictures convey to the inquiring mind by instantaneous comparison what detailed description by its successive presentation of ideas and relational facts fail to do; hence a work that appeals directly to the eye with illustrations and short attached descriptions, it is hoped, will become the means of an acceptable form of mechanical education that appeals to modern wants for the encouragement of inventive thought, through the study of illustrations and descriptions of the leading known principles and facts in constructive art."

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