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Saturday 6 October 2012


I wrote earlier about my 3x great uncle Thomas’s contribution to the career of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, of whom he was a lifelong friend and colleague. Thomas Guppy was closely associated with Brunel’s work on the Great Western Railway and the Great Western Steamship Company, which he backed not only financially but also professionally. For Thomas too was an innovative civil engineer.

He was driven from an early age towards the profession, not least by inventor parents Samuel and Sarah Guppy. They of course encouraged him, but others did not. At the age of eighteen and anxious to learn from the best, he presented himself for apprencticeship to none other than Henry Maudslay, the founding father of machine tooling, one of the great and relatively unsung heroes of the industrial revolution.

Henry Maudslay’s orginal screw-cutting lathe of 1797,
 now in London’s Science Museum

Without getting too technical, Maudslay’s work in improving machine tools such as lathes, presses and screw cutters quite simply made accurate mass production possible. Mass production reduced cost, and standardised components. For the first time components could be made in different factories to the same specifications, and assembled elsewhere. Before Maudslay, for example, any bolt had to be made along with its nut, because there was no guarantee that any other nut would fit it: if either item failed, you had to replace both. Without interchangeability and mass production, there would have been no industrial revolution.

Maudslay himself had been apprenticed at age eighteen to Joseph Bramah, the inventor of the hydraulic press. But in 1815 when Guppy came to him he seems to have forgotten the value of his own early training. Britain was no longer at war with France or anyone else, and large government engineering contracts had dried up. Maudslay, pessimistic for the future of his trade, showed Thomas his empty factory floor, the tools and machines idle and rusting. “All my earnings,” he complained, have been spent … in the extension of my works, and now I am about to be ruined. Go, and be any trade rather than that of an engineer.”

Plaque on Thomas Richard Guppy’s home on Berkeley Square, Bristol
(photo by Leo Reynolds)

Uncle Thomas travelled instead, first to America (where he unsuccessfully proposed a system for lighting New York City by gas); then to Europe (where he studied architecture and technical drawing at Leipzig, Dresden, Munich and Paris). Back in Britain in 1826 he and his brother took over the Friars Sugar Refinery in Bristol. But when Isambard Kingdom Brunel came to the city in 1830 to design the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Thomas‘s enthusiasm for his original calling returned. He ran away with the engineering circus, forming the Great Western Railway with Isambard and working alongside him for the next 29 years.

Despite Maudslay’s pessimistic outlook in 1815, that year had seen the first fruits of his move into the production of marine steam engines, when a 17 h.p. model built by his firm Maudslay & Field was installed in a Thames steamer called the Richmond. A Maudslay & Field engine powered H.M.S. Lightning, the first steamship commissioned by the Royal Navy in 1823. And in 1837, six years after his death, it was to Maudslay, Sons and Field that Guppy and Brunel turned when they wanted the best engines available for their world-shrinking transatlantic project, the S.S. Great Western. No hard feelings from Thomas Guppy then, for that earlier discouragement!

Henry Maudslay (1771-1831), pessimistic pioneer of the machine age
(lithograph by Charles Etienne Pierre Motte after Henri Grevedon)


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