|Joseph Whitworth : Lives Which Hung by a Thread*
|One of a series of articles published
in "Reflections" more than a decade ago
Recently, it was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Sir Joseph
Whitworth of Darley Dale, near Matlock. Most will remember him for
his development of the standardised Whitworth thread and for his local
philanthropy. What is less known, however, is his work on the development
of armaments and, in particular, the rifle implicated in many of the
600,000 lives lost in the American Civil War. It was known as the
Whitworth sharpshooter. Lawton Slaney
The Whitworth designed cannon which could fire a shell over 6 miles.
Sir Joseph Whitworth's early life and rise to ultimate fame and honour
is well enough documented. The local reader will know that he
was born in Manchester,
and ended his life with a name and fame almost synonymous with the
village of Darley Dale, near Matlock,
where he was buried in 1887 after his death in Monaco.
This prolific inventor designed not only most of the revolutionary
machinery which fathered the Industrial Revolution, but was
responsible for the techniques of standardisation which produced
astonishingly accurate machinery, even by today's standards.
At the Great Exhibition of 1851 Whitworth exhibited no less
than twenty-three inventions, for which he won more
awards than anyone else at this show. It was seen by more than
six million people.
Until standardisation appeared, every machine was a one-off.
If something broke, a replacement had to be manufactured to
fit; but mass production of spare parts such as nuts, bolts,
washers and so on meant that substitutes were immediately available...
and most importantly, were interchangeable. Joseph Whitworth's
contribution to this rationalisation earned him the title 'the
father of modern production engineering.' Without him, the
Industrial Revolution could easily have petered out. With him,
mass production took off.
From industrial knitting machines and horse-drawn
combine harvesters to a whole range of armaments, Whitworth's genius,
allied to his passion for accuracy and capacity for limitless hard
work, paid dividends. The many tools produced at this time, in the
middle of the nineteenth century, were, however, to have a far-reaching
effect on the very lives and deaths of countless thousands of people.
Whitworth and weapons of individual destruction
Whitworth's all-embracing interest turned to armaments at the time
of the Crimean War in the mid-1850s. He saw room for improvement
in everything, including guns, and he began making suggestions
to the Government for the mass-production of these weapons.
Finding fault everywhere, he produced a rifle that was more
efficient than the then-standard Enfield; so in 1854 Whitworth
redesigned the bullets to fit an hexagonal barrel, and it was
found that accuracy was doubled as a result (Rifling, designed
to spin the bullet as it left the muzzle, was originally used
in Austria as far back as 1520).
The Whitworth rifle was tested by the National Rifle Association,
who rejected it because they judged the bore, at 0.45 calibre, to
be too small, compared with the current standard 0.577. This was in
spite of the fact that the Whitworth rifle had a barrel length of
only 20", whereas the Enfield was 78". Whitworth, incensed
at this move in the wrong direction, moved house to Pall Mall so that
he could live directly opposite his enemy, the War Office.
By 1859 Whitworth was growing rich, and was able to afford extensive
testing of his rifle. He conducted a hair-raising and elaborate series
of tests in which the muzzle end of a rifle was blocked with an 18"-length
of lead, rammed home hard. The gun was then fired to see if the breech
end of the gun would burst. This experiment was repeated with increasing
loads of gunpowder, with the same result. Not only was the Whitworth
rifle more accurate... it had treble the power of penetration.
The new technique had fathered yet another of Whitworth's inventions:
he invented a process for making a much stronger 'fluid compressed'
steel from which to make his rifles, steel which ensured that his
guns were unburstable.
New rifles changed the way wars were fought
These improvements changed the face of war, because a defending army
couldn't now get close to the enemy, shelter behind sandbags, and
then charge whilst the opposing troops were reloading: the new rifles
penetrated protective barricades with the ease of a knife through
butter. But the new design was found to be prone to fouling and, as
a result, was rejected by the British government. It was, however,
adopted by the French Army, and found its way across the Atlantic
to where the American Civil War had erupted in 1861.
The Civil War rifled musket was able to kill at a range of over half
a mile, thus making a direct frontal assault a suicidal affair. The
accurate fire of these new rifles spelt disaster for troops of both
sides. On one occasion 26,000 men died in a day's fighting. The
Confederate States found devious ways of evading the blockade imposed
by the Unionists, and bought the English rifle in large quantities.
It was known here as the Whitworth Sharpshooter.
Queen Victoria opened the first meeting of the British Rifle Association
in 1860 by firing a Whitworth Sharpshooter and scoring a bullseye
at 400 yards. It's worth noting that this was
in no way a demonstration of royal prowess on the range: a mechanical
rest had been set up for Her Majesty, and tested by expert marksmen
before she was allowed to squeeze the trigger.
In 1855 Whitworth also designed a large 2.75-inch-bore rifled cannon
which hurled a 121b 11oz shell over a distance of six miles. This
was also used in the Civil War, but was again rejected by the British
A depressing contradiction
Whitworth was created a baronet in 1869, and in 1870 he and his
second wife Mary moved to Stancliffe Hall in Darley Dale, where
they settled down to a less frantic way of life. By this time,
Sir Joseph's years as an inspired mechanical engineer were about
to come to an end. He directed his attention to extracting stone
from his quarries at Stancliffe, but settled into philanthropic
local activities, and died in January 1887.
A century-and-a-half later we can still buy sets of tools known as
'Whitworth' spanners, taps and dies. Looking back, however, over Joseph
Whitworth's non-martial achievements in the earlier part of his life,
together with the extraordinary fruitfulness of his contributions
to making man's life easier and more comfortable, it seems a sad contradiction
that he spent around twenty years perfecting a very efficient means
of slaughtering his fellow human beings.
[One image not included]
*This is a copy of an article published in "Reflections"
in May 2004, Vol. 13 Issue 148, pp.18-21.
"Reflections" is Derbyshire's largest-circulation
targeted lifestyle magazine, serving Dronfield, Chesterfield, Matlock
and Bakewell areas.
The article is reproduced here with the very kind permission and written
consent of the author, Lawton Slaney, and Bannister Publications
The above magazine article has aroused a great deal of comment and interest.
Someone who is well informed about 19th century firearms
and owns a Whitworth Rifle has supplied the following information
and a photograph of the rifle to replace the picture originally
he does not wish to be named, the contribution published below
adds enormously to the above. The
webmistress is extremely grateful for this help.
Sir Joseph Whitworth
Whitworth rose from obscurity to become the most revered machine
toolmaker and engineer of the mid-nineteenth century. By the 1820s
he was an expert on cotton mill machinery, then moved to London
in 1825 to work for Maudslay, the Holtzapffels and Joseph Clement,
respectively. He returned to Manchester in 1833 where his firm
made machine tools, steam engines, textile machinery and road-sweeping
Whitworth's major contributions were pioneering precise measurement;
establishing a national standard screw thread; manufacturing superior
small arms and the 'Whitworth' rifle; and furthering the cause
of technical education and the training of engineering students.
Upon his death his estate of nearly half a million pounds was distributed
to educational and charitable institutions.
The Whitworth Rifle
In May 1854 Viscount Hardinge, Master General of Ordinance, sought
the aid of Whitworth, the pre-eminent mechanical engineer of the
day, in perfecting machinery for the production of rifles. Whitworth
considered it inconsistent with his reputation to make machinery
in order to mass-produce inferior articles. He instead persuaded
Hardinge that the design factors influencing accuracy and effectiveness
of rifles should first be considered. He offered to conduct experiments
to determine these factors at no expense for his time and attention.
In order to facilitate these experiments, an enclosed gallery
500 yards long was erected in the grounds attached to Whitworth's
residence near Manchester. It was provided with a target on wheels
for shooting at different distances, rests for steadying the aim
and screens to record the flight of the projectiles. Two constraints
were imposed on Whitworth by the military in accordance with their
misguided understanding of what was effective and practical for
the soldier, a minimum bullet weight and maximum powder charge.
Experiments commenced in March 1855 by which time Whitworth had
settled on the hexagonal form of rifling. Different bullet forms
and rates of rifling twist were tried and a 530 grain mechanically
fitting, hardened lead bullet fired from a barrel of approximately
.451 inch bore with a rifling twist of one turn in twenty inches
was found to be best.
In April 1857 when tested against the .577 Enfield Rifle, this
being the service rifle of the day, the Whitworth Rifle was found
to be three times more accurate at 500 yards and even more accurate
at longer distances. Bullets fired from the Whitworth rifle were
found to penetrate materials to many times the depth of those fired
from the Enfield Rifle.
From 1860 the National Rifle Association held annual rifle competitions
at which the Whitworth Rifle was dominant for several years.
Due to a number of difficulties in mass-producing a serviceable
military Whitworth Rifle at a suitably low price it was never adopted
for general military issue. It was, however, the rifle of choice
for a limited number of sharp shooters during the American Civil
War. It was also the rifle of choice of target shooters for many
Additional notes on the above, researched by the web mistress
apart from note 1:
 Scott Ashton has provided the following:
An example of the
Whitworth cannon can also be found at:
War Artillery web site - Whitworth cannon (this
will open in a new window)
how you can see that this is a breech-loader, something that Joseph
Whitworth was famous for, as all other civil war cannons were muzzle-loaders.
 Joseph Whitworth was born in Stockport
on 21 Dec 1803 and baptised at Orchard Street or
Churchgate Independent on 8 Feb 1804. He was the
son of Charles and Sarah Whitworth and his father was a schoolmaster.
Charles Whitworth was also a "Dissenter" and became a
Congregational Minister. Joseph was taught by his father
at first but then became a pupil at William Vint's Academy in Idle,
Census references to Whitworth show him living
at 62 Upper Brook Street in Chorlton Upon Medlock in 1841 (HO107/580/9
f12 p17). He was visiting the Penn family in North Row,
Lewisham in 1851 (HO107/1591 f371 p26 s113). In 1861 he was at
Stancliffe Hall which he had bought in 1856 and in 1871 he was
at The Firs, Rusholme, his Manchester home which was also near
 Sir Joseph Whitworth, who died
at Monte Carlo on 22 Jan 1887, was buried at St.
Helen's, Darley Dale, Derbyshire on 2 Feb 1887, aged 83. His
second wife, Mary Louisa (formerly Orrell), was buried there on
30 May 1896, aged 68.
 Kilburn, Terence (1987) "Joseph
Whitworth, Toolmaker", Scarthin Books, Cromford, ISBN
0 907758 22 3 has a slightly different version of the Whitworth
Rifle. Kilburn's book was the first modern popular biography of
him. The foreword was written by A. E. Derbyshire, the then Chairman
of the Whitworth Trust.
More on site
information about Darley and the surrounding area. The parish was a beneficiary of
Sir Joseph Whitworth's estate, although some of the information pre-dates
1891 Directory, Darley
Manuscripts, Derbyshire for more information about Derbyshire
deeds, pedigrees, documents and wills.
The Andrews Pages Picture Gallery (in another part of the site):
Helen's Church, Darley | Darley
Dale War Memorials | Darley
Dale : The Whitworth Hospital | Darley
Dale, The Whitworth Institute.
Lantern Slide of St. Helens (this will open in a new window)
Whitworth Society (this will open in a new window)