Lathes had many purposes in both small workshops and large factories. They were created to be utilized in a workplace that could not afford to have specific machines used only for one part of the product.1 Depending on its type, lathes created metal screws as well as wooden stocks for rifles and carbines. Lathes also varied in sizes depending on what needed to be made and on what scale.

Small workshop owner Thomas Blanchard's 1818 lathe was created for turning gunstocks, and that machine was later installed at the Springfield Armory to be used for over 50 years. His lathe operated following a master gunstock to promote uniformity between models, and this type of lathe would be the model for copying and profiling turning lathes. Later, some of Blanchard's models of gun-stocking lathes were produced by the Ames Manufacturing Co., which also produced swords during the Civil War.

Similar to Howe’s Milling Machine, the creation of the world's first turret lathe, invented by Stephen Fitch in 1845, was driven by the order to create "the vast number of screws required for the percussion locks of a government contract for 30,000 pistols."
3 According to Engineer-Historian L.T.C. Rolt, "Fitch's long cylindrical turret revolved on a horizontal axis and carried eight 




A team effort through knowledge sharing

The turret lathe had a "tool turret ... and an indexable square tool post on the cross-slide.”5 That slide allowed the tool post more flexibility in its movements providing for a better manufacturing process. Due to improved features, turret lathes could perform eight operations, one after the other, and the operator did not need to stop to switch machine tools.


Elisha Root, the co-inventor of the Lincoln Miller, and J.D. Alvord introduced horizontal-axis turret lathes to the Colt and Sharpe Armories.b Around the same time, both Henry Stone and Richard Lawrence worked to make Robbins & Lawrence's first turret lathe, one with a vertical axis. Robbins & Lawrence's Frederick Howe has been credited with creating the vertical axis turret lathe that became universal. Howe's previous employer, machine tool company Gay & Silver, most likely influenced his designs .4

One inventor did not simply create each lathe. Lathes were a collaborative effort and a shining example of the capability of the machine tool industry shaped by the American System of Manufacturing. Several machinists, who saw how the machine could be improved, built upon existing knowledge to create a new model. Those inventor machinists then patented their improvements. Warren Alderich’s 1953 Patent offered improvements on the lathe through combining existing knowledge derived from self-acting lathes. In Patent 9616, the tool carriage that held the tool to shape the work moved back and forth on the center of the lathe as well as moved at right angles and could be run by hand or by the lathe’s gears. Two years later Alderich patented (pat. no. 12,662) a turning lathe that combined several key parts and simplified the lathe to create a more efficient process.

Howe and Root’s Tool Carriage
Inventors E. K. Root and Frederick Howe and their advancements to the mobility of tool carriages offer more examples of the evolution of lathe technology during the mid 1800s. In 1853, Howe patented (number 9797) a  modified chain and tool carriage so that the chain ran endlessly, unattached to the tool carriage, allowing the carriage to move in any direction while the chain continued to revolve. That replaced the limited forward and then reverse movement of the tool carriage due to the attachment of the chain. According to Howe, some of the advantages of his improvement were "simplicity, durability, and the convenience with which it can be used in lathes of any length and size" (pat. no. 9797).

In 1855 (patent number 12,874), E. K. Root's addition to the turning lathe allowed the tool to cut at many different angles and with varying depth. That was achieved, in part, by allowing the tool post to slide to and away from the mandrel, or the lathe part holding the work. According to his 1855 patent (No. 12,708), Henry Stone contributed to turning lathes through inventing drills that create holes simultaneously and operate independent from the turning lathe. Root also patented a lathe fastening used to secure two parts of a lathe (no. 47,867; patented May 1865).

Alderich, Howe, Stone, and Root's attribution to the machine tool industry and, in particular, lathes demonstrates how the advancements in machine tools were established: through the inspiration of needed advancements, in particular those to fulfill government contracts. Collaboration was key to the creation of lathes as well as other advancements that promoted easier manufacturing of new or improved arms. That high level collaboration was, in part, driven by the networking available through the arms industry model set in place by the American System of Manufacturing.

a Capstan is the British term for the ram-type lathe. That machine has the turret attached to the main carriage of the lathe.4
b Horizontal lathes have a horizontal bed. Engine lathes in the Civil War Era are horizontal lathes.

1 Robert S. Woodbury, History of the Lathe to 1850: a Study in the Growth of a Technical Element of an Industrial Economy (Cleveland: Society for the History of Technology, 1961), 97.

2 L. T. C.  Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools (Cambridge, Massachusetts: M. I. T. Press, 1965), 163.
3 L. T. C.  Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 164-165.
4 L. T. C.  Rolt, A Short History of Machine Tools, 165.
5 B.L. Juneja and G.S. Sekhon, Fundamentals Of Metal Cutting And Machine Tools (New York: Wiley, 1987), 10.


Above: This turret lathe has "1861" casted into its legs. The machine may be the oldest turret lathe in the world.



Left: Close-up of the turret lathe's head. Notice the different cutting tools.


This large engine lathe dates from around 1868, but its design is from the 1850s. Engine lathes similar to this one would have been used during the Civil War Era.

(The date was casted into the legs.) Possibly one of the oldest turret lathes in the world.

tools mounted on spindles each of which could be advanced as required, the operative one being the uppermost. A three-armed capstan[a] advanced the turret carriage and applied the feed."4 The spindles were held by the turret and were arranged so that the tools on their ends were placed in a circle and the length of the spindle was horizontal, or parallel to the floor. When one tool was being used, it appeared at the highest position in the circle, and its spindle was farthest from the ground.


Tool Turret 

Also known as a turret head; the piece of a lathe that holds the tools in a way that when rotated a tool is ready to use on the work.


The piece of metal or wood that is molded into a machine part or carbine part