Metal Shapers

by Kay Fisher

The History of Shapers1 Part 1

1The History Channel "Modern Marvels Series"

People invented machine tools for their own private use to make some specific product, never intending to sell them. Early machinists were geographically concentrated together. As they visited each other's shops, they saw and borrowed ideas. There was little respect for patents, and laws that protected machine tools were hard to enforce.

John Wilkinson invented the boring machine in 1775 to bore cannons. Weapons were often the first use for machine tools. Henry Maudsley, as apprentice to a lock maker, was inspired by early wooden lathes and invented the first metal lathe in 1797 to cut screws.

At one time, planners and shapers were some of the most important machine tools. Planners and Shapers can be compared to carpenters planes, only they are used to smooth and cut flat metal surfaces instead of wood surfaces. With planners the work moves under the tool. With shapers the tool moves over the work.

A one-time country butler turned machinist named James Fox is credited with building the first metal planner in 1814. James Nasmyth was an Englishman who worked for Henry Maudsley and specialized in making paddle wheels for steamboats (parts that were too large to move under a planner). In 1838 he invented a shaper – only then he called it a “steam ram” (he also invented the steam hammer). As an aside in 1891 James Naismith (different spelling) invented basketball.

Shapers and Planners played a critical role in creating new machine tools - like the milling machine. Credit for the milling machine is usually given to Eli Whitney. He built the first milling machine to help him fulfill a government contract calling for him to manufacture 10,000 muskets in a record breaking 2 years.

Some say he borrowed his design from another gun manufacture named John Hall. Government contracts said, “Any machine tools used in gun manufacture could be copied by others so long as they were used to make more guns.” In 1837 James Nasmyth (the same inventor of the shaper) patented the first machine grinder.

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