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Thomas Blanchard
(24 Jun 1788 - 16 Apr 1864)

American inventor who made major contributions to the development of machine tools.


Thomas Blanchard.

From Eminent Engineers: Brief Biographies of Thirty-Two of the Inventors and Engineers Who Did Most to Further Mechanical Progress (1906)

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Thomas Blanchard.
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[p.71] Thomas Blanchard started out in life under very discouraging circumstances. His father was a New England farmer, of Huguenot descent, who added to his income by doing blacksmith work for his neighbors.

Thomas was born in 1788, at Sutton, Mass., the fifth of six sons. As a boy he was far from promising, stuttering badly, and counted by some to be half-foolish. He took little interest in farming or study, and spent his time whittling shingles, making windmills and miniature water wheels. As he grew older he became interested in iron work, and as his father refused him the use of his forge, he saved up all the charcoal he could gather and hid it behind a wall. Then he built a rude forge and used an old wedge driven into a log for an anvil, waited until his parents were absent and tried his hand at working iron.

At thirteen he heard of an apple-paring machine, and after patient experimenting and repeated trials succeeded in making a machine that would pare more apples than a dozen girls at the winter “bees.”

This success deepened his inventive interest and made him of less use on the farm, so when eighteen his father sent him to work for an elder brother who made tacks in the neighboring town of West Millbury. Here he was put at the monotonous task of heading the tacks by hand. The points were first cut from strips, and then had to be [p.72] picked up by the thumb and finger, gripped in a vise, and headed by a blow. He was given a certain number to be made each day. One of the first things he made here was a counting machine that would ring a bell when the required number was complete. His brother forbade him spending any time in these idle projects, but his inventive genius could not be suppressed. He began to consider a machine to cut and head the tacks at one operation. The idea came to him long before he had the skill or means to construct. For six long years he worked at the idea, expending everything he could earn to buy materials, throwing away the old as new improvements suggested themselves, carrying the models about with him from place to place, persisting in spite of every discouragement. He became so poor that his own brother refused to trust him for groceries, even when his family was actually suffering.

At last it was a success; it made much better tacks than could be made by hand, at the rate of five hundred a minute. It was sold for $5,000, which placed Blanchard in comfortable circumstances. The tacks were all sold, for some years at least to one house, who kept the source of supply secret and realized handsomely on the sales.

At this time the attempt was being made by the Government to manufacture its muskets in this country; one of the shops making the attempt was located at Millbury. The barrels had been made by hand, but the process had been so far improved that the straight part of the barrel was then being turned in a lathe. There was an irregular enlargement at the butt where it was joined to the stock that still had to be finished by hand at considerable expense. Blanchard’s inventive powers becoming recognized, he was sent for and asked if he could get up a machine that would do this. He looked the machine over [p.73] carefully and then, beginning a low monotonous whistle at the same time swinging one foot, he relapsed into deep thought. It was not long before he suggested the addition of a certain cam motion to the lathe that would permit turning the cylindrical part and the oval end at the same operation.

The knowledge of this coming to the attention of the Government, he was sent for to introduce it at the Springfield Armory. While the workmen were gathered around to witness its operations, one said to another, “Well, John, he has spoiled your job.” Still another exclaimed that “he could not spoil his, for he could not turn a gun stock.” Blanchard overhearing the remark answered “I am not so sure of that, but I will think of it a while.” On his way home soon after, the whole principle for turning irregular forms came to him. In a short time Blanchard had built a wooden model of his idea, and, sure enough, it turned a miniature gun stock with perfect accuracy.

The principle is this: A pattern and block to be turned are fitted on a common shaft, that is so hung in a frame that it is adapted to vibrate toward or away from a second shaft that carries a guide wheel opposite and pressing against the pattern, and a revolving cutter wheel of the same diameter opposite the block to be turned. During the revolution of the pattern the block is brought near to or away from the cutting wheel, reproducing exactly the form of the pattern.

The beauty of the invention is that by varying the relative sizes of the guide wheel and cutting wheel, any variation in size relative to the model can be secured, and by reversing the transverse motion of the cutting wheel, a perfect right and left can be made from the same pattern. Then by varying the transverse speed of the cutting [p.74] wheel in relation to the guide wheel, the object is made either longer or shorter than the model.

Blanchard immediately secured a patent and was paid by the Government to set one up at the Harper’s Ferry Armory, and later at the Springfield Armory. The introduction of this machine opened up the way to others. Blanchard was placed in charge of stocking muskets at the Springfield Armory, and during the next five years introduced no less than thirteen machines for the better manufacture of muskets. The most important of these was a machine for making the irregular recesses in the stock for the barrel, lock, etc. The idea for this machine came to him, it is said, from watching the labors of a wood-boring insect.

One of the common applications of this invention is the well-known die sinking machine and upright milling machine. The fame of these inventions spread to England and two committees of the British Parliament came to America for the sole purpose of investigating these reported inventions. The second committee left an order for $40,000 worth of Blanchard machinery.

While Eli Whitney began the system of interchangeable parts in the manufacture of muskets, it was these dozen or more machines of Blanchard’s that made it possible to carry out the system in its completeness.

Being thus occupied in Government work, opportunity was open to infringers of the patent to apply it in other ways. During the first term of the patent no less than fifty machines were put in operation for various purposes, turning shoe lasts, wheel spokes, tackle blocks and hat forms, from which he derived no benefit. The patent was originally granted in 1820, and was twice renewed, a very unusual proceeding.

[p.75] One of the elder Choate’s clever sayings is preserved with the granting of this second extension. Blanchard was in doubt as to his success and to help his case along set up his lathe in the Capitol at Washington and began to turn marble busts of Webster, Clay and others from plaster casts. After he won his case—Choate in reporting to his clients said, “Oh, Blanchard, same down here and ‘turned the heads’ of the members so nicely that he won his case.”

In the early history of this invention the question of reality of invention was contested by one of his neighbors. A hearing was granted, to be held on the village green. The neighbor, who was a brass worker by trade, presented a beautifully made model in brass, while Blanchard’s model was a crude wooden affair, but the evidence was altogether in his favor, and little was heard afterward of this contestant for the honor of inventing the lathe for irregular forms.

Blanchard had many troubles in defending his patent, and even to the end realized but a comparatively small amount directly from the invention.

By this time Blanchard came to considerable repute as a mechanical expert, and was frequently employed henceforth in lawsuits and investigations in that capacity.

In 1825 Blanchard became much interested in the subject of steam road wagons. While still at the Springfield Armory he made a working model that was very successful and for which he received a patent. He had ideas also about rails and turnouts, but his efforts to organize a company or secure capital, first in Boston and later in New York, having failed, he apparently abandoned the idea.

[p.76] In 1826 an effort was made to improve the navigation of the Connecticut river. At first steamboats were tried, but the rapids were so great that it was a failure. Then a canal was built around the worst rapids, and Blanchard was asked to design a steamboat, which he did, but it was also unsuccessful. This failure deepened his interest, and he made an elaborate study of the whole question, the result of which was an important improvement. The improvement consisted in locating the paddle wheel at a particular distance beyond the stern, where the water set in with the greatest velocity. Hitherto the wheel had been located close up to the stern or at the sides. By Blanchard’s discovery the maximum resistance to the paddles was secured, and a steamboat could be driven up rivers whose rapids had hitherto prevented steam navigation. He also built boats with two engines driving the wheel shaft by cranks set at 180 degrees on the ends, which secured the more constant power needed to ascend strong rapids. The result of his efforts was to move the head of navigation from Hartford to Springfield, and double the travel and transportation between the two places. He even navigated the rapids 150 miles beyond Springfield.

Proving that small rivers could be successfully navigated by steamboats, brought Mr. Blanchard many applications for assistance. By 1830 he had boats running on the Allegheny and other tributaries of the Ohio, and so established his method of construction that it came into general use.

Another of his inventions was the process of steaming wood for bending. Hitherto when bent sticks were required for ship construction and other purposes, the woods were searched for satisfactory timbers. Mr. Blanchard made more money by far from this invention than any [p.77] other. The U. S. Government paid him $50,000 for the right to use it in ship construction alone. He received the first year from a manufacturer of school slates over $2,000 in royalties. It was immediately used in carriage work for wheel rims, and thills, for bent furniture and endless other purposes.

He also made inventions in woolen machinery and other purposes, the details of which have been forgotten. In all he secured twenty-four patents.

Although he started in life under such unfavorable conditions, he won out in the end. He overcame his stuttering, improved his personal appearance, made up by observation and experience for his lack of education, and by his inventions changed his early poverty for comparative wealth. He was able before he died to fulfill an assertion made to the villagers of West Millbury, when in extreme poverty and youthful awkwardness he was railed against for his shiftlessness, that he would yet “drive up through here in a coach and four.”

He died in 1864, leaving a widow, whom he had married only ten months before. She still survives him, bringing closely home to us the recentness of the origin of things mechanical that now seem as though they always had been.

From Dwight Goddard, Eminent Engineers: Brief Biographies of Thirty-Two of the Inventors and Engineers Who Did Most to Further Mechanical Progress (1906), 70-77. (source)


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