Automatic boat building in the 19th century

The following extract is from a book called Dockyard Economy and Naval Power by Patrick Barry – and describes the National Company for Boat Building by Machinery which had a brief existence at what we now call Bay Wharf on the Peninsula. As you will see Mr Barry was was very keen on Mr. Thompson (who was to disappear within the year). See my article – also on this site – about the Wooden Nutmeg


Foremost among the shipbuilding innovations of the time is that of boatbuilding by machinery. The application is most successful, and in its success there is obviously a strong argument against the maintenance of all the minor dockyard manufacturing establishments, because improvements in boatbuilding imply the possibility of improvements in all other directions – nay, the certainty of such improvements, were the Admiralty entering the market in a straightforward business manner for the supply of all their minor wants, in ropes, sails, blocks, &c.

Mr. Nathan Thompson, the inventor of the improved boatbuilding machinery, luckily for himself and the public, did not share the fate of most inventors, but, under the auspices of such men as Colonel Sykes, Peter Graham, and John Dillon, succeeded first in demonstrating the utility of his “tools” and afterwards establishing a company, which, enjoying the entire confidence of the mercantile marine, is barely able to keep pace with the increasing demand for boats. The company have had, and may still expect to meet, many difficulties, and to overcome many prejudices -doubts as .to the quality and durability of the boats turned out by them-ignorance, and in many cases worse than ignorance, on the part of the men employed on the machines-the interests of competing boat builders – the opposition to everything that is new. These, with threatened strikes and many other difficulties, have been one by one overcome, and, under the guidance of its directors and of its manager, there can now be no question as to the future which is before this company. The quality of every description of work turned-out by the company is now so universally admitted- to be superior to everything previously seen, that from boats suited to the mercantile marine the directors have been compelled to enter upon the erection of barges, canal boats and vessels of large size. To accomplish this they are enlarging their premises to an extent that a year or two ago even Mr. Thompson perhaps did note think probable. Boatbuilding in point of time is reduced from a matter of weeks to a matter of hours regards expense in the matter of labour, is reduced from pounds to shillings; the cost of material; of course , being the same whether boats are built by machinery or manual labour.
The company’s premises are situated at East Greenwich, about half a mile below Greenwich Hospital, and cover an area of nearly nine acres of ground. Every possible appliance to lessen that cost of production has been provided—wharves, steam cranes, tramways, &c. The number of men employed under the able superintendence of the Messrs Fawcett formerly of Limehouse, and temporarily of Messrs Nathan Thompson and John C. Thompson is about four hundred, and there is perhaps no place in the neighbourhood of London more worthy of a visit than the works of the company. Orders to respectable parties are readily given on application to Messrs Grant the company s secretary, at the London office 123 Fenchurch –street.
When the scheme of Mr Nathan Thompson was first .submitted to .the public, the writer reported it in the following terms:-
“When New England ingeniously and unscrupulously began the manufacture of wooden nutmegs, it was apparent that there was no conceivable limit to the .application of machinery and .steam. To counterfeit the genuine article which housewives use so giving an irregular oval form to little knobs New England mahogany, was to let daylight into the economy of trade, and to suggest no end of refined deceits. Wooden cheese and butter for the windows .of provision shops, and wooden .sugar-loaves for grocer’s shelves if not for their drawers .and hogsheads, were no doubt among the earlier imitative efforts; and of the ultimate development of the science we of course cannot speak. But if the manufacture of nutmegs was suggestive of objectionable imitations we have only to turn to the working of the patents of that eminent scientific American, Mr Nathan Thompson, jun., to be assured that if inventive genius is .stimulated in a bad direction, it is Sure speedily to be stimulated in a way that is not only unobjectionable, but useful. We -do not .mean to say that machine boatbuilding is the offset to any invention that has preceded it, or that it has been suggested by any previous invention, but what we are sincerely anxious about is that our readers should be impressed with the fact that a revolution is impending in the boatbuilding business; that Mr. Thompson s machinery is eminently practical and singularly expeditious and economical, that the work it .turns out is more exact and perfect, and, as a matter of course stronger than the boats built hitherto-by manual labour . Thompson s boatbuilding by steam is not for a moment to be thought of in connection with the manufacture of nutmegs or with the many spurious American inventions which by some means or other are introduced in England; but it is an intelligent fashioning of the timbers and parts of boats and vessels in expeditious manner, and so fashioning the vessels so constructed may be taken to pieces and fitted up at pleasure with little or no trouble
The advantages of taking Boats to pieces are obvious. Why our emigrant and troop, and other ships have usually an insufficient number of boats to carry all hands owing chiefly to the space taken up by boats on deck which involves interference with the health and comfort of everyone on board. For the want, therefore, of, such an invention as Mr. Thompson’s the number of boats carried has generally been inadequate, while no provision whatever has existed for the loss of boats from swamping or being stove in. On an emergency, when boat after boat has s been got over the ships side, and almost immediately afterwards turned over, with the unhappy creatures in it who hoped or safety, no boat whatever has frequently, remained for the great majority of; the crew and passengers. By the use of Mr. Thompson’ boats a reserve of boats may be kept below, not only sufficient take off all hands, but to provide against the casualties of launching. Then it is well known that boats hanging to rom the davits, or otherwise exposed on deck; suffer greatly from exposure, particularly in the tropics and it will therefore, be found economical in many cases to Have most of our southern-going ships boats stowed away. Lastly, duplicates of any part of a boat may be supplied and instead of boat builders accounts .for repairs the duplicate can be inserted without .any difficulty by anyone. Thompson s boats, in short go together like a bedstead, and it is only necessary to know, where the different parts should go, to rig out anything, up to a pleasure yacht of one hundred tons burden
To the Navy the invention can hardly fail to prove invaluable. Boats sufficient to land an army -may now be stowed away in a single transport; without as heretofore inconveniently encumbering the decks of the- transports or the ships of the covering fleet and boats which may be taken down and packed up will be available for interior transport when ordinary boats would be of no use whatever. Africa, India, China, and even North America (Mr. Thompson s own country) are suggestive fields for the employment of boats which might be carried overland before being launched upon their proper element. And rifled cannon, it is scarcely necessary to observe, threaten to be most destructive to the old-fashioned boats of our ships of war. An action, now-a-days, at close quarters, will, if it does not lead to the annihilation of the ships engaged, will render every old-fashioned boat that is exposed entirely useless; while Mr. Thompson s, boats would come out of action all but scathless. Half a dozen round shot passing through them would only lead to the unshipping of the shattered fragments and to the fitting-in of duplicates, or to the repairing of one boat in an hour or two with the vestiges of another. So long as we were without an invention of this kind, the seamen in our ships of war were in fact,, unsafe;;and now that it can be admitted, we trust that Mr. Thompson will not be treated by the Admiralty .as Mr. Trotman has been . We hope to .see the new machinery in, all our dockyards before the year is out that the service may profit by increased efficiency, and the votes year be reduced by the economy which is sure to follow.
Whether it is the intention of Mr. Thompson to grant licences for the working of his patents us, of course, cannot tell, but at the moment it is in contemplation to establish a joint stock Company with sufficient capital to supply a fourth of the25, 000 boats wanted in the United Kingdom annually. That such a company will be formed we cannot for a moment doubt and that it will succeed is a matter upon which in scientific .circles, no doubt whatever appears to be entertained. The innovation is looked upon as possessing much the same recommendations for boat building as the improved frame -does for the spinning of yarn and the improved loom for the weaving of textile fabrics. It is a shorter and cheaper and better way of arriving at a given result, as railway or steam boat travelling is the best way of getting to a Journeys end. It is in fine a great mechanical step forward and those who are wise will accept such. Boatbuilding by manual labour is about to be numbered among the things that were. boats will be produced cheaper than they have yet been; will be wanted for purposes to which hitherto they have not been applied; and although a considerable present displacement of labour will unquestionably be occasioned, all experience shows that eventually an even greater number will earn their bread by building boats than do just now. For one who made a living a hundred years ago by the spinning-wheel, ten thousand; if not ten times ten thousand, are now constantly and remuneratively employed.
We cannot, perhaps, do better than close these remarks with an account of the number and purposes of the machines employed by Mr. Thompson in the manufacture of a boat thirty feet long in a few house. The first machine is called the assembling form , which is for holding the gunwales, risings, floor timbers , cants, keels, stem, stern-post and board in their relative positions as designed in the finished boat. The second is the combination saw, for all kinds and dimensions – of stuff, either square, bevelling, or angling, that sawed with a circular saw and to any desired width or taper without measuring. The third is the patent form for spiling, or giving the plank edge the required bevel throughout its entire length. The fourth is for giving the proper bevel to the stern-board, thwart knees , transom knees, breast-hooks, risings, forward and-, stern-ribs, cants, stern-sheets, gratings, toggles, &c. The fifth is for bearding and rebating keels at a single operation, and in the most perfect manner. The sixth machine is for tenoning toggles and rowlocks. The seventh for marking and slotting gunwales to receive their toggles and. rowlocks. The eighth for grooving, grating, &c the ninth for giving the ribs their required bevel. The tenth for planing a plank on both sides at one operation, and at the same time giving its interior and exterior curve in the most perfect manner, and uniform in thickness throughout its entire length. The eleventh is a machine for planing perfectly plane surfaces. The twelfth is-for moulding toggles bottom boards, gunwales and risers and it cuts any bevel or irregular to three sides or planes three flat surfaces at a single operation. The thirteenth and last machine is for bending the ribs in any form or size required in boat building.

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