Life and Inventions of Richard Roberts, 1789-1864 (review)
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Technology and Culture 44.4 (2003) 819-820

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Life and Inventions of Richard Roberts, 1789-1864. By Richard Hills. Ashbourne, Derbyshire: Landmark, 2002. Pp. 255. £29.95.

Richard Hills established his reputation as one of the best historians of mechanical engineering in 1970, with the publication of Power in the Industrial Revolution. Since then a succession of publications has confirmed this reputation, and the latest in this series is his study of the toolmaker and inventor Richard Roberts. Roberts was greatly admired among contemporaries who were familiar with his work: Samuel Smiles is quoted as saying of him that "upon whatever subject he turned his mind, he left the impress of his inventive faculty" (p. 8). Born in 1789, on the border of England and Wales, he always considered himself a Welshman. Around 1813 he moved to London and worked for two years as a turner and fitter with Henry Maudslay, becoming thus one of the distinguished cadre of mechanical engineers who owed some of their eye for detail and precision to that master craftsman.

Roberts then moved to Manchester, as Whitworth, Nasmyth, and Muir were to do after him, perceiving its potential for supplying the local demand for textile machines and machine tools. He took out twenty-five important patents and was responsible for many significant innovations in these fields. Hills regards him as "the father of production engineering" (p. 8). His most famous contribution was the invention and development of the self-acting loom, but he was also responsible for many other brilliant ideas for textile machines, railway locomotives, steamships, and even gas meters. In partnership with Sharp Brothers, his name became associated with the production of the highest quality machinery of all sorts. He certainly deserves to be remembered.

Nevertheless, anybody looking into the life of Richard Roberts is bound to be frustrated by his opacity and by the lack of any substantial archive of personal documents. It is not possible to penetrate his reserve to discover anything of interest about his wives (he was twice married) and family. Although he is known to have been a devoted supporter of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society and of educational improvement, his religious and political affiliations remain obscure. This disproportion between our knowledge of the man and the significance of his engineering achievements is emphasized by Hills's decision to divide his text into two [End Page 819] unequal halves: part one, "Roberts's Life," taking fifty pages, and part two, "Roberts's Inventions," taking most of the other two hundred pages in the book. Whereas the second part deals in detail with the nuts and bolts of Roberts's creativity, the first is tentative and somewhat speculative, and depends too heavily on anticipating events more appropriately discussed in the second part.

Reflection on this book prompts the observation that British engineering history has so far been reluctant to pay much attention to individual engineers, except for the handful of acknowledged hero figures. John Smeaton, James Watt, Thomas Telford, the Stephensons, and the Brunels have all received fulsome attention from historians and biographers. Even William Jessop, James Brindley, Richard Trevithick, John Rennie, and Daniel Gooch have had books devoted to them. Most other engineers, however, are lucky if there was a good article in an engineering journal or a paper in the Transactions of the Newcomen Society. Even entries in the Dictionary of National Biography have been notoriously thin, although strenuous efforts are being made to improve this situation in the New DNB, due for publication in 2004. While this lack of balance is regrettable, it is understandable, because the minor figures have either been illuminated only by their proximity to one of the legendary heroes of the profession, like the assistants of Robert Stephenson or I. K. Brunel, or they have simply escaped historical attention. The difficulty of developing a convincing profile of Roberts's character illustrates this problem acutely, and Hills's struggle to do so is only partially successful. There is much more that we would like to know. This book is...