Blockmaking

Pulley blocks or 'blocks' in a ship’s rigging may appear insignificant. However, the machinery invented to build them at Portsmouth dockyard played a major role in manufacturing history. In 1805, the same year that Nelson won his famous battle at Trafalgar on the HMS Victory, the first large suite of single-purpose machines was developed to create the pulleys needed for such ships. Among the many advantages to these machines was that they allowed production methods to become far less labour intensive, being carried out mainly by machine operators. As Richard Beamish wrote in his book ‘Life of Sir Isambard Brunel’:

'...So that ten men, by the aid of this machinery, can accomplish with uniformity, celerity and ease, what formerly required the uncertain labour of one hundred and ten.'

The importance of the blockmaking machinery was also recognised at the time and the block mill became a place of special interest to many concerned with the development of manufacturing and machine tools.

At the end of the eighteenth century the making of blocks, like other manufacturing, was largely done by hand. Some simple machines were used, but most of the work was completed by a skilled workman with hand tools.

There had already been some attempts at mechanisation in parts of other industries. What was remarkable in the blockmaking process was the almost complete move to mechanisation. Separate operations were performed using single-purpose machines, with the number of each type built in proportion to the duration of the operation. This created a steady flow of production.

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