Blockmaking

The development of the blockmaking process came at a time when Britain was at war with France and demand for ship blocks was high. In 1800 the Royal Navy’s annual consumption alone was approximately 100,000. This kind of pressure may have been why the Navy felt receptive to a change in production methods.

Some power-driven machinery had already been introduced by Sir Samuel Bentham, the new Inspector-General of the Navy Works appointed in 1796. His re-organisation of the dockyard and the installation of a 12hp steam engine were proof that many up-to-date methods were already in use and that under his influence new ideas would be taken seriously.

It was in this atmosphere of advancement that in 1801 Marc Isambard Brunel approached Bentham with the scheme for blockmaking manufacturing. Brunel had already offered his inventions to the main suppliers of blocks to the Admiralty, Taylors of Southampton. However, they had refused them, considering their own methods good enough. This refusal was an unwise move as Brunel’s ideas were accepted by the Admiralty (on Bentham’s recommendation) and Taylors’ contract was renewed only on a short-term basis.

Brunel’s scheme needed to be developed, and a skilled mechanic was necessary to make the machines. The answer came through the recommendation of his friend Mr. Bacquancourt. The latter had observed many great specimens of craftsmanship in the shop window of the engineer Henry Maudslay and as a result had become acquainted with Maudslay and his work. This he relayed back to Brunel, who at once went to see to Mr. Maudslay.

Initially Brunel showed him plans without explaining the machine’s use in order to maintain secrecy. However, after Maudslay had seen a couple of drawings, it is reported that he cried: 'Ah! Now I see what you are thinking of; you want machinery for making blocks.'

Not only had Maudslay understood the drawings themselves, a rare enough skill at that time, but he showed that he grasped their significance.

From this point the two collaborated, and with help from Bentham the mechanical process of making ship’s blocks had become a reality by 1805.

However, because all three men played such an important role in the development of the plant it has always been arguable as to who was the real inventor of the machinery.

Soon the complete success of the machinery was obvious and the whole process received much publicity. The machines were described in Rees’s great Cyclopedia completed in 1819. It was also explained in many other encyclopedias during the nineteenth century, such as Britannica, Penny, Edinburgh and Chambers. Such publicity gave the opportunity for other engineers to emulate the work of Bentham, Brunel and Maudslay.