Richard Roberts (1789–1864)

Although he is not widely remembered, Richard Roberts was possibly the most brilliant and prolific mechanical inventor of the nineteenth century. His inventions included machine-tools, spinning and weaving machines and locomotives. The high standards of accuracy he developed led to the interchangeability of mechanical parts and eventually to mass production. Nevertheless, he died a poor man.

Roberts grew up in rural mid-Wales, where his father was a shoemaker and tollkeeper for the New Bridge over the River Vyrnwy. While he was a boy the aqueduct for the Montgomeryshire Canal was built next to the toll house where he lived, and after elementary school he became a boatman, then worked at the nearby limestone quarries. At the age of 20 he took a job as a patternmaker at the influential Bradley ironworks. A few years later he was moving frequently to avoid conscription in the Napoleonic Wars: he found work as a supervisor at Horseley ironworks, a cabinet-maker and wood turner in north-west England and a turner and fitter in the London engineering shops of Holtzapffel and Deyerlein and then Henry Maudslay.

In 1816, when conscription was no longer a threat, Roberts set up a small workshop in Manchester. Within two years he had developed an improved machine for cutting gears, a slide-lathe and a machine to plane flat surfaces. He made extensive use of gauges and templates to ensure uniformity. In another two years he had invented a gasworks meter, a canon, a lathe for cutting screws and a range of drilling machines. At the same time he manufactured machine tools and gears for textile equipment. By 1821 he employed a dozen mechanics and in 1823 he went into partnership with the businessman Thomas Sharp and others. The firm Sharp, Roberts and Company of the Atlas works became famous. By 1825 they made 4,000 power looms a year. Their improved automatic spinning mule, developed by Roberts 1825-30, was sold in large numbers and established principles that were followed for more than a century. In 1833 the firm began building railway locomotives and steam-powered road coaches. Roberts patented six different improvements for steam locomotion.

He continued inventing energetically but he earned less from his projects than he spent. Among his patents were designs for traction engines, turret clocks, steamships and, in 1847, a machine for punching rivet holes in iron plates controlled by a Jacquard device. From 1852, Roberts was an independent consulting engineer in Manchester and then London. Many of his inventions were not followed through commercially and at the time of his death he was living in poverty. In recognition of his work the government awarded a pension to his unmarried daughter.