Early Modern Period Toolmakers: Overview

Toolmakers of the Early Modern Period

In Early Modern times, lathes were highly valued items individually constructed to suit the interests of royalty who used them for recreation and education. In this era, crafting a lathe and related tools required tremendous skill, time and expense, as well as know-how. To aid in the effort, some court-appointed turners were sent on year-long journeys to learn about the latest advancements of technology from other kingdoms.

Early books may have aided as well, such as Jacques Besson's Theatrum Instrumentorum et Machinarum, written in 1578, which pictured swash-plate lathes. Besson was Leonardo da Vinci's successor as engineer to the French court, and he was himself succeeded by Salomon de Caus whose 1615 work, Les raisons des forces mouvantes described an early version of the rose engine lathe. But it wasn't until Chales Plumier wrote L'Art de Tourner in 1701 that a complete reference on turning—with more than 200 pages describing the methods along with 71 plates of illustrations—became available. Another educational reference arrived with the 1772 publication of Diderot and d'Alembert's Encyclopédie, which included numerous detailed engravings for the all the parts needed to construct an ornamental turning lathe. Toward the end of this era, in 1792, Bergeron-Salivet authored Manuel du Tourneur creating a seminal work portraying both turning equipment and turned objects.

The following profiles offer an introduction to some of the known toolmakers from the 17th and 18th centuries and their accomplishments as it relates to ornamental turning.

Treffler worked with his brother Johann Philipp as clockmaker for the Grand Duke Ferdinand II (1610-1670) of the Medici family in Florence and is known to have made a rose engine lathe for Cosimo III (1642-1723).

At least five Kesemaker lathes are known to exist. One located in Skokloster Castle, Sweden bears a date of 1677. It is part of the elaborate turning chamber of Carl Gustav Wrangel (1613-1676) who, by 1664, had at least five lathes including three rose engines and a fine metal lathe.

Also in Skokloster Castle, Sweden, a lathe by Johan Kock c. 1670 exists. (Another lathe engraved by maker "EPS" has a date of 1673.)

In Joseph Moxon's Treatise on Turning, the first English treatise on turning published in 1678, a Mr. Thomas Oldfield is mentioned as "an excellent maker of oval engines and swash engines." "These Oval-Engines, Swash-Engines, and all other Engines, [were] excellently well made by Mr. Thomas Oldfield, at the sign of the Flower-de-lute, near the Savoy in the Strand, London."

Houard rose engine lathe, 1712

Francois Houard made a rose engine lathe for Maximilian II Emanuel, Elector of Bavaria in 1712 that still survives.

Beginning in 1712, Andrei Konstantinovich Nartov (1693-1756) worked for Peter I, initially with the other master craftsmen Yogan Bleer, Yarii Kurnosyi, and Singer. In 1718, Nartov invented what might have been the first lathe with a mechanical cutting tool-supporting carriage and a set of gears (later known as a compound rest or slide rest).

From 1718 to 1719, Nartov travelled to the courts of England, France and Holland where he shared his knowledge and learned from their scientific, mechanical and hydraulic discoveries. On his way back to Russia, he taught lathe-working to the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm I. In 1920, Nartov presented three examples of portrait (medallion) turning at the Royal Academy of Sciences.

Copying lathe for making medals and guilloche patterns attributed to Nartov, 1721. (Courtesy The State Hermitage Museum)

In 1725, after the Tsar's death, Nartov was no longer employed by the royal family. In 1733, he began to record the Tsar's cabinet of machines as well as his own inventions in a manuscript which he completed in 1755. However, the book was never published and no copies were made. In 1762, several years after his death, his son had the original manuscript bound and dedicated to the Empress Catherine the Great who, like Peter the Great, was very interested in ornamental turning. The work titled Theatrum Machinarum presents the amazing mechanical instruments of the time, including 28 rose engine lathes, four lathes for oval turning and more.

The lathes and machines that Nartov invented are kept at the State Hermitage, the Military and Historical Museum of Artillery, the Sappers and Signal Troops, and the Summer Palace of Peter the Great. The manuscript for Theatrum Machinarum is currently stored at the National Russian Library.

Engraving of rose engine lathe from Tueber's book, Complete Instruction, 1740.

The youngest of three generations of turners, Johann Martin Teuber was an ornamental turner, author, teacher and toolmaker from Austria. He is known to have made a lathe for Ernest Louis (of Darmstadt Palace) whose turning chamber dates from the early 1700s. He provided instruction in turning as well, including Lorenz Spengler (of Denmark) from 1734 to 1739, as well as Johann Michael Hahn (also of Denmark).

He published what was perhaps the first book on turning written by a proficient turner entitled, Short Instruction in the Art of Turning (Regensburg, 1730) under the pseudonym Christian Drexelius. He followed this in 1740 with Complete Instruction in the Common and High Art of Turning, including various illustrations of ornamental lathes, parts, tools and an early form of the sliderest. View book online

Mid-18th century rose engine lathe by Lambert Xhrouet

Born in Spa (now Belgium), Xhrouet began as an apprentice turner in 1722 and was accomplished at the craft of ornamental turning by 1732. He became well known throughout Europe in the years following: Between 1748 and 1759 Xhrouet gave lessons in Vienna for Emperor Francis I, assisted the Duke Charles of Lorraine in Brussels on a couple of occasions, and was the appointed turner for Louis XVI, Duc d'Orléans, and the Queen of France at Versailles.

Engraving of rose engine lathe from Diderot's Art du Tourneur, 1772.

Xhrouet is documented to have constructed and delivered rose-engine lathes as early as 1740, at which time Jean de Mordaunt of London purhcased a lathe with 34 rosettes. A rose engine lathe made by Xhrouet in 1744 has a brass plate engraved with the arms of his employer, Charles Alexander de Lorraine, brother-in-law of Empress Maria Theresa, and her Governor General of the Habsburg Netherlands. Xhrouet also served as court turner to Louis Philippe I, Duke of Orléans, who owned a lathe of the same design and is also depicted in the famous Encyclopédie by Diderot and D'Alembert.

Two nearly identical lathes survive today, one at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. and one at Musées de la Ville d'Eaux in Spa, Belgium. (However, the one in Belgium is much more complete by comparison.) These, along with his other property, were divided between his son and grandsons after his death and their provenance is detailed in Making Marvels: Science and Splendor at the Courts of Europe. Another rose-engine lathe is mentioned in 1751 when Xhrouet delivered a lathe to Henry Bonneval, Viscount of Kingsland.

Rose engine lathe by Diderich de Thurah (Courtesy Rosenborg Castle website)

Diderich de Thurah made a rose engine lathe in 1735-1736 for Sophia Magdalene, queen of Denmark and Norway by marriage to King Christian VI. Diderich de Thurah was a naval officer with an aptitude for mechanics and construction. as well as a skilled turner.

The lathe is displayed at the Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen. It features spring-drum and foot-board with flywheel, rocking headstock, removable rosette, and one of the earliest existing sliderest tool holders, along with various sliderest tools and hand tools. Everything is fitted in a large, extravagant wooden cabinet that is capable of concealing the entire kit.

A detailed article about the lathe with numerous photos was published in SOT Bulletin #139. Watch a video about the lathe at Rosenborg Castle.

Portrait of Jacques de Vaucanson

Jacques de Vaucanson (1709–1782) was a French inventor and artist responsible for the creation of impressive and innovative automata. He also was the first person to design an automatic loom and built the first lathe made only of metal. In 1760, he invented the first industrial metal cutting slide-rest lathe. It was described in the Encyclopédie and can be viewed at Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris. (Vaucanson left a collection of his work to Louis XVI, which became the foundation of the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers.)

Although the lathe was limited to just one purpose (it was designed to produce precision cylindrical rollers for crushing patterns into silk cloth), it was a very early example of a "slide lathe" with the cutting tool constrained by guides to move in the "X" and "Y" planes and able to traverse the whole length of the workpiece.

A rose engine made by Joh. A. Schega in Vienna, 1767, was a gift from Prince Charles Alexander to Joachim Chalon, France, in the late 18th century. It is currently privately owned.

Rose engine lathe by Hulot Fils, 1768. Photo courtesy NMSI

At least one mid-18th century lathe by Hulot Fils is known to exist. It is a rose engine with six rosettes mounted on a wooden table with treadle drive and includes a toolholder and two chucks (one of eccentric type). It is currently in the collection of the National Museum of Science and Industry (NMSI), UK.

Portrait of L. E. Bergeron

L. E. Bergeron (1746-1808) was the nephew of a wealthy Perisian merchant who became a skilled lathe turner and opened a shop in 1776 in the center of Paris that sold rose engines, tools, lathes and materials for turning.

Bergeron authored Manuel du Tourneur in 1792, perhaps in collaboration with Louis Georges Isaac Salivet. It was a seminal work that contained numerous engravings of various objects and patterns for modelling both turning equipment and turned objects.

Bergeron lathe, circa 1796.

In 1816, a second edition was re-written by Pierre Hamelin-Bergeron who also took over the turning shop after his father-in-law's death.

Additional details about Bergeron can be found on the Turners of the Early Modern Period in France page.

At least one ornamental turning lathe attributed to Bergeron survives from the late 18th century, although it is not known how much of a hand Bergeron had in its actual construction.

Mercklein rose engine lathe with engraved date of 1780. Image courtesy WikiCommons

At least one mid-18th century lathe by Mercklein is known to exist. It is a rose engine made in 1780 for King Louis XVI and complete nine rosettes with front and rear touch, rocking and pumping springs and swash plate. Mounted on a wooden table with flywheel above, it includes a tool sliderest and three work-holding chucks, including eccentric and epicycloidal types. It resides at the Musée des Arts et Métiers, in Paris.

Merklein epicycloidal chuck, engraved as (translation) "Made by I.T. MerKlein, Saxon Engineer." (Photo by J. Salesin)

Based on the engraved signature of the epicycloidal chuck, it appears Mercklein was from Saxony (now eastern Germany) prior to building this machine for the King of France.

John Jacob Holtzapffel I (Photo courtesy of Ron Roszkiewicz)

John Jacob Holtzapffel (1768-1835) was born and lived in Strasbourg (then part of France) where he trained as a turner. He moved to London in 1792 and worked for two years in the workshop of the famous mathematical instrument maker Jesse Ramsden (Fl. 1762-1800). Then, in 1794, he setup his own mechanical and toolmaker business (initially as a partnership with Francis Rousset) during which they made anything requested. By 1795, Holtzapffel began producing lathes including his first rose engine lathe in 1797. By 1803, Holtzapffel had produced and sold 385 lathes.

Holtzapffel's first rose engine lathe, 1797.

Of particular importance is the overhead drive system he developed in which a treadle-powered arrangement of pulleys and belts rotates the cutters, which had a variety of sizes and profiles. This enabled an unending assortment of surface decorations to be made on an item while still mounted on the lathe.

From 1804 to 1827, John Jacob formed a partnership with his assistant John George Deyerlein and conducted business under the name Holtzapffel & Deyerlein. (Holtzapffel lathes were not engraved with numbers until Deyerlein joined the firm.) Deyerlein became ill and died in October of 1826. John Jacob's son Charles joined the business in 1827 and by year's end the firm had officially become Holtzapffel & Co..

The Holtzapffel Firm continued for generations and were particularly important Victorian Era toolmakers.

Maudslay screw-cutting lathes, circa 1797 & 1800. (Wikipedia)

Henry Maudslay (1771-1831) was an English machine tool innovator, tool and die maker, and inventor. He is considered a founding father of machine tool technology and his inventions were an important foundation for the Industrial Revolution.

Maudslay invented a screw-cutting lathe around 1797 and a metal lathe to cut metal parts around 1800. This enabled the manufacture of standard screw thread sizes, thereby allowing interchangeable parts which led to the development of mass production in general.

Clearly, his was not the first lathe capable of screw-cutting, as some ornamental lathes had already incorporated this ability. More recently, British engineer Jesse Ramsden had developed the capability in 1775, and David Wilkinson of Vermont had added a traversing slide-rest in 1798. However, Maudslay's did become the best known, spreading to the rest of the world with the winning combination of leadscrew, slide-rest, and change gears, in an arrangement practical to use and robust enough for cutting metal.

How much useful knowledge is lost by the scattered forms in which it is ushered into the world! How many solitary students spend half their lives in making discoveries which have been perfected a century before their time, for want of a condensed exhibition of what is known!

Georges Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707 - 1788)


Lathe built for Maximillian I, Duke of Bavaria, circa 1500-1518.