Brunel’s Claims to be the Author of the Block Machinery vindicated

Before continuing our narrative, it is necessary that we should notice the claims which have been (I believe, for the first time) set up on behalf of Sir Samuel Bentham to the authorship of the block machinery. In the “ Mechanic’s Magazine” (April 3, 1852) assertions have been made which would have the effect of wresting from Brunel the honour which is his due, and of bestowing it upon one whose nobleness of mind and disinterestedness of character never permitted him for one moment, while he lived, to appropriate to himself the inventions of others.

The effort to render justice to the works of original minds engaged on similar subjects, and to assign to each the exact amount of merit due, is not always easy. Conflicting opinions are sometimes so nicely balanced, as almost to defy our industry and our penetration in arriving at a right conclusion ; and we are, therefore, from our own liability to err, bound to deal tenderly with any honest expression of opinion which may not entirely coincide with our own. Should it, however, be found that personal or partisan feeling had been permitted to usurp the place of patient and discriminating inquiry, and that these have led to conclusions not consistent with the evidence, we are equally bound to exhibit the fallacy, and to dissipate the illusion to which such feelings inevitably give rise.

The claim is comprehensive and unqualified ; and it is repeated in Adcock’s “ Engineer’s Pocket Book” for 1856. It includes “all the operations preparatory to the shaping of blocks, with the pleasing and convenient arrangement of the block machinery, whereby a regular sequence of operations is obtained ;” while it allows to Brunel “some few only of the operations requisite for the shaping and finishing the blocks ;” although, “ in these instances, the means of performing the requisite operations were rarely other than those specified in Bentham’s patents.”

According to this view, Brunel can be regarded only as the draughtsman or clerk of works to Bentham. This opinion, however, is in a subsequent paragraph so far modified as to allow “ Brunel some share in the arrangement.”—“It cannot be supposed that Bentham contrived every detail ; that was Goodrich’s particular duty, and Brunel had his share in the arrangements ; sometimes advantageously, at others introducing wheels that would not work, as appears from a pencil sketch now lying on the table.”
Without desiring to analyse too critically the foregoing paragraph, we shall only observe that detail is of the utmost importance to the success of constructions altogether new; and so strongly was Brunel impressed with the necessity for this, that, as we have seen, he depended neither upon a pencil sketch nor a finished drawing ; but was willing to incur the expense of working models where any difficulty was likely to arise. Without knowledge it is easy to condemn.

When in 1807, and during Bentham’s absence from the country, a new engine was introduced at Portsmouth for cutting copper bolts, the master shipwright informed Brunel that it “was found incapable of performing its operation.” Brunel at once proceeded to inspect it. “ I observed,” says he, in his journal, “that the saw, or circular cutter, had no set; that the moving frame was unmanageable; and that the manner of laying the bolts was imperfect.

“I gave directions to Barlow (Maudslay’s mechanist) to put a counterpoise to support the weight of the swinging or moving frame, and to apply to the saw a proper set.

“At half-past four o’clock in the afternoon I had it tried before the officers; it produced its effect with the greatest celerity.

NOTE.—“Such a machine ought to have been accompanied by a person acquainted with the use of it.”

But this wholesale advocacy of the claims of Bentham, at the expense of Brunel, can scarcely be considered as either becoming, or wise, where evidence was at hand, sufficient, at all events, to induce a candid mind to hesitate. Without justice there can be no honesty. Nihil honestum esse potest quod justitiâ vacat.

It is asserted, that “Brunel’s drawing was at that time (1802) confined to the shaping of a block shell ; while Bentham’s machines were already in the dockyard in a working state.” The italics are the author’s. They intimate very distinctly that Brunel had nothing but a drawing to offer in illustration of his project, and that that drawing was limited to a description of his intendeil mode of shaping a block shell. They also intimate that Bentham’s machines were already in operation. But we shall find that neither of these assertions has any foundation in truth.

We have already seen that before Brunel had obtained an introduction to Bentham-before, in fact, he had negotiated with the contractors, who were at the time “so much pressed that they could undertake no alteration in their system ”— he had already prepared working models of two of the most important engines : viz. those for mortising and boring. But the simple statement now before me in Brunel’s own handwriting – obviously never intended for publication-shows what his real position was, with regard to Bentham.

Being so far disappointed [in his application to the contractors], he writes, “ I intimated my intention of exhibiting the plans and models to General Bentham, who had in contemplation at that time the formation of a block-making establishment from machinery of his own. The steam engine was already up in Portsmouth dockyard, and the building very far advanced. The steam engine was coupled with the pumps that were destined for the occasional service of draining the docks; an ample share of its power could therefore be employed in making the blocks for the navy, for which General Bentham had already made his arrangements and some of its parts. At the change of the administration to that of Lord St. Vincent, I had an opportunity of submitting my plan to General Bentham, who came to see the chief parts.

“On the production of the results, he admitted at once that I had left no room for any part of his plan, and promised to make the admission to the Lords of the Admiralty.” In consequence of this candid expression of opinion, Brunel addressed a letter, February 1802, to Mr. Evan Nepean, Secretary to the Admiralty, of which the following is a copy :

“Having been informed that it is the intention of Government to have the blocks for the use of the Royal Navy manufactured in H.M. dockyard at Portsmouth by means of steam engines already erected there, and that workhouses for the reception and accommodation of machinery for that purpose are now erecting, it occurs to me as not an improper opportunity for requesting permission to submit, through you, for their Lordships’ consideration, the following tenders:

“I have invented and executed new engines, by the operation of which blocks may be manufactured with infinitely more celerity and exactness than they can be done by the machines at present in use.

“I beg leave to represent that these engines cut the mortises, and shape the outside of the shells in such manner, that without requiring dexterity on the part of the workman, the shells of a determined fixed size cannot differ one from another, either in the proportion of the mortises, or in the shape and dimensions of the outside.

“The inconveniences to which blocks are constantly liable by the friction of the cords against one or alternately both sides of the mortises, are remedied by introducing a sheet of metal, bent to the shape of the upper part of the mortise. This operation is also performed by a particular engine.

“The shivers, with metal coaks made by these engines, are executed with precision and celerity, and any number of a determined size being gauged most minutely, it will be found that one does not differ from another, either in diameter or thickness, so that any one of these shivers will suit equally well any shell of the size for which it was intended.

“The engines, which I am the inventor of, extend no farther than for the making of the shells and shivers. The pins, either wood or iron, I propose should be made in the manner already in use.

“The advantages which result from the use of these engines, consist in obtaining uniformity, exactness, and celerity, without relying on the dexterity of the workmen; and owing to the peculiar principle on which the blocks are shaped, they cannot be counterfeited — a circumstance to prevent embezzlement.

I have executed a working model which I should be happy to have the honour of submitting to your inspection, and will send it to the Admiralty any day you will please to appoint.

“I have the honour to be,

“Your obedient servant,


The Italics are ours.

Brunel goes on to state in his journal ;—“A few days after, I received an order to be at the Admiralty with my small models, which gave such satisfaction, that my proposition of making a block mill was adopted. Accordingly General B. took me to Portsmouth. Having had occasion then of seeing what had already been done of the steam engine and buildings, I made my disposition accordingly.

But a most difficult task was to find some person fit for the execution of so extensive and so complicated an apparatus.

“So backward was the mechanical industry at the time that even English wrought iron was prohibited from all Government supplies, and the cast-iron was of too brittle a nature for general use.”

So far then from Bentham’s machines being in a “working state,” nothing was found at Portsmouth but the steam engine and some buildings.

On April 2, 1802, Brunel addressed the following letter to Sir Evan Nepean, Bt. :


“Their Lordships having appeared satisfied with the model for making blocks which I had the honour of showing to them, I feel anxious to know whether it is their Lordships’ intention to have them established for the use of H. Majesty’s Navy.

“The advantages which would be derived from an establishment of that kind, could not be pointed out or ascertained from a small model, but the machines I have executed on larger proportions, have, by their produce, enabled me to make the following estimates of the prices at which the various sizes of blocks could be manufactured.

“The blocks made with the assistance of my machines are executed with exactness and expedition, which will afford a considerable saving on the present cost, exclusive of the advantage of employing a great quantity of wood which is wasted in the yards.

“The following estimate made on four sizes only, namely, eight inches, twelve, sixteen, and twenty-one, will evince the proof of what I asserted :

8 in
S. d.
12 in
S. d.
16 in
S. d.
21 in
S. d.
Prices at which blocks may be made 1.  8 3/4 4.  5 8.  11 1/2 18.  1 3/4
Prices allowed by Government 2.  3 1/2 6.  0 1/2 13.  6 27.  0 1/2
Saving 0.  6 3/4 1.  7 1/2 4.  6 1/2 8.  10 3/4

“I have the honour to be, &c.”

“The merit of the few operations requisite for the shaping and finishing of blocks,” and the questionable share in “the arrangements” which had been, at first, conceded to Brunel by the writer in the “Mechanic’s Magazine,” is subsequently impugned by the institution of an invidious comparison between the limited purposes to which those operations could be applied, and the general applicability of Bentham’s machines; and a report, dated November 1804, is quoted, addressed by Mr. Samuel Goodrich, described as Bentham’s mechanist, to his principal, from which a strange inference is obtained.

The report is as follows:

“None of the existing machinery, more immediately belonging to the mortising, shaping, and boring of the shells of blocks, can be well applied to any other purpose as far as appears at present.

“The circular saws, and up-and-down saws, can be applied to general purposes, and others may be introduced for cutting.”

The arbitrary and anomalous conclusion drawn is, “That the above communication seems in itself sufficient proof, that great part of the machinery comprised in that for block-making was, from the first, and still continues to be, of Bentham’s invention not of Brunel’s.” Not only, then, is Brunel denied the honour of being an inventor, but also the credit of being a manipulator, and is at once degraded to the position of a plagiarist – an adapter of other men’s designs, “having Bentham’s patents before lim,” and every “opportunity of seeing the Bentham machinery in Queen’s Square Place, and having farther secured the mechanical skill of Henry Maudslay, who made the machine after frequent consultation with Bentham and examination of them often whilst in progress of manufacture. Bentham, Goodrich, Burr (superintendent and draughtsman)—all of them discussed the suitableness for its destined work of every particular engine, each of them indicating means by which it might be more or less improved.”

It must be obvious that this statement proves too much, and implies that the block machinery, in place of being a beautiful and symmetrical system, emanating from one mind, directed to one end, and consistent in all its parts, was but the result of a heterogeneous concatenation of masters, mechanists, and inventors. The only machines of Bentham’s construction really applicable to block-making were saws; but they were soon found quite inadequate to fulfil the duty which the block-machinery of Brunel demanded.

“ The imperfection of the various mechanical contrivances that had been invented for the purpose of sawing, led me,” says Brunel in one of his communications to the Admiralty, “to direct my views to the invention of such machinery as should be the means of obviating these difficulties, and I foresaw that a field would be opened to me of rendering service to the naval establishments of the kingdom, of a magnitude much exceeding those which had been derived from my improved system of making blocks.”

It appears that Mr. Burr, Bentham’s drauglitsman, had been appointed superintendent of the wood mill at Brunel’s request. In October 1803, Bentham having expressed a wish that some experiment should be made with one of the saws, Brunel replies :

“I am fearful that the means used for cutting lignum vitæ cannot be adapted to advantage for common wood. I will however try it. Mr. Burr is solicitous to bring forward any of your inventions; he will readily
assist me to make the experiment.” The italics are ours.

Had any of the block-machinery, properly so called, been due to Bentham, Brunel would scarcely have ventured to draw the distinction which he did between the value of meum and tuum in this as in other communications.

It is further stated that “ Brunel’s machines were never sanctioned till drawings of them had been well considered and approved by Bentham.” Official position is thus confounded with mechanical originality, and an inference is erroneously drawn, that Brunel could have only acted in intellectual subordination to Bentham ; but any person at all conversant with official arrangements must be aware that every order, before it can be executed, must receive the sanction and signature of the head of the department from whence it issues. It has, however, been already shown, that not only were those drawings in existence before Brunel had even obtained an introduction to Bentham, and therefore entirely independent of Bentham’s consideration, suggestion, or improvement ; but models and machines, on an effectively working scale, had been also executed, from which results were obtained sufficient to justify the Admiralty in adopting Brunel’s inventions. In this discussion the authority of Dr. Rees cannot be overlooked. He was the editor of the Cyclopædia commenced in 1800 and completed in 1819, as an expansion of Chambers’ work published in 1786. In that justly celebrated publication there are not less than sixteen pages devoted to the description, and seven admirably executed plates in illustration of the block machinery ; because as the writer observes*, “they are the most ingenious and complete system of machinery for forming articles in wood of any this kingdom can produce ;” and “these machines,” he distinctly records,“ are the invention of Mark Isambard Brunel.” Now, as this work must have been in the hands of every scientific man who could borrow or purchase it, the question naturally arises how it happened that nearly a generation (thirty-three years) should have been permitted to elapse without any doubt or discredit having been cast on either Dr. Rees or Mr. Farey.**

[* Mr. John Farey, an engineer of recognised standing and eminence.] [** It may be also remarked that a portrait of Brunel was exhibited in 1814, with a drawing of one of the machines.]

I will now add the testimony of Sir Samuel Bentham himself. In his “Statement of Services relative to Improvement of Manufactures requisite in Naval Arsenals,” he defends himself from the accusation of having afforded encouragement to foreign talent by appealing to the result.

“ Machinery has been applied, in the introduction of which I have been instrumental,” he says, forms nearly all the operations requisite in making blocks, by which they are better made than heretofore,” and “a saving to the country is effected of not less than 16,631£ per annum.” …“ Their lordships having determined that Mr. Brunel’s machinery in question should be introduced in the manner I had suggested, Mr. Brunel employed himself in the perfecting of his machinery, in the adapting it to the particular demands of the navy, and, in concert with the mechanist (Mr. Goodrich), in contriving the best mode of putting it up at Portsmouth.” Sir Samuel, in concluding his vindication, says, “I cannot, therefore, but feel myself justified in having recommended the engaging Mr. Brunel’s services.” And in allusion to the remuneration to be given to Brunel, he thus writes : “ Nor is it likely that any other mode of remuneration would have rendered these services so beneficial to the public as the particular one I recommended, which combined his interest so intimately with that of the public.”

Here I might be well content to leave this controversy; but as there remains still amongst us one who has borne no inconsiderable part in the mechanical movements of the age, I avail myself of his valuable testimony, and thus, once and for all, terminate, I trust, this painful and unseemly discussion.

Mr. Joshua Field, the venerable and respected mechanist, has assured me, that being engaged as mechanical draftsman at Portsmouth Dockyard when Mr. Brunel was introduced by Sir Samuel Bentham, he has a perfect recollection of the condition in which the works were at that time, together with what was proposed to be done by Sir Samuel; and as he was transferred to General Bentham’s office at the Admiralty in 1804, and subsequently joined Mr. Maudslay in 1805, his evidence covers the whole period of the execution of the block machinery. His statement to me is as follows: “ The works in progress, when Mr. Brunel arrived, were a new steam engine and some buildings intended for the reception of machinery, which General Bentham had proposed to erect, but had not erected.

“The General had already introduced saws of various kinds, and machines for tongueing, grooving, and rabbetting timber ; but there was no machinery whatever especially applicable to block making.

“That was altogether the invention of Mr. Brunel. The character of the drawings was different from any we ever had before — the proportion of the parts –the whole thing, in short; and I never once heard, during all the time of my connection with the dockyard, with General Bentham, with Mr. Goodrich, and with Mr. Maudslay, that any one ventured to deny Mr. Brunel’s claims to be the sole inventor of the block machinery.”

I would gladly have been relieved from the necessity of this long, and to some, I fear, tedious vindication ; but it would not have been possible entirely to ignore the existence of claims so unguardedly put forward by those who may be supposed capable of influencing, to some extent, the opinion of the mechanical world, and which, if admitted, would tend to rob Brunel, not only of his position as one of the first mechanists of the age, but of the yet higher privilege of occupying a place amongst the real benefactors of this his adopted country.