Charles Holtzapffel

Charles Holtzapffel 1806-1847, mechanical engineer and technical writer

Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Volume 1

Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Volume 2

Turning and Mechanical Manipulation Volume 3

Hand or Simple Turning: Principles and PracticeThe Principles and Practices of Ornamental or Complex Turning volume 4

Brief bio info

Born in 1800, Charles Holtzapffel is the son of a German who, in 1787, settled in London as a worker in tools and lathes. In addition to training in his father's workshop, Holtzaplfel -- considering the era -- received a good English education, and, by hard study and practice, became a skilled "mechanician".

(When I encountered Mechanician in the DNB, I became curious about the term, because I have never encountered it before. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this meaning: "A person who is skilled in the construction, use, or repair of machinery; a mechanic.")

In 1838 he published his New System of Scales of Equal Parts applicable to various purposes of Engineering, Architecture and General Science. (Strangely, while generally Holtzapffel is given justified praise for the significance of his multi-volume set, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, his New System is scarcely more than mentioned.)

Holtzapffel's most famous work, Turning and Mechanical Manipulation, intended as a work of general reference and practical instruction on the Lathe, was designed to fill five volumes but only three, published in 1843, were completed in his lifetime.

The first of these treated of "materials, their different choice and preparation"; the second, "the principles of construction, action, and application of cutting tools"; the third of "abrasive and miscellaneous processes which cannot be accomplished with cutting tools". The two concluding volumes, completed by his son, set forth "the principles and practice of hand or simple turning, and those of ornamental or complex turning."

However, the scope of the woodworking tools and techniques covered in the set is mush greater than simply lathes: for example, volume II -- probably the most famous volume in the five volume set -- covers as well as lathe knives such cutting tools as chisels and planes, boring tools, saws, files, shears and punches. Volume claims over 700 black-and-white illustrations, all of remarkable qualtity.

(Today, of course, in retrospect, the presentation and tone of the volumes may strike some as awkward, stilted, or even "quaint", but if you are a true woodworker, you soon get over such considerations. For a similar, quibble, see the 1873 comments by C P B Shelley, below.)

Holtzapftel was a member of council of the Institute of Civil Engineers, and was chairman of the mechanics' committee of the Society of Arts.

He died on 11 April 1847, aged 41, leaving a widow and family.

Holtzapffel's Impact

holtzapffel_mike_nevelson_1973 Holtzapffel's impact is impressive, and far exceeds the span of his lifetime. His lathes are legendary, today, as museum pieces, command enormous prices as examples of engineering excellence. (The image on the left is the first paragraph of a review of the last volume of the set, reprinted by Dover Press in 1973. A review by Mike Nevelson of Holtzapffel's Principles and Practice of Ornamental or Complex Turning in Leonardo, Volume 9, No. 1, Winter, 1976, pages 82-83, is ecstatic in praising the standard Holtzapffel's lathes achieved.)

Sources: Gentleman's Magagazine< 1847, pt. ii. p. 213; Dictionary of National Biography Volume IX, Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1891, page 211.

M. Salmon, in an 1843 review of Holtzapffel's justly famous 4-volume set, wrote the article in the box below:

    The art of turning is one very extensively pursued in this country both for business and pleasure; its uses, too, are manifold, and scarcely second to any in mechanical importance; yet, strange to say, there is probably no branch of art on which less has been written and published in our mother tongue. All the best works on turning are in the French language; the only English authors of note are [John Holt] Ibbetson and [Charless H] Rich - the former an old and frequent correspondent of the Mechanics' Magazine, which had the honour of giving to the world (as Mr. Holtzapffel very handsomely acknowledges) the first description of his admirable modification of the geometric chuck; and in our greatest English collection of books, the British Museum, there is not a single work on turning, either French or English, (with the exception of Rich's) of later date than 1724-7.

    Of there being ample room under these circumstances for a complete English work on the subject (for both Ibbetson's and Rich's embrace but small portions of it) there can be no question; and among the persons most likely to do it well, we know of none so likely to unite the suffrages of all turners, both amateur and practical, as the living representative of the house of Holtzapflel, long the most eminent makers of turning tools and machines in this country.

    Mr. Charles Holtzapffel, the author of the work before us, states that he had made some beginnings in conjunction with his late much-respected father; but that after the death of Ihc latter in 1835, he recommenced his labours on a new plan, of which he now presents the first fruits to the public.

    The most distinguishing features of this plan are its great comprehensiveness, and excellent methodical arrangement.

    Mr. Holtzapffel proposes to discuss in successive volumes,

    I. The materials used in turning, and the various modes of preparing them, as seasoning, hardening, tempering, alloying, &c.

    II. The principles, construction, and purposes of cutting tools, and the various processes used in the production of form, and embellishment of surfaces, as grinding, polishing, &c.

    III. The principles and practice of hand or surface turning. IV. The principles and practice of ornamental or complex turning.

    And V. The principles and practice of amateur engineering, embracing wheel and screw cutting, drilling, planing. Sec.

    The work will thus include not only everything necessary to a perfect understanding of the art of turning in all its branches, but a vast body of valuable information having important relations to other arts as well as turning. Excellent as some of the French works are - the Manuel du Tourneur especially - they are likely to be quite eclipsed by this new production of our own country. The chief fault -- if fault it can be called -- of Mr. Holtzapffel's work will be its size; but this will be found remedied to a great extent by the judicious arrangement of the materials which he has adopted.

    "From the systematic arrangement which has been attempted throughout the five volumes, it is hoped that instead of the numerous descriptions and instructions being indiscriminately mixed and scattered, they will assume the shape of so many brief and separate treatises; and will, in a great measure, condense into a few consecutive pages, the remarks offered under each head; a form that will admit of any subject being selected, and of a more easy and distinct reference and comparison, when the reader may find pliers and thrown into water if necessary; others are then thrust forward from the cooler parts of the plate to take their place."

    Hatchets, adzes, cold chisels, and numbers of similar tools, in which the total bulk is considerable compared with the part to be hardened, are only partially dipped; they are afterwards let down by the heat of the remainder of the tool; and when the colour indicative of the temper is attained, they are entirely quenched. With the view of removing the loose scales, or the oxidation acquired in the fire, some workmen rub the objects hastily in dry salt before plunging them in the water, in order to give them a cleaner and whiter face."

    In hardening large dies, anvils, and other pieces of considerable size, by direct immersion, the rapid formation of steam at the sides of the metal prevents the free access of the water for the removal of the heat with the required expedition; in these cases a copious stream of water from a reservoir above is allowed to fall on the surface to be hardened. This contrivance is frequently called a 'float', and although the derivation of the name is not very clear, the practice is excellent, as it supplies an abundance of cold water, and which, as it falls directly on the centre of the anvil is sure to render that part hard. It is, however, dangerous to stand near such works at the time, as when the anvil face, &c., is not perfectly welded, it sometimes in part flies off with great violence and a loud report."

    Occasionally the object is partly immersed in a tank beneath the fall of water, by means of a crane, slings, &c.; it is ultimately tempered with its own heat and dropped in to become entirely cold." "Oil, or various mixtures of oils, tallow, wax, resin, &c., are used for many thin and elastic objects, such as needles, fishhooks, steel pens, springs, &c., which require a milder degree of hardness than is given by water."

    Source: M. Salmon, The Mechanics' Magazine, Museum, Register, Journal, and Gazette 1843, pages 37, 40

Shelley's 1873 Minor Quibbles About How Holtzapffel Organizes His Descriptions of the Design Features of Tools

    IN his well-known work on 'Turning," &c., Mr. Holtzapffel divides the cutting-tools used by hand into three classes, viz., paring tools, scraping tools, and shearing tools. He admits, however, that this classification is open to criticism, and although we shall be much indebted to Mr. Holtzapffel in the course of this and some of the succeeding chapters, and are glad to bear testimony to the value of his work, we may be pardoned for noting at the outset one or two objections to this mode of grouping.

    [For minor criticsms along the lines of my personal reactions, see Shelley's 1873 comments in the three paragraphs directly below.]

    Paring, or splitting tools, are therein defined as having 'thin edges, the angles of which do not exceed sixty degrees ; one plane of the edge being nearly coincident with the plane of the work produced (or with the tangent, in circular work).' 'Scraping-tools,' on the other hand, have `thick edges, that measure from sixty to one hundred and twenty degrees. The planes of the edges form nearly equal angles with the surface produced; or else the one plane is nearly or quite perpendicular to the face of the work.' Yet joiners' planes are placed in the first group, of which the small facet produced in sharpening the iron on an oilstone is said to form an angle of to° with the surface of the work; and saws are placed in the second, although the back of each tooth may also be inclined io°, or even only 5°, to the cut which it produces. Moreover, under the above definitions, even a wood-chisel, the type of paring tools, loses its title to being classed among them, when, in the hands of the turner, it is applied perpendicularly to the surface of the work, as is sometimes the case. Thick edges, as distinguished from thin ones, seem to offer but little help out of these difficulties of classification. Under the head of 'paring-tools,' we find `most of the engineer's cutting, turning, and planing tools for metal,' in spite of the thickness of their cutting edges, whereas razors (although Mr. Holtzapffel consistently includes them among paring tools) ought surely, if they deserve their name, to be classed among scrapers.

    A better distinction would probably be one in which, in addition to the inclination of the tool, the direction of the force applied to it was taken into account; though whether on this, or on any other basis, a rigid classification could be carried out, seems very doubtful. Certain it is, that at least in cases where continuous rapid motion is imparted to a tool, or to the work with which it is brought into contact-as, for instance, in the case of a circular saw, the cutter of a rotary planing- machine, wood in the process of being turned, &c.-the effects produced are quite as dependent upon the speed, as upon the angle and inclination of the cutting edge; a fact which must not be lost sight of in reducing to definite groups the miscellaneous collection of implements comprised under the head of 'cutting-tools.' No such attempt, however, will be made in this and the following chapter, in which it will be impossible for us to do more than to glance briefly at the more ordinary types of hand-tools-some insight into their principles being essential to the proper understanding of the action of the various machine-tools which form the main portion of our subject.

    Source: C P B Shelley Workshop Appliances 1873, pages 36-37. (Shelley was a Civil Engineer, Honorary Fellow and Professor of Manufacturing Art and Machinery, King's College, London.)

And on a final, personal note: I find it real curious that chapter 1 of the 1881 fourth volume covers the evolution of the lathe in ancient times -- the lathe's emergence --, while chapter 1 of the 1843 volume covers the second stage -- where the lathe becomes a machine tool, from the 16th on. Is this because Charles Holtzapffel was unable to conduct the research, perhaps because the existing sources were not yet available? Or, that he was limited by a lack of command of the languages in which the information was published?

Another consideration focuses on the institution itself: The British Museum was founded in 1759?, and until ?, daily only permitted/admitted a handful of visitors. Impact?

Finally, i would like to know how -- between its founding and 1840, the British Musuem acquired 16th century books in French on lathes.

These are questions that puzzle me, and topics that I intend upon pursuing later. In the meantime, if any reader has answers to these questions, please let me know.