American and British Workmen and Machinery


During a recent visit to Great Britain I gave considerable attention to men and machines, and the following are some of my observations and impressions. Not desiring to criticize any special locality, I will simply use the word “Britain;” and in comparing with the United States will use the word “American.”

My first attention to mechanics was given to locomotive building, as I wished to solve some puzzling matters, such as the general claim that a given number of men in America will build over twice as many locomotives per year as the same number would in Britain—that American builders can compete against the British for foreign orders and yet pay their men about twice as much per hour. This is rather a big question, but I satisfied myself that I found enough to account for differences as great as the above, partly as follows:

The Americans use more special machinery, and thus make labor more effective; and this is still further increased by division of labor. The easy-going swing in the British works is quite noticeable, as compared with the greater activity and “push” in the American. The British carry a greater dead weight of counting-house, drawing office and pattern shop than the Americans—I would venture to state, two or three times as much, compared with the number of engines built.

Most of the British machines are such as are used generally in machine and engine works, while the Americans use a great many machines designed and built expressly for locomotive work. The application of milling to locomotive work has revolutionized methods in America in late years, while in Britain it is still comparatively little used.

The Americans are easily ahead in vertical and horizontal spindle milling machines, double face mills, horizontal face plate turning mills, cylinder boring and facing machines, screw cutting machines, special tools for stay bolt making, flatting of hexagon nuts, finishing cylinder ports, etc., and an indefinite number of ingenious methods some called “Yankee tricks,” all of which tend to an increase of product, as compared with the number of hours labor.

The general structure of the American and British locomotives makes a great, difference in erecting. The British build a stiff frame of plates riveted and bolted, and all through make a slow, laborious work of erecting the engine; while the Americans actually block up side frames and boiler over wheels, all in position, and seem to finish up all parts at the same time by different “teams” of men, so that the engine is run out of the shop in an incredibly short time.

In the matter of labor, pure and simple, the most important point in favor of America is the small amount of “hand-work,” as compared with machine-work; so great is this difference that in my first visit to an American locomotive works I actually asked where the bench work was done, after I had practically gone over all parts of the works. In the British works no such question would be necessary, for men literally swarm on what is called by them “fitting” (or bench work), filing, scraping and apparently “fiddling in their time” on work which would be almost finished by machines in America.

So prominently does this strike me that it would be little exaggeration to say that the Americans build a locomotive by machinery and unwillingly do a little hand-work; while the British make a desperate attempt to build it by hand, but cannot help doing a little machine work. The Americans “mill right to size;” the British “plane” and “slot” in an imperfect manner, and then add more expense, filing and scraping off the “allowance for fitting” which they leave.

Even with their cheap labor, this method costs more than the American method. I was informed that this British system is perpetuated by the railways themselves in sending inspectors who insist on extremes in testing the work, which have no practical value but to throw expense on the builders. This method, while necessary and proper in machine tool building, is useless in locomotive work, and sometimes even harmful, for a locomotive never does her best work till she “loosens up” enough to be perfectly free from the danger of binding and heating.

In the stationary engine the engineer can keep joints up much closer, because he can feel them constantly for heating, but in the locomotive there is no way but keeping working joints loose enough for safety. The Americans thoroughly grasp this difference, and use fine machines, and nearly always let in working fits without hand-work. I incline to think that types are more uniform in America, and as much greater numbers are built, the ratio which templates, gauges and pattern making bear to the total, is in their favor. The British forged wheel is expensive, ugly, and more liable to breakage than the cheaper, heavier, and better looking cast-iron wheel of the Americans.

Now, why these great differences? Apparently the value of labor in America stimulates the invention of tools, which bring the work nearer a finish, because hand-work is the expensive part. But beyond all this, and permeating the whole, is the greater elasticity and adaptability of the American character, not content even with the best, at any given time, but constantly reaching out for better methods—never satisfied, yet the happiest man on earth—for in him the optimism of constant advance is irrepressible.

Some peculiarities of the British locomotive bear sufficiently on national character to be worth noting here. It is a wonderful little machine for drawing “railway carriages,” but when you bring it to America it is practically useless for drawing railroad cars, and is found to be about powerful enough for shunting at the stations. It has a rigid frame, in which the axle boxes are fitted—but you ask, “How does it run on a curve?”

Well, the curve is made to fit it, half a mile radius being good practice, so it runs around that pretty well. It is driven by inside cranks, and by putting enough metal in these cranks, they stand, but as this necessitates driving the wheels through the axles, these axles must be of large diameter. The wheels are forged as if made light, to press easy on the rails, but as some pressure is necessary, even to draw the little “carriages,” a mass of iron called the “footplate” is riveted between the frames, and this weight reaches the rails through the axle boxes, but, as we have already made the axles very large, a little more added for this does not make much difference.

This foot-plate is intensely British, for it adds to the stiffness and clumsiness of the framework of the engine, so that if a curve is too sharp, so much the worse for the curve. The “driver” (engineer) stands on this footplate, behind the fire box, along with the fireman, and here another use for the foot plate appears; for it is proof even against their massive British boots.

Both driver and fireman stand openly in the weather; but this is easily explained, for the Britisher is never happy unless he feels a drizzling rain in his face, and there is not enough sunshine to be considered. Still, there is a limit even here, for sometimes during severe snow or hail-storms, even the British “driver” running up against the wind at express speed, gets more than he enjoys, so the builders take this kindly into account, and put up over the fire box a “storm board,’” in which two panes of glass, about a foot in diameter, are placed, and the humble “driver” is grateful to his superiors.

No pilot, bell or headlight are used, and the engine has a plain, forlorn look, as if a cyclone had ripped off all her trimmings, the result being that “she looks as if she had been cast in one piece.” The driving wheels are covered with shields, like small paddle boxes, but I utterly failed to find what they were for; I suppose, however, they are to catch the gravel and sand thrown up by the air currents, and to make sure that they are thrown down again on the axle boxes.

Coming to ship building, it is remarkable how little difference can be noted, in a hurried visit, between the American and British shipyard. In the engine department there is the general difference of method noted in locomotive building, but not so marked as in the latter, except in the smaller details of the work, in which the American methods are quicker and more ingenious.

There is enough difference to lead me to the opinion that the cost of production in Britain is not much less than in America, and that this is decreasing. The general method of handling work is more clumsy and laborious, and it appeared to me that more power is wasted in machinery, and more physical force applied by the workmen to produce a given result than in America.

Somehow the American strikes the nail on the head more precisely, and drives it home with less cumbersomeness than the Britisher. Everything tends to clumsiness. Forgings are made with a greater allowance for finishing, and consequently deeper cuts are taken off by the machines; and not only this, but there is less cutting done, the Britisher, apparently, preferring to tear or force off the metal with a blunt, heavy tool.

It is evident that the designers of machines must take this into account, as most of the details are too heavy, noticeably to feed motions. The answer to criticisms on this point is always, “Strength, strength, strength;” but the American designer has shown that mere weight of metal is not always strength, but often the opposite.

The British designer seems to put as much metal as possible in the framework; then he tries to make the moving parts heavy enough to break the frame, and he often succeeds. Hence the poor workman is loaded by everything he has to move; he has, therefore, to use more force, his motions are more clumsy and slow and he effects less. Where the British designer would throw in and out a feed with a stout lever, the American would do it more effectively by a little knob moved by the fingers.

But my British friend says, “These little gingerbread Yankeeisms do not last.” Yes they do—if used by the American workman, for whom they were designed; and this is just the kernel of the matter; for the British workman would find it awkward to move a little knob with his fingers—he nearly always takes hold with his whole hand. Anything movable is with him a hammer, and everything stationary an anvil. This deficiency in delicate touch is very plain, and influences all his actions. He appears to have little sensibility in the points of his fingers; hence his tendency to grasp everything in a “clumsy-fisted” manner.

Amongst unusually heavy tools I noticed the four-jaw chucks, and asked one of the tool builders I met for the reason, and he informed me that he had tried the American chucks and made a complete failure, as his workmen broke them in a short time, and he was compelled to build the heavy style. He did not dispute my assertion that the American workman with his lighter chuck, handled work quicker. Now, observe what the British workman gains by carelessly breaking tools of reasonable weight: he laboriously handles tools nearly twice the weight they ought to be, hour after hour, day after day, year after year.

This machine builder was by far the best informed man I met, as to British and American practice, and the only one I found favorable to the latter; but he had made a tour in America and made comparisons for himself. In his works I found three of the most distinctly American machines, viz., universal milling, universal grinding, and vertical spindle chucking machines, all by the firm which has practically created them —The Brown & Sharpe Mfg. Co., Providence, R. I.

These machines standing among first class British machines enabled me to make direct comparisons with this result. The British has a dead, heavy look, as if driven against its will; the American has a live, graceful look, and appears as if it enjoyed running. The British appears as if made from inert matter; the American seems to have a nervous system. The British is stolid; the American bright. The British is prosaic; the American the poetry of mechanics. The British is pessimistic looking: The American optimistic. The British looks as if built by a Calvinist who believed in hell; the American, the creation of a Universalist. The British is noisy; the American quiet. The British looks brutal; the American refined.

The prevalence of noise and jar in British machinery is amazing, and the workmen appear entirely indifferent—so much so that you would almost suppose they liked it! It is evident that the British designer has little incentive to work for quiet-running machinery. In America quiet running is a leading characteristic, and is placed at the top in advertisements and descriptions, and adds to the selling price of the machine.

Does not this indicate an obtuseness and stolidity in the British workman, and a nervous sensibility in the American? The greatest cause of this noise in British machinery is their persistence in the antiquated system of cast gear wheels. The Americans cut the teeth, and for very large pitches cast them large and then plane all over. In one of the largest British works I talked with the engineer (“driver”) of a department, and could hardly hear him for the noise and pounding of his engine, which he did not notice in the least. I asked him if he had taken indicator cards lately, and he replied that the makers had examined “her” lately, and he supposed they took cards!

The mental attitude towards American improvements is very funny—that is, to the American. I criticized a clumsy machine, and received this crushing answer: “Who had it first?” How could a machine be improved in America if the British had it first and used it most? He spoke and the question was settled. It was stated to me with that seriousness so peculiarly British, that “We have been longer at it, and having more experience, we must be in advance of America!”

I found that this very experience was often the weak point, for it had led to conventionalities in method which stand in the way of advance. In some instances methods would become fixed in localities, and even in families, till skill appeared to become hereditary, and this state of matters was always associated with imperfect and primitive machines and tools. Thus personal skill became the most important factor, so that the employer was put more in the power of the employee. In America it is just the opposite, for machinery and methods are the most important factors, and are brought to such a high point that “any handy man” can be quickly taught.

In one instance, I was shown work being done on the slotting machine, and as it was just the work for which the vertical spindle milling machine was invented, I challenged the method; but the manager promptly informed me he had tried the miller, and “timed” it against the slotter, and the latter was ahead. No doubt about it, and while that twenty-year manager and his present force of workmen are employed, the slotter will be still ahead.

To illustrate this difference between acquired skill and automatic machinery, let us suppose a British machine works suddenly put under boycott by skilled labor; it would be practically wiped out. Now, suppose a similar condition in an American works—what would be the result? Simply that men would be taken from “laboring work,” and taught so soon that little serious delay would be suffered. In both cases I assume that manager and foremen remain.

More than this boys from farms in America have introduced some of the best improvements. Why? Because they were not taught the “proper” way, and therefore tried some original methods, and often made a hit. The young American is much given to “rigging up” some attachment to his machine, and the foreman knows enough, generally, to give him reasonable liberties, and his success is often remarkable.

In Britain he would be told to “obey orders.” This brings us to the fundamental Americanism—the recognition of the individual. In one instance which I know of, a workman attempted to have a simple improvement tried, but was told that the manager did not like such things, and that he preferred a workman to “keep his place.” He refused, and now occupies a much better place than that manager ever did. America says a man’s place is the highest he can reach honorably.

In questioning British workmen you are impressed with their stolid carelessness in answering, partly from ignorance and partly from the danger of “knowing too much for their places.” I hardly think it would be possible to make clear to an American who had not visited Britain, this peculiarity which runs through nearly all grades of society, but shows most plainly amongst workmen, viz., an indefinite and indescribable fear that something they may say or do, even inadvertently, may offend some of “their betters.”

This is in distressing contrast to the bright and easy spontaneity of the American. In Britain the workman will answer you in a short, gruff way, without lifting his head from his work, almost as if he said, “You ought to be aware that I am not supposed to know anything,” while in America he will surprise you with the knowledge he has beyond what he is doing, and he will not hesitate to stop work for a short time to explain anything you may ask about, and he is in no danger from foreman or manager by so doing, because they know that he is more efficient with this liberty than without it.

The British workman is always a “workman”; he wears practically the same clothes the year round, and they are made and advertised for “workingmen.” He goes to and comes from his work in the same clothes he works in, and rarely washes his hands or face at the works, but comes home with all the dirt of the forge or the foundry, and often takes back quite a little of it next morning.

Look at him carrying his coffee can; he does it so well that there is no hope. Note his gait—a “workman,” and for the future, still a “workman.” See his son by his side—the coffee can, the lunch, the gait, the heavy boots, the shoulders getting round, the stunted growth and prematurely wise face, the stolid expression, and you exclaim—a “workman,” hopelessly a “workman.”

He said to me, “I’m only a common workingman.” Why should he not keep his place? I talked with another about the acquisition of knowledge and rising in position; he replied, “A man can only make a living!” It took a good many generations to make these men, and it will take many to lift them up again, if it can ever be done. Does any one suppose that Americans could be bred down to this? Or, are these only possible in a community founded on the class system? Is not this the result of a social system in which a man has his place?

A brilliant woman asked me, “Why is it that an emigrant returning from a few years’ residence in America nearly always comes elevated and brightened, while from any other place he usually comes just as he left, or worse?” Simply the freedom of individualism in America. It is here that the greatest fundamental difference exists between the two countries. In Britain you may be a “green-grocer,” or a “coal-heaver”; you may be a “gentleman,” or a “prince” out of jail; but never, never a “man.” There is no escape from this.

In America the first assumption is that you are a man and a citizen without blemish, and even if you fall short of this, your neighbors will assist you upwards, for they have no interest in doing otherwise. The element of contest is left out, for you do not encroach on any one. In Britain it is just the opposite, for in rising you are always an object of suspicion, and those “above” you resent you as an intruder. Still the vile unjust class system.

Now, to come back to the pertinent question of my fair friend. If there is any good material in an emigrant (and there generally is), he will feel these things in America very soon. I say “feel,” for it is deeper and more potent than any written or spoken language. If there is even a seed of self respect in him it will develop. Not only can he rise freely; he will, in a certain sense, be pushed up, for Americans resent humility—which he will likely show a little from habit.

The American who has succeeded will act as if saying to him, “Step up here; we believe in you.” There is a charm in the recognition he receives as he climbs up, of which he knew nothing in the Old World, and he will gradually acquire that uniformity of manner which marks the American. It is hardly possible to take the Britisher’s manners seriously: now strutting around, with his nose in the air, that he may sustain his dignity amongst his “inferiors”; then doubling up quickly like a jack-knife, till his head almost touches the ground, when a real “big-bug” looms up.

I have seen a man, who, under ordinary circumstances, was almost too dignified to look at the ground, dancing around a superior like a pet dog! Under these conditions the workman does as well as could be expected, and as there are distinct signs of improvement, partly native and partly a reflex action from America, there is good hope for the future.

James Arthur

American Machinist – November 24, 1892

—Jeff Burks

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9 Responses to American and British Workmen and Machinery

  1. toolnut says:

    Thanks Jeff. Another geat read. ( Being Memorial Day, my patriotism is high and as I read this I kept wanting to chant “USA, USA, USA”.)

  2. Eric R says:

    These older writings have an incredible way of transferring the meaning of an idea much better then those of later years.
    Thanks for sharing it Jeff.

  3. Doug Shannon says:

    Jeff, did a Victorian machinist from Sheffield steal your first girlfriend and take her back to old Blighty or something?

    • I reckon Mr. Arthur was not invited back for another tour. Still, I’m glad Mr. Burks opted to republish here at the risk of offending our British counterparts—it’s sufficiently polemical to be considered “of it’s time”—because it inarguably gives insight into the American mindset which brought us some of our best tools.

      • As always, the posts here assume a certain amount of media literacy. Excerpted passages do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the entry’s author.

        Just a friendly reminder from your friendly blog administrator.

      • Doug Shannon says:

        Chris’s post doesn’t have a reply button underneath it so that’s why I appear to be replying to Kurtis. I was being somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but Jeff had posted two entries in a row that were essentially disparaging to the Old Country. Not having been around in the late 19th century, it may be true that the average British worker of the time was a workshy oaf that saw every task as a nail to be hit with a 2lb lump hammer, but as Kurtis mentions we do have to take the article as a piece of political polemic. Regarding media literacy however, we also have to question editorial intent. It was posted on a national day of pride, was it not, though I’m pretty sure we haven’t fought the US since 1812. Maybe Mr Arthur, and perhaps Jeff, were still pissed about the White House.

        By the way, my tongue is still firmly in my cheek.

  4. So, can anyone offer hows and whys we went from “the optimism of constant advance” to Harbor Freight and “tool shaped objects?”

    • tsstahl says:

      We won. The race to the bottom is pretty much over.

      We have gone full circle and now pine for the days of struggle. Or at least the Norman Rockwell vision of those bygone days.

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