What Is a Lathe? (History and Development)

What is a lathe?

A lathe is a machine tool that mainly uses a turning tool to turn a rotating workpiece.

Bits, reamers, taps, the thread dies and knurling can also be used on the lathe for corresponding processing.

Lathes are mainly used for machining shafts, discs, sleeves and other workpieces with rotating surfaces.

It is the most widely used type of machine tools in machinery manufacturing and repair shops.

What is a lathe

Well, after science popularization, the topic of “mother of the machine” should be discussed – the past and present life of the lathe.

The prototype of lathe

The first prototype of the machine tool, the tree lathe, was created by our ancestors to make it easier to work with tools, about 2,000 years ago.

tree lathe

During the 13th century, the prototype of machine tools was also developing, but it was not always possible to hang it on a tree.

At this time, there was a “pedal lathe” that rotated the crankshaft with a foot pedal and drove the flywheel, which was then driven to the spindle to make it rotate, also called a flexible bar lathe.

flexible bar lathe

At the same time in China, the Ming dynasty published a strange book called Tian Gong Kai Wu which describes the technologies of the Ming dynasty and the dynasty before it, and you will know what “the wisdom of the ancients” means.

The book also describes the structure of a grinding machine, which uses a principle similar to that of the European medieval foot-operated machine.

It uses the pedal method to rotate the metal plate and work with sand and water to process jade.

Structure of a grinding machine from Tian Gong Kai Wu 

Structure of a grinding machine from Tian Gong Kai Wu

from Tian Gong Kai Wu 

from Tian Gong Kai Wu

This is similar to boring in modern machining, where a special steelyard is used to grind away the inner jade bit by bit.

To think of the ancient craftsmen, who were really skilled craftsmen.

from Tian Gong Kai Wu 

from Tian Gong Kai Wu

The birth of machine tools

In 1774, the British Wilkinson invented the barrel boring machine, which was the first real boring machine in the world.

barrel boring machine

The barrel boring machine invented by Wilkinson, which was originally used to forge arms

In 1775, Wilkinson used the cylinder bored by this barrel boring machine to recreate Wattner’s leaky cylinder to meet the requirements of Watt’s steam engine.

In order to boring larger cylinders, he built a water-wheel-driven cylinder boring machine in the same year, which promoted the development of steam engines.

water-wheel-driven cylinder boring machine

Wilkinson’s cylinder boring machine for forging larger cylinders

Since then, the machine tool began to be driven by a steam engine through the crankshaft.

For the machine tool and the steam engine, mutual assistance promoted common development, and a vigorous industrial revolution era came to an extreme.

The birth and popularization of modern lathe prototype

father of the lathe

At this point, it has to mention the “father of the lathe” – Henry Maudslay, a British inventor.

He is to the lathe what Watt is to the steam engine.

In 1797, Maudslay made the first thread-cutting lathe, which has a screw and polished rod.

A modern lathe with a sliding tool post can turn threads of different pitches.

Maudslay 1797 lathe

Maudslay 1797 lathe

Since then, Maudslay has continued to improve the lathe, and in 1800 he replaced the triangular iron bar frame with a solid cast iron bed, and the idle wheel with interchangeable gear pairs, which instead of changing the screw to turn threads of different pitches.

This was the prototype of the modern lathe, which is the epoch-making tool-frame lathe that was important to the English Industrial Revolution.

Maudslay 1800 lathe

Maudslay 1800 lathe

Strictly speaking, the lathe wasn’t invented by Maudslay, he just re-invented the lathe based on his predecessors and gave it the ability to cut automatically.

But it was Maudslay’s re-invention that made the lathe so popular that the lathe was truly born.

The rapid development of all types of machine tools

In the 19th century, due to the development of various industries, different types of machine tools were needed to be applied.

In 1817, Roberts invented the gantry lathe;

In 1818, Whitney from the United States made the world’s first common milling machine.

Roberts gantry lathe

Roberts gantry lathe

In order to continue to increase mechanization and automation, in 1845, Fitch from the United States invented the turret lathe.

In 1848, rotary lathes were introduced in the United States.

In 1873, Spencer from the United States built a single-spindle automatic lathe, soon a three-spindle automatic lathe was invented.

At the beginning of the 20th century, lathes with gearboxes driven by a single motor appeared.

Spencer machine tools

Spencer machine tools

In 1900, American Norton used emery and corundum to make a large and wide grinding wheel, as well as a rigid and strong heavy-duty grinder.

The development of grinders has brought machinery manufacturing technology into a new stage of precision.

development of grinders

The industrial revolution itself is an explosive development.

In this big explosion, the machine tools of this period are also constantly developing and changing, and they are constantly improving for the sake of higher efficiency of industry and production.

The inventors of these machine tools are really true born in this world.

With the invention of high-speed tool steel and the application of electric motors, machine tools have also been upgraded from steam power to electric motors, which is another cross-epoch improvement.

It can be seen that human beings have gone through hundreds of years of development from human power to water power and from steam drive to electric drive.

1910, old British lathe

1910, old British lathe

After the World War I, various high-efficiency automatic lathes and specialized lathes developed rapidly due to the needs of munitions, automobiles and other machinery industries.

automatic lathes

In order to improve the productivity of small batches workpieces, in the late 1940s, lathes with hydraulic profiling devices were promoted.

At the same time, multi-tool lathes were also developed.

Electric machine tool after World War II

Electric machine tool after World War II

In the middle 1950s, program-controlled lathes with punched cards, latch plates and dials were developed.

CNC technology began to be used in lathes in the 1960s, and microprocessors were directly used in CNC machines in the 1970s, which further promoted the popularization and rapid development of CNC machine tools and has continued to develop to this day.

Early CNC machine tools

Early CNC machine tools

Chinese lathe: from belt lathe to five-axis

For historical reasons, it can be said that China almost completely missed the first three industrial revolutions.

The real development of Chinese lathes began after the founding of the People’s Republic of China.

At the beginning of new China, the equipment manufacturing industry, including machine tools, was almost blank.

China’s first batch of machine tools was successfully rolled off the assembly line through the hard work of the workers under the conditions of “be poor and blank”.

China's first lathe

In 1949, new China’s first lathe, a six-foot belt lathe, was finally born in Shenyang No. 1 Machine Tool Plant.

The workers in the picture are operating a belt lathe

The workers in the picture are operating a belt lathe

The advent of this batch of machine tools and subsequent mass production have strongly supported the industrialization of the country and created many subsequent production miracles.

Machining Workshop of Shenyang No.1 Machine Tool Plant

Machining Workshop of Shenyang No.1 Machine Tool Plant

In the “First Five-Year Plan” period, the state renovated some machinery repair plants and built some new enterprises, and identified 18 key production enterprises.

These 18 companies are the famous “Eighteen Arhats” in the machine tool industry.

With the technical assistance of the Soviet Union, the “Eighteen Arhat Factory” has continuously developed new machine tools.

For example:

After Shenyang No. 1 Machine Tool Plant produced the first lathe in new China in 1949, it developed China’s first C620-1 horizontal lathe in 1955 and began mass production.

In the same year, Dalian Machine Tool Plant began to produce a new machine tool—universal shovel, and Shanghai Machine Tool Plant successfully trial-produced a new cylindrical grinder.

In 1956, Ji’er Machine Tool mass-produced planer and spiral friction press (the factory successfully developed China’s first large planer and first large mechanical press in 1953 and 1955, respectively)

first CNC milling machine of the new China

At the turn of the summer and autumn in 1958, the first CNC milling machine of the new China was finally born – X53K1, which was jointly developed by Tsinghua University and Beijing First Machine Tool Factory and it was also the first CNC machine in Asia.

China's first CNC milling machine

New China’s first CNC milling machine was finally born–X53K1

The successful development completed a great leap in the history of China’s machinery industry.

From then on, China’s machining began to rely on handicrafts to rely on technology change.

After nearly 30 years, due to foreign technology blockade and domestic basic conditions, China’s CNC technology has not been a good development.

Until after the reform and opening up, China has ushered in the spring of the development of the machine tool industry, machine tool types and models are also gradually enriched.

Development so far, what vertical, horizontal, multi-axis, CNC car, turning and milling compound and so on … … all types of lathes are invented.

all types of lathes

In 2012, Shenyang Machine Tool Company independently studied and designed the first with network intelligent function “i5 CNC system” and achieved industrialization, which marked the end of the history of China’s total dependence on imports of high-grade CNC machine tool CNC system.

Today, China has become the world’s largest machine tool market for eight consecutive years, which is also the only country in the world to produce all categories of machine tools.

all categories of machine tools

With the increasing development of CNC lathe, now it has become the trend of the industry.

However, it seems that ordinary lathes will continue to exist for a certain period of time.

After all, for small-volume orders, ordinary lathes are more time-saving and cost-effective.

Moreover, for the intelligent transformation of machine substitutions that wants to “dominate the world”, it will take a relatively long time to complete the evolutionary transition.

However, the withdrawal of ordinary lathes from the market will eventually be its destiny.

2 thoughts on “What Is a Lathe? (History and Development)”

  1. Good day
    Can you please be so kind as to provide me with an email address where I can contact you. I would like to send you some pictures of a lathe that I am trying to identify and want to request your assistance. It does not seem that I can upload pictures directly on the website.

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