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Thomas Blanchard

little-known, but quite successful, inventor

Thomas Blanchard

Thomas Blanchard was born on a farm near Worcester, Massachusetts, on June 24, 1788. His desire to work with machines was inspired by a visit to a local blacksmith shop, and by the time he entered his teens he was coming up with new ways to do things.

When he was 13, Blanchard heard about a mechanical apple parer and decided that he could make a better one, even though he had never seen the original one. Seeing that someone peeling an apple tends to let his thumb guide the knife blade's path and regulate its depth, he invented a mechanical parer with a wire guide that took the thumb's place.

By 18 Blanchard was working in his brother's machine shop, and it was there that he came up with his first major invention, a machine for counting carpet tacks so they could be packaged. He then set his efforts on inventing a machine to make the tacks. It took him six years, but he ended up with a machine that could produce 200 tacks a minute. He then sold the patent rights for $5,000, which was a very hefty sum in 1812.

The tack-making machine gave Blanchard a good reputation, and he was sought out by the Springield Armory to see whether he could improve the lathe for turning the barrels of guns. The machine he developed didn't just turn the barrel, however, it also created the flat sides where the barrel meets the breech.

The success of Blanchard's barrel-turning machine led directly to what is his best known invention, the wood lathe. When a Springfield worker who made wooden gun stocks said that Blanchard couldn't make a machine to replace him because gun stocks have an irregular shape, Blanchard decided to prove him wrong. On September 6, 1819, he patented a machine that could copy any pattern with precision and speed. As both pattern and wood turned, a small friction wheel followed the contours of the pattern. That wheel in turn regulated the motion of the chisels that ultimately created an exact replica of the pattern. So effective was Blanchard's lathe at mass-producing gun stocks, it was subsequently adapted by a number of manufacturers for the production of almost anything made from wood. Over the years, it has also been modified to work on metal.

Blanchard was eventually awarded 24 patents. In addition to the machines mentioned above, he also invented a steam-powered car, a steamboat capable of navigating against the current, machines for cutting and folding envelopes in a single operation, several types of mortising machines, and a machine that could bend wood, which was subsequently used to form ship planks, plow handles, wheel rims, furniture, etc.

Thomas Blanchard died in Springfield, Massachusetts, on April 16, 1864.

Engines of Our Ingenuity

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This page was last updated on 01/07/2018.