Simanaitis Says

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IT MAY SEEM odd: Hold the carving tool in one place and move the object being carved. Yet, historians of manufacturing say the ancient potter’s wheel led not only to the modern lathe, but also to chariots and the rest of mankind’s wheeled mobility.

These tidbits come from A History of the Machine, a book by Sigvard Strandh, originally designed and produced by AB Nordbook, Gothenberg, Sweden. Not incidentally, Gothenberg is the home of Saab, Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, whose aircraft and cars have already appeared here at SimanaitisSays.

A History of the Machine, by Sigvard Strandh; translator, Ann Henning; editors, Turlough Johnston and Kerstin Stealbrand; A&W Publishers, 1979.

Sivgard Strandh makes the point that Stone Age artisans were anything but primitive; a lot of modern technology has roots tracing far back in history. What’s more, his text and the art of 15 talented technical illustrators describe unexpected analogies, such as those in today’s tidbits.

The Mighty Five. Strandh characterizes “The Mighty Five” as these five simple machines: the inclined plane, the wedge, the screw, the lever, and the wheel. He says, “At least ‘the mighty four’—the exception being the wheel—were all probably known by the Palaeolithic [Early Stone] Age.”

Pottery Before Chariots. Strandh writes, “Many scholars believe that the throwing wheel, used in pottery, antedates the wheel by about a thousand years.”

Ancient pottery: The clay is trampled, then kneaded, then thrown, and last fired in ovens accessed through the top. This and other images from A History of the Machine.

Strandh notes that Sumerian pottery dating to 3250 B.C. shows obvious signs of having been made on a potter’s wheel.

That is, the Sumerian artisan held his tool of fabrication—his hands—steady and spun the clay to shape it.

Egyptian Chariots Came Later. Builders of the Great Pyramids of Egypt’s Fourth Dynasty, c. 2500 B.C., made use of sleds and rollers, not wheels.

Strandh observes, “One fact which must be considered remarkable is that the Old Kingdom in Egypt, the nearest neighbour to the Sumerian river culture, had no knowledge of the wheel. Only in about 2500 B.C. did it become known there, probably in the form of a two-wheeled chariot used in battle.”

Fast Forward to the Mid 1700s. The “Mighty Five” improved over the centuries, but primarily, Strondh notes, through “better materials and new occupations that required tools other than those already in existence…. From the Middle Ages until the era of industrialism, however, the tools of the carpenter, joiner, and smith remained more or less the same.”

Encyclopédie, ou Dictionaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers, 1751–1780. Image from

The classic Encyclopédie, ou Dictionaire Raisonné des Sciences, des Arts et des Métiers was assembled between 1751 and 1780, by Denis Diderot, Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, and Ottaviano Diodati. Its 28 folio-size volumes described more than 80 trades of the era.

A goldsmith’s lathe described in the Encyclopédie could inscribe artful patterns on plates of precious metal.

With the goldsmith’s lathe, plate a is attached to template b on the lathe’s turntable c. Roller d follows the template’s edge and guides graver e. The depth of engraving is adjusted longitudinally by crank f.

Belt drives characterized machine shops of the early 20th century.

NC Machines are Modern, But… Today’s lathes and other machine tools are numerically controlled by computer. However, Strandh notes, “Their development can be traced, logically, from Spencer’s pioneering machine-tool automat of the 1870’s.”

American inventor Christopher M. Spencer’s original device mounted several tools in an adjustable turret, the turret capable of rotating to select the appropriate tool for each desired lathe operation. With the advent of computer control, NC machines are programmed to coordinate all of the operations.

A TNC Combi turret lathe, with its operation board at the left. Since the computer program can be rapidly changed, such NC machines are well suited to manufacture work with multiple details in short series.

A Potter’s Tale. I am reminded of once admiring a bowl, hand-thrown on a potter’s wheel, at a local art show. I asked the artisan if he’d be willing to do another three of them.

“Sorry, but no,” he said. “I’m not into production work.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019


  1. phil ford
    February 28, 2019

    As a amateur (non-commercial) potter, I TOTALLY understand not wanting to produce ‘multiples’. Makers choice, in my opinion. 😎

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