Clement, Joseph 1779 - 1844


(1779-1844) Engineer

Joseph Clement was born in the village of Great Ashby in 1779, in what was then Westmorland but is now Cumbria. Originally his name was spelt Clemmet, but he later changed the spelling, although when he did this is unclear. His father was a handloom weaver with a great interest in natural history and mechanics, building his own lathe in their home. Joseph himself received some education at the local school but would leave at a young age to work on hand looms with his father until he was 18 years old and they were displaced by mechanical ones. From this point he worked as a thatcher, and later as a slater, but continued to enhance his mechanical skill by working with the village blacksmith. As part of this he developed his own lathe and produced flutes, fifes and Northumberland Bagpipes as well as a microscope for his father and a telescope. He would also produce a set of die stocks around this time.

In 1805 Clement moved to Kirby Stephen to work on the production of power looms but would move on to Carlisle and later Glasgow in 1807. It was whilst in Glasgow that he would take lessons in drawing from Peter Nicholson before moving to Aberdeen, where he worked for Messrs Leys Masson and Co designing and producing power looms. He continued to study practical mechanics and in 1813 would move to London. His first position would be in Alexander Galloway’s shop before he moved on to work for Joseph Bramah as chief-draughtsman and superintendent of the Pimlico Works. Following the death of Bramah, in December 1814, a disagreement with the firm’s new owners led to him moving to become chief-draughtsman at Maudslay, Sons and Field, assisting in the development of early marine engines.

In 1817 Clement started his own shop in Prospect Place, Newington Butts, where he would work until his death. This business would remain small focusing on precision hand tools, improved instruments for draughtsmen and one-off jobs calling for very accurate workmanship. In was whilst here that he would develop a machine that would allow for ellipses, circle and right angle to be drawn more accurately and for which he would win a gold medal from the Royal Society of Arts. In addition to this he made many advances to increase the accuracy of his machinery. One of these was a double driving centre-chuck that aimed to eliminate bending in bars when they were turned on lathes. Another was a self-acting mechanism that varied the speed of a lathe as it turned items of a very large diameter. The aim of this was to ensure that the tool acted at a constant speed regardless of where it came into contact with the material and it was not improved upon until electric speed control was developed in the 1890s. Clement would also be one of many engineers who worked in parallel on the development of planers, building on the work of Matthew Murray. His first was specifically designed to machine lathe guideways whereas the second, which he produced in 1825, would be much more versatile. This so called ‘Great Planer’ was able to work a piece up to 6 square feet, making the largest such machine for 10 years, and was able to produced cylinders and work circular, spiral and conical items in addition to flat work. The machine was also unusual for having a cutting tool that worked on both the forward and return stroke, as opposed to the majority where cutting only occurred on the forward stroke, and for its high degree of precision, with Clement stating that a sheet of paper placed on one of the supporting rollers was enough to take the weight off the next.

In 1828 Clement would being to manufacture taps and dies using thread standards that had previously been developed by Maudslay. It was this work on standardisation, along with his improvement in screw cutting lathes, which would be developed by Joseph Whitworth into British Standard Whitworth.

Clements reputation for workmanship and accuracy would bring him to the attention of Charles Babbage and in 1823 he employed Clement to produce his Difference Engine. This required the production of a number of large, highly-accurate machine tools in order to ensure the components where of the require quality. The standard practice at the time was that the production of these tools would be chargeable to the project but would remain the property of their make. This led to a disagreement between the two, due to the high cost Clement charged, and they would part ways before the work was complete.

Joseph Clement died on 28th February 1844 at 31 St George’s Road, Southwark. His last project had been an organ that he built for his own use. He was described by Samuel Smiles as “a heavy browed man, without any polish of manner or speech; for to the last he continued to use his strong Westmorland dialect. He was not educated in a literary sense; for he read but little, and could write with difficulty. He was eminently a mechanic, and had achieved his exquisite skill by observation, experience, and reflection.” The majority of his property went to his daughter, Sarah Clement, with the exception of his business which he left to his nephew Joseph Wilkinson who continued it for only a short time.