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Precision Machinists


The modern era of producing metal parts accurately and according to specifications began with the invention of the steam engine by James Watt in the latter part of the 18th century. During this same period, John Wilkinson invented the boring machine, which enabled the precise cutting of cylinders for Watt's engine. Also during this time, Henry Maudslay developed a lathe to precisely cut screw threads.

Many other methods of production were developed during the Industrial Revolution. In Great Britain, metal molds and machine-powered engines were used to produce items that had originally been handcrafted. These new processes lowered costs and sped up production schedules. At about the same time in the United States, Eli Whitney was using tools and machines to make gun parts with such accuracy that they were interchangeable.

This interchangeability of machine-produced parts became the basis for modern mass production. Throughout the 19th century, more specialized and refined metalworking machines were designed. The electric motor became widely used as a source of power, which spurred further improvements in manufacturing.

The workers who used these machines to create parts—machinists and machine tool operators—developed into a specialized group who combined machining knowledge with skillful handiwork. By 1888, there were enough machinists in various industries to organize their own union.

In the 20th century, the automobile industry was probably the largest single force in the development of machinery and demand for machinists. Technological developments, such as numerical control machinery and computer-aided design applications, have continued to spur progress in machining operations.

These developments have also changed the jobs of machinists. Now workers set manual and computer-controlled machine tools to cut and contour metal into intricate shapes. They use lasers, intricate measuring machines, and modern imaging equipment to check dimensions. Though much of machinists' work is still done by hand, their profession has evolved into much more of a science than a craft.

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