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The stunning sensitivity of the IMechE Archive's 'Millionth Machine'

Professional Engineering

The Millionth Machine can measure to one-millionth of an inch
The Millionth Machine can measure to one-millionth of an inch

The IMechE Archive holds an 1876 example of a Millionth Machine – a measuring machine used as a piece of testing apparatus in 19th-century engineering workshops.

Invented by engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth in the 1840s, the Millionth Machine was so called owing to its ability to measure to one millionth of an inch. Before its invention, measuring to one sixteenth of an inch had been considered accurate. The machine would measure length or thickness by comparing the end measure of an object with a known standard.

In 1859 Whitworth demonstrated his machine at a meeting of the IMechE, showing how the device’s accuracy was such that it could show the expansion in length of a one-inch iron bar caused by being touched by a finger.

Born in Stockport in 1803, Whitworth focused his career on accuracy, standardisation and measurement. He made a series of inventions and improvements to existing machinery and tools which would come to revolutionise manufacturing methods in the 19th century and beyond. 

In 1868 Whitworth donated a large sum of money to the government for the creation of a scholarship that would support aspiring engineers who had already gained practical experience through an apprenticeship to gain the theoretical underpinning provided through a university education. The Whitworth Scholarships still exist in 2019.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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