Roberts, Richard (DNB00)

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ROBERTS, RICHARD (1789–1864), inventor, the son of a shoemaker at Carreghova, in the parish of Llanymynech, Montgomeryshire, was born on 22 April 1789. At an early age he became a quarryman, occupying his leisure with practical mechanics. He subsequently became a pattern-maker at Bradley, near Bilston, Staffordshire, under John Wilkinson, ironmaster, and kinsman of Dr. Priestley, and worked at various mechanical trades at Birmingham and at the Horsley ironworks, Tipton, Staffordshire. Drawn in his own county for the militia, he sought to avoid serving by removing successively to Liverpool, Manchester, and Salford, where he became a lathe and tool maker. Hearing that the militia officers were still in search of him, he took refuge in London, where he found employment with Messrs. Maudslay. He settled in Manchester about 1816.

Roberts now became known as an inventor of great ability. Among his earlier inventions were the screw-cutting lathe, an oscillating and rotating wet gas-meter, the planing machine, which is now at South Kensington in the machinery and inventions department, and improvements in the machine for making weavers' reeds, the slide-lathe, and other machines. He also claimed to have been the first to observe the curious phenomenon of the adherence of a disc to an aperture from which a stream of air is issuing, an observation almost always attributed to Clément-Désormes (d. 1842). Roberts showed the experiment to Désormes on the occasion of a visit of the latter to Manchester (see Roberts's letter and Hopkins's paper read to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester in 1827, in Mech. Mag. 1842, xxxvii. 171). A firm—Sharp, Roberts, & Co.—was soon established in Manchester to develop Roberts's inventions commercially. He was the acting director of the manufacturing machinery. On a strike of cotton-spinners in 1824, the manufacturers of Hyde, Stalybridge, and the adjoining districts induced him to attempt the construction of a self-acting mule. In four months he succeeded, and his invention was patented in 1825. His partners are said to have spent 12,000l. in perfecting this machine. In 1826 he went to Mulhouse in Alsace to design and arrange machinery for André Koechlin & Co. In 1832 he invented the radial arm for winding on in the self-acting mule, and other improvements in the cotton manufacture. Ten years later he severed his connection with Sharp, Roberts, & Co., and his financial affairs gradually grew embarrassed.

The opening of the Liverpool and Manchester railway attracted Roberts to a new field of mechanical invention. He experimented on the nature of friction on railroads, and invented a means of communicating power to either driving-wheel of a locomotive; he also devised a steam-brake, and a system of standard gauges, to which all his work was constructed. In 1845 he gave evidence before the railway-gauge commission, and recommended the making of a national survey to be adopted by all railway projectors (Report, p. 268). On a strike of workmen employed on the Conway tubular bridge in 1848, he constructed, at the request of the contractors, his Jacquard machine for punching holes of any pitch or pattern in bridge and boiler plates. He subsequently invented a self-acting machine for simultaneously shearing iron and punching both webs of angle-iron to any pitch. In 1845 he invented an electro-magnet, one example of which was placed in the museum at Peel Park, Manchester, and another with the Scottish Society of Arts. At the exhibition of 1851 he obtained the medal for a turret clock, and in 1852 he devised several improvements in steamships.

Roberts was one of the greatest mechanical inventors of the century, but his fertility in invention did not save him from poverty in his old age. A substantial fund was being raised for him in Manchester at the time of his death. He died on 16 March 1864, and was buried in Kensal Green cemetery, where a medallion portrait is on his tomb. His portrait is given in Agnew's ‘Portraits of the Inventors of Machines for the Manufacture of Textile Fabrics.’ An original drawing, by J. Stephenson, is at South Kensington.

[Proc. Lit. and Phil. Soc. Manchester (1864), iii. 274; Manchester Soc. of Engineers' Trans. Jan. 1887 (paper on ‘Lancashire Inventors’ by Sir William Bailey); Smiles's Industrial Biographies, pp. 178, 264–73, Lives of the Engineers, iii. 432; Baines's History of the Cotton Manufacture; Ure's Philosophy of Manufactures, pp. 366–8; Engineering Facts and Figures, 1863, p. 213; Illustrated London News, June 1864, with portrait; Athenæum, 1864, i. 476.]

W. A. S. H.