The production process

Scale drawings of engineering plans.

The drawing office at Crewe.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

James Watt pioneered the use of drawn-to-scale engineering plans for the manufacture and installation of industrial products from the 1770s.

In partnership with Matthew Boulton at Soho House in Birmingham, Watt was the man who made practical the use of stationary steam engines to power industry.

This job proved very attractive to working-class men.

Watt employed a draughtsman to draw plans for each steam engine; these were used to show the prospective purchaser the plan, as an aid to production and installation at the site, and as a record for his business. Watt used colour to denote the different moving parts of the mechanism. The drawings usually showed the machine in situ and were develo ped from the architectural drawing style popular at the time. The use of the architectural style made them decorative as well as functional, and already we can see that a style was being developed that went beyond a simple explanation of the 3D object.

During the early years of railway production (from 1800 to the 1820s), drawings were quite crude and were used purely as an aid to the engineer in charge. The skills required for producing the parts of early locomotives were adapted from those of the rural blacksmith; full-size paper patterns were cut out and used as ‘models’ for the real parts (this method had been used in the naval dockyards for many years).

As production of the proven technologies increased it became necessary for the engineer to delegate the management of producing the drawings to junior staff. Changes in the methods of engineering production necessitated the provision of measurements on the drawing (hence drawing to scale) and notes about construction, as the engineer was no longer just making a reminder to himself. Drawing production became much more specialised and a division of labour in which different draughtsmen worked on specific segments replaced work by generic draughtsmen. The result was a tendency for the drawings to show ever-greater detail.

Railway scale models were also made to show the finished product; usually these were made by apprentice engineers to prove their skills. Shipbuilders used models and perspective paintings not only to show how the product would look, but also to test out new ideas, a use the railway engineers did not really exploit.

Within 60 years of Watt employing his first draughtsmen, the railways in Britain were employing large numbers of specialists in their drawing offices. At a time when most work on the shop floor was dangerous, this job proved very attractive to working-class men. Some aspects, particularly the copying of drawings, were also regarded as suitable for women. So in an age where white-collar industrial opportunities were rare this was a popular career for both sexes.

Background: Class 87