Henry Maudsley was born in Woolwich, Kent in 1771 and at the age of twelve was sent to work in the dockyards as a “powder monkey”. This involved making and filling cartridges. When he was fifteen he worked at a blacksmith’s shop and proved himself to be an excellent craftsman. In 1789 when he was only eighteen he was employed by Joseph Bramah, the famous locksmith. At the time Bramah was looking for someone who was capable of making the precision tools necessary for creating and making complex locks.
During his time working for Bramah, Maudsley came to realise the importance of precision in the making of tools and in standardisation of machine parts so that they could be interchangeable.
It was whilst working for Bramah that Maudsley made a padlock which was so complex in its construction that it was placed in the shop window offering a reward for anyone who could open it. It was fifty years before anyone was able to do so. It was finally opened in 1850 by an American locksmith called A C Hobbs. Hobbs had had to work on the lock for sixteen days before being successful.
He also recognised the importance of a true plane surface for making machine tools.
In 1797 he left Bramah and set up his own workshop and it was here that he invented the slide rest lathe; a device
which dramatically increased the precision of the lathe. The slide rest lathe has come to be regarded as the most important invention in the history of machine tools as it revolutionised wood and metalworking manufacturing.
In 1810 he went into partnership and formed the company Maudsley & Field. The company made all types of machinery and engines of all kinds, but his greatest interest lay in the delicacy and precision of machinery and he turned his attention to the improvement of screw cutting.
Over the years his company gained the reputation as being at the forefront of engineering and attracted the best trainee mechanics. Amongst those who trained under Maudsley were Sir Joseph Whitworth and James Nasmyth - both well-known in their own right.