Roberts, Richard

Roberts, Richard
b. 22 April 1789 Carreghova, Llanymynech, Montgomeryshire, Wales
d. 11 March 1864 London, England
Welsh mechanical engineer and inventor.
Richard Roberts was the son of a shoemaker and tollkeeper and received only an elementary education at the village school. At the age of 10 his interest in mechanics was stimulated when he was allowed by the Curate, the Revd Griffith Howell, to use his lathe and other tools. As a young man Roberts acquired a considerable local reputation for his mechanical skills, but these were exercised only in his spare time. For many years he worked in the local limestone quarries, until at the age of 20 he obtained employment as a pattern-maker in Staffordshire. In the next few years he worked as a mechanic in Liverpool, Manchester and Salford before moving in 1814 to London, where he obtained employment with Henry Maudslay. In 1816 he set up on his own account in Manchester. He soon established a reputation there for gear-cutting and other general engineering work, especially for the textile industry, and by 1821 he was employing about twelve men. He built machine tools mainly for his own use, including, in 1817, one of the first planing machines.
One of his first inventions was a gas meter, but his first patent was obtained in 1822 for improvements in looms. His most important contribution to textile technology was his invention of the self-acting spinning mule, patented in 1825. The normal fourteen-year term of this patent was extended in 1839 by a further seven years. Between 1826 and 1828 Roberts paid several visits to Alsace, France, arranging cottonspinning machinery for a new factory at Mulhouse. By 1826 he had become a partner in the firm of Sharp Brothers, the company then becoming Sharp, Roberts \& Co. The firm continued to build textile machinery, and in the 1830s it built locomotive engines for the newly created railways and made one experimental steam-carriage for use on roads. The partnership was dissolved in 1843, the Sharps establishing a new works to continue locomotive building while Roberts retained the existing factory, known as the Globe Works, where he soon after took as partners R.G.Dobinson and Benjamin Fothergill (1802–79). This partnership was dissolved c. 1851, and Roberts continued in business on his own for a few years before moving to London as a consulting engineer.
During the 1840s and 1850s Roberts produced many new inventions in a variety of fields, including machine tools, clocks and watches, textile machinery, pumps and ships. One of these was a machine controlled by a punched-card system similar to the Jacquard loom for punching rivet holes in plates. This was used in the construction of the Conway and Menai Straits tubular bridges. Roberts was granted twenty-six patents, many of which, before the Patent Law Amendment Act of 1852, covered more than one invention; there were still other inventions he did not patent. He made his contribution to the discussion which led up to the 1852 Act by publishing, in 1830 and 1833, pamphlets suggesting reform of the Patent Law.
In the early 1820s Roberts helped to establish the Manchester Mechanics' Institute, and in 1823 he was elected a member of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. He frequently contributed to their proceedings and in 1861 he was made an Honorary Member. He was elected a Member of the Institution of Civil Engineers in 1838. From 1838 to 1843 he served as a councillor of the then-new Municipal Borough of Manchester. In his final years, without the assistance of business partners, Roberts suffered financial difficulties, and at the time of his death a fund for his aid was being raised.
Principal Honours and Distinctions
Member, Institution of Civil Engineers 1838.
Further Reading
There is no full-length biography of Richard Roberts but the best account is H.W.Dickinson, 1945–7, "Richard Roberts, his life and inventions", Transactions of the Newcomen Society 25:123–37.
W.H.Chaloner, 1968–9, "New light on Richard Roberts, textile engineer (1789–1864)", Transactions of the Newcomen Society 41:27–44.

Biographical history of technology. - Taylor & Francis e-Librar. . 2005.

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