Blockmaking machine

Blockmaking machine

...allowed 10 unskilled men to do the work of 110 craftsmen.

This object is a Boring Machine, one of a series of machines designed by Marc Isambard Brunel that went into production in 1805 to produce the wooden blocks for sailing ships. Their invention is incredibly significant, both for Portsmouth, the country and ultimately global industry.

At the time this machine was made all the ships in the navy were powered by sails, which were operated by ropes, that needed blocks to allow them to work. A 74-gun ship needed 922 blocks and it was estimated that the navy used 100,000 blocks every year. Before the introduction of Brunel’s machines, contractors, such as the Taylors, of Southampton, made blocks outside the dockyard.

This machine was one of a series of 45 machines installed in the dockyard and powered by steam. Fourteen different types of machines were needed to carry out all the processes to make the blocks. There were three sets of machines, for making blocks of different sizes.

When these machines were first set up in Portsmouth dockyard, they were the first example of the use of machine tools for mass production and they were also the earliest large machine tools to be made of metal. They allowed 10 unskilled men to do the work of 110 craftsmen. 

Quick Facts

  • Accession number 1964/76
  • Date made 1805
  • Designed by Marc Isambard Brunel
  • Made of metal
  • Used at the Dockyard, Portsmouth


  • The blockmaking machines represent the importance of this area to the industrial and technical innovation of the country and ultimately have a global resonance. These machines laid the foundations for subsequent worldwide development of industrial production-lines and the modern world of factory mass production.

  • As soon as the machines went into operation, they and the building they stood in became an important place to visit. Nelson made a point of seeing them before he left Portsmouth in September 1805 and a contemporary observer wrote of his visit to the Block Mills in 1807: … The next object, and a wonderful one, is the block manufactory, where machinery of the most ingenious invention, saws, chips, and shapes the block, drives the hole in the centre, even polishes the iron and brass work; in a word, performs every operation but that of the last polish, which is given by the hand …”.

Did you know?

Marc Isambard Brunel was the father of the great engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who was born at Portsmouth in April 1806. Marc Isambard Brunel was born in France in 1769 and served as an officer in the French navy until the French Revolution. His royalist sympathies meant he had to leave France and went to the United States of America where he practised civil engineering. Eventually, he left for England to marry.

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