1812 Book Review: The Mechanic's Companion by Peter Nicholson

The Mechanic's Companion by Peter Nicholson 1850

Before digging into the period book review of The Mechanic's Companion, a few thoughts of my current thoughts on Mr. Nicholson's Opus.

There is a modern misinterpretation of The Mechanic's Companion (as has been the same for Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises). Modern reviewers and yes, even modern woodworking authors often present Nicholson as being a technical text for the practicing craftsperson of the 19th century. Nope.

Witness this one line from the period review; "The book is principally intended for the service of young men coming from country to town, who will find many operations here, with which they have not been familiar."

Therein lies the rub. Nicholson was written for the aspiring young man of some means. Books were not for the lower classes, much less your average apprentice or journeyman. Books were often sold unbound, then bound to the buyer's preferences and at his cost. I have no doubt that many apprentices and journeyman did save up to buy a copy, but not that many. Odds are many a master of the shop had a copy on his shelf, both to display his intellectual knowledge and for the benefit of his staff. Maybe.

I have a theory that Nicholson, as with Moxon, was intended for the nouveau riche merchant class who wanted to display their intellect to all who visited. No doubt some of said class actually read Nicholson. Nicholson wrote both Mechanic's Companion and The Student's Instructor for students of architecture. See where I am going? Your average student of architecture was not the shop apprentice or journeyman. He was of a moneyed social class who could afford to take the time to learn of classical architecture and it's applications to constructing buildings for those nouveau riche and hopefully, the really rich upper upper class.
Add to this theory that during both the 18th and 19th centuries, there was a class attraction to learning of what the hoi polloi did when laboring at their labors, all for the benefit of the Carriage Class. Some even, gasp, lent their hands to making stuff of a philosophical (read: scientific) bent. During the 19th century it was acceptable and even expected for (mostly) men to partake of creative past-times, which past-times served to inform their neighbors that the partaker had plenty of leisure time on his hands as well as being a Renaissance Man at heart. Women were also encouraged to engage in creative crafts. In doing so, they were improving their marriage attractiveness to the opposite sex.

• Herewith the introduction from my reprint of Peter Nicholson's The Mechanic's Companion:
The Mechanic’s Companion was first published in 1812 as Mechanical Exercises and then republished in 1831 under the present title. Peter Nicholson’s compendium of technical advise has maintained its position as a primary reference source through to the present day.

1812 Book Review
The Literary Panorama: Being A Compendium Of National Papers and Parliamentary Reports, Illustrative Of The History, Statistics, and Commerce of the Empire: A Universal Epitome of Interesting and Amusing Intelligence from All Quarters of the Globe; A Review Of Books, and Magazines of Varieties, Forming An Annual Register.
Vol. XL. J. Taylor. London. 1812

Mechanical Exercises; or, the Elements of Practice of Carpentry, Joinery, Bricklaying, Masonry, Slating, Plastering, Painting, Smithing and Turning. Containing a full Description of the Tools belonging to each Branch of Business; and copious Directions for the Use. With an Explanation of the Terms used in each Art; and an Introduction by Thirty-nine Copper Plates.
By Peter Nicholson. 8vo. Pp. 420. Price 18s.
J. Taylor. London. 1812

“More than a century has elapsed since Moxon’s ingenious work on the building art, called “Mechanical Exercises” was first published. It long continued useful and popular. The present state of practice allowed very well of a similar work with improvements. Mr. Nicholson has followed the steps of his predecessor; and treats separately of the arts enumerated in his title page. The book is principally intended for the service of young men coming from country to town, who will find many operations here, with which they have not been familiar. The readiest way of performing these, must indeed, be learned from practice; but a work like the present may tend advantageously to lessen that ignorance of which they are sensible, and to place them more on a level with their fellow workmen. The arts concerned in building are sufficiently connected with one another to justify a wish for acquaintance with more than one; and when directions are given, it is no detriment to be able to give them in language understood by the workman. We doubt whether Mr. N. has fully executed his intentions when he proposed to compile lists of the terms used in each art. From a practical man we should have expected a vocabulary of which a future Johnson might avail himself; - it is to be expected from a practical man only; for neither Greek nor Latin can assist in this matter. Many a good classic scholar does not the difference between “carpentry,” and “joinery,” but let him contract for a house, expecting to find all the wood work completed and finished, though he bargains only for the “carpentry,” he will soon find his knowledge improved by experience. Mr. N. should have had still further compassion on the ignorant. He might have introduced his treatise on carpentry, by a few words on the nature and quality of woods: he notices only oak and fir; why not elm, beech, &c. with others used in turnery, of which art he also treats. Attention to the properties of things, whether materials, or implements, carried throughout his volume, would have materially improved it: a knowledge of the goodness of tools, is of the first importance to a workman; and is undoubtedly one great cause of the excellence unanimously attributed by foreigners to productions of British skill and industry.

The plates of this work are useful: they describe tools and operations, which some acquaintance with practice will render beneficial.

The difficulty of describing the simplest of things, in words, was the apology of Dr. Johnson for his famous definition of “Network” (Any thing reticulated or decussated at equal distances with interstices between intersections.) Let our readers try by way of amusement, to define any implement to which they are accustomed; and they will feel the force of the doctor’s vindication of himself: - what precise ideas will they convey by words? - The following is Mr. N.’s definition of the well known tool a Gimblet - If this writer employs so many words to render a thing intelligible, which, after all, unless we know it perfectly beforehand we should not understand, where there is the wonder that a lexicographer should be at a loss, a writer who is so much better acquainted with words than it is possible he should be with things?
The Gimblet is a piece of steel of a cylindric form, having a transverse handle at the upper end, and at the other, a worm or screw; and a cylindric cavity called the cup above the screw; forming in its transverse section, a crescent. Its use is to bore small holes; the screw draws it forward in the wood, in the act of boring, while it is turned round by the handle; the angle formed by the exterior and interior cylinders, cuts the fibres across, and the cup contains the core of wood so cut: the gimblet is turned round by application of the fingers, on alternate sides of the wooden lever at the top.

Those clauses of the building act which relate to each trade are separately transcribed, and placed after each division. This may preserve many workmen serious evils, who inadvertently might undertake private jobs.”

Peter Nicholson, 1765-1844
Born in Scotland and having lived in both Scotland and England, Nicholson was exposed to the emerging architectural influence of Grecian sensibilities over the prevailing Gothic taste. At an early age his proficiency in mathematics and skills in the drawing of local buildings indicated the direction his professional life would eventually take. Initially entering into training with his father, a stone mason, he found his interests to lie in the working of wood and so apprenticed to a cabinet-maker.

Upon completion of his four year apprenticeship, he worked as a journeyman in Edinburgh, Scotland, and London, England. While pursuing his journeyman tasks, Nicholson secured a position as a teacher at an evening school. He did so well in this new profession that he left cabinet-work and began his new career of builder (architect) and author.

At the age of 27, Nicholson authored and engraved the plates for “The Carpenter’s New Guide”. He went on to write “The Student’s Instructor”, “The Carpenter and Joiner’s Assistant”, and 24 more titles on architecture and related subjects. During his lifetime, his books were essential to the libraries of beginning as well as experienced builders and architects. Nicholson’s books were predominantly intended for use by the practical carpenter and builder more so than by the theoretical architect. His hands-on experience in the trades as well as his unique aptitude for mathematics prepared him for his career as a self-taught architect, builder and author.

• Ok, so now you've slogged through the period review. Here is a link to a preview of my Toolemera Press reprint of the 1850 edition and Nicholson's Student's Instructor