History of lathes

Lathes in their most primitive form have been known for over 2,000 years. The earliest depended on reciprocating, or back-and-forth, power, where the lathe turns first in one direction, then in the other. Work would always have to stop momentarily on the reverse motion. Among these were bow lathes, where the string of a hand-held bow is wrapped around the workpiece, and strap lathes, where an assistant pulls a strap to and fro.

Pole lathes also used reciprocating power, provided by a wooden pole or growing sapling stretched backwards and forwards, but the invention of the wheel lathe finally provided continuous rotary motion. One man would turn a large vertically mounted flywheel with a handle while another would do the woodturning itself at a bench connected to the wheel. Treadle lathes, also worked with a flywheel and pulley, also worked continuously but allowed one man to use his feet to provide the power while his hands did the turning.

Later, as the industrial revolution approached, came lathes driven by water wheels, then steam engines, then oil. Contemporary lathes are electric-powered.

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