Traced to 1931, the announcement of the ordinary Adept was followed two years later by the much improved Super Adept - when the latter was displayed at the August 1933 "Model Engineer" Exhibition on the stand of the then well-known tool dealer Bond's o' Euston Road. Fitted with a bolt-on compound slide, the ordinary version of the Adept used the top slide to take a cut which, like watch and clockmakers' lathes, had a slide of sufficient length to cover a good proportion of the available between-centres' distance. The "Super-Adept" (which, judging by the numbers encountered, must have been the better-seller of the two) was fitted with a sliding carriage driven by a handwheel from a properly "waisted" handle fitted to the tailstock end of an overhung Acme-form, left-hand 12 t.p.i. leadscrew. The headstock was fitted with simple, bronze bushes in split housings that were adjustable over a small range; the spindle carried a 3/8" British Standard Fine (BSF) thread and a tiny taper, probably contrived as a non-standard type in the works, that is inconsistent in the quality of its finish from machine to machine and appears to vary a little either side of a No. 0 Morse. The saddle was fitted with an adjustable gib strip at the rear, not the best place to introduce a flexible piece of strip steel to absorb the tool thrust but, even if it had been correctly placed at the front, leaving the rear of the casting to bear directly against the bed, it would probably have made little difference considering the low forces the machine was able to generate. The tailstock on early versions had a simple push-and-lock barrel but the inadequacies of this quickly became apparent - and the makers were forced to introduce a properly designed version (at extra cost) with the choice of screw or lever-feed operation. Both versions of the lathe were identical dimensionally, lightly built and just 13.75 inches long and around 6.5 lbs in weight; the centre height was 15/8" inches and the capacity between centres 6 inches; the gap, standard on both models, admitted a piece of material 4.25 inches in diameter. A small 3-speed bench-mounted countershaft was offered by the makers (though most of the impecunious enthusiasts who bought the lathe ignored it) or, at even greater expense, by a two-speed human-powered "foot-motor" and flywheel assembly.
Although inexpensive, lacking in quality control and obviously built down to a strict price (there was no attempt made to smooth out surface imperfections in the castings, or even machine the base of the foot) the black-enameled and sometimes blue-finished "Super" models were still capable, in the right hands, of performing some remarkable tasks. Britain's A.R. Walkley, who modeled tiny electric locomotives in 1 mm =1 foot (1:305 scale) used an Adept lathe to make his own miniature motors and reported that: parts including a 0.25"-diameter cast iron armature were ….. produced on the lathe. This says much for the Adept when one mentions that everything came out true even to the boring of the miniature armature - the sort of job that many more expensive lathes are not always able to do well.
A well-made 4-jaw independent chuck with a threaded body and stamped "ADEPT" was available as an extra, but its cost, at one pound, twelve shillings and sixpence, was 33% of that of the lathe; what everybody would have liked, a miniature, 3-jaw scroll-operated self-centering chuck, was unavailable - it obviously being too difficult to construct such an accurate item and sell it for a reasonable price. Instead, a crude non-self-centering "dog" 3-jaw was offered - a chuck that was inaccurate, frustrating to use and with a poor grip - though skilled users could still make it perform miracles.
It is possible that a proper screwcutting version of the adept was made by the works; pictures obtained show a modified headstock casting with a large plate bolted to the front carrying both a leadscrew bearing and a tumble-reverse mechanism. Unfortunately it is not possible at this stage to say with certainty that this was the case, for so many craftsmen in Sheffield would have been perfectly capable of undertaking such a modification, even in a very modestly-equipped workshop.
A range of small hand-operated shapers and a tiny horizontal miller was also offered under the Adept name and proved very popular (a delivery time of twelve months was quoted in the late 1940s for the lathes) and are increasingly sought after today by more experienced model and experimental engineers who relish both the tremendous potential they have to solve machining problems - and the fun to be had from using a miniature version of a "real" machine tool.
Exact copies of the Super Adept (and possibly the ordinary version as well) were sold in Australia before and after W.W.2 as the T.N.C and in the United States by the Adept Tool Company of 1342 Hampton Road, East Cleveland, Ohio, USA (now a residential address and probably so in the 1930s),
T.N.C was a manufacturer of engineering tools who appear to have marketed their machines through McPhersons, a major supplier to industry but who also catered to the "home workshop" customer. Their 1937 catalogue listed the No. 1 and No. 2 shapers and just the Super Adept lathe, priced with a simple "push" tailstock barrel at £2 : 5s : 0d or, with a screw-feed arrangement, £2 : 7s : 6d. Although a countershaft was not shown the foot-motor was, at £1 : 15s : 0d. The 1949 the catalogue did not list any Adept machines - though much other British equipment was included (Moore &Wright, Eclipse, etc) - but as this edition did not show other products for amateurs (such as their own 3.5" bar-bed lathe) it may have been for industry only. By 1955 the Super Adept and both shapers were back, though the foot-motor had disappeared and just one 3-jaw chuck was shown. Whether Adepts were exported with T.N.C. badges, or manufactured in Australia, is not known - and if any reader has copies of T.N.C. advertising literature the writer would be pleased to hear from you. Another Adept-like lathe was the "Wakefield", though this would almost certainly have been built by Portass who were well known for supplying machines for sellers to badge as their own.
Details of the American company are obscure - but having adopted the English name one must assume that they were set up to either import the lathes and accessories or build them locally under licence (with the possibility that, to aid manufacture, copies of the casting patterns were shipped out). The American model, identical to the Super Adept, was offered with a wider range of accessories than the UK model including collets, a milling slide, 4-jaw independent chuck, faceplate, drive dogs, a hand T-rest, an extended headstock spindle to take a 6-inch diameter speed-reducing pulley, tailstock chuck, cutting and milling tools, a 2-step replica of the headstock pulley, angle plate, Morse centres and a headstock thread mounted on a taper for use in the tailstock. Missing from the collection (but available the UK version, was a countershaft unit. In addition a simple drill press was available - this being shown mounted on a board together with the lathe as a "complete workshop" with each sharing the same neat countershaft drive system. The American seller certainly went to considerably more trouble than the English maker to make the lathe appear an attractive proposition to the home-workshop enthusiast, the 12-page sales catalogue containing an illustrated list of accessories, photographs of typical job set-ups and a suggestion for how the Adept-based workstation might be constructed. Adept USA also listed the same hand-operated shaper as sold in the UK
F. W. Portass was not the only maker of miniature lathes in Sheffield; the Flexispeed was also manufactured there, with works in South Lane, some half a mile nearer to the city center than those occupied by Adept. Unfortunately Adept failed to developed their lathe to keep up with the ever-increasing demands of now more affluent modeller and by the early 1960s was gone. Flexispeed however, with a keener eye on the market managed to continue their lathes being steadily developed with the addition of backgear, power feeds and increased capacity - and even when the original company failed the design had reached such an advanced stage that it was taken up in turn by various concerns and marketed as the Meteor, Hector, Norfolk, Simat 101, Perris and finally as the Cowells--with version of the latter still being built today. A comparison of the Adept with some other simple and inexpensive miniature lathes (both contemporary and later) makes an interesting study.. - AM, Baby Grand, CAV, Clisby, David, Dignus, Edwards, ManSon, Flexispeed, Exclet, Goodell-Pratt, Grindturn (Haighton Cadet), Guilder, Perris, Cowells, Centrix Micro, Jason, Portass Baby, Little Goliath, Rollo Elf, Taig and Peatol, Unimat, Winkle (Cincinnati Mechanic Maker) and Wizard.
Below is a summary - in so far as it can be established - listing various start and finish dates.
1930 Ordinary Adept lathe is introduced
1931-32 Adept Tool Co. obtains US manufacturing rights to F.W. Portass products
1932 Adept No. 1 hand shaper introduced
1933 Super Adept lathe introduced
1934 Adept No. 2 hand shaper introduced
1935-38 'TNC' (likely Fred Hercus) obtains Australian Super Adept rights (this is a speculative assumption)
1940 Adept production ceases in England as WW2 (1939 -1945) begins
1941 Adept Tool Co. production probably ceases for good
1946 Adept production resumes in England after end of WW2
1946 Probably resumption of TNC production in Australia
1953 Adept No. 2 motorised shaper introduced
1956 TNC production (if true) likely to have ceased in Australia
1961 Adept production ends in England
1963 Last appearance of old-stock Adept lathes in distributor catalogues
More observations on the Adept here by an enthusiastic and experienced Canadian collector and restorer.
Tony Griffiths Adept Page 2