Overhead line shafting installed in the Fitting, Machining and Pattern making Department of the Engineering Workshops, Goldsmiths' College, New Cross, London - circa 1894. The other metal fittings hanging from the ceiling are for 'flare' gas lighting - before the advent of the much brighter and more efficient gas "mantles".
It is possible, but by no means certain, that the first use of individual electric motors on lathes was developed by a Philadelphia company, Matthias Baldwin - originally set up to bind books and produce copper printing cylinders. By 1828, the firm had moved into larger quarters, and, being unable to a steam engine of the right specification to drive his machinery, Mr. Baldwin designed and built his own. Before long the firm was building nothing else - and soon branched out into the manufacture of complete railway locomotives, the "Old Ironsides" of 1832 being their first.
After Michael Faraday discovered, in 1931, the laws of electro-magnetic induction, it was some years before the knowledge could be used commercial. However, by 1872 the French firm, Gramme of Paris, had a working DC generator that could, if fed electricity, act as a motor. With successful displays at the 1873 Vienna and 1876 American Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia (and in the same year in London) Gramme demonstrated their expertise by converting a length of line shafting in their factory from steam to electric power. From that point on steady development produced smaller and ever more power motors until, by 1892, they were compact and reliable enough to be in commercial production and considered suitable for use on individual machines. Interestingly, it is believed - but not confirmed - that four wood lathes were amongst other machines to be first fitted with individual motors, their operation being demonstrated at the Paris Exhibition of 1881.
In 1895, Baldwin, ever seeking to improve his production methods and efficiency, converted the large lathes in his wheel-turning shop to individual drives, allowing the forest of overhead line shafts and belting in his factory to be removed. However, such conversions were expensive, and it took some time for the whole industry to follow this example - though in the years leading up to World War 1 they did become increasing popular. By the 1920s individual machine tools were commonly supplied with their own motors and by the end of that decade, according to published sources, some 90 percent were so fitted (though many makers' catalogues into the mid 1940s still listed machines for drive by line shafting).
Initially there was much messing about with top-heavy installations where motors were mounted, for example, on top of a lathe's headstock to drive traditional flat-belt cone pullets. With the gradual adoption of all-geared headstocks however, motors could be positioned behind or beneath machines with just a short belt driving to the gearbox input pulley - at which point the "modern age" had arrived.
The advantages of an electrical supply system into a workshop and the fitting of individual motors to each machine tools were considerable - and today (when these fittings are universal) often forgotten:
removing the line shafting eliminated dust, dirt, dripping oil, constant noise, maintenance problems, the danger of belts breaking and striking workers and the blocking of light and access to lifting equipment
there were no transmission losses passing the power from one end of the factory to the other
maintenance & replacement of the expensive and difficult-to-reach overhead drive system was eliminated
there was no need to run a huge steam engine or giant electric motor just to power a few machines - or even just one
speed ranges could be more precisely specified for the particular job the machine tool was designed to accomplish
motors could be made to produce infinitely variable speeds - ideal for certain operations, essential for others
machine tools become portable, and could be moved around the shop floor into the best position to facilitate a particular production process
switch-controlled automatic and manual safety controls could be fitted to guard the machine, operator and the workpieces
small individual motors could be applied to separate parts of a machine to automate or power what had previously been manual operations
really massive jobs that could not be fastened to, or on a machine tool, could be secured instead to the floor - and the tools built around it
the electricity supply to the works enabled electric cranes and lifting devices to be installed, so speeding up the safe handing of heavy jobs, materials and the repositioning of machine tools
work could continue all night
the supply of electricity brought as many radical changes to the engineering trade - and industry in general - as it did to the lives of the general public.