A very interesting question came up today. Is Peter Nicholson's Mechanic's Companion as important a book as is Joseph Moxon's Mechanick Exercises, Or, The Doctrine Of Handy-Works?
Which question brings to mind, why do so many people focus on:
- Nicholson Workbenches
- Moxon Workbenches
- Moxon Vises
- Moxon Joinery
Both books are treatises on the trades required in the building of a house. A house. A house. Not furniture. True, much can be extrapolated from the chapters on Joinery but even those chapters were written from the standpoint of the House Joiner.
Yet, we persist in interpreting those few plates as if they are THE ANSWER to all that we need answers for in our world of woodworking, much less that these plates were meant as little more than a bit of dressup for the text. Which is my interpretation of why the plates are so inexact and in fact, downright sloppy when you compare the plates on tools to those on important principles of construction and construction processes.
Moxon wrote his book (now don't going throwing tomatoes) for the intelligentsia of his day, the members of The Philosophical Society and other wealthy people and important people. At one point he even complained that unless more people subscribed to the initial serial publication, he would trash the whole thing! His customers were not tradesmen or the average joe.
His customers were the fancy thinkers who thought it was the thing to understand what the trades were up to when their house was being built. How do I know this? The reviews of The Doctrine Of Handy Works appear in scientific and literary journals of the period, not in the street literature of the day. His known customers were Samuel Pepys, members of the Royal Philosophical Society, etc.
Nicholson expressly wrote his version of Moxon's tome as an update, noting that the original was in short supply and thus, we can assume, Mr. Nicholson thought it high time a new edition be published. In fact, the first edition by Nicholson was titled: Mechanic Exercises, which was rapidly retitled: Mechanic's Companion, no doubt due to the ghost of Moxon rattling his chains by Nicholson's bedside one night.
Until the 1850 edition of Nicholson, which added one chapter on the Steam Engine, Mechanic Companion followed Moxon in theme, discussing the trades involved in the construction of a house. Same sort of plates with some added bells and whistles and a lot of increased clarity in the text, thanks to the loss of the long 's' and Nicholson's propensity to verbosity. Unlike yours truly...
Why have today's readers treated Nicholson so poorly? Everyone wants to read Moxon, which I can applaud as it is still the ground breaking work it was then. But then so was and is Nicholson. Mechanic Companion remained in print for nearly 40 years, no mean feat! The only rationale I can find for the lesser popularity of Nicholson is that it is packs a greater punch - you have to devote time to read and absorb this book. It's not an easy read by any means.
Much like Nicholson's many other books, Mechanic Companion was written for the practical mechanic of the period, a tradesman who wanted to learn the good stuff, the hard stuff and who needed this information in order to make a living.
Between the two, I admire and periodically reread Moxon but I turn to Nicholson as a 19th century reference and that's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.
Till next, Gary