HistoryThe lathe is an ancient tool, dating at least to the Egyptians and known and used in Assyria, Greece, the Roman and Byzantine Empires.
The origin of turning dates to around 1300 BC when the Egyptians first developed a two-person lathe. One person would turn the wood work piece with a rope while the other used a sharp tool to cut shapes in the wood. The Romans improved the Egyptian design with the addition of a turning bow. Early bow lathes were also developed and used in Germany, France and Britain. In the Middle Ages a pedal replaced hand-operated turning, freeing both the craftsman's hands to hold the woodturning tools. The pedal was usually connected to a pole, often a straight-grained sapling. The system today is called the "spring pole" lathe (see Polelathe). Spring pole lathes were in common use into the early 20th century. A two-person lathe, called a "great lathe", allowed a piece to turn continuously (like today's power lathes). A master would cut the wood while an apprentice turned the crank.
During the Industrial Revolution, mechanized power generated by water wheels or steam engines was transmitted to the lathe via line shafting, allowing faster and easier work. The design of lathes diverged between woodworking and metalworking to a greater extent than in previous centuries. Metalworking lathes evolved into heavier machines with thicker, more rigid parts. The application of leadscrews, slide rests, and gearing produced commercially practical screw-cutting lathes. Between the late 19th and mid-20th centuries, individual electric motors at each lathe replaced line shafting as the power source. Beginning in the 1950s, servomechanisms were applied to the control of lathes and other machine tools via numerical control (NC), which often was coupled with computers to yield computerized numerical control (CNC). Today manually controlled and CNC lathes coexist in the manufacturing industries.