The History of CNC Machines : From the Industrial Revolution to the Present Day

The history of CNC machines can be traced back to the Industrial Revolution. Since the Industrial Revolution, life has depended on machines for everything. The first machines were those for textile, these being followed closely by machines used for steel manufacture. CNC revolutionized the manufacturing industry, allowing for an infinite number of designs and shapes to be manufactured effortlessly. In this article we are going to trace back the CNC industry to its very start.

The History of CNC Machines : Precursors to NC

history of CNC machinesNumerical control was the precursor to CNC, but we can also trace the history of CNC machines back to before NC. Very early attempts at automation began with camshafts. These were designed with ridges in place to control machine tool. The camshaft would turn, and the grooves it found would trigger machine control. This method was a big breakthrough at the time, and was great for carrying out repeated tasks. One fine example of this type of camshaft usage is the carving of gun stocks that were used during WW1. This rudimentary process was not however the birth of Numerical Control, as numbers were not used in the process.

Numerical Control

Credit for the first numerical control system was given to John T Parson. Whilst working for his father in the 1940s, he began to experiment, building helicopter rotors for the aerospace industry. Together with Frank Stulen, they developed a rudimentary NC method. One machinist would read coordinates along x and y axes to the other machinist, or machinists, who would then make the appropriate cuts. From here they developed their method more, creating punch cards that could be programmed to provide a system that was fully automated.


Computer assisted design together with CNC machining allowed for further important developments to be made in the 1940s and 1950’s. A programming language was developed that generated coordinates, reducing the time needed to feed instructions to a milling machine. The real breakthrough in CNC came about however in 1959, where the team managed to design a totally automatic programme that produced aluminium ashtrays. By the 1970s, CAD was commonly being sued in conjunction with CNC.

It was at around this time that larger advances in the CNC industry were noted. Automation was now becoming widespread, and all types of material including stone, metal, and wood were being used with CNC machines. This meant that labour costs and times were reduced, and products were being manufactured at a fraction of the cost that they could before.

The history of CNC machines is never ending. With every day there are new advances in both CNC milling and turning technology. Notably, with modern machines, we now find up to 7 axes being used frequently. We also find new types of machines on the factory floor that were only dreamed of before. These include laser cutters, 3D printers, and plasma cutters, that together can create almost any shape imaginable to the very highest quality and specifications.

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