The Forgotten History of the 1-2-3 Blocks

The Forgotten History of the 1-2-3 Blocks - The Revolutionary Tool that Made Machining a Reality


The history of the 1-2-3 block is not as straightforward to research as other machining advancements. So first, it's time to look at where the term came from initially. Then we can determine who most likely is behind the rise of the tool.


1-2-3 blocks are the oldest, simplest, and most popular machine tool blocks. Yet, despite their vast popularity, their history wears a shroud of mystery. 


The 1-2-3 block is a small metal block with three holes that connect it to other blocks. People sometimes call them a "screw block" because the holes resemble screws. Most machinists categorize the 1-2-3 blocks into the "T" type and the "H" type, which differ in their shape and how they plan to use them.


The 1-2-3 setup blocks have been used in many industries and are still popular today. They are often used in schools to teach children about engineering because they are easy to use. Working with them is a decent starting point for many projects, especially those requiring high degrees of precision.


A Short History of the Origin of 1-2-3 Blocks and Machine Tools


A scan of the machine tool timeline shows the first reference to the 1-2-3 blocks in an ad after World War II.


Indeed, the term "1-2-3 blocks" wasn't used until 1946. Machinists would call the same tool by different names; there was never a unified name for the tools before then. The product was introduced to the public by its current monicker in 1946 by Moore Special Tool Company of Bridgeport, CT. The company said they were the first to develop the idea into a product, but they don't claim that they invented anything new in their ad. 


There are no other worthy claims and no patent to find, so it appears the credit for popularizing 1-2-3 blocks should stay with Moore Special Tool Company, which is now a part of PMT Group. Multiple manufacturers make them directly and provide them to customers at various price points, depending on quality needs. As a result, they're generally inexpensive and remain worthwhile for anyone working with machine tools. 


Brief History of Machining Technology and Block Production


The history of machine tools is a long and rich one. It starts with the first industrial revolution in the late 18th century to the current day. The Industrial Revolution was a primary period of rapid technological change that began in Britain in the late 18th century and spread throughout Europe and North America, transforming their societies.


Machine tools are a popular choice for manufacturing parts for various industries like automotive, aerospace, medical devices, and general machining operations. British Engineer Joseph Whitworth first introduced machine tools in the late 18th century. Whitworth had developed a cutting machine that could cut screws with great precision. His contributions to machining were enormous, and he invented and perfected a broad array of machine tools for various industries.


History of Machining Blocks and How They Work


In short, there are several ways to make a 1-2-3 machine tool block. One of the earliest methods was to take an old wooden table saw blade and drill holes at regular intervals around its circumference.


Professionals later replaced these with steel tubes that had holes drilled into them. Today's modern-day method has machines drill the holes into a sheet metal block.


Nowadays, manufacturers use all of these methods to produce blocks. However, the most common way to make a 1- 2-3 block is to drill holes into a sheet metal block and insert bolts into those holes.


Many companies manufacture 1-2-3 machines. Most of them are China-based, but some come from factories in Europe. The tools vary based on price on quality but essentially provide the same functionality across many projects.


You should have no problem finding 1-2-3 blocks that you need at a price you'll find affordable. Since they're so popular with machinists of all experience levels they are considered a staple for your machine toolbox.


What Is the Primary Use of 1-2-3 Blocks?


1-2-3 blocks are a trusted part of many tool kits. But, first, we will go over some of the more common uses for machinists. Their name derives from the length of their three sides, one inch, two-inch, and three-inch.


Machinists use 1-2-3 Blocks to hold workpieces in place while being cut or drilled. The block is held securely in the vise by tightening the screws that hold it into the jaws. 


Manufacturers make them from plastic, metal, or wood, and they come in different sizes. Some have holes drilled through them to use with your drill press. You must tighten each screw down until it feels secure before moving on to the next one. That takes time but is necessary when using these types of blocks. If you don't do that, you risk having your workpiece fall out of the vise.


How Does a 1-2-3 Block Work?


You can buy special clamping devices that attach to the end of the vise jaw. These allow you to clamp the block in place without taking up any space in the vise. Another widespread use for 1-2-3's is as a base plate. It allows you to mount your machine tools onto a sturdy surface. 


The most valuable part of the process is that the blocks help machinists set up their work while ensuring precision. Since they give the operator a specific visual clue about the setup, they're often called "Setup Blocks" by various vendors.


The good news is that 1-2-3 books are easy to use and make everyone better at machining when they do. Even those relatively new people to the field benefit from using the innovative setup tools. Since this is an item you'll use often, it's best to invest in quality, durable 1-2-3 blocks that you can use for years. You probably will get a protective case to avoid damage. That small outlay will come back to provide returns by protecting an essential tool.

Phil Wiseman

Phil Wiseman

Phil Wiseman is Chief Marketing Officer at Alliance Calibration. He earned a B.S. in Chemical Physics from Centre College. Phil is an ASQ Certified Quality Auditor and ASQ Certified Manager of Quality/Organizational Excellence.

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