Boulton and Watt (V.)
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THE battle of the firm had hitherto been all up-hill.  Nearly twenty years had passed since Watt had made his invention.  His life since then had been a constant struggle; it was a struggle still.  Thirteen years had passed since the original patent had been taken out, and seven since the Act had been passed for its extension.  But the engine had as yet yielded no profit, and the outlay of capital continued.  Notwithstanding Boulton's energy and resources, the partners were often in the greatest straits for money, and sometimes, as Saturday nights came round, they had to beat about among their friends for the means of paying the workmen's wages.

    Though Watt continued to imagine himself on the brink of ruin, things were not really so gloomy as he supposed.  We find Boulton stating in a confidential letter to Matthews, that the dues payable on the pumping-engines actually erected in 1782 amounted to £4,320 a year; and that when all the engines in progress had been finished, they would probably amount to about £9,000.  It is true, the dues were paid with difficulty by the mining interest, but Boulton looked forward with confidence to better days coming round.  Indeed, he already saw his way through the difficulties of the firm, and encouraged his doleful partner to hope that in the course of a very few years more, they would be rid of their burdens.

    As Cornwall was, however, now becoming well supplied with pumping-engines, it became necessary to open up new branches of business to keep the Soho manufactory at work.  With this object, Boulton became more and more desirous of applying the engine to the various purposes of rotary motion.  In one of his visits to Wales, in 1781, he had seen a powerful copper-rolling mill driven by water.  When told that its defect was, that it was liable to be stopped in summer during the drought, he immediately asked—"Why not use our engine?  It goes night and day, summer and winter, and is altogether unaffected by drought."  Immediately on his return home, he made a model of a steam-rolling mill, with two cylinders and two beams, connecting the power by a horizontal axis; and by the end of the year he had a steam forge erected at Soho on this plan.  "It answers very well," he wrote to Matthews, "and astonishes all the ironmasters; for, although it is a small engine, it draws even more steel per day than a large rolling-mill in this neighbourhood draws by water."

    Mr. Wilkinson was so much pleased with this rolling-mill, that he ordered one to be made on a large scale for the Bradley ironworks; and another was shortly after ordered for Rotherham.  But the number of iron mills was exceedingly limited, and Boulton did not anticipate any large extension of business in that quarter.  If, however, he could once get the rotary engine introduced as a motive power for corn and flour mills, he believed that the demand would be considerable.  Writing to Watt on the subject, he said, "When Wheal Virgin is at work, and all the Cornish business is in good train, we must look out for orders, as all our treaties are seemingly at an end, having none now on the Lapis.  There is no other Cornwall to be found, and the most likely line for increasing the consumption of our engines is the application of them to mills, which is certainly an extensive field."

    Watt on his return to Birmingham proceeded to embody his plan for securing rotary motion in a working engine, so that he might be enabled to exhibit the thing in actual work.  He was stimulated to action by the report which reached his ears that a person in Birmingham had set agoing a self-moving steam rotator, in imitation of his, on which he exclaimed, "Surely the Devil of Rotations is afoot!  I hope he will whirl them into Bedlam or Newgate."  Boulton, who had by this time gone to Cornwall for the winter, wrote to him from Cosgarne, "It is certainly expensive; but nevertheless I think, as we have so much at stake, that we should proceed to execute such rotatives as you have specified . . . . You should get a good workman or two to execute your ideas with despatch, lest they perish.  The value of their wages for a year might be £100, but it would be the means of our keeping the start that we now have of all others.  But above all, there is nothing of more importance than the perfect completion of the double expansive reciprocating engine as soon as may be."  Watt replied that he was busily occupied in getting the rotative motion applied to one of the Soho engines.  "These rotatives," said he, "have taken up all my time and attention for months, so that I can scarcely say that I have done anything which can be called business.  Our accounts lie miserably confused.  We are going on in a very considerable weekly expense at Soho, and I can see nothing likely to be produced from it which will be an equivalent."  Speaking of the prospect of further improvements, he added, "It is very possible that, excepting what can be done in improving the mechanics of the engine, nothing much better than we have already done will be allowed by Nature, who has fixed a ne plus ultra in most things."

    While thus hopelessly proceeding with the rotative engine, Watt was disquieted by the intelligence which reached him from Boulton, as to the untoward state of affairs in Cornwall.  At some of the most important mines, in which Boulton and Watt held shares, the yield had considerably fallen off, and as the price of the ores was still very low, they had in a great measure ceased to be remunerative.  Hence appeals were made to Boulton on all sides for an abatement of the engine dues.  Unwilling to concede this, the adventurers proceeded to threaten him with the Hornblowers, whose engine they declared their intention of adopting. [p.291]

    Boulton resisted them at every point; the battle being, as he said, "Boulton and Watt against all Cornwall."  He kept Watt fully informed from day to day of all that passed, and longed for more rapid means of communication,—the postal service being then so defective that no less than thirteen days elapsed before Boulton, at Truro, could receive an answer from Watt at Birmingham.  On one occasion we find Watt's letter eleven days on the road between the two places.  The partners even had fears that their letters were tampered with in transit; and, in order to carry on their correspondence confidentially, Watt proposed to employ a shorthand alphabet, which he had learnt from Dr. Priestley, in which to write at least the names of persons "as our correspondence," he observed, "ought to be managed with all possible secrecy, especially as to names."

    Boulton, as usual, led a very active life in Cornwall.  Much of his time was occupied in riding from mine to mine, inspecting the engines at work, and superintending the erection of others.  The season being far advanced, the weather was bad, and the roads miry; but, wet or dry, he went his rounds.  In one of his letters he gives an account of a miserable journey home on horseback, on a certain rainy, windy, dark night in November, when he was "caught in water up to 12 hands."  "It was very disagreeable," he adds, "that one cannot stay out till dark upon the most emergent business without risking one's life."  But once at home he was happy.  "The greatest comfort I find here," he says, "is in being shut out from the world, and the world from me.  At the same time I have quite as much visiting as I wish for."  One of his favourite amusements was collecting and arranging fossils,—some for his friend Wedgwood, and others for his own "fossilry" at Soho.

    Boulton was well supported out of doors by William Murdock, now regarded as "the right hand" of the concern in Cornwall.  "Murdock hath been indefatigable," he wrote to Watt, "ever since they began [at Wheal Virgin new Engine].  He has scarcely been in bed or taken necessary food. . . . After slaving day and night on Thursday and Friday, a letter came from Wheal Virgin that he must go instantly to set their engine to work or they would let out the fire.  He went and set the engine to work; it worked well for the five or six hours he remained.  He left it and returned to the Consolidated Mines about eleven at night, and was employed about the engines till four this morning, and then went to bed.  I found him at ten this morning in Poldice Cistern, seeking for pins and casters that had jumped out, when I insisted on his going home to bed."

    On one occasion, when an engine superintended by Murdock stopped through some accident, the water rose in the mine, and the miners were drowned out.  Upon this occurring, they came "roaring at him" for having thrown them out of work, and threatened to tear him to pieces.  Nothing daunted, he went through the midst of the men, and proceeded to the invalided engine, which he succeeded in very shortly repairing and setting to work again.  The miners were so rejoiced that they were carried by their feelings into the opposite extreme; and when he came out of the engine-house they cheered him vociferously, and insisted upon carrying him home on their shoulders in triumph!

    About this time, Boulton became increasingly anxious to ascertain what the Hornblowers were doing.  They continued to brag of the extraordinary powers of the engine erected by them at Radstoke, near Bristol, whither he proposed to go, to ascertain its construction and qualities, as well as to warn the persons who were employing them as to the consequences of their infringing the existing patent.  But he was tied to Cornwall by urgent business, and could not leave his post for a day.  "During the forking of these two great mines," said he, "I dare not stir two miles from the spot, and it will yet be six weeks before I regain my liberty."  He determined, therefore, to send over James Law, a Soho man on whom he could rely, to ascertain, if possible, the character of the new engine, and he also asked his partner Watt to wait upon the proprietors of Radstoke so soon as he could make it convenient to do so.  Law accordingly proceeded to Radstoke, and soon found out where the engine was; but as the Horners were all in the neighbourhood, keeping watch and ward over it, turn and turn about, he was unable to see it, except through the engine-house window, when it was not working.  He learnt, however, that there was something seriously wrong with it, and that the engineers were considerably crestfallen about its performances.

    Watt proceeded to Bristol, as recommended by his partner, for the purpose of having a personal interview with the Hornblowers' employers.  On his arrival, he found that Major Tucker, the principal partner, was absent; and though he succeeded in seeing Mr. Hill, another of the partners, he could get no satisfactory reply from him as to the intentions of the firm with respect to the new engine.  Having travelled a hundred miles on his special errand, Watt determined not to return to Birmingham until he had seen the principal partner.  On inquiry he found that Major Tucker had gone to Bath, and thither Watt followed him.  At Bath he found that the Major had gone to Melcompton.  Watt took a chaise and followed him.  The Major was out hunting; and Watt waited impatiently at a little alehouse in the village till three o'clock, when the Major returned—"a potato-faced, chuckle-headed fellow, with a scar on the pupil of one eye.  In short," said Watt, "I did not like his physiog."  After shortly informing the Major of the object of his visit, who promised to bring the subject under the notice of his partners at a meeting to be held in about three weeks' time, Watt, finding that he could do no more, took his leave; but before he left Bristol, he inserted in the local papers an advertisement, prepared by Boulton, cautioning the public against using the Hornblowers' engine, as being a direct infringement of their patent.

    Watt then returned to Birmingham, to proceed with the completion of his rotary motion.  Boulton kept urging that the field for pumping-engines was limited, that their Cornish prospects were still gloomy, and that they must very soon look out for new fields.  One of his schemes was the applying of the steam-engine to the winding of coals.  "A hundred engines at £100 a year each," he said, "would be a better thing than all Cornwall."  But the best field of all, he still held, was mills.  "Let us remember," said he, "the Birmingham motto, to 'strike while the iron is hot.'"

    Watt, as usual, was not so sanguine as his partner, and rather doubtful of the profit to be derived from this source.  From a correspondence between him and Mr. William Wyatt, of London, on the subject, we find him discouraging the scheme of applying steam-engines to drive corn-mills; on which Boulton wrote to Wyatt,—"You have had a correspondence with my friend Watt, but I know not the particulars. . . . You must make allowance for what Mr. Watt says ... he undervalues the merits of his own works. . . . I will take all risks in erecting an engine for a corn-mill. . . . I think I can safely say our engine will grind four times the quantity of corn per bushel of coal compared with any engine hitherto erected." [p.296]

    In the meantime Watt, notwithstanding his doubts, had been proceeding with the completion of his rotative machine, and by the end of the year applied it with success to a tilt-hammer, as well as to a corn-mill at Soho.  Several difficulties presented themselves at first, but they were speedily surmounted.  The number of strokes made by the hammer was increased from 18 per minute in the first experiment, to 25 in the second; and Watt contemplated increasing the speed to even 250 or 300 strokes a minute, by diminishing the height to which the hammer rose before making its descending blow.  "There is now no doubt," said he, "that fire-engines will drive mills; but I entertain some doubts whether anything is to be got by them, as by any computation I have yet made of the mill for Reynolds [recently ordered] I cannot make it come to more than £20 per annum, which will do little more than pay trouble.  Perhaps some others may do better."

    The problem of producing rotary motion by steam-power was thus solved to the satisfaction even of Watt himself.  But though a boundless field for the employment of the engine now presented itself, Watt was anything but elated at the prospect.  For some time he doubted whether it would be worth the while of the Soho firm to accept orders for engines of this sort.  When Boulton went to Dublin to endeavour to secure a patent for Ireland, Watt wrote to him thus:—"Some people at Burton are making application to us for an engine to work a cotton-mill; but from their letter and the man they have sent here, I have no great opinion of their abilities. . . . If you come home by way of Manchester, please not to seek for orders for cotton-mill engines, because I hear that there are so many mills erecting on powerful streams in the north of England, that the trade must soon be overdone, and consequently our labour may be lost."  Boulton, however, had no such misgivings.  He foresaw that before long the superior power, regularity, speed, and economy of the steam-engine, must recommend it for adoption in all branches of manufacture in which rotative motion was employed; and he had no hesitation in applying for orders notwithstanding the opposition of his partner.

    The first rotary engine was made for Mr. Reynolds, of Ketley, towards the end of 1782, and was used to drive a corn-mill.  It was some time before another order was received, though various inquiries were made about engines for the purpose of polishing glass, grinding malt, rolling iron, and such like.  The first engine of the kind erected in London was at Goodwyn and Co.'s brewery; and the second,—still working, though in an altered form,—at the Messrs. Whitbread's.  These were shortly followed by other engines of the same description, until there was scarcely a brewery in London that was not supplied with one.

    In the mean time, the works at Soho continued to be fully employed in the manufacture of pumping-engines.  But as the county of Cornwall was becoming well supplied,—no fewer than twenty-one having now been erected there, only one of the old Newcomen construction continuing in work,—it was probable that before long the demand from that quarter must slacken, if not come to an end.  There were, however, other uses to which the pumping-engine might be applied; and one of the most promising was the drainage of the Fen lands.  Some adventurers at Soham, near Cambridge, having made inquiries on the subject, Watt wrote to his partner, "I look upon these Fens as the only trump card we have left in our hand."  The adventurers proposed that Boulton and Watt should take an interest in their scheme by subscribing part of the necessary capital.  But Watt decidedly objected to do so, as he did not wish to repeat his Cornish difficulties in the Fens.  He was willing to supply engines on reasonable terms, but as for shares he would have none of them.  The conclusion he eventually arrived at with respect to his proposed customers was this,—"Consider Fen men as Cornish men, only more cunning."



    In the midst of his great labours, Boulton was reminded that he was human.  He had for years been working at too high pressure, and the tear and wear began to tell upon his health.  Watt expostulated with him, telling him that he was trying to do half-a-dozen men's work; but in vain.  He was committed to so many important enterprises—he had so much at stake—the liabilities he had to meet from day to day were so heavy—that he was in a measure forced to be active.  To his friend Matthews he lamented that he was under the necessity of "slaving from morning till night, working fourteen hours a day, in the drudgery of a Birmingham manufacturer and hardware merchant."  But this could not last, and before long he was threatened with a breakdown.  His friends Drs. Withering and Darwin urged him at once to "knock off" and take a long holiday—to leave Soho and its business, its correspondence, and its visitors, and get as far away from it as possible.

    Acting on their advice, he resolved on making a long promised visit to Scotland, and he set out on his tour in the autumn of 1783.  He went by Newcastle, where he visited the principal coal mines, and from thence to Edinburgh, where he had some pleasant intercourse with Dr. Black and Professor Robison.  It is evident from his letters that he did not take much ease during his journey.  "I talked with Dr. Black and another chemical friend," he wrote, "respecting my plan for saving alkali at such bleach-grounds as our fire-engines are used instead of water-wheels: the Doctor did not start any objections, but, on the contrary, much approved it."  From Edinburgh he proceeded to the celebrated ironworks at Carron, a place in which he naturally felt a peculiar interest.  There his friend Roebuck had started his great enterprise, and there Watt had erected his first engine.  His visit there, however, was not so much for curiosity or pleasure, but for business and experiment.  "During my residence in Scotland," said he, "one month of my time was closely employed at Carron Ironworks in settling accounts, but principally in making a great number of experiments on all their iron ores, and in putting them into the train of making good bar iron, in which I succeeded to my wishes, although they had never made a single bar of tough iron at Carron before."  In the course of his journey he made a large collection of fossils for his museum, and the weight of his bags daily increased.  On his way through Ayrshire he called on Lord Dundonald, a kindred spirit in chemical and mechanical scheming, and examined his mineral tar works.

    Boulton returned to Soho greatly improved in health, and was shortly immersed as before in the business of the factory.  He found considerable arrears of correspondence requiring to be worked up.  Several of the letters waiting for him were from schemers of new inventions connected with the steam-engine.  Whenever an inventor thought he had discovered anything new, he at once rushed to Boulton with it.  He was looked upon as the lord and leader of steam power.  His reputation for enterprise and business aptitude, and the energetic manner in which he had pushed Watt's invention, were now so widely known, that every new schemer saw a fortune within his reach could he but enlist Boulton on his side.  Hence much of his time was occupied in replying to letters from schemers,—inventors of perpetual motion, flying machines, locomotion by steam, and various kinds of rotary motion.  In one of his letters we find him complaining of so much of his time being "taken up in answering great numbers of letters he had lately been plagued with from eccentric persons of no business"; for it was his practice never to leave a letter unanswered, no matter how insignificant or unreasonable his correspondent might be.

    After a short visit to London, Boulton proceeded into Cornwall to look after the engines there, and watch the progress of the mining operations in which by this time he had become so largely interested.  He found the adventurers in a state of general grumble at the badness of the times, the lowness of prices, the losses incurred in sinking for ore that could not be found, and the heaviness of the dues for engine-power payable to Boulton and Watt.  At such times, the partners were usually beset with applications for abatement, to which they were under the necessity of submitting, to prevent the mines being altogether closed.  Thus the dues at Chacewater were reduced from £2,500 to £1,000 a year, and the adventurers were still pressing for further reductions.  What provoked Boulton most, however, was not the loss of dues so much as the threats which were constantly held out to him that unless the demands of the adventurers were complied with, they would employ the Hornblowers.

    While Boulton was fighting for dues in Cornwall, and labouring as before to improve the business management of the mines in which he was interested as a shareholder, Watt was busily occupied at Soho in turning out new engines for various purposes, as well as in perfecting several long-contemplated inventions.  The manufactory, which had for a time been unusually slack, was again in full work.  Several engines were in hand for the London brewers.  Wedgwood had ordered an engine to grind flints; and orders were coming in for rotative engines for various purposes, such as driving saw-mills in America and sugar-mills in the West Indies.  Work was, indeed, so plentiful that Watt was opposed to further orders for rotatives being taken, as the drawings for them occupied so much time, and they brought in but small profit.  "I see plainly," said he to his partner, "that every rotation engine will cost twice the trouble of one for raising water, and will in general pay only half the money.  Therefore I beg you will not undertake any more rotatives until our hands are clear, which will not be before 1785.  We have already more work in hand than we have people to execute it in the interval."

    One reason why Watt was more than usually economical of his time was, that he was then in the throes of the inventions patented by him in the course of this year.  Though racked by headaches which, he complained, completely "dumfounded" him and perplexed his mind, he could not restrain his irrepressible instinct to invent; and the result was the series of inventions embodied in his patent of 1784, including, among other things, the application of the steam-engine to the working of a tilt-hammer for forging iron and steel, to driving wheel-carriages for carrying persons and goods, and for other purposes.  The specification also included the beautiful invention of the Parallel Motion, of which Watt himself said, "Though I am not over anxious after fame, yet I am more proud of the parallel motion than of any other mechanical invention I have ever made."  Watt was led to meditate this contrivance by the practical inconvenience which he experienced in communicating the direct vertical motion of the piston-rod, by means of racks and sectors, to the angular motion of the working beam.  He was gradually led to entertain the opinion that some means might be contrived for accomplishing this object by motions turning upon centres; and, working upon this idea, he gradually elaborated his invention.  So soon as he caught sight of the possible means of overcoming the difficulty, he wrote to Boulton in Cornwall,—"I have started a new hare.  I have got a glimpse of a method of causing a piston-rod to move up and down perpendicularly by only fixing it to a piece of iron upon the beam, without chains or perpendicular guides or untowardly friction, arch heads, or other pieces of clumsiness; by which contrivance it answers fully to expectation.  About 5 feet in the height of the house may be saved in 8-feet strokes, which I look upon as a capital saving, and it will answer for double engines as well as for single ones.  I have only tried it in a slight model yet, so cannot build upon it, though I think it a very probable thing to succeed.  It is one of the most ingenious, simple pieces of mechanism I have ever contrived, but I beg nothing may be said on it till I specify." [p.304]

    He immediately set to work to put his idea to the practical proof, and only eleven days later he wrote,—"I have made a very large model of the new substitute for racks and sectors, which seems to bid fair to answer.  The rod goes up and down quite in a perpendicular line without racks, chains, or guides.  It is a perpendicular motion derived from a combination of motions about centres—very simple, has very little friction, has nothing standing higher than the back of the beam, and requires the centre of the beam to be only half the stroke of the engine higher than the top of the piston-rod when at lowest, and has no inclination to pull the piston-rod either one way or another, only straight up and down. . . . However, don't pride yourself on it—it is not fairly tried yet, and may have unknown faults." [p.305]

    Another of Watt's beautiful inventions of the same period, was the Governor, contrived for the purpose of regulating the speed of the engine.  This was a point of great importance in all cases where steam-power was employed in processes of manufacture.  To modify the speed of the piston in the single-acting pumping-engine, Watt had been accustomed to use what is called a throttle-valve, which was regulated by hand as occasion required.  But he saw that to ensure perfect uniformity of speed, the action of the engine must be made automatic; and with this object he contrived the Governor, which has received no improvement since it left his hand.

    Two balls are fixed to the ends of arms connected with the engine by a movable socket, which plays up and down a vertical rod revolving by a band placed upon the axis or spindle of the flywheel.  According to the centrifugal force with which the balls revolve, they diverge more or less from the central fixed point, and push up or draw down the movable collar; which, being connected by a crank with the throttle-valve, thereby regulates with the most perfect precision the passage of the steam between the boiler and the cylinder.  When the pressure of steam is great, and the tendency of the engine is to go faster, the governor shuts off the steam; and when it is less, the governor opens the throttle-valve and increases the supply.  By this simple and elegant contrivance the engine is made to regulate its own speed with the most beautiful precision.

    Among the numerous proposed applications of the steam-engine about this time, was its employment as a locomotive in driving wheel-carriages.  It will be remembered that Watt's friend Robison had, at a very early period, directed his attention to the subject; and the idea had since been revived by Mr. Edgeworth, who laboured with great zeal to indoctrinate Watt with his views.  The latter, though he had but little faith in the project, nevertheless included the plan of a locomotive engine in his patent of 1784; but he took no steps to put it in execution, being too much engrossed with other business at the time.  His plan contemplated the employment of steam either in the form of high-pressure or low-pressure, working the pistons by the force of steam only, and discharging it into the atmosphere after it had performed its office, or discharging it into an air-tight condenser made of thin plates or pipes, with their outsides exposed to the wind or to an artificial current of air, thereby economising the water which would otherwise be lost.

    Watt did not carry his design into effect; and, so far as he was concerned, the question of steam locomotion would have gone no further.  But the subject had already attracted the attention of William Murdock, who had for some time been occupied during his leisure hours in constructing an actual working model of a locomotive.  When his model was finished, he proceeded to try it in the long avenue leading to the parsonage at Redruth, in the summer of 1784; and in so doing nearly frightened out of his wits the village pastor, who encountered the hissing, fiery little machine, while enjoying his evening walk.


William Murdoch's working model of a steam carriage, or road locomotive, of 1784.
Picture Wikipedia.

    When Watt heard of this experiment, he wrote to Boulton advising that Murdock should be gently counselled to give up his scheme, which, if pursued, might have the effect of withdrawing him from the work of the firm, to which he had become increasingly useful.  Boulton accordingly dissuaded Murdock from pursuing the subject; and we hear nothing further of Murdock's experiments upon Steam Locomotion.

    Notwithstanding Watt's fears of a falling off, the engine business still continued to prosper in Cornwall.  Although the mining interests were suffering from continued depression, new mines were being opened out, for which pumping-engines were wanted; and Boulton and Watt's continued to maintain their superiority over all others.  None of their threatened rivals had yet been able to exhibit an engine in successful work; and those of the old construction had been completely superseded.  In 1784, new engines were in course of erection at Poldice, New Poldony, Wheal Maid, Polgooth, and other mines.  The last of the Newcomen engines in Cornwall had been discarded at Polgooth in favour of one of Boulton and Watt's 58-inch cylinder engines.


    The dues paid yearly in respect of these and other engines previously erected were very considerable; Boulton estimating that, if duly paid, they would amount to about £12,000 a year.  There seemed, therefore, every reasonable prospect of the financial difficulties of the firm at last coming to an end.

    Boulton's visit to Cornwall on this occasion was enlivened by the companionship of his wife, and her friend Miss Mynd.  Towards midsummer he looked forward with anticipations of increased pleasure to the visit of his two children—his son Matt and his daughter Nancy—during their school holidays.  It was a source of much regret to him, affectionate as his nature was, that the engrossing character of his business prevented him from enjoying the society of his family so much as he desired.  But he endeavoured to make up for it by maintaining a regular correspondence with them when absent.

    His letters to his children were full of playfulness, affection, and good advice.  To his son at school he wrote, telling him of his life in Cornwall, describing to him the house at Cosgarne, the garden and the trees which he had planted in it, the pleasant rides in the neighbourhood, and the visit he had just been paying to the top of Pendennis Castle, from which he had seen about a hundred sail of ships at sea, and a boundless prospect of land and water.  He proceeded to tell him of the quantity of work he did connected with the engine business,—how he had no clerk to assist him, but did all the writing and drawing of plans himself: "When I have time," said he, "I pick up curiosities in ores for the purpose of assays, for I have a laboratory here.  There is nothing would so much add to my pleasure as having your assistance in making solutions, precipitates, evaporations, and crystallisations."

    After giving his son some good advice as to the cultivation of his mind, as being calculated to render him an intelligent and useful member of society, he proceeded to urge upon him the duty of cultivating polite manners, as a means of making himself agreeable to others, and at the same time of promoting his own comfort.  "But remember," he added, "I do not wish you to be polite at the expense of honour, truth, sincerity, and honesty; for these are the props of a manly character, and without them politeness is mean and deceitful.  Therefore, be always tenacious of your honour.  Be honest, just, and benevolent, even when it appears difficult to be so.  I say, cherish those principles, and guard them as sacred treasures."

    At length his son and daughter joined him and took part in his domestic and outdoor enjoyments.  They accompanied him in his drives and rides, and Matt took part in his chemical experiments.  One of their great delights was the fabrication of an immense paper balloon, and the making of the hydrogen gas to fill it with.  After great preparations the balloon was made and filled, and sent up in the field behind the house, to the delight of the makers, and of the villagers who surrounded Cosgarne.

    To Mrs. Watt he wrote expressing to her how much pleasanter his residence in Cornwall had become since his son's and daughter's visit.  "I shall be happier," he said, "during the remainder of my residence here than in the former part of it; for I am ill calculated to live alone in an enemy's country, and to contest lawsuits.  Besides, the only source of happiness I look for in my future life is in my children.  Matt behaves extremely well, is active and good-humoured; and my daughter, too, has, I think, good dispositions and sentiments, which I shall cherish, and prevent as much as possible from being sullied by narrow and illiberal-minded companions."

    After a few months' pleasant social intercourse with his family at Cosgarne, varied by occasional bickerings with the adventurers out of doors about dues, Boulton returned to Birmingham, to enter upon new duties and undertake new enterprises.




WHEN Boulton returned to Birmingham, he was urgently called upon to take part in a movement altogether foreign to his habits.  He had heretofore been too much engrossed by business to admit of his taking any active part in political affairs.  Being, however, of an active temperament, and mixing with men of all classes, he could not but feel an interest in the public movements of his time.  Early in 1784, we find him taking the lead in getting up a loyal address to the King on the resignation of the Portland Administration and the appointment of Mr. Pitt as Prime Minister.  It appears, however, that Pitt disappointed his expectations.  One of his first projects was a scheme of taxation, which he introduced for the purpose of remedying the disordered state of the finances, but which, in Boulton's opinion, would, if carried, have had the effect of seriously damaging the national industry.

    The Minister proposed to tax coal, iron, copper, and other raw materials of manufacture, to the amount of about a million a year.  Boulton immediately bestirred himself to oppose the adoption of the scheme.  He held that for a manufacturing nation to tax the raw materials of wealth was a suicidal measure, calculated, if persevered in, to involve the producers of wealth in ruin. Let taxes," he said, "be laid upon luxuries, upon vices, and, if you like, upon property; tax riches when got, and the expenditure of them, but not the means of getting them; but of all things, don't cut open the hen that lays the golden eggs." [p.312]

    Petitions and memorials were forthwith got up in the midland counties, and presented against the measure; and Boulton being recognised as the leader of the movement in his district, was summoned by Mr. Pitt to London to an interview with him on the subject.  He then took the opportunity of pressing upon the Minister the necessity of taking measures to secure reciprocity of trade with foreign nations, as being of vital importance to the trade of England.  Writing to his partner, Scale, he said, "Surely our Ministers must be bad politicians, to suffer the gates of nearly every commercial city in the world to be shut against us."  "There is no doubt," he wrote to his friend Garbett, "but the edicts, prohibitions, and high duties laid upon our manufacturers by foreign powers will be severely felt, unless some new commercial treaties are entered into with such powers.  I fear our young Minister is not sufficiently aware of the importance of the subject, and I likewise fear he will pledge himself before Parliament meets to carry other measures in the next session that will be as odious to the country as his late attempts."

    As Boulton had anticipated, the Ministry introduced several important measures, calculated to have a highly injurious effect upon English industry, and he immediately bestirred himself, in conjunction with Josiah Wedgwood, of Etruria, to organise a movement in opposition to them.  Wedgwood and Boulton met at Birmingham, in February 1785, and arranged to assemble a meeting of delegates from the manufacturing districts, who were to meet and sit in London "all the time the Irish commercial affairs were pending."  A printed statement of the objects of the movement was circulated, and Boulton and Wedgwood wrote to their friends in all quarters to meet and appoint delegates to the central committee in London.  Boulton was unanimously appointed the delegate for Birmingham, and he proceeded to London furnished with a bundle of petitions from his neighbourhood.  The delegates proceeded to form themselves into a Chamber of Manufacturers, over the deliberations of which Wedgwood, Boulton, or John Wilkinson usually presided.

    The principal object of these meetings and petitionings was to prevent, if possible, the imposition of the proposed taxes on coal, iron, and raw materials generally, as well as the proposed export duties on manufactured articles.  At a time when foreign governments were seeking to exclude English manufactures from their dominions by heavy import duties, it was felt that this double burden was more than English industry could bear.  The Irish Parliament were at the same time legislating in a hostile spirit towards English commerce; imposing taxes upon all manufactures imported into Ireland from England, while Irish manufactures were not only sent into England duty free, but their own parliament encouraged them by a bounty on exportation.  The committee strongly expostulated against the partial and unjust spirit of this legislation, and petitioned for free interchange on equal terms.  So long as such a state of things continued, the petitioners urged that "every idea of reciprocity in the interchange of manufactures between Britain and Ireland was a mere mockery of words."

    Although Watt was naturally averse to taking any public part in politics, his services were enlisted in the cause, and he drew up for circulation, "An answer to the Treasury Paper on the Iron Trade of England and Ireland."  The object of his statement was to show that the true way of encouraging manufactures in Ireland was, not by bounties, not by prohibitions, but by an entire freedom of industry.  It was asserted by the supporters of the propositions, that the natives of Ireland were ignorant, indolent, and poor.  "If they be so," said Watt, "the best method of giving them vigour is to have recourse to British manufacturers, possessed of capital, industry, and knowledge of trade."  The old covenanting spirit of his race fairly breaks out in the following passage:—

    "It is contemptible nonsense to argue that because Ireland has never had iron manufactories she cannot soon have them. . . . One hundred years ago the Irish had no linen manufacture; they imported linen; and now they sell to us to the amount of a million annually.  How came this about?  The civil wars under Charles I., and the tyranny of the Scotch Privy Council under Charles II., chased the people out of Scotland because they were Presbyterians.  Ireland received and protected them; they peopled the northern provinces; many of them were weavers; they followed their business in Ireland, and taught others.  Philip II. chased the inhabitants out of Flanders, on account of religion; Queen Elizabeth received and protected them; and England learnt to manufacture woollen cloth.  The persecutions of Lewis XIV. occasioned the establishment of a colony in Spitalfields.  And the Parliament of Britain, under the auspices of—and—, and others, imposed oppressive duties on glass; and —'s Act gave the Irish liberty to export it to our Colonies; the glass-makers fled from the tyranny of the excise; Ireland has now nine glass-houses.  Britain has lost the export trade of that article!  More examples of the migrations of manufactures could be adduced, but it seems unnecessary; for it cannot be denied that men will fly from tyranny to liberty, whether Philip's Priests, Charles's Dragoons, or our Excisemen, be the instruments of the tyranny.  And it must also be allowed that even the Inquisition itself is not more formidable than our Excise Laws (as far as property is concerned) to those who unhappily are subjected to them."

    Towards the end of the statement he asks, "Would it not be more manly and proper at once to invite the Irish to come into a perfect union with Britain, and to pay the same duties and excises that we do?  Then every distinction of country might with justice be done away with, and they would have a fair claim to all the advantages which we enjoy."

    The result of the agitation was that most of the proposals to impose new taxes on the raw materials of manufacture were withdrawn by the Ministry, and the Irish resolutions were considerably modified.  But the relations of British and Irish industry were by no means settled.  The Irish Parliament might refuse to affirm the resolutions adopted by the British Parliament, in which case it might be necessary again to oppose the Ministerial measures; and to provide for this contingency, the delegates separated, with the resolution to maintain and extend their organisation in the manufacturing districts.  Watt did not, however, like the idea of his partner becoming engrossed in political agitation, even in matters relating to commerce.  He accordingly wrote to Boulton in London, "I find myself quite unequal to the various business now lying behind, and wish much that you were at home, and that you would direct your attention solely to your own and to Boulton and Watt's business until affairs can be brought into reasonable compass."

    Watt was at this time distressed by an adverse decision against the firm in one of the Scotch courts.  "I have generally observed," he wrote, "that there is a tide in our affairs.  We have had peace for some time, but now cross accidents have begun, and more are to be feared."  His anxieties were increased by the rumour which reached his ears from several quarters of a grand combination of opulent manufacturers to make use of every beneficial patent that had been taken out, and cut them down by scire facias, as they had already cut down Arkwright's.  It was said that subscriptions had been obtained by the association amounting to £50,000.  Watt was requested to join a counter combination of patentees to resist the threatened proceedings.  To this, however, he objected, on the ground that the association of men to support one another in lawsuits was illegal, and would preclude the members from giving evidence in support of each other's rights.  "Besides," he said, "the greater number of patentees are such as we could not associate with, and if we did, it would do us more harm than good."

    Towards the end of 1785 the engines which had been in hand were nearly finished, and work was getting slacker than usual at Soho.  Though new orders gave Watt much trouble, and occasioned him anxiety, still he would rather not be without them.  It was matter of gratification to him to be able to report that the engines last delivered had given great satisfaction.  The mechanics were improving in skill, and their workmanship was becoming of a superior character.  "Strood and Curtis's engine," said he, "has been at work some time, and does very well.  Whitbread's has also been tried, and performs exceedingly well."  The success of Whitbread's engine was such that it had the honour of a visit from the King, who was greatly pleased with its performances.  Not to be outdone, "Felix Calvert," wrote Watt, "has bespoken one, which is to outdo Whitbread's in magnificence."

    The slackness of work at Soho was not of long continuance.  Orders for rotative engines came in gradually; one from Harris, of Nottingham; another from Macclesfield, to drive a silk-mill; a third from Edinburgh, for the purposes of a distillery; and others from different quarters.  The influx of orders had the effect at the same time of filling Soho with work, and plunging Watt into his usual labyrinth of perplexity and distress.  In September we find him writing to Boulton, "My health is so bad that I do not think I can hold out much longer, at least as a man of business, and I wish to consolidate something before I give over . . . . again, I cannot help being dispirited, because I find my head fail me much, business an excessive burden to me, and little prospect of my speedy release from it.  Were we both young and healthy, I should see no reason to despair, but very much the contrary.  However, we must do the best we can, and hope for quiet in heaven when our weary bones are laid to rest." [p.317]

    A few months later, so many more orders had come in, that Watt described Soho as "fast for the next four months," but the additional work only had the effect of increasing his headaches.  "In the anguish of my mind," he wrote, "amid the vexations occasioned by new and unsuccessful schemes, like Lovelace, I 'curse my inventions,' and almost wish, if we could gather our money together, that somebody else should succeed in getting our trade from us.  However, all may yet be well.  Nature can be conquered if we can but find out her weak side."

    We return to the affairs of the Cornish copper-miners, which were now in a very disheartening condition.  The mines were badly and wastefully worked; and the competition of many small companies of poor adventurers kept the copper trade in a state of permanent depression.  In this crisis of their affairs it was determined that a Copper Company should be formed, backed by ample capital, with the view of regulating this important branch of industry, and rescuing the mines and miners from ruin.  Boulton took an active part in its formation, and induced many of his intimate friends in the north to subscribe largely for shares.  An arrangement was entered into by the Company with the adventurers in the principal mines, to buy of them the whole of the ore raised, at remunerative prices, for a period of eleven years.

    At the first meeting, held in September, 1785, for the election of Governor, Deputy-Governor, and Directors, Boulton held in his hands the power of determining the appointments, representing, as he did by proxy, shares held by his northern friends to the amount of £86,000.  The meeting took place in the Town-hall at Truro, and the proceedings passed off satisfactorily; Boulton using his power with due discretion.  "We met again on Friday," he wrote to Matthews, "and chose the assayers and other subordinate officers, after which we paid our subscriptions, and dined together, all in good humour; and thus this important revolution in the copper trade was finally settled for eleven years."

    Matters were not yet, however, finally settled as many arrangements, in which Boulton took the leading part, had to be made for setting the Company to work; the Governor and Directors pressing him not to leave Cornwall until they were definitely settled.  It happened to suit his convenience to remain until the Wheal Fortune engine was finished—one of the most formidable engines the firm had yet erected in Cornwall.  In the mean time he entered into correspondence with various consumers of copper at home and abroad, with the object of finding a vend for the metal.  He succeeded in obtaining a contract through Mr. Hope, of Amsterdam, for supplying the copper required for the new Dutch coinage; and he opened out new markets for the produce in other quarters.  Being a large holder of mining shares, Boulton also tried to introduce new and economical methods of working the mines; but with comparatively little result.

    Though actively bestirring himself for the good of the mining interest, Boulton had but small thanks for his pains.  The prominence of his position had this disadvantage, that if the price of the ore went down, or profits declined, or the yield fell off, or the mines were closed, or anything went wrong, the miners were but too ready to identify him in some way with the mischief; and the services which he had rendered to the mining interest were in a moment forgotten.  On one occasion the discontent of the miners broke out into open revolt, and Boulton was even threatened with personal violence.  The United Mines having proved unprofitable in the working, notice was given by the manager of an intended reduction of wages, this being the only condition on which the mines could be carried on.  If this could not be arranged, the works must be closed, as the adventurers declined to go on at a loss.

    On the announcement of the intended lowering of wages being made, there was great excitement and discontent among the workpeople.  Several hundreds of them hastily assembled at Redruth, and took the road for Truro, to pull down the offices of the Copper Mining Company, and burn the house of the manager.  They were especially furious with Boulton, vowing vengeance on him, and declaring that they would pull down every pumping-engine he had set up in Cornwall.  When the rioters reached Truro, they found a body of men, hastily armed with muskets taken from the arsenal, stationed in front of the Copper Mining Company's premises, supported by six pieces of cannon.  At sight of this formidable demonstration, the miners drew back, and, muttering threats that they would repeat their visit, returned to Redruth.

    This was, however, but the wild and unreasoning clamour of misguided and ignorant men.  Boulton was personally much esteemed by all who were able to appreciate his character, and to understand the position of himself and his partner with reference to the engine patent.  The larger mining owners invited him to their houses, and regarded him as their friend.  The more intelligent of the managers were his strenuous supporters.  First and foremost among these was Mr. Phillips, manager of the Chacewater mines, of whom he always spoke with the highest respect, as a man of the most scrupulous integrity and honour.  Mr. Phillips was a member of the Society of Friends, and his wife Catherine was one of the most celebrated preachers of the body.  Boulton and Watt occasionally resided with them before the house at Cosgarne was taken, and conceived for both the warmest friendship.  If Watt was attracted by the Cornish Anabaptists, Boulton was equally attracted by the Cornish Quakers.  We find him, in one of his letters to Mrs. Boulton, describing a great meeting of Friends at Truro which he had attended, "where," he said, "I heard our friend Catherine Phillips preach with great energy and good sense for an hour and a half, although so weak in body that she was obliged to lie abed for several days before."  Boulton afterwards dined with the whole body of Friends at the principal inn, being the only person present who was not of the Society; and he confessed to have spent in their company a very pleasant evening.

    We return to the progress of the engine business at Soho.  The most important work in hand about this time was the double-acting engine intended for the Albion Mill, in Southwark. [p.321]  This was the first rotative with a parallel motion erected in London and as the more extended use of the engine would in a great measure depend upon its success, the firm naturally looked forward with very great interest to its performances.  The Albion Mill scheme was started by Boulton as early as 1783.  Orders for rotatives were then coming in very slowly, and it occurred to him that if he had but the opportunity of exhibiting the powers of the new engine in its best form, and in connexion with the best machinery, the results would be so satisfactory and conclusive as to induce manufacturers generally to follow the example.  On applying to the London capitalists, Boulton found them averse to the undertaking; and at length Boulton and Watt became persuaded that if the concern was to be launched at all, they must themselves find the principal part of the capital.  A sufficient number of shareholders was got together to make a start, and application was made for a charter of incorporation in 1784; but it was so strongly opposed by the millers and mealmen, on the ground that the application of steam-power to flour-grinding would throw wind and water-mills out of work, take away employment from the labouring classes, and reduce the price of bread, [p.322] that the charter was refused; and the Albion Mill Company was accordingly constituted on the ordinary principles of partnership.



Ed.—a double acting reciprocating engine, showing the valve-gear and governor (live steam
from the boiler is in red, steam exhausted to the condenser is in blue).  Picture Wikipedia.

Ed.—a closer view of a double-acting engine's cylinder and piston.  Above it is the "steam chest" and the "slide valve", which control the flow of live and exhaust steam.  The amount of travel by the slide valve also controls the amount of live steam injected into the cylinder at each stroke (the "cut-off"), thereby determining how "expansively" the steam is to work, which in turn affects fuel economy.  Picture Wikipedia.



Ed.—application of the double-acting steam reciprocating engine to a railway locomotive.  Note the action of the "reverser" on the valve-gear in order to change the direction of rotation of the locomotive's driving wheels.  Picture Wikipedia.



Ed.—a three cylinder "compound" steam reciprocating engine.  A type much used for marine propulsion, improved fuel economy was obtained by passing the steam through three stages of expansion before exhausting it to the condenser, thus maximising heat use.  Four cylinder compound marine engines were also built, although less common.  Picture Wikipedia.

    By the end of the year the Albion Mill engines, carefully designed by Watt, were put in hand at Soho; the building was in course of erection, after the designs of Mr. Wyatt, the architect; while John Rennie, the young Scotch engineer, was engaged to design and fit up the flour-grinding and dressing machinery.  "I am glad," wrote Boulton to Watt, "you have agreed with Rennie. Mills are a great field.  Think of the crank—of Wolf, Trumpeter, Wasp, and all the ghosts we are haunted by."  The whole of the following year was occupied in the erection of the buildings and machinery; and it was not until the spring of 1786 that the mill was ready to start.  Being the first enterprise of the kind, on an unprecedented scale, and comprising many novel combinations of machinery, there were many "hitches" before it could be got to work satisfactorily.  After the first trial, at which Boulton was present, he wrote his partner expressing his dissatisfaction with the working of the double-acting engine, expressing the opinion that it would have been better if they had held to the single-acting one. [p.324]  Watt was urged to run up to town himself and set matters to rights; but he was up to the ears in work at Soho, and could not leave for a day.


Ed.—John Rennie (1761-1821): Scottish civil engineer, the designer of many bridges,
canals and docks.  Portrait by Sir Henry Raeburn (1810).  Picture Wikipedia.

    After pointing out what course should be taken to discover and remedy the faults of the engine, he proceeded:—

"Above all, patience must be exercised and things coolly examined and put to rights, and care be taken not to blame innocent parts.  Everything must, as much as possible, be tried separately.  Remind those who begin to growl, that in new, complicated and difficult things, human foresight falls short—that time and money must be given to perfect things and find out their defects, otherwise they cannot be remedied." [p.325]

    The cost of erecting the mill proved to be considerably in excess of the original estimate, and Watt early feared that it would turn out a losing concern.  He had no doubt about the engines or the machinery being able to do all that had been promised but he feared that the absence of business capacity on the part of the managers would be fatal to its commercial success.  He was especially annoyed at finding the mill made a public show of, and that it was constantly crowded with curious and frivolous people, whose presence seriously interfered with the operations of the workmen.  It reached his ears that the managers of the mill even intended to hold a masquerade in it, with the professed object of starting the concern with éclat!  Watt denounced this as sheer humbug.  "What have Dukes, Lords, and Ladies," said he, "to do with masquerading in a flour-mill?  You must take steps to curb the vanity of ―― else it will ruin him.  As for ourselves, considering that we are much envied at any rate, everything which contributes to render us conspicuous ought to be avoided.  Let us content ourselves with doing."

    When the mill was at length set to work, the engine performed to the entire satisfaction of its projector.  The usual rate of work per week of six days was 16,000 bushels of wheat, cleaned, ground, and dressed into fine flour (some of it being ground two or three times over)—or sufficient, according to Boulton's estimate, for the weekly consumption of 150,000 people.  The important uses of the double rotative engine were exhibited in the most striking manner; and the fame of the Albion Mill extended far and wide.

    It so far answered the main purpose which Boulton and Watt had in view in originally embarking in the enterprise; but it must be added that the success was accomplished at a very serious sacrifice.  The mill never succeeded commercially.  It was too costly in its construction and in its management, and though it did an immense business, it was done at a loss.  The concern, was, doubtless, capable of great improvement, and, had time been allowed, it would probably have come round.  When its prospects seemed to be brightening, [p.326-1] it was set on fire in several places by incendiaries on the night of the 3rd of March, 1791.  The villains had made their arrangements with deliberation and skill.  They fastened the main cock of the water-cistern, and chose the hour of low tide for firing the building, so that water could not be got to play upon the flames, and the mill was burnt to the ground in a few hours.  A reward was offered for the apprehension of the criminals, but they were never discovered.  The loss sustained by the Company was about £10,000.  Boulton and Watt were the principal sufferers; the former holding £6,000 and the latter £3,000 interest in the undertaking. [p.326-2]

    Meanwhile, orders for rotative engines were coming in apace at Soho,—engines for paper-mills and cotton-mills, for flour-mills and iron-mills, and for sugar-mills in America and the West Indies.  At the same time pumping-engines were in hand for France, Spain, and Italy.  The steam-engine was becoming an established power, and its advantages were every day more clearly recognised.  It was alike docile, regular, economical, and effective, at all times and seasons, by night as by day, in summer and in winter.  While the wind-mills were stopped by calms and the water-mills by frosts, the steam-mill worked on with untiring power.  "There is not a single water-mill now at work in Staffordshire," wrote Boulton to Wyatt in December; "they are all frozen up, and were it not for Wilkinson's steam-mill, the poor nailers must have perished; but his mill goes on rolling and slitting ten tons of iron a day, which is carried away as fast as it can be bundled up; and thus the employment and subsistence of these poor people are secured."

    As the demand for rotative engines set in, Watt became more hopeful as to the prospects of this branch of manufacture.  He even began to fear lest the firm should be unable to execute the orders, so fast did they follow each other.  "I have no doubt," he wrote to Boulton, "that we shall soon so methodize the rotative engines as to get on with them at a great pace.  Indeed, that is already in some degree the case.  But we must have more men, and these we can only have by the slow process of breeding them." [327]

    Want of skilled workmen was one of Watt's greatest difficulties.  When the amount of work to be executed was comparatively small, and sufficient time was given to execute it, he was able to turn out very satisfactory workmanship; but when the orders came pouring in, new hands were necessarily taken on, who proved a constant source of anxiety and trouble.  Even the "old hands," when sent to a distance to fit up engines, being left, in a great measure, to themselves, were apt to become careless and ill-conditioned.  With some, self-conceit was the stumbling-block, with others temper, but with the greater number, drink.

    Another foreman sent to erect an engine in Craven was afflicted with a distemper of a different sort.  He was found to have put the engine very badly together, and, instead of attending to his work, had gone a-hunting in a pig-tail wig!

    William Murdock continued, as before, an admirable exception.  He was as indefatigable as ever, always ready with an expedient to remedy a defect, and willing to work at all hours.  A great clamour had been raised in Cornwall during his stay in London while setting the Albion Mill to rights, as there was no other person there capable of supplying his place, and fulfilling his numerous and responsible duties.  Boulton deplored that more men such as Murdock were not to be had; "He is now flying from mine to mine," he wrote, "and hath so many calls upon him that he is inclined to grow peevish; and if we take him from North Downs, Chacewater, and Towan (all of which engines he has the care of), they will run into disorder and ruin; for they have not a man at North Downs that is better than a stoker."

    Towards the end of 1786 the press of orders increased at Soho.  A rotative engine of forty horse-power was ordered by the Plate Glass Company to grind glass.  A powerful pumping-engine was in hand for the Oxford Canal Company.  Two engines, one of twenty and the other of ten horse-power, were ordered for Scotch distilleries, and another order was shortly expected from the same quarter.  The engine supplied for the Hull paper-mill having been found to answer admirably, more orders for engines for the same purpose were promised.  At the same time pumping-engines were in hand for the great French waterworks at Marly.  "In short," said Watt, "I foresee I shall be driven almost mad in finding men for the engines ordered here and coming in."

    Watt was necessarily kept very full of work by these orders, and we gather from his letters that he was equally full of headaches.  He continued to give his personal attention to the preparation of the drawings of the engines, even to the minutest detail.  On an engine being ordered by Mr. Morris, of Bristol, for the purpose of driving a tilt-hammer, Boulton wrote to him,—"Mr. Watt can never be prevailed upon to begin any piece of machinery until the plan of the whole is settled, as it often happens that a change in one thing puts many others wrong.  However, he has now settled the whole of yours, but waits answers to certain questions before the drawings for the founder can be issued."

    At an early period his friend Wedgwood had strongly urged upon Watt that he should work less with his own head and hands, and more through the heads and hands of others.  Watt's brain was too active for his body, and needed rest; but rest he would not take, and persisted in executing all the plans of the new engines himself.  Thus in his fragile, nervous, dyspeptic state, every increase of business was to him increase of brain-work and increase of pain; until it seemed as if not only his health, but the very foundations of his reason must give way.  At the very time that Soho was beginning to bask in the sunshine of prosperity, and the financial troubles of the firm seemed coming to an end, Watt wrote the following profoundly melancholy letter to a friend:—

"I have been effete and listless, neither daring to face business, nor capable of it, my head and memory failing me much; my stable of hobby-horses pulled down, and the horses given to the dogs for carrion. . . . I have had serious thoughts of laying down the burden I find myself unable to carry, and perhaps, if other sentiments had not been stronger, should have thought of throwing off the mortal coil; but, if matters do not grow worse, I may perhaps stagger on.  Solomon said that in the increase of knowledge there is increase of sorrow; if he had substituted business for knowledge, it would have been perfectly true." [p.330]

    As might be expected, from the large number of engines already sold by the firm, and from the increasing amounts yearly payable as dues, their income from the business was becoming considerable, and promised, before many years had passed, to be very large.  Down to the year 1785, however, the outlay upon new foundries, workshops, and machinery had been so great, and the large increase of business had so completely absorbed the capital of the firm, that Watt continued to be paid his household expenses, at the rate of so much a year, out of the hardware business, and no division of profits upon the engines sold and at work had as yet been made, because none had accrued.

    After the lapse of two or more years, matters had completely changed; and after long waiting, and indescribable distress of mind and body, Watt's invention at length began to be productive.  During the early part of his career, though his income had been small, his wants were few, and easily satisfied.  Though Boulton had liberally provided for these from the time of his settling at Birmingham, Watt continued to feel oppressed by the thought of the debt to the bankers for which he and his partner were jointly liable.  In his own little business at Glasgow, he had been accustomed to deal with such small sums, that the idea of being responsible for the repayment of thousands of pounds appalled and unnerved him; and he had no peace of mind until the debt was discharged.

    Now at last he was free, and in the happy position of having a balance at his bankers.  On the 7th of December, 1787, Boulton wrote to Matthews, the London agent,—"As Mr. Watt is now at Mr. Macgregor's, in Glasgow, I wish you would write him a line to say that you have transferred £4,000 to his own account, that you have paid for him another £1,000 to the Albion Mill, and that about Christmas you suppose you shall transfer £2,007 more to him, to balance."

    But while Watt's argosies were coming into port richly laden, Boulton's were still at sea.  Though the latter had risked, and often lost, capital in his various undertakings, he continued as venturesome, and as enterprising as ever.  When any project was started calculated to bring the steam-engine into notice, he was immediately ready with his subscription.  Thus he embarked £6,000 in the Albion Mill, a luckless adventure in itself, though productive in other respects.  But he sadly missed the money, and as late as 1789, feelingly said to Matthews, "Oh, that I had my Albion Mill capital back again!"  When any mining adventure was started in Cornwall for which a new engine was wanted, Boulton would write, "If you want a stop-gap, put me down as an adventurer"; and too often the adventure proved a failure.  Then, to encourage the Cornish Copper Mining Company, he bought large quantities of copper, and had it sent down to Birmingham, where it long lay on his hands without a purchaser.  At the same time we find him expending £5,000 in building and rebuilding two mills and a warehouse at Soho, and an equal amount in "preparing for the coinage."

    These large investments had the effect of crippling his resources for years to come; and when the commercial convulsion of 1788 occurred, he felt himself in a state of the most distressing embarrassment.  The circumstances of the partners being thus in a measure reversed, Boulton fell back upon Watt for temporary help; but, more cautious than his partner, Watt had already invested his profits elsewhere, and could not help him. [p.332]  He had got together his store of gains with too much difficulty to part with them easily; and he was unwilling to let them float away in what he regarded as an unknown sea of speculation.

    To add to his distresses, Boulton's health again began to fail him.  To have seen the two men, no one would have thought that Boulton would have been the first to break down; but so it was.  Though Watt's sufferings from headaches, and afterwards from asthma, seem to have been almost continuous, he struggled on, and even grew in strength and spirits.  His fragile frame bent before disease, as the reed bends to the storm, and rose erect again; but it was different with Boulton.  He had toiled too unsparingly, and was now feeling the effects.  The strain upon him had throughout been greater than upon Watt, whose headache had acted as a sort of safety-valve by disabling him from pursuing further study until it had gone off.  Boulton, on the other hand, was kept in a state of constant anxiety by business that could not possibly be postponed.  He had to provide the means for carrying on his many businesses, to sustain his partner against despondency, and to keep the whole organisation of the firm in working order.

    While engaged in bearing his gigantic burden, disease came upon him.  In 1784 we find him writing to his wine-merchant, with a cheque in payment of his account,—"We have had a visit from a new acquaintance—the gout."  The visitor returned, and four years later we find him complaining of violent pain from gravel and stone, to which he continued a martyr to the close of his life.  "I am very unwell indeed," he wrote to Matthews in London; "I can get no sleep; and yet I have been obliged to wear a cheerful face, and attend all this week on M. l'Abbé de Callone and his friend Brunelle."  He felt as if life was drawing to an end; he asked his friend for a continuance of his sympathy, and promised still to exert himself, "otherwise," said he, "I will lay me down and die."  He was distressed, above all things, at the prospect of leaving his family unprovided for, notwithstanding all the labours, anxieties, and risks he had undergone.

    "When I reflect," he said, "that I have given up my extra advantage of one-third on all the engines we are now making and are likely to make, [p.334]—when I think of my children now upon the verge of that time of life when they are naturally entitled to expect a portion of their patrimony,—when I feel the consciousness of being unable to restore to them the property which their mother entrusted to me,—when I see all whom I am connected with growing rich, whilst I am groaning under a load of debt and annuities that would sink me into the grave if my anxieties for my children did not sustain me,—I say, when I consider all these things, it behoves me to struggle through the small remaining fragment of my life (being now in my 6oth year), and do my children all the justice in my power by wiping away as many of my encumbrances as possible."

    It was seldom that Boulton wrote in so desponding a strain as this; but it was his "darkest hour," and happily it proved the one "nearest the dawn."  Yet, we shortly after find him applying his energies, apparently unabated, in an entirely new direction—that of coining money—which, next to the introduction of the steam-engine, was the greatest enterprise of his life.




AS men are known by the friends they make and the books they read,—as well as by the recreations and pursuits of their leisure hours,—it will help us to an appreciation of the characters of Boulton and Watt if we glance briefly at the social life of Soho during the period we have thus rapidly passed under review.

    Boulton was a man of a thoroughly social disposition, and made friends wherever he went.  He was a favourite alike with children and philosophers, with princely visitors at Soho, and with quiet Quakers in Cornwall.  When at home he took pleasure in gathering about him persons of kindred tastes and pursuits, in order at the same time to enjoy their society, and to cultivate his nature by intercourse with minds of the highest culture.  Hence the friendships which he early formed for Benjamin Franklin, Dr. Small, Dr. Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Thomas Day, Lovell Edgeworth, and others equally eminent; out of which eventually grew the famous Lunar Society.

    Towards the close of last century, there were many little clubs or coteries of scientific and literary men established in the provinces, the like of which do not now exist,—probably because the communication with the metropolis is so much easier, and because London more than ever absorbs the active intelligence of England, especially in the higher departments of science, art, and literature.  The provincial coteries of which we speak were usually centres of the best and most intelligent society of their neighbourhoods, and were for the most part distinguished by an active and liberal spirit of inquiry.  Leading minds attracted others of like tastes and pursuits, and social circles were formed which proved in many instances the source of great intellectual activity as well as enjoyment.  At Liverpool, Roscoe and Currie were the centres of one such group; at Warrington, Aikin, Enfield, and Priestley of another; at Bristol, Dr. Beddow and Humphry Davy of a third; and at Norwich, the Taylors and Martineaus of a fourth.  But perhaps the most distinguished of these provincial societies was that at Birmingham, of which Boulton and Watt were among the most prominent members.

    From an early period, the idea of a society, meeting by turns at each other's houses, seems to have been entertained by Boulton.  It was probably suggested in the first place by his friend Dr. Small.  The object of the proposed Society was to be at the same time friendly and scientific.  The members were to exchange views with each other on topics relating to literature, art, and science; each contributing his quota of entertainment and instruction.  The meetings were appointed to be held monthly at the full of the moon, to enable distant members to drive home by moonlight; and this was the more necessary as some of them—such as Darwin and Wedgwood—lived at a considerable distance from Birmingham.

    When Watt visited Soho in 1768, on his way home from London to Glasgow, some of the members of the Society—Dr. Small, Dr. Darwin, and Mr. Keir were invited to meet him at l'hotel de l'amitié sur Handsworth Heath, as Boulton styled his hospitable mansion.  The Society must, however, have been in a somewhat undefined state at even a considerably later period, as we find Boulton writing to Watt in 1776, after the latter had settled in Birmingham, "Pray remember that the celebration of the third full moon will be on Saturday, March 3rd.  Darwin and Keir will both be at Soho.  I then propose to submit many motions to the members respecting new laws and regulations, such as will tend to prevent the decline of a Society which I hope will be lasting."  The principal members, besides those above named, were Thomas Day, R. Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton, Dr. Withering, Baskerville the printer, Dr. Priestley, and James Watt.  Each member was at liberty to bring a friend with him, and thus many visitors of distinction were present at the meetings of the Society, amongst whom may be named Mr. Smeaton, Dr. Parr, Sir Joseph Banks, Sir William Herschel, Dr. Solander, De Luc, Dr. Camper, and occasional scientific foreigners.

    Dr. Darwin was regarded as the patriarch of the Society.  His fame as a doctor, philosopher, and poet was great throughout the Midland Counties.  He was extremely speculative in all directions, even in such matters as driving wheel-carriages by steam,—also a favourite subject of speculation with Mr. Edgeworth. [p.339-1]  Dr. Darwin's time, however, was so much engrossed by his practice at Lichfield, that he was not very regular in his attendance at the meetings, but would excuse himself for his absence by such a letter as the following:—

"DEAR BOULTON, I am sorry the infernal divinities who visit mankind with diseases, and are therefore at perpetual war with Doctors, should have prevented my seeing all your great men at Soho to-day.  Lord! what inventions, what wit, what rhetoric, metaphysical, mechanical, and pyrotechnical, will be on the wing, bandied like a shuttlecock from one to another of your troop of philosophers; while poor I, I by myself I, imprison'd in a postchaise, am joggled, and jostled, and bump'd, and bruised along the King's high-road to make war upon a stomach-ache or a fever!" [p.339-2]

    While Dr. Darwin and Mr. Edgeworth were amongst the oldest members of the Society, Dr. Priestley, the discoverer of oxygen and other gases, was one of the youngest.  We find Boulton corresponding with him in 1775, principally on chemical subjects, and supplying him with fluor spar for purposes of experiment.  Five years later, in 1780, he was appointed minister of the Presbyterian Congregation assembling in the New Meeting-house, Birmingham; and from that time forward he was one of the most active members of the Lunar Society.


Ed.—Joseph Priestley: English chemist, best known for his isolation and description of several gases, particularly oxygen and nitrous oxide (which later became one of the earliest surgical anaesthetics).  He is considered to be one of the founders of modern chemistry because of his contributions to experimental science.  Priestley later emigrated to the United States where he died in 1804.

    Dr. Priestley was a man of extraordinary gifts and accomplishments.  He had mastered many languages before he was twenty years old.  He was well versed in mechanical philosophy and metaphysics, a skilled dialectician, and the most expert chemist of his time.  Possessed by an irrepressible activity and untiring perseverance, he became an enthusiast on whatever subject he undertook, whether it was an inquiry into history, theology, or science.  He himself likened experimental philosophy to hunting, and in his case it was the pursuit of facts that mainly concerned him.  He was cheerful, hopeful, and buoyant.  He possessed a juvenile temperament.  He was happiest when fullest of work.  His mind ranged from subject to subject with extraordinary versatility.  He would lay aside metaphysics to pursue experiments in electricity; next taking up history and politics, proceeding from these to experiments on gases,—all the while perhaps carrying on a public controversy on some disputed point in religion or politics.  For it is a curious fact, that gentle, affectionate, and amiable though Priestley was,—devout in temperament, and single-minded in the pursuit of truth, [p.341]—he was almost constantly involved in paper wars.  He described himself, and truly, as "one of the happiest of men;" yet wherever he went, in England or America, he stirred up controversy and exasperated opponents, seeming to be the very Ishmael of polemics.

    At the time when he settled at Birmingham, Priestley was actively engaged in prosecuting inquiries into the constitution of bodies.  He had been occupied for several years before in making investigations as to the gases.  The discovery of carbonic acid gas by Dr. Black of Edinburgh had attracted his attention; and, living conveniently near to a brewery at Leeds, where he then was, he proceeded to make experiments on the fixed air or carbonic acid gas evolved during fermentation.  From these he went on to other experiments, making use of the rudest apparatus,—phials, tobacco, pipes, kitchen utensils, a few glass tubes, and an old gun-barrel.  The pursuit was a source of constant pleasure to him.  He had entered upon an almost unexplored field of science.  Then was the childhood of chemistry, and he gazed with large-eyed wonder at the marvels which his investigations brought to light.  He had no teacher to guide him—nothing but experiment; and he experimented constantly, carefully noting the results.  Observation of facts was his great object; the interpretation of the facts he left to others.  Such was Priestley, and such were his pursuits, when he settled at Birmingham in 1780.

    There can be little doubt that his enthusiasm as an experimenter in chemistry exercised a powerful influence on the minds of both Boulton and Watt, who, though both full of work, anxiety, and financial troubles, were nevertheless found taking an active interest from this time forward in the progress of chemical science.  Chemistry became the chief subject of discussion at the meetings of the Lunar principal and chemical experiments the principal recreation of their leisure hours.

    "I dined yesterday at the Lunar Society (Keir's house)," wrote Boulton to Watt; "there was Blair, Priestley, Withering, Galton, and an American rebel, Mr. Collins.  Nothing new except that some of my white Spathos Iron ore was found to contain more air than any ore Priestley had ever tried, and, what is singular, it contains no common air, but is part fixable and part inflammable." [p.343-1]

    To Henderson, in Cornwall, Boulton wrote, two months later, "Chemistry has for some time been my hobby-horse, but I am prevented from riding it by cursed business, except now and then of a Sunday.  However, I have made great progress since I saw you, and am almost an adept in metallurgical moist chemistry.  I have got all that part of Bergmann's last volume translated, and have learnt from it many new facts.  I have annihilated Wm. Murdock's bedchamber, having taken away the floor, and made the chicken kitchen into one high room covered over with shelves, and these I have filled with chemical apparatus.  I have likewise set up a Priestleyan water-tub, and likewise a mercurial tub for experiments on gases, vapours, &c., and next year I shall annex to these a laboratory with furnaces of all sorts, and all other utensils for dry chemistry." [p.343-2]

    The "Priestleyan water-tub" and "mercurial tub," here alluded to, were invented by Priestley in the course of his investigations for the purpose of collecting and handling gases; and the pneumatic trough, with glass retorts and receivers, shortly became part of the furniture of every chemical laboratory.

    Josiah Wedgwood was another member of the Lunar Society, who was infected by Dr. Priestley's enthusiasm for chemistry; and knowing that the Doctor's income from his congregation was small, he and Boulton took private counsel together as to the best means of providing him with funds, so as to place him in a position of comparative ease, and enable him freely to pursue his investigations.  The correspondence which took place on the subject is creditable to all parties concerned; and the more so to Boulton, as he was embarrassed at the time by financial difficulties of the most distressing kind, as has been already explained in a preceding chapter.  Wedgwood had undertaken to sound Dr. Priestley, and he thus communicated the result to Boulton:—

    "The Doctor says he never did intend or think of making any pecuniary advantage from any of his experiments, but gave them to the public with their results, just as they happened, and so he should continue to do, without ever attempting to make any private emolument from them to himself.

    "I mentioned this business to our good friend, Dr. Darwin, who agrees with us in sentiment, that it would be a pity that Dr. Priestley should have any cares or cramps to interrupt him in the fine vein of experiments he is in the midst of, and is willing to devote his time to the pursuit of, for the public good.  The Doctor will subscribe, and has thought of some friends, who, he is persuaded, will gladly do the same. . . .

    "You will see by the enclosed list that one cannot decently exceed ten guineas unless it be under the cover of a friend's name, which method I shall take if I think it necessary to write more than ten; but that is the subscription I shall begin with, and for three years certain.

    "Dr. Darwin will be very cautious whom he mentions this affair to, for reasons of delicacy which will have equal weight with us all.  I mentioned your generous intention to Dr. P., and that we thought of £20 each; but that, you will perceive, cannot be, and the Doctor says much less will suffice, as he can go on very well with £100 per annum." [p.345-1]

    Boulton wrote to Wedgwood in reply, requesting that the money subscribed should be collected and paid to Dr. Priestley in such a way as not to wound his sensitive feelings.  He suggested that in order to avoid this, it might be better if, instead of an annual subscription, a dozen gentlemen were found willing to give a hundred pounds each for the purpose of buying an annuity, or investing the amount in stock for the Doctor's benefit.  "I have never yet spoken to him on the subject," he added; "I wish to avoid it, and so doth my neighbour Galton.  Therefore I beg you will manage the affair so that we may contribute our mites to so laudable a plan, without the Doctor knowing anything of the matter, and favour us with a line on the subject at your leisure." [p.345-2]

    In a subsequent part of the same letter he indicated the subject of Priestley's experiments at the time.  "We have long talked," said he, "of Phlogiston without knowing what we talked about; but now that Dr. Priestley hath brought the matter to light, we can pour that element out of one vessel into another, can take it out of one metal and put it into another, can tell how much of it, by accurate measurement, is necessary to reduce a calx to a metal, which is easily done, and without putting that calx into contact with any visible thing.  In short, this goddess of levity can be measured and weighed like other matter.  For the rest, I refer you to the Doctor himself."


Ed.—John Smeaton, FRS (1724-92): English civil and mechanical engineer, and physicist, he designed bridges, canals, and harbours; also, the third Eddystone lighthouse, which on completion in 1759 became a standard for lighthouse design.  Smeaton was the first to describe himself (in 1768) as a 'civil engineer' thus creating a distinction from the military engineer who had traditionally undertaken the construction of public infrastructure. An innovative and intelligent man, Smeaton is commonly regarded as the father of the civil engineering profession.

    The discussions at the Lunar Society were not, however, exclusively chemical, but were varied according to the visitors who from time to time honoured the members with their presence.  Thus, in the autumn of 1782, the venerable Smeaton, having occasion to be in Birmingham upon canal business, was invited to attend a meeting of the Society, held in Watt's house at Harper's Hill.  Watt thus described the evening's proceedings in a letter to Boulton, then in London: "He—[Smeaton] grows old, and is rather more talkative than he was, but retains in perfection his perspicuity of expression and good sense.  He came to the Philosophers' Meeting at my house on Monday, and we were receiving an account of his experiments on rotatives and some new ones he has made, when unluckily his facts did not agree with Dr. Moyes the blind philosopher's theories, which made Moyes contradict Smeaton, and brought on a dispute which lost us the information we hoped for, and took away all the pleasure of the meeting, as it lasted two hours without coming half an inch nearer to the point." [p347-1]

    A few days later we find De Luc paying his first visit to Watt at Birmingham, accompanied by Baron Reden, who desired to inspect the Soho works.  "M. de Luc," wrote Watt, "is a modest ingenious man.  On Wednesday, Wilkinson, Reden, and he sent for me to 'The Castle,' after dinner, and kept me to supper.  On the following day De Luc came to breakfast, and spent the whole forenoon, insensing [p.347-2] himself with steam and steam-engines.  He is making a book, and will mention us in it.  Dr. Priestley came also to dinner, and we were all good company till six o'clock, when Wilkinson set off for Broseley, and they for London."

    Meanwhile Priestley continued to pursue his investigations with indefatigable zeal, discovering one gas after another, [p.347-3] and immediately proclaiming the facts which he brought to light, so that other minds might be employed on them besides his own.  He kept nothing secret.  Perhaps, indeed, he was too hasty in publishing the results of experiments still unfinished, as it occasionally led him into contradiction which a more cautious method of procedure would have enabled him to avoid.  But he was thoroughly honest, ingenuous, and single-minded in all his proceedings, entertaining the conviction that in the end truth would vindicate itself, and that all that was necessary was to inquire ardently, to experiment incessantly, and to publish freely.

    One of the most interesting speculations to which Priestley's experiments gave rise, was with respect to the composition of water.  The merit of discovering the true theory has been variously attributed to Watt, to Cavendish, and to Lavoisier; and perhaps no scientific question has been the subject of more protracted controversy.  It had been known for some years that a certain mixture of inflammable and dephlogisticated air (hydrogen and oxygen), or common air and hydrogen, could be fired by the electric spark.  The experiment had been made by Volta and Macquer in 1776-7; and in the spring of 1781 Priestley made what he called a "random experiment" of the same kind, to entertain some philosophical friends.  He exploded a mixture of common air and hydrogen in a glass globe by sending an electric spark through it, and when the explosion had taken place it was observed that the sides of the glass were bedewed with moisture.  Mr. Warltire, a lecturer on Natural Philosophy at Birmingham, was present at the experiment, and afterwards repeated it in a copper flask for the purpose of trying "whether heat is heavy or not."

    In the meantime, Mr. Cavendish, who had for some years been occupied in the special study of pneumatic chemistry, and satisfactorily solved the question of the true composition of atmospheric air, having had his attention directed to Mr. Warltire's experiment, repeated it in London, in the summer of 1781, employing a glass vessel instead of a copper one; and again the deposit of dew was observed on the sides of the glass.  This phenomenon, which Priestley had disregarded, appeared to him to be of considerable importance, and "likely to throw great light" upon the subject of the disappearance of oxygen during combustion, which he had been pursuing experimentally by means of his well-known eudiometer.  "The liquid which resulted from the detonations was very carefully analysed, and proved in all the experiments with hydrogen and air, and in some of those with hydrogen and oxygen, to be pure water; but in certain of the latter it contained a sensible quantity of nitric acid.  Till the source of this was ascertained, it would have been premature to conclude that hydrogen and oxygen could be turned into pure water."  These experiments, however, were not published, being still regarded as inconclusive.  But with the communicativeness which distinguishes the true man of science, Cavendish made them known to Priestley, and, through his friend Dr. Blagden, to Lavoisier.  It was not until January, 1784, that he communicated the results of his long series of experiments on the subject to the Royal Society.
    In the meantime Watt's attention had been directed to the same subject by the experiments of Priestley, and he was led to the same conclusions as Cavendish, though altogether independent of him, and by means of a different class of experiments.  We find him writing to Boulton, then at Cosgarne, as follows, in 1782:—

    "You may remember that I have often said that if water could be heated red hot, or something more, it would probably be converted into some kind of air, because steam would in that case have lost all its latent heat, and that it would have been turned wholly into sensible heat, and probably a total change of the nature of the fluid would ensue.  Dr. Priestley has proved this by experiment.  He took lime and chased out all the fixed air, and made it exceedingly caustic by long-continued and violent heat.  He then added to it two ounces of water, and as expeditiously as possible subjected it again to a strong heat, and he obtained two ounces' weight of air; and, what is most surprising, a balloon which he interposed between the retort and receiver was not sensibly moistened, nor at all heated that could be observed.  The air produced was but very little more than common air, and contained scarce any fixed air.  So here is a plain account of where the atmospheric air comes from.  The Doctor does me justice as to the theory." [p.350]

    The results of this experiment were by no means conclusive.  That water was composed, at least in part, of air or gas of some kind was obvious; but what the gas was, and whether it existed in combination with other gases, was still a matter of conjecture.  But Priestley, having proceeded to repeat Cavendish's experiment of exploding a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen in a glass vessel, which was followed by the usual deposit of water, communicated the fact to Watt, and this at once put him on the track of the true theory.  In a letter to Dr. Black, he communicated the result of Dr. Priestley's experiments, stating that "when quite dry pure inflammable air (hydrogen) and quite dry pure dephlogisticated air (oxygen) are fired by the electric spark in a close vessel, he finds, after the vessel is cold, a quantity of water adhering to the vessel equal, or very nearly equal, to the weight of the whole air. . . . Are we not then authorised to conclude, that water is composed of dephlogisticated and inflammable air or phlogiston deprived of part of their latent heat; and that dephlogisticated or pure air is composed deprived its phlogiston of water deprived of its phlogiston and united to heat and light; and if light be only a modification of heat or a component part of phlogiston, then pure air consists of water deprived of its phlogiston or latent heat?" [p.351]  At the same time Watt wrote to Priestley,—who did not himself see the force of the experiments as establishing the true composition of water,—demonstrating the conclusions which they warranted, and which were identical with those already drawn by Cavendish.

    Whether Priestley had communicated to Watt the theory of Cavendish does not appear; but it is probable that both arrived at the same conclusions independently of each other; Cavendish from the result of his own experiments, and Watt from those of Priestley.  Each was quite competent to have made the discovery; nor is it necessary for the fame of either to strip a leaf of laurel from the brow of the other.  Moreover, we are as unwilling to believe that Cavendish would have knowingly appropriated to himself the idea of Watt, as that Watt would have knowingly appropriated the idea of Cavendish.  As it was, however, Cavendish and Watt both claimed priority in the discovery; the advocates of Watt's claim resting their case mainly on the fact of his having first stated his views on the subject in writing, in a letter which he wrote to Dr. Priestley for the purpose of being read to the Royal Society in April, 1783.  Before that letter was read, Watt asked that it should be withheld until the results of some new experiments of Dr. Priestley could be ascertained.

    These proving delusive, Watt sent a revised edition of the letter to his friend De Luc, in November, but the reading of it was delayed until the 29th April, 1784, before which time, on the 15th January, Cavendish's paper on the same subject had been communicated to the Society.  Watt was much annoyed at the circumstance, and alleged that Cavendish had been guilty of "plagiarism." [p.352]  At a late period of his life, when all bitter feelings on the subject had subsided, Watt declared himself indifferent to the subject of controversy: "After all," said he, "it matters little whether Cavendish or I discovered the composition of water; the great thing is, that it is discovered."

    Pneumatic chemistry continued to form the principal subject of discussion at the Lunar Society, as we find from numerous references in Boulton and Watt's letters.  "The Lunar Society," wrote Watt to his partner, "was held yesterday at Mr. Galton's at Barr.  It was rather dull, there having been no philosophical news lately except Mr. Kirwan's discovery of an air from phosphorus, which takes fire of itself on being mixed with common or dephlogisticated air." [p.353-1]  Among Watt's numerous scientific correspondents was M. Berthollet, the eminent French chemist, who communicated to him the process he had discovered of bleaching by chlorine.  Watt proceeded to test the value of the discovery by experiment, after which he recommended his father-in-law, Mr. Macgregor, of Glasgow, to make trial of it on a larger scale.  This, however, was postponed until Watt himself could find time to superintend it in person.  At the end of 1787, we find him on a visit to Glasgow for the purpose, and writing to Boulton that he is making ready for the trial.  "I mean," he writes, "to try it to-morrow, though I am somewhat afraid to attack so fierce and strong a beast.  There is almost no bearing the fumes of it.  After all, it does not appear that it will prove a cheap way of bleaching, and it weakens the goods more than could be wished, whatever good it may do in the way of expedition." [p.353-2]  The experiment succeeded, and we find Mr. Macgregor, in the following February, "engaged in whitening 1500 yards of linen by the process."  The discovery, not being protected by a patent, was immediately made use of by other firms; but the offensive odour of the chlorine was found exceedingly objectionable, until it was discovered that chlorine could be absorbed by slaked lime, the solution of which possessed great bleaching power, and this process in course of time superseded all the old methods of bleaching by chlorine.

    It has been recently surmised that the action of light upon nitrate of silver formed the subject of discussion at the Lunar Society, and of experiments by Boulton and Watt; but we find no indications of it in their correspondence.  They were so unreserved with each other on all matters of business as well as science that, had any phenomena of so remarkable a character as those which have issued in the art of photography become known to either Boulton or Watt, we feel confident that they must have formed the subject of much personal discussion, and of many written communications.  But both correspondents are alike entirely silent on the subject; and we infer that no such experiments were made by them, or, if made, that they led to no results.

    Among the many foreigners who were attracted by this distinguished circle of scientific men, we find M. Faujas-Saint-Fond, who visited Birmingham in the course of his tour in England in 1785, while the circle was as yet unbroken, and Watt, Boulton, Priestley, and the rest, were in the full tide of business, invention, and investigation.  Saint-Fond had the pleasure of dining one day with Watt when Dr. Priestley was present, and describes in glowing terms the interest of their conversation.  "Watt," he says, "joins to the frankness of a Scotchman the amiability and kindness of a man of the world.  Surrounded by charming children, well educated and full of talent, he enjoys in their midst the happiness of regarding them as his friends, while he is almost worshipped by them as the best of fathers."  A subsequent visit which he paid to Dr. Priestley in company with Dr. Withering, leads him to describe the philosopher's house at Fairhill, then about a mile and a half from Birmingham.  "It is," he says, "a charming residence, with a fine meadow on one side, and a beautiful garden on the other.  There was an air of perfect neatness about the place within and without."  He describes the Doctor's laboratory, in which he conducted his experiments, as:

"situated at the extremity of a court, and detached from the house to avoid the danger of fire.

    "It consists of several apartments on the ground floor.  On entering it, I was struck with the sight of a simple and ingenious apparatus for making experiments on inflammable gas extracted from iron and water reduced to vapour.  It consisted of a tube tolerably long and thick, made out of one piece of copper to avoid soldering.  The part exposed to the fire was thicker than the rest.  He introduced into the tube cuttings or filings of iron, and instead of letting the water fall into it drop by drop, he preferred introducing it as vapour.  The furnace was fired by coke instead of coal, this being the best of combustibles for intensity and equality of heat. . . . Dr. Priestley kindly allowed me to make a drawing of his apparatus for the purpose of communicating it to the French chemists who are engaged in the same investigations as himself. . . . The Doctor has embellished his rural retreat with a philosophical cabinet, containing all the instruments necessary for his scientific labours; as well as a library, containing a store of the most valuable books.  He employs his time in a variety of studies.  History, moral philosophy, and religion, occupy his attention by turns.  An active, intelligent mind, and a natural avidity for knowledge, draws him towards the physical sciences; but a soft and impressible heart again leads him to religious and philanthropic inquiries. . . . I had indeed the greatest pleasure in seeing this amiable servant in the midst of his books, his furnaces, and his philosophical instruments; at his side an educated wife, a lovely daughter, and in a charming residence, where everything bespoke industry, peace, and happiness." [p.356]

    Only a few years after the date of this visit, while Priestley was still busied with his chemical investigations, his house at Fairhill, thus described by Saint-Fond, was invaded by a brutal mob, who ruthlessly destroyed his library, his apparatus, and his furniture, and forced him to fly from Birmingham, glad to escape with his life.

    The Lunar Society continued to exist for some years longer.  But one by one the members dropped off.  Dr. Priestley emigrated to America; Dr. Withering, Josiah Wedgwood, and Dr. Darwin, died before the close of the century; and, without them, a meeting of the Lunar Society was no longer what it used to be.  Instead of an assembly of active, inquiring men, it was more like a meeting of spectres with a Death's head in the chair.  The associations connected with the meeting—reminding the few lingering survivors of the losses of friends—became of too painful a character to be kept alive; and the Lunar Society, like the members of which it was composed, gradually expired.

    Its spirit, however, did not die.  It had stimulated inquiry, and quickened the zeal for knowledge of all who came within reach of its influence; and this spirit diffused and propagated itself in all directions.  Leonard Horner, who visited Soho in 1809, thus referred to the continued moral influence of the association:—"The remnant of the Lunar Society," he says, "and the fresh remembrance in others of the remarkable men who composed it, are very interesting.  The impression which they made is not yet worn out, but shows itself, to the second and third generation, in a spirit of scientific curiosity and free inquiry, which even yet makes some stand against the combined forces of Methodism, Toryism, and the love of gain." [p.357]


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