Boulton and Watt (VII.)
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CHAPTER XVIII.

DECLINING YEARS OF BOULTON AND WATT—GREGORY WATT—DEATH OF BOULTON.


AT the dissolution of the original partnership between Boulton and Watt, on the expiry of the patent in 1800, Boulton was seventy-two years old, and Watt sixty-four.  The great work of their life had been done, and the time was approaching when they must needs resign into other hands the great branches of industry which they had created.  Watt, though the younger of the two, was the first to withdraw from an active share in the concerns of Soho.  He could scarcely be said to taste the happiness of life until he had cast his business altogether behind him.

    It was far different with Boulton, to whom active occupation had become a second nature.  For several years, indeed, his constitution had been showing signs of giving way, and nature repeated her warning that it was time to retire.  But in the case of men such as Boulton, with whom business has become a habit and necessity, as well as a pleasure and recreation, to retire is often to die.  He himself was accustomed to say that he must either "rub or rust"; and as the latter was contrary to his nature, he rubbed on to the end, continuing to take an active interest in the working of the great manufactory which it had been the ambition of his life to build up.

    The department of business that most interested him in his later years was the coinage.  His chief pleasure consisted in seeing his new and beautiful pieces following each other in quick succession from the Soho Mint.  Nor did he cease occupying himself with new inventions; for we find him as late as 1797 taking out a patent for raising water by impulse, somewhat after the manner of Montgolier's Hydraulic Ram, to which he added many ingenious improvements.  His house at Soho continued to be the resort of distinguished visitors; and his splendid hospitality never failed.

    But, as years advanced and his infirmities increased, we find him occasionally expressing a desire for quiet.  He would then retire to Cheltenham for the benefit of the waters, requesting his young partners to keep him advised from time to time of the proceedings at Soho.  Even at Cheltenham, Boulton could not be idle, but undertook a careful analysis of all the waters of the place, the results of which he entered, in minute detail, in his memorandum-book.

    An alarming incident occurred at Soho towards the end of 1800, which is worthy of passing notice, as illustrative of Boulton's vigour and courage even at this advanced period of his life.  A large gang of Birmingham housebreakers, knowing the treasures accumulated in the silver-plate house, determined to break into it and carry off the silver; together with the large sum of money accumulated in the counting-house for the purpose of paying the wages of the workmen, upwards of 600 in number, on Christmas Eve.  They had provided false keys for most of the doors, and bribed the watchman, who communicated the plot to Boulton, to admit them within the gates.  He took his steps accordingly, arming a number of men, and stationing them in different parts of the building.

    The robbers made the attempt on three several occasions.  On the first night they tried their keys on the counting-house door, but failed to open it, on which they shut their dark lantern and retired.  Boulton sent an account of the proceedings each night to his daughter in London.  On the first attempt being made, he wrote,—"The best news I can send you is that we are all alive; but I have lost my voice and found a troublesome cough by the agreeable employment of thief-watching."

    Two nights after, the burglars came again, with altered keys, but still they could not open the counting-house door.  The third night they determined to waive art, and break in by force.  They were allowed to break in and seize their booty, and were making off with 150 guineas and a load of silver, when Boulton gave the word to seize them.  A quantity of tow soaked with turpentine was instantly set fire to; numerous lights were turned on; and the robbers found themselves surrounded on all sides by armed men.  Four of them were taken after a desperate struggle; but the fifth, though severely wounded, contrived to escape over the tops of the houses in Brook-row.

    Writing to his friend Dumergue, in London, of the exploit, Boulton said,—"You know I seldom do things by halves; so I have sent the four desperate wolves to Stafford Gaol, and I believe the fifth is much wounded.  If I had made my attack with a less powerful army than I did, we should probably have had a greater list of killed and wounded." [p.413-1]  It was in allusion to this exploit that Sir Walter Scott said of Boulton to Allan Cunningham, "I like Boulton; he is a brave man,—and who can dislike the brave? [p.413-2]  The incident, when communicated to Scott during one of his visits to Soho, is said to have suggested the scene in 'Guy Mannering,' in which the attack is made on Dirk Hatterick in the smuggler's cave.

    Occupation in business was not of the same importance to Watt that it was to Boulton; and he was only too glad to get rid of it and engage in those quiet pursuits in which he found the most pleasure.  In the year 1790 he removed from the house he had so long occupied on Harper's Hill, to a new and comfortable house which he had built for himself at Heathfield in the parish of Handsworth, where he continued to live until the close of his life.  The land surrounding the place was, until then, common; and he continued to purchase the lots as they were offered for sale, until, by the year 1794, he had enclosed about forty acres.  He took pleasure in laying out the grounds, planting many of the trees with his own hands; and in course of time, as the trees reached maturity, the formerly barren heath became converted into a scene of great rural beauty.

    Annexed to the house, in the back yard, he built a forge, and upstairs, in his "Garret," he fitted up a workshop, in which he continued to pursue his mechanical studies and experiments for many years.  While Watt was settling himself for the remainder of his life in the house at Heathfield, Boulton was erecting his large new Mint at Soho, which was completed and ready for use in 1791.

    When the lawsuits which had given Watt so much anxiety were satisfactorily disposed of, an immense load was removed from his mind; and he indulged in the anticipation of at last enjoying the fruits of his labour in peace.  Being of frugal habits, he had already begun to save money, and accumulated as much as he desired.  But when the heavy arrears of Cornish dues were collected, about the period of expiry of the patent, a considerable sum of money necessarily fell to Watt's share; and then he began to occupy himself in the pleasant recreation of looking out for an investment in land.  He was, however, hard to please, and made many journeys before he succeeded in buying his estate.

    Eventually Watt made several purchases of land at Doldowlod, on the banks of the Wye, between Rhayader and Newbridge, in Radnorshire.  There was a pleasant farmhouse on the property, in which he occasionally spent some pleasant months in summer amidst beautiful scenery; but he had by this time grown too old to root himself kindly in a new place; and his affections speedily drew him back again to the neighbourhood of Soho, and to his comfortable home at Heathfield.

    During the short peace of Amiens in the following year, he made the longest journey in his life.  Accompanied by Mrs. Watt, he travelled through Belgium, up the banks of the Rhine to Frankfort, and home by Strasburg and Paris.  While absent, Boulton wrote him many pleasant letters, telling him of what was going on at Soho.  The brave old man was still at work there, and wrote in as enthusiastic terms as ever of the coins and medals he was striking at his Mint.  Though strong in mind, he was, however, growing feebler in body, and suffered much from attacks of his old disease.  "It is necessary for me," he wrote, "to pass a great part of my time in or upon the bed; nevertheless, I go down to the manufactory or the Mint once or twice a day, without injuring myself as heretofore, but not without some fatigue.  However, as I am now taking bark twice a day, I find a daily increase of strength, and flatter myself with the pleasure of taking a journey to Paris in April or May next."

    Upon Watt's arrival in London, a letter of hearty welcome from Boulton met him; but it conveyed, at the same time, the sad intelligence of the death of Mrs. Keir, a lady beloved by all who knew her, and a frequent inmate at Soho and Heathfield.  One by one the members of the old circle were departing, leaving wide gaps, which new friends could never fill up.  The pleasant associations which are the charm of old friendships were becoming mingled with sadness and regret.  The grave was closing over one after another of the Soho group; and the survivors were beginning to live for the most part upon the memories of the past.  But it is one of the penalties of old age to suffer a continuous succession of such bereavements; and that state would be intolerable but for the comparative deadening of the feelings which mercifully accompanies the advance of years.

    One of the deaths most lamented by Watt was that of Dr. Black of Edinburgh, which occurred in 1799.  Black had watched to the last with tender interest the advancing reputation and prosperity of his early protégé.  They had kept up a continuous and confidential correspondence on subjects of mutual interest for a period of about thirty years.  Watt, though reserved to others, never feared unbosoming himself to his old friend, telling him of the new schemes he had on foot and freely imparting to him his hopes and fears, his failures and successes.  When Watt visited Scotland he usually took Edinburgh on his way, for the purpose of spending a few days with Black and Robison.  The latter went express to London, for the purpose of giving evidence in the suit of Watt against the Hornblowers, and his testimony proved of essential service.

    "Our friend Robison," Watt wrote to Black, "exerted himself much; and, considering his situation, did wonders."  When Robison returned to Edinburgh, his Natural Philosophy class received him with three cheers.  He proceeded to give them a short account of the trial, which he characterised as "not more the cause of Watt versus Hornblower, than of science against ignorance."  "When I had finished," said he, "I got another plaudit, that Mrs. Siddons would have envied." [p.417]

    No one was more gratified at the issue of the trial than Dr. Black, who, when Robison told him of it, was moved even to tears.  "It's very foolish," he said, "but I can't help it when I hear of anything good to Jamie Watt."  The Doctor had long been in declining health, but was still able to work.  He was busy writing another large volume, and had engaged the engraver to come to him for orders on the day after that on which he died.  His departure was singularly peaceful.  His servant had delivered to him a basin of milk, which was to serve for his dinner, and retired from the room.  In less than a minute he returned, and found his master sitting where he had left him, but dead, with the basin of milk unspilled in his hand.  Without a struggle, the spirit had fled.  As the servant expressed it, "his poor master had given over living."  He had twice before said to his doctor that "he had caught himself forgetting to breathe."

 

Ed.—Joseph Black (1728-99): Scottish physician, physicist, and chemist: Professor of Anatomy and Chemistry at Glasgow University and of Medicine at Edinburgh University. Black is known for his discoveries of latent heat, specific heat, and carbon dioxide.  Picture Wikipedia.


    On hearing of the good old man's death, Watt wrote to Robison,—"I may say that to him I owe, in a great measure, what I am; he taught me to reason and experiment in natural philosophy, and was a true friend and philosopher, whose loss will always be lamented while I live.  We may all pray that our latter end may be like his.  He has truly gone to sleep in the arms of his Creator, and been spared all the regrets attendant on a more lingering exit.  I could dwell longer on this subject; but regrets are unavailing, and only tend to enfeeble our own minds, and make them less able to bear the ills we cannot avoid.  Let us cherish the friends we have left, and do as much good as we can in our day!"

    Lord Cockburn, in his 'Memorials,' gives the following graphic portrait of the father of modern chemistry:—


"Dr. Black was a striking and beautiful person; tall, very thin, and cadaverously pale; his hair carefully powdered, though there was little of it except what was collected into a long thin queue; his eyes dark, clear, and large, like deep pools of pure water.  He wore black speck-less clothes, silk stockings, silver buckles, and either a slim green silk umbrella, or a genteel brown cane.  His general frame and air was feeble and slender.  The wildest boy respected Black.  No lad could be irreverent towards a man so pale, so gentle, so elegant, and so illustrious.  So he glided, like a spirit, through rather mischievous sportiveness, unharmed." [p.418]


    Of the famous Lunar Society, Boulton and Watt now remained almost the only surviving members.  Day was killed by a fall from his horse in 1789.  Josiah Wedgwood closed his noble career at Etruria in 1795, in the sixty-fifth year of his age.  Dr. Withering, distinguished alike in botany and medicine, died in 1799, of a lingering consumption.  Dr. Darwin was seized by his last attack of angina pectoris in 1802, and, being unable to bleed himself, as he had done before, he called upon his daughter to apply the lancet to his arm; but, before she could do so, he fell back in his chair and expired.  Dr. Priestley, driven into exile, [p.419] closed his long and illustrious career at Northumberland in Pennsylvania in 1803.  The Lunar Society was thus all but extinguished by death; the vacant seats remained unfilled; and the meetings were no longer held.

    But the bereavements which Watt naturally felt the most were the deaths of his own children.  He had two by his second wife, a son and a daughter, both full of promise, who had nearly grown up to adult age, when they died.  Jessie was of a fragile constitution from her childhood, but her health seemed to become re-established as she grew in years.  But before she had entered womanhood, the symptoms of an old pulmonary affection made their appearance, and she was carried off by consumption.

    Mr. Watt was much distressed by the event, confessing that he felt as if one of the strongest ties that bound him to life was broken, and that the acquisition of riches availed him nothing when unable to give them to those he loved.  In a letter to a friend, he thus touchingly alluded to one of the most sorrowful associations connected with the deaths of children:—


"Mrs. Watt continues to be much affected whenever anything recalls to her mind the amiable child we have parted with; and these remembrances occur but too frequently,—her little works of ingenuity, her books and other objects of study, serve as mementoes of her who was always to the best of her power usefully employed even to the last day of her life.  With me, whom age has rendered incapable of the passion of grief, the feeling is a deep regret; and, did nature permit, my tears would flow as fast as her mother's."


    To divert and relieve his mind, as was his wont, he betook himself to fresh studies and new inquiries.  It is not improbable that the disease of which his daughter had died, as well as his own occasional sufferings from asthma, gave a direction to his thoughts, which turned upon the inhalation of gas as a remedial agent in pulmonary and other diseases.  Dr. Beddoes of Bristol had started the idea, which Watt now took up and prosecuted with his usual zeal.  He contrived an apparatus for extracting, washing, and collecting gases, as well as for administering them by inhalation.  He professed that he had taken up the subject not because he understood it, but because nobody else did, and that he could not withhold anything which might the be of use in prompting others to do better.  The result of his investigations was published at Bristol under the title of 'Considerations on the Medicinal use of Fictitious Airs,' the first part of which was written by Dr. Beddoes, and the second part by Watt.

    But a still heavier blow to Watt was the death of his son Gregory, a few years after the death of his only daughter.  Gregory Watt was a young man of the highest promise, and resembled Watt himself in many respects—in mind, character, and temperament.  Those who knew him while a student at Glasgow College spoke of him long after in terms of the most glowing enthusiasm.  Among his fellow-students were Francis, afterwards Lord Jeffrey, and the poet Campbell.  Both were captivated not less by the brilliancy of his talents than by the charming graces of his person.  Campbell spoke of him as "a splendid stripling—literally the most beautiful youth I ever saw.  When he was only twenty-two, an eminent English artist—Howard, I think—made his head the model of a picture of Adam."  Campbell, Thomson, and Gregory Watt were class-fellows in Greek, and avowed rivals; but the rivalry only served to cement their friendship.  In the session of 1793-4, after a brilliant competition which excited unusual interest, the Prize was awarded to Thomson; but, with the exception of the victor himself, Gregory was the most delighted student in the class.  "He was," says the biographer of Campbell, "a generous, liberal, and open-hearted youth; so attached to his friend, and so sensible of his merit, that the honours conferred on Thomson obliterated all recollections of personal failure." [p.421]  Francis Jeffrey was present at the commemoration of the first of May, two years later, and was especially struck with the eloquence of young Watt, "who obtained by far the greatest number of prizes, and degraded the prize-readers most inhumanly by reading a short composition of his own, a translation of the Chorus of the Medea, with so much energy and grace, that the verses seemed to me better perhaps than they were in reality.  He is a young man of very eminent capacity, and seems to have all the genius of his father, with a great deal of animation and ardour which is all his own." [p.422]

    Campbell thought him born to be a great orator, and anticipated for him the greatest success in Parliament or at the Bar.  His father had, however, already destined him to follow his own business.  Indeed, Gregory was introduced as a partner into the Soho concern, about the same time as his elder brother James, and Matthew Robinson Boulton.  But he never gave much attention to the business.  Scarcely had he left college, before symptoms of pulmonary affection showed themselves; and, a physician having been consulted, Mr. Watt was recommended to send his son to reside in the south of England.  He accordingly went to Penzance for the benefit of its mild climate; and, by a curious coincidence, he resided as boarder and lodger in the house of Humphry Davy's mother.  Davy was then a boy several years younger than Gregory.  He had already made some experiments in chemistry, with sundry phials and kitchen utensils, assisted by an old glyster apparatus presented to him by the surgeon of a French vessel wrecked on the coast.

    Although Gregory Watt possessed great warmth of heart there was a degree of coldness in his manner to strangers, which repelled any approach to familiarity.  When his landlady's son, therefore, began talking to him of metaphysics and poetry, he was disposed to turn to him a deaf ear; but when Davy touched upon the subject of chemistry, and made the rather daring boast for a boy, that he would undertake to demolish the French theory in half an hour, Gregory's curiosity was roused.  The barrier of ice between them was at once removed; and from thenceforward they became attached friends.  Young Davy was encouraged to prosecute his experiments, which the other watched with daily increasing interest; and in the course of the following year, Gregory communicated to Dr. Beddoes, of Bristol, then engaged in establishing his Pneumatic Institution, an account of Davy's experiments on light and heat, the result of which was the appointment of the latter as superintendent of the experiments at the Institution, and the subsequent direction of his studies and investigations.

    Gregory's health having been partially re-established by his residence at Penzance, he shortly after returned to his father's house at Birmingham, where Davy frequently visited him, and kept up the flame of his ambition by intercourse with congenial minds.  Gregory heartily co-operated with his father in his investigations on air, besides inquiring and experimenting on original subjects of his own selection.  Among these may be mentioned his inquiries into the gradual refrigeration of basalt, his paper on which, read before the Royal Society, would alone entitle him to a distinguished rank among experimentalists. [p.423]

    By the kindness of his elder brother James, Gregory Watt was relieved of his share of the work at Soho, and was enabled to spend much of his time in travelling about for the benefit of his health.  Early in 1801, we find him making excursions in the western counties in company with Mr. Murdock, jun.; and looking forward with still greater anticipations of pleasure to the tour which he subsequently made through France, Germany, and Austria.  We find him afterwards writing his father from Freiburg, to the effect that he was gradually growing stronger, and was free from pulmonary affection.  From Leipzig he sent an equally favourable account of himself, and gave his father every hope that on his return he would find him strong and sound.

    These anticipations, however, proved delusive, for the canker was already gnawing at poor Gregory's vitals.  Returned home, he busied himself with his books, his experiments, and his speculations; assisting his father in recording observations on the effects of nitrous oxide and other gases.  But it was soon found necessary to send him again to the south of England for the benefit of a milder climate.  In the beginning of 1804, his father and mother went with him to Clifton, where he had an attack of intermittent fever, which left him very weak.  From thence they removed to Bath, and remained there for about a month, the invalid being carefully attended by Dr. Beddoes.  During their stay at Bath, Gregory's brother paid him a visit, and was struck by his altered appearance.  The fever had left him, but his cough and difficulty of breathing were very distressing to witness.  As usual in such complaints, his mind was altogether unaffected.  "Indeed," wrote his brother, "he is as bright, clear, and vigorous, upon every subject as I ever knew him to be.  His voice, too, is firm and good, and he enters into conversation I should lose the recollection of his complaint if his appearance did not so forcibly remind me of it.  It is fortunate that he does not suffer much bodily pain, nor, so far as I can discover, any mental anxiety as to the issue of his complaint." [p.425-1]

    When Gregory was sufficiently recovered from the debilitating effects of his fever, he was moved to Sidmouth, where he appeared to improve; but he himself believed the sea air to be injurious to him, and insisted on being again removed inland.  During all this time his father's anxiety may be imagined; although he bore up with as much equanimity as possible under circumstances so distressing. "Ever since we left Bath," he wrote to Mr. Boulton at Soho, "ours has been a state of anxiety very distressing to us, and the communication of which would not have been pleasing to our friends.  To add to this, I have myself been exceedingly unwell, though I am now much better.  Gregory suffered very much from the journey, which was augmented by his own impatience; and though he seemed to recover a little from his fatigue during the first week, his breath became daily worse, until we were obliged to remove him, on Thursday last, to the neighbourhood of Exeter, where he is now with his aunt." [p.425-2]  The invalid became rapidly worse, and survived his removal only a few days. "This day," wrote the sorrowing father to Boulton, "the remains of poor Gregory were deposited in a decent, though private manner, in the north aisle of the cathedral here, near the transept. . . . . I mean to erect a tablet to his memory on the adjoining wall; but his virtues and merits will be best recorded in the breasts of his friends As soon as we can settle our accounts, we shall all return homewards, with heavy hearts." [p.426]

    Davy was deeply affected by Gregory Watt's death; and in the freshness of his grief he thus unbosomed himself to his friend Clayfield:—


"Poor Watt!  He ought not to have died.  I could not persuade myself that he would die; and until the very moment when I was assured of his fate, I would not believe he was in any danger.  His letters to me, only three or four months ago, were full of spirit, and spoke not of any infirmity of body, but of an increased strength of mind.  Why is this in the order of nature,—that there is such a difference in the duration and destruction of His works?  If the mere stone decays it is to produce a soil which is capable of nourishing the moss and the lichen; when the moss and the lichen die and decompose, they produce a mould which becomes the bed of life to grass, and to a more exalted species of vegetables.  Vegetables are the food of animals,—the less perfect animals of the more perfect; but in man, the faculties and intellect are perfected,—he rises, exists for a little while in disease and misery, and then would seem to disappear, without an end, and without producing any effect.

    "We are deceived, my dear Clayfield, if we suppose that the human being who has formed himself for action, but who has been unable to act, is lost in the mass of being; there is some arrangement of things which we can never comprehend, but in which his faculties will be applied . . . . We know very little; but in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality of the better part of man.  I have been led into all this speculation, which you may well think wild, in reflecting upon the fate of Gregory!  My feeling has given wings to my mind.  He was a noble fellow, and would have been a great man.  Oh! there was no reason for his dying—he ought not to have died."


    More deaths!  A few years later, and Watt lost his oldest friend, Professor Robison of Edinburgh, his companion and fellow-worker at Glasgow College nearly fifty years before.  Since then, their friendship had remained unchanged, though their respective pursuits kept them apart.  Robison continued busily and usefully occupied to the last.  He had finished the editing of his friend Black's lectures, and was occupied in writing his own 'Elements of Mechanical Philosophy,' when death came and kindly released him from a lingering disorder which had long oppressed his body, though it did not enervate his mind.  A few years before his death, he wrote to Watt, informing him that he had got an addition to his family in a fine little boy,—a grandchild, healthy and cheerful,—who promised to be a source of much amusement to him.  "I find this a great acquisition," said he, "notwithstanding a serious thought sometimes stealing into my mind.  I am infinitely delighted with observing the growth of its little soul, and particularly with the numberless instincts, which formerly passed unheeded.  I thank the French theorists for more forcibly directing my attention to the finger of God, which I discover in every awkward movement and every wayward whim.  They are all guardians of his life, and growth, and powers.  I regret that I have not time to make Infancy, and the development of its powers, my sole study." [p.428-1]  In 1805 he was taken from his little playfellow, and from the pursuit of his many ingenious speculations. [p.428-2]  Watt said of him, he was a man of the clearest head and the most science, of anybody I have ever known, and his friendship to me ended only with his life, after having continued for nearly half a century. . . . His religion and piety, which made him patiently submit without even a fretful or repining word during nineteen years of unremitting pain,—his humility, in his modest opinion of himself,—his kindness, in labouring with such industry for his family, during all his affliction, his moderation for himself, while indulging an unbounded generosity to all about him,—joined to his talents, form a character so uncommon and so noble, as can with difficulty be conceived by those who have not, like me, had the contemplation of it during his lifetime."

    Little more remains to be recorded of the business life of Boulton and Watt.  The former, notwithstanding his declining health and the frequent return of his malady, continued to take an active interest in the Soho coinage.  Watt often expostulated with him, but in vain, urging that it was time for him wholly to retire from the anxieties of business.  On Boulton bringing out his Bank of England silver dollar, with which he was himself greatly pleased, he sent some specimens to Watt, then staying at Clifton, for his inspection.  Watt replied,—"Your dollar is universally admired by all to whom we have shown it, though your friends fear much that your necessary attention to the operation of the coinage may injure your health."

    Mrs. Watt joined her entreaties to those of her husband, expressing the wish that, for Mr. Boulton's sake, it might rain every day, to prevent his fatiguing himself by walking to and from the works, and there occupying himself with the turmoils of business.  Why should he not do as Mr. Watt had done, and give up Soho altogether, leaving business and its anxieties to younger and stronger men?  But business, as we have already explained, was Boulton's habit, and pleasure, and necessity.  Moreover, occupation of some sort served to divert his attention from the ever-present pain within him and, so long as his limbs were able to support him, he tottered down the hill to see what was going forward at Soho.

    As for Watt, we find that he had at last learnt the art of taking things easy, and that he was trying to make life as agreeable as possible in his old age.  Thus at Cheltenham, from which place Mrs. Watt addressed Boulton in the letter of advice above referred to, we find the agèd pair making pleasant excursions into the neighbourhood during the day, and reading novels and going to the theatre occasionally in the evening.  "As it is the fashion," wrote Mrs. Watt,—"and wishing to be very fashionable people, we subscribe to the library.  Our first book was Mrs. Opie's 'Mother and Daughter,' a tale so mournful as to make both Mr. Watt and myself cry like schoolboys that had been whipped; . . . and to dispel the gloom that poor Adeline hung over us we went to the theatre last night to see the 'Honeymoon,' and were highly pleased."

    Towards the end of 1807 Boulton had a serious attack of his old disease, which fairly confined him to his bed; and his friends feared lest it might prove his last illness.  He was verging upon his eightieth year, and his constitution, though originally strong, was gradually succumbing to confinement and pain.  He nevertheless rallied once more, and was again able to make occasional visits to the works as before.  He had promised to send a box of medals to the Queen, and went down to the Mint to see them packed.  The box duly reached Windsor Castle, and De Luc acknowledged its reception: "As no words of mine," he said, "could have conveyed your sentiments to Her Majesty so well as those addressed to me in your name, I contented myself with putting the letter into her hands.  Her Majesty expressed her sensibility for the sufferings you had undergone during the period of your silence, and at your plentiful gift, for which she has charged me to thank you; and as, at the same time that you have placed the whole at her own disposal, you have mentioned the Princesses, Her Majesty will make them partakers in the present."

    De Luc concluded by urging Mr. Boulton to abstain from further work and anxiety, and reminded him that after a life of such activity as his had been, both body and mind required complete rest.


"Life," said he, "in this world is a state of trial, and as long as God gives us strength we are not to shun even painful employments which are duties.  But in the decline of life, when the strength fails, we ought to drop all thought of objects to which we are no longer equal, in order to preserve the serenity and liberty of mind with which we are to consider our exit from this world to a better.  May God prolong your life without pain for the good you do constantly, is the sincere wish of your very affectionate friends (father and daughter),
                                                             "D
E LUC." [p.431]


    Boulton's life was, indeed, drawing to a close.  He had for many years been suffering from an agonising and incurable disease—stone in the kidneys and bladder—and waited for death as for a friend.  The strong man was laid low; and the night had at length come when he could work no more.  The last letter which he wrote was to his daughter, in March, 1809; but the characters are so flickering and indistinct as to be scarcely legible.  "If you wish to see me living," he wrote, "pray come soon, for I am very ill."  Nevertheless, he suffered on for several months longer.  At last he was released from his pain, and peacefully expired on the 17th of August, 1809, at the age of eighty-one.

    Though he fell like a shock of corn, in full season, his death was lamented by a wide circle of relatives and friends.  A man of strong affections, with an almost insatiable appetite for love and sympathy, he inspired others with similar feelings towards himself; and when he died, they felt as if a brother had gone.  He was alike admired and beloved by his workmen; and when he was carried to his last resting-place in Handsworth Church, six hundred of them followed the hearse, and there was scarcely a dry eye among them. [p.432]

 

[p.433]


    Matthew Boulton was, indeed, a man of truly noble nature.  Watt, than whom none knew him better, was accustomed to speak of him as "the princely Boulton."  He was generous and high-souled, a lover of truth, honour, and uprightness.  His graces were embodied in a manly and noble person.  We are informed through Dr. Guest, that on one occasion, when Mr. Boulton's name was mentioned in his father's presence, he said, "he was the ablest man I ever knew."  On the remark being repeated to Dr. Edward Johnson, a courtly man, he said, "As to his ability, other persons can judge better than myself.  But I can say that he was the best-mannered man I ever knew."  The appreciation of both was alike just and characteristic, and has since been confirmed by Mrs. Schimmelpenninek.  She describes with admiration Boulton's genial manner, his fine radiant countenance, and his superb munificence: "He was in person tall, and of a noble appearance; his temperament was sanguine, with that slight mixture of the phlegmatic which gives calmness and dignity; his manners were eminently open and cordial; he took the lead in conversation; and, with a social heart, had a grandiose manner, like that arising from position, wealth, and habitual command.  He went about among his people like a monarch bestowing largesse."

    Boswell was equally struck by Boulton's personal qualities when he visited Soho in 1776, shortly after the manufacture of steam-engines had been begun there.  "I shall never forget," he says, "Mr. Boulton's expression to me when surveying the works.  'I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER.'  He had," continues Boswell, "about seven hundred people at work.  I contemplated him as an iron chieftain, and he seemed to be a father of his tribe.  One of the men came to him complaining grievously of his landlord for having distrained his goods.  'Your landlord is in the right, Smith,' said Boulton; 'but I'll tell you what—find a friend who will lay down one half of your rent, and I'll lay down the other, and you shall have your goods again.'"

    It would be a mistake to suppose that there was any affectation in Boulton's manner, or that his dignified bearing in society was anything but natural to him.  He was frank, cheerful, and affectionate, as his letters to his wife, his children, and his friends, amply demonstrate.  None knew better than he how to win hearts, whether of workmen, mining adventurers, or philosophers.  "I have thought it but respectful," he wrote to Watt from Cornwall, "to give our folks a dinner at a public-house near Wheal Virgin to-day.  There were present William Murdock, Lawson, Pearson, Perkins, Malcolm, Robert Muir, all Scotchmen, and John Bull, with self and Wilson,—for the engines are all now finished, and the men have behaved well, and are attached to us."  At Soho he gave an entertainment on a much larger scale upon his son coming of age in 1791, when seven hundred persons sat down to dinner.  Boswell's description of him as the father of his tribe is peculiarly appropriate.  No well-behaved workman was ever turned adrift.  On the contrary, fathers introduced their sons into the factory, and brought them up under their own eye, watching over their conduct and their mechanical training.  Thus generation after generation of workmen followed each other's footsteps at Soho.

    There was, no doubt, good business policy in this; for Boulton knew that by attaching the workmen to him, and inspiring them with pride in the concern, he was maintaining that prestige which, before the days of machine tools, would not have been possible without the aid of a staff of carefully-trained and highly-skilled mechanics.  Yet he had many scapegraces amongst them—hard drinkers, pugilists, cock-fighters, and scamps.  Watt often got wholly out of patience with them, and urged their dismissal, whatever might be the consequence.  But though none knew as well as Watt how to manage machines, none knew so ill how to manage men.  Boulton's practical wisdom usually came to the rescue.  He would tolerate any moral shortcoming save treachery and dishonesty.  He knew that most of the men had been brought up in a bad school, often in no school at all.  "Have pity on them, bear with them, give them another trial," he would say; "our work must not be brought to a standstill because perfect men are not yet to be had."  "True wisdom," he observed on another occasion, "directs us, when we can, to turn even evils into good.  We must take men as we find them, and try to make the best of them."

    Still further to increase the attachment of the workmen to Soho, and keep together his school of skilled industry, as he called it, Boulton instituted a Mutual Assurance Society in connexion with the works; the first of the kind, so far as we are aware, established by any large manufacturer for the benefit of his workmen.  Every person employed in the manufactory, in whatsoever condition, was required to be a member.  Boys receiving 2s. 6d. a week paid a halfpenny weekly to the box; those receiving 5s. paid a penny a week, and so on, up to men receiving 20s. a week, who contributed 4d.; payments being made to them out of the fund during sickness and disablement, in proportion to their contributions during health.  The effects of the Society were most salutary; it cultivated habits of providence and thoughtfulness amongst the men; bound them together by ties of common interest; and it was only in the cases of irreclaimable drunkards that any members of the Soho Friendly Society ever came upon the parish.

    But this was only a small item in the constitution of the Soho manufactory.  Before its establishment, comparatively little attention had been given to the organisation of labour on a large scale.  Workshops were so small that everything went on immediately under the master's eye, and workmen got accustomed to ply at their work diligently, being well watched.  But when manufacturing was carried on upon so large a scale as at Soho, and separate processes were conducted in different rooms and workshops, it was impossible that the master's eye should be over all his workers, or over even any considerable portion of them at the same time.

    It was therefore necessary to introduce a new system.  Hence the practice of inspection by deputy, and the appointment of skilled and trustworthy foremen for the purpose of enforcing strict discipline in the various shops, and at the same time economising labour and ensuring excellence of workmanship.  In carrying out this arrangement, Boulton proved remarkably successful: and Soho came to be regarded as a model establishment.  Men came from all parts to see and admire its organisation; and when Wedgwood proceeded to erect his great pottery works at Etruria, he paid many preliminary visits to Soho for the purpose of ascertaining how the difficulties occasioned by the irregular habits of the workpeople had been so successfully overcome by his friend; and of applying the results of his experience in the organisation of his own manufactory.

    Though Boulton could not keep his eye directly on the proceedings in the shops, he was quick to discern when anything was going wrong.  While sitting in the midst of his factory, surrounded by the clang of hammers and the noise of engines, he could usually detect when any stoppage occurred, or when the machinery was going too fast or too slow, and issue his orders accordingly.  The sound of the tools going, and the hammers clanging, which to strangers was merely an intolerable noise, was an intelligible music to him; and, like the leader of an orchestra, who casts his eye at once in the direction of the player of a wrong note, so Boulton was at once conscious of the slightest dissonance in the performances of his manufactory, and took the necessary steps immediately to correct it.

    From what we have already said, it will be sufficiently clear that Boulton was a first-rate man of business.  He had a hearty enthusiasm for his calling, and took a just pride in it.  In conducting it, he was guided by fine tact, great knowledge of character, and sound practical wisdom.  When fully satisfied as to the course he should pursue, he acted with remarkable vigour and promptitude, bending his whole mind to the enterprise which he had taken in hand.  It was natural that he should admire in others the qualities he himself desired to possess.  "I can't say," he wrote to Watt, "but that I admire John Wilkinson for his decisive, clear, and distinct character, which is, I think, a first-rate one of its kind."  Like Wilkinson, Boulton was also distinguished for his indomitable pluck; and in no respect was this more strikingly displayed than in his prosecution of the steam-engine enterprise.

    Playfair has truly said, that had Watt searched all Europe over, he could not have found another person so fitted to bring his invention before the public in a manner worthy of its merits and importance.  Yet Boulton was by no means eager to engage in the scheme.  Watt could with difficulty persuade him to take it up; and it was only in exchange for a bad debt that he at length became a partner in it.  But when once fairly committed, he threw himself into the enterprise with an extraordinary degree of vigour.  He clearly recognised in the steam-engine a power destined to revolutionise the industrial operations of the world.  To M. Argand, the famous French lamp inventor, he described it as "the most certain, the most regular, the most durable, and the most effective machine in Nature, so far as her powers have yet been revealed to mortal knowledge"; and he declared to him that, finding he could be of more use to manufactures and to mankind in general by employing all his powers in the capacity of an engineer, than in fabricating any kind of clincaillerie whatsoever, he would thenceforward devote himself wholly to his new enterprise.

    But it was no easy work he had undertaken.  He had to struggle against prejudices, opposition, detraction, and difficulties of all kinds.  Not the least difficulty he had to strive against was the timidity and faintheartedness of his partner.  For years Watt was on the brink of despair.  He kept imploring Boulton to relieve him from his troubles; he wished to die and be at rest; he "cursed his inventions"; indeed, he was the most miserable of men.  But Boulton never lost heart.  He was hopeful, courageous, and strong—he was Watt's very backbone.  He felt convinced that the invention must eventually succeed, and he never for a moment lost faith in it.  He braved and risked everything to "carry the thing through."  He mortgaged his lands to the last farthing; borrowed from his personal friends; raised money by annuities; obtained advances from bankers; and had invested upwards of £40,000 in the enterprise before it began to pay.

    During this terrible struggle he was more than once on the brink of insolvency, but continued as before to cheer and encourage his fainting partner.  "Keep your mind and your heart pleasant if possible," he wrote to Watt, "for the way to go through life sweetly is not to regard rubs."  To those about Watt he wrote, "Do not disturb Mr. Watt, but keep him as free from anxiety as you can."  He himself took the main share of the burden,—pushing the engine amongst the Cornish miners, bringing it under the notice of London brewers and water companies, and finding money to meet the heavy liabilities of the firm.

    So much honest endeavour could not fail.  And at last the tide seemed to turn.  The engine became recognised as a grand working power, and there was almost a run upon Soho for engines.  Then pirates sprang up in all directions, and started new schemes with the object of evading Watt's patent.  And now a new battle had to be fought against "the illiberal, sordid, unjust, ungenerous, and inventionless misers, who prey upon the vitals of the ingenious, and make haste to seize upon what their laborious and often costly application has produced." [p.440]  At length this struggle, too, was conclusively settled in Boulton and Watt's favour, and they were left at last to enjoy the fruits of their labour in peace.

    Watt never could have fought such a series of battles alone.  He would have been a thousand times crushed; and, but for Boulton's unswerving courage and resolute determination, he could neither have brought his engine into general use, nor derived any adequate reward for his great invention.  Though his specification lodged in the Patent Office might clearly establish his extraordinary mechanical genius, it is most probable that he himself would have broken his heart over his scheme, and added another to the long list of martyr inventors.

    None was more ready to acknowledge the immense services of Boulton in introducing the steam-engine to general use as a working power, than Watt himself.  In the MS. memoir of his lately deceased friend deposited among the Soho papers, dated Glasgow, 17th September, 1809, Watt says,—


"Through the whole of this business Mr. Boulton's active and sanguine disposition served to counterbalance the despondency and diffidence which were natural to me; and every assistance which Soho or Birmingham could afford was procured.  Mr. Boulton's amiable and friendly character, together with his fame as an engineer and active manufacturer, procured us many and very active friends in both Houses of Parliament. . . . Suffice it to say, that to his generous patronage, the active part he took in the management of the business, his judicious advice, and his assistance in contriving and arranging many of the applications of the steam-engine to various machines, the public are indebted for great part of the benefits they now derive from that machine.  Without him, or some similar partner (could such a one have been found), the invention could never have been carried by me to the length that it has been.

    "Mr. Boulton was not only an ingenious mechanic, well skilled in all the arts of the Birmingham manufacturers, but he possessed in a high degree the faculty of rendering any new invention of his own or of others useful to the public, by organising and arranging the processes by which it could be carried on, as well as of promoting the sale by his own exertions and those of his numerous friends and correspondents.  His conception of the nature of any invention was quick, and he was not less quick in perceiving the uses to which it might be applied, and the profits which might accrue from it.  When he took any scheme in hand, he was rapid in executing it, and on those occasions spared neither trouble nor expense.  He was a liberal encourager of merit in others, and to him the country is indebted for various improvements which have been brought forward under his auspices. . . .

    "In respect to myself, I can with great sincerity say that he was a most affectionate and steady friend and patron, with whom, during a close connexion of thirty-five years, I have never had any serious difference.

    "As to his improvements and erections at Soho—his turning a barren heath into a delightful garden, and the population and riches he has introduced into the parish of Handsworth, I must leave such subjects to those whose pens are better adapted to the purpose, and whose ideas are less benumbed with age than mine now are." [p.442]


    We have spoken of Boulton's generosity, which was in keeping with his whole character.  At a time when he was himself threatened with bankruptcy, we have seen him concerting a scheme with his friend Wedgwood to enable Dr. Priestley to pursue his chemical investigations free from pecuniary anxiety.  To Watt he was most liberal, voluntarily conceding to him at different times profits derived from certain parts of the steam-engine business, far beyond the proportions stipulated in the deed of partnership.  In the course of his correspondence we find numerous illustrations of his generosity to partners as well as to workmen; making up the losses they had sustained, and which at the time perhaps he could ill afford.  His conduct to Widow Swellengrebel illustrates this fine feature in his character.  She had lent money to Fothergill, his partner in the hardware business, and the money was never repaid.  The consequence was, that the widow and her family were seriously impoverished, and on their return to their friends in Holland, Boulton, though under no obligation to do so, remitted her an annuity of fifty pounds a year, which he continued to the close of her life.  "I must own," he wrote, "I am impelled to act as I do from pity as well as from something in my own disposition that I cannot resist." [p.443]

    In fine, Matthew Boulton was a noble, manly man, and a true leader of men.  Lofty-minded, intelligent, energetic, and liberal, he was one of those who constitute the life-blood of a nation, and give force and dignity to the national character.  And working in conjunction with Watt, he was in no small degree instrumental in introducing and establishing the great new working power of steam, which has exercised so extraordinary an influence upon all the operations of industry.



――――♦――――

 
CHAPTER XIX.

CLOSING YEARS OF JAMES WATT—HIS DEATH—CONCLUSION.

 

Medallion of Sir Francis Legatt Chantrey's statue of Watt (reverse side)
By William Wyon, engraved by C. Chabot.
(The Life of James Watt, Muirhead, London, 1858.)


THE fragile and sickly Watt outlived the most robust of his contemporaries.  He was residing at Glenarbach, near Dumbarton, with his relatives, when the intelligence reached him of the death of his partner.  To Mr. Boulton's son and successor he wrote,—


"However we may lament our own loss, we must consider, on the other side, the torturing pain he has so long endured, and console ourselves with the remembrance of his virtues and eminent qualifications.  Few men have possessed his abilities, and still fewer have exerted them as he has done; and if to these we add his urbanity, his generosity, and his affection to his friends, we shall make up a character rarely to be equalled.  Such was the friend we have lost, and of whose affection we have reason to be proud, as you have to be the son of such a father."

 

Bust of Matthew Boulton, St. Mary's Church, Handsworth,
by John Flaxman (ca. 1809). [p.432]  Picture Wikipedia.


    The deaths of his friends, one by one, reminded Watt of his own mortality, and frequent references to the subject occur in his letters about this time.  He felt as if he were in danger of being left in the world alone.  But he did not give himself up to melancholy, as he had been prone to do at the earlier periods of his life.  Shortly after his son Gregory died, he wrote to a relative,—"I know that all men must die, and I submit to the decrees of Nature, I hope with due reverence to the Disposer of events.  Yet one stimulus to exertion is taken away, and, somehow or other, I have lost my relish for my usual occupations.  Perhaps time may remedy that in some measure; meanwhile I do not neglect the means of amusement which are in my power."

    Watt was at no loss for occupation to relieve the tedium of old age.  He possessed ample resources in himself, and found pleasure alike in quiet meditation and in active work.  His thirst for knowledge was still unslaked, and he sought to allay it by reading.  His love of investigation was as keen as ever, and he gratified it by proceeding with experiments on air, on light, and on electricity.  His inventive faculty was still potent, and he occasionally varied his occupation by labouring to produce a new machine or to improve an old one.  At other times, when the weather allowed, he would take a turn at planting in his grounds and gardens; and occasionally vary his pleasure by a visit to Scotland, to London, or to his estate in Wales.

    Strange to say, his health improved with his advancing age, and though occasionally dyspeptic, he was now comparatively free from the racking headaches which had been the torment of his earlier years.  Unlike Boulton, who found pleasure in the active pursuit of business, Watt, who had regarded it as a worry, was now glad to have cast it altogether behind him.  His mind was free from harassing cares; his ambition in life was satisfied; he was no more distressed by fears of Cornish pirates; and he was content peacefully to enjoy the fruits of his invention.  And thus it was that Watt's later years may be pronounced to have been the happiest of his life.

    He had, indeed, lost nearly all his old friends, and thought of them with a melancholy regret,—not, however, unmingled with pleasure.  But other young friends gathered about him, sat at his feet, and looked up to him with an almost reverential admiration.  Among these we find Rennie and Telford the engineers, Campbell the poet, Humphry Davy, Henry Brougham, Francis Horner, and other rising men of the new generation.  Lord Brougham bears testimony to Watt's habitual cheerfulness, and to his enjoyment of the pleasures of society during the later years of his life.  "I can speak on the point," he says, "with absolute certainty, for my own acquaintance with him commenced after my friend Gregory's decease.  A few months after that event, he calmly and with his wonted acuteness discussed with me the composition of an epitaph to be inscribed on his son's tomb.  In the autumn and winter of 1805 he was a constant attendant at our Friday Club, and in all our private circles, and was the life of them all." [p.447]

    To the close of his life, Watt continued to take great pleasure in inventing.  It had been the pursuit of his life, and in old age it became his hobby.  "Without a hobby-horse," said he, "what is life?"  He proceeded to verify his old experiments, and to live over again the history of his inventions.  When Mr. Kennedy of Manchester asked him, at one of his last visits to Heathfield, if he had been able, since his retirement from business, to discover anything new in the steam-engine, he replied, "No; I am devoting the remainder of my life to perfect its details, and to ascertain whether in any respect I have been wrong."

    But he did not merely confine himself to verifying his old inventions.  He also contrived new ones.  One of the machines that occupied his leisure hours for many years was his machine for copying statuary.  We find him busy with it in 1810, and he was still working upon it in the year of his death, nearly ten years later.  The principle of the machine was to make a cutting tool or drill travel over the work to be executed, in like ratio with the motion of a guide-point placed upon the bust to be copied.  It worked, as it were, with two hands; the one feeling the pattern, the other cutting the material into the required form.  The object could be copied either of the full size, or reduced with the most perfect accuracy to any less size that might be required.  In preparing the necessary tools, Watt had the able assistance of his friend Murdock, who was always ready with his kindly suggestions and criticisms.  In January, 1813, Watt wrote to him,—"I have done a little figure of a boy lying down and holding out one arm, very successfully; and another boy, about six inches high, naked, and holding out both his hands, his legs also being separate.  But I have been principally employed in making drawings for a complete machine, all in iron, which has been a very serious job, as invention goes on very slowly with me now.  When you come home, I shall thank you for your criticisms and assistance."

    The material in which Watt executed his copies of statuary were various,—marble, jet, alabaster, ivory, plaster of Paris, and mahogany.  Some of the specimens we have seen at Heathfield are of exquisite accuracy and finish, and show that he must have brought his copying-machine to a remarkable degree of perfection before he died.  There are numerous copies of medallions of his friends,—of Dr. Black, De Luc, and Dr. Priestley; but the finest of all is a reduced bust of himself, being an exact copy of Chantrey's original plaster-cast.  The head and neck are beautifully finished, but there the work has stopped, for the upper part of the chest is still in the rough.  Another exquisite work, than which Watt never executed a finer, is a medallion of Locke in ivory, marked "January, 1812."  There are numerous other busts, statuettes, medallions,—some finished, others half-executed, and apparently thrown aside, as if the workman had been dissatisfied with his work, and waited, perhaps, until he had introduced some new improvement in his machine.

    Watt took out no patent for the invention, which he pursued, as he said, merely as "a mental and bodily exercise."  Neither did he publish it, but went on working at it for several years before his intentions to construct such a machine had become known.  When he had made considerable progress with it, he learned, to his surprise, that a Mr. Hawkins, an ingenious person in the neighbourhood, had been long occupied in the same pursuit.  The proposal was then made to him that the two inventors should combine their talents and secure the invention by taking out a joint patent.  But Watt had already been too much worried by patents to venture on taking out another at his advanced age.  He preferred prosecuting the invention at his leisure merely as an amusement; and the project of taking out a patent for it was accordingly abandoned.  It may not be generally known that this ingenious invention of Watt has since been revived, and applied, with sundry modifications, by our cousins across the Atlantic, in fashioning wood and iron in various forms; and powerful copying-machines are now in regular use in the Government works at Enfield, where they are employed in rapidly, accurately, and cheaply manufacturing gun-stocks!

 


    Watt carried on the operations connected with this invention for the most part in his Garret, a room immediately under the roof at the kitchen end of the house at Heathfield, and approached by a narrow staircase.  It is a small room, low in the ceiling, and lighted by a low broad window, looking into the shrubbery.  The ceiling, though low, inclines with the slope of the roof on three sides of the room, and, being close to the slates, the place must necessarily have been very hot in summer, and very cold in winter.  A stove was placed close to the door, for the purpose of warming the apartment, as well as enabling the occupant to pursue his experiments, being fitted with a sand-bath and other conveniences.  But the stove must have been insufficient for heating the garret in very cold weather, and hence we find him occasionally informing his correspondents that he could not proceed further with his machine until the weather had become milder.

    His foot-lathe was fixed close to the window, fitted with all the appliances for turning in wood and metal fifty years ago; while a case of drawers fitted into the recess on the left-hand side of the room contained a large assortment of screws, punches, cutters, taps, and dies.  Here were neatly arranged and stowed away many of the tools with which he worked in the early part of his life, one of the drawers being devoted to his old "flute tools."  In other divisions were placed his compasses, dividers, scales, decimal weights, quadrant glasses, and a large assortment of instrument-making tools.  A ladle for melting lead, and a soldering-iron were hung ready for use near the stove.

    Crucibles of metal and stone were ranged on the shelves along the opposite side of the room, which also contained a large assortment of bottles filled with chemicals, boxes of fossils and minerals, jars, gallipots, blowpipes, retorts, and the various articles used in chemical analysis.  In one corner of the room was a potter's lathe.  A writing-desk was placed as close to the window, for the sake of the light, as the turning-lathe would allow; and in the corner was the letter-copying machine, conveniently at hand.

    In this garret Watt spent much of his time during the later period of his life, only retiring from it when it was too hot in summer, or too cold in winter, to enable him to continue his work.  For days together he would confine himself here, without even descending to his meals.  He had accordingly provided himself, in addition to his various other tools, with sundry kitchen utensils,—amongst others, with a frying-pan and Dutch oven—with which he cooked his meals.

    For it must be explained that Mrs. Watt was a thorough martinet in household affairs, and, above all things, detested "dirt."  Mrs. Schimmelpenninck says she taught her two pug-dogs never to cross the hall without first wiping their feet on the mat.  She hated the sight of her husband's leather apron and soiled hands while he was engaged in his garret-work; so he kept himself out of her sight at such times as much as possible.  Some notion of the rigidity of her rule may be inferred from the fact of her having had a window made in the kitchen wall, through which she could watch the servants, and observe how they were getting one with their work.

    Her passion for cleanliness was carried to a pitch which often fretted those about her by the restraints it imposed; but her husband, like a wise man, gently submitted to her rule.  He was fond of a pinch of snuff, which Mrs. Watt detested, regarding it as only so much "dirt"; and Mr. Muirhead says she would seize and lock up the offending snuff-box whenever she could lay hands upon it.  He adds that at night, when she retired from the dining-room, if Mr. Watt did not follow at the time fixed by her, a servant entered and put out the lights, even when a friend was present; on which he would slowly rise, and meekly say, "We must go."

    One can easily understand how, under such circumstances, Watt would enjoy the perfect liberty of his garret, where he was king; and could enjoy his pinch of snuff in peace, and make as much "dirt" with his turning-lathe, his crucibles, and his chemicals as he chose, without dread of interruption.

    One of the fears which haunted Watt as old age advanced upon him was, that his mental faculties, in the exercise of which he took so much pleasure, were deserting him.  To Dr. Darwin he said, many years before,—"Of all the evils of age, the loss of the few mental faculties one possessed in youth is most grievous."  To test his memory, he again began the study of German, which he had allowed himself to forget; and he speedily acquired such proficiency as enabled him to read the language with comparative ease.

 


    But he gave still stronger evidence of the integrity of his powers.  When in his seventy-fifth year he was consulted by the Glasgow Waterworks Company as to the best mode of conveying water from a peninsular across the Clyde to the Company's engines at Dalmarnock,—a difficulty which appeared to them almost insurmountable; for it was necessary to fit the pipes, through which the water passed, to the uneven and shifting bed of the river.  Watt, on turning over the subject in his mind, shortly hit upon a plan, which showed that his inventive powers were unimpaired by age.  Taking the tail of the lobster for his model, he devised a tube of iron similarly articulated, of which he forwarded a drawing to the Waterworks Company; and, acting upon his recommendation, they had the tube forthwith made and laid down with complete success.  Watt declined to be paid for the essential service he had thus rendered to the Waterworks Company; but the directors made a handsome acknowledgment of it by presenting him with a piece of plate of the value of a hundred guineas, accompanied by the cordial expression of their thanks and esteem.

    Watt did not, however, confine himself to mechanical recreations at home.  In summer-time he would proceed to Cheltenham, the air of which agreed with him, and he would make a short stay there; or he would visit his friends in London, Glasgow, or Edinburgh.  While in London, his great delight was in looking in at the shop windows,—the best of all industrial exhibitions,—for there he saw the progress of manufacture in all articles in common use amongst the people.  To a country person, the sight of the streets and shop-windows of London alone, with their display of objects of art and articles of utility, is always worth a visit.  To Watt it was more interesting than passing through the finest gallery of pictures.

    At Glasgow, where he stayed with his relatives the Macgregors, he took pleasure in revisiting his old haunts; he dined with the College Professors, [p.455] and noted with lively interest the industrial progress of the place.  The growth of Glasgow in the course of his lifetime had, indeed, been extraordinary, and it was in no small degree the result of his own industrial labours.  The steam-engine was everywhere at work; factories had sprung up in all directions; the Broomielaw was silent no longer; the Clyde was navigable from thence to the sea, and its waters were plashed by the paddles of numerous steamers.  The old city of the tobacco lords had become a great centre of manufacturing industry; it was rich, busy, and prosperous; and the main source of its prosperity had been the steam-engine.

    A long time had elapsed since Watt had first taken in hand the repair of the little Newcomen engine in Glasgow College, and afterwards laboured in the throes of his invention in his shop in the back court in King Street.  There were no skilled mechanics in Glasgow then, and the death of the "old white-iron man" who helped him had been one of his sorest vexations.  Things were entirely changed now.  Glasgow had already become famous for its engine-work, and its factories contained some of the most skilled mechanics in the kingdom.  Watt's original notion that Scotchmen were incapable of becoming first-rate mechanics was confuted by the experience of hundreds of workshops; and to none did the practical contradiction of his theory give greater pleasure than to himself.  He delighted to visit the artisans at their work, and to see with his own eyes the improvements that were going forward; and when he heard of any new and ingenious arrangement of engine-power, he would hasten to call upon the mechanic who had contrived it, and make his acquaintance.

    One of such calls, which Watt made during a visit to Glasgow, in 1814, has been pleasantly related by Mr. Robert Hart, who, with his brother, then carried on a small steam-engine factory in the town.


"One forenoon," he says, "while we were at work, Miss Macgregor and a tall elderly gentleman came into the shop.  She, without saying who he was, asked if we would show the gentleman our small engine.  It was not going at the time, and was covered up.  My brother uncovered it.  The gentleman examined it very minutely, and put a few pointed questions, asking the reason for making her in that form.  My brother, seeing he understood the subject, said that she had been so made to try what we thought was an improvement; and for this experiment we required another cistern and air pump.  He was beginning to show what was properly Mr. Watt's engine, and what was not; when, at this observation, Miss Macgregor stopped him, saying,—'Oh, he understands it; this is Mr. Watt!'

    "I never at any time saw my brother so much excited as he was at that moment.  He called on me to join them, saying,—'This is Mr. Watt!'  Up to this time I had continued to work at what I was doing when they came; and, although I had heard all that was said, I had not joined the party till I learned who he was.  Our supposed improvement was to save condensing water, and was on the principle introduced by Sir John Leslie, to produce cold by evaporation in a vacuum.  Mr. Watt took much interest in this experiment, and said he had tried the same thing on a larger scale, but without the vacuum, as that invention of Professor Leslie's was not known at the time.  He tried it exposed to the air, and also kept wet; and at one of the large porter-breweries in London he had fitted up an apparatus of the same nature.  The pipes forming his condenser were laid in the water of the Thames, but he could not keep them tight, from the expansion and contraction of the metal, as they were exposed to various temperatures."


    The conversation then diverged to the subject of his early experiments with the Newcomen engine, the difficulties he had encountered in finding a proper material for steam-pipes, the best method of making steam-joints, and to various means of overcoming obstacles which occur in the prosecution of mechanical experiments, in the course of which he reverted to the many temporary expedients which he had himself adopted in his early days.

    Watt was so much pleased with the intelligence of the brothers Hart, that he invited them to call upon him that evening at Miss Macgregor's, where they found him alone with the ladies.  "In the course of conversation," continues Mr. Hart, "which embraced all that was new at the time, the expansion and the slow contraction of metals were touched on.  This led to a discussion on iron in engine-making," in which Watt explained the practice which experience had led him to adopt as the best.

    The conversation then turned upon the early scene of his inventions, the room in the College, the shop in King Street, the place on Glasgow Green near the Herd's house where the first idea of a separate condenser flashed upon his mind, and the various steps by which he had worked out his invention.  He went on to speak of his experience at Kinneil and Boroughstoness, of the Newcomen engine he had erected and worked there for the purpose of gaining experience, and incidentally referred to many of the other interesting events in his past career.  At a late hour the brothers took their leave, delighted, as they well might be, with the affability and conversableness, of "the great Mr. Watt."

    But it was not in mechanics alone that Watt was so fascinating in his conversation.  He was equally at home amongst philosophers, women, and children.  When close upon his eighty-second year, he formed one of a distinguished party assembled in Edinburgh, at which Sir Walter Scott, Francis Jeffrey, and others were present.  He delighted the northern literati with his kindly cheerfulness, not less than he astonished them by the extent and profundity of his information.


"This potent commander of the elements," says Scott,—"this abridger of time and space, this magician, whose machinery has produced a change in the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt,—was not only the most profound man of science, the most successful combiner of powers, and combiner of numbers, as adapted to practical purposes,—was not only one of the most generally well-informed, but one of the best and kindest of human beings.  There he stood, surrounded by the little band of northern literati, men not less tenacious, generally speaking, of their own opinions, than the national regiments are supposed to be jealous of the high character they have won upon service.  Methinks I yet see and hear what I shall never see or hear again.  The alert, kind, benevolent old man had his attention alive to every one's question, his information at every one's command.  His talents and fancy overflowed on every subject.  One gentleman was a deep philologist, he talked with him on the origin of the alphabet as if he had been coeval with Cadmus; another, a celebrated critic, you would have said the old man had studied political economy and belles-lettres all his life; of science it is unnecessary to speak, it was his own distinguished walk." [p.460]


    Indeed, the extent of his knowledge was the wonder of all who came in contact with him.  "It seemed," said Jeffrey, "as if every subject that was casually started had been that which he had been occupied in studying."  Yet, though no man was more ready to communicate knowledge, none could be less ambitious in displaying it.  In company, when not spoken to, he sat as if tranquilly pursuing his own meditations, with his head bent forward or leaning on his hand.  But as he could not fail to be a prominent feature in any society which he entered, it was seldom that he was left outside the circle of social talk.  Men of letters, men of science, artists, ladies, and children, thronged about him.  Once, when on a visit to his friend Rennie in London, he accompanied him to an evening party at Sir George Warrender's.  At first he sat by himself quiet and abstracted, until some young ladies engaged him in conversation, which gradually turned upon the mystery of the fabrics they wore, the insignificant materials out of which they were formed, and the beauty and value given to them by the industry and ingenuity of man; and, other auditors being attracted by his descriptions, he shortly found himself the centre of a group of fair and admiring listeners.

    He seemed to be alike at home on all subjects, the most recondite and the most common, the most special and the most general.  Mrs. Schimmelpenninck [p.461-1] relates how he took her upon his knee when a little girl, and explained to her the principles of the hurdy-gurdy, the piano, the Pan's-pipe, and the organ; teaching her how to make a dulcimer and improve a Jew's-harp.  To a Swedish artist he communicated the information that the most pliant and elastic painting-brush was made with rats' whiskers.  He advised ladies how to cure smoky chimneys, how to warm and ventilate dwellings, and how to obtain fast colours; while he would willingly instruct a maid-servant as to the best way of cleaning a grate. [p.461-2]  A lady still living, who remembers Watt, informs us that he used to carry a carpenter's foot-rule in the side pocket of his breeches, and would occasionally bring it out in after-dinner conversation or elsewhere, to illustrate the subject under discussion.

    He was full of anecdotes relating to all manner of subjects, which he was accustomed to tell in a very effective way. [p.462]  He spoke in a low grave tone, with a broad Scottish accent.  The late Mr. Murdock mentioned to us one of his favourite stories relating to two smugglers pursued by excisemen.  The two smugglers had reached the mouth of a coal-pit and got into the corve-cage with their apparatus, the excisemen only coming up in time to see them descending the shaft, where they were soon out of sight.  On the ascending corves coming up to the settle-board, the excisemen asked to be sent down after the smugglers, and they were sent down accordingly.  Halfway down the shaft they met the smugglers in the other cage coming up!  And so the relator kept them ascending and descending, passing and repassing each other,—his auditors being in convulsions of laughter, while he himself was wholly unmoved.

    Campbell, the poet, who paid Watt a visit in February, 1819, only six months before his death, describes him as so full of anecdote that he spent one of the most amusing days he had ever enjoyed with a man of science and a stranger to his own pursuits.  To the last he was a great reader of novels; and Mrs. Watt and he had many a hearty cry over the imaginary woes of love-lorn heroes and heroines.  Scott says no novel of the least celebrity escaped his perusal, and that this gifted man of science was as much addicted to productions of this sort as if he had been a milliner's apprentice of eighteen.  A lady, still living, [p.463] informs us that she remembers the admiration which Watt expressed for the Waverley novels, then making their appearance in rapid succession, and used to quote his opinion as a great authority for her own devotion to such works,—forgetting that, as the old frame requires the armchair after the heat and burden of the day, so the taxed mind needs rest and recreation after long years of study, anxiety, and labour.

    Mr. Stockdale, of Carke, gives the following account of a visit which his sister, a cousin of Mr. Boulton's, paid to Heathfield in 1818, shortly before Mr. Watt's death:—


"When tea was announced to Mr. Watt, he came from his 'garret,' and on being told who my sister was, he asked after her relations in the kindest way, and then sat down in his armchair.  A cup of tea was handed to him, and alongside of it was placed a small cup containing a yellow powder, of which he took a spoonful and put it into his tea, observing that he had long been plagued with a stomach complaint, for which he had found this powder of mastich a sovereign remedy.  He talked more than my sister expected.  Sometimes he fell into a reverie, appearing absorbed in thought, his eyes fixed on space, and his head leaning over his chest.  After a while he retired to his study and my sister returned to Soho."


    Mr. Hollins, sculptor, of Birmingham, supplies the following further reminiscence.  When a youth in a local architect's office, he was sent out to Heathfield one afternoon, to submit to Mr. Watt the plans of certain proposed alterations in the parish church of Handsworth.  The church stood a few fields off, and its spire rose above the trees within sight of his drawing-room windows.  It was his parish church, in which his friend Boulton had been buried, and where he himself wished to lie.  When the young man mentioned his errand, Mr. Watt said he was just about to take his afternoon's nap.  "But you can sit down there and read that newspaper, and when I have got my nap I will look at the plans."  So saying he composed himself to rest in his arm-chair; the youth scarce daring to turn the pages for fear of disturbing him.

    At length, after a short sleep, he woke full up and said, "Now let me see them."  He looked over the plans, examined them in detail, and criticised them keenly.  He thought the proposed alterations of a paltry character, unworthy of the wealth and importance of the parish.  "Why," said he, "if these plans be carried out, preaching at Handsworth will be like pitching the word of God out of a keyhole!"  When Mr. Watt's decided views as to the insufficiency of the design were reported to the committee, steps were taken greatly to enlarge it, and Handsworth Church was thus indebted to his suggestions for much of its present beauty.

    He proceeded with the completion of his sculpture-copying machine until nearly the close of his life.  When the weather was suitable, he would go upstairs to his garret, don his woollen surtout and leather apron, and proceed with his work.  He was as fastidious as ever, and was constantly introducing new improvements.  It was a hobby and a pursuit, and served him as well as any other.  To M. Berthollet he wrote,—"Whatever may be its success, it has at least had the good effect of making me avoid many hours of ennui, by employing my hands when I could not employ my head, and giving me some exercise when I could not go out."  It also pleased him to see the invention growing under his hands as of old, though it is possible that during his later years he added but little to the machine.  Indeed, it seems to have been as nearly as possible complete by the year 1817, if we may judge by the numerous exquisitely-finished specimens of reduced sculpture—busts, medallions, and statuary—laid away in the drawers of the garret at Heathfield.  He took pleasure in presenting copies to his more intimate friends, jocularly describing them as "the productions of a young artist just entering his eighty-third year."  Shortly after, the hand of the cunning workman was stopped by death.  The machine remained unfinished; and it is a singular testimony to the skill and perseverance of a man who had accomplished so much, that it is almost his only unfinished work.

 


    In the autumn of 1819 he was seized by his last illness.  It could scarcely be called a seizure, for he suffered little, and continued calm and tranquil, in the full possession of his faculties, almost to the last.  He was conscious of his approaching end, and expressed from time to time his sincere gratitude to Divine Providence for the worldly blessings he had been permitted to enjoy, for his length of days, and his exemption from the infirmities of age.  "I am very sensible," said he to the mourning friends who assembled round his deathbed, "of the attachment you show me, and I hasten to thank you for it, as I feel that I am now come to my last illness."  He parted with life quietly and peacefully, on the 19th of August, 1819, in the eighty-third year of his age.  He was buried near his deceased friend and partner, Mr. Boulton, in Handsworth Church.  Over his remains, which lie in a side aisle, was placed a monument by Chantrey, perhaps his finest work, justifying the compliment paid to the sculptor that he "cut breath"; for when first uncovered before the old servants assembled round it at Soho, it so powerfully reminded them of their old master, that they " lifted up their voices and wept."

    Watt has been fortunate in his monumental honours.  The colossal statue of him in Westminster Abbey [Ed.—since removed to Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinbugh] also from the chisel of Chantrey, bears upon it an epitaph from the pen of Lord Brougham, which is beyond comparison the finest lapidary inscription in the English language; and among its other signal merits, it has one which appertains rather to its subject than its author, that, lofty as is the eulogy, every word of it is true. [p.467] The monument was raised by public subscriptions, initiated at a meeting in London presided over by the Prime Minister, and attended by the most illustrious statesmen, men of science, men of letters, and men of art, of the time, who met for the purpose of commemorating in some suitable manner the genius of Watt. " It has ever been reckoned one of the chief honours of my life," says Lord Brougham, " that I was called upon to pen the inscription upon the noble monument thus nobly reared."

 

James Watt by Chantrey, now in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.  Picture Wikipedia.


    Watt was also honoured during his lifetime.  Learnèd Societies were proud to enrol him amongst their members.  He was a Fellow of the Royal Societies of London and Edinburgh, a Foreign Associate of the Institute of France, and a Member of the Batavian Society.  The University of Glasgow conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Law.  Lord Liverpool offered him a baronetcy; but, consistent with the simplicity of his character, he declined the honour.  He was invited to serve as Sheriff on two occasions, for Staffordshire and for Radnorshire; but he strongly pleaded to be excused undertaking the office.  He was "a timid old man," and hoped that he "should not have a duty imposed upon him that he was totally unfit for, nor have his gray hairs weighed down with a load of vexatious cares.  My inventions," he said, "are giving employment to the best part of a million of people, and having added many millions to the national riches, I have a natural right to rest in my extreme age."  His pleas were in both cases regarded as sufficient, and he was excused the office.

    It is altogether unnecessary to pronounce a panegyric on the character and achievements of James Watt.  This has already been done by Lord Jeffrey in language that cannot be surpassed.  Sir James Macintosh placed him "at the head of all inventors in all ages and nations"; and Wordsworth the poet, twenty years after his death, said, "I look upon him, considering both the magnitude and the universality of his genius, as perhaps the most extraordinary man that this country ever produced: he never sought display, but was content to work in that quietness and humility, both of spirit and of outward circumstances, in which alone all that is truly great and good was ever done."

    Watt was himself accustomed to speak of his inventions with the modesty of true genius.  To a nobleman who expressed to him his wonder at the greatness of his achievements, he said, "the public only look at my success, and not on the intermediate failures and uncouth constructions which have served as steps to enable me to climb to the top of the ladder."  Watt looked back upon his twenty long years of anxiety and labour before the engine succeeded, and heaved a sigh.  "Without affecting any maidenly coyness," he wrote to Dr. Darwin, who proposed to eulogise him in his 'Botanic Garden,' "you really make me appear contemptible in my own eyes by considering how far short my pretensions, or those of the invention were, of the climax of human intellect,—I that know myself to be inferior to the greatest part of enlightened men in most things.  If I have excelled, I think now it has been by chance, and by the neglects of others.  Preserve the dignity of a philosopher and historian; relate the facts, and leave prosperity to judge.  If I merit it, some of my countrymen, inspired by the amor patriæ, may say, 'Hoc a Scoto factum fuit.'"

    Although the true inventor, like the true poet, is born, not made,—and although Watt pursued his inventions because he found his highest pleasure in inventing,—yet his greatest achievements were accomplished by unremitting application and industry.  He was a keen observer and an incessant experimenter.  "Observare" was the motto he deliberately adopted; and it expresses the principle and success of his life.  He was always on the watch for facts, noting and comparing them.  He took nothing for granted; and accepted no conclusions save on experimental evidence.  "Nature can be conquered," he said, "if we can but find out her weak side."  His patience was inexhaustible.  He was never baffled by failure, from which he declared that he learnt more than from success.  "It is a great thing," he once observed to Murdock, "to find out what will not do: it leads to one finding out what will do."

    "Give me facts," he once said to Boulton, "I am sick of theory: give me actual facts."  Yet, indispensable though facts are, theory is scarcely less so in invention; and it was probably because Watt was a great theorist, that he was a great inventor.  His invention of the separate condenser was itself the result of a theory, the soundness of which he proved by experiment.  So with the composition of water, the theory of which he at once divined from the experiments of Priestley.  He continued theorising during the whole progress of his invention of the steam-engine.  New theories suggested new arrangements and the application of entirely new principles, until in course of time the engine of Newcomen became completely transformed.

    Watt's engine was not an invention merely—it might almost be called a creation.  "The part which he played," says M. Bataille, "in the mechanical application of the force of steam, can only be compared to that of Newton in astronomy, and of Shakspeare in poetry.  And is not invention the poetry of science?  It is only when we compare Watt with other mechanicians that we are struck by his immense superiority,—when we compare him, for example, with Smeaton, who was, perhaps, after him, the man who had advanced the farthest in industrial mechanism.  Smeaton began, about the same time as Watt, his inquiries as to the best means of improving the steam-engine.  He worked long and patiently, but in an entirely technical spirit.  While he was working out his improvements, Watt had drawn forth from his fertile imagination all those brilliant inventions to which we owe the effective working steam-engine.  In a word, Smeaton knew how to improve, but Watt knew how to create." [p.471]

    As for the uses of the steam-engine, they are too widely known to stand in need of illustration.  Had Watt, at the outset of his career, announced to mankind that he would invent a power that should drain their mines, blow their furnaces, roll and hammer their metals, thrash and grind their corn, saw their timber, drive their looms and spindles, print their books, impel ships across the ocean, and perform the thousand offices in which steam is now regularly employed, he would have been regarded as an enthusiast, if not as a madman.  Yet all this the steam-engine had done and is now doing.  It has widely extended the dominion of man over inanimate nature, and given him an almost unbounded supremacy over the materials which enter into his daily use.  It has increased his power, his resources, and his enjoyments.  It is the most universal and untiring of labourers,—the steam-power of Great Britain alone being estimated as equal to the manual labour of upwards of four hundred millions of men, or more than double the number of males supposed to inhabit the globe.  It is, indeed, no exaggeration to say that the steam-engine of Watt is, without exception, the greatest invention of modern times; and that it has been instrumental in effecting the most remarkable revolution in all departments of industry that the world has ever seen.


    A few years since, we visited the little garret at Heathfield in which Watt pursued the investigations of his later years.  The room had been carefully locked up since his death, and had only once been swept out.  Everything lay very much as he left it.  The piece of iron he was last employed in turning lay upon the lathe.  The ashes of the last fire were in the grate; the last bit of coal was in the coal scuttle.  The Dutch oven was in its place over the stove, and the frying-pan in which he used to cook his meals was hanging by its accustomed nail.

    Many objects lay about or in the drawers, indicating the pursuits which had been interrupted by death,—busts, medallions, and figures, waiting to be copied by the sculpture-machine,—many medallion moulds, a store of plaster of Paris, and a box of plaster casts from London, the contents of which do not seem to have been disturbed.  Here are Watt's ladles for melting lead, his foot-rule, his glue-pot, his hammer.  Reflecting mirrors, an extemporised camera with the lenses mounted on pasteboard, and many camera-glasses laid about, indicate interrupted experiments in optics.  There are quadrant-glasses, compasses, scales, weights, and sundry boxes of mathematical instruments, once highly prized.  In one place is a model of the governor, in another of the parallel motion, and in a little box, fitted with wooden cylinders mounted with paper and covered with figures, is what we suppose to be a model of his proposed calculating machine.

    On the shelves are minerals and chemicals in pots and jars, on which the dust of nearly half a century has settled.  The moist substances have long since become dried up, the putty has been turned to stone, and the paste to dust.  On one shelf we come upon a dish in which lies a withered bunch of grapes.  On the floor, in a corner, near to where Watt sat and worked, is a hair-trunk—a touching memorial of a long past love and a long dead sorrow.  It contains all poor Gregory's school-books,—his first attempts at writing, his boy's drawings of battles, his first school exercises down to his College themes, his delectuses, his grammars, his dictionaries, and his class books,—brought into this retired room, where the father's eye could rest upon them.

    Near at hand is the sculpture machine, on which Watt continued working to the last.  Its wooden framing is worm-eaten and dropping into dust, like the hands which made it.  But though the great workman has gone to his rest, with all his griefs and cares, and his own handiwork is fast crumbling to decay;—the spirit of his work, the thought which he put into his inventions, still survives, and will probably continue to influence the destinies of his race for all time to come.

 



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[Footnotes]

 



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