INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION: A DOCUMENTARY HISTORY
Series Three: The Papers of James Watt and his Family
formerly held at Doldowlod House, now at Birmingham Central Library
Part 2: Correspondence, Papers & Business Records, 1736-1848
Part 2 of this microfilm project continues with:
- James Watt's personal correspondence (Reels 21-31)
- James Watt's diaries, account books and memoranda books (Reels 32-33)
- James Watt's business records: instrument making (Reel 33)
- James Watt's business records: surveying (Reels 33-34)
- James Watt's business records: steam engines (Reels 34-35)
- Papers concerning Watt's various legal battles on the steam engine patent extension, Boulton v Bull, and Boulton & Watt v Hornblower & Maberly (Reels 35-37)
- James Watt's business records: copying machine (Reel 37)
- James Watt's miscellaneous papers (Reels 37-38) including material on Argand’s patent for a lamp, Priestley’s library, canal business, discussions with Telford on bridge designs and with Fulton on the advantages of steam engines.
- James Watt Junior's (1769-1848) press copy letters (Reels 39-40)
- James Watt Junior's (1769-1848) personal correspondence (Reel 40)
These documents (reproduced in Series Three of the microfilm project) were purchased from Lord Gibson-Watt, Doldowlod House, Llandundod Wells, Powys, in June 1994, with the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Victoria and Albert Purchase Grant Fund and may other donors. They are now housed in the Archives Division of Birmingham Central Library with the shelfmark JWP (ACC 94/69).
James Watt (1736-1819), surveyor, engineer, mathematical and musical instrument maker, chemist and inventor, is famous for his invention in 1765 of the separate condenser, the crucial refinement of Thomas Newcomen's steam engine. The steam engine as improved by Watt was probably the most important technological advance of the industrial revolution; with the fuel economies of the separate condenser, steam engines could operate anywhere. Later improvements included a new coupling so that the engine could work in both directions, rotative motion, and a governor for safety. By its application to water pumping, hoisting-machinery, the blast furnace, and industrial machinery Watt's engine made possible cheap coal and cheap energy, and powered spinning and weaving, breweries, flour mills, paper mills, the potteries, and many other essential industries.
The authors of A History of Technology (Oxford 1958) write that "...in 1750 the industrial state, as now understood, did not exist... Britain was then essentially an agricultural and mercantile nation...'a nation of shopkeepers': but by 1815 Britain, and Britain alone, was so far industrialised as to deserve the title of the workshop of the world...". The technological changes and developments of those years and the resultant economic growth and social change were based on Watt's great legacy.
Watt began his career in London, where he served an apprenticeship (1755-56) as an instrument maker, subsequently becoming 'Mathematical instrument maker to the College of Glasgow' and opening a shop there. In later years he invented a new micrometer, a new surveying quadrant, and a copying machine, which revolutionised office practice in a way probably not to be matched until the advent of the typewriter in the late 19th century. During the early years of his work on steam, Watt also worked very successfully as a canal surveyor and engineer on various Scottish canals.
In 1774, after the financial failure of his first backer, Dr John Roebuck, Watt joined Matthew Boulton at his Soho Manufactory in Birmingham, and serious exploitation of the steam engine began. Boulton & Watt designed and erected engines in Cornwall and elsewhere during the 1770s, while Watt continually worked to improve the design. A number of significant improvements were realised during the 1780s, one of the most important of which was the invention of the 'sun and planet' gearing system, which allowed the engines to produce rotative motion. Since Boulton & Watt made relatively few of the parts of which their engines were constructed until the 1790s, they preferred not to receive a one-off payment for their engines, but instead to receive a premium calculated as a percentage of the cost savings achieved by use of their engine instead of Newcomen engines producing the same amount of work; Watt invented the horse-power unit of measurement of work performed to make this calculation easier. The system was, however, unpopular with customers, and this and subsequent attempts to pirate Watt's inventions and infringe his patents led to a series of courtroom battles in the 1790s.
While at Birmingham, Watt continued to keep in close touch with his scientific friends in Scotland, particularly Joseph Black and John Robison, but also found himself part of a circle of new friends devoted to improving the world's science, technology, medicine, education and commerce; this became the famous Lunar Society of Birmingham, the most eminent and informal of the provincial learned societies. In addition to Boulton and Watt, members included Dr Erasmus Darwin, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton junior, the chemist James Keir, Joseph Priestley, the chemist William Small, Josiah Wedgwood, and William Withering. The network of shared contacts of this influential group brought James Watt a steady correspondence of wonderfully rich letters with leading scientists and technologists across Europe; men such as Claude-Louis Berthollet, Aimé Argand, Marsiglio Landriani and J D H van Liender.
The Watt papers, formerly in the possession of Lord Gibson-Watt of Doldowlod, Powys, consist of James Watt's personal papers, his extensive incoming correspondence, and bound volumes of retained copies (made on the Watt copying-press) of his outgoing letters; notebooks, journals, personal and business accounts, surveying reports, memoranda, papers relating to the Act of Parliament of 1775 which extended his original patent, patent specifications and drawings for the improvements of the 1780s, legal papers concerning court cases for infringement of his patents, and other miscellaneous papers. These are supplemented by the accounts and letter books of his father, James Watt of Greenock, merchant (1698-1782), from the 1730s to 1780s, and the papers and correspondence of his sons, James Watt junior and Gregory Watt. James junior (1769-1848) succeeded his father at Boulton & Watt from 1800 onwards and was closely involved in the development of the steamboat, turning the engine production of the Soho Foundry increasingly towards marine engines in the 1820s, 30s and 40s. In 1818, the year before his father's death, he took a lease of Aston Hall in Birmingham, and an important collection of drawings relates to the repair and furnishing of the house during the 1820s. In later life, he developed antiquarian interests, and purchased William Hamper's important local history collections relating to Aston, which also form part of the archive. Gregory Watt (1777-1804) was a talented mineralogist and geologist, who died from consumption aged 27; the archive contains a considerable amount of his juvenilia, apparently carefully preserved by his father, who was heartbroken by the early death of a favoured son.
Eight trunks and boxes of the Doldowlod papers were listed in a brief bundle list by the Business Archives Council in 1987; a recent search to make sure that the archive is complete has turned up some additional material, including a further ten folders of James Watt's incoming correspondence, three of his diaries and journals, his father's accounts and much of the miscellaneous material relating to James Watt junior.
Papers relating to the steam engine
Of primary interest to historians of science and technology are the journals and papers relating to the steam engine. There is, for example, an original laboratory notebook [W/14] dating mainly from 1783 recording Watt's experiments on latent heat, copal varnish etc. The experiments on copal varnish are described retrospectively, but the latent heat experiments (including the famous tea kettle experiment) are recorded here as they were performed, with various revisions and pasted cancels in the notes, A folio commonplace book [C1/2] includes Watt's account of his own experiments on heat as well as notes (some from printed reports) on the experiments of Lavoisier, de la Place and Priestley.
Other working papers include notes, drafts, specifications and drawings for steam engine patents and for the various court cases which arose from patent infringements. Watt himself was responsible for the specifications and drawings in patent applications; and the original parchment patents of 1781, 1782 and 1784 for improvements to the steam engine [G/12-14] include coloured drawings signed by him. A folder of uncoloured draft drawings, with annotations, is also present [C1/43]. Many of the original specifications were later copied for use in court proceedings, notably Boulton & Watt v Bull and Boulton & Watt v Hornblower and Marberly, and it is these copy drawings which are reproduced by Eric Robinson and A E Musson in James Watt and the Steam Revolution. The originals provide greater clarity and a much finer degree of detail than the reproductions. Various objections were raised to Watt's specifications, and the papers here include the autograph draft [4/31] of his answers. There is, too, the manuscript of Professor John Robison's 'Narrative of Mr Watt's Invention of the Improved Engine', prepared for the 1796 Hornblower and Marberly piracy case, in which Robison gives a personal account of Watt's early experiments on steam [3/36].
The early engines were simple albeit massive machines, built on site with local labour and only a supervising engineer from Boulton & Watt. To guide the workmen, Boulton & Watt produced a pamphlet, entitled Directions for Erecting and Working the newly invented Steam Engine, 1780. A copy among Watt's papers is copiously annotated with manuscript instructions referring to a particular engine that was being erected in 1788 [W/2]. This is just one example of the many papers, estimates and letters concerning steam engines at work.
James Watt's correspondence
Watt's extensive correspondence is the rich core of the archive, documenting all aspects of his life and work and providing considerable information about his contemporaries. There are more than 4,500 incoming letters, and they are wide-ranging and full to a remarkable degree; as Robinson and Musson have written, "If Dr James Hutton wishes to make a geological map of Cornwall he writes to Watt; if Dr Priestley wishes to have a careful observer of his experiments on gases it is to Watt that he turns; if Berthollet wants to know of the practical developments in chlorine bleaching he consults the man to whom he first explained the properties of gas, James Watt...". The letters are a record of scientific work-in-progress not just in steam but in many other areas. They offer an intimate picture of the close collaboration between scientists and industrialists in the second half of the eighteenth and the first decades of the nineteenth centuries, and reveal how information and views were exchanged.
Of particular note are the letters from Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Beddoes, Joseph Black, Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, Humphry Davy, Maria Edgeworth, Richard Lovell Edgeworth, Samuel Galton junior, Thomas Henry, James Hutton, William Irvine, James Keir, James Lind, Joseph Priestley, John Rennie, John Robison, John Roebuck, William Small, Jonathan Stokes, Thomas Telford, James Watt's father and sons, Josiah Wedgwood and William Withering. The overall quality and regularity of the correspondence with scientific and technological figures is exceptionally high. To give just a few examples: Priestley writes about phlogiston, inflammable air, the Lunar Society, and of his losses in the riots (the archive also contains a 1782 manuscript catalogue of his library [C1/411]). Humphry Davy describes his galvanic experiments, including a particularly choice letter on the battery, 1801; Telford writes of his surveying and his designs for London Bridge; Rennie writes to criticise Telford's bridge plans; Dr Beddoes and Darwin write of the medical uses of gases (a particularly full series of letters revealing much about the practical implementation of Beddoes' ideas); and Boulton on all aspects of the Boulton & Watt business. Berthollet sends telling eye-witness accounts of French work on the theory of dyeing and bleaching, the problems of establishing the new chemical nomenclature of the 1780s, and the difficulties of life during the Revolution; Josiah Wedgwood writes about Cornwall (where he and Watt both had business interests), china stone and clay, furnace pipes and the firing details for different porcelains, the slave trade, trade and tariffs, and the political influence of the Chamber of Manufacturers. Watt's letters to Wedgwood and Black were returned to James Watt junior in the 19th century, so both sides of the important correspondences are present in the original, as well as in the retained copies. These are sources that will illuminate areas of great current concern to historians of science, many of whom are now far more interested in the relations between science and experimental and industrial practice than was the case when Robinson and Musson published selections of the letters from the archive c1970. Moving into the realm of business history and the difficult transfer between invention and realisation, the letters from Aimé Argand about the Argand lamp are likely to be a rich source for any study of the financing of innovation in the eighteenth century, as will be Watt's correspondence with Roebuck, Small and Boulton about the financing of the steam engine.
The archive includes a remarkably compete file on Watt's own outgoing letters, largely in press-copies (from 1779 onwards) but supplemented by original letters to his family and retained holograph drafts. Among the earliest letters are those Watt wrote to his father from London in 1755-56 when he was serving his apprenticeship. He describes his work in detail, but also gives a fascinating view of London life, with a young man's ever-present fear of naval impressment. For later years, the press-copy letters form a full record of Watt's side of his many correspondences. Many of Watt's original letters survive in other collections, but for some correspondence these copies will be the only sources, Although some of the copies have faded, the majority are still fresh and legible, and as exact copies, have greater textual authority than most retained copies of the period.
James Watt Junior
As a young man, James Watt junior was sent to Geneva to study languages and natural philosophy under the eye of the scientist J A de Luc (himself a regular correspondent of Watt's). He went on to study in Germany, returned to England in 1788 for two years of practical experience in the counting house of Messrs Taylor and Maxwell of Manchester, and then travelled on the Continent from 1790-94. His early sympathies with the French Revolution led to disillusion with the Terror, and he fled, possibly in some danger, from France to Italy, before returning to England once again. His letters to his father during these years form a fascinating series [W/6, 8; 4/9; C1/33], and like his brother's notebooks, offer an unusual degree of insight into the life of the countries he visited. He joined the firm of Boulton & Watt in 1794, and with Matthew Boulton's son, M R Boulton, was soon playing an important role in the business. The engine patent was to expire in 1800, and since royalty income from the old business of erecting engines on licence was coming to an end, the younger Watt planned and built a new factory (the Soho Foundry) to manufacture engines for sale outright. All the expansion and new expenditure at Soho made his father rather nervous, but within a few years he clearly had the business well in hand. One of the new directions in which he led the firm was steam navigation, and his correspondence includes fine letters from the American steamboat pioneer, Robert Fulton [C1/24; 6/54]. Like his father, he used the Watt copying press to keep a record of his own outgoing correspondence, and there are about a thousand pressed copies of his letters in the archive [LB/7-8; 6/61-65]. Also among his papers are a number of the printed biographical accounts that appeared on James Watt's death, often annotated with corrections, and the autograph manuscript of his anonymous memoir of his father for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. Among the miscellaneous papers are plans and drawings for the Watt Institute and Library at Greenock of 1835-37 and the Watt memorial chapel at Handsworth church, 1825-29.
Watt's only son by his second marriage, Gregory, was a young man of great promise, whose translations from the classics won a handsome shelf of school prize-books. At Glasgow College he was a fellow-student of the poet, Thomas Campbell, who dedicated to him a memorial volume of verse in 1794. Like his sister before him, Gregory fell ill of consumption, giving an added urgency to his fathers work on pneumatic apparatus for his medical friends in the Lunar Society. For his health Gregory lodged for a time in Cornwall with Humphry Davy's mother, and this resulted in young Davy's introduction to Dr Thomas Beddoes and his first employment in the world of science. There are two fine letters from Davy to James Watt reporting on Gregory's health and his own galvanic experiments [C1/21; 6/33]. Gregory's professional interests turned to mineralogy, and he travelled extensively in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany in 1801-04, keeping journals full of attractive sketches and writing long and interesting letters to his father and brother. James Watt never really recovered from the tragedy of Gregory's early death in 1804, and for the rest of his life he kept his son's schoolbooks by him in a trunk in his garret workshop. Gregory's only publication was a paper on basalt.
The earlier papers of the two young Watts, like their father's correspondence with R L Edgeworth and some other of his Lunar Society friends, are of considerable interest for the history of education, and have already furnished material for Eric Robinson's 'Training the Captain's of Industry' in Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution (Manchester, 1969).
Relationship to the other collections at Birmingham
The Archive Division of Birmingham Central Library already held three major archives and a number of smaller collections which have a close relationship to the contents of these papers, and provide the necessary background against which they should be understood, The Boulton & Watt collection, which is owned by the City Council, is the archive of the steam engine partnership from its formation in 1774 until its closure in the 1890s. It includes a wealth of documentation relating to the crucial early years of the business, when James Watt and later his son were directly involved. About 550 volumes of letter books, account books, order books etc. include a sequence of letter books beginning in 1774 which is continuous until the mid 19th century; as in this archive, they comprise retained press copies from the invention to the copying process in 1780. Although there are no order books as such before the 1790s, it has been possible to reconstruct a 'Catalogue of old engines', listing the recorded commissions, and among the 29,000 engine drawings there are surviving designs for almost every one of these. The archive also contains a substantial quantity of incoming correspondence, mostly letters enquiring about orders for engines, and letters from the manufacturers about progress and problems in making the various parts from which the engines were assembled on site. Much of this material has been made available on microfilm by Adam Matthew Publications.
The second major collection is the Muirhead papers, which provide the strongest link with this archive. The Muirhead Papers are also available in their entirety on microfilm from Adam Matthew Publications. J P Muirhead, author of a three-volume work on James Watt published in 1854, was one of James Watt junior's executors, and seems to have had both the records that went to Doldowlod and the Muirhead papers at Birmingham in his possession when that work was compiled. A schedule of records in the possession of Watt's solicitors at the time of his death in 1848 certainly includes material now in both collections. In 1870, following a legal case, Muirhead returned to Doldowlod the records that remained there until their purchase in 1994. The other material descended in his family, and was presented to the City Council in 1932. The Muirhead papers show clear evidence of this common ancestry, and contain material in almost all the categories present in the Doldowlod archive. For example, James Watt of Greenock's account and letter books were at Doldowlod, but his vouchers, 1776-79 at Birmingham, and James Watt the engineer's journal-notebooks, 1776-85 are in the Doldowlod collection but others covering the period before and after (1768-74, 1786-89) are in the Muirhead papers. The records of his Glasgow instrument-making business are likewise split fairly evenly between the two collections. In other areas, the collections are more complimentary, suggesting a more rational basis for their division; thus although there was a good deal of Watt's correspondence about canals at Doldowlod, almost all the canal surveys, accounts and papers were at Birmingham. Papers about property (both Heathfield and in Wales) were mainly at Birmingham too, but the overwhelming majority of Watt's correspondence was at Doldowlod (the main groups in the Muirhead papers are letters from the second Mrs Watts, 1779-96 and letters from Priestley, 1778-85). James Watt junior's notebooks, 1796-1835 were held at Birmingham, as were many of his letters from his father, mother and brother Gregory. Finally, the collection at Birmingham explains some absences from the records that were held at Doldowlod; for example the papers of James Watt's elder brother John, who drowned at sea in 1763, and his second wife, Ann, are in the Muirhead papers and so was the correspondence which explains how James Watt junior came by Hamper's collections for the parish of Aston.
The third collection of great significance at Birmingham Central Library is the Matthew Boulton papers, placed there on deposit by the Matthew Boulton Trust in 1973, and formerly in the library of the Assay Office in Birmingham. Again, these are being filmed and made available on microfilm by Adam Matthew Publications. With over 200 volumes of records of the Soho Mint and Manufactory, Matthew Boulton's letter books, about 30,000 personal letters received by him in connection with all his wide-ranging business and personal interests (including over 650 from Watt), and the estate and household papers of both Boulton and his son, this is a collection of at least equal importance to the records from Doldowlod and on a considerably larger scale. Its significance in this context, however, is that through the networking of the Lunar Society, Boulton and Watt knew and corresponded with many of the same people, often about the same issues. Quite apart from the other members of the Lunar Society itself (Priestley, Darwin, Keir, Small, Wedgwood, etc), there are letters from figures like Aimé Argand, Sir Joseph Banks, Dr Thomas Beddoes, C L Berthollet, Joseph Black, William Chapman, Samuel Garbett, William Hollins, Marsiglio Landriani, J D H van Liender, Robert Mylne, Baron Reden, John Rennie, John Robison, John Roebuck, Sir John Sinclair, Charles Startin, P De Virley, and Zaccheus Walker who appear prominently in the Doldowlod papers. Having the letters from Doldowlod and those in the Matthew Boulton papers on one site thus affords the opportunity for fascinating cross referencing of the opinions of their correspondents, and reveals much about the character of Boulton and Watt themselves, it can also elucidate many of the obscure asides that appear in the letters. Brought alongside the three collections described above and the Doldowlod papers complete an unequalled resource for economic and scientific historians of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
Publications based on the collection
J P Muirhead's biography, The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt, 3 volumes, 1854, prints a number of the letters, while Eric Robinson and A E Musson, James Watt and the Steam Revolution (London, 1969) and Eric Robinson and Douglas McKie, Partners in Science provide a more modern selection; Partners in Science specifically printing all the surviving letters between Watt and Black and Robison. H W Dickinson's biography of James Watt (1936) and the collection of essays by Musson and Robinson, Science and Technology in the Industrial Revolution also draw on material from Doldowlod. A catalogue of the Bullock and Bridgens drawings for furniture etc. was compiled in 1982 by Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and supplied the material for an article in Furniture History. Despite the efforts of the Gibson-Watts to accommodate various scholars over the years, while the material was at Doldowlod it was never very accessible and large parts of the collection have never received the sustained attention of scholars. Hamper's collections for the history of Aston, although very different in focus from the rest of the collection, were completely unexplored, and include much that is of significance to local historians in Birmingham.