WATT'S permanent settlement in Birmingham had for some
time been seen to be inevitable, all his time being needed there. Domestic
matters, including the care of his two children, with which he had hitherto
been burdened, pressed hard upon him, and he had been greatly depressed by
finding his old father quite in his dotage, although he was not more than
seventy-five. Watt was alone and very unhappy during a visit he made to
Before returning to Birmingham, he married Miss
MacGregor, daughter of a Glasgow man of affairs, who was the first in
Britain to use chlorine for bleaching, the secret of which Berthollet, its
inventor, had communicated to Watt.
Pending the marriage, it was advisable that the
partnership with Boulton as hitherto agreed upon should be executed. Watt
writes so to Boulton, and the arrangement between the partners is indicated
by the following passage of Watt's letter to him:
As you may have possibly mislaid my missive to you
concerning the contract, I beg just to mention what I remember of the terms.
1. I to assign to you two-thirds of the property of the
2. You to pay all expenses of the Act or others
incurred before June, 1775 (the date of the Act), and also the expense of
future experiments, which money is to be sunk without interest by you, being
the consideration you pay for your share.
3. You to advance stock-in-trade bearing interest, but
having no claim on me for any part of that, further than my intromissions;
the stock itself to be your security and property.
4. I to draw one-third of the profits so soon as any
arise from the business, after paying the workmen's wages and goods
furnished, but abstract from the stock-in-trade, excepting the interest
thereof, which is to be deducted before a balance is struck.
5. I to make drawings, give directions, and make
surveys, the company paying for the travelling expenses to either of us when
upon engine business.
6. You to keep the books and balance them once a year.
7. A book to be kept wherein to be marked such
transactions as are worthy of record, which, when signed by both, to have
the force of the contract.
8. Neither of us to alienate our share of the other,
and if either of us by death or otherwise shall be incapacitated from acting
for ourselves, the other of us to be the sole manager without contradiction
or interference of heirs, executors, assignees or others; but the books to
be subject to their inspection, and the acting partner of us to be allowed a
reasonable commission for extra trouble.
9. The contract to continue in force for twenty-five
years, from the 1st of June, 1775, when the partnership commenced,
notwithstanding the contract being of later date.
10. Our heirs, executors and assignees bound to
11. In case of demise of both parties, our heirs, etc.,
to succeed in same manner, and if they all please, they may burn the
If anything be very disagreeable in these terms, you
will find me disposed to do everything reasonable for your satisfaction.
Boulton's reply was entirely satisfactory, and upon
this basis the arrangement was closed.
Watt, with his usual want of confidence in himself in
business affairs, was anxious that Boulton should come to him at Glasgow and
arrange all pecuniary matters connected with the marriage. Watt had faced
the daughter and conquered, but trembled at the thought of facing the
father-in-law. He appeals to his partner as follows:
I am afraid that I shall otherwise make a very bad
bargain in money matters, which wise men like you esteem the most essential
part, and I myself, although I be an enamoured swain, do not altogether
despise. You may perhaps think it odd that in the midst of my friends here I
should call for your help; but the fact is that from several reasons I do
not choose to place that confidence in any of my friends here that would be
necessary in such a case, and I do not know any of them that have more to
say with the gentleman in question than I have myself. Besides, you are the
only person who can give him satisfactory information concerning my
This being impracticable, as explained by Boulton, who
thoroughly approved of the union, the partnership and Boulton's letter were
accepted by the judicious father-in-law as satisfactory evidence that his
daughter's future was secure. Boulton states in his letter, July, 1776:
It may be difficult to say what is the value of your
property in partnership with me. However, I will give it a name, and I do
say that I would willingly give you two, or perhaps three thousand pounds
for your assignment of your third part of the Act of Parliament. But I
should be sorry to make you so bad a bargain, or to make any bargain at all
that tended to deprive me of your friendship, acquaintance, and assistance,
hoping that we shall harmoniously live to wear out the twenty-five years,
which I had rather do than gain a Nabob's fortune by being the sole
This is the kind of expression from the heart to make a
partner happy and resolve to do his utmost for one who in the recipient's
heart had transposed positions, and is now friend first, and partner
The marriage took place in July, 1776. Two children were born,
both of whom died in youth. Mrs. Watt lived until a ripe old age and enjoyed
the fruits of her husband's success and fame. She died in 1832. Arago
praises her, and says "Various talents, sound judgment, and strength of mind
rendered her a worthy companion."
It is difficult to realise that many yet with us were
contemporaries of Mrs. Watt, and not a few yet living were contemporaries of
Watt himself, for he did not pass away until 1819, eighty-six years ago, so
much a thing of yesterday is the material development and progress of the
world, which had its basis, start and accomplishment in the steam engine.
The reasons given by Boulton for being unable to
proceed to the side of his friend and partner in Glasgow, shed clear light
upon the condition of affairs at Soho. Their London agent, like Watt, was
also to be married and would be absent. Fothergill had to proceed to London.
Scale, one of the managers, was absent. Important visitors were constantly
arriving. Said Boulton:
Our copper bottom hath plagued us very much by steam
leaks, and therefore I have had one cast (with its conducting pipe) all in
one piece; since which the engine doth not take more than 10 feet of steam,
and I hope to reduce that quantity, as we have just received the new piston,
which shall be put in and at work tomorrow. Our Soho engine never was in
such good order as at present. Bloomfield and Willey (engines) are both
well, and I doubt not but Bow engine will be better than any of 'em.
He concludes, "I did not sleep last night, my mind
"being absorbed by steam." Means for increasing the heating surface swept
through his mind, by applying "in copper spheres within the water," the
present flue system, also for working steam expansively, "being clear the
principle is sound."
To add to Boulton's anxieties, he had received a
summons to attend the Solicitor-General next week in opposition to
Gainsborough, a clergyman who claimed to be the original inventor. This is a
disagreeable circumstance, particularly at this season, "when you are
absent. Harrison is in London and "idleness is in our engine shop."
Watt wrote Boulton on July 28, 1776, apologising for
his long absence and stating he was now ready to return, and would start
"Tuesday first" for Liverpool, where he expected to meet Boulton. Meanwhile,
the latter had been called to London by the Gainsborough business. A note
from him, however, reached Watt at Liverpool, in which he says, "As to your
absence, it nothing about it. I will forgive it this time, it you promise me
never to marry again."
In due time, Mr. and Mrs. Watt arrived and settled
early in August, 1776, in Birmingham, which was hereafter to be their
permanent home, although, as we shall see, Watt never ceased to keep in
close touch with his native town of Greenock and his Glasgow friends. His
heart still warmed to the tartan, the soft, broad Scotch accent never
forsook him; nor, we may be sure, did the refrain ever leave his heart—
And may dishonour blot our name
And quench our
If me or mine forget thy name,
Thou dear land of my
Many a famous Scot has the fair South in recent times
called to her-Stephenson, Ruskin, Carlyle, Mill, Gladstone and others—hut
never before or since, one whose work was the transformation of the world.
At last we have Watt permanently settled alongside the great works to which
he was hereafter to devote his rare abilities until his retirement at the
expiration of the partnership in 1800. His labors at Soho soon began to
tell. The works increased their celebrity beyond all others then known, for
materials, workmanship and invention.
The mines of Cornwall promised to become unworkable;
indeed, many already had became so. The Newcomen engines could no longer
drain the deepened mines. Several orders for Watt engines had been received,
and as much depended upon the success of the first, Watt resolved to
superintend its erection himself. Mrs. Watt and he started over the terrible
road into Cornwall, and had to take up their abode with the superintendent
of the mine, there being no other house for miles around. Naturally the
builders and attendants of the Newcomen engine viewed Watt's invasion of
their district with no kindly feelings. Great jealousy arose and Watt's
sensitive nature was sorely tried. Many attempts to thwart him were met
with, and, taken altogether, his life in Cornwall was far from agreeable.
The engine was erected, the day of trial came, mining
men, engineers, mining proprietors and others assembled from all quarters to
see the start. Many of the spectators interested in other engines would not
have shed tears had it failed, but it started splendidly making eleven
eight-foot strokes per minute, which broke the record. Three cheers for the
Scotch engineer! It soon worked with greater power and more steadily, and
"forked" more water than the ordinary engines with only about one-third the
consumption of coal. Watt wrote:
I understand all the west country captains are to be
here tomorrow to seethe prodigy. The velocity, violence, magnitude, and
horrible noise of the engine give universal satisfaction to all beholders,
believers or not. I have once or twice trimmed the engine to end the stroke
gracefully and to make less noise, but Mr. Wilson cannot sleep without it
seems quite furious, so I have left it to the engine-men; and, by the by,
the noise seems to convey great ideas of its power to the ignorant, who seem
to be no more taken with modest merit in an engine than in a man.
Well said, modest, reserved philosopher with vast
horse-power in that big head of yours, working in the closet noiselessly,
driving deep but silently into the bosom of nature's secrets, pumping her
deepest mines, discovering and bringing to the surface the genius which lay
in steam to do your bidiing and revolutionise life on earth! In this, the
first triumph, there was recompense for all the trials Watt and his wife had
endured in Cornwall.
Readers will note that no workman had yet been
developed who could be trusted to erect the engine. The master inventor had
to go himself as the mechanical genius certain to cure all defects and
ensure success. This shows how indispensable Watt was.
Orders now flowed in, and Watt was needed to prepare
the plans and drawings, no one being capable of relieving him of this.
To-day we have draftsmen by the thousand to whom it would be easy routine
work, as we have thousands to whom the erection of the Watt engine would be
play. Watt was everywhere. At length he had to confess that "a very little
more of this hurrying and vexation would knock me up altogether." At this
moment he had just been called to return to Cornwall to erect the second
engine. He says "I fancy I must be cut in pieces and a portion sent to every
tribe in "Israel." We may picture him reciting in Falstaffian mood, "Would
my name were not so terrible to the enemy (deep-mine water) as it is. There
can't a drowned-out mine peep its head out but I'm thrust it it. Well, well,
it always was the trick of my countrymen to make a good thing too common.
Better rust to death than be scoured to nothing by this perpetual motion."
Watt had a hard time of it in Cornwall during his next
stay there, for he had to go again. He arrives at Redruth to find many
Forbes' eduction-pipe is a vile job, he writes, and
full of holes. The cylinder they have cast for Chacewater is still worse,
for it will hardly do at all. The Soho people have sent here Chacewater pipe
instead of Wheal Union. and the gudgeon pipe has not arrived with the
nozzles. These repeated disappointments will ruin our credit in the country,
and I cannot stay here to bear the shame of such failures of promise.
It is easy for present-day captains of industry to
plume themselves upon their ability to select men sure to succeed well with
any undertaking, and assume that Watt lacked the indispensable talent for
selection, but he had been driven by sad experience to trust none but
himself, the skilled workmen needed to co-operate with him not yet having
We have not touched upon another source of great
anxiety to him at this time. The enterprising Boulton would not have been
the organiser he was unless blessed with a sanguine disposition and the
capacity for shedding troubles. The business was rapidly extending in many
branches, all needing capital; the engine business, promising though it was,
was no exception. Little money was yet due from sales and much had been
spent developing the invention. Boulton's letter to Watt constantly urged
cash collections, while mine- owners were not disposed to pay until further
tests were made. Boulton suggested loans from Truro bankers on security of
the engines, but Watt found this impracticable. The engines were doing
astonishingly well to-day, but who could ensure their lasting qualities?
Watt shows good judgment in suggesting that Wilkinson, the famous foundryman,
should be taken into partnership. He urges his enterprising partner to apply
the pruning knife and cut down expenses na´vely assuring him that "he was
practising "all the frugality in his power." As Watt's personal expenses
then were only ten dollars per week, a smile rises at the prudent Scot's
possible contribution to reduction in expenditure. But he was on the right
lines, and at least gave Boulton the benefit of example. Watt was never
disposed to look on the bright side of things, and to add to Boulton's load,
the third partner, Fothergill, was even more desponding than Watt. When
Boulton went away to raise means, he was pursued by letters from Fothergill
telling him day by day of imperative needs. In one he was of opinion that
"the creditors must be called together; better to "face the worst than to go
on in the neck-and-neck it with ruin." Boulton would hurry back to quiet
Fothergill and keep the ship afloat. Here he shines out resplendently. He
proved equal to the emergency. His courage and determination rose in
proportion to the difficulties to be overcome, borne up by his invariable
hope and unshakable belief in the value of Watt's condensing engine, he
triumphed at last, pledging, as security for a loan of $70,000, the
royalties derivable from the engine patents, and an annuity for a loan of
$35,000 more. So small a sum as $Io,000 sufficed to keep afloat the big ship
laden with all their treasures.
There was a period of great depression in Britain when
Boulton and Watt were thus in deep water, and at such times credit is
sensitive in the extreme. A small balance on the right side performs
wonders. This recalls to the writer how, once in the history of his own
firm, credit was kept high (luring a panic by using the identical sum
Boulton raised, $70,000, from a reserve fund that had been laid away and
came in very opportunely at the critical time. Every single dollar weighs a
hundredfold when credit trembles in the balance. A leading nerve specialist
in New York once said that the worst malady he had to treat was the man of
affairs whose credit was suspected. His unfailing remedy was: "Call your
creditors together, explain all and ask their support. I can then do you
some good, but not till then." His patients who did this found themselves
restored to vigor. They were supported by creditors and all was bright once
more. The wise doctor was sound in his advice. If the firm has neither
speculated nor gambled (synonymous terms), nor lived extravagantly, nor
endorsed for others, and the business is on a solid foundation, no people
have so much at stake in sustaining it as the creditors; they will rally
round it and think more of the firm than ever, because they will see behind
their money the best of all securities—men at the helm who are not afraid
and know how to meet a storm.
Boulton's timid partners no doubt were amazed that he
was so blind to the dangers which they with clearer vision saw so clearly.
How deluded they were. We may be sure neither of them saw the danger half as
vividly as he, but it is not the part of a leader to reveal to his fellows
all that he sees or fears. His part is to look dangers steadily in the face
and challenge them. It is the great leader who inspires in his followers
contempt for the danger which he sees in much truer proportion than they.
This Boulton did, for behind all else in his character there lay the
indomitable will, the do or die resolve. He had staked his life upon the
hazard of a die and he would stand the cost. "But if we fail," often said
the timid pair to him, as Macbeth did to his resolute partner, and the same
answer came, "We fail." That's all. "One knockdown will not finish this
fight. We'll get up again, never fear. We know 44no such word as fail."
One source of serious trouble arose from Watt and
Boulton having been so anxious at first to introduce their engines that they
paid small regard to terms. When their success was proved, they offered to
settle, taking one-third the value of the fuel saved. This was a liberal
offer, for, in addition to the mine- owners saving two-thirds of the former
cost of fuel consumed by the previous engines, mines became workable, which
without the Watt engine must have been abandoned. These terms however were
not accepted, and a long series of disputes arose, ending in some cases only
with the patent-right itself. It was resolved that all future engines should
be furnished only upon the terms before stated, Watt declaring that
otherwise he would not put pen to paper to make new drawings. "Let our terms
be moderate," he writes, "and, if possible, consolidated into money a
priori, and it is certain we shall get some money, enough to keep us out of
jail, in continual apprehension of which I live at "present." Imprisonment
for debt, let it be remembered, had not been abolished. One of the most
beneficent forward steps that our time can boast of is the Bankruptcy Court.
However hard we may yet be upon offenders against us, society, through
humane laws, forgives our debtors in money matters, and gives a clear bill
of health after honorable acquittal in bankruptcy, and a fresh start.
The result proved Watt's wisdom. His engines were
needed to save the mines. No other could. Applications came in freely upon
his terms, and as Watt was a poor hand at bargaining, he insisted that
Boulton should come to Cornwall and attend to that part.
Meanwhile great attention was being paid to the works
and all pertaining to the men and methods. The firm established perhaps the
first benefit society of workmen. Every one was a member and contributed
according to his earnings. Out of this fund payments were made to the sick
or disabled in varying amounts. No member of the Soho Friendly Society,
except a few irreclaimable drunkards, ever came upon the parish.
When Boulton's son came of age, seven hundred were
dined. No well-behaved workman was ever turned adrift. Fathers employed
introduced their Sons into the works and brought them up under their own
eye, watching over their conduct and mechanical training. Thus generation
after generation followed each other at Soho works.
On another occasion Boulton writes Watt in Cornwall, "I
have thought it but respectful to give our folks a dinner to-day. There were
present Murdoch, Lawson, Pearson, Perkins, Malcom, Robert Muir, all
Scotchmen, John Bull and Wilson and self, for the engines are now all
finished and the men have behaved well and are attached to us."
Six Scotch and three English in the English works of
Soho thought worthy of dining with their employer! It was, we may be sure, a
very rare occurrence in that day, but worthy of the true captain of
industry. Here is an early "invasion" from the north. We are reminded of Sir
Charles Duke's statement in his "Greater Britain," that, in his tour round
the world, he found ten Scotchmen for every Englishman in high position.
Owing, of course, to the absence of scope at home the Scot has had to seek
his career abroad.
A master-stroke this, probably the first dinner of its
kind in Britain, and no doubt more highly appreciated by the honored guests
than an advance in wages. Splendid workmen do not live upon wages alone.
Appreciation felt and shown by their employer, as in this case, is the
We have read how Watt was much troubled in Scotland
with poor mechanics. Not one good craftsman could he then find. After seeing
Soho, where the standard was much higher, he declared that the Scotch
mechanic was very much inferior; he was prejudiced against them. Murdoch,
however, the first Scot at Soho, soon eclipsed all, and no doubt under his
wing other Scots gained a trial with the result indicated. It is very
significant that even in the earliest days of the steam engine, Scotchmen
should exhibit such talent for its construction, forecasting their present
preeminence in marine engineering.
Small wonder that the Soho works became the model for
all others. The last words in Boulton's letter, "and are attached to us,"
tell the story. No danger of strikes, of lockouts, or quarrels of any kind
in such establishments as that of Boulton and Watt, who proved that they in
turn were attached to their men. Mutual attachment between employers and
employed is the panacea for all troubles— yes, better than a panacea, the
preventer of troubles.
After repeated calls from Watt, Boulton took the
journey to Cornwall in October, 1778, although Fothergill was again uttering
lamentable prophecies of impending ruin, and the London agent was imploring
his presence there upon financial matters pressing in the extreme. Boulton
succeeded in borrowing $10,000 from Truro bankers on the security of engines
erected, and settled several disputes, getting $3,500 per year royalty for
one engine and $2,000 per year for another. At last, after nine years of
arduous labor since the invention was hailed as successful, the golden
harvest so long expected began to replenish the empty treasury. The heavy
liabilities, however, remained a source of constant anxiety. No remedy could
be found against "this consumption of the purse."
Watt had again to encounter the lack of competent,
sober workmen to run engines. The Highland blood led him at last into severe
measures, and he insisted upon discharging two or three of the most drunken.
Here Boulton had great difficulty in restraining him. Much had to be
endured, and occasional bouts of drunkenness overlooked, although serious
accidents resulted. At last two men appeared whose services proved
invaluable—Murdoch, already mentioned, and Law—one of whom became famous.
Watt was absent when the former called and asked Boulton for employment. The
young Scot was the son of a well- known millwright near Ayr who had made
several improvements. His famous son worked with him, but being ambitious
and hearing of the fame of Boulton and Watt, he determined to seek entrance
to Soho works and learn the highest order of handicraft. Boulton had told
him that there was at present no place open, but noticing the strange cap
the awkward young man had been dangling in his hands, he asked what it was
made of. "Timmer," said the lad. "What, out of wood?" "Yes." "How was it
made?" "I turned it mysel' "in a bit lathey o' my own making." This was
enough for that rare judge of men. Here was a natural-born mechanic,
certain. The young man was promptly engaged for two years at fifteen
shillings per week when in shop, seventeen shillings when abroad, and
eighteen shillings when in London. His history is the usual march upward
until he became his employers' most trusted manager in all their mechanical
operations. While engaged upon one critical job, where the engine had defied
previous attempts to put it to rights, the people in the house where Murdoch
lodged were awakened one night by heavy tramping in his room overhead. Upon
entering, Murdoch was seen in his bed clothes heaving away at the bed post
in his sleep, calling out "Now she goes, lads, now she goes." His heart was
in his work. He had a mission, and only one— to make that engine go.
Of course he rose. There's no holding down such a
"dreamer" anywhere in this world. It was not only that he had zeal, for he
had sense with it, and was not less successful in conquering the rude
Cornishmen who had baffled, annoyed and intimidated Watt. He won their
hearts. His ability did not end with curing the defects of machinery; he
knew how to manage men. At first he had to depend upon his physical powers.
He was an athlete not indisposed to lead the strenuous life. He had not been
very long in Cornwall before half a dozen of the mining captains, a class
that had tormented poor, retiring and modest Watt, entered the engine-room
and began their bullying tricks on him. The Scotch blood was up, Murdoch
quietly locked the door and said to the captains, "Now then gentlemen, it
shall not leave until we have settled matters once "for all." He selected
the biggest Cornishman and squared off. The contest was soon over. Murdoch
vanquished the bully and was ready for the next. The captains, seeing the
kind of man he was, offered terms of peace, hands were shaken all round and
they parted good friends, and remained so. We are past that rude age. The
skilled, educated manager of to-day can use no weapon so effectively with
skilled men as the supreme force of gentleness, the manner, language and
action of the educated man, even to the calm, low voice never raised to
passionate pitch. He conquers and commands others because he has command of
We must not lose sight of Murdoch. In addition to his
rare qualities, he possessed mechanical genius. He was the inventor of
lighting by gas, and it was he who made the first model of a locomotive.
There was no emergency with engines, no accident, no blunder, but Murdoch
was called in. We read with surprise that his wages even in 1780 were only
five dollars per week. He then modestly asked for an advance, but this was
not given. A present of one hundred dollars, however, was made to him in
recognition of his unusual services. Probably the explanation of the failure
to increase his wages at the time was that, owing to the condition of the
business, no rise in wages could be made to one which would involve an
advance to others. Murdoch remained loyal to the firm, however, although
invited into partnership by another. Afterward he received due reward. He
had always a strong aversion to partnership, no doubt well founded in this
case, for during many years failure seemed almost as likely as success. Watt
has much to say in his letters about "William" (Murdoch), who, more than
anyone, relieved him from trouble.
The bargainings with mine-owners brought on intense
heartaches and broke Watt down completely. Boulton had to go to him again in
Cornwall in the autumn of 1779, and as usual succeeded in adjusting many
disputes by wise compromises with the grasping owners which Watt's strict
sense of justice had denied. Many of these had paid no royalties for years,
others disputed Watt's unerring register of fuel consumption (another of his
most ingenious inventions now in general use for many purposes), a more
heinous offense in his eyes than that of non-payment. The rascality of man,"
he writes, is almost beyond belief." He never was more despondent or more
irritable than now. No one was better aware of his weakness than himself. In
short, his heartaches and nervousness unfitted him for business. As usual,
he attributed his discouragement chiefly to his financial obligations. The
firm was as hard pressed as ever. Indeed a new source of danger had
developed. Fothergill's affairs became involved, and had it not been for
I3oulton's capital and credit, the firm of J3oulton and Fothergill could not
have maintained payment. This had caused a drain upon their resources.
Boulton sold the estate which had come to him by his wife, and the greater
part of hi father's property, and mortgaged the remainder. It is evident
that the great captain had taken in hand far too many enterprises. Probably
he had not heard the new doctrine: "Put all your eggs in one basket and then
"watch that basket." lie had even ventured considerable sums in blockade
running during the American Revolutionary War. It was not without good
reason, therefore, that the more cautious Scot addressed to him so many
pathetic letters: "1 beg of you to attend to these money matters. I cannot
rest in my bed until they have some determinate form." Watt's inexperience
in money matters caused apprehensions of ruin to arise whenever financial
measures were discussed. He was at this time utterly wretched, and Mrs. Watt
at last became anxious, long and bravely as she had hitherto borne up and
striven to dispel her husband's fears. Never before had she ventured to
speak to Boulton upon the subject. She now broke the silence and wrote him
in Cornwall a touching letter, stating that her husband's health and spirits
had become much worse since Boulton had left Soho. "I know there are several
things that so prey upon his "mind as to render him perfectly miserable.
They "never cross his mind, but he is rendered unfit to do "anything for a
long time." She describes these financial demons that torment him and begs
that her writing should not be told to Watt, as it might only add to his
troubles. The appeal brings Mrs. Watt before us in a most engaging light.
A study of the problem was made upon Boulton's return
and he agreed to close two departments of the business which were so far
unprofitable, thus entering upon the right path. The engine having proved
itself indispensable, the demand for it was becoming great and pressing from
various countries. To concentrate upon its manufacture was obviously the
true policy. The great captain's enterprise was not often expended upon
failures, and it is with pleasure we find that among the profitable branches
which Boulton had encouraged Watt in introducing at Soho, was the
copying-press, which Watt invented in 1778, and which we use to this day. In
July of that year he writes Dr. Black that he has "lately discovered a
method of copying writing "instantaneously, provided it has been written
within "twenty-four hours. I send you a specimen and will "impart the secret
if it will be of any use to you. It 'enables me to copy all my business
letters." He kept this secret for two years, and in May, 1780, secured a
patent after he had completed details of the press and experimented with the
ink. One hundred and fifty were made and sold. Thirty of these went abroad.
It steadily made its way. Watt, writing some thirty years later, said it had
proved so useful to him that it was well worth all the trouble of perfecting
it, even if it brought no profit.
We think of Watt and the steam engine appears. Let us
however note the unobtrusive little copying- press on the table at his side.
Extremes meet here. It would be difficult to name an invention more
universally used, in all offices where man labors in any field of activity.
In the list of modest inventions of greatest usefulness, the modern
copying-press must take high rank, and this we owe entirely to Watt.
Of the same period as the copying-machine is his
invention of a drying-machine for cloth, consisting of three cylinders of
copper over which the cloth must turn over and under while cylinders are
filled with steam, the cloth to be alternately wound off and on the two
wooden rollers, by which means it will pass over three cylinders in
succession. This machine was erected for Watt's father-in-law, Mr. MacGregor
in Glasgow, by an ingenious mechanic, John Gardiner, often employed by Watt
in earlier years. "This I apprehend," he writes to David Brewster in 1814,
"to be the original from which such machines were made." When we consider
the extent to which such steam drying-machines are used in our day, our
estimate of the credit due to Watt cannot be small. The drying-machine is no
unfit companion to the copying-machine.
Watt revisited Cornwall in 1781 to make an inspection
of all the engines. Much he found needing attention and improvement. His
evenings were spent designing "road steam-carriages." This was before the
day of railroads, and the carriages were to be driven by steam over the
ordinary coach roads. He filled a quarto drawing-book with different plans
for these, and covered the idea in one of his patent specifications. Boulton
suggested in 1781 that the idea of rotary motion should be developed, which
Watt had from the first regarded as of prime importance. It was for this he
had invented his original wheel engine, and in his first patent of 1769 he
describes one method of securing it. It occurred to him that the ordinary
engine might be adapted to give the rotary motion. He wrote from Cornwall to
Boulton: As to the circular motion, I will apply it as soon as I can." He
prepared a model upon his return to Soho, using a crank connected with the
working-beam of the engine for that purpose, which worked satisfactorily.
There was nothing new in the crank motion; it was used on every
spinning-wheel, grind-stone and foot-lathe turned by hand, but its
application to the steam-engine was new. As early as 1771, he writes:
I have at times had my thoughts a good deal upon the
subject. In general, it appears to me that a crank of a sufficient sweep
will be by much the sweetest motion, and perhaps not the dearest, if its
durability be considered. . . . I then resolved to adopt the crank. . . . Of
this I caused a model to be made, which performed to satisfaction. But being
then very much engaged with other business, II neglected to take a patent
immediately, and having employed a blackguard of the name of Cartwright (who
was afterward hanged), about this model, he, when in company with some of
the same sort who worked at Wasborough's mill, and were complaining of its
irregularities and frequent disasters,' told them he could put them in a way
to make a rotative motion which would not go out of order nor stun them with
its noise, and accordingly explained to them what he had seen me do. Soon
afterwhich, John Steed, who was engineer at Wasborough's mill, took a patent
for a rotative motion with a crank, and applied it to their engine.
Suspicions arising of Cartwright's treachery, he was strictly questioned,
and confessed his part in the transaction when too late to be of service to
Overtures were made by Wasborough to exchange patents
and work together, which Watt scornfully rejected. He writes:
Though I am not so saucy as many of my countrymen, I
have enough innate pride to prevent me from doing a mean action because a
servile prudence may dictate it. . . . I will never meanly sue a thief to
give me my own again unless I have nothing left behind.
His blood was up. No dealings with rascals!
July, 1781, Watt had finished his studies, went to
Penryn, and swore he had "invented certain new "methods of applying the
vibrating or reciprocating "motion of steam or fire engines to produce a
continued "rotation or circular motion round an axis or centre, "and thereby
to give motion to the wheels of mills or "other machines."
Watt proceeded to work out the plan of the rotary
engine, stimulated by numerous inquiries for steam engines for driving all
kinds of mills. He found that "the people in London, Manchester and
Birmingham are steam-mill mad."
During many long years of trial with their financial
troubles, inferior and drunken workmen, disappointing engines, Cornish
mine-owners to annoy him, it is highly probable that Watt only found relief
in retiring to his garret to gratify his passion for solving difficult
mechanical problems. We may even imagine that from his serious mission—the
development of the engine— which was ever present, he sometimes flew to the
numerous less exhausting inventions for recreation, as the weary student
flies to fiction. His mind at this period seems never to have been at rest.
His voluminous correspondence constantly reveals one invention after another
upon which he was engaged. A new micrometer, a dividing screw, a new
surveying- quadrant, problems for clearing the observed distance of the moon
from a star of the effects of refraction and parallax, a drawing-machine, a
copying-machine for sculpture—anything and everything he used or saw seems
immediately to have been subjected to the question: "Cannot this be
improved?" usually with a response in the affirmative.
As we have read, he had long studied the question of a
locomotive steam carriage. In Muirhead's Biography, several pages are
devoted to this. In his seventh "new improvement," in his patent of 1784, he
describes "the principle and construction of steam engines which are applied
to give motion to wheel carriages for removing persons, goods, or other
matter from place to place, in which case the engines themselves must be
portable." Mr. Murdoch made a model of the engine here specified which
performed well, but nothing important came of all this until 1802, when the
problem was instantly changed by Watt's friend, Mr. Edgeworth, writing him,
"I have always thought that steam would become the universal lord, and that
we should in time scorn post-horses. "An iron railroad would be a cheaper
thing than a road of the common construction". Here lay in a few words the
idea from which our railway system has sprung. Surely Edgeworth deserves to
be placed among the immortals. As in the case of the steamship, however, the
indispensable steam engine of Watt had to furnish the motive power. The
railroad is only the necessary smooth track upon which the steam engine
could perform its miracle. It is significant that steam power upon roads
required the abandonment of the usual highway. So we may believe is the
automobile to force new roads of its own, or to widen existing highways,
rendering those safe under certain rules for speed of twenty miles per hour,
or even more, when they were intended only for eight or ten.
The reading lamp of Watt's day was a poor affair, and
as he never saw an inefficient instrument without studying its improvement,
he produced a new lamp. He wrote Argand of the Arganci burner upon the
subject and for a long time Watt lamps were made at the Soho works, which
gave a light surpassing in steadiness and brilliance anything of the kind
that had yet appeared. He gives four plans for lamps, "with the reservoir
below and the stem as tall as you please." He also made an instrument for
determining the specific gravity of liquids, and a year after this he found
out a method of working tubes of the elastic resin without dissolving it.
The importance of such tubes for a thousand purposes in the arts and
sciences is now appreciated.
Watt gave much time to an arithmetical machine which he
found exceedingly simple to plan, but he adds, "I have learnt by experience
that in mechanics "many things fall out between the cup and the mouth." He
describes what it is to accomplish, but it remained for Babbage at a much
later date to perfect the machine. A machine for copying sculpture amused
him for a time but it was never finished.
If any difficulty of a
mechanical nature arose, people naturally turned to Watt for a solution.
Thus the Glasgow University failed to get pipes for conveying water across
the Clyde to stand, the channel of the river being covered with mud and
shifty sand, full of inequalities, and subject to the pressure of a
considerable body of water. Application was at last made to the recognised
genius. If he could not solve it, who could? This was just one of the things
that Watt liked to do. He promptly devised an articulated suction pipe with
parts formed on the principle of a lobster's tail. This crustacean tube a
thousand feet long solved the matter. Watt stated that his services were
induced solely by a desire to be of use in procuring good water to the city
of Glasgow, and to promote the prosperity of a company which had risked so
much for the public good. These were handsomely acknowledged by the
presentation to him of a valuable piece of plate.
As another proof of Watt's habit of thinking of
everything that could possibly be improved, it may be news to many readers
that the consumption of the smoke from steam engines early attracted his
attention, and that he patented devices for this. These have been
substantially followed in the numerous attempts which have been made from
time to time to reduce the huge volumes of smoke that keep so many cities
under a cloud. He was successful and his son James writes to him in 1790
It is astonishing what an impression the
smoke-consuming power of the engine has made upon everybody hereabouts. They
scarcely trusted to the evidence of their senses. You would be diverted to
hear the strange hypotheses which have been stated to account for it.
This is all very well. It is certain that most of the
smoke made in manufacturing concerns can be consumed, if manufacturers are
compelled by law to erect sufficient heating surface and to include the
well-known appliances, including those for careful firing, but no city so
far as the writer knows has ever been able to enforce effective laws. There
remain the dwellings of the people to deal with, which give forth smoke in
large cities in the aggregate far exceeding that made by the manufacturing
plants. New York pursues the only plan for ensuring the clearest skies of
any large city in the world where coal is generally used, by making the use
of bituminous coal unlawful. The enormous growth of present New York (45 per
cent. in last decade) is not a little dependent upon the attraction of clear
blue skies and the resulting cleanliness of all things in and about the city
compared with others. When, by the progress of invention or new methods of
distributing heat, smoke is banished, as it probably will be some day, many
rich citizens will remain in their respective western cities instead of
flocking to the clear blue-skied metropolis, as they are now so generally
Such were some of Watt's by-products. His recreation,
if found at all, was found in change of occupation. We read of no idle days,
no pleasure trips, no vacations, only change of work.
Rumors of new inventions of engines far excelling his
continued to disturb Watt, and much of his time was given to investigation.
He thought of a caloric air engine as possibly one of the new ideas; then of
the practicability of producing mechanical power by the absorption and
condensation of gas on the one hand and by its disengagement and expansion
on the other. His mind seemed to range over the entire field of
The Hornblower engine had been heralded as sure to
displace the Watt. When it was described, it proved to be as Watt said, "no
less than our double-cylinder engine, worked upon our principle of
expansion. It is fourteen years since I mentioned it to Mr. Smeaton." Watt
had explained to Dr. Small his method of working steam expansively as early
as May, 1769, and had adopted it in the Soho engine and also in the Shadwell
engine erected in that year.
We have seen before that Watt had to retrace his steps
and abandon for a time in later engines what he had before ventured upon.
The application of steam for propelling boats upon the
water was, at this time (1788), attracting much attention. Boulton and Watt
were urged to undertake experiments. This they declined to entertain, having
their facilities fully employed in their own field, but finally Fulton, on
August 6, 1803, ordered an engine from them from his own drawings, intended
for this purpose, repeating the order in person in 1804. It was shipped to
America early in 1805, and in 1807 placed upon the Clermont, which ran upon
the Hudson River as a passenger boat, attaining a speed of about five miles
an hour. This was the first steamboat that was ever used for passengers, and
altho Fulton neither invented the boat nor the engine, nor the combination
of the two, still he is entitled to great credit for overcoming innumerable
difficulties sufficient to discourage most men. Fulton, who was the son of a
Scotsman from Dumfrieshire, visited Syminton's steamboat, the Charlotte
Dzindas, in Scotland, in 18oi, and had seen it successfully towing canal
boats upon the Forth and Clyde Canal. This was the first boat ever propelled
by steam successfully for commercial purposes. It was subsequently
discarded, not because it did not tow the canal boats, but because the
revolving paddle-wheels caused waves that threatened to wash away the canal
Several engines were sent to New York. The men in
charge of one found on shipboard a pattern-maker going to America named John
Hewitt. He settled in America January 12th, 1796, and became the father of
the late famous and deeply lamented Hon. Abram S. Hewitt, long a member of
Congress and afterward mayor of New York, foremost in many improvements in
the city, the last being the Subway, just opened, which owes its inception
to him. For this service, the Chamber of Commerce presented him with a
memorial medal. Mr. Hewitt married a daughter of Peter Cooper, founder of
the Cooper Institute, which owes its wonderful development chiefly to him.
His children devote themselves and their fortunes to its management. At the
time of his death in 1902, he was pronounced "the first private citizen of
the Republic." Small engine-shops (of which the ruins still remain), called
"Soho" after their prototype, were erected by his father near New York city,
on the Greenwood division of the Erie Railroad. The railroad station was
called "Soho" by Mr. Abram S. Hewitt, who was then president of the railroad
company. Upon Mr. Hewitt's eightieth birthday congratulations poured in from
all quarters. One cable from abroad attracted attention as appropriate and
deserved: "Ten octaves every note "truly struck and grandly sung." No man in
private life passed away in our day with such general lamentation. The
Republic got even more valuable material than engines from the old home in
the ship that arrived on January 12, 1796.
We must not permit ourselves to forget that it was not
until the Watt engine was applied to steam navigation that the success of
the latter became possible. It was only by this that it could be made
practicable, so that the steamship is the product of the steam-engine, and
it is to Watt we owe the modern twenty-three thousand ton monster (and
larger monsters soon to come), which keeps its course against wind and tide,
almost "unshaked of motion," for this can now properly be said. Passengers
crossing the Atlantic from port to port now scarcely know anything of
irregular motion, and never more. than the gentlest of slight heaves, even
during the gale that
'Catches the ruffian billows by their tops,
"Curling their monstrous heads."
The ocean, traversed in these ships, is a smooth
highway—nothing but a ferry—and a week spent upon it has become perhaps the
most enjoyable and the most healthful of holiday excursions, provided the
prudent excursionist has left behind positive instructions that wireless
telegrams shall not follow.