The Partnership of Watt and Roebuck
" I know Mammon too; Banks-of-England, Credit-systems, world-wide possibilities of work and traffic; and applaud and admire them. Mammon is like Fire; the usefullest of all servants, if the frightfullest of all masters."CARLYLE.
WATT came home jubilant from his Sunday afternoon walk on the Green, and sat down to think out all the implications of his new idea. For two days he enjoyed the exquisite pleasure of building engines in the world of his imagination, watching the parts fly to their places the instant they were conceived, with never a leaky joint nor a broken screw. Swiftly the perfect engine of his dreams took shape in his mind. Then he turned from his arm-chair to his laboratory bench. An apparatus was set up to test the principles underlying the invention. The results pleased him. He was convinced he was on the right track. At the end of April, I765~ he wrote to a friend a letter full of confidence. He had calculated the capacities of his engine as compared with those of the old type, " and if there is not some devil in the hedge, mine ought to raise water to 44 feet with the same quantity of steam that theirs does to 32.... In short, I can think of nothing else but this machine. I hope to have the decisive trial before I see you." Shortly after this Robison, who had been away and knew nothing of the invention, came back, and went round to have a chat with him. He found Watt in his room contemplating a little tin cistern which seemed to absorb all his thoughts. Robison began talking steam-engine " shop," telling Watt of some new ideas that had occurred to him while he was away, and might be of value for their work; for he always regarded himself as a sort of partner in Watt's researches. This time he was hopelessly out of date, and the slightly lecturing tone jarred on Watt's excited nerves. " You need not fash yourself any more about that, man," he exclaimed sharply; " I have now made an engine that shall not waste a particle of steam. It shall all be boiling hotaye, and hot water injected if I please." And he pushed the little cistern out of sight under the table, and refused to answer a single question.
He was proud of his secret then, and, strong in the sense of his own power, he wanted nobody's help. He was weary and heartbroken, ready to cling to any one who had strength to support his weakness, before the first of his engines was at work; and long after that too.
His difficulties began when he started to makea working model. A hundred tiresome problems of detail were revealed which had not existed in the immaterial world of his imagination. The piston must fit tightly in the cylinder, but with as little friction as possible. It was quite certain that no craftsman then alive could make the metal parts so accurately that they fulfilled these conditions without other help. Newcomen had solved this problem by having water lying on the top of the piston to prevent the passage of air through the cracks. But Watt's cylinder must be absolutely dry. He tried every kind of padding: cork, tallow, horse-dung, collars of cloth treated with varnish, or pasteboard soaked in linseed oil. The exact form of the condenser was another source of trouble. Many patterns were tried and rejected before he was satisfied. Then the condenser had to be drained of the water that formed in it. By this time he was getting irritable and impatient. When the faithful Robison meekly suggested some special kind of education pipe for this purpose, he burst out, " Oh, man, do you imagine me so dull as not to have thought on that long ago P " His mind was working faster than it had ever worked before; every nerve was strained for speed. He was like a hound in full cry called back to inspect a rabbit hole.
The most maddening part of it was that he, who was accustomed to work with apapparatus fashioned with all the delicacy of his own exquisite skill, was now, when practising " mechanics in great," as he called it, compelled to accept the clumsy approximations of the local blacksmith. He fumed and fretted at the leisurely methods of the British workman, and the moment the parts arrived, off he darted to make the trial for which he had been waiting impatiently for weeks, only to find that the cylinder was untrue, or the pipes leaked, and he must go home again, with his work at a standstill. At the crucial moment his " old white-iron man," who made the condensers, died, and he had to face the exasperating task of training another to take his place.
Nor did he make things any easier for his men. He was a very exacting master, and nothing short of perfection would satisfy him. The engine was his noblest artistic creation, and he loved it as a child. He could not bear to see its beauty marred by clumsy hands. And his creative faculties never rested; they were part of his vitality, and could not be turned off like a tap while the mechanics were at work. Consequently he was always making little changes and revising the designs while the engine was being built, greatly to the distress of the builders. The confusion that resulted was often as much his fault as theirs. The more he was worried, the more inventive he became, for, said he, " Thinking on these things is a kind of relief amidst my vexations."
His next difficulties were financial. He was quite convinced that his invention had a high commercial value. It would be very profitable to somebody. But in the meantime he wanted a few thousand pounds to complete his experiments, build a factory, and manufacture the engines that should persuade the world that he was right. The profits would eventually cover this outlay, but he wanted to spend those profits in advance. Here enters the credit system. The penniless inventor is at the mercy of Mammon. His idea is barren and cannot give birth to wealth until it has been fertilised by wealth. If Science is the mother of invention, Finance is its father. To-day the efforts of a highly organised matrimonial agency keep up the birthrate. The commercial world bristles with devices for bringing the two parents together. There is a host of rich captains of industry on the look out for new ideas, and behind these conduits through which flows the money that irrigates the fields of trade, are the reservoirs of the banks. Behind them too is the sea of the money-making public, ready to be enticed by the company promoter to invest its savings in any venture that promises high profits on the authority of high personages. This feature of modern civilisation, like nearly every other, dates, I as we have seen, from the seventeenth century. In that fascinating and fertile age banks and jointstock companies established themselves as parts of the economic system, and up and down the years heavily sported that quaint monstrosity, that genius presiding at the birth of speculation, the Projector. " Necessity, which is allowed to be the Mother of Invention," wrote Defoe, as he watched the old century dying, "has so violently agitated the wits of men at this time, that it seems not at all improper, by way of distinction, to call it the Projecting Age."
The Projector, ancestor of the company promoter of to-day, was dabbling in the mysteries of credit. He muttered his spells, and the spirits of industry flew to do his bidding. Even to him who spoke the word it was a miracle, beyond the understanding of man. There seemed to be no limit to this new-won power, nothing that it could not accomplish. " Credit makes the soldier fight without pay, the armies march without provisions, and it makes tradesmen keep open shop without stock. The force of credit is not to be described by words; he that has credit is invulnerable, whether he has money or no; nay, it will make money." But if the magic lamp is rubbed too often, the genie gets out of temper and out of control. So it was with credit in the hands of these ignorant miracle-workers. Adventures went amiss, the bubble was pricked, and credit itself lost its credit. The tragi-comic fiasco of the South Sea Bubble struck a blow at Finance from which it was slow to recover. Government, afraid lest it might do more damage, put obstacles in the way of its expansion. No joint-stock company might be founded without sanction of an Act of Parliament. Brokers must be licensed and must only do such business as the authorities considered respectable, and joint-stock banking was a monopoly in the hands of the Bank of England.
As the eighteenth century wore on, the activities of Finance revived. The Stock Exchange did a brisk business, small private banks sprang up all over the country, while brokers and jobbers never lacked either customers or victims. Nevertheless in Watt's day the financing of a new enterprise was a very difficult operation. The banks were mostly small affairs without substantial resources, and, as has always been the practice in England, were not prepared to take any of the risks of business. The only type of company that could be floated without a special Act of Parliament was an association which the law treated as a partnership, and which did not enjoy the privilege of limited liability. As the ordinary investor is not prepared to shoulder the risks and responsibilities of partnership or to stake his entire property on a speculative venture, such bodies did not find it easy to draw on the savings of the general public. The investor's only chance, with no bank to help him and no Projector to turn him into a company, was to discover among the few existing rich capitalists one who would go shares in his idea for ready money. And even then he knew that his partner would have to embark on the perilous seas of financial speculation, trusting to the crazy ship of an imperfect credit system which might go to the bottom, carrying his invention with it.
Watt's best friend in these times of trial was Joseph Black. He followed every step of his work with the keenest interest, was always ready with precious advice and stimulating suggestions, and he lent him money. But Black knew well enough that the burden of financing so big an enterprise was too heavy for him to bear; knew, too, that in spite of his help, Watt was already running heavily into debt. He began to look for some one to take his place. The choice was not wide. The sinking of large sums in this invention was bound to be attended by risks. The engine had not yet been proved a success; it could not be proved successful until much money had been spent on further experiments. Even if it passed all tests, skill would be needed to find a market. There was an active demand for it in the mines, but only on condition that it was cheaper and more economical than the engines already in use. Its introduction into many other industries 87 depended on those industries being remodelled so as to receive it. The class of industrial capitalists, owners of big workshops and factories, was a small one. The wealth of the country was for the most part in the hands either of landed gentry, who, if they had any enterprise, found scope enough for it in those agricultural pursuits which were just becoming fashionable, or of merchants, who lived by trade, both foreign and domestic, or by providing employment to large numbers of scattered craftsmen. To such men the invention of the steam-engine was just a little commotion under the surface in a remote and unfamiliar corner of the world of industry. It was of no use to them; they could not estimate its possible value to others. Support had to be found in that section of the economic world which the engine was designed immediately to serve.
The man who at once occurred to Black was his friend Dr. Roebuck. Roebuck was a Birmingham physician who had taken up the study of chemistry and its application to the processes of industry. His first commercial success was a factory for the manufacture of sulphuric acid established at Prestonpans. From this he passed on to iron. The iron trade had been revolutionised earlier in the century by the discovery of a method of smelting with coke instead of charcoal as fuel. The process needed a big plant, and the use of mechanical means for getting a powerful blast. The trade now offered great scope for individual enterprise both in organisation and in technical development, especially as the processes subsequent to smelting had hardly been touched by the earlier invention. Roebuck chose as his site the banks of the river Carron in Stirlingshire, not far from Falkirk. The Carron Ironworks, planned on an imposing scale and built with the aid of the engineer Smeaton, were formally opened on the 1st of January, I760.
Roebuck seemed to be the ideal man for the purpose. He was extremely wealthy, and had a natural sympathy with any bold enterprise. He was a scientist, and could be expected to appreciate, even from an imperfect model, the possibilities of the engine. He himself stood to gain by the invention, since the chief obstacle to progress in his industry was the limit to the efficiency of water-power as a means to work the bellows that drove the air into the blastfurnaces. Finally, his establishment could easily be adapted to the manufacture of engines on a large scale. Black, therefore, introduced the two men, and in the summer of I765 they entered into correspondence with one another.
The character of this early correspondence was ominous. Roebuck was much attracted by Watt, but he was full of caution. Before he com mitted himself he wished to make certain that the invention was sound; he bombarded Watt with questions and irritated him with worthless criticism. Watt was by this time satisfied with the performances of his first model and ready to start on a larger and more perfect one. For Roebuck's sake he had to go over all the ground again and explain to him the nature and results of his original scientific experiments. And Roebuck was a somewhat sceptical pupil. He even questioned the necessity for a separate condenser, the basic idea of the invention, and much valuable time was wasted in trying alternatives which Watt knew well were useless. There were disadvantages in having a partner who professed to be a scientist as well as a financier. It was a further disappointment to Watt to find that, when he sent drawings of a piston and cylinder to be cast at Carron for use in a big-scale model, the cylinder "was very illbored, and thereby useless, though the best Carron could make." The least he had expected to get out of the connection with Roebuck was access to first-rate workmanship.
After more than a year's careful consideration, Roebuck decided to take the risk and entered into an agreement with Watt. He undertook to pay his outstanding debt of I000 and to bear all future cost of experiments and of securing a patent. In return for this he was to have two-thirds of the property of the invention. It really seemed as if all worries of finance and business management had been lifted off Watt's shoulders, leaving him free to devote himself uninterruptedly to the experimental side of the work. And there still remained much to be done. The partners were not yet ready to apply for a patent. At the beginning of I 768 Watt was busy with a model which was to be the last before they embarked on a full-sized engine. He felt he was making great progress. " I am going to be at home, God willing, for some time," he wrote to his friend Lind on 5th January. " I am going to try some things I am persuaded you would like to see (perpetual mobiles, the elixir magicum, and some other trifles of that kind). Seriously, it would give me great pleasure if you could spend a few weeks with me. I think I could entertain you. What I knew about the steamengine before you went away [December, I765] was but a trifle to what I know now." Evidently he was in high spirits. The future seemed brighter now that he had Roebuck behind him. But, in reality, he was just entering on the greatest crisis of his life, the time when he came nearest to throwing up the whole thing in despair.
His troubles began in April, and are related in a series of letters to Roebuck. " I have been close working at the engine since I wrote you, he writes on April 1st, " but have not got it perfectly tight yet, though it is much better.... I would write you oftener, but my health is but indifferent, and I have had no good news lately." Four days later he reports that some mercury from the gaugepipe got into the cylinder " and has played the devil with the solder. This throws us back at least three days, and is very vexatious." Then some slight defect led him to make considerable changes in the design, and on May Ioth he wrote: " I have got the two new exhausting cylinders cast, bored, and partly turned; also the new condensers made: and expect to have it going again by the end of the week." A fortnight later he made a very favourable report, concluding with the words, " I sincerely wish you joy of this successful result, and hope it will make you some return for the obligations I ever will remain under to you." But time passed and the indefatigable inventor was still pulling his model to pieces in order to introduce the new devices that were constantly cropping up in his fertile brain. When October came, and the experiments still dragged on, Roebuck began to lose patience. He was satisfied with the model as it was. The specifications for the patent were being prepared, and he was eager to begin manufacturing for the market. " I want much effectually to try the machine at large," he wrote. " You are letting the most active part of your life insensibly glide away. A day, a moment, ought not to be lost. And you should not suffer your thoughts to be diverted by any other object, or even improvement of this, but only the speediest and most effectual manner of executing one of a proper size, according to your present ideas."
But Watt was incorrigible and unrepentant. It was useless to tell him not to think of improvements, or to ask him to proceed on the lines of his " present ideas," for his ideas changed daily, or even hourly. So, although a patent was applied for, and securedit bore date January 5th, I769and although plans were concocted for erecting a full-size trial engine in a shed at the back of the doctor's house at Kinneil, Watt went on tinkering at his beloved model. " I wrote you last night of my having taken asunder the engine to add an external cylinder and a thinner bottom," he writes cheerfully in February. And ten days later, " I made an imperfect trial to-day of an alteration in the condenser, with which I am much pleased "; but by the end of May he was expressing equal satisfaction with a new condenser of an entirely different pattern. The unhappy Roebuck must have felt that there was nothing more trying to the patience than to have dealings with a man of genius.
Watt's genius was a tormentor to him as well as to his friends. Its ceaseless bounding energy rattled the frail body that it inhabited, as the imprisoned steam shook the fabric of one of his engines. When his health was bad he shrank from every effort except that of his work. He was afraid of the journey from Glasgow to Kinneil, which might have refreshed him, because, he said, " I am far from well, and the fatigue of the ride would disable me from doing anything for three or four days." But he remained chained to his workshop, wearing himself out with labour which racking headaches often rendered quite fruitless. His strength flagged before he could put his ideas into effect. " Much contrived, and little executed," he lamented. " How much would health and spirits be worth to me ! " " I have found my engine much better of the alterations I mentioned in my last. Still plagued with headaches, and sometimes heartaches. I received Mr. Boulton's, to whom my compliments." It was as if, as he sat at his work, the pain grew and mounted in his brain, and, suffusing his thoughts, distilled one pure drop of misery on to the paper before him amidst the jargon of valves and cisterns. Sometimes he felt he had not made one inch of progress since the day that the idea of the engine first came to him. " I am not near so capable as I was once. I find that I am not the same person I was four years ago, when I invented the fire-engine, and foresaw, even before I made a model, almost every circumstance that has since occurred.... The necessary experience in great was wanting; in acquiring it I have met with many disappointments. I must have sunk under the burthen of them if I had not been supported by the friendship of Dr. Roebuck. I have now brought the engine near a conclusion, yet I am not in idea nearer that rest I wish for than I was four years ago. However, I am resolved to do all I can to carry on this business, and if it does not thrive with me, I will lay aside the burthen I cannot carry. Of all things in life there is nothing more foolish than inventing. "
During all this time, and during the years that followed in which the trial engine was being built at Kinneil, Watt had to find means to earn his living. The engine was not now costing him anything, but it brought him no income, and he had a wife and two children to support. At first he kept his odd mixed business going at his Glasgow shop, but it declined after the death of his partner, John Craig. The orders sent by his rather thoughtless friends distracted him from more important work. One of the earliest letters from Roebuck, after discussing the science of heat, concludes with a postscript: " The microscope is safe arrived, and affords fine amusement; but Mrs. Roebuck desires me to remind you of the guitar." The guitar, forsooth ! when he was already engaged in experiments on the steam engine. About the same time he invented an ingenious machine for drawing in perspective for which he had several orders at three guineas apiece. As his reputation as an engineer grew he was offered surveying work, which, though not well paid, brought in a more regular income than the chance sales of his little shop. His first undertaking of any size was a canal to connect Glasgow with the collieries at Monkland. The survey was completed in I769 and he was then asked to supervise the work of construction. Rather against his better judgment he accepted, for he knew that the work would be hard and would occupy him for three or four days a week, but he could not afford to throw away a chance of earning 200 a year. To his surprise he found the open-air life suited him. " The vaguing about the country, and bodily fatigue, have given me health and spirits beyond what I commonly enjoy at this dreary season, though they would still thole amends. Hire yourself to somebody for a ploughman; it will cure ennui." That was in January I770 and he was at it all that year and through the following winter. The work brought its worries. It was new to him, and he kept meeting problems that taxed his ingenuity to the full. Of course the money ran out before the work was finished, and he had troublesome negotiations to conduct with con tractors and workmen. There was nothing he hated more. " Nothing is more contrary to my disposition than bustling and bargaining with mankind: yet that is the life I now constantly lead."<./p>
He was occupied with the Monkland Canal for over two years, and then more work of the same kind came along. He executed surveys for a number of canals, some of which were carried out, others not. Among them was a survey and estimate for a canal from Fort William to Inverness, following the line of the famous Caledonian Canal afterwards built by Telford. His report was put on one side at the time, but Telford came across it long afterwards among some Treasury papers. " I believe it is yours," he wrote to Watt, " because it is just and masterly; and I have introduced in my Report your general description, plainly saying that it could not be so well told in any other words." Watt became more and more absorbed in his new occupation. Naturally he applied his inventive faculties to the instruments used by surveyors, and produced quadrants and micrometers and a " dividingscrew " that would divide an inch into a thousand equal parts. He built a bridge over the Clyde, and improved the harbours of Greenock and Port-Glasgow.
All this employment, together with the host of little scientific problems that he explored at this time, served to distract his mind from his unlucky steam-engine. For things were going very badly at Kinneil. There was always something amiss with the trial engine, and Watt's difficulties were increased by the faultiness of the goods turned out by the Carron works. The more distant success appeared, the more readily Watt accepted other kinds of employment. " I cannot," he wrote, " on an uncertainty, refuse every piece of business that offers." He was constantly away and tried to direct experiments by letter. To make matters worse, Roebuck was in financial difficulties. In order to get control of his raw material he had taken a lease of the Duke of Hamilton's coal-mines at Borrowston ness. The speculation was a complete failure and crippled his finances. He was no longer bearing the cost of the experiments and had not even been able to pay the expenses of the patent Watt had been forced to borrow from Black again. He began to be haunted by the expecta- tion of failure, and with it the ruin of his life's work. " To-day I entered into the thirty-fifth year of my life," he wrote in I770 ' and I think I have hardly done thirty-five pence worth of good in the world; but I cannot help it." Work on the engine stopped for want of funds. He was out of pocket more than the value of his share in the invention. He even spoke of converting the " damned engine " into a machine of thee old type and selling it for what it would fetch. The trade depression and financial crisis of 1772 finally smashed Roebuck. The partnership had come to grief, and there was nothing left to be done but try to save something out of the wreck. The patent was worthless. The engine at Kinneil was perishing. Watt had long been prepared for the failure of his own projects, but he could not endure the thought that he had helped to bring ruin on his friend. " My heart bleeds for his situation, and I can do nothing to help him. I stuck by him till I have much hurt myself; I can do so no longer; my family calls for my care to provide for them." This letter was written in July I773. But his cup of misery was not yet full. Within three months his wife was dead.