Creation of the Engine Business at Soho

Behold yon mansion flank'd by crowding trees Grace the green slope, and court the southern breeze, Genius and worth with Boulton there reside, Boulton, of arts the patron and the pride I Commerce with rev'rence at thy name shall bow, Thou fam'd creator of the fam'd Soho ! " J. MORFITT.


WORK was started at once on two engines, one for Bloomfield Colliery, some fourteen miles out of Birmingham, and the other for John Wilkinson's ironworks at Broseley, in the Wrekin district. On the success of these engines depended the future of the whole enter prise. The world of industry was watching anxiously to see whether this new power would show itself to be a sound investment. Re membering how he had been hampered in his earlier experiments by bad workmanship, Watt was in terror lest some ill-executed part might ruin the effect of the first public trials. He could trust Boulton to see that all the more delicate pieces of mechanism, the valves, controls, con denser and so forth, which were manufactured at Soho, were made accurately to his designs, but the heavy iron parts, and especially the cylinder, had to be cast elsewhere. When conducting his earlier experiments with Small, Boulton had got his cylinders from Coalbrookdale, the famous ironworks belonging to the Darby family, the originators of the practice of smelting with coke in place of charcoal. But they did no better than Carron, and the castings were found to be " unsound, and totally useless, and done over with some stuff to conceal their defects."

The situation was saved by John Wilkinson, the biggest figure in the history of the British iron industry. Wilkinson, who had inherited his father's works at Bersham, in Denbighshire, and then started a new foundry at Broseley, next door to the Darby works at Coalbrookdale, had a consuming passion for iron. His vision of the future was a world in which everything would be constructed of iron. He made an iron pulpit for his parish church, iron writing tablets for the village school children, in which they wrote in sand with an iron pen, and finally left directions that he was to be buried in an iron coffin. Shortly before Watt joined Boulton at Soho Wilkinson had invented a new way of boring cylinders. In the old method the tools could not be kept rigid and so, although the diameter of the cylinder remained constant throughout, the bore did not proceed from end to end along a straight line. There was a subtle curve in the walls of the cylinder which caused the piston to jam. Wilkinson remedied this defect, and so contributed the last factor needed to make the manufacture of steam-engines a commercial possibility.

In these two first engines the small parts were made at Soho, the big by Wilkinson, and the erection of the engine was supervised by Watt. When he went to Broseley, Boulton forbade him to let the engine make a single stroke until he was certain it would work without a hitch, " and then, in the name of God, fall to and do your best." The whole beauty of the machine must be revealed to the spectators in one miraculous moment. The stratagem was entirely successful and the impression created was profound. The Bloomfield engine was " opened " with great ceremony in March I776. The trial took place in the presence of the proprietors of the colliery and, as the Birmingham Gazette informs us, of " a Number of Scientific Gentlemen whose Curiosity was excited to see the first Movements of so singular and so powerful a Machine; and whose Expectations were fully gratified by the Excellence of its performance. The Workmanship of the Whole did not pass unnoticed, nor unadmired.... The liberal Spirit shown by the Proprietors of Bloomfield in ordering this, the first large engine of the Kind that hath ever been made, and in rejecting a common one which they had begun to erect, entitle them to the thanks of the public; for by this Example the Doubts of the Inexperienced are dispelled, and the Importance and Usefulness of the Invention is finally decided." There followed in the same year an engine for a Warwickshire colliery and another for a distillery at Stratford-le-Bow.

Watt had been away from Soho a good deal, first in London about the Act of Parliament, then at Broseley, setting up the engine, and finally in the summer of I776 he went to Glasgow to get married. Boulton corresponded with him regularly, and his letters give a lively picture of life at the factory. At first, in the absence of the master mind, progress was slow. " The engine goes marvellously bad," he wrote. " It made eight strokes per minute; but upon Joseph's endeavouring to mend it, it stood still. Nor do I at present see sufficient cause for its dulness." Then follow full accounts of the subsequent, and more successful, experiments. Meanwhile the factory was growing. " The new forging-shop looks very formidable; the roof is nearly put on, and the hearths are both built." As the factory grew, so did his ambitions. " I have fixed my mind upon making from twelve to fifteen reciprocating, and fifty rotative engines per annum. The Empress of Russia is now at my house, and a charming woman she is."

Of Watt's second marriage we are told by his biographer that, " having found that the burden of domestic affairs and the care of his children interfered seriously with his other pursuits, which had now become vitally important, he, after having remained for some years a widower, married a second time." It sounds a calculating and unromantic affair, and certainly Anne Macgregor, who became the second Mrs. Watt, appears as an obscure and somewhat sinister background, rather than as a leading actress, in the scenes of his later life. Her father consented to the match, but wished to know the value of his son-in-law's share in the engine business. Apparently no formal deed of partnership had been drawn up, but, at Watt's request, Boulton prepared a statement containing the various points on which they had agreed, which he " extracted from our mutual missives." It amounted to this. Boulton held two-thirds of the property in the patent, and undertook to pay all expenses of past and future experiments, without claiming interest on his money. He was to provide all the capital for the business of manufacture, and on this to receive lawful interest. The profits were to be divided in the proportions of two-thirds to him and onethird to Watt. Watt was to make all the drawings and to give directions for the work of construction.

During the next five years the attention of the firm was almost entirely occupied with the demands of the Cornish mines. This district seemed to offer the most favourable conditions for expansion. Inquiries from factories were usually for a " rotary " engine, one that would drive a wheel; but Soho was at present only producing " reciprocating " enginesengines that worked a vertical rod up and down, and were suitable for application to pumps and bellows. Factory owners were therefore told that the rotary engine was not yet perfected, and were advised to use a water-wheel, supplying it with water by means of a reciprocating engine and a pump. This was naturally put out of court as an unsound investment if a rotary engine was likely to be soon on the market. So there was not much business to be done in factories. The engine was effective for blowing furnaces, but the majority of ironworks still used charcoal, and therefore did not require a powerful blast. There were one or two city waterworks where an engine might be used, but this demand was almost confined to the London area. There remained only the pumping of mines. It might be expected that the engine would be most useful in the coalmines, since fuel was to be had on the spot for nothing. In reality, that is precisely the reason why the engines were not first introduced there. The most obvious advantage of Watt's engine over Newcomen's was its saving of coal. Where coal was very cheap that saving was not enough to compensate for the expense of in stalling the new machine. In addition to this, the majority of the coal-mines were not in urgent need of a more powerful engine. The coal area was extensive, and the immense increase in demand, produced largely by the spread of the engine itself, which was to drive the miners to burrow ever more deeply into the bowels of the earth, had as yet hardly begun. An old-fashioned atmospheric engine was good enough to drain the shallower workings.

In Cornwall the case was different. The rich mining district round Redruth had long been honeycombed with diggings, and there was hardly an acre that had not been tried for ore. " The spot we are at," wrote Mrs. Watt, when staying with her husband at Chacewater, " is the most disagreeable in the whole county. The face of the earth is broken up in ten thousand heaps of rubbish, and there is scarce a tree to be seen." The surface deposits of tin had been exhausted and copper was found only at a considerable depth. If the industry was to expand, it could only expand downwards. Deeper and deeper worked the miners, fighting the water as they went. At times the pits were drowned and had to be abandoned. Then Newcomen's pumpingengine gave them a new lease of life. But the water was getting too strong for it, and more than once of late it had failed to " fork " a flooded mine. Two engines might succeed where one I20 failed, but the cost of transporting coal by sea to Cornwall and then inland to the mines was prohibitive. As trade declined and profits fell, the miners clamoured for more power and less expenditure of fuel. This was exactly what the new engine professed to be able to give.

The first definite order came from Ting-Tang Mine in November, I776 and it was at once followed by another from Wheal Busy, near Chacewater. The parts of the Chacewater engine were the first to be ready, and Watt went down to Cornwall to see them put together. He was not very well received. The building and repairing of steam-engines had been a regular business there for a long time, and there were families which had been in the trade for two generations. If the newcomer from Glasgow was successful, their livelihood would be threatened. But they were not very frightened. They found it hard to believe that any one could know more about steam-engines than they did, who had handled them all their lives. The most prominent of them was Jonathan Hornblower, son of Joseph who had come to Cornwall to build engines fifty years ago. Watt found him pleasant and honest enough, but entirely sceptical about the value of the new invention. It was Jonathan's son, Jabez (they all began with a J. His brothers were called Jesse and Jethro), who was destined to give so much trouble in after years. There was also a clever mechanic called Bonze, who absolutely refused to touch any work connected with Watt's engine. Watt found the Cornishmen ill-natured and treacherous. " Certainly," he said, " they have the most ungracious manners of any people I have ever yet been amongst." They tried to injure him by spreading false rumours. " I have already been accused of making several speeches at Wheal Virgin, where, to the best of my memory, I have only talked about eating, drinking, and the weather." When the Chacewater engine was ready, great crowds came to see it start, many of them hoping for a fiasco. But the trial was an overwhelming success. It did more work than a common engine, and with one-third of the coal. " The velocity, violence, magnitude, and horrible noise of the engine," wrote Watt, "give universal satisfaction to all beholders, believers or not. I have once or twice trimmed the engine to end its stroke gently, and to make less noise; but Mr. Wilson [the manager] cannot sleep unless it seems quite furious, so I have left it to the enginemen; 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."

The Wheal Busy engine made as many converts as a Methodist meeting and inspired them with as great a fever of enthusiasm. Soho was hard put to it to keep pace with the orders. In December I778Watt wrote from Redruth to his old friend Black: " Our success here has equalled our most sanguine expectations; we have succeeded in saving three-fourths of the fuel over the engines here, which are the best of the old kind in the island.

"A universal confidence of the whole county in the abilities of the engine is now fully established, and we have executed agreements for several others, one of which will pay us better still, and is also to do the work of two other engines larger than itself. Several mines, formerly abandoned, are likely to go to work again through virtue of our engines; we have five engines of various sizes actually going here now in this county, and have eight more in contemplation, so that our affairs wear a most smiling aspect to human eyes.

" Our affairs in other parts of England go on very well; but no part can or will pay us so well as Cornwall, and we have luckily come among them when they were almost at their wits' end how to go deeper with their mines."

But Watt was, for a change, unduly optimistic. There were still many obstacles in the path. Labour continued to be a difficulty. The policy adopted at Soho was one of specialisation. Each workman confined himself to one process until he became an expert at it. " We are systematising the business of engine-making," wrote Boulton to Smeaton in I778~~ as as we have done before in the button manufactory; we are training up workmen, and making tools and machines to form the different parts of Mr. Watt's engines with more accuracy, and at a cheaper rate than can possibly be done by the ordinary methods of working. Our workshop and apparatus will be of sufficient extent to execute all the engines that are likely to be soon wanted in this country." But it was a slow business, and rich in disappointments. Some men were untrainable; others, when trained, were enticed away by other employers with offers of higher pay. Perfection of workmanship was not achieved at once, and many of the parts continued to be manufactured by other firms.

When the parts were finished, the engine had to be put together on the spot. This also required skilled labour, and there was very little of it. Men could not be kept in the employ of the firm for this type of work; they had to be found when wanted. Watt complained that it was not at all easy to discover " operative engineers, who can put engines together according to plan as clockmakers do clocks." On another occasion he was searching for " forty pair of Smiths " to set up the engine at Wheal Virgin, and searching in vain, " for in all the mines where we are concerned I find a scarcity of these animals."

Far scarcer still were men capable of superintending the installation of an engine, teaching the local engineers how to treat it, and setting it right when their clumsy handling had upset its delicate constitution. Watt had at first to do the bulk of this work himself, and he had a hectic time flying backwards and forwards from the factory to the various centres where operations were in progress. Soon Boulton provided him with a small staff of men to relieve him of the strain, who acted under his minute instructions. But they made mistakes. Watt was the sort of man who could not forgive a mistake, and he wrote fierce letters to Boulton demanding their instant dismissal. Boulton quietly shifted them on to other jobs till the air cleared, and sent Joseph, the Soho foreman, down to Cornwall. But even Joseph had his little weaknesses, and another querulous letter arrived from Watt. " Joseph has pursued his old practice of drinking in a scandalous manner, until the very enginemen turned him into ridicule.... I have not heard how he behaved in the west; excepting that he gave the ale there a bad character." But Joseph was a good workman and much could be forgiven him. Besides, as Watt reported, " A1though Joseph has attended to his drinking, he has done much good at his leisure hours," and he soon had the engines in proper order.

Joseph had an even more remarkable successor in William Murdock, who entered the service of the firm in I777. He was a big brawny Scot, of immense industry and dog-like devotion to his employers. He was endowed with originality of mind as well as dexterity of hand, and on his first appearance in Cornwall in I779 he at once won his way to Watt's heart. He then performed the more remarkable feat of winning the affection of the Cornish miners. Whenever anything went wrong with an engine the miners asked for William, and were manifestly disappointed if Watt came instead. The mineowners offered him Iooo a year if he would stay with them, engineers asked him to go into partnership with them, but he stuck to the firm in which he was an employee at twenty shillings a week. He was the maker of the first working model of a steam locomotive ever seen in this country, he invented gas lighting and made valuable contributions to the design of the steam-engine. But he never allowed his own researches to interfere with his duty to his employers. He lived on terms of close friendship with Boulton and Watt, but was not put on the footing of a partner until the business had passed to their sons.

In spite of the rapidity of the progress he was making, Boulton's financial position was causing him much anxiety. His outlay had been enormous, and his income was very precarious. When the engines were new and still had to prove their worth, he was obliged to supply them on very easy terms. Very few firms were sanguine enough, or rich enough, when buying an engine, to pay down a sum that would cover the cost of production, compensate for the outlay on experiment and provide Watt with a fair reward for his invention. Boulton therefore adopted the following plan. Customers paid for the parts of the engine, some of which were made at Soho others elsewhere, and for the work of installation and the patentees secured a return on the value of the invention by charging a rent for the use of the engine so long as the exclusive privileges of the patent lasted. This scheme had occurred to him as early as the spring of I775 and he had tentatively suggested to the proprietors of the Cornish mines, who were asking about terms, that he would guarantee that his engines would save half the fuel used by the old engines, provided that they paid him a sum equal to the value of what it saved beyond that half. The proposal to fix his rent according to the economy in fuel was very ingenious. It was distinctly favourable to purchasers, as, once they had met the initial cost of manufacture, they were given a guarantee that the engine would yield them an annual profit. They could not possibly be out of pocket by it. The risk was not on their shoulders. And it was fairly satisfactory for Boulton. It enabled him to sell more engines than he could in any other way have done, and it gave him the best chance of getting the money that was due to him. He obtained a share in that increasing prosperity which he was confident that his engines would bring to industry.

When business actually began, the form of agreement adopted was slightly different from that first sketched by Boulton. The engine was built and erected at the expense of the purchasers, and they then undertook to pay annually a sum equal to one-third of the value of the fuel saved by the engine as compared with a common engine. Watt invented an ingenious meter, which was kept under lock and key, and told him faithfully what that saving was. The whole affair is so clearly described in a letter of Boulton to the Carron Ironworks, when erecting an engine there, that it is worth quoting at some length.

"We do not aim at profits in engine building," writes Boulton, " but shall take our profits out of the saving of fuel; so that if we save nothing we shall take nothing. Our terms are as follows: we will make all the necessary plans, sections and elevations for the building, and for the engine with its appurtenances, specifying all cast and forged ironwork, and every other particular relative to the engine. We will give all necessary directions to your workmen, which they must implicitly obey. We will execute, for a stipulated price, the valves, and all other parts which may require exact execution, at Soho; we will see that all the parts are put together, and set to work properly."

Then follows the usual stipulation that the fuel consumed is to be compared with that of any other engine in Scotland, and one-third of the value of the saving is to be paid to Boulton and Watt " in recompense for our patent licence, our drawings, etc." If the engine is sold, the new owner must undertake to continue the payment of the dues owing, " otherwise the engine which we make for you at an expense of two thousand pounds may be sold in Cornwall for ten thousand pounds."

The disadvantages of this system are evident. Like all systems of payment by instalments it exposes the seller to continuous risk. The purchaser may at any time become unable or unwilling to pay what is owing. In most cases of the kind, if the buyer gets in default for any reason, the seller can at least recover the goods. In Boulton's case that was not so. In the first place, if a copper mine failed and had to close down, the payments would stop; but there would be no default. When the engine is not working it cannot save coal, and no rent is due. In the second place, even if there were deliberate default he had no easy remedy, for the engine was the property of the mine; it had been bought and paid for. Boulton could not go down and take it away.

The longer an engine had been at work in a mine, the more it was looked on by the mineowners as their absolute property, and the more intolerable appeared to them the burden of the annual dues. They forgot that, apart from these, Boulton and Watt had received nothing to reward them for their risks, their original outlay, and for the invention itself, and they came to regard the payment as an iniquitous tax, levied on them for the use of their own property in order to keep two grasping monopolists in idleness. It was a toll taken by private individuals on the mineral resources of the country. Feeling ran high. It was augmented by the fact that the monopoly, which normally only lasted for fourteen years, had been extended by Act of Parliament for twenty-five. The miners felt convinced that somebody had sold them. They proposed to petition Parliament to repeal the Act. Watt was miserable. He had devoted his life to benefit his fellow-men, and now he was denounced as a heartless profiteer and an enemy of society. He felt inclined to sell the whole business for what it would fetch and retire to poverty and peace. But the storm blew over.

The income from the engines, therefore, was bound to be very precarious. It was difficult to extract, and it depended entirely on the prosperity of the copper-mining industry. Unfortunately that industry was passing through a severe depression. The flooding of the mines and the high cost of coal had nearly ruined many of the companies, and, although there was every reason to hope that the new engine would retrieve their fortunes, the mine-owners were extremely reluctant to put their hands in their pockets until those pockets were once more comfortably full. Boulton was inclined to be lenient, and to accept orders without concluding any definite agreement about future payments, but this infuriated Watt. To him a bird in the hand was worth at least a dozen in the bush; it was quite enough for his modest tastes, and it saved worry. "Let our terms be moderate," he wrote to Boulton, " and, if possible, consolidated into money a priori, and it is certain we shall get some money, enough to keep us out of jailin continual apprehension of which I live at present." Boulton did his best; but even when he had concluded firm agreements he often had to remit the dues for several months, because the companies were too poor to pay.

Things came to such a pass that Boulton and his friends had to take shares in several of the copper mines in order to keep them going at all; he had to finance his customers to enable them to pay for his goods. This he could ill afford to do. He was himself in debt. The hardware business, which was run as a separate concern, was doing badly, chiefly owing to the incompetence of his partner, Fothergill. He could get no assistance there. In I778 Low, Vere & Co., the bankers from whom he had been borrowing, nearly came to grief, and they naturally called on Boulton for repayment. He only saved himself by borrowing another 7 from a Mr. Wiss, pledging the profits of the engines to pay the interest. Wiss insisted on Watt's name appearing in the agreement, as, without him, the mortgage on the engines was unsound. Watt was furious. The terms of partnership had exempted him from all financial responsibility. He practically accused Boulton of breaking their agreement, forgetting that Boulton had for four years been paying him a salary of 33 a year, which was outside the bond.

Though driven almost to distraction, Boulton kept his temper. He asked all who had dealings with the firm to be gentle with Watt and remember that he was a sick man. In truth, Watt was hardly responsible for his actions. He had been reduced to a state of moaning melancholy. His wife wrote to Boulton begging him to forgive her husband's complaining words, and imploring him to do something to set his mind at rest. " Believe me," she wrote, " there is not on earth a person who is dearer to him than you are. It causes him pain to give you trouble.... In his present state of weakness, every ill, however trifling, appears of a gigantic size, while, on the other hand, every good is diminished." But Boulton was ill too, and at times bitter thoughts crept into his mind and found expression in his letters. He was writing to his bankers about the loan to them. " I have received," he said, " so much pain from Mr. Watt's repeated ungenerous behaviour to me on that account, that I am determined as soon as possible to wipe away all obligation to him." In a moment of irritation he told Watt that, if he was dissatisfied, he might take over the management of the firm's accounts himself. This Watt foolishly agreed to do.

Money and megrims came near to snapping the strands of their friendship. But before disaster overtook them the tide of misfortune turned. In I78I there had not been " money to pay their Xmas balances nor their workmen's wages." In the following year Watt reported a clear income from engines of over 3- In I783 Boulton had a balance, and at once used it to release Watt from his debt to the bankers. Two years later Watt no longer had to draw an annual salary of 33; his share of the profits had for the first time become a reality. Twenty years had passed since Watt conceived the idea of his engine, forty thousand pounds had been invested by Boulton in the development of the invention, and at last they were beginning to reap the fruits of their labours.

Contents    Chapter 8