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Series One: The Boulton & Watt Archive and the Matthew Boulton Papers from Birmingham Central Library

Part 1: Lunar Society Correspondence

"The expertly produced microfilm collections published by Adam Matthew, especially the 'Industrial Revolution' collection, have been absolutely indispensable to my recent research. The availability of such material is a boon to all scholars who find themselves distant from important manuscript collections and it stimulates new ideas for research as well as enabling the prosecution of existing projects."
David Philip Miller
The University of New South Wales, author of Discovering Water: James Watt, Henry Cavendish and the Nineteenth-Century 'Water Controversy'  (Ashgate, 2004).

Between 1760 and 1830 the economic and social character of England, Scotland and Wales was completely transformed by the Industrial Revolution. A society of farmers, merchants and market towns was replaced by a thriving urban and industrial economy on the path to a premier place in the modern industrial world.

This project provides essential source material for business and economic historians. It also details the tremendous scientific and technological advances of the period. It promises to be the most significant publication for economic historians since the Goldsmith’s Kress Collection as it will enable them to examine the foundation, organisation and growth of one of the industrial revolution’s pre-eminent businesses, in contrast to Adam Smith’s pin factory.

What was the Industrial Revolution? Was it the watershed in economic history that it has so often been made out to be? How important was innovation and scientific advance in the process? How important was entrepreneurship?

Industrial Revolution: A Documentary History seeks to provide the basic source materials with which scholars and students can examine these questions and challenge previous assumptions. This project begins with Series One: The Boulton and Watt Archive and Matthew Boulton Papers from the Birmingham Central Library.

At the core of the project are the papers of Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) and James Watt (1736-1819), two of the most important figures of this period. James Watt is justly famous as a pioneer of steam power and his steam engine became known as 'the work-horse of the Industrial Revolution'. He was also involved in canal construction as a surveyor and his father was a builder, contractor, instrument-maker, ship owner and merchant. Before he moved to Birmingham his circle of friends and peers included Joseph Black (who described latent heat) and Adam Smith. Matthew Boulton was a capitalist entrepreneur whose fortune was largely based on the silver-stamping and piercing business of his father. He founded the Soho works in Birmingham in 1762 and became a leading manufacturer of fancy goods and a major figure in coining and minting. His lifelong interest in science (he was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and founded the influential Lunar Society in 1764) enabled him to see the potential of James Watt’s steam power and he backed Watt’s ideas with his finance.

Given that steam power had such a wide range of applications (in agriculture, coal mining, cotton manufacture, distilleries, the iron industry, copper, tin and lead mines, shipping, snuff and tobacco manufacture, spinning, starch companies, steam railways and the woollen industry to name but a few) the Boulton and Watt archives provide a good opportunity to examine not only a particular case study of one of the period’s most important companies, but also to gain an overview of the transformation of the overall economy.

The papers are more than just business records. Part 1 offers the correspondence of Matthew Boulton, with members of the Lunar Society and a host of other influential figures who were on the fringe of the Society. Part 2 covers Notebooks and Papers of James Watt and family from Muirhead I. Part 3 brings together Engineering Drawings of Watt Engines of the Sun and Planet Type for the period c1775-1802. Part 4 features further Matthew Boulton Correspondence and Papers (Albion Mill through to documentation on Steam Engines, boxes arranged alphabetically). Part 5 covers a further collection of Engineering Drawings for the period c1775-1800.

Part 1 concentrates on the correspondence of Matthew Boulton with members of the Lunar Society. The calibre of members was extremely high. Its founders were William Small of Virginia (one of Thomas Jefferson’s most influential teachers, sent to see Boulton with a letter of introduction from Benjamin Franklin), Erasmus Darwin (the poet and physician who anticipated his grandson’s evolutionary ideas in his verse) and Matthew Boulton.

The society took its name from the decision to hold monthly meetings on Monday evenings closest to the full moon so that members could ride home by the light of the moon.

William Small, Erasmus Darwin, Joseph Priestley (pioneering chemist and nonconformist), James Watt (Boulton’s partner for 25 years from 1775), Josiah Wedgwood (founder of the great Wedgwood potteries), William Withering (who introduced digitalis as a treatment for heart disorders), Thomas Day, James Keir (a pioneer in the chemical and glass industries), Samuel Galton, Robert Augustus Johnson, Richard Lovell Edgeworth and John Whitehurst all figure prominently in the correspondence.

Also included in the correspondence are some very influential men who were on the fringe of the Society. These include Benjamin Franklin (a corresponding member) and John Roebuck (who founded the first sulphuric acid factory with Samuel Garbett), Sir Joseph Banks, Thomas Beddoes, John Fothergill (leading Midland industrialist and colleague of Boulton), James Watt Jnr and John Smeaton (engineer and industrialist). This was truly a talking shop where words and ideas were translated into actions, new inventions and industries. The scope of the Society’s activities embraced social, political, economic, scientific and technological problem-solving, so we can also witness discussions of the social impact of the Industrial Revolution and general views of the revolutionary climate of the late eighteenth century.

This microform edition offers great research potential for the study of innovation and scientific advance. It features the thoughts and deliberations of some of the leading scientific minds of the late eighteenth century. This project provides fundamental documentary evidence for new research into the substance and impact of the Industrial Revolution. The Lunar Society was at the heart of scientific and technological problem solving from 1764 onwards.

In the words of Roger E Schofield in The Lunar Society of Birmingham (Oxford 1963) the Lunar Society was, "… a brilliant microcosm of that scattered community of provincial manufacturers and professional men who found England a rural society with an agricultural economy and left it urban and industrial."

Letters include Dr William Small’s assessment of Mr Richard Lovell Edgeworth, August 12, 1768 in a letter to James Watt:

"Mr [R L] Edgeworth is a gentleman of fortune, young and mechanical and indefatigable. He is not acquainted with Heatly [Joseph Hately] but had taken a resolution of moving land and water carriages by steam, and has made considerable progress for the short space of time he has employed himself in that study. He knows nothing of your peculiar improvements, but seems to be on a fair way of knowing whatever can be known on such subjects… Get your patent and come to Birmingham with as much time to spare there as you can."

And Boulton’s reply to Josiah Wedgwood’s letter of enquiry about the requirements of a particular engine, dated November 11, 1792:

M Boulton [Soho, Birmingham] - J Wedgwood [Etruria] 3 pp. 4 to. Autograph draft, endorsed "My answer and letter to J Wedgwood Nov 11th, 1792 about Engine and repayment of his money".

"I am not possessed of any calculations respecting any Engine of 15 horses but I can speak accurately as to the cost of 16 horse and 32 horse power Engines. A 16 horse £696, a 32 horse £1260. For two Engines you must have two men to work them and the trifling repairs will cost twice as much. I cannot recommend the application of Engines to the raising of water to be applied to a Water Wheel because there will be a loss of nearly 50% of the power, moreover there is the expense of the Pumps. The Cornish gentlemen have got a little twilight on the merits of Hornblower’s Engine and have discovered that a bushel of coal produces only half the effect it does on one of our Engines, therefore the fury of some gentlemen is a little abated."

Also typical is the note from Erasmus Darwin to Matthew Boulton 1873. March 4th. Derby - M Boulton, Soho. Birmingham:

"We have established an infant philosophical Society at Derby, but do not presume to compare it to your well known gigantic philosophers at Birmingham."

He goes on to say that he has spoken repeatedly of Boulton and Watt’s Engine to Arkwright’s friends. He also begs to be remembered "to all The Insane at your next [Lunar] meeting."

Then there are Boulton’s approaches to try to get Dr James Keir to come to work for him at Soho:

Endorsed on the wrapper: "Mr Keir’s Remarks on Partnership supposed abt 1775". 1 p. 4 to.

"(1). The proposal of of the general profits of Boulton and Fothergill is impracticable, because of the large paper debt [Bill Account] included in the General Accounts, which, contracted in former years ought not to make part of the present trade.
(2). The Business consists of three branches, - (a) Merchants at Newhall. (b) Manufacturers at Soho. (c) The Fire Engine. The above objection is inseparable from (a), but does not affect (c). If (b) was separated from (a) it might be cleared of this objection.
(3). The manufacture has been carried on for many years past with great loss. The mercantile business is said to have gained. The buildings, stock of tools and c are much too great for the business done, and it is not advisable to extend it because the capital is wanted elsewhere. Therefore the profits cannot be considerable. For this reason it ought to be considered whether J K ought not to be admitted to some small portion of the profits arising from the Fire Engine; the profits not to be reckoned until after the expenses originally incurred by the Engine have been re-imbursed."

16 January 1777, Stourbridge - M B, Soho, Birmingham. 4 pp 4 to. With enclosure, 2 pp. 4 to:

"I have written another letter to you [see enclosure] by this post with intention of showing it, if you approve, to Mr F[othergill] in order to get him to declare his sentiments. … it would be proper to give him the outlines of our late conversation on the footing which we thought I had best be on, or begin on. To save you the trouble of recollecting, I will repeat them - ‘That as your manufactory requires more attention, then you or any one man can give and even as part of your present attention may be withdrawn from the Manufactory to the Fire Engine business, you think it prudent to call in more assistance. That, besides, as the whole weight of the manufacturing part of the business rests on you, at present, therefore a possible accident happening to you would derange the whole system to the detriment of your family and also his property, you think it necessary to give it some further support or security, … that he should suffer no diminuation of his profits. … That if I come, I intend to carry on my chemical work."

1777, Stourbridge - M B, Soho Birmingham. 4 pp folio (incomplete):

"In answer to the questions contained in your letter, I have the honour to acquaint you (1). That as soon as our Glass-making Partnership expires, which will be on Jan 1st, 1778, I mean to quit that trade. (2) No plan of business appears to me as eligible as that you mention of joining interests with you, and of assisting you in the chemical or other part of your business. (3) I wish to attach myself to you, in as undivided a manner as you shall think expedient. (4) I will accept any charge you shall think fit to entrust me with, in case I should survive you. (5) As to conditions and emoluments, my confidence in you is so entire, that I shall distrust my own judgement, if it happens to differ from yours."

1778, Soho - M B, Redruth, Cornwall. 4 pp 4 to:

"I have received Mr Watt’s letter ordering a gigantic Engine for Poldice mine. Playfair had copied the drawing and sent the original to Bersham with orders to give preference to this Engine over all others. … I know not, neither does Playfair, the use of the Gunboreings sent to Mr Meason. Please to say in your next and I will write to him. I have received a letter from Mr Baumgartner in which he says Mr Wiss is to write tomorrow and accepts of the proposal and means to purchase four of your one hundred pounds (annuities)."

Another useful example is the following extract from Dr John Roebuck writing to Matthew Boulton, July 22, 1760:

"You will no doubt have expected before this time to have received some account from me of the state of our Colliery. The fact is I have been so thoroughly engaged in the business of the Iron Works and the Colliery that I have not had leisure to write. At present we get about 300 tons of Coal weekly from one Pit and 100 tons from another. I examined the whole Colliery with Mr Gibbons and have with his advice fixed on a Plan for extending the Colliery so as to be able to raise 100,000 tons annually, and for this purpose we are now sinking four Pits. By these Pits we shall command a field of Coal 7ft thick and 3000 yds extent one way, and 500 yds the other. That is 3000 yds to the Level and 500 yds from the Dip to the Rise. The Pits are near the sea and the Coals are carried to the Pier-head by a Waggon Way, 1000 yds long. The Salt Pans are advantageously situated as we sell a very considerable quantity of land at a high price. I make no doubt your tenth Share will amount to so much as what I hinted: but if not acceptable to you, I should be glad to know because my brother Oates at Leeds has solicited me to part with a share to him."

The final two examples came from James Watt’s correspondence to Matthew Boulton. The first is from Watt’s letter of October 20th, 1768 from Glasgow to M Boulton at Soho, Birmingham (3 pp folio):

"I got safe home on Wednesday last week. When you were so kind as to express a desire to be concerned in my fire engine I was sorry I could not immediately make you an offer. I had involved myself in a considerable debt before I had brought the theory of the fire engine to its present state. Dr Roebuck agreed to take my debts upon him. I made over to him two thirds of the property of the Invention: the debts and expenses are now about £1200. It gave me great joy when you seemed to think favourably of our scheme as to wish to engage in it…"

The second comes from James Watt’s letter to Dr William Small, again from Glasgow, dated January 28, 1769 (3pp folio):

"I wrote you last Sunday with a copy of the intended Specification which I hope you have read. I have not heard from Boulton yet: I fancy it will be best to defer the bargaining till the Doctor and I be in England. I have been trying experiments on the Reciprocating Engine. I have improved the Condenser. I have contrived a most excellent method of measuring distances by means of a telescope. [Sketch]. Our pottery is doing tolerably. I have tryed no chemical experiments this winter. What new things is Mr Boulton doing and what are you contriving? How is Capt Keir employed?"

This project provides an opportunity for a fresh look at the substance and impact of the Industrial Revolution and suggests the potential of much fruitful interdisciplinary work between economic historians, mechanical engineers and historians of science. Given that each part has a clear theme and unity, libraries can acquire the project part by part confident that each one has clear research and teaching potential.

The guide which accompanies Series One, Part 1 is available in its entirety on this website. It contains full listings of all the correspondents included in the part and gives much further detail on this project.   

Digital Guide
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