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

Part 3: Engineering Drawings - Sun & Planet Type, c.1775-1802

Over 3500 drawings covering some 272 separate engines are brought together in this section devoted to original manuscript plans and diagrams.

Watt’s original engine was a single-acting device for producing a reciprocating stroke. It had an efficiency four times that of the atmospheric engine and was used extensively for pumping water at reservoirs, by brine works, breweries, distilleries, and in the metal mines of Cornwall. To begin with it played a relatively small part in the coal industry. In the iron industry these early engines were used to raise water to turn the great wheels which operated the bellows, forge hammers, and rolling mills. Even at this first stage of development it had important effects on output.

However, Watt was extremely keen to make improvements on his initial invention. His mind had long been busy with the idea of converting the to and fro action into a rotary movement, capable of turning machinery and this was made possible by a number of devices, including the 'sun-and-planet', a patent for which was taken out in 1781. In the following year came the double-acting, rotative engine, in 1784 the parallel motion engine, and in 1788, a device known as the 'governor', which gave the greater regularity and smoothness of working essential in a prime mover for the more delicate and intricate of industrial processes.

The introduction of the rotative engine was a momentous event. By 1800 Boulton and Watt had built and put into operation over 500 engines, a large majority being of the 'sun and planet type'.

The Engineering Drawings reproduced here enable a thorough examination of developments between 1775 and 1800 and reflect the dominance of the 'Sun and Planet Type' of engine in this period. The material is made available under geographical headings to facilitate regional comparisons, analysis of distribution of engine types and method of use and employment.

The first 'Sun and Planet' engine was set up at Soho, in Birmingham, towards the end of 1782. By this time the call for rotative engines had become very insistent. In June 1781 Boulton wrote, "the people in London, Manchester, and Birmingham are steam mill mad", and Watt, in September 1782, exclaimed, "Surely the devil of rotations is afoot."  Watt was now hard at work on rotative engines, dealing with schemes and with enquiries from people who wanted engines. His Blotting and Calculation Book of 1782-3 shows him making experiments on the friction of the engine, calculating the size of the flywheels, and working out the power required to drive corn-mills, cotton mills, and mills for rasping and grinding logwood. In October 1782 we find him complaining to Boulton that his research work on rotative engines had been taking up all his time with the result that much other business had been neglected.

The first rotative engine erected outside the Soho establishment was that put up for John Wilkinson at Bradley. It was in operation at the end of March 1783. The drawings for this engine are covered in this microfilm edition. They are part of Portfolio 249. The other engines made for Bradley between 1780 and 1791 are also covered and include engines for boring and turning, a Colliery Winding Engine and a Rolling and Slitting Engine. The 'Sun and Planet' gear and cam-shaft for the Bradley Forge Engine are well illustrated in a drawing dated July 1782.

The sun-wheel is 48 inches in diameter, and had 36 teeth, so that the pitch is about 4 in; it consists of two rings, 3 inches wide, bolted together with the teeth stepped; the shape of the teeth is shown in large scale in the top figure of the drawing. The outer ring is bolted to a disk formed on the end of the journal section of the cast-iron shaft; the periphery of the disk is formed with recesses to receive joggles on the rings.

The planet-wheel is half the size of the sun-wheel and consists of two toothed disks, separated by a disk of wrought iron engaging between the rings of the sun-wheel; the inner disk is formed with a gudgeon to receive one end of a link which at the other end embraces the shaft; the outer face of the other disk is formed with a cross-shaped recess to receive a corresponding joggle cast on the end of the connecting-rod, to which the planet-wheel is secured by bolts passing through disks.

Further examples of engines covered include:

  - Aitchesons & Brown for a Distillery at Clackmannan (first drawings January 1787)
 - Henry Coates and John Jarratt (see Portfolio No: 1) for their engine at Kingston-upon-Hull. They had the first double-acting engine with straight-line linkage (first drawings dated May 1784)
 - Howard and Houghton’s Oil Mill (see Portfolio No: 16) at Sculcoates (first drawings dated September 1786)
 - Joshua Foster’s Wool Manufactory at Horbury in the Parish of Wakefield. Payment £812. (first drawings
October 1795)
 - the Sun and Planet type engines supplied to the Cotton Manufactories in Lancashire (about 49 separate engines) including John Orrell for a Cotton Mill at Staleybridge and James Taylor and Son for a Cotton Mill in Rochdale.
 - Samuel Oldknow of Stockport near Chester (see Portfolio No: 62) for a Cotton Mill at Stockport (first drawings 1791)
 - Jonathan Stonard and James Curtis (see Portfolio No: 3) for their Starch Manufactory in the High Street, St Mary’s Lambeth. (earliest drawings October 1784)
 - Brown, Chalmers & Co for a Paper Mill in Aberdeen (first drawings July 1802)
 - James Forbes Low & Co for a Cotton Mill in Aberdeen (first drawings May 1802)
 - Dyker Smith for a Flour Mill at Peak House near Falkirk, occupied by Mr Renny in 1811. (first drawings May 1800)
 - Walkers Ward & Co of Chester (see Portfolio No: 184) for their Lead Manufactory. (earliest drawings April 1799)
 - G & J Robinson of Papplewick near Nottingham (see Portfolio No: 9)
 - Thomas Dobbs (see Portfolio No: 6) for Lifford Rolling Mills at Kings Norton (Parchment dated 1st December 1785)
 - Felix Calvert & Co (Portfolio No: 5) Engine for the Brewery in the Parish of All Hallows, Upper Thames Street, London. (Parchment dated 1st March 1786)
 - Timothy Harris of Nottingham (see Portfolio No: 7) for a Cotton Mill at St Mary’s, Nottingham. (first drawings December 1785)
 - Samuel, Davey Liptrap & Co of Whitechapel Road for a Malt Distillery in Mile End, first parchment dated 1st March 1786.
 - Albion Mill (see Portfolio No: 97) Engines for the large steam flour-mills excited a good deal of discussion at the time and the machinery was inspected by a great many people. Albion Mill was erected on the Surrey side of the River Thames near Blackfriars Bridge. Plans date from 1782.
 - Benjamin Severn for his Sugar Manufactory in Whitechapel.
 - Josiah Wedgwood (see Portfolio No: 97) for 3 separate engines dating from drawings as early as April 1782.
 - Hawkesbury Colliery (see Portfolio No: 241) two Winding Engines, the first of these was repurchased by Boulton and Watt and sold on to the Lancaster Canal Company (earliest date of drawings February 1791)
 - W E Chapman & Co for a Rope Manufactory in Newcastle-upon-Tyne
 - Sir Richard Arkwright for a Cotton Mill at Nottingham. (first drawings March 1790).
 - Royal Plate Glass Company (Portfolio No: 192)
 - Birmingham Flour and Bread Co (Portfolio No: 141)
 - Samuel Whitbread (Portfolio No: 4) for a Brewery in Chiswell Street, in the Parish of St Luke, Middlesex. This engine was of the Chain-Beam Type. (first drawings June 1784).
 - Coalbrookdale (Portfolio No: 238)

At first Watt was not quite satisfied with the 'Sun and Planet' gear. He found that the revolutionary wheel had a tremulous motion that he did not like. He first proposed to remedy this by strengthening the swan-neck part of the connecting-rod, but he found that this was not an ideal solution. With further experiments he did resolve the problems.

How were the Engines made?

In 1775 there were no engine works in existence anywhere in Britain. Engines were put together on site, at the mine or mill in question, with the erection being supervised by an engineer.

The engineer, in some instances, entered into a contract to supply an engine, but more usually he seems to have been paid for his services, and the engine parts and materials were purchased directly by the mine or mill-owner, who also paid the workmen employed on the job. The principal parts bought in a condition ready for use were the cylinder, cylinder bottom, and the working barrels of the pumps. The bored cast-iron work - cylinders and pump barrels - all came from one of four ironworks - Coalbrookdale, New Willey, Bersham, or Carron. The smaller castings were sometimes obtained from the same place as the cylinders, at other times locally. The boiler, and all the wrought-iron work, was made on the spot, and the wooden beams also. Accordingly the engineer had under him a staff of smiths, carpenters, plumbers, and masons for building the engine house.

This, indeed, was the position of affairs when Boulton and Watt commenced erecting their engines, and it was substantially on these lines that the firm carried on work for a number of years.

Taking the period say about 1780 the valves and nozzles were the only parts of the engine made regularly at Soho. They cylinder, its cover and bottom, the piston, the air-pump, and the condenser were made at Bersham, then in the hands of John Wilkinson, who made nearly every one of Boulton and Watt’s cylinders up to the year 1795. The nozzles themselves were cast at another of Wilkinson’s works - Bradley, a few miles from Birmingham - and brought to Soho to be fitted. Beam gudgeons, plummer blocks, and sundry other castings were supplied from the same works, while the cylinder jacket, or outer cylinder, together with some smaller work were cast at the Eagle Foundry, Birmingham. Fire-bars and other furnace fittings and small parts were sometimes cast in the locality where the engine was to be erected. The copper eduction pipes were made in London, and the wrought-iron piston-rods either at Seaton in Cumberland or in London.

These parts were ordered by Boulton and Watt from the various makers on account of the mine - or mill-owner; Boulton and Watt sent the necessary drawings and instructions, and kept a staff of men to supervise and do part of the work of erecting. These men were paid by the person for whom the engine was being erected. It was one of the great difficulties of the firm to get together, and to retain, a suitable staff of erectors.

The course pursued in erecting an engine in the year 1778, is described in great detail by Watt himself in connection with an engine for pumping brine at Thirlewood at the Lawton Saltworks, Cheshire (Salmon’s engine). His account is too long to reproduce in full. An outline of the main features is set out below:-

"When Watt arrived at Lawton on February 4, 1778, the engine materials were on the spot, and he found the engine-house ready for putting up the cylinder. Next day the beam was got up and the martingales at the cylinder end put on; also the cylinder bottom was set out for drilling. On the 6th the inner bottom was drilled for the holding-down screws, and the brick platform or foundation for the cylinder was begun; this was completed the following day, when also the windlass was fixed on the upper floor. On the 9th the upper flange of the cylinder was drilled and the small holes in the inner bottom were drilled and tapped; the inner bottom was then screwed down and the inner cylinder put in place. Next day an attempt was made to raise the outer cylinder; but, in consequence of a failure of the rope, this was not accomplished until the day after, when also the inner cylinder was levelled, the two cylinders set nearly parallel, and the lower part of the nozzle fitted; on this day too the boiler seat and the ash-hole were marked out.

On the 12th the setting parallel of the cylinders was completed, the bottom joints of the outer cylinder made with dung and blood, the upper part of the nozzle fitted, the condenser cistern moved into its place, and the copper education-pipes tried together. "

On this day Watt remarks:

"We had a good deal of chiselling at the flanches of inner cylinder opposite the holding down screws before would suffer front joint of outer cylinder and bottom to come fair and we had to cut off the outer side of ye washers under the pillars to a quarter inch broad, otherwise kept the bottom joint open."

"On the 13th both nozzles were screwed on ‘for good’, the joints being made with pasteboard and putty, the boiler setting was begun, and half the upper floor of the engine-house laid. Next day the two cylinders were set perpendicular, and the piston filled up with wood; the piston-rod, it was found, did not fit the piston, being 3in in diameter at the base of the cone instead of 2 5/8in; the boiler seat was finished and the chimney commenced.

On the 16th, the next working day, the boiler was put on its seat and the flues built up to the arch, the piston was put in, the screws of the stuffing-box lengthened, the guide-posts fixed up, the holes bored in the plug-tree, and staples made for the Y-shafts. The following day the working-gear was fitted up, and on the day after more work was done on the gear, and the air-pump was screwed together. The 19th saw the joining up of the education pipe, ‘by pouring lead with a small mixture of tin into copper bosses surrounding the joints’, the drilling of the steam pipe flanges, more work on the working-gear, the completion of the boiler setting, and progress on the chimney.

The next day we have two men making screws, another soldering up the hot-water pump, another putting the arches for the air-pump chains on the beam. On the 21st certain defective joints in the education pipe were unsoldered and made afresh, and the beam was adjusted.

The next week was taken up in work connected with the pump end of the beam, and in fitting and fixing the steam-pipe, fixing down the condenser in its cistern, hanging the chains for working the air-pump, fitting the brake or lever for working that pump by hand, and fixing the manhole screws in the boiler. Later, there is an entry that: ‘Manhole screws with T-heads would not answer, ordered bolt-head screws and fixed nuts’.

On March 3rd fire was put under the boiler, and the piston packed, and on the day after steam was turned on to the engine which was found ‘in general very tight’. The succeeding days were taken up in minor jobs, and then on the afternoon of the 11th we read ‘set the engine agoing, raised water to top of pitt trees, drew much air, and the condenser top let in much water, about a gallon pr stroke’. On the 12th the engine was christened in the presence of ‘a great lot of people’. The engine went off very well, but not so the pumps; ‘the upper lift soon begun to draw air, sett on ye jack-head but it proved very leaky … with difficulty got a little brine to top of bank’. Although the engine worked, it was not doing what it should do, so the following day, in addition to overhauling the pumps, the air-pump and condenser were attended to, and Watt gave instructions for an alteration of the gear for working the exhaust valve. He left Lawton on March 14th.

It will be seen that the work of erection began on February 4th, and that the engine was set going on March 11th. There were some minor difficulties with the pumps, but the engine itself went off very well, and it continued to do well, for in August 1779 we find that Salmon had written ‘a letter full of praises of his engine’."

[Reproduced from pages 257 et seq in James Watt and the Steam Engine by Dickinson & Jenkins (Clarendon Press 1927)].

See also letter Watt to Boulton, August 13, 1779 in the Matthew Boulton Papers (covered elsewhere in this microfilm project, see Part 1).

By the year 1778 the procedure in erecting the engines had become regular and systematic. This is borne out by the fact that in the following year Watt set about the production of a hand-book bearing the title ‘Directions for erecting and working the newly-invented steams engines. By Boulton and Watt.’ This, the first book in the English language devoted to the steam engine, was not published in the ordinary way, but was produced for private circulation among the clients of the firm, who, it must be understood, were under no compulsion to have their engines put up by the Soho erectors. It seems that one hundred copies only were printed, and the book is accordingly very rare; it is reproduced in Part 2 of this microfilm project. The title-page bears no date, but certain entries in Watt’s Journal make it clear that it was printed in 1779.

May 25 Writing directions for putting engines together.
June 6 Writing directions for putting engines together.
June 7 Gave directions to Mr Rollason to be printed.
June 10 Corrected proofs of directions and sent them 20 more pages.
June 11 All day at directions, wrote 19 pages.
June 12 In forenoon at the printers, ordered 50 copies on copy paper and 50 on thin post paper.
June 29 Wrote to Mr Hornblower with copy of engine directions.
August 10 Writing directions for working and managing engines.
August 11 Finished engine directions which gave to the printer.
September 4 Rec’d the 1st plate, the piston, from the engraver, he charges 10/6 for it & says it took 3 days."

Some years later, after the introduction of the rotative engine, another set of ‘Directions relating to the engine’ was printed as a single sheet, no doubt with the intention that it should be pasted on a board and hung up in the engine-house. This also is reproduced in Part 2 of this microfilm project.

But apart from these ‘Directions’, we find Boulton and Watt making free use of printing in the course of their business. For their reply to an inquiry for a mine pumping-engine they had a seven-page quarto pamphlet: ‘Proposals to the Adventurers in … By Boulton and Watt’, setting forth in full the conditions for the grant of a licence to use the engine, and the manner in which the royalty was determined, with blank spaces for the insertion of such particulars as the name of the mine and the size of the engine. Printed lists of the materials for each engine came into use in 1778. These lists were filled in in writing with the names of the places from which the various parts were to be supplied and any necessary directions as to erecting, etc. For the engines in Cornwall printed forms were employed from 1780 for the periodical returns of the engine performances, and printed books were supplied to the mines for the same purpose. Curiously enough, as it may seem to us now, the firm did not make use of printed letter-headings.

When we consider the developed state of the means of transport at that period, it becomes an interesting subject for the study how the different parts from these widely separated localities were brought together at about the same time, for the erection of an engine, say, in Cornwall. It is clear that a good deal of fore-thought and an extensive organization were necessary, and that the commercial side of the Boulton and Watt concern had not a few difficulties to surmount.

The transport of goods made in London was the simplest problem of all, as there was a frequent service of ships direct between the Thames and one or other of the Cornish ports. The goods from Soho and Birmingham were carted to the Canal, along which they were taken to Stourport on the Severn. There they were transhipped and carried down the river to Gloucester, Bristol, or Chepstow, and again transhipped into a coasting vessel which completed the transit. The goods sent direct from Bradley could be loaded into the canal barge at the works. The Bersham goods were sent by road to Chester and there shipped to a Cornish port. Usually the cargo was made up with fire-bricks, in which there was a considerable trade to Cornwall. The piston-rods made at Seaton were usually shipped at Whitehaven or Workington to Liverpool, taken thence to Chester, where they were loaded on the same vessel as the cylinder, etc, from Bersham. At least this was the course that it desired to follow, but frequently the rod did not arrive to time.

The Soho Manufactory was established in 1765. It is only in 1781 that we find Boulton engaged about the plan of a new engine-shop, a two-story building that was completed by the end of the year and cost a little under £110.

A perusal of the Boulton and Watt papers show that Watt did not take any active part in the direction of the engine works, or in the improvement of the methods of production. He had an office at his house at Harper’s Hill, and it was there that he carried out his work, calculations, drawings, and correspondence; the mere bulk of the product forms abundant evidence that he worked very hard, and it is clear that frequently many days elapsed between his visits to Soho to inspect the progress of any new schemes on hand, and to discuss business matters with Boulton. Possibly in Boulton’s absence his visits may have been more frequent, but on one occasion we find Boulton writing from Cornwall requesting him to try to go down to Soho, or else to send his assistant Playfair, to see that matters are going forward satisfactorily.

It was Boulton who managed the works, kept an eye on costs, and sought to improve the methods of production. Thus we find him writing, from Cornwall, that cast iron was not suitable material for the racks and sectors for operating the valves, and suggesting that ‘it would be safer to forge them of steel & cut them down with a cutter in the mill’, and then a little later on suggesting a machine for dividing and cutting the teeth. See letter, Boulton to Watt, November 6, 1780 in the Boulton and Watt Collection.

Boulton also writes to Watt on the subject of nozzle-fitting, in which they are much behind hand, suggests that the collars for the spindles be made of brass instead of steel as it would save time and expense, and comes back to the tooth-cutting machine and the grinding of the flats ‘instead of chiselling’. See letter, Boulton to Watt, April 19, 1782 in the Boulton and Watt Collection.

Boulton next turns his attention to the castings themselves, and proposes to go over to Bradley Ironworks to see a nozzle moulded, and to discuss with the moulder the best means to avoid the considerable amount of chipping now entailed in fitting up the nozzles.

Apparently, it was not before the year of 1794 that the firm took the first serious steps towards doing more of the engine work themselves. The original idea was to have a boring-mill, and Peter Ewart, who was then in business as a millwright, and superintending the erection of Boulton and Watt’s engines in Manchester, was brought to Soho to design and superintend the erection of a separate establishment at Smethwick, which became known as the Soho Foundry, and was about a mile distant from the parent establishment. Soho had the disadvantage that everything had to be brought there and taken away by road; when the question arose of dealing with large cylinders and other heavy articles this became an important matter; possibly it may have been the factor that determined the setting up of a new works. At any rate, in selecting a site for it the point was kept in view, and the plot of land acquired had a frontage to the Birmingham Canal, from which a branch was cut and a dock formed within the works.

The production of drawings for all these engines was a considerable endeavour. Drawings were made at Watt’s own private residence, and when he got the assistance of Playfair, and afterwards of Southern, it was at his house that they attended. This remained the state of affairs until 1790 when the drawing office was moved to Soho Manufactory. There was no separate drawing office at the Foundry, although this was a distinct engine-making business; at least this seems to have been the case as late as 1826.

The development of the Soho Engine Manufactory during the fifteen years 1786-1801 is illustrated by a paper in the Muirhead Collection which summarises the amount of the inventory of the property, the number of the workmen, the wages paid, and the number of engines put up in these years. On October 1, 1786, the inventory showed the value of the property to be £2,319; on October 1, 1800, it amounted to £9,010. The wages paid to the workmen for the first year of this period amounted to £1,688, and for the last year £3,407. In 1786-7 from fifteen to twenty men were employed (not including the men engaged outside as erectors); in 1795-6 the number was from fifty to fifty-five.

For the period 1798-1803 some interesting particulars of the costs and methods of production at the Engine Manufactory are summarized later on with like information in respect of Soho Foundry. The two establishments were conducted as separate concerns, and the Engine Manufactory continued in operation until about 1850, when the Soho Manufactory was dismantled and the engineering establishment was concentrated at Soho Foundry.

This microfilm set provides a wide range of engineering drawings. It reveals the diverse use and disperate location of the 'Sun and Planet' type engines erected and supplied by Boulton and Watt in the period after 1775. They played a vital role in the Industrial Revolution. Their engines had important uses at collieries, cotton mills, flour mills, breweries, distilleries, glass-works, rolling mills and, increasingly, in the iron industry for raising water to operate bellows, forge hammers and other equipment.

As Professor Barry Supple (Master, St Catherine’s College, Cambridge) comments, "The revival of scholarly interest in the Industrial Revolution, and the debates and controversy surrounding it, should give even more prominence to the sort of archival material embodied in the Boulton and Watt Papers.


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