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

Part 1: Lunar Society Correspondence


James Watt (1736-1819)
Born in Greenock, learnt how to make mathematical instruments in London before opening a shop in the College of Glasgow at the age of 21. After repairing a model of a Newcomen engine he had by 1765 invented the separate condenser steam engine, a modification which greatly improved output and heat-efficiency. Involved in canal and land surveying. First met Matthew Boulton in 1768 and they went into partnership in 1774. Boulton was able to support Watt's further engine experiments by supplying the necessary capital. In 1775 the original patent was extended for a further 25 years. Boulton and Watt's partnership was agreed for a like term. The new engines proved their worth and Watt improved them still further by adapting them to provide rotary motion and by inventing the centrifugal governor to regulate their speed. By 1800 some 500 Watt engines were at work. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1786, Watt also invented a document copying machine, steam-powered coin-presses for the Royal Mint, a machine for copying sculpture, and the concept of measuring the output of engines in 'horsepower'.

James Watt, junior (1769-1848)
In 1789 he worked as an employee of Taylor & Maxwell, cloth makers in Manchester, and became a member of the Manchester Literary & Philosophical Society. He served as one of its secretaries in 1789 and 1790. He helped James Keir with his Dictionary of Chemistry and the pair corresponded frequently on the subject of geology as late as 1810-12. Active within Lunar Society circles and very involved with Matthew Robinson Boulton in the planning and construction of the Soho Foundry after 1794. Thereafter travelled widely in Europe and further afield on Mint and Engines business. In 1807 he became a member of the Geographical Society of London. In 1820 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. Involved with St Katherine Dock Scheme in London in 1827 and early experiments on marine Steam Power.

Matthew Boulton (1728-1809)
Founder of the Lunar Society in Birmingham with Dr William Small and Erasmus Darwin. The Society was to be at the heart of scientific and technological problem solving from 1765 onwards. Boulton was born in Birmingham and his father had a successful silver-stamping and piercing business. He started working for his father at the age of 17 and by 1759 was well established in the mercantile trade in Birmingham. In 1762 he founded the Soho Manufactory and entered into partnership with John Fothergill. Boulton became a leading manufacturer of fancy goods and a major figure in coining and minting. His lifelong interest in science enabled him to see the potential of James Watt's steam power and he backed Watt's ideas with the necessary finance. He acquired John Roebuck's interest in Watt's steam engine patent in 1774 and Watt joined him at Soho in Birmingham in a 25 year partnership lasting until 1800. The patent was also extended for the same period of 25 years. In 1782, on the death of Fothergill, Boulton entered into a further partnership with John Scale. From 1777 he had engaged the services of William Murdock. Interest in the Cornish mines and engine business there took Boulton frequently to Cornwall. He was regularly in London on business, elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1785 and active in the General Chamber of Manufacturers with Garbett and Wedgwood. Boulton was also a prime mover on the Birmingham Commercial Committee. Samuel Garbett was Chairman until 1790 when Matthew Boulton took over. He helped found the Assay Office and General Hospital in Birmingham. He took an active interest in the arts and instigated numerous music festivals, bringing Mendelssohn to the Town Hall to conduct the first performance of Elijah in 1846; he won the licence for the Theatre Royal; helped found the Botanical Gardens. In 1779 he entered into a partnership with James Keir in the copying press business. In 1783 he started Albion Mill. From 1784 onwards Boulton vigorously o'osed Pitt's taxes on raw materials. In 1785 he helped to found the Cornish Metal Company. He rebuilt Soho House in 1789 and the following year took out a patent for a coining press. He designed and built the Royal Mint in London, he started fitting this up with his machinery in 1799. By the 1790s his son, Matthew Robinson Boulton, was very active in all his business enterprises. The Soho Foundry was built in 1794, a year after the firm of Boulton, Watt and Sons had been founded. When the 25 year partnership with James Watt ended in 1800 the firm of Boulton, Watt and Co was established. From the beginning Matthew Boulton was at the centre of all Lunar Society activities and built up an impressive network of business and scientific contacts. Watt records that Boulton's closest friends were Erasmus Darwin, William Small, Samuel Garbett, Thomas Day, James Keir and Charles Dumergue. Ingenious, enterprising and quick of mind, Matthew Boulton possessed the brilliant organisational and business skills which were to place him at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution as one of the leading entrepreneurs of his day.

Matthew Robinson Boulton (1770-1842)
Son of Matthew Boulton, and like his father, blessed with excellent business skills. After 1794 he took a leading role in the planning and construction of the Soho Foundry with Watt junior. The continuing operation of both the Soho Works and the Foundry was chiefly under their direction. By 1805 the business was conducted with details of organisation and structure thought modern for factories as late as the 1920s. In their hands the Company expanded its prosperity with increased efficiency of operation and growing markets. Matthew Robinson Boulton eventually returned to the family estates at Tew Park and after his death the family connection with the business appears to have ended.

Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802)
One of the founder members of the Lunar Society. Arrived in Lichfield in November 1756 planning to establish a medical practice. He was an ambitious young man of approximately Boulton's age and with many of Boulton's interests. Studied Classics and mathematics at St John's College, Cambridge; attended John Hunter's anatomical lectures in London; studied medicine for a year at the University of Edinburgh and finally completed his medical degree at Cambridge in 1755. Darwin became the Robinson/Boulton family physician and the Boulton-Darwin correspondence from 1760 has a feel of long and comfortable friendship. The poetic expression of Darwin's highly speculative ideas has tended to eclipse his scientific studies. They were published in The Botanic Garden (1789-91) and The Temple of Nature (1803). More significantly his studies helped the work of other Lunar members - for instance his early writings on Heat, Electricity and Evaporation led to a significant exchange of ideas with Watt and Priestley. He was very involved with canal projects and the steam engine business. Erasmus Darwin was also a great friend of James Keir from his Edinburgh days, and soon gained the trust and friendship of Josiah Wedgwood and the rest of the Lunar circle. With the Wedgwoods he established a lasting family friendship and a keen interest in improvements in education. Darwin's medical practice diffused all over the Midlands. In 1770, after the death of his wife, he travelled so widely the 'Dr Darwin on the road' became an address as well as a description. He spent a great deal of time on the study of electricity. His Commonplace Book of 1778 shows designed for a 'mechanical doubler', a 'system of levers', a 'gadget to trace maps' and all manner of references to experiments.

On his travels he reported to Boulton & Watt about prospective customers and also on anyone infringing their patent. He was interested in all things scientific including hot air balloons, windmills, carriages, canals, ploughs, meteorology, geology, optics and colours seen in the closed eye. He also organised the Botanical Society of Lichfield.

When he moved to Derby he established a new infant philosophical society there, described in a letter of 1783. Wedgwood was a member.

In 1794-6 Darwin published his long-delayed work on medical theory Zoonomica: or the Laws of Organic Life in 2 volumes. He groped diseases in 4 classes: Irritation, Sensation, Volition and Association.

Dr William Small (1734-1775)
He first arrived in Birmingham carrying a letter of introduction to Matthew Boulton from Benjamin Franklin. He became Boulton's own family physician, and from 1765 until Small's death, Boulton did very little in scientific matters without Small's advice. Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Thomas Day and James Keir all regularly exchanged correspondence with him. He gave Watt vital encouragement in the early phases of his engine experiments, as is borne out by a whole stream of letters, 1768-174. Small was a key member of the Lunar Society. His pioneer role in early American education and the development of the Steam Engine industry in Britain should not be underestimated. In 1758 he had been appointed Professor of Natural Philosophy at the College of William an Mary in Virginia. One of his most illustrious pupils was Thomas Jefferson who wrote 'it was my great good fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr William Small of Scotland was then Professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind. He, most happily for me, became soon attached to me and made me his daily companion when not engaged in the School; an from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science and the system of things in which we are placed .' Small introduced the lecture system at the College, then still quite uncommon in the Colonies. His science courses which made such an impression on Jefferson and Page, actually formed the basis for the new scientific curricula which they recommended after the American Revolution.

Joseph Priestley (1733-1804)
English clergyman and chemist. One of the founders of modern chemistry, he was the first person to make pure ammonia gas; he invented soda water by using carbon dioxide to make the bubbles'; and is most famous for being the first in 1774, to make pure oxygen, which he called 'Dephlogisticated air'. Priestley also identified and isolated nitrous oxide (laughing gas) and sulphur dioxide. He discussed his scientific work and experiments on electricity with Benjamin Franklin and other colleagues in the Lunar circle, publishing The history and present state of electricity (1767), Observations on different kinds of air (1772), Directions for impregnating water with fixed air (1772), and many other important works.

Priestley's sympathies for the cause of the French Revolution made him unpopular in England. In 1791 an angry mob burned his house and Meeting House in Birmingham. Priestley left England for the United States in 1794.

Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795)
Wedgwood was born in Burslem, Staffordshire, a district rich in pottery clays. He became a master potter at the age of 29 and established a successful business. In 1762, in partnership with Thomas Bentley, a London merchant, he started the Etruria factory at Hanley, near Stoke-on-Trent. There he perfected the clays, glazes, and processes that made Wedgwood were famous were famous around the world. He improved and also invented significant new processes in the pottery industry. An important member of the Lunar Society, he corresponded regularly with Watt, Boulton, Garbett and Priestley.

Active in lobbying on behalf of the manufacturing interest, he was chairman of the General Chamber of Manufacturers. Correspondence with Boulton indicates that Wedgwood spent much time in Committees in London, making representations and petitions to the House of Commons, and spearheading the efforts of industrialists to intervene in affairs of international trade and commerce.

William Withering (1741-1799)
Developed his medical practice in Birmingham and at Birmingham's General Hospital. Mad important discoveries about digitalis which were not published until 1785. The drug, widely used in cardiac and circulatory troubles, was discovered after an infusion of foxglove leaves had cured a patient whose case Withering thought hopeless. In addition to being one of the leading botanists of his day, Withering at one time was supposed to have the largest practice of any physician outside London.

Thomas Day (1748-1789)
An admirer of Rousseau and a friend of R L Edgeworth, Day was very interested in educational theory and natural upbringing. He was author of the celebrated children's book The History of Sandford and Merton (3 vols, 1783-9). He also published The History of Little Jack (1787). He brought a significant literary flavour to the Lunar circle, but also actively followed canal developments, Boulton and Watt's Engines in Cornwall, news of the copper trade and the Science of Mineralogy as revealed by his letters in this Collection. In particular there is much on the buying and selling of canal shares. Thomas Day died at a relatively early age from injuries sustained when he fell off an unbroken colt.

James Keir (1745-1820)
Chemist and Physician. He founded a chemical manufactory at Tipton and a Glasworks at Stourbridge. Studied medicine at Edinburgh University, where he became acquainted with Dr Erasmus Darwin. He then entered the Army and went to the West Indies. He first met James Watt at Soho in 1768 and was subsequently involved with Boulton in the management of Soho.

In about 1770 he married Miss Susane Harvey. Published On the Crystallisation observed on Glass in Philosophical Transactions; a translation of Macquer's Dictionary (1776); a Treatise on the different kinds of Electric Fluids in Gases (1777); and Part 1 of his famous Chemical Dictionary (1789). He invented a new metal (a patent for this Bolt Metal was obtained in 1799) used for the manufacture of ship's bolts and window-frames. By 1780 he was engaged in the manufacture of soap and caustic soda, the latter made by passing sodium sulphate through lime. Detailed correspondence with Matthew Boulton exists for the period 1778-1781.

Samuel Galton, junior (1753-1832)
Despite having been expelled for his un-Quaker-like gunmaking, he attended the Society of Friends meetings in Birmingham for 40 years. He lived at Barr Hall, now St Margaret's Hospital, and it was his butler who first referred to the Lunar Society members as 'the lunatics'. He married Lucy Barclay of the London banking family, known as 'the fair Quakeress', and bought the family estate at Warley for £7,300. Barr Hall was often a venue for Lunar Society meetings.

Robert Augustus Johnson (1745-1799
Just a few of his letters to Matthew Boulton survive in this collection. They reveal his connections with the Lunar Society in 1787, 1793 and 1795.

Richard Lovell Edgeworth (1744-1817)
An eccentric, radical and inventive man, deeply interested in the practical applications of science and the development of education and teaching practices. Friends included Erasmus Darwin, Mrs Barbauld and Thomas Day. He invented a velocipede and pedometer. He also had a profound influence on his eldest daughter Maria Edgeworth who played an important part in the development of the historical and regional novel in English Literature. He edited some of her work and managed her early literary career.

John Whitehurst (1713-1788)
A clock and instrument maker from Derby, his correspondence with Boulton in 1758 suggests co-operative investigations of long standing. Settled in Derby in 1736; became a town burgess in 1737 when he presented a clock for the town hall. Whitehurst designed the first time-clocks which were later manufactured and sold by Boulton. More than just a craftsman, John Whitehurst was an ingenious and skilful instrument maker - hence his admission to the embryonic company of Midland philosophers. A very patient man of sound judgement, he was a useful and versatile member of the Lunar Society. His interests included the variable heat expansion of metals, hygrometers, barometers, chime music, geology and astronomy. He published an Inquiry into the Original State and Formation of the Earth (1st edition 1778; 2nd edition 1786).

Having moved to London, he was recommended by the Duke of Newcastle for the position of 'Stamper of the Money Weights', a post created in 1775 to regulate the standard of gold coinage. By June 1775 Whitehurst was regularly attending meetings of the Royal Society; he was elected as a Fellow in May 1779. He took various members of the Lunar Society to the Royal Society as guests, and his continued residence in London proved very convenient to Lunar Society members.

After his move to London, Whitehurst continued his instrument making and acted as a sub-contractor for Boulton & Watt, manufacturing engine-counters, clocks, chimes, and 'philosophic instruments' or directing their manufacture for Boulton. His new position was useful to Boulton as well. Weights were among items being manufactured at the Soho works. Friendship with the official tester of weights came in very handy! Whitehurst published several works on the standardisation of weights and measures with special reference to the measurement of time.

Dr Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790)
Physicist and Statesman, born in Boston, and apprenticed to a printer there. Arrived in England in 1724, soon returned to America, becoming Postmaster of Philadelphia in 1757. Visits Birmingham in 1758 and begins friendship with John Baskerville and Matthew Boulton. Carries out scientific demonstrations to an invited audience at Boulton's home, particularly electrical experiments, leading to further discussions with Joseph Priestley.

Introduces Dr William Small to Boulton. Latter returned the favour by introducing Samuel Garbett to Franklin. They discussed the colonial situation. Manufacturers like Boulton, Baskerville, Wedgwood, Bentley and Garbett were anxious to avoid war with the colonists, as war would mean ruin to exports.
Franklin's scientific work, occupying the years between 1746 and 1754, was mainly concerned with electrical polarity, with meteorology, and with the absorption of heat by coloured surfaces.

John Roebuck (1718-1795)
Physician, chemist and inventor of the lead-chamber process for manufacturing sulphuric acid. After gaining his diploma at London he settled in Birmingham where, with Samuel Garbett, he set up the first sulphuric acid works. In the Midlands there was already a great demand for this substance to supply the needs of hatters, papermakers, tanners, brass founders, button makers, japanners, gilders and the refiners of precious metals. The factory founded in Steelhouse Lane in 1746 was a great success and continued to operate for over a century. A second sulphuric acid works was established at Prestonpans in 1749 to supply the Scottish bleaching trade. At the fore-front of the Industrial Revolution in Scotland, Roebuck then went on to found the famous Carron Iron Works near Falkirk in 1760. It was Roebuck who invited Watt to erect an engine at Kinneil near Bowness in 1769. Roebuck planned to make Carron self sufficient for raw materials. To this end he leased Coal Mines at Bowness belonging to the Duke of Hamilton. To keep them clear of water, pumps were needed, but no Newcomen Engine was powerful enough. To find a solution Roebuck encouraged Watt's experiments and took a 2/3 share in his patent in return for discharging Watt's £1200 debt to Joseph Black. Roebuck and Watt also collaborated on experiments in the synthesis of soda. Through Watt, Roebuck was involved in the Lunar Society in Birmingham. Despite his scientific acumen and pioneering spirit, Roebuck was no businessman. He ran out of capital and had to be bailed out by Matthew Boulton who took over his share of the patent in 1774.

Sir Joseph Banks (1732-1820)
Distinguished naturalist on the Endeavour voyage with Captain Cook, Banks is famous for his important botanical discoveries. He was President of the Royal Society for 42 years from 1778 to 1820. His international network of contacts furnished a helpful source of customers for Boulton and Watt and placed him at the hub of scientific progress in Great Britain and Western Europe. Banks also played a leading part in the colonisation of Australia, the improvement of livestock, and the economic translocation of plants; he was the most influential member of the Board of Longitude; he was one of the founders of the Royal Horticultural Society and of Kew Gardens. With a vigorous interest in coinage, as a pioneer of drainage schemes, enthused by experiments such as Albion Mills, and even more significantly, as an active Privy Councillor, he was a most useful ally and contact for Matthew Boulton, staunch in his protection of manufacturing interests.

Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808)
Physician and chemist. Worked closely with Sir Humphry Davy. Set up the Pneumatic Institution (which later became the Preventive Medical Institution) in Bristol in 1799 with Humphry Davy as his assistant. Discussed this work and his series of lectures on Chemistry and the Properties of Animal Nature with members of the Lunar Society. Used the offices of M R Boulton to procure scientific books from Leipzig in Germany. Beddoes was on good terms with James Keir, Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Day. Keir invited him to write some articles for his Dictionary of Chemistry. Beddores married Anne Edgeworth and was to become a favourite of the Edgeworth family.

John Fothergill (1712-1782)
Partner with Matthew Boulton in the general manufactory and in the firm of Boulton & Fothergill (hardware business producing toys, ormolu and plated ware). A cautious and sensible operator, Fothergill looked after the day to day business at Soho in the early years. He was, however, much less enterprising in his outlook than Matthew Boulton and fell heavily into debt. Boulton provided Fothergill with a house at Soho, and after the latter's death in 1782, Boulton made provision for the education of Fothergill's children and took care of his one major Dutch creditor.

John Smeaton (1724-1792)
Famous engineer. His work on the efficiency of water mills was of interest to Boulton in 1760. Smeaton studied the Newcomen engine to improve engine design, but he did not discover the principle of a separate condenser. He did not go as far was Watt's experiments on the mechanical properties of steam introducing the theory of latent heat. He formed a Society of Civil Engineers in London in 1771. Boulton, Watt, Whitehurst and Priestley were members. Boulton and Watt needed Smeaton as an ally as he was listened to in the engineering world. He had already pronounced against Watt's early engines as being too complicated for the average workmen to operate. He did not at first believe that a reciprocally acting engine could ever be made to produce a smooth circular motion. It was important that Smeaton did not discourage potential purchases so Boulton and Watt continued to work on Smeaton with argument and demonstrations. Ultimately he grew to favour the Watt engine and recommended it to many people who asked his opinion.

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