|The Invention of the Steam Engine : The Life of James Watt|
|Part 5: The Conclusion|
James Watt wrote to Matthew Boulton:
"My inclination and feelings would lead me to abandon both Cornwall and Wheal Virgin forthwith, and to attend to and amuse myself with these rotative machines, etc., but it would be dropping the substance to catch at the shadow : I have a very mean opinion of the rotative profits, and the trouble with each of them must be at least double that of an engine which raises water."Matthew Boulton, however, was more hopeful. In April, 1782, orders for engines had practically ceased, but Boulton was confident of their success, if only the mills would take up the engine. He was ready with an answer to Watt's complaints that mill engines were all small ones, and suggests that mills offer a more permanent source of business " than these transient mines," and the difficulty of small engines could be curtailed " by mailing a pattern card of them and confining ourselves to those sorts and sizes." This is the beginning of standardization in engineering, and an important step forward in the firm's history.
Applications for mill engines soon began to come, among them was a steam corn-mill required for the Commissioners of the Victualling Office, to be erected at Portsmouth, and a scheme for drying gunpowder by some steam machine.
As orders for rotatives at this date were coming in very slowly, Matthew Boulton conceived the idea of a steam corn-mill, in London, to advertise the new engine. This was in 1783, but the London capitalists were averse from the undertaking, and the engine firm had to find the greater part of the capital. However, sufficient shareholders were got together, and a charter of incorporation applied for, but owing to the strenuous opposition of the millers, it was refused. Boulton made out their case in a letter to Matthews, which is interesting as showing the attitude of a trade, which was perfectly satisfied with the power it was already using (i.e. wind and water), to the new steam power. He says, " it seems the millers are determined to be masters of us and ye publick...
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, then, the use of steam power in industry was neither universal nor extensive. The total number of engines in Great Britain and Ireland, in the year 1800, was 321, representing a total horse-power of 5,210. Nevertheless, the location and purpose of these 321 engines is of considerable importance. It is a curious fact that they are nearly all employed in comparatively new industries. The newest industry in the country, the cotton trade, used eighty-four engines of 1,382 horse-power. The wool trade that, up to 1731, had been protected by Parliament, used only nine engines of 180 horse power. This was probably due to the fact that the organization of the woolen trade was only just developing out of the domestic into the factory system, and that wool was very liable to snap when spun and woven mechanically. On the other hand, the cotton trade was a new thing, and had no great weight of domestic tradition behind it ; it had not been localized in sheep-rearing districts for centuries, and its organization was much less stabilized. Rapid development was easy and power was largely applied.
If we look at the other industries that used steam power in 1800, it becomes clear that, apart from mines, water-works, canals, and iron-works, the steam engine was hardly used in industry.
The mines had to use the steam engine in order to proceed at all, their only alternative being the con stant sinking of new shafts in order to work at levels where drainage was not an all-important problem.
The water works and, in many cases, the canals could not exist without steam power, for their very existence depended upon the regular raising of large quantities of water to high levels. Steam was the only power that made this possible.
The iron works also had a special reason for needing steam power, the smelting of iron with coal had made an increased blast necessary. The iron-works were usually situated on the coal and iron seams, where coal was easily obtainable and cheap power from water was not often available. The power to drive the bellows for the increased blast was obviously best obtained from coal-driven steam engines, and the success of John Wilkinson along such lines was a valuable advertisement and recommendation for the use of the steam engine in iron works.
As regards the distribution of the engines geographically, it is obvious that the bad state of the roads made it essential for cheap working that the engines should be situated on the coal-fields, or where coal could be easily transported by water, i.e. by canal or coast route. In fact, the only engines built off the coal-fields were those in Cornwall, where coals came by sea, but were always difficult to obtain, and those which surrounded the metropolis itself.
London, of course, had long possessed an adequate coal supply, though It was carefully controlled and regulated by a limited number of coal dealers, who owned the wharves and quays where the Newcastle Fleet unloaded. Otherwise the steam engines were built on the coal-fields. This was the end of many industries, which could easily have used increased power, but were unable to obtain it, owing to their situation away from the coal-fields.
This helps to account for the gradual introduction of steam power. The steam engines were generally erected in new enterprises near the coal-fields, while the old centers of localized industry continued along traditional lines. Gradually competition added to the numbers of the power-driven works and decreased those of the older type, until the industries that needed power were almost all clustered round or on the coal-fields. All this happened before the days of the railway and rapid coal transport. The movement of industry is now rather away from the coal-fields than towards them; a state of things that is the result of many influences, some social and some purely economic.
It is strange that the position of the steam engine in its early years has been so neglected by economic historians, even Mantoux.who claims to have seen the records of tile firm of Boulton & Watt, makes several mistakes in his dates of the earliest application of steam to various trades. Moreover, another historian says that as in 1800 there were only fifty-three steam engines in Birmingham, Manchester, and Leeds, " the steam engine only gradually supplanted water as a motive power." This, of course, proves nothing, as there is no comparison made between water and steam power.
At any rate, it is obvious that an adequate and accurate account of the position of steam power in 1800 is very necessary to give precision to the economic history of that period.
The story of the early progress of steam power in Industry is easily epitomized. At first it was used as a matter of sheer necessity by the mines; then later it enabled new methods to be employed in smelting iron and working textile machinery of a new and powerful description: then lastly it replaced other types of power in the rest of the industrial field, wherever coals became cheap.