|The Invention of the Steam Engine : The Life of James Watt|
|Part 3: The Firm of Boulton & Watt|
While James Watt was in London on patent business, he examined the engine used for pumping water at New River, Hungerford, and Chelsea. They were atmospheric engines of the Newcomen types, as improved by Smeaton, but Watt was unable to obtain any accurate figures of the performances.
The patent obtained, and the model at Soho working well, Boulton & Watt were ready to execute orders. Already in 1771, on Boulton first entering into negotiations with Roebuck Small wrote to Watt that "four or five copper mines are just going to be abandoned, because of the high price of coals, the York Buildings Company delay rebuilding their engine... waiting for yours.... and a mining Company in Derbyshire... must quit their mine if you cannot relieve them." Matthew Boulton was well known in the country, and had commercial connections with many industries, and his partnership in the engine business was a ready advertisement for it.
The engine brought from Kinneil had been fitted with a new cylinder, cast and bored by John Wilkinson. The first cylinder had been bored by an apparatus installed by Smeaton, at the Carron Works, but Wilkinson had invented a machine which bored much more accurately.
During 1775 they received many inquiries for various types of engines, and Watt continued with his experiments, both on the reciprocating pumping engine, and on a steam-wheel working with weights. This last caused him much wasted time, and for the present he devised no practical machine.
In starting a new firm, the difficulties which confronted them were, as ever, those of providing capital and intelligent labour. The demand already existed, the supply had to be arranged.
For the first five or six years, the firm devoted the greater part of its attention to Cornwall, which seemed to be the most profitable source of income; then, in 1782, Watt patented a rotary motion, which enabled the engine to be applied to driving machinery and all the manifold purposes of power using industry. Thereafter, the success of the firm was assured, though capital and labour were still difficult to obtain. From beginning to end they encountered the opposition of all who objected to monopolies, and had to contend with imitators and pirates during the greater part of their patent period. Moreover, in the course of the development of the business, the firm found themselves obliged to take shares in some of the enterprises to which they supplied engines, while various purchases of raw material brought them into connexion with the sources of supply.
Again, this was an age of increasing economic power. The commercial and industrial leaders took part in politics, and were a power in the land; both Matthew Boulton and Watt took a share in the various movements to oppose or support the economic foreign policy of the Government. Further, the firm organized its employees, and promoted beneficent and humanitarian institutions for them.
Along all these lines, the history of the firm of Boulton & Watt, and that of its close allies, John Wilkinson and Josiah Wedgwood, is the history of an economic progress...
The history of the firm of Boulton & Watt is interesting for another reason. From 1775 to 1800 they possessed a monopoly of steam engine construction, and, therefore, their output comprises practically all the engines that were erected in Great Britain before the year 1800. The records of the firm contain the dates, power, and owners of all engines erected, therefore it is comparatively easy to discover which trades employed steam power, and to what extent.
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