The Evidence

Image: J S C Schaak, Portrait of Matthew Boulton aged 42 (1770).

Image from: Birmingham Museums & Art Gallery

Among the Matthew Boulton’s papers in the archives at Birmingham Central Library, there is his charming letter to James Watt:

Soho Feb 24th, 1776

Dear Sir,

I have this moment received yours (sans date) from Stratford [?]. As I have ½ an hour to spare and can’t employ it so agreeable to my self as by writing to you my occurring thoughts, produced by your letter, I will ventor [sic] to trespass on your patience.-

1st. I am glad to hear that you are pretty well and that you are so very happy in your present situation.-

I observe you are thinking of making an inverted cylinder. Pray how are you to counterbalance the descent of the piston and pump rods? Which will be a vast weight. If by a counterweight you get nothing, but if you can employ the power that arises from the descent of that vast weight to strain a spring that will repay its debts, if by it, you can compress air in an Iron Cylinder, which in its return will contribute to overcome the Vis-inertiae of the column of water to be raised, you thereby will get quit of that unmechanical tax and very much improve the reciprocating engine. But how to make your piston steam tight requires.  —— I know not what. —-

There seems to be a vacancy in our great Smiths shop at present, and therefore I intend on Monday morning to divide the Wheal engine amongst them, and get it finished out of hand.

I forget the specifick gravity of our Metal, but I fear it’s so light as to rise above the center of this wheel and so run out at the 3 steam pipes; at least you’ll be confined to work with a weak steam but that defect may be remedied by making the pipes bent thus. Hence the fluid metal may rise if necessary as high as A. The steam pipes may be continued by the side of the wheel up to A and then turn towards the Axis.

[Diagram in margin of the letter]

You seem to think of setting the engine to work by the end of the week, but from your own acc[ount] of what is undone I think you will not quite so soon, and I am sure you will not, if you run into one error that I am more guilty of than your self: but you know an old sinner is best qualifyed to preach good doctrine and therefore I say unto you, brother don’t offer to take, even one stroke, before the Bans have been pub[lished] 3 times and no impediment can be found; then in the name of God fall to and do your best.

We have not yet got all the Castings from Bradley for Bloomsfield [?] but Joseph says that he thinks we may probably have them by Wednesday next; if so we shall set to work in 2 days after, unless Mr Wilkinson’s man at Bradley is unwilling to loose his wager which is, that we don’t set to work for 6 weeks.

Pray tell Mr Wilkinson to get a dozen of Cylinders cast and bored from 12 to 50 inches diameter and as many Condensors of suitable sizes, the latter must be sent here, as we will keep them ready fitted up and then an Engine can be turned out of hand in 2 or 3 weeks. I have fixed my mind upon making from 12 to 15 reciprocating and 50 Rotative Engines per annum. I assure you that of all the toys and trinkets which we manufacture at Soho non[e] shall take place of fire Engines in respect to my attention.

Pray remember that ye celebration of ye 3rd full Moon will be on Sunday March 3d. Darwin and Keir will both be at Soho. I then propose to make many motions to the members, respecting new laws and regulations, such as will tend to prevent the decline of a society which I hope will be lasting. Pray bring Mr Wilkinson. I think he will make a good member.

Jimmy is well. I will take him to school tomorrow and will call upon Glover on Tuesday.

I have received a letter from Mackey who advises of having sent me a larg[e] quantity of his different Iron Ores to Assay for him, and also some of his Fossill Charcoal. I think he may be likely to find me employ[ment] for my leasure hours.

Carleton hath beat the provincials at Quebeck, hath killed Montgomery, taken Arnold prisoner and about 300 men. Don’t oppress Mr Wilkinson’s spirits with this bad news; he will hear it too soon.-

I sent your letter to the office. There is another arrived, shall I send it to you or not?

The Empress of Russia is now at my house and a charming woman she is.

John Wood hath determined to have his great engine altered as soon as we can, which with ye orders I suppose you bring home will make a great figure in our order book. Pray make my respectfull compliments to Mr Wilkinson hoping he will make Soho his home when he comes this way. 

I think I’ll not begin a fresh side but say adieu.


Hardly could have Matthew Boulton imagined writing this long friendly letter to James Watt and sharing with him a stream of various thoughts, that one careless cheerful phrase towards the end of the letter (given here in bold) would produce a lasting local legend, and excite the speculations of several generations of historians about the visit of Russian Empress Catherine the Great (1729-1796) to Soho.

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