The Industrial Revolution's Indispensable Entrepreneur

The Industrial Revolution's Indispensable Entrepreneur

6 Mins
September 5, 2003

Many of the towering figures of the Industrial Revolution could well be described as "the compleat producer." Richard Arkwright, for example, invented radically new spinning machinery, applied waterpower to its operation, set up mills all over Great Britain, financed collateral inventions, and maintained a dominant position in the textile industry even after his patents were voided. He was the sort of inventor-engineer-capitalist-executive-marketer on which Ayn Rand based Hank Rearden.

Unfortunately, this figure of the all-encompassing businessman allows scientists and engineers to imagine that economic progress is really just a history of technological insights exploited by lesser minds.It is no such thing. A much clearer illumination of capitalism's economic roles is offered by the partnership of inventor James Watt and promoter Matthew Boulton, who joined together to produce the key machine of the Industrial Revolution: an efficient steam engine.


Boulton was the older of the two men, having been born in Birmingham in 1728. (Watt was born in Scotland in 1736.) Boulton's father ran a small buckle-manufacturing company, which his son joined in 1750 and inherited in 1759. The younger Boulton was interested in steam engines, because the family factory used them to operate machinery and also to recycle water back upstream in order to turn a waterwheel.

The engine chiefly used throughout Great Britain at this time was the so-called Newcomen engine, which had been invented in 1712 by Thomas Newcomen and had not been substantially altered in the course of half a century. It worked by forcing steam into a cylinder and pushing up a circular plate. That plate, in turn, pushed up one end of a rocking beam. Then cold water was injected into the cylinder, condensing the steam and allowing air pressure to force the circular plate back down, bringing the beam end back down also. The most common use of this steam engine's rocking beam was to operate a pump that would drain water from deep mines. But it could be adapted to many uses. Boulton's friend Erasmus Darwin (grandfather to the great Charles Darwin) tried to build a carriage powered by a steam engine.


After spending his boyhood constructing models in the shop of his father's shipbuilding business, James Watt went to London in 1755 to be trained in the making of mathematical instruments. Quickly, however, his health broke down, and he returned to Scotland in 1757 to open an instrument-making shop at the University of Glasgow. Among his friends at the school was Joseph Black, a leading chemist of the age.

In 1764, Watt was called upon to repair a model of the Newcomen engine. He did so, but the working model troubled him even more than the broken one. It was, he realized, strikingly inefficient. The solution, he saw, lay in keeping the engine's steam cylinder hot and condensing the engine's steam in a separate cylinder. Black generously lent Watt small amounts of money to pursue this idea but could not fund the project adequately. When Black was about to take up a new post at the University of Edinburgh, he looked for someone who could sponsor Watt properly.


Boulton's friends in Birmingham included not only Darwin but also Samuel Garbett, a hardware manufacturer, and John Roebuck, an industrial chemist who had vastly improved the manufacture of sulfuric acid. Garbett and Roebuck had gone into the business of producing sulfuric acid and using it to refine gold and silver, eventually setting up a large factory outside Edinburgh.

Economic progress is not a history of technological insights exploited by lesser minds.

By 1760, Roebuck had made a great deal of money in this business and decided to enter the iron-making trade, building the Carron Iron Works at Falkirk (approximately midway between Edinburgh and Glasgow). In the mid-1760s, he leased some coal mines in order to obtain coke for his blast furnaces, but he found the mines flooding faster than Newcomen engines could handle. Black, learning of this, introduced him to Watt. It seemed the perfect partnership.

Roebuck began to support Watt's work but not fully enough to let Watt concentrate exclusively on steam. Instead, Roebuck arranged other work for Watt, such as surveying, and so development of the steam engine languished. Finally, in 1768, Roebuck did begin to back Watt fully, in return for two-thirds of the rights to the invention. But Roebuck had acted too late to make his name as a promoter.


In 1768, on his way back from patenting the idea of a separate condenser, Watt was introduced to Boulton and the rapport between the two men was immediate, going far beyond a common interest in steam power. Boulton wished to become Watt's backer, but Watt felt bound by his contract with Roebuck.

Then, in 1772-73, a financial panic swamped most of the private banks in Scotland, and Roebuck went down with them. Watt waived what he was owed by Roebuck and took his engine model as payment. Boulton, who was one of Roebuck's creditors, saw his chance and secured the two-thirds interest in Watt's patent, which no other of Roebuck's creditors wanted. And, as Watt's wife died at about this time, Boulton also took possession of the inventor, now 37, setting him up in one of his houses.. According to the historian of technology Eugene S. Ferguson: "Boulton took Watt as a partner, paid him a salary to cover his living expenses, and what was equally important to a man of Watt's temperament, encouraged him to work despite failures, and rejoiced with him in his successes. The flame of Watt's genius was easily buffeted by adversity; it might have gone out if Boulton had not acted as its protector."

The most difficult problem remaining for Watt was that his engine's steam cylinder leaked around the circular disk that formed its top. He had tried packing over the disk with every substance from chewed paper to horse manure, but without success. Finally, in 1774, Boulton made a suggestion: Why not get a new cylinder? A more accurate cylinder? He knew a man who could make it.


The boring of a more accurate cylinder was carried out by John Wilkinson, and even Watt, the fastidious instrument-maker, was impressed. "Ye cylinder is not perfect," he wrote Wilkinson, "yet there doth not appear any gross error." L.T.C. Rolt's history of machine tools is more generous: "John Wilkinson was able to produce a cylinder bore that was both truly circular and parallel throughout its length . . . and it made Watt's engine a practical proposition with momentous consequences for mankind."

Nevertheless, inventors like Watt and engineers like Wilkinson could not themselves have brought about those momentous consequences for mankind. Far more important were visionary investors like Boulton. Wrote Melvin Kranzberg, one of the greatest historians of technology: "Capital for investment in machinery is necessary for industrialization. In addition to the cost of the machinery itself, there is also the expense of bridging the gap between invention and innovation, that is, the development of a basic idea into a usable process or piece of machinery. Many inventions would have been stillborn had not capital been found to make their application effective. For example, the industrial application of Watt's fundamental invention of the steam engine was delayed for almost two decades until Matthew Boulton provided the capital and the drive which made the steam engine commercially successful."

Roger Donway is director of The Atlas Society's Business Rights Center .

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