The engine makers

Imagine that your business was threatened by a new market entrant. You suspect him of stealing your inventions, poaching your staff and undercutting your prices. How would you react? Would you bury your head? Would you try to raise your game? Or would you sink to the challenger’s level?

This is the story of James Watt Junior, son and namesake of the great Scottish engineer, and of how he took on an upstart, uneducated competitor for dominance of the fledgling steam engine business. It’s the story of Matthew Murray, the self-made entrepreneur fighting entrenched, privileged interest from his base in the nursery of the Industrial Revolution. And it’s a tale of green sand and subterfuge, of red bricks and dirty tricks. We’ll meet spies, thieves, patent lawyers and estate agents. We will wrestle dilemmas as fresh and controversial today as they were when Watt and Murray faced them more than 200 years ago. How far can anyone claim protection for their inventions in a rapidly changing field? How much business success is down to innovation versus excellence in execution? And what happens when a start-up founder hands over the reins to the next generation?

We’ll soon find out that there are two sides to every story. Was Murray really, as his opponent claimed, “a great scoundrel but a very able mechanic“? Or was he more sinned against than sinner? Can we take at face-value his self-image as a straightforward maker of things who maintained simply: “what people want of us are good engines”?

Matthew Murray was the original hardware hacker: born in Newcastle in 1765 and brought up with little book learning. Even at the height of his powers he would sign his name as it sounded to him, “Matthew Mirror”. He was apprenticed to a smith at the age of 14, married at 20, and a year later moved as a journeyman mechanic to a flax mill near Darlington. In 1789, the year of the French Revolution, Murray found himself out of work in the North East. It is said he walked the 60 miles to Leeds in search of a job, spending his first night in Chapel Allerton where the keeper of the Nag’s Head Hotel gave him free lodging. He soon found employment with local entrepreneur John Marshall who had a mill at nearby Adel, and sent for his wife Mary and family to join him.

Whether he knew it or not, Murray was in at the start of a remarkable explosion in economic activity which was to make England the World’s first industrial nation, with the belt of Northern cities from Liverpool to Leeds as its Silicon Valley. Entrepreneurs like Marshall were transforming textiles from – literally – a cottage industry to a mass-scale operation in vast new mill complexes. They valued inventive employees like Murray, who patented several improvements to the flax spinning machines on which he worked. At first the power to process raw flax into yarn was provided by water wheel, but as the 1790s wore on, this was augmented and replaced with steam power.

By 1791, when Marshall moved to a new site in Holbeck, Matthew Murray was his chief engineer. He was not yet building engines himself but had ample chance to study the ones Marshall bought for his new works, including one installed there by Boulton and Watt of Birmingham. The 28 horse-power engine installed in 1793 replaced a water wheel in powering 900 spindles. Soon Murray was tweaking its working to improve its performance and reliability. There is much to be admired in Murray’s rise from oily rags to middle-class respectability, but it’s easy to see how the more established firm’s suspicions could be aroused. When Murray began to make his own engines, achieving better results at competitive prices, it was as a result of his schooling as a tinkerer of a Boulton and Watt engine.

In complete contrast to the self-made Matthew Murray, James Watt Junior was born, in 1769, with the silver spoon of a rich Enlightenment heritage. Watt Senior was a Scots Presbytarian, an established inventor, engineer, and leading member of Birmingham’s Lunar Society, alongside luminaries such as Joseph Priestley and Josiah Wedgwood. Watt’s patents on his improvements to the steam engine had made him a wealthy man, yet he always fretted that this state of affairs might run out. Lacking the landed inheritance of the aristocracy, he was determined that his “Jimmy” should be equipped to make his way in the World independently if the need arose. The young man’s education reflected this uncertainty. James Junior studied languages and natural philosophy in Geneva and Gemany, but also trained in business at a counting house in Manchester, before embarking on an eventful four-year Grand Tour of Europe in 1790.

Arriving in Paris, he was, in common with many liberal Britons, sympathetic with the Revolution. His stay there coincided with William Wordsworth with whom he formed a life-long friendship. As the Terror spread James Watt Junior was forced to flee to Italy, and on his return to England in 1794 Pitt’s Government regarded him as a dangerous “Jacobin” radical. His father was advised to occupy the prodigal son at home in business, and to prevent any more risky trips abroad.

This settling into the family firm marked the passing of the baton to a second generation. The business was reconstituted as Boulton, Watt and Sons, including not just James Junior, but also his brother Gregory and partner’s son Matthew Robinson Boulton. It is mainly through the indiscreet correspondence of these three young men that we learn of the campaign to defend their company against the upstart rival from Leeds.

Back in 1775, by act of Parliament, Watt Senior had obtained a patent on his improvements to the steam engine, which he had vigourously enforced against anyone making or using engines that seemed to infringe it. Some argue that Watt’s aggressive legal moves held back the development of this new technology. He had certainly used the patent to block other innovations such as Cornishman Jonathan Hornblower’s compound engine. But Watt’s patent would expire in 1800, demanding a different strategy from the new generation of Boultons and Watts. Their response was to build a new works at Soho to produce engines ready for sale. No longer able to enjoy a monopoly on the technology they had to focus on operations and sales in an increasingly competitive market: to beat the competition by whatever means necessary.

> A plentiful dose of ale

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