Now we come to the final thrust of Boulton and Watt’s offensive against Fenton, Murray & Wood. We’ve seen them ply their competitor with drink to extract his trade secrets – secrets which it appears has was anyway happy to share. We’ve seen how they tried to lure back disloyal workers and turn them as spies against Murray. We’ve seen how far the young Watt was prepared to go in securing evidence against the defectors – rifling through their belongings and contemplating stealing letters from their clothes as they slept. And we’ve seen how they attempted to hem in the competitor on his Holbeck site, to prevent his expansion and establish a permanent vantage point over Murray’s yard. The attacks spanned people, processes and property – no part of Murray’s operations was to be left untouched.
But without doubt the point that rankled most with the Watts was that of intellectual property: that after all was the foundation of their wealth and the asset they had to defend at all costs. The Watts knew only too well how a patent could be used to stifle competition and maintain a monopoly – they had done just that for more than 20 years. So it’s easy to see how it disturbed them so much that others might be in a position to do the same to them. Matthew Murray’s steam engine patents had to be toppled at any cost.
Matthew Murray’s 1801 patent, number 2531, described “New Methods and Improvements of Constructing the Air Pump and Sundry other Parts belonging to Steam Engines so as to increase Power and Save Fuel.” It included “drop valves, valve gear, cylinder packing, parallel motion, and a method of constructing boiler fire places for consuming their smoke.” The following year, he received patent number 2632. (Take a deep breath before reading its full title:) “New Combined Steam Engines for Producing a Circular Power, and for certain Machinery thereunto belonging, Applicable to the Drawing of Coals, Ores, and other Minerals, or for any purpose requiring Circular Power.” Taking out a patent at that time was a costly business, so Murray had packed in as many of his inventions as possible. But this, as other inventors also found, could prove to be a problem. The law of the day dictated that if any part a patent was found to be unoriginal the whole thing could be overturned.
A James Watt Junior letter of November 1802 details the gathering of evidence against Murray. After discussions with a solicitor named Weston he commissioned drawings to compare the engines made at Soho Works with Murray’s patent application. He aimed to prove that Murray’s arrangement for opening valves based on the circular motion of the engine shaft, had already been in use by them when the patent was submitted. He had, after all, uncovered a roll of drawings of his father’s engines in Hughes’ chest. Maybe they and other spies had revealed the inventions which Murray now had the impudence to claim as his own. By mid-1803, the case was further advanced. Their trusted lieutenant William Murdoch made models of his own and Murray’s engines to demonstrate the similarities. Watt wrote to Boulton: “Weston I find is now resolved to take up [the case to overturn the patent] with proper energy. I have desired Murdock to put the finishing hand to the model which shall be sent to you.” A week later to brother Gregory: “Murdock’s Model of his own & Murray’s inventions is finished and shall be dispatched by the first waggon.”
What was Murray to do? In later years experts would attest that there was much in Murray’s patents that was original. If he defended his patents in the courts he could secure a lasting advantage in the fledgling steam engine industry. But Boulton and Watt had only to persuade a judge of one flaw for the whole to fall, landing Murray with hefty bill and no patent protection. Could the Holbeck start-up risk diverting funds from the building of the Round Foundry to fight such an action in the courts? It seemed he had over-reached himself and victory was in sight for Boulton and Watt. Fenton, Murray and Wood resigned themselves to the loss of their patent. Soon their reluctance to defend themselves in court was made public, with the implication that they knew they were in the wrong. But if he could not have victory in the law courts, Matthew Murray could still appeal to the Court of Public Opinion. He could turn the situation to his advantage through the power of publicity and win the approval of the steam engine experts he regarded as his peers.
On July 20, 1803, an advertisement appeared in the Leeds Mercury. It was an open letter and the address line read defiantly “Patent Steam Engine Manufactory, Leeds.”
“I feel myself called upon to vindicate my character as an Engineer, against a foul insinuation in a Paragraph inserted in the Newspapers of last week, I suspect by Messrs. Boulton, Watt & Co. ; they assert ‘that every Improvement which was really new and useful, and deserving a Patent, in the one which I obtained in the year 1801, was invented and practised at their Works, and that I surreptitiously obtained a knowledge of them from some of their Workmen.’ I do positively deny that I ever got the hint of the Improvements in Question from anyone, indeed a little observation is sufficient to refute their assertions if I knew that these Improvements had been invented and practised at Soho, I must have been deficient in Common Sense as well as Honesty to attempt to obtain a patent for what I knew I could not hold. Had they used my inventions in the manner described in that Patent prior to the date thereof, they certainly would have practised them in the Engines they made before that period, or taken out a Patent for the Improvements themselves…”
Why then the reluctance to face his accusers in court? Murray, still the relative outsider, acknowledged the other side’s greater resources and legal firepower, but also went half way to admitting there may be some truth in Watt’s counter-claims: “The reason for my not defending the Patent was not from fear of losing the Trial as they seem to insinuate, but that I did not think it proper to defend it with such rich and powerful Opponents as Messrs. Boulton, Watt & Co. ;– but had I been guilty of obtaining a Knowledge of their Improvements, if they had any, (but I do not believe they had made any worth Notice since Mr. Watt senior retired from the management), it would have only been a return in kind…”
Then he rehearsed the sorry tale of Boulton and Watt’s duplicity as he saw it; how Storey and Murdock came to Holbeck and got the VIP, access-all-areas tour; how they took patterns and specimens, leaving promises of a warm welcome to Soho; and how Murray was turned away when he tried to make the return visit. But he did not allow the bitter taste to linger. Instead he attempted to shift the battleground radically from originality to performance. He appealed over the heads of the law of the land to the law of the market and the approval of his customers: “But the World I believe cares very little about Messrs. Boulton and Watt stealing my inventions, or me stealing theirs; what people want of us are good engines, but I am confident I can make good ones;”
So confident, indeed, that Matthew Murray proposed a different sort of trial to the one envisaged by the lawyers of intellectual property. A few years earlier, in a bid to dislodge a rival Hornblower engine from the Tincroft mine in Cornwall, Watt had proposed a competition. Now Murray suggested the same: “I am willing to end this dispute for the good of the Public in a similar method to the one they proposed to Mr. Hornblower with whom they had a dispute some years ago, when Mr. Wilson, their agent in Cornwall, gave him a Challenge for £1000 that Messrs. Boulton and Watt would produce an Engine superior to that Mr. Hornblower had created at Tincroft Mine. This Challenge Mr. Hornblower did not accept. Now, I offer by way of Trial, and Proof of Ingenuity and Workmanship, to make an Engine against one of the same Power, to be contrived and made by Messrs. Boulton, Watt & Co.”
Murray was confident in his creations, but the conditions of the competition gave a couple of clues to his assessment of his prospects. For one thing, the prize proposed was just 100 guineas – well short of Watt’s £1000 offer to Hornblower. Perhaps he knew where he stood financially, on a lower rung of the ladder than his well-connected rival. But the intended manner of settling the dispute suggested that Murray believed his work more than equal to Watt’s in the eyes those he regarded as his peers. The contest was to be judged by “twelve practical men, (Practical Engine Makers), six to be chosen by Boulton, Watt & Co. and six by me.” Murray’s claim rested on the quality of the end product, not the originality of the initial ideas.
This time it was Watt’s turn to pass up the challenge. No contest ever took place. Murray could have the satisfaction of believing his engines to be superior in quality and performance, but Watt had the legal victory in this final chapter: Matthew Murray’s patents were void. Perhaps this was the correct outcome. James Watt Senior, after all, was the great inventor. Matthew Murray and others like him were tinkerers, improvers, the successors who stood on the shoulders of giants to make new technology into useful and profitable technology. Who can judge, even with 200 years’ hindsight, whether greater credit should go to the one who had the first idea or the one who learned best how to make it in practice? Both sought recognition and rewards, but for different reasons – the inventor versus the maker.