Discover more from Age of Invention, by Anton Howes
Age of Invention: England's Iron Volcano
The other week I was tipped off by a fellow researcher to the existence of some very interesting manuscripts in the British Library — the travel diaries of Samuel More, secretary to the Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce.
The Society of Arts during More’s long tenure — 1769 to 1799 — was one of the most prominent invention-supporting organisations in Britain, giving out cash and honorary prizes each year to unpatented inventions. Its paying members pooled their funds for this purpose, meeting regularly to determine the problems for which they might advertise inventive solutions, and judging the submissions they received — both solicited and unsolicited. (Incidentally, my book about the Society of Arts will soon be in paperback.) Samuel More, as the secretary, was in charge of taking the minutes, managing the Society’s massive domestic and international correspondence, and generally overseeing its administration.
It was a job that put him in near-constant contact with both the Society’s members, who were typically wealthy or influential well-wishers to innovation from the middle and upper classes, as well as with the inventors hopeful for the Society’s prizes. More, in his thirty years in the job, and an innovator himself, became good friends with many of the most recognisable names of the “classic” phase of the Industrial Revolution: the potter Josiah Wedgwood, the iron founder John “Iron Mad” Wilkinson, the steam pioneers Matthew Boulton and James Watt. The diaries of his summertime travels throughout Britain, in which he kept his eye out for details of techniques and improvements, are thus a goldmine of information and impressions of Britain’s fevered late-eighteenth-century industrial expansion.
I’d like to share some of the things I’ve found in them, because they are not at all widely known.1
More visited the Midlands in 1776,2 just a year after Boulton and Watt began their famous steam-selling partnership. At Birmingham he was met by Wedgwood and Wilkinson and the group went to dine with Boulton at Soho, staying the night. Boulton entertained them with a brief history of Watt’s steam engine improvements before showing them the machine itself — “that which is erected in his works was taken to pieces that we might examine the several parts, but was put together this evening and worked for our entertainment.”
More, as a respected industrial tourist, was often given this kind of insider access. He was especially adventurous too, happily and frequently exchanging his finer garments for rougher work clothes, so as to climb deep into mines and chip away at a few ores himself. But it’s his sheer enthusiasm for invention and improvements that really makes the diaries so worth reading — and quoting.
Here’s one of my absolute favourite impressions, from when Wilkinson took More to see his vast ironworks at New Willey, near Broseley in Shropshire, where one of Watt’s earliest ever commercial steam engines had been installed to blow the furnace bellows, and where a huge waterwheel was used to bore cannon.3 All around, coal was being baked into coke in great smoky heaps, while the Watt engine’s own smoke rose from a chimney forty feet high. Molten metal issued from the furnace every twelve hours, the works producing some 20-28 tons of iron every week. “Here the elements, fire, air and water, are employed in their utmost force to mechanical purposes”, enthused More, with the blast of the furnace heard over a mile off at Wilkinson’s house. He got up at the crack of dawn to see the iron being cast:
This furnace is perhaps one of the most exact representations (in miniature) of a volcano that can be imagined. The noise of the bellows — The dashing of water on the hot slag as it is drawn out of the furnace and the steam that rises therefrom — The flame driven out at the top of the furnace which resembles the crater and the streams of liquid iron which are a just imitation of the burning lava, at the same time that they appear really tremendous are most astonishingly beautiful, and put all pictures of volcanoes to shame.
It’s the sort of quotation that ought to be plastered all over the region’s museums, though the site of the New Willey works now seems to be almost forgotten — especially compared to Coalbrookdale not far up the road, its “iron furnaces and houses scattered about, great quantities of iron and coal lying the wharf, and barges in abundance waiting in the river to convey them away — In short it is hardly possible to conceive a more romantic and beautiful scene”. At Coalbrookdale, More was impressed by the way that ore, limestone and coal were transported on what “are called Rail-Roads”, made of cast-iron bars fastened by wooden pins to wooden sleepers, “the carriages running on wheels which have shoulders to prevent their rising over the rail”. Horse-drawn carriages loaded with three tons of material moved over them “with great ease and convenience”.
More was even impressed by the horse-way between the rails, made from cinder and slag from the furnaces, which formed “as fine a tract for riding on as can be wished for — tis pity something of this kind cannot be contrived for all the turnpikes in the Kingdom.” He explained that the first rail-roads had originally been entirely of wood, and that some of these still remained to be seen, but that they had not lasted well. Despite the higher up-front cost of laying rails of iron — £1,000 per mile, in modern terms around some £1.7m per mile — they were so much more durable as to be worth it.
His friend Josiah Wedgwood, the famous potter, was even “about to have about ten miles of double railing [two railroads running parallel to one another] done between his house and Derbyshire to bring limestone to his canal”. (I’m not sure if this was ever built, but iron railroads connected to canals had actually become quite common throughout England and Wales by 1800.)4
And they could be built extraordinarily quickly — at a speed that should put our own woefully slow infrastructure to shame. Samuel More noted how a new, two-mile-long double railroad at Coalbrookdale had been started just ten days previously, and was to be completed within a month! It was a massive, concerted, and beautiful effort: “we thought there could not be less than 500 men employed in this business and the different occupations they were engaged in added greatly to the beauty of the scene”.
Iron railroads, it seems, were already coming into widespread industrial use much earlier than I had imagined — long before the advent of steam-driven railway locomotives.
I’ll share more impressions and insights from More’s travel diaries as I read on.
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The main source to have cited them extensively before is Roger Neil Bruton’s fascinating 2015 PhD thesis, ‘The Shropshire Enlightenment’, which I only found after writing this post, but before posting.
All taken from: British Library, Add MS 89126/2
It’s commonly asserted that Wilkinson’s method of boring cannon was also applied to boring the cast-iron steam engine piston cylinders required to make Watt’s engines work. But it looks like the cannon- and cylinder-boring machines were actually separate inventions. It’s on my to-do list to look into this properly.
[John Farey Snr], “Canal”, in Abraham Rees, ed. The Cyclopaedia; or Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature, vol. VI (1805)