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Age of Invention: Working for Watt
My head has lately been full of steam. Last week I wrote about Boulton and Watt’s surprising business model — selling steam as a service, rather than steam engines — and I’m still looking into how exactly Watt arrived at his transformative improvements. (There’s also an exciting steam-related collaboration in the works with Jason Crawford. Hint: it has involved commissioning a developer of interactive diagrams.)
Reading through just a few bits and bobs of Watt’s correspondence — which is gargantuan, and unfortunately hasn’t been fully digitised and published — I keep finding all sorts of gems I want to share. This week, it’s what Boulton and Watt were looking for in the engineers they hired.
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In a 1784 letter to an old friend, the Edinburgh University lecturer John Robison, Watt enquired after one “Mr Renny” whom Robison had introduced to Boulton. Robison was something of a Forrest Gump of the Industrial Revolution: he was a midshipman at the capture of Quebec by General Wolfe, trialled John Harrison’s famous longitude-finding chronometer on its test voyage to Jamaica, first got Watt thinking about steam engines, worked for Catherine the Great in St Petersburg, and, apparently, facilitated the big break for one of Britain’s greatest ever mechanical and civil engineers: John Rennie.
Rennie would go on to do great things, but Watt had been burnt before by troublesome engineers. After almost ten years trying to sell his improvements to the steam engine, Watt wanted to be sure that this promising 23-year-old millwright really fit the bill.
First and foremost, Watt wanted to know if Rennie was “perfectly sober”. Although at least one of Watt’s engineers, Malcolm Logan, could be trusted so far as to employ him even in other countries — Logan was instrumental in introducing the Watt engine to Spain, Italy and the Netherlands — he often embarrassed Watt with his alcoholism.
Watt also wanted to know if Rennie’s “ambition is moderate, and can ... be contented with the station of a confidential servant”. He was looking for a trusty deputy, not a pretender to the throne. Watt had been burnt by these pretensions before. The talented Cornish engineer Jabez Carter Hornblower, after initially working for Watt, had then started helping his rivals. He was also probably thinking of William Playfair — later pioneer of the line, area, bar and pie chart — who from the get-go clearly fancied himself more in the role of an entrepreneur than an employee.
A good candidate was to be “free from that kind of self-conceit that convinces a man that his own opinion is better founded than his master’s or his senior’s, and that will dictate improvements before he understands the subject.” It’s an interesting requirement, given Watt also wanted someone sufficiently inventive — someone with the improving mentality. In essence, he wanted to make sure that the improvers’ inherent dissatisfaction with the status quo was moderated by a healthy dose of humility. Watt — who really did know a thing or two — was growing tired of dealing with arrogant upstarts who thought they knew better.
Watt also asked whether Rennie’s “ingenuity is in general well-directed and not of that kind which leads a man from his business in search of chimeras or novelties merely because they are such”. He didn’t want a fantasist or just an enthusiast, drawn to innovation for the sake of novelty. He wanted someone who understood that innovation was only meaningful when it was about improvement — something that may not always have been exciting, but would eventually get results.
And Watt wanted to know if Rennie would be happy to work “with his own hands (for we now keep no gentlemen engineers)”. He may again have had Playfair in mind, who despite his rocky start as an engineer ended up being found a job at Boulton and Watt’s Soho manufactory as a clerk, accountant, and draughtsman. Watt instead wanted someone willing to get their hands dirty.
Finally, Rennie was to be asked if he would be willing to contract with Watt for a minimum of five years. Watt faced a constant problem that will sound frustrating familiar to many employers today: “a great part of that time will elapse before he is so much master of it as to be essentially useful to us, and if his time were shorter if he turned out well, we should be loath to part with him after having been at the expence and trouble of instructing him.” Watt wanted to make sure that his investment in Rennie’s training would actually pay off. In exchange, Watt self-assuredly promised him “no better opportunity of gaining instruction and experience, and at the same time of meeting with good treatment”.
Rennie doesn’t seem to have been bound by a minimum term, but he was still a great candidate. His experience as a millwright was especially useful at the Albion flour mill at Blackfriars Bridge in London for the first large-scale commercial use of Watt’s improved steam engines for rotative motion — their application directly to machinery, rather than indirectly by pumping up water to drive a waterwheel.
And Rennie was leadership material, though this perhaps went well beyond what Watt had envisaged. Rennie’s training at Soho lasted just a year before he was sent to manage Boulton and Watt’s interests in London. He ended up running a sort of London-based Soho spinout, which specialised in developing and installing increasingly precise machines. Rennie’s company, in turn, educated a generation of mechanical engineers — pioneers of precision machinery like Peter and William Fairbairn, William McNaught, and the steamboat pioneer Henry Bell.
Although Rennie did not long remain an employee of Watt’s — he proved far too ambitious — the two remained friends, frequently recommending customers to one another. Rennie may not have been quite what Watt was looking for, but his ambition was at the very least matched by talent.
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