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“Men of Letters” and “Men of Press Copies”: The Cultures of James Watt’s Copying Machine

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Part of the Archimedes book series (ARIM,volume 52)


For men of letters and men of business in the late eighteenth century the proliferation of correspondence and other manuscript documents presented an escalating problem of record. The information in the documents that they generated had to be retained for reference and other purposes. The traditional way of making copies of manuscripts was to transcribe them by hand. Clerks were primarily copyists. As business and correspondence networks expanded, the volume of material requiring copying, as well as issues of confidentiality, created problems in scribal culture. Interest in other ways of generating copies, which had been a recurring theme from the late seventeenth century, became an obsession in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. James Watt’s copying machine, patented in 1780, was one of the key inventions addressing these issues. I consider here aspects of its origins, marketing, development and diffusion in business, and, particularly, in the British Civil Service with emphasis upon understanding the cultural springs, and the ongoing cultural relations and significance, of this information technology. Beyond its functional value, the copying machine was in its early days a collectable device exhibiting and symbolizing ingenuity. Such appeal probably explains some of the eagerness of men of learning to acquire it. In the nineteenth century, as its use became commonplace in business offices and government bureaucracies, the copying machine became a more firmly entrenched symbol of merely mechanical work to be contrasted with the creative work of the man of letters.

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  1. 1.

    René Schils, How James Watt Invented the Copier: Forgotten Inventions of Our Great Scientists (New York: Springer, 2012), 37–42 begins: “James Watt is best known as the inventor of the steam engine and driver of the Industrial Revolution. This reputation is not entirely deserved, as his invention was actually an improvement on a steam engine invented half a century earlier. Watt was, however, the real inventor of the copying machine.” (37)

  2. 2.

    The story of Watt and the copying machine can be traced through: François Arago, Historical Eloge of James Watt ….Translated from the French with Additional Notes and an Appendix by James Patrick Muirhead. (London: John Murray, 1839); James Patrick Muirhead, The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt. 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1854); Samuel Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt. Principally from the Original Soho MSS. (London: John Murray, 1865), 265–68; H.W. Dickinson, The Garret Workshop of James Watt (London: HMSO, 1929); Richard L. Hills, “James Watt and his Copying Machine,” Studies in British Paper History, Vol 1, The Oxford Papers, ed. Peter Bowers (Kidlington: British Association of Paper Historians, 1996), 81–88; Richard L. Hills, James Watt. Volume 2: The Years of Toil, 1775–1785 (Ashbourne: Landmark Publishing, 2005).

  3. 3.

    The place of Watt’s copying machine in the longue durée of copying practices is indicated by Ian Batterham, The Office Copying Revolution (Canberra: National Archives of Australia, 2008) and also by Barbara Rhodes and William Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying, 1780–1938 (Delaware: Oak Knell Press, 1999).

  4. 4.

    Walter Benjamin, “L’oeuvre d’art à l’époque de sa reproduction mécanisée,” Zeitschrift für Sozialforschung  5 (1936), 40–68. Benjamin’s is a much cited and much critiqued essay. If Clive James’s critique of Benjamin’s claims concerning the impact of mechanization on the “aura” of artworks is sound (and I suspect that it is) then the most important consequences of changes in the technology of reproduction lie, perhaps not surprisingly, in the area of reproduction and availability rather than in meaning and significance. See Clive James, Cultural Amnesia: Notes in the Margin of My Time (London: Picador, 2007), 47–56.

  5. 5.

    See Maxine Berg, “From Imitation to Invention: Creating Commodities in Eighteenth Century Britain,” The Economic History Review New Series 55 (2002), 1–30 and Barbara Fogarty, “The Mechanical Paintings of Matthew Boulton and Francis Eginton,” in Matthew Boulton: Enterprising Industrialist of the Enlightenment, ed. Kenneth Quickenden, Sally Baggott and Malcolm Dick (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2013), 111–126.

  6. 6.

    When Godwin used the occasion to question the giving of gifts and presents, Wedgwood argued that bestowing the gift on Godwin would advance knowledge and so public welfare. (See Pamela Clemit, “William Godwin and James Watt’s Copying Machine: Wet-Transfer Copies in the Abinger Papers,” Bodleian Library Record  18 (2005), 532–60.

  7. 7.

    Taylor’s novel is interpreted thus in Daniel Rosenberg, “The Young and the Restless,” Cabinet, Issue 29 (2008). I am grateful to Professor Rosenberg for drawing the novel to my attention.

  8. 8.

    The copy machine thus provides further evidence for the claim that thinking about chemical processes was central to much of Watt’s invention, including his improvement of the steam engine, in a way that was systematically obscured by nineteenth century historiography. See David Philip Miller, James Watt, Chemist: Understanding the Origins of the Steam Age (London: Pickering & Chatto, 2009).

  9. 9.

    Silvio Bedini, Thomas Jefferson and his Copying Machines (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1984).

  10. 10.

    See Rhodes and Streeter, Before Photocopying (ref. 3), 16–17.

  11. 11.

    Erasmus Darwin to Charles F. Greville, 12 December 1778, 16 May 1779 and 7 June 1779, in The Collected Letters of Erasmus Darwin ed. Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 157–158, 165–168.

  12. 12.

    Arago, Historical Eloge (ref. 2), 93–4. Arago’s story that Watt immediately saw a better approach to copying and invented the copying press overnight must be taken with a pinch of salt, given the puffery generally engaged in by Arago, with Watt’s son James Watt Jr. at his shoulder, in discussing the exploits of the “Great Steamer”. See David Philip Miller, Discovering Water: James Watt, Henry Cavendish and the Nineteenth-Century Water Controversy (Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing, 2004), 111–122.

  13. 13.

    See J.H. Andrew, “The Copying of Engineering Drawings and Documents,” Transactions of the Newcomen Society  53 (1981–82), 1–15 at 2–4.

  14. 14.

    Gilbert Hamilton to Watt, 9 May 1779, quoted in Michael Cook, “Towards a History of Recording Technologies: The Damp-press Copying Process,” Journal of the Society of Archivists  32 (2011), 35–49 at 37, and Watt to Erasmus Darwin, 12 May 1779 in Muirhead, The Origin and Progress (ref. 2), Vol. 2, 115. Muirhead dates the letter only “1779”, the date is identified as 12 May by Hills, James Watt, Volume 2 (ref. 2), 191.

  15. 15.

    This and the following paragraphs rely on the excellent accounts of Watt’s technique and of the business arrangements of James Watt & Co given in Hills, “James Watt and his Copying Machine” (ref. 2) and Hills, James Watt, Volume 2 (ref. 2), 190–211.

  16. 16.

    Boulton to Watt, 14 May 1780, quoted in Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt (ref. 2), 267.

  17. 17.

    Fogarty, “The Mechanical Paintings” (ref. 5).

  18. 18.

    Fogarty, “The Mechanical Paintings” (ref. 5), 123–4; Olga Baird, “Benjamin Franklin, Catherine Dashkova and James Watt’s ‘Art of Copying’,” Benjamin Franklin and Russia: The Philosophical Age. Almanac 31. (St Petersburg, 2006), 121–129.

  19. 19.

    The garret workshop was at Heathfield House and had been preserved untouched by Watt Jr. until his death in 1848. Later occupants of Heathfield House also preserved the workshop. It was opened to select visitors and also, notably, on the occasion of the centenary of Watt’s death in 1919. Before Heathfield House was demolished the workshop was removed in 1924 to the Science Museum. See Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt (ref 2.), 493–5, 512–14; Dickinson, The Garrett Workshop (ref. 2); Christine MacLeod, Heroes of Invention: Technology, Liberalism and British Identity 1750–1914. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 261, 388; Christine MacLeod and Jennifer Tann, “From Engineer to Scientist: Re-inventing Invention in the Watt and Faraday Centenaries, 1919–1931,” The British Journal for the History of Science  40 (2007), 389–411 and most recently Ben Russell, James Watt. Making the World Anew (London: Reaktion Books, 2014), 7–8, 203–6, 224–33.

  20. 20.

    This is an insight perhaps first had by Uglow, see Jenny Uglow, The Lunar Men. The Friends who Made the Future (London: Faber & Faber, 2002), 304–8.

  21. 21.

    See Jane Insley, “James Watt and the Reproduction of Sculpture,” Sculpture Journal  22 (2013), 37–66.

  22. 22.

    Agar insightfully roots twentieth-century developments in computing in processes of government and bureaucracy, beginning with Civil Service reforms in the nineteenth century. See Jon Agar, The Government Machine: A Revolutionary History of the Computer (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2003).

  23. 23.

    See JoAnne Yates, Control through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1989).

  24. 24.

    Studies of the role of writing practices in the constitution of power have been extensive in the last decade. For a sample, see Patrick Joyce, The Rule of Freedom: Liberalism and the Modern City (London: Verso, 2003), 98–143; Ilana Feldman, Governing Gaza: Bureaucracy, Authority and the Work of Rule, 1917–1967 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Miles Ogborn, Indian Ink: Script and Print in the Making of the East India Company. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007); Patrick Joyce, “Filing the Raj: Political Technologies of the Imperial British State,” in Material Powers: Cultural Studies, History and the Material Turn, ed. Tony Bennett and Patrick Joyce (London: Routledge, 2013), 102–123. Ben Kafka, “Paperwork: The State of the Discipline,” Book History  12 (2009), 340–53 is a very useful survey.

  25. 25.

    Rhodes and Streeter, Before Photocopying (ref. 3), 8.

  26. 26.

    Agar, The Government Machine (ref. 22), 60, quoting Yates.

  27. 27.

    See Barbara L. Craig, “The Introduction of Copying Devices into the British Civil Service, 1877–1889,” in The Archival Imagination. Essays in Honour of Hugh A. Taylor, ed. Barbara L. Craig (Ottawa: Association of Canadian Archivists, 1992), 105–33 and also Emmeline W. Cohen, The Growth of the British Civil Service (London: Frank Cass, 1965, originally published 1941), 125. For instructive comparison see the account of clerical culture within the Excise in the eighteenth century in John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783. Reprint edition (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1990), 64–87.

  28. 28.

    Third Report from the Select Committee on Civil Services Expenditure; Together with the Proceedings of the Committee, Minutes of Evidence, Appendix and Index (1873). Consulted via House of Commons Parliamentary Papers Online. Craig, “The Introduction” (ref. 27) gives an overview of this report and of others dealing with the subject. See also Cohen, The Growth (ref. 27), 125–34.

  29. 29.

    Third Report (ref. 28), 1–38 for Welby’s evidence. Reginald Earle Welby, 1st Baron Welby (1832–1915), was educated at Eton and Trinity College Cambridge, and had entered the Civil Service as a Treasury Clerk in 1856. He was later to become Assistant Financial Secretary (1880) and Permanent Secretary (1885–1894), and was raised to the peerage in 1894 on his retirement. (Oxford New Dictionary of National Biography, hereafter ODNB).

  30. 30.

    Ralph Robert Wheeler Lingen, 1st Baron Lingen (1819–1905), of an old Birmingham family was educated at Trinity College Oxford, and became a Fellow of Balliol. He was called to the bar in 1847 but accepted a position in the Education Office instead, where, in 1849, he succeeded Sir James Kay-Shuttleworth as Secretary. He held that position until 1869 when he moved to Treasury (ODNB).

  31. 31.

    Third Report (ref. 28), 146.

  32. 32.

    Third Report (ref. 28), 228. The Chancellor of the Exchequer at this time was the Rt Hon Robert Lowe, 1st Viscount Sherbrooke (1811–1892).

  33. 33.

    Third Report, (ref. 28), 246–253. William Edward Baxter (1825–1890) had a significantly different background from most of the other witnesses. The son of a Scottish businessman, he was educated at Dundee High School and University of Edinburgh and was a partner in his father’s firm before becoming liberal MP for Montrose Burghs from 1855–1881. (ODNB). His unqualified enthusiasm for the copying machine is no doubt partly explained by his business experience and outlook.

  34. 34.

    Third Report (ref. 28), 221.

  35. 35.

    Third Report (ref. 28), 164–165. Sir Robert George Wyndham Herbert (1831–1905) was educated at Eton and Balliol and elected a Fellow of All Souls, Oxford. He was secretary to Gladstone when the latter was Chancellor of the Exchequer but then migrated to Australia in 1855, where he became Colonial Secretary of Queensland in 1859, and then its first Premier until 1866. On his return to England he was Assistant Secretary to the Board of Trade from 1868–1870 and then became Permanent Secretary of the Colonial Office (ODNB).

  36. 36.

    Thomas Henry Farrer (1819–1899), educated at Eton and Balliol College Oxford, was called to the Bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1844 and entered the public service in 1850 as Secretary to the Naval Department (later the Marine Department) of the Board of Trade. He became Permanent Secretary of the Board in 1867. Created Baronet in 1883 and raise to the peerage as 1st Baron Farrer in 1893, he was among the strictest advocates of free trade (ODNB).

  37. 37.

    Third Report (ref 28), 189.

  38. 38.

    Guide to Employment in the Civil Service: Being a Complete Epitome of the Examinations for the Various Departments of the Public Service, organized according to the Recommendations of the Civil Service Commissioners. (London: Cassell & Co, 1867), 15. Cassell’s Hand-book of letter-writing (Cassell & Co., 1861) includes samples of the copying machine-friendly handwriting that was recommended, and candidates were advised to use model copy books, also published by Cassell, to develop suitable handwriting by tracing over given forms.

  39. 39.

    Thomas P. Hughes, “The Evolution of Large Technological Systems,” in The Social Construction of Technological Systems ed. Wiebe E Bijker, Thomas P. Hughes and Trevor Pinch, (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1987), 51–82 is an early and influential account of technological system change.

  40. 40.

    Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt (ref. 2), 266.

  41. 41.

    Rhodes and Streeter, Before Photocopying (ref. 2), 8. On the inertia of technological systems see Hughes, “The Evolution”, (ref. 39).

  42. 42.

    Craig, “The Introduction” (ref. 27), 109 and Cohen, The Growth (ref. 27), 125–34.

  43. 43.

    See Mr. Melly questioning Mr. Welby, Third Report, (ref. 28), 16–17.

  44. 44.

    Evidence of William Baxter, Third Report, (ref 28), 250.

  45. 45.

    An important caveat must be entered here. Although a decisive distinction between creative and mechanical work served well both political aspiration and social symbolism, no decisive or uniform separation was achieved in practice in the British Civil Service. See Craig, “The Introduction” (ref. 27), 117.

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Miller, D.P. (2017). “Men of Letters” and “Men of Press Copies”: The Cultures of James Watt’s Copying Machine. In: Buchwald, J., Stewart, L. (eds) The Romance of Science: Essays in Honour of Trevor H. Levere. Archimedes, vol 52. Springer, Cham.

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