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Lot #151
James Watt Autograph Letter Signed

Lengthy handwritten letter by James Watt on a vexing Spanish steam-engine project

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Estimate: $4000+
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Lengthy handwritten letter by James Watt on a vexing Spanish steam-engine project

British engineer (1736-1819) who developed an efficient steam engine which was a universal source of power and provided one of the most essential technological components of the early industrial revolution. The unit of power known as a 'watt' was named after him. Large and lengthy ALS signed “Boulton & Watt,” two pages on two adjoining sheets, 10 x 15.5, October 21, 1793. Handwritten letter to the London merchant Fermin de Tastet, concerning the myriad problems encountered while constructing a steam engine-powered sawmill at the docks in Cadiz. Watt's firm of Boulton & Watt had sold a 'sun and planet' steam engine through Fermin de Tastet for the project. Watt first discusses the complaints and observations of engine erector James Murdock, the brother important Boulton & Watt employee William Murdock (inventor of the oscillating cylinder steam engine, gas lighting, and the the pneumatic tube message system), who would be dismissed in 1795 for financial misconduct while at Cadiz. He then discusses the situation of his son, James Watt, Jr., who had recently been denounced in the British parliament for his support of the Jacobins amidst the French Revolution.

In part: "By last mail we received a letter from James Murdock of which the annexed is copy, he speaks of two former letters but this is the only one received by us. It gives us much pain to perceive, that Murdock is more intent upon getting and spending money than upon doing his business, we wish we had agreed with him to find him in meal drinks and lodging and given him less in wages in proportion…What he says of the expence of living is not credible…We are however more inclined to believe what he says about the building and not being begun, which ought to have been finished, before any body went from hence. Murdock is not an Engineer properly so called but a workman used to put up the machinery of fire engines…His advice in some particulars might be of use but we certainly would not trust him with the care of erecting such an Edifice, though we would with the putting together the machinery…

Having some doubts of Logan's having gone to Cadiz, we wrote him again to Italy, to which there is not time for answer but since we wrote him J. Watt Jun'r informs us that he found him…he pretended he had been prevented from going by the King's orders & those of General Acton, which Watt did not credit and made him reproaches for having so cruelly deceived us…As J. W. jun'r by his imprudent conduct in political matters in France has rendered it improper to return here at this juncture we have proposed to him to go to Cadiz to superintend the business not doubting but from his knowledge of the Engines & his other natural & acquired abilities he would be able with the assistance of a workman to get the Engine properly completed, but we know not whether he will be inclined to go nor whether it may be proper for him with his extravagant notions of liberty to trust himself in so despotic a country…

On the whole, you will see our difficulties, we have not above two men in our service, who are perfect Engineers, & there are settles at places from whence we cannot remove them, without ruining our business even if they were willing to go…Moreover if there is no Engineer in Spain capable of erecting the building & superintending the erection how is the work to be carried on or the machine kept in order afterwards…At present it seems necessary that all the materials should be carefully laid up and arranged, which Murdock can assist in, we have been informed by Mr. Bewick that his son saw many of the materials lying in a perishing state in the mud, from this they ought to be rescued, & properly anointed with grease to preserve them from further rust." Watt adds a handwritten postscript, "J.W. begs your excuse for the imperfections of this letter as he is much indisposed, and not less vexed with the present affair." A manuscript copy of Murdock's letter is written opposite the address leaf. In fine condition, with some scattered staining and a rusty circular paperclip impression to the edge.

Auction Info

  • Auction Title: Fine Autograph and Artifacts, Ft. Science & Tech
  • Dates: #622 - Ended December 08, 2021

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