The Franklin School Starts Modern England
By Richard Kieninger, adapted from Anton Chaitkin
Benjamin Franklin sailed to England in the spring of 1757, the official political representative of the British colony of Pennsylvania. This was 19 years before America would declare its independence from the British Crown.
When Franklin took up residence there in July 1757, Great Britain was very backward. There were virtually no roads between cities, no canals, and no railroads. Iron, cloth, or grain could only be shipped overland in the saddlebags of a packhorse, and this only when there was relatively little mud. All manufacturing took place on a small scale by local operatives or in rural homes. London was wealthy from world trade and finance, but it was the capital of an undeveloped country. The project to industrialize Britain, begun shortly after Dr. Franklin’s arrival, was initiated by a small circle of his collaborators, and was carried to fruition under his leadership.
The English government was now forbidding the American colonies to develop manufacturing, or to expand to the west. Franklin was determined to create a thriving agro-industrial America as the necessary basis for eventually securing independence. If some kind of manufacturing could be started here in the center of the British Empire, it would be that much harder for the ruling clique to snuff it out generally.
Franklin was already famous in England, and feared by the government, as a scientist and political leader of the colonists. He had created the American Philosophical Society, the first organization uniting the colonies in any fashion; its subcommittees were now at work planning the creation of illegal business industries. Corresponding with a worldwide circle of sympathetic leaders in science, art, religion, politics, and the military, Franklin was chief of intelligence for the American nation, then in the process of its creation. Though its results were to be of spectacular benefit to the general population, his projects were at times subject to extreme harassment, and had to be carried out with great caution, even secrecy.
No later than the summer of 1758, Benjamin Franklin and Matthew Boulton, Jr., began joint work on electricity, metallurgy, and the harnessing of steam power. Their collaboration, at times surreptitious and subject to police surveillance, continued until Franklin’s death in 1790. Franklin became the inspiration, tutor, science adviser, and political counselor to a select group of Boulton’s friends in Birmingham, including potter Josiah Wedgwood, and Boulton’s physician, Erasmus Darwin.
The first task of the Franklin circle was to create an industrial city with access to cheap fuel. They chose Manchester. The Franklin associates would initiate low-cost transportation for all goods. For these purposes, they used a young, sympathetic, but not very wealthy duke of Bridgewater, whose estate came to be managed by the Franklin circle.
John Gilbert, a former apprentice in the shop of Matthew Boulton, Sr., and a lifelong intimate of his son, was hired in 1757 as the manager of the duke of Bridgewater’s lands and coal mines at Worsley. Gilbert’s brother, Thomas Gilbert, was already estate manager for the Bridgewater family.
In that year of 1757, the 21-year-old Francis Egerton, Third Duke of Bridgewater, came into possession of his inheritance, which included lands in London, and the Worsley estate located in an agricultural area some ten miles west of the market town of Manchester. John Gilbert convinced the new owner to cut a canal from the coal mines eastward to Manchester. Studying the layout of the mines and the land to the east, Gilbert turned the perennial problem of mine flooding into a technologically unprecedented aid to navigation. He proposed that canal digging should commence underground, in the mine itself, and proceed out through the side of a hill. Newly mined coal could thus be loaded directly onto barges, while the mine’s drainage would help maintain water levels in the overland canal. Manchester then had only about 6,000 houses, and no factories requiring coal for steam power, which did not yet exist. Wood was used for hearth fires throughout England. There was no “market” for coal.
Excitedly agreeing to John Gilbert’s proposal, the Duke Francis devoted his life to the construction of canals. The duke was not a “capitalist,” but a heavily encumbered landowner. In order to raise funds, the Gilbert brothers sold very small denomination bonds to local merchants, while the duke borrowed from his tenants. There was no net profit in the enterprise for some 15 years, though Bridgewater eventually made a large profit on the canal system, after decades of labor. The first canal was begun in 1759 and completed in 1761. Thousands of people began moving into the city and starting families there, with a secure supply of cheap Worsley coal for warm houses. And there were well-paying jobs; with a new labor supply and cheap fuel, a great number of profitable new manufacturing shops were set up. A greatly expanded canal system, and steam-powered machinery, would before long complete the amazing, virtually overnight creation of an industrial center.
After the success of the Bridgewater canal was demonstrated, the entire Boulton-Franklin group swung into action. A partnership of the duke, the Gilbert brothers, Josiah Wedgwood, Erasmus Darwin, and Matthew Boulton, was eventually formed to extend the canal from Manchester to the port of Liverpool, and then to push on to connect Hull, Bristol, and London.
Meanwhile, Benjamin Franklin had started the group on a new project—to coordinate the development of a practical steam engine. Franklin introduced into their group a native Scot named William Small. Franklin’s friendship with Dr. Small probably began in 1763 when Franklin visited Williamsburg during his brief return to America. Small and Franklin went to England in 1764. The following year, Small accepted Dr. Franklin’s momentous assignment.
Dr. William Small
On Franklin’s recommendation, Matthew Boulton instantly accepted William Small as his personal physician and overall industrial manager. Boulton had inherited a buckle-making shop upon his father’s death in 1759. He then built what was to become England’s first great manufacturing plant, the Soho works outside Birmingham, with power supplied—temporarily—by a water wheel. Now that Small had come from America, the pace of activity at the Soho plant increased dramatically.
Certain primitive steam engines were already in use, involving hot water vapor, such as the Newcomen engine. But only a tiny proportion of the energy in the fuel was translated into delivered power. This problem was to be solved definitively at Soho.
The canal partners meanwhile pushed ahead. Boulton, the Gilberts, and Bridgewater now initiated canal projects all over England, and “canal mania” changed the face of the island. Britain converted at once to the use of coal from distant mines for fuel, instead of burning local stands of timber. The mass manufacture of iron and steel was now practicable.
The Scottish mechanic-engineer James Watt was employed in 1767 to survey for the Forth and Clyde Canal. He went to visit the Soho works and met there with the manager, Dr. William Small. They talked of Watt’s own recent experiments with steam power in Scotland. Dr. Small proposed the creation of a new firm and persuaded Watt to move to Birmingham, but it was not until eight years later that he moved there. While repairing a broken Newcomen engine, Watt conceived the idea of a separate condenser, the eventual basis of a practical steam engine. He led the steam away from the main cylinder, liquefied it with a cold jet, reheated and brought it back into action, while the cylinder could remain hot and do more work with less fuel.
As part of the negotiations to set up the world’s first steam engine business, William Small prepared a patent for Watt, which was tentatively approved on January 6, 1769. The partnership of Small, Boulton, and Watt, under Small’s patient and scientific management, pressed on and completed their first successful machine late that year.
The Soho steam engine became the driving force for the English industrial revolution only after a last, crucial improvement was made. At first, the piston was packed with stuffing material, to close the gap with the cylinder wall and prevent the loss of steam pressure and force. The cast iron cylinder could never be shaped evenly enough for a tight fit around the piston. Boulton proposed to iron-master John Wilkinson that his cannon-boring machine tool be modified to produce an engine cylinder.
Wilkinson’s boring mill succeeded brilliantly, and Soho now made powerful, efficient steam engines, which Wilkinson used to run his furnace bellows, and to turn his machines. Here was the birth of many industries at once. Wilkinson produced all the tools and machine parts for Soho, and Wilkinson and Boulton jointly launched modern English copper mining. Ironically, English high-efficiency steel-making, its origin closely identified with Wilkinson, Watt, and Franklin, was later used by the British Empire as an instrument of nineteenth-century trade war against the American republic.
Iron-master John Wilkinson’s involvement with the Birmingham group arose on the basis of political and personal ties. His sister Mary and brother William were both pupils of Joseph Priestley, who had married Mary Wilkinson in 1762. Priestley was to become celebrated as the discoverer of oxygen, after Benjamin Franklin made him a scientist. In December 1765, Priestley was introduced to Franklin in London. The American took the 32-year-old schoolteacher under his wing, and worked Priestley’s nascent research interests into a passion for natural science as the most effective means for mankind’s advancement. On Franklin’s request, Priestley wrote The History and Present State of Electricity, setting forth Franklin’s discoveries in the field as the basis of further scientific work. Alessandro Volta later invented the electric battery after much collaboration with Priestley. Priestley’s work had immense global implications. He isolated the element in the air which supports life through respiration. He discovered how plants use the products of respiration, that plants renew the breathable element; and how light causes the growth of plants’ green substance. In 1780, he became in effect a paid staff member of the Boulton group, collaborating with Watt, Wedgwood, and others on diverse technical projects.
During a 1774 tour of continental Europe, Priestley met Antoine Lavoisier, and told the great French chemist of his discoveries regarding life processes. Lavoisier later gave the name “oxygen” to Priestley’s breathable element, and developed the chemical science of combustion. Franklin depended heavily on Lavoisier to help swing the French decision to arm and ally with the Americans in their War of Independence. Lavoisier’s chemistry was essential for the successful manufacture of the gunpowder behind the American bullets.
The firm of Small, Boulton, and Watt was incorporated in 1774, as the American Continental Congress was first meeting. War approached, and the climate chilled for republican activities in England. Benjamin Franklin was himself repeatedly insulted and menaced in public gatherings; his Birmingham junto came under minute surveillance. William Small ostensibly died suddenly at the age of 41. Under circumstances of terror, Small’s body was presumably thrown into an unmarked grave. Franklin left England forever, a few days later. After Small’s death, the Birmingham group was secretly organized as the Lunar Society; only Priestley would ever speak openly about it, many years later.
Franklin’s networks made other technological breakthroughs. Clergyman Edmund Cartwright invented the power loom in 1784, and applied Boulton and Watt engines for the first time to textile manufacturing. Cartwright’s motive was explicitly that of a republican Christian. Increased productive power would dignify the lives of the workers. Cartwright later invented a wool-combing machine. His inventions were to be of great manufacturing importance.
Boulton and Watt toured France in 1787 as guests of the French government. English iron-master John Wilkinson now taught the French the art of cannon-boring, supplied them with artillery and other vital military equipment, and helped build the Paris waterworks.
By 1791, the British oligarchy had mounted a broad counter-campaign against the republican movement in England, France and America. The Birmingham junto came under the long-expected attack. On July 14, 1791, an officially sanctioned “rioting mob” sacked and burned Joseph Priestley’s Birmingham house and laboratory. Troops then invaded Birmingham to “restore order.” The Priestley family was forced to emigrate to America.
After the Birmingham riot, James Watt attended the next Lunar Society meeting wearing a pistol for protection. But the society was crushed, ceased functioning, and soon disbanded. Society member Tom Paine, the Englishman whom Franklin had recruited to the American cause, escaped to France.
The open-ended project for science and industry, which could easily have been extended to develop the entire world in short order, was aborted in England. The enterprises begun in the 1760s and 1770s had created such immense public wealth that they could only be controlled, not cancelled. Britain would not again introduce strategically important technology to the world.