Scotland Magazine

Modern Steam Engines

James Watt,
page 10 of 12

Dr. Smiles, in his “Men of Invention and Industry,” tells in his own charming style how that young Murdoch went up to the large engineering works in Soho in search of Watt, in order that he might thereby get a start in life. Watt was down in Cornwall superintending the erection of some engines. Boulton, however, the great inventor’s partner, a genial man, and one usually accessible to all kinds of callers, high and low, was on the ground. Murdoch, on being received by Boulton, asked in a blate, modest way, whether he could get “a job” in the place. In answer to his enquiry, the engineering magnate replied that they were very slack, and that every place was filled up. During the brief conversation that took place, the bashful young Scotchman, like most country lads in the presence of strangers, had some difficulty in knowing what to do with his hands, and kept twirling his hat with them. Boulton’s attention was drawn to the twirling hat, which seemed to be of a peculiar make. It was not a felt hat, nor a cloth hat, nor a glazed hat; but it seemed to be painted and composed of some unusual kind of material. “That seems to be a peculiar sort of hat,” said Boulton. “What is it made of?” “Timmer, sir,” said Murdoch modestly. “Timmer! Do you mean to say that it is made of wood?” “’Deed it is, sir.” “And, pray, how was it made?” “I made it mysel’, sir, in a bit laithey o’ my ain contrivin’.” “Indeed!” Boulton looked at the young man again. He had risen a hundred degrees in his estimation. William was a good-looking fellow-tall, strong, and handsome, with an open, intelligent countenance. “Well,” said Boulton at length, “I will enquire at the works and see if there is anything that will suit you. Call again.” ’Thank you, sir,” said Murdoch gratefully, and giving his hat a final twirl, he went away happy.

In a few days after this memorable interview in the life of the man and of the firm with which he was long thereafter so honourably connected, Murdoch got “a job” at fifteen shillings per week, seventeen when engaged in the country, and eighteen when in London. This was Murdoch’s beginning, modest enough, certainly. But he was one of those men who believe that there is much yet to be discovered for the bettering of the world. He believed also in himself, and that he was capable of unsealing some of the hidden secrets of science. Such men have been the earth’s benefactors through all time. Murdoch had in him all the elements which tend to bring success. He applied himself diligently and conscientiously to his duties, and gradually became a servant who was trusted to the minutest details. His industry, skill, perseverance, and sobriety marked him for promotion, and he rose to be the confidential adviser and co-worker in all the important mechanical undertakings of the great engineering firm at Soho, and finally a partner.

When Boulton engaged Murdoch, Watt was in Cornwall, superintending the erection and proper starting of pumping engines that were being put up in connection with the large mines in various parts of that county. Although the firm was now obtaining a world-wide reputation, the partnership had only been in existence for three years, and Watt was still struggling with the thousand difficulties and partial failures which he had to surmount ere getting the numerous steam engines into practical use. Watt was also weighted in other ways. His health was by no means good, and he had to contend against excruciating headaches.

Moreover, he was of too fragile a fibre, so far as mental temperament was concerned, to fight with any degree of hopeful success against the rough, over-reaching selfishness of unprincipled Cornish adventurers. Half dead with worry and fatigue, Watt was on the point of renouncing his various


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