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This Week in History:
February 9-15, 1766

Franklin Warns the British Zeus --
and Organizes Industrial Revolution

by Anton Chaitkin
February 2014

Benjamin Franklin (1706-90)-philosopher, scientist, inventor, printer, musician, economist, and statesman.

February 13, 1766: Benjamin Franklin testified at length in Parliament on the Stamp Act by which the British taxed the American colonies to support imperial armies. The world-famous scientist was the agent in Europe for Pennsylvania, Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts, and Deputy Postmaster General of the British colonies in America. The British leaders anxiously sought Franklin’s assessment of the danger to the empire from American attitudes.

Franklin said bluntly America would resist British looting, that the resistance could never be subdued by force. He explained that America was growing because society was geared to the people’s welfare, and labor was well-paid.

Here are excerpts from that epoch-making session:

Q. Don't you think they would submit to the Stamp Act, if it was modified, the obnoxious parts taken out, and the duty reduced to some particulars, of small moment?

--A. No; they will never submit to it.

Q. What do you think is the reason that the people of America increase faster than in England?

--A. Because they marry younger, and more generally.

Q. Why so?

--A. Because any young couple that are industrious, may easily obtain land of their own, on which they can raise a family.

Q. Are not the lower rank of people more at their ease in America than in England?

--A. They may be so, if they are sober and diligent, as they are better paid for their labour.

….. The Stamp Act says, we shall have no commerce, make no exchange of property with each other, neither purchase nor grant, nor recover debts; we shall neither marry nor make our wills, unless we pay such sums, and thus it is intended to extort our money from us, or ruin us by the consequences of refusing to pay for it.

Q. Don't you think cloth from England, absolutely necessary to them?

--A. No, by no means absolutely necessary; with industry and good management, they may very well supply themselves with all they want.

Q. Will it not take a long time to establish that manufacture among them; and must they not in the mean while suffer greatly?

--A. I think not. They have made a surprising progress already. And I am of opinion, that before their old clothes are worn out, they will have new ones of their own making.

Q. Can any thing less than a military force carry the Stamp Act into execution?

--A. I do not see how a military force can be applied to that purpose.

Q. Why may it not?

--A. Suppose a military force sent into America, they will find nobody in arms; what are they then to do? They cannot force a man to take stamps who chuses to do without them. They will not find a rebellion; they may indeed make one.

Q. If the act is not repealed, what do you think will be the consequences?

--A. A total loss of the respect and affection the people of America bear to this country, and of all the commerce that depends upon that respect and affection.

Q. What used to be the pride of the Americans?

--A. To indulge in the fashions and manufactures of Great Britain.

Q. What is now their pride?

--A. To wear their old clothes over again, till they can make new ones.

The Great Birmingham Project

By the time of this testimony, Franklin had long been the leader and master mover of a circle of his republican-minded English friends and students, working to break England out of backwardness with unprecedented canals, new scientific conceptions, and innovations in mining and machinery.

A year earlier, Franklin had launched the most momentous project, to perfect a practical steam engine. On May 22, 1765, he had written to his Birmingham lieutenant, the industrial innovator Matthew Boulton, "to introduce my Friend Doctor Small to your Acquaintance ... an ingenious Philosopher, & a most worthy honest Man'' and to ask Boulton that, "if any thing new in Magnetism or Electricity or any other Branch of natural Knowledge has occurred to your fruitful Genius since I last had the Pleasure of seeing you, you will by communicating it, greatly oblige.''

Dr. William Small, a native Scot, had emigrated to Virginia in 1758 to teach science and mathematics at William and Mary College. Dr. Small and the Platonist law professor George Wythe, their mutual student Thomas Jefferson, and Governor Francis Fauquier formed a regular string quartet. Small returned to Britain with Franklin’s introduction, and Matthew Boulton immediately accepted William Small as his personal physician and overall industrial manager. The pace of activity at Boulton’s Soho manufacturing plant and invention factory now increased dramatically.

Parliament repealed the Stamp Act on Feb. 22, 1766, to the delight and applause of the world's republicans. That same day, Boulton wrote to Franklin,

"The addition you have made to my happiness in being the cause of my acquaintance with the amiable and ingenious Dr. Small deserves more than thanks….

"My engagements since Christmas have not permitted me to make any further progress with my fire-engines.... Query, --which of the steam valves do you like best? Is it better to introduce the jet of cold water at the bottom of the receiver ... or at the top? Each has its advantages and disadvantages. My thoughts about the secondary or mechanical contrivances of the engine are too numerous to trouble you with in this letter, and yet I have not been lucky enough to hit upon any that are objectionless....if any thought occurs to your fertile genius which you think may be useful, or preserve me from error in the execution of this engine, you'll be so kind as to communicate it to me....''

The Boulton-Watt rotative engine. Benjamin Franklin brought in Dr. William Small from Virginia to manage Matthew Boulton's Soho plant; Small hired James Watt, and Small oversaw construction of the first serious steam engine. The Boulton-Watt engine powered new industries designed by Franklin's circle.

Boulton and Small had built a model steam engine, which was then in Franklin's hands in London. Its demonstration was gaining Boulton great “mechanical fame.”

Franklin replied to Boulton,

"excuse my so long omitting to answer your kind Letter ... consider the excessive Hurry & Anxiety I have been engaged in with our American Affairs....

"I know not which of the Valves to give the preference to, nor whether it is best to introduce your Jet of Cold water above or below. Experiments will best decide in such Cases. I would only repeat to you the Hint I gave, of fixing your Grate in such a Manner as to burn all your Smoke. I think a great deal of Fuel will then be saved, for two Reasons.

"One, that Smoke is Fuel, and is wasted when it escapes uninflamed. The other, that it forms a sooty Crust on the Bottom of the Boiler, which Crust not being a good Conductor of Heat, and preventing Flame and hot Air coming into immediate contact with the Vessel, lessen their Effect in giving Heat to the Water. All that is necessary is, to make the Smoke of fresh Coals pass descending through those that are already thoroughly ignited.”

Franklin here addresses a  central question in steam engineering, that in previous primitive British devices, such as the Newcomen engine, 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 Scottish mechanic-engineer James Watt went to visit the Soho works in 1767 and met William Small. They talked of Watt's research in gas dynamics and his own recent experiments with steam power. On January 7, 1768, Small proposed to Watt that he move to Birmingham and form a new firm to develop the first true steam engine. Small prepared a patent for Watt (tentatively approved 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 in 1774 – as the American Continental Congress was being organized. 

Terror, and Revolution

The circle of Franklin’s closest English associates (organized as the Lunar Society) included Joseph Priestley, whom Franklin had guided into a scientific career; the republican potter and canal builder Josiah Wedgewood; and cannon-maker and pioneer steelmaker John Wilkinson, whose work proved crucial to the success of the steam engine project.

At first, the steam-engine piston was packed with stuffing material, to close the gap with the cylinder wall and prevent 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 Wilkinson that his machine tool for boring out a cannon be modified to produce an engine cylinder. This 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.

(Later, during the American Revolution, Englishmen Boulton and Wilkinson quietly operated inside France, teaming up with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais and Benjamin Franklin, to forge cannons that were supplied to the French fleet backing General Washington at the final victory in Yorktown.)

In 1775, as tension rose between America and Britain, Franklin’s English circle was pressed about with police spies and harassment. William Small died suddenly on Feb. 25, 1775, at the age of 41, of undetermined cause. Under circumstances of terror, Small's body was thrown into an unmarked grave. Franklin left England forever, a few days later.

Matthew Boulton wrote to James Watt in dismay the day of Small’s death, and asked, in alarm, about the threat that Watt might be led to abandon the steam engine project:

"The ... curtain has fallen and I have this evening bid adieu to our once good and virtuous friend for ever and ever. If there were not a few other objects yet remaining for me to settle my affections upon, I should wish also to take up my abode in the mansions of the dead…. Your going to Russia staggers me. The precariousness of your health, the dangers of so long a journey … render me a little uncomfortable…”

An 1854 edition of Watt’s papers (The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt) appends a note to Boulton’s letter, explaining how Watt came to consider going off to Russia at this time of great tension and conflict:

“It elsewhere appears that a situation in that country [Russia], with a salary of about 1,000 L per annum, had been offered to Mr. Watt, on the recommendation of his friend, Mr. Robison…”

It appears that a certain high personage in the British secret intelligence service, one John Robison, had been hanging about the Franklin circle, passing himself off as a friend of James Watt, with whom he had done some mechanical tinkering in Scotland many years earlier. Robison was in fact a bitter enemy of Priestley and the scientific work of the Lunar Society, and later a salacious slanderer of Franklin’s French chemist protégé, Antoine Lavoisier.

John Robison became world-famous in the 1790s. After years of travel as a Scottish Rite mason and British intriguer in Russia and continental Europe, Robison authored Proofs of a Conspiracy. He charged that the Masonic networks of Franklin, Lafayette and their friends were the instruments through which “The Illuminati” had run the French Revolution and was planning to overthrow all legitimate governments. The Robison volume was widely circulated among Boston’s radical Anglophiles as evidence that Thomas Jefferson was an atheistic communist, who should be opposed to the extent of breaking up the USA to save it from that threat.