Cort’s promotion efforts 1783-86
Cort’s first recorded contact with the firm of Boulton & Watt is a letter to Matthew Boulton in1779. Apparently nothing comes of the approach, but In December 1782 he visits the works in Birmingham.
We had a visit to-day from a Mr. Cort of Gosport who says he has a forge there and has found out some grand secret in the making of Iron, by which he can make double the quantity at the same expense and in the same time as usual. He says he wants some kind of Engine but could not tell what.
From letter from James Watt to Matthew Boulton, 14 December 1782.
Boulton is away in Cornwall. Watt writes to him with his assessment of Cort as "a simple good-natured man but not very knowing".
Much of subsequent correspondence has been lost, but there is a letter from Cort asking Watt for an introduction to John Wilkinson.
Once again the outcome is not recorded, but some contact must have been established, as Wilkinson expects to see a demonstration by Cort of his rolling process the following November. There is even a hint of a meeting between them at Stourbridge.
Some time this Week I shall go over to Stourton having been advised by Mr Cort that he is ready & has already preformed to the Satisfaction of all present. – I told him at Stourbridge that I shoul give him 10Days extra to be perfect before I paid him a Visit. – I find he has been attended by great Numbers of Spectators – among which was MR. Kier – You will learn from him what the Trade can expect from Mr Corts method.
From letter of John Wilkinson to James Watt, 3 November 1783
The demonstration takes place at a mill at Stourton owned by Francis Homfray (I’m not sure whether this is the father or the brother of the Homfrays involved at Penydarren). For his demonstration, Cort needs to modify the mill’s rollers, normally used for making nailing rods. However, the opportunity for Wilkinson to witness Cort’s rolling process is lost.
My coming over depends on an experiment Mr Cort is to make at Stourton Mill.
From letter of John Wilkinson to James Watt, 22 October 1783
Read a letter from Mr Cort that he had met with an Accident in his Mill & that he woud advise when he was ready again to work
From letter of John Wilkinson to James Watt, 6th November 1783.
There is firm evidence that Cort, on a later visit to the area, stays at the Bechers’ home in Shut End (we note elsewhere that John Becher’s presence there may be due to an iron trade connection). There is little doubt that he also uses it as a base on these earlier visits.
Indeed, it seems likely that John Becher has a hand in setting up the demonstration at Stourton.
Probably it is more than a coincidence that John Becher dies on 7 November 1783, barely two days after the accident.
Have not learnt the accident that has befell them – it must be more than breaking a Roll as that is soon replac’d.
From letter of John Wilkinson to James Watt, 8th November 1783
Nowhere else do we discover the nature of the accident, but we can take it that Wilkinson is right that it is “more than breaking a roll”.
The next promotional activity of which we hear is the set of tests by the Navy into Cort’s products, which in time will bear fruit.
Early 1784 promotions
In May 1784 Cort travels to Edinburgh to present the specification for his Scottish patent. He has been using a Scottish lawyer, John Wauchope, as agent.
With Wauchope’s help he presents demonstrations of his puddling process, probably adapting reverberatory furnaces already on site for use in casting. Witnesses in Scotland include Professor Joseph Black of Edinburgh University, local landowner Sir John Dalrymple and future ironmaster John Mackenzie. Charles Gascoigne of Carron Ironworks also shows interest.
Subsequent correspondence reveals Cort has already given demonstrations at Cardigan and Newcastle, where two companies, Landell & Chambers, and William Hawkes, take an interest.
Mr. Cort .has made such a Discovery in the Art of makeing tough Iron as will undoubtedly give to this Island the monopoly of that Business; he has shewn us an example of his Process here in the presence of a few Freinds and he wishes to have an opportunity of shewing it to Mr. Bolton & you; you will probably be astonished as I was at the simplicity & propriety of it & will wonder that it was not discovered sooner.
From letter of Joseph Black to James Watt, 28 May1784, in Birmingham archives.
Previous to your letter I had heard much of Mr Cort's process for making barrs and have seen a great deal of his iron, though I cannot perfectly agree with you as to its goodness yet there is much Ingenuity in the Idea of forming the barrs in that manner, which is the only part of his process which has any pretensions to novelty.
From letter of James Watt to Joseph Black, 6 June 1784, quoted in Robinson & McKie, Partners in Science.
You have formed a hasty and mistaken notion of Corts Process, the mechanical improvements were those he first contrived and got a Patent for which others attempted to elude and cheat him out of - But he afterwards contrived an improvement in the Chemical Part which I maintain still is Capital and for which he has a second Patent.
From letter of Joseph Black to James Watt, 26 June 1784, in Birmingham archives.
There is also reference, in one of Joseph Black’s letters to James Watt, to “illiberal treatment” of Cort by the iron trade.
On leaving Scotland, Cort travels rapidly to the West Midlands. On 3rd June he writes to Matthew Boulton from Shut End, but Boulton is about to leave for Cornwall.
Cort fits in a demonstration at the Wright & Jesson works at West Bromwich before moving on to London for the specification for his second English patent.
During all these puddling demonstrations Cort is frustrated because “I could not go thro' the whole of the Process for the Iron was all drawn out by hammers and I had not the benefit of the Grooved Rollers which I have found to improve the Iron very materially”.
Later 1784 promotions
In October 1784 Cort heads back to Shut End, which serves as his base for a further six days of demonstrations at Wednesbury and the Shropshire sites of Pitchford and Ketley.
At Wednesbury he at last secures the presence of Matthew Boulton, along with ironmasters such as Benjamin Gibbons and Thomas Homfray.
The Ketley demonstration is at William Reynolds’s works. In preparation, Cort sends his employee Henry Foxall, who may already know Reynolds through ironworking experience before his arrival at Fontley. Foxall stays for several months.
Reynolds is engaged in extending the works, and wishes to test new fining processes. He has already sampled a process devised by Peter Onions, and found it wanting.
Later reports that Reynolds agrees to install puddling furnaces at Ketley are contrary to all contemporary evidence. Nevertheless Cort becomes suspicious that Reynolds is pirating his processes.
He hires legal experts in London (probably engaged by James Watson) to give their opinions, but does not follow them up.
More likely Reynolds has been influenced by developments in Scotland, where Sir John Dalrymple has been preparing to set up ironworks on his own land, intending to use Cort’s processes. The difficulties he encounters are probably instrumental in dissuading other ironmasters from taking up puddling at this time.
Mr Cort came to this County last summer & was with me in the Country. I took a great liking to him because he was ingenious & ingenuous. I attended his experiment & took a much better judge with me Doctor Black who declared that the invention was a noble National one. Upon this I made preparations to set up a furnace & a forge upon my Estate. But last winter being a very severe one I could do nothing. I therefore employed the intermediate time in making experiments. Mr Cort's proposition was that three tons of Pig made two tons of bar which would have made one of the most profitable trades in the world. He sent us a set of experiments made in different places in England in presence of the different Iron Masters then infinately accurate in all particulars which confirmed this proportion. A Gentleman from the Country perfectly master of the subject went to Gosport to make the experiment with his own hands & reported that the proportions were as above. Notwithstanding all this all the experiments which I made brought out only one ton of bar from three of Pig, which would be a very poor trade. The experiments were made at Edinburgh, Glasgow and a third place, and at different times. I almost roasted my eyes out in watching them.
These differences make me pause a little because the erection of such works is a serious affair. I observe in your last book, you speak highly of Wright and Jesson's process, but say nothing of Cort's, which makes me imagine the character of it is not high. Now what I have to ask of Yr Lordship is that, as the Iron people are about you just now, you would let me know what they think of Cort's process, and how it has succeeded with them.
From letter of Sir John Dalrymple to Lord Sheffield, circa April 1785, in Weale collection.
The only works that agrees to adopt puddling at this stage is at Rotherhithe.