Scroll and Ink pot

James Watt was a man of the Enlightenment. His multifaceted thinking and doing can be interpreted under the maxim that scientific knowledge and its dissemination was the key to prompting change in the world. One way that Watt shared that enlightened knowledge was through his prolific letter writing. By participating in the epistolary exchange of the Republic of Letters, Watt not only aided in the spread of scientific knowledge but also he exemplified the newly refined ways of thinking, speaking, and behaving in this polite cosmopolitan space of the Enlightenment.

My recent paper, “Catalyzing Chemical Correspondence: James Watt and the Case of Joseph Black and James Keir”, argues that Watt was a vital correspondent between two late-eighteenth-century chemists, Joseph Black and James Keir. This friendship triad accurately reflects, albeit on a small scale, correspondence structures of the wider eighteenth-century Republic of Letters. It illustrates the assumption that while most correspondences were small and localized, specific figures often acted as lynchpins between disconnected knowledge networks. Black and Keir seldom exchanged letters even though their circle of friends and confidents overlapped significantly. Not only did Watt relay information between Black and Keir, he also promoted propriety and refinement in the way that knowledge was shared. This paper investigates two episodes in which Watt promoted the proper dissemination of knowledge between Black and Keir, namely the production of artificial alkali and the industrial separation of silver and copper metals.

In the first example, Watt was an important conduit for Black and Keir’s discussions about alkali production. Although Watt said at the beginning of the scheme in 1769 that he “ought to have no voice in the matter” his diligent communication was the foundation of the entire collaborative project. As Keir and Black conducted private experiments and investigated patent options, Watt keep the chemists informed of each other’s work while navigating the unwritten expectations of reciprocity and gentlemanly trust in the Republic of Letters.

Watt emerges yet again as a critical node point in the case of Keir’s innovative process that separated silver plate from copper. When Black inquired about the procedure that had been prematurely communicated to him by a mutual friend, Watt defended Keir’s priority of discovery, decried the inappropriate sharing of knowledge, and insisted on Black’s secrecy. Only once Keir had published the process in the Philosophical Transactions did Watt freely disseminate the useful practice. Hence, Watt was a vital player in hindering impolite forms of communication while promoting the proper order of introducing new knowledge in private and public spheres.

Consequently, this localized correspondence structure opens up a new perspective on Watt. He was a multifaceted engineer, chemist, intellectual, but also a promoter of useful knowledge and its proper place within correspondence networks. Although Black and Keir’s interchange was exhibited in an indirect manner, Watt’s diligent correspondence catalyzed the strategic sharing and withholding of chemical information in ways that sought to benefit the collaborators and adhere to the ethos of reciprocity and propriety within the wider Republic of Letters.

Kristen M. Schranz


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Kristen M. Schranz