Pioneer

Josiah Wedgwood was a pioneer in many fields, both within the pottery industries and as a social reformer. In the field of ceramics, he pioneered the introduction of steam power as a motive force, he introduced engine turned lathes, he transformed the transportation of finished goods with his support for road improvements and the canal network, he revolutionised factory production methods, and he developed world-class new products through his systematic scientific research.

Like every other industry, pottery needed raw materials; these were initially prepared and ground in water mills, often converted from corn-mills. In North Staffordshire the use of water driven mills, especially for the grinding of flint, existed from the 17th century onwards. The use of these water driven mills were supplemented by windmills such as that owned by Josiah Wedgwood, located as it was described, 'On the Jenkins', a local area of land nearby in Burslem. One can only imagine what difficulties and delays the local potters experienced in the preparation of the basic raw materials. Throughout industrial history water driven mills and windmills were always the source of trouble when engaged in the heavy task of grinding flint stones and other potters' materials. It was for this reason that, James Brindley, the 'Millwright Genius', settled in North Staffordshire prior to becoming more famous for his engineering work in the construction of the Duke of Bridgewater’s canal in North Staffordshire, and the more important and impressive Trent and Mersey Canal. Inventors during the early decades of the 18th century had experimented with artificial sources of power to supplement or surpass natural power. One of the great advantages of these new methods was consistency and not being reliant on natural phenomena such as droughts or floods.

One of the other restricting factors in the early development of the ceramic industry was that frequently the pottersworkshops were sited some considerable distance from the actual location of the wind and water mills. It was therefore to be of considerable advantage for the potters of the 18th century, for a device to be invented to enable the mixing of the clays and grinding of the flints to be nearer their factories. Not only would this cut down the cost of production but it also meant there was a considerable saving in the cost of transporting the heavy raw materials, frequently over a considerable distance. What was probably more important to the potter, was that it would have also enabled him to supervise on the spot the mixing and preparation of the different ingredients and raw materials necessary for his particular pottery. Thus a potter who could have water powered grinding wheels operating on his pot-bank, was in an advantageous position as compared with his rivals. Josiah Wedgwood was obviously very conscious of this aspect of the industry and had learnt this important fact of cost effective production through his partnership with Thomas Whieldon (1754-9) at his works in Fenton Vivian where Whieldon owned and operated his own mills.

Research has revealed that one of the contemporaries of Whieldon and Wedgwood, John Turner of Lane End, had installed an engine to pump water from a pool over the water-wheel at his Stoke pottery. Simeon Shaw in the 'Rise and Progress of the Staffordshire Potteries' refers to this engine but gives very little detail except to state that it was not a steam engine. It seems evident that this engine was a Newcomen model which Turner had probably seen being used in the tin mines, during his visit to Cornwall in 1775, when he travelled with Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood and Turner were impressed with the mechanical devices used in Cornwall and on their return Josiah subscribed to a copy of Pryce's 'Mineralogia Cornubiensis' (1778), which gave a contemporary description of the apparatus used in the crushing of tin ore. The book gives a detailed description of the artificial power used to pump water from the tin mines and it is easy to conjecture therefore that Turner immediately returned to the Potteries, and purchased a Newcomen atmospheric engine for his works. The use of this type of engine in the Potteries to supplement the water power points to the new era of the rotative steam engine, which was ushered into the industry in the early 1780s.

In a contemporary view of Wedgwood's Etruria manufactory by Stebbing Shaw, evidence exists for the use of a windmill for grinding materials being in use by 1773. It was to be superseded in the course of the next two decades as steam power was introduced. Similarly, Josiah experimented with Erasmus Darwin's design for a horizontal windmill, to be built at the Etruria Works, but it seems probable that this project, for the grinding of ceramic colours, was not particularly successful and that too was discarded in favour of the new steam power.

When examining the associates and friends of Josiah Wedgwood in the 18th century frequently in the past, only passing reference has been made to James Watt. He is often described as a 'Fellow Philosopher', the words used in a contemporary context to mean the equivalent of a scientist today. Their working relationship and subsequent friendship was based on Josiah Wedgwood pinning his faith to Watt's steam engine to provide the motive power in the pottery industry. This belief was based first on Wedgwood’s practical experience as a potter searching for a reliable source of artificial power and secondly on his conviction that Watt, the inventor, had made a remarkable scientific development with his invention of the steam engine. The 'Soho Engine Book', referring to the engineering works executed at the Soho Manufactory of Boulton and Watt, shows that Wedgwood placed successive orders for rotative engines in 1782 and 1784, and a 10 horse power engine was installed in 1793. This document indicates that Wedgwood's manufactory at Etruria was the first factory in Staffordshire to have a Watt rotative steam engine installed, and in fact a second steam engine had been installed at Etruria before the first Watt steam engine was installed in the Lancashire cotton industry, which is renowned today as being the pioneer of this method of producing power.

There is an interesting note in Wedgwood's own hand where he details the tasks he expects of Watt's 1793 engine. These can be summarised as: to grind flint, to grind enamel colours, to operate a stamper or crusher for saggars, and to temper or mix clays.

It is a well-known fact that wherever Josiah Wedgwood led the other potters followed, and this is clearly demonstrated with the Watt engines. Josiah's faith in the steam engine being a great asset to the industry was passed to his competitors as well as his own family successors to the business. His son, Josiah II, had a 30 horse power Watt steam engine installed at Etruria and he stated in a Parliamentary Committee enquiry that the Etruria steam engines were used extensively. Josiah II wrote to L. S. Parkes on 7 October 1814 that, "The potter's wheel and lathe have been turn’d by the steam-engine at Etruria for some years with ingenious contrivances for altering the speed and reversing the motion. The wooden cones are used for altering the speed, but I conceive they have long been used for the same purpose at the Birmingham manufactories." Interestingly, the Watt engine installed in Etruria in 1801 was still working in 1912 when it was finally dismantled and sold.

The advent of steam power in the ceramic industry had a considerable effect. First of all it concentrated all the preparatory processes for the raw materials needed in the pottery industry inside the walls of the pot works. Following the application of steam power some of the hitherto purely handcraft work yielded to machine processes. The old foot or hand driven wheel for the thrower was replaced by the faster steam driven throwing wheel, the same process affected the turners’ lathes, but it must be stressed that the invasion of power driven machinery did not make the workers in a pottery factory mere machine minders. In the pottery factories from the stage where the clay reached the thrower, the turner and beyond, craftsmanship and artistry still dominated. Furthermore, wage books and photographic evidence show that some young or female attendants still 'trod' lathes or turned wheels as late as 1913, and even later.

Innovation in the ceramic industry was not confined solely to mechanical methods. Josiah realised that the ceramic industry and new technological developments would provide considerable rewards to anyone who was prepared to labour hard. He decided to try to improve all aspects of production, he wrote; "To try for some more solid improvement, as well as in the Body, as the Glazes, the Colours & the Forms of the articles for our manufacture."

Between 1763 and 1767 Wedgwood made many radical changes not only the body and glaze of creamware but also in his method of manufacture including alterations to the kilns, tools and apparatus of the factory. One of his innovatory additions to the Works occurred in 1763 when, according to his own 'Common Place Book' Josiah introduced an engine-turning lathe into his pottery. It is thought that he acquired the lathe from John Taylor of Birmingham, through the auspices of Matthew Boulton, where Wedgwood had seen similar machines in use in the Ormolu and metal works, though it is probable that he made considerable alterations and amendments to suit his own requirements.

It is interesting to note that engine-turning on ceramics was being used in the London porcelain industry by about 1755, and is mentioned in a contemporary description of the Chelsea factory on 3 February 1759. The technique of engine-turning had long been used on metal, wood and ivory. Wedgwood claimed he himself had introduced a special engine lathe into the pottery industry in 1763 but it is important to make the clear distinction between this and the plain, parallel turning lathe, which Josiah credits to the Elers Brothers, which was introduced into production at the close of the 17th century. Josiah's date for the introduction of his eccentric motion lathes is confirmed in his correspondence dating from June 1763 when he was obviously consulting Plumier's book, 'L'Art de Tourner', first published in Lyon in 1701 and revised by the author for the Paris edition published in 1749.

Wedgwood was never slow to take advantage of new techniques. Paralleling the advantages of steam power with the advances in industrialisation together with innovations which were equally important. The founding of the Etruria manufactory saw the introduction and application of Adam Smith's principles of the division of labour. Whereas previously pottery articles had been made from start to finish by a single workman, they were now produced at each stage by a specialist, which improved the dexterity of the craftsman and saved time. Another important division was that between the making and the designing of a pot and Wedgwood's pioneering methods included the employment of the best obtainable artists such as John Flaxman jnr, Henry Webber and William Hackwood, amongst others, to emulate the best productions of the past which were in great demand. This enormously improved the level of design as compared with the products of the earlier Staffordshire slip ware potters whose naive, though charming designs could not be described as sophisticated art. The new specialisation of the potters meant they were now relieved of the task of designing, decorating and firing of the ware ensuring that there was a considerable improvement in the quality of the craftsmanship.

Overall, Josiah Wedgwood's entrepreneurial nature combined with scientific and technological curiosity encouraged him to embrace the pioneering spirit of the late 18th century, and helped ensure that his company was at least one step ahead of all competitors.