William Godwin’s Wet-Transfer Copies and James Watt’s Copying Machine

Originally posted on Object Archives:

An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)
An example of the portable letter copying machine developed in 1795 by James Watt, Jun., similar to the one given to William Godwin by Thomas Wedgwood in November of that year. (Photograph courtesy of Heriot-Watt University Archive, Records Management, and Museum Service.)

For the literary historian, archives may be said to represent the ultimate source of authority concerning a writer’s private and creative life. Yet archival research often raises as many questions as it answers. The fragmentary, inscrutable nature of some manuscript evidence highlights the inherent fragility and unpredictability of archives.

Among the 1800 or so items of William Godwin’s correspondence in the Abinger papers at the Bodleian Library is a group of flimsy machine-made duplicates of outgoing letters. The group comprises 189 single leaves of thin, translucent, wove paper, unsized or lightly sized (i.e. treated with a gelatinous wash). Each leaf carries sideways along one edge a watermark, reading either “J WATT & Co PATENT COPYING” or “sold by J WOODMASON | LONDON”, and measures 246-7 x 202-5 mm.

The copies were made on one of the world’s first successful letter copying machines, invented by the Scottish engineer and instrument-maker James Watt. James Woodmason, a stationer in Leadenhall Street, was the leading London supplier of Watt’s machines, copying paper, and ink.

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