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.
Watt’s invention is said to have been prompted by the boredom he experienced in making scribal copies of his business correspondence. In July 1779 he wrote to Joseph Black: “I have lately discovered a method of copying [writing] instantaneously, provided it has been written [the same day] or within 24 hours, I send you a specimen [and will] Impart the secret if it will be of any use to you. [It enables] me to copy all my business letters—” (Robinson and McKie, 67).
In February 1780 Watt took out a patent specification for his new copying method, which included formulae for special paper and ink. A month later he formed a partnership with Matthew Boulton and James Keir to exploit the commercial potential of the machine, trading under the name of James Watt & Co. By the end of the first year of business, 630 of the original stationary models had been sold.
The portable model was developed by James Watt, Jun., in 1795. In November of that year Godwin received a machine like this as a gift from his friend Thomas Wedgwood. For the next ten years he used the machine to make duplicates of many letters, personal as well as business. (It is not known why he stopped—perhaps it was too expensive—but he continued to keep scribal copies of his letters for the rest of his life.) Other notable users of the Watt firm’s copying machines included William Cullen, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson (who also invented his own copying devices), and Joseph Priestley.
Watt’s copying method involved a wet ink-transfer process. The letter to be copied was written in special copying ink. A damp sheet of copying paper was placed over the letter, and a clean sheet of oiled backing paper laid on top. Then the package was placed between two felt covered boards and pressed by a brass roller. This created a mirror image of the original that soaked right through the thin copying paper, so it could be read the right way round on the “verso” side.
Copies resulting from this mechanical process are by definition accurate. Unlike scribal duplicates, in which the text may be changed, they are identical to the original letter, as prepared for dispatch, and provide a guarantor of the authenticity of its text (unless authorial changes were made after copying).
Godwin’s wet-transfer copies present a number of interpretative challenges. In some examples, words have faded because of the degradation of the copying ink over time. In others, words are obliterated at the edge of the leaf, where the copying paper and the original letter have not been correctly aligned. In others, the entire text is blurred as a consequence of pressing wet documents. In addition, there are puzzles involving identification and dating: the address leaf is often missing. Experiments with ultra-violet light and high-resolution scanning have afforded little help with machine-made textual irregularities.
Nonetheless it has been possible, through painstaking analysis, to recover full texts of nearly all the wet-transfer copies and to identify the dates and correspondents of the vast majority. They provide the sole surviving texts for many important letters. The texts are among those being made available in The Letters of William Godwin, under the general editorship of Pamela Clemit, 6 vols. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011-).
The wet-transfer copies remind us that archives often involve an element of construction by their originators. Godwin’s education in English Protestant Dissent had given him a keen understanding of the value of written records. His archival activities were not confined to his formal works of historiography, such as Lives of Edward and John Philips, Nephews and Pupils of Milton (1815) and History of the Commonwealth of England (1824-8). He recognized the importance of keeping copies of his letters.
Archives also bear witness to the realities of time, distance, and loss. Not all of Godwin’s wet-transfer copies have survived. The Abinger papers include a small number of autograph sent letters which reveal the physical signs of having been copied, but of which the wet-transfer copy is lost. A few single leaves of multi-page wet-transfer copies have gone missing since 1948, after they were microfilmed by Duke University (1948-52).
The value of these fragile, faded, and semi-legible documents, both as sources for texts, and as rare examples of wet-transfer technology, has been recognized by the Bodleian. They were among the first items to be stabilized in the conservation programme begun after the University purchased the Abinger papers in 2004 (see: http://blogs.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/theconveyor/2012/05/01/affectionately-yours-william-godwin-the-abinger-papers-conservation-project-phase-one/).
Andrew, James H., “The Copying of Engineering Drawings and Documents”, Transactions of the Newcomen Society, 53 (1981-2), 1-15.
Bedini, Silvio A., Thomas Jefferson and his Copying Machines (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984).
Clemit, Pamela, “William Godwin and James Watt’s Copying Machine: Wet-Transfer Copies in the Abinger Papers”, Bodleian Library Record, 28/5 (April 2005), 532-60.
Dallas, J., “The Cullen Consultation Letters”, Proceedings of the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, 31 (2001), 66-8.
Hills, Richard, “James Watt and his Copying Machine”, The Oxford Papers: Proceedings of the British Association of Paper Historians Fourth Annual Conference, ed. Peter Bower (Oxford: British Association of Paper Historians, 1996), 81-8.
Muirhead, James Patrick, The Origin and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt, Illustrated by his Correspondence with his Friends and the Specifications of his Patents, 3 vols. (London: John Murray, 1854).
Proudfoot, W. D., The Origin of Stencil Duplicating (London: Hutchinson, 1972).
Rhodes, Barbara, and William Walls Streeter, Before Photocopying: The Art and History of Mechanical Copying (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Press, and Northampton, Mass.: Heraldry Bindery, 1999).
Robinson, Eric, and Douglas McKie, ed., Partners in Science: Letters of James Watt and Joseph Black (London: Constable, 1970).
Pamela Clemit is Professor of English Studies at Durham University and a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford.