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


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.

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/).

The first page of William Godwin's letter to Samuel Parr, 4 Dec. 1795, the earliest surviving wet-transfer copy. Bod. MS Abinger c. 22, fo. 1r. (Image courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.)

The first page of William Godwin’s letter to Samuel Parr, 4 Dec. 1795, the earliest surviving wet-transfer copy. Bod. MS Abinger c. 22, fo. 1r. (Image courtesy of the Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford.)



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.





Literary Records: Vinyl Records in the Research of Contemporary Poetry



Photo courtesy Jan Olufsen

Photo courtesy Jan Olufsen

I grew up in a home with almost no books. But this is not the introduction to a miserable story of cultural and intellectual deprivation growing up. Because though not surrounded by a conventional archive of knowledge, I was exposed to another, more unconventional one: a large collection of vinyl records.

From before I was born, my father collected vinyl records, with a special interest in original reggae 7” singles released in Jamaica and England in the 1960s and 1970s. Our living room floor is covered with records that reflect his musical interests: from punk and new wave ones that he bought in the late seventies, to several boxes of ska, rocksteady, roots, and dub that he has accumulated throughout his life. Most of the LPs and 12”singles are stocked in shelves, while the 7” singles are placed in boxes on the floor. The record collection is not particularly organised, but it functions as a chaotic archive that reflects my father’s interests and that became the soundtrack of my own childhood. It charts the evolution of various subcultures and periods of popular music, and especially Jamaican music, over the past 50 years. In many ways, the collection is an archive of something that is simultaneously both private and public. Each record captures a specific story about the sights and sounds of moments in recent history, whilst the combination and juxtaposition of these records tell a personal story about an individual process of cultural, intellectual, and affective formation.

It has always been an implied truth in my childhood home that a record collection is an important source of knowledge and education that should be preserved for the future. Being exposed to this worldview has made me ask what Bildung is in a contemporary context, and it has made me aware of the many diverse forms in which the process of self-cultivation takes place today. People receive their cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic education from popular music, television series, films, video games, documentaries, blogs and many other sources that are not books: knowledge of the classic canon is increasingly becoming just one ingredient of people’s cultural education. My father’s record collection was a central part of mine.

The distinct physicality of the vinyl format allows the records to carry the imprint of not only the recorded sound, but also the historical and cultural context the music comes from and how it continues to circulate as a material object. Those who do not see the value of vinyl often argue that our focus should be on the quality of the “music itself” and not on the medium or other “vanities” extrinsic to the music. However, the appeal of vinyl is exactly that it does not isolate music from its context. The warmth and depth of the dynamic vinyl sound does make the music sound excellent, which is why many DJs across different genres still prefer it. In addition, the format, design, label, and the general culture surrounding vinyl, also communicate music as something more than audio, and as something deeply rooted in history, style, community, and identity.

There have been a number of occasions when my exposure to this unconventional archive has provided me with valuable resources to aid me in both my personal and professional life. The challenge has been to conceptualise the nature of these resources and to turn the often tacit and unarticulated knowledge into something that could be acknowledged and valued in conventional academic contexts. After completing a MA in Comparative Literature, I started to reflect more upon what I had learned from the academic study of literature, and even more importantly, what it had not been able to teach me. This led me to realise that important sources of my cultural formation came not only from literature but from art forms outside of the discipline. What kind of knowledge had the record collection offered me, and how had it influenced my approach to literature? How could a record collection supplement the knowledge I gained from conventional academic books?

It was the work of the Jamaican-born British poet Linton Kwesi Johnson that revealed the ways in which my experience of extensive record collecting might help, an even enhance, my academic literary research. I had learned more about Jamaican culture and social life through reggae music than I ever could by merely reading books. Johnson was an instrumental figure in the creation of the genre of “dub poetry” and his poetry was influenced by a Jamaican reggae aesthetic. In an article entitled‘Jamaican Rebel Music’from 1975, Johnson writes that “the dub lyricist is the DJ turned poet”, documenting several dub-lyricist-turned-poets including “Big Youth, I Roy, U Roy, Dillinger, Shorty the President, Prince Jazzbo and others”. It is an intimate familiarity with an archive of reggae music, as well as other forms of popular music, that allows one to capture the full meaning of such a powerful statement about the relationship between music and poetry. The sentiment informing Johnson’s statement is however far from a unique one. As many poets before him, and plenty since, have tried to do, Johnson was striving to expand our definition of poetry. He sought to create new canons, and in so doing make new archives visible to us. The study of contemporary poetry that expands our definition of poetry and cultural value challenges us to read more than books.


Hugh Roy (later U Roy), Treasure Isle. U Roy was to become an important influence on Johnson's poetry. (photo courtesy Jan Olufsen)

Hugh Roy (later U Roy), Treasure Isle. U Roy was to become an important influence on Johnson’s poetry. (photo courtesy Jan Olufsen)

Louisa Olufsen Layne is a DPhil Candidate in English at the University of Oxford.