Wedgwood, Josiah

views updated May 14 2018


(b. Burslem, England, 12 July 1730: d. Etruria. England. 3 January 1795). ceramic technology, chemistry.

Wedgwood was one of the progressive British industrialists of the eighteenth century whose careers touched the world of science. His father, Thomas Wedgwood, was in the pottery business and his mother, Mary Stringer, was the daughter of a dissenting minister. When Wedgwood was nine years old his father died and, as a result, his schooling ended and his employment in the pottery of his brother Thomas began.

Over the next eleven years Wedgwood mastered the skills of the potter; and after several partnerships he founded his own pottery in 1758. His business affairs soon prospered as his tireless experimental efforts resulted in novel and improved products. In the 1770’s these efforts culminated in his greatest success, the jasper ware, which achieved exceptionally pleasant chromatic and textural effects, and which is the product generally brought to mind when “Wedgwood” is used as a description of ceramic products. During the 1760’s as Wedgwood enlarged his pottery works, he also built a worker’s village. which he named Etruria and where he made his home (Etruria Hall). In 1764 he married a distant cousin. Sarah Wedgwood, and the line of descendants (which includes the mother and wife of Charles Darwin) has to this day retained an interest in the Wedgewood potteries.

Wedgwood’s position in eighteenth-century science rests on a few minor contributions to experimental chemistry, on his active associations with scientists and scientific societies, and on his general interest in experimental research. During the 1780’s he contributed three papers on the measurement of high temperature to the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Depending on a property of clay that causes it to shrink as it is heated, the pyrometer (“thermometer for strong fire”) that Wedgwood described was seen by him as complementary to the mercurial thermometers that were used to measure low temperature. The device enjoyed some use and caught the interest of both Priestley and Lavoisier. Moreover, as an appendix to one of these papers (1783) Wedgwood described the series of experiments he conducted to evaluate Lavoisier’s proposal that heat could be measured by determining the quantity of ice that a warm body could melt.

On several occasions Wedgwood supplied experimental apparatus (pyrometers, retorts, crucibles, and tubing) to various scientists (again including Priestley and Lavoisier) and corresponded with them on experimental procedures. In 1783 Wedgwood was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, but his most significant membership was in the Lunar Society of Birmingham, where he was associated with the foremost British chemists of the period. It was indeed the Lunar Society that reflected the changing structure of industry and technology and anticipated the transformation that saw the affiliation between technology and the crafts loosened in favor of a new affiliation between technology and science.

Wedgwood’s interest in experimental chemistry also showed itself in his business and personal affairs. Around 1775 he promoted (unsuccessfully) the formation of an experimental “company” to conduct research on the improvement of porcelain, and he both employed a chemist in his pottery and provided instruction in chemistry for his sons.

Differences of opinion have recently sprung up over the significance of Wedgwood’s considerable interest in and knowledge of chemistry. That he read deeply and widely in the field and that he corresponded frequently with chemists on matters of research has been amply demonstrated. There are even indications that in a few instances his technical work on ceramics benefited from his knowledge of the experimental results of chemists. But. despite his habitual use of the terminology of contemporary (phlogiston) chemistry. Wedgwood had only the slightest interest in the cognitive structure of the science, and it seems to have contributed nothing to his industrial exploits. The meaning of his career is rather to be found in its clear statement that during the Industrial Revolution technical men were entering the world of research with the Baconian confidence that technology could learn from science.


I. Original Works. The articles that Wedgwood contributed to Philosophical Transactions of the royal Society of London are “An Attempt to Make a Thermometer for Measuring the Higher Degrees of Heat, From a Red Heat Up to the Strongest that Vessels Made of Clay Can Support,” 72 (1782), 305–326; “Some Exps. Upon the Ochra friabilis nigro fusca of Da Costa Hist. Foss. p. 102; and Called by the Miners of Derbyshire, Black Wadd,” 73 (1783), 284–287; “An Attempt to Compare and Connect the Thermometer for Strong Fire, Described in Vol. LXXII of the Philosophical Transactions, With the Common Mercurial Ones,” 74 (1784), 358–384; “Additional Observations on Making a Thermometer for Measuring the Higher Degrees of Heat,” 76 (1786), 390–408 ; and “On the Analysis of a Mineral Substance From New South Wales,” 80 (1790), 306–320.

Many Wedgwood documents are collected in the Wedgwood Museum maintained by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons, Ltd., Barlaston, England. For published collections of Wedgwood’s letters, see Ann finer and George Savage, eds., The Selected Letters of Josiah Wedgwood (London, 1965); and Katherine Eufemia Farrer, ed., Letters of Josiah Wedgwood, 2 vols. (London, 1903).

II. Secondary Literature. The standard biography of Wedgwood is Eliza Meteyard, The Life of Josiah Wedgwood, 2 vols. (London, 1865-1866); this work cannot, however, be depended on for an evaluation of Wedgwood’s role in science. For an extensive survey of Wedgwood bibliography, see Gisela Heilpern. Josiah Wedgwood, Eighteenth-Century English Potter: A Bibliography (Carbondale, III., 1967). Wedgwood’s association with the Lunar Society is fully discussed in Robert E. Schofield. The Lunar Society of Birmingham (London, 1963): see esp. ch. 3 and. for bibliography, p. 455. For a minor dissent from the opinion that Wedgwood was a full member of the Lunar Society, see Eric Robinson, “The Lunar Society: Its Membership and Organization,” in Transactions. Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology, 35 (1964), 153–177.

Many details of Wedgwood’s technical work are presented in Robert E. Schofield, “Josiah Wedgwood and the Technology of Glass Manufacturing,” in Technology and Culture, 3 (1962), 285–297, and in the program of the Ninth Wedgwood International Seminar: April 23–25, 1964 (New York, 1971), 125–135, Accounts of Wedgwood’s role as a chemist are in Eric Robinson, “The Lunar Society and the Improvement of Scientific Instruments: II,” in Annals of Science, 13 (1957), 1–8; J.A. Chaldecott, “Scientific Activities in Paris in 1791,” ibid., 24 (1968), 21–52; and Robert E. Schofield, “Josiah Wedgwood and a Proposed Eighteenth-Century Industrial Research Organization,” in Isis, 47 (1956), 16–19.

For differing appraisals of the relationship between Wedgwood’s chemistry and his technical work, see Robert E. Schofield, “Josiah Wedgwood. Industrial Chemist,” in Chymia, 5 (1959), 180–192; A. Rupert Hall, “What Did the Industrial Revolution in Britain Owe to Science?,” in Neil McKendrick, ed., Historical Perspectives: Studies in English Thought and Society (London. 1974), 129–151, esp. 141: Neil McKendrick, “The Role of Science in the Industrial Revolution: A Study of Josiah Wedgwood as a Scientist and Industrial Chemist,” in Mikuláš Teich and Robert Young,. eds., Changing Perspectives in the History of Science: Essays in Honour of Joseph Needham (London, 1973), 274–319: and J. A. Chaldecott, “Josiah Wedgwood (1730–95)— Scientist,” in British Journal for the History of Science, 8 . no. 28 (1975), 1–16.

Harold Dorn

Josiah Wedgwood

views updated Jun 08 2018

Josiah Wedgwood

The English potter Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) established the Wedgwood pottery factory. His work is most associated with the neoclassic style.

Josiah Wedgwood was born in August 1730 at Burslem, Staffordshire, into a family which had been engaged in the manufacture of pottery since the 17th century. His father owned a factory called the Churchyard Pottery, and Josiah began working in this family enterprise as an apprentice in 1744. He left the factory in the early 1750s and until 1759 was engaged with various partners in the manufacture of standard types of earthenware, including salt-glaze and stoneware products and objects in the popular agate and tortoiseshell glazes. During these years he experimented with improving glazes in color, and he achieved a particularly refined green glaze.

In 1759 Wedgwood set up his own factory at Ivy House in Burslem. The Ivy House pottery was so successful that in 1764 he moved his factory to larger quarters nearby; the new factory was first known as the Brick House Works and later as the Bell House. During this period Wedgwood created his first creamware, a palecolored earthenware frequently decorated with painted or enameled designs. Wedgwood's creamware won the approval of Queen Charlotte and after about 1765 became known as "Queen's ware."

During the first half of the 18th century the prevailing taste was for the rococo, a decorative style which used sensuous and delicate colors, lavish ornament, and a complex interplay of curved lines and masses. From about the middle of the century, however, the exuberant gaiety of the rococo began gradually to be replaced by neoclassicism and a return to the comparative severity of the art of antiquity. In the early 1760s Wedgwood met Thomas Bentley, a cultivated man devoted to neoclassicism, and in 1769 they opened a factory near Burslem which was called Etruria and dedicated to the creation of ornamental pottery designed in the neoclassic manner. The factory at Bell House was retained for the production of functional tableware until the 1770s, when it was absorbed into Etruria.

The two products of the Etruria factory which became most fashionable were the basaltes and the jasperware objects. The basaltes were decorative and functional pieces made of a hard black stoneware, often with lowrelief decoration, in designs based upon antiquity. The jasperware became the most famous of the Wedgwood products and is still the pottery most associated with the Wedgwood name. Jasperware, which Wedgwood perfected about 1775, is a fine stoneware with a solid body color in blue, soft green, lavender, pink, black, or other colors and generally decorated with delicate low-relief designs in white adapted from Greek vase paintings, Roman relief sculpture, and other antique sources. Jasperware was produced in a great variety of functional and decorative objects ranging from teapots to cameos and including vases, bowls, candlesticks, and portrait reliefs.

Bentley died in 1780, and Wedgwood continued the work at Etruria, producing some of the factory's finest jasper in the late 18th century. He employed many artists to provide designs for his products and to adapt designs from classical antiquity. The most notable of these modelers was John Flaxman, a famous sculptor who supplied designs for the Etruria factory from 1775 to 1800. From 1787 Flaxman was in Rome for several years studying antique sculpture and sending Wedgwood elegant interpretations of ancient art.

Wedgwood died at Etruria on Jan. 3, 1795. His tombstone states that he "converted a rude and inconsiderable Manufactory into an elegant Art and an important part of National Commerce." The factory remains in the family and since 1810 has been known as Josiah Wedgwood and Sons. The modern factory is primarily concerned with the production of dinnerware and functional objects but continues to manufacture the jasper and basaltes that Josiah made so popular.

Further Reading

An excellent account of Wedgwood's career and of the Wedgwood product in general is William B. Honey, Wedgwood Ware (1948), a brief but thorough and critical work with illustrations of high quality. Wolf Mankowitz and Reginald G. Hagger, The Concise Encyclopedia of English Pottery and Porcelain (1957), is handsomely illustrated, has an excellent bibliography, and contains basic information concerning Josiah Wedgwood and the Wedgwood family and factory. Older but still important standard biographies are Sir Arthur H. Church, Josiah Wedgwood, Master Potter (1903), and William Burton, Josiah Wedgwood and His Pottery (1922). Also useful is Wolf Mankowitz, Wedgwood (1953).

Additional Sources

Burton, Anthony, Josiah Wedgwood: a biography, London: A. Deutsch, 1976.

Reilly, Robin, Josiah Wedgwood 1730-1795, London: Macmillan, 1992. □

Wedgwood, Josiah

views updated May 18 2018

Wedgwood, Josiah (1730–95). Potter, industrialist, and social reformer, Wedgwood was born into a Staffordshire family of potters and was at work by the age of 9. Shrewd and innovative in manufacture, design, and marketing, he capitalized on 18th-cent. fashion and snobbery, setting up on his own in 1758, and opening the great Etruria factory in 1769. Aware that ‘a name has a wonderful effect’, he presented his newly improved creamware to Queen Charlotte and obtained her permission to call it Queen's Ware, multiplying his sales in Britain and Europe. A notable commission came from Catherine the Great in 1774: a 952-piece service, now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, decorated with exquisite and accurate detail of 18th-cent. houses and countryside.

Wedgwood was keenly interested in the social and political problems of his day, much involved in road and canal development, and constantly reviewed the working and living conditions of his employees. His views were liberal/radical, he was sympathetic towards American independence in the 1770s, welcomed the French Revolution, and was a fervent supporter of the abolition of slavery.

June Cochrane

Josiah Wedgwood

views updated May 18 2018

Josiah Wedgwood


English potter, industrialist, and philanthropist who is recognized as one of the greatest potters of all time. He was among the first to successfully apply scientific and economic principles to industry and to combine art and industry. He invented the pyrometer for measuring high temperatures. Many of his techniques and designs are in use today. He was a leader in neoclassicism, the revival of classical styles in art and architecture. Charles Darwin was his grandson.

Wedgwood, Josiah

views updated May 23 2018

Wedgwood, Josiah (1730–95) English potter. He pioneered the mass production of pottery at his Etruria works near Stoke-on-Trent, and became famous for his creamware. He is best known for his jasper ware, which gave expression to the contemporary interest in the revival of classical art.