Tuesday May 27, 2008 | 0 comments
One day in 1871, a side-paddle riverboat steaming lazily down the Brahmaputra slid to a stop in midstream. It had run aground on one of the shifting sandbars for which the river is notorious, forcing the captain to tell his passengers it would be some while before they could go further, as the boat would require rather extensive repairs. Why didn’t they explore the countryside while they waited – and stay out of the way? Two of the passengers who clambered ashore were the brothers John and William Jackson, who were on their way home to England from a tea estate in Upper Assam. Somewhere in the vicinity they came across a portable steam engine that still showed no signs of breaking down after ten years’ nonstop performance. William, who had a head for machinery, liked the design so well he made a note of the maker’s address. The English firm of Marshall Sons & Company, Ltd. owes its extensive tea machinery business to this happy accident.
The brothers Jackson – for they worked together at first – finally got off the sandbar and, once home, asked the steam engine firm to produce a tea-rolling machine of their design. It was the first to do the job faster and better than it could be done by hand. Up until then all the tea on earth had always been made entirely by hand. The leaf was hand-rolled, dried over charcoal fires, and trampled into the chests by barefoot workers. Eventually, William Jackson was to invent and patent machines for everyone of these procedures. He and his competitors introduced “scientific preparation of the leaf under hygienic condition,” as detractors of China tea liked to say.
Machinery brought enormous savings in labor, especially in rolling the leaf in order to bruise it and expose the juices to oxygen. The procedure was slow and tedious; rolling eighty pounds of leaf by hand represented a good day’s work for one man. Jackson’s machine could do the work of sixty men. The Chinese method of firing the leaf over charcoal was likewise very slow and costly. It took about eight pounds of good-quality wood turned into charcoal to dry a pound of tea. The Jackson machine produced the same results with anything that could be burned; only one-quarter pound of Assam coal was required per pound of finished dry tea. And a single large dryer did the work of thirty-five men. The Jacksons revolutionized the manufacture of tea to the same extent that Williamson had to its cultivation. In 1872, when Jackson began inventing, the cost of tea production in India was elevenpence a pound, but by 1913, improved machinery had reduced the cost to about threepence a pound. Eight thousand Jackson rolling machines were performing work which would have required half a million people in China.
The Jackson brothers had returned to England the year of the last tea clipper race. In a short time their machines were to multiply India’s tea output manyfold, just as steamships using the Suez Canal made its transport many times cheaper. By 1880 annual per capita tea consumption in Britain had risen to 4.57 pounds, almost exactly four times what it had been sixty years previously in 1820. The speculators of earlier days had been foolish but not wrong: India was on the way to capturing the giant’s share of the world tea market.