Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame

James Watt Workshop

James Watt's attic workshop from his home at Heathfield is recreated at the Science Museum, London

James WattJames Watt (1736-1819), engineer who transformed the steam engine and made it viable for widespread commercial applications

Engineering achievements

James Watt trained as a scientific instrument maker and developed into an outstanding engineer, scientist and inventor. Watt's practical and enquiring mind led him to repair a malfunctioning teaching model at Glasgow University of a Newcomen steam engine, culminating in his invention in 1765 of the separate condenser to dramatically improve its efficiency. With subsequent improvements in engine design, Watt's engine developed into a form in which it could be applied effectively to power machinery in mines, mills and factories, ending dependence on water power for driving the industrial revolution.

Watt's interest and expertise extended far beyond mechanical engineering and the steam engine however. While working in Glasgow he developed a great and enduring interest in chemistry which he applied at the Delftfield pottery. He also practised as a civil engineer, planning a number of canals, roads, railways and docks. He was interested in the development of manufacturing practices in factories, invented a machine for copying letters and drawings, and, in his retirement, a machine for copying sculptures.

His Life

Age Event Year
Born 19th January in Greenock, Scotland 1736
19 Trained as a scientific instrument maker in London 1755
20 Returned to Glasgow and established a workshop at Glasgow University 1756
29 Had his eureka moment for transforming the efficiency of Newcomen's steam engine on a Sunday in May on Glasgow Green 1765
33 Patented the engine with separate condenser 1769
38 Moved to Birmingham, entering into partnership with Matthew Boulton at the Soho Manufactory 1774
48 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 26th January 1784
49 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London 1785
53 Elected to the Society of Civil Engineers (Smeatonians) 1789
70 Honorary Doctor of Laws, Glasgow University 1806
78 Declined a baronetcy 1814
78 Elected Foreign Member of the Academie des Sciences, Paris 1814
83 Died 25th August and buried at Handsworth near Birmingham 1819

His Legacy

Watt's steam engine provided a huge impetus to the industrial revolution which occurred in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, as recognised by his business partner Matthew Boulton who stated in 1776: 'I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have - Power'. Watt has been cited as one of the most influential people in human history, and as "the most useful man who ever lived".

In the course of developing his steam engine Watt developed a profound understanding of what today is called thermodynamics, and in 1796 developed the indicator to aid understanding of the behaviour of the steam inside the engine's cylinder. Aware of the need to help potential purchasers of his new engine comprehend its output, Watt adopted the term 'horsepower', a key step in the standardisation of the measurement of power. Watt's name and significance is recognised by the International System of Units (SI) which titles its unit of power the 'watt'.

Watt's More

The model of the Newcomen engine that inspired Watt's improvements is in The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow
James Watt's workshop is recreated in the Science Museum, London
Old Bess, a 1777 beam engine by Boulton and Watt is in the Science Museum, London
There is a 1786 Boulton and Watt engine in the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh.
There is a 1788 Rotative engine in the Science Museum, London.
Soho House in Birmingham celebrates the life of Matthew Boulton and James Watt and features the Lunar Society
Near Nelson's Column in Glasgow Green is the James Watt boulder.
The McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock has displays on the life of James Watt
Statue of Watt by Chantrey in National Museum of Scotland
Statues of Watt erected in Westminster Abbey, Birmingham, Birmingham Library, Leeds, George Square Glasgow, Glasgow Green, Greenock, Edinburgh, Manchester, Oxford
The James Watt Institute at Heriot-Watt University
A bust of Watt is one of 16 all time Scottish heroes in the Hall of Heroes in the National Wallace Monument, Stirling
One of 12 historic figures honoured in first year of Historic Scotland Commemorative Plaque Scheme.
There are 17 portraits of James Watt held in the National Portrait Gallery.
The Watt Cairn in Greenock Cemetery, erected in 1936

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