1736 – 1819
Engineer who transformed the steam engine and made it viable for widespread commercial applications
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.
1736 Born 19th January in Greenock, Scotland
1755 Age: 19 Trained as a scientific instrument maker in London
1756 Age: 20 Returned to Glasgow and established a workshop at Glasgow University
1765 Age: 29 Had his eureka moment for transforming the efficiency of Newcomen's steam engine on a Sunday in May on Glasgow Green
1769 Age: 33 Patented the engine with separate condenser
1774 Age: 38 Moved to Birmingham, entering into partnership with Matthew Boulton at the Soho Manufactory
1784 Age: 48 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh on 26th January
1785 Age: 49 Elected Fellow of the Royal Society, London
1789 Age: 53 Elected to the Society of Civil Engineers (Smeatonians)
1806 Age: 70 Honorary Doctor of Laws, Glasgow University
1814 Age: 78 Declined a baronetcy
1814 Age: 78 Elected Foreign Member of the Academie des Sciences, Paris
1819 Age: 83 Died 25th August and buried at Handsworth near Birmingham
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'.
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
Biographies and Related Papers
Life of James Watt F Arago, Edinburgh, 1839
Origins and Progress of the Mechanical Inventions of James Watt J P Muirhead, 1854
James Watt G Williamson, printed for the Watt Club, 1856
The Life of James Watt J P Muirhead, London, 1859
Lives of the Engineers Samuel Smiles, various editions, 1861-1905
James Watt and the application of science to the mechanical arts A Barr; an inaugural address delivered in the University of Glasgow, November 11th, 1889
James Watt: An oration by Lord Kelvin delivered in the University of Glasgow on the commemoration of its Ninth Jubilee, Glasgow, 1901
James Watt W Jacks, Glasgow, 1901
James Watt 1736-1819 Sir F J Bramwell, reprinted from Dict Nat Biography, 1903
James Watt Andrew Carnegie, New York, 1905
James Watt, Craftsman and Engineer H W Dickinson, Cambridge, 1933
James Watt and the Steam Engine H W DIckinson, 1935
James Watt and the History of Steam Power I B Hart, New York, 1949
James Watt L T C Rolt, London, 1962
James Watt and the Steam Engine H W Dickinson and Rhys Jenkins, Ashbourne, 1981
The Selected Papers of Boulton and Watt Jennifer Tann (ed), London, 1981
James Watt Rev Dr Richard L Hills, Ashbourne, 3 vols. 2002
Lunar Men: the Friends who made the Future, 1730-1810 Jenny Uglow, London, 2002
The Most Powerful Idea in the World William Rosen, London, 2010
Papers relating to the families of Muirhead and Watt University of Glasgow Library, MS Gen 1354, 16th to 19th c
Records, publications, photographs and artefacts relating to James Watt: Heriot-Watt University Archives GB 582 HWUA JW
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry (full text available to subscribers and UK library members)
Tribute in Westminster Abbey
"Not to perpetuate a name which must endure while the peaceful arts flourish, but to shew that mankind have learned to know those who best deserve their gratitude. The King, His Ministers, and many of the Nobles and Commoners of the Realm raised this monument to JAMES WATT who, directing the force of an original Genius, early exercised in philosophic research, to the improvement of the Steam Engine, enlarged the resources of his Country, increased the power of Man, and rose to an eminent place among the most illustrious followers of science and the real benefactors of the World. Born at Greenock MDCCXXXVI Died at Heathfield in Staffordshire MDCCCXIX."
Epitaph by Lord Brougham to accompany the Statue by Francis Chantrey originally placed in Westminster Abbey and now in the National Museum of Scotland