James Watt (1736–1819)

James Watt was a genius of many talents who was at the heart of the technological and economic changes in 18th century Britain that have been described as the Industrial Revolution.

He was born in Greenock, the son of James Watt (1698-1782), a prosperous merchant and prominent citizen of the Scottish port. He had a talent for mathematics, and trained as a maker of mathematical instruments in Glasgow, making a visit to London to gain professional experience in 1755-6. He gained the acquaintance of the celebrated Dr Joseph Black (1728-99) of Glasgow University who described him as ‘a young man possessing most uncommon talents for mechanical knowledge and practice’. He learned German and Italian, took an interest in several new technologies, including the manufacture of porcelain, and carried out surveys of several Scottish waterways, including the Caledonian Canal, that were subsequently praised by Thomas Telford.

His main interest was in the improvement of the steam engine, and after erecting several Newcomen engines in Scotland in 1765-6, he took out his first patent, for the separate condenser, in 1769. He moved to Birmingham in 1774 where, he worked in partnership with Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), to develop the steam engine. The first engines to incorporate his improvements were erected in 1776. Initially the Boulton and Watt partnership supplied only drawings, some key components such as valves, and the services of erectors.

Watt was only one of many engineers developing steam power in the late 18th century, and his application of sun-and-planet gearing to achieve rotative motion, patented in 1782, was dictated by the granting of a patent to James Pickard for the use of the crank for this purpose. Watt was concerned to ensure that high standards were achieved in his engines, and would use only Swedish iron purchased from merchants in Birmingham for some engine parts. He supplied his first overseas order in 1778, and by 1800, when his patents expired, Boulton & Watt had despatched 24 engines to customers in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Netherlands, Austria, Sweden and Russia.

In the 1790s it became evident that other engine builders, notably the ironmaster John Wilkinson, had infringed the Watt patents by building ‘pirate’ engines. Watt developed elements of paranoia over such infringements, but after the partners established their own engine-building facilities, by opening the Soho Foundry in 1796, he gradually retired from the business. In the interval of peace that followed the treaty of Amiens in 1802 he visited Frankfurt, Strasburg and Paris.

Watt also developed a copying process in 1781. Copies were kept of engine drawings and of the outgoing letters of the partnership, while incoming letters were also preserved, making the Boulton & Watt Collection in Birmingham one of the most important archives of the Industrial Revolution.

Watt retained throughout his life interests in geology, mineralogy and chemistry, and was honoured for his scientific achievements in Russia, the Netherlands and France, but never regarded his own achievements as in any way heroic.