JAMES Watt changed the world, and he did it after a “eureka moment” while walking across Glasgow Green.

Before going any further, let us nitpick and quibble, which sounds like a firm of lawyers but is the necessary process of pointing out that Watt didn’t invent the steam engine. 

However, he drastically improved the existing, limited one and, in so doing, provided the motor for the Industrial Revolution.

More nitpicking. Was he really first inspired by watching a kettle boil? Kinda. Though sometimes said to have been his maw’s kettle or his auntie’s (fables for the kiddies), certainly his diaries record him using a kettle as a boiler to generate steam in his lab experiments. Yay! A bit of popular history that might be right.

Talking of history, some say he could go down in it as “the Father of Climate Change”, which seems unfair as he was hardly the only one burning coal. And how was he to ken anyway?

Here’s what we ken: James Watt was born on January 19, 1736, in William Street, Greenock, the eldest of the five surviving children of James and Agnes (née Muirhead) Watt. 

His father was big in shipping and a local baillie. 

Of fragile health, Watt was educated at home by his mother before attending Greenock Grammar School, where he showed an aptitude for mathematics. Latin and Greek not so much. 

Unlike normal people, from an early age Watt was also interested in chemistry. After leaving school, he tootled aboot in his father’s workshops, making models of cranes and barrel organs – righty-oh – and fiddling with nautical instruments. 

At 17, James left Greenock to seek work in Glasgow as a mathematical instrument maker, but ended up going to London for training. 

After a year there, he returned to Glasgow to set up his own instrument-making business.
This was easier said than done but Watt had a stroke of luck when a bequest of astronomical instruments to Glasgow Yoonie required expert attention. 

Smart network
He did the business and was subsequently, in 1757, offered the opportunity to set up an in-house workshop where he made mathematical instruments such as quadrants and compasses. 

Two yoonie professors, the physicist and chemist Joseph Black and the economist Adam Smith, became Watt’s friends. 

He provided model engines for Black’s use in lectures on the properties of heat.

Around 1764, Watt was asked to repair a model Newcomen engine belonging to the university. The design of Thomas Newcomen’s gubbins – the first steam engine, used to pump water from mines – had hardly changed in 50 years.

Watt discovered that three-quarters of the steam’s thermal energy was being wasted in repeatedly cooling and reheating the cylinder. 

But how to fix it? 

Well, the moment that sparked the Industrial Revolution came one Sunday in May 1765 as Watt was strolling across Glasgow Green. 

Like a lighting bolt from heaven, it occurred to the young man that, by adding a separate chamber, from the piston to condense the steam, he could prevent enormous losses of energy and make the Newcomen engine much more efficient. 

Obvious really.

The Herald:

Backed by loans from Joseph Black, he made a small test engine, but wasn’t in a position to construct a full-scale one, even after more substantial backing from John Roebuck, founder of the Carron Iron Works near Falkirk.

The main problem lay in getting tradesmen to produce the components of the piston and cylinder with sufficient precision. 

Lacking cash by now, Watt decided to get a proper job, first as a surveyor then as a civil engineer, marking out routes for canals. This drudgery he tholed for eight years.

Patent zero
AFTER Roebuck went bankrupt in 1772, Matthew Boulton, owner of the Soho Manufactory works near Birmingham, acquired his patent rights. Thus began a partnership that lasted 25 years. 

As well as financial backing and a sense of mission – “I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have: power” – Boulton provided Watt with top-notch iron workers, and thereafter rapid progress was made.

In 1776, the first engines were installed at a colliery and an ironworks, and for the next five or so years Watt was engaged in installing more engines, mostly in Cornwall, for pumping water out of copper and tin mines. 

The Boulton & Watt steam engines could be used anywhere, and demand was high. 
After making more modifications, Watt ended up with an engine five times as fuel efficient as the Newcomen.

In 1790, a pressure gauge completed the Watt engine as we know it and, by this time, after a lifetime of fretting about dosh, Watt was a wealthy man. 

This was in no small measure due to protecting his patents, which he had to do several times in the courts, something he saw as a moral as well as a legal necessity.

In retirement, Watt continued inventing things. He converted a garret room in his hoose into a workshop and, among other things, invented a machine for copying sculptures and medallion. 

One of the first sculptures he reproduced was his old buddy Adam Smith’s heid.
In 1816, he went forth on the water, taking a trip on the paddle-steamer Comet, a product of his inventions, to revisit his hometown of Greenock. 

Local legacy
JAMES Watt passed away, aged 83 on 25 August 1819, at his home Heathfield Hall near Handsworth, Staffordshire.  Memorials in Greenock include a statue near his place of birth, street names and the Watt Memorial Library. 

There are more statues in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Birmingham (where a school is named after him), Manchester and Leeds. 

A particularly large one, by Francis Leggatt Chantrey, was placed in Westminster Abbey, before being moved to St Paul’s Cathedral in 1960. 

The inscription says Watt “enlarged the resources of his country, increased the power of man …”

The watt unit of power was named after him as was, as you would expect, a French Navy submarine.

You could probably think of others, but Glasgow engineer and merchant Robert Hart called James Watt the “greatest and most useful man that ever lived”. 

To disagree would be to nitpick and quibble.