By Colin McInnes, James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Glasgow

TOMORROW marks the birth of James Watt, a gifted Scottish engineer, prolific inventor and successful entrepreneur. Moreover, this year marks 200 years since his passing, an anniversary which will be marked through a range of events across Scotland, from exhibitions to public lectures.

Watt’s bicentenary year is clearly a timely opportunity to reflect on his historical contributions, but also to look to the future challenges and opportunities for engineering.

First, we need to be clear what engineering is. An apt definition was provided by Theodore von Karman, the pioneering 20th century aerodynamicist, who noted that “scientists discover the world that exists; engineers create the world that never was”. To many, this communicates the excitement and intensely creative nature of Engineering as a discipline and profession.

So, what can we learn from Watt on this, his bicentenary year?

First, Watt was a product of the Scottish Enlightenment and was active at a time of great change, both in terms of empirical thinking and in the ability to use new ideas to build and improve machines. Indeed, arguably Watt’s greatest invention was the separate steam condenser, which delivered a step-change in steam power efficiency and helped drive forward the first industrial revolution.

Watt’s ideas were partly the outcome of exchanges with University of Glasgow chemist and Regius Professor of Practice of Medicine, Joseph Black, who was beginning to lay the foundations of the science of thermodynamics. Here is an excellent example of how science and engineering have both developed along a series of intertwined paths.

Moreover, while Watt’s insights into steam power were developed while he was scientific instrument maker to the University of Glasgow, he ultimately required access to the advanced manufacturing technology of the day at the Soho Manufactory in Birmingham. This led to his successful and lasting partnership with entrepreneur Matthew Boulton. Here is another example, of how the inventive step needs to be supported by other key technologies to become a successful commercial innovation.

While Watt is best known for his improvements to the steam engine, he was a truly prolific engineer who developed a range of other novel machines. These include a portable document duplicator and a mechanical three-dimensional sculpture copier, early glimpses of contemporary technologies that would not emerge in different forms until much later.

Interestingly, while 2019 marks 200 years since the passing of James Watt, 2020 will mark 200 years since the birth of William Macquorn Rankine, Regius Professor of Civil Engineering and Mechanics at the University of Glasgow. Rankine’s lasting legacy is the thermodynamic cycle that bears his name, and generates the majority of the world’s electricity through steam turbines. From Watt to Rankine, Scottish engineers have helped shape the modern world.

Looking to the future, it’s clear that we need to rediscover and reshape Watt’s Enlightenment-era thinking for the 21st century. Indeed the University of Glasgow is fuelling the so-called fourth industrial revolution, developing the technologies of the future through facilities such as the James Watt Nanofabrication Centre.

The challenges and immense opportunities ahead will be met in part through engineering to “create the world that never was”; clean energy, new infrastructure both physical and digital, new frontiers in exploration and the opportunity for a future of shared global prosperity.