James Watt

Biography of James Watt

James Watt
James Watt

The University's Engineering Building is named for James Watt (1736-1819), who worked from 1756 to 1764 as mathematical instrument maker to the University. Two Engineering chairs and a prize are also named for him.

Born in Greenock, Watt trained in Glasgow and London to become a mathematical instrument maker. In 1756 the University employed him as an instrument maker, providing him with lodgings and a workshop. One of his first jobs was to unpack and restore the late Alexander Macfarlane's collection of astronomical instruments, which had been shipped from Jamaica and which were later installed in the University's Observatory. He went on to manufacture a range of items for the Professor of Practice of Medicine, Joseph Black, that included an organ and a perspective machine.

In 1759 Watt went into business in partnership with John Craig, manufacturing quadrants, microscopes and other optical instruments in a workshop in the Saltmarket and later in Trongate. In 1763 he became a shareholder in the famous Delftfield Pottery Co. He also worked as a civil engineer, producing surveys which included those in connection with the widening of the River Clyde and the construction of the Forth and Clyde and the Caledonian Canals.

Watt had become interested in the design of steam engines about the time he formed his business partnership with Craig, but did not have the time or the inclination to pursue his research. In 1763, however, the Professor of Natural Philosophy John Anderson presented him with a model Newcomen steam engine in need of repair. Watt's mind turned to ways of improving the engine and in 1765, famously while strolling on Glasgow Green, he devised a separate condenser which would improve efficiency and permit enormous savings in fuel.

Watt spent the following years developing his invention and working as a consultant civil engineer in Scotland, before moving to Birmingham in 1774 to form a partnership with the industrialist Matthew Boulton (1728-1809) at his Soho Foundry. Their improved steam engines revolutionised the mining, iron, transport and manufacturing industries and Watt is considered to be one of the key figures of the Industrial Revolution. In 1806 the University conferred on him a Doctorate of Laws.

A statue of James Watt can be found on the SW corner of George Square in Glasgow City centre. More information about the statue can be found here.

James Watt embodied the values and achievements of the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. However, the Enlightenment’s celebration of human progress, reason and scientific knowledge developed in countries that held people in slavery, and the Enlightenment provided ideological justifications for slavery based on a belief in the hierarchy of races. Some Enlightenment figures owned enslaved people or saw little or no problem with slavery. In 1757, for example, the American inventor Benjamin Franklin (who like Watt was a member of Birmingham’s famed Lunar Society) brought an enslaved man and boy with him to London, both of them Franklin’s property.

Watt’s great scientific and engineering achievements are rightly celebrated. But it is also true that his family profited through the trade in slave-produced goods (such as sugar, rum and cotton from Antigua and other Caribbean islands) and on occasion they were actively involved in the purchase and sale of enslaved people. In March 1762, for example, Watt’s brother John arranged for the shipment of a young boy, who was quite likely enslaved, from the Caribbean to Glasgow.

In later years, Watt undoubtedly made money by producing machinery for businesses in the Caribbean which owned enslaved people. On the other hand, during the Haitian revolution in 1791, Watt is on record cancelling an order placed by a French form for a steam engine intended for the colony of Saint Domingo (now Haiti). Watt writes: "We sincerely condole with the unhappy sufferers, though we heartily pray that the system of slavery so disgraceful to humanity were abolished by prudent though progressive measures."

We cannot celebrate the achievements of James Watt and other great men and women of the Enlightenment without remembering their society’s complicity in race slavery and imperialism, and without acknowledging that our present-day experience and understanding of race developed out of the attempts of Enlightenment thinkers to address the basic contradiction between professing liberty and upholding slavery.


James Watt
Engineer and Inventor

Born 19 January 1736.
Died 25 August 1819.
GU Degree: LLD, 1806;
University Link: Honorary Graduate
Occupation categories: engineers; instrument makers
NNAF Reference: GB/NNAF/P29937
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Record last updated: 26th Aug 2019

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