Skip to main content
A 2009 British postal stamp celebrating James Watt

James Watt: Biography

Image Credit: Andy Lidstone / | Above: A 2009 British postal stamp celebrating James Watt and Steam Engineering

Scotsman James Watt helped take us from the farm to the factory and into the modern world. Though a truly awful businessman, he was the ingenious engineering power behind the industrial revolution.

At the start of the 18th century, in the poor Scottish seaport town of Greenock, the grandfather of James Watt sets up a school of mathematics. His son becomes a prosperous shipbuilder and provider of shipping products. His unique selling point is his ‘skill in the making of the most delicate instruments’. It attracts much business: And the hand in marriage of Agnes Muirhead, a gentle lady descended from a long line of noble Scots.

'Fortune at his finger ends'

When James Watt is born on 18 January 1736, his future life seems rosy and to begin with, it is. His educated mother home schools him as his father’s business, run from their backyard, expands. His father gives him his own small tool kit. His hobbies include deconstructing and reassembling his toys. He sometimes creates new ones out of the parts. One of his father’s workmen correctly notes that ‘Jamie’ (as all his friends will call him) has a ‘fortune at his finger ends’. A family anecdote has it that he is chided for his fascination with a steaming kettle. It will be his combination of observation and practical application that will revolutionise Britain, and the world.

Hard times

But then, a series of commercial disasters, including the loss of a valuable ship wrecks his inheritance. James has to learn a trade to survive. His father’s health starts to fail as fast as his business. In 1753, aged 17, his beloved mother dies. So in the summer of 1755, James sets off spending twelve days on horseback to reach London and its promise of wealth. The teenager combines his father and grandfather’s skills when he makes mathematical instruments such as brass scales and parallel-rulers. After working himself until he becomes ill, he returns to Glasgow in autumn 1756.

You Watt?

Watt hopes that as he is literally the only mathematical instrument maker in the whole of Scotland, he will find work. But, the Guild of Hammermen (representing anyone who works with metal) blocks his employment. They state he cannot work until he has done more apprentice time. They obviously, however, have no one who to whom he can apprentice, there being no one with Watt’s speciality. It will be not the last time that Watt has to wait for the world to catch up with him.

Thankfully, university professors employ him privately to repair their academic instruments. He supplements this income by making and selling everything from spectacles to fiddles, flutes and guitars. Having no musical ability, he studies the science of harmony. The precision products he creates are considered better instruments than those crafted by music specialists.

Give me steam

The university provide a small shop from which he can work and sell from and it soon becomes a hangout for professors and public alike. More of an engineer than entrepreneur, he sets up business with John Craig and over the next six years they manufacture musical instruments and toys.

During this time, he’s befriended by the legendary economist Adam Smith. Smith’s writings will be the bible for capitalism. Watt’s work will be its engine. In 1758, Watt is introduced to John (later, Professor) Robinson. Robinson will introduce him to the science of steam. As the university has little to none of the necessary apparatus and appliances necessary to experiment with steam, Watt makes them.

In 1763 the university ask him to repair one of their Newcomen steam engines. This steam powered engine was invented by English engineers Savery and Newcomen. It is the first practical device to use steam power to produce mechanical work. Watt realises it’s also horrendously inefficient. For several decades it’s been used in mines to pump out water. With little design improvements in over a half a century, Watt sees a lot of potential, with huge profits to be made. But most of the literature available on the subject is in French and Italian. So Watt learns those languages.

His subsequent steam experiments reveal the revolutionary theory of latent heat (simplistically, the ‘hidden’ heat and energy in steam). With it, he’ll eventually be able to increase the power of the steam engine fivefold. Only then does he find out that another resident professor, Robert Black, has already discovered the theory. He has in fact, been teaching it to his students for several years. The two pair up. Black will become both an academic and financial support.

His other partnership, in 1764, is to his cousin Margaret Miller. She helps calm his ‘nervous headaches’. They will have five children but only two will make it to adulthood.

Watt’s continues to experiment and realises that the Newcomen model wastes around three quarters of its heat. To achieve the mechanical motion its parts (the piston and chamber) were constantly being cooled and heated. More energy was being expended on this than on delivering mechanical force.

Brilliant but broke

Out walking one Sunday afternoon in 1765, Watt sees the solution. He envisions a separate chamber in which the steam can condense. This means no more need for cooling and reheating, making the engine faster and more fuel efficient. His insights will convert a machine of limited use into one that will power the industrial revolution.

But the fact that his vision may forever change the world is of little use to Watt.

He is broke and deeply in debt.

So Robert Black introduces him to British inventor John Roebuck. Roebuck finances Watt’s research to make a working model. He pays off Watt’s debts in return for two thirds ownership of Watt’s invention. But few machinists have the deftness of touch Watt’s father had in making instruments. Watt once again has to wait for the world to catch up with him. He works as a surveyor and as a civil engineer, professions he finds dull and undemanding, to supplement his income.

The scientific literature he needs to understand to make the next quantum leap is all in German, so he learns this and Italian. The constant obstacles - even securing a patent proves problematic – begin to take their toll. He starts to suffer from insomnia and deep depression. Only his wife keeps him together.

His first patent, covering the condenser, in January 1769, is both a scientific, and a personal turning point. Legally protected, he still spends the next six months working in secret to produce a workable model. Half a year later, he tests it. It fails, twice. But the escaping steam doesn’t this time depress Watt. He’s convinced his model will work. He’s sure it’s the lack of accuracy and precision by the mechanics that is causing his model to fail. This is a rare case of a genius blaming, correctly, his bad workmen. As everything has to be done by hand and by eye, the lack of skilled – and sober – workmen will plague Watt throughout his life.

Harder times

Then his backer, Roebuck, goes bust. Roebuck’s wealth came from mining and his mines are waterlogged. He’d hoped Watt’s improved design would rectify this. But with no working model, Roebuck’s wealth ran out. Watt’s future once again looks bleak. Then in 1772, his one constant supporter, his wife Margaret, dies in childbirth.

Watt is his lowest. He’s approaching 40, a widower with dependents who is deep in debt. It’s then that he meets Matthew Boulton, a Birmingham based businessman. Boulton acquires Roebuck’s concerns including Watt’s patent. It’s actually the break Watt needs. Boutlon has access to the precision boring and instrument making Watt’s vision requires. Watt goes to work there in May 1774. The two will work together for the next quarter of a century.

Full steam ahead

Boulton & Watt manufacture his steam engine design and their first customers come from the mines. Purchasers are happy to pay for an engine that uses just one third of the coal needed by the Newcomen model. Watt exhausts himself travelling the country personally ensuring each machine’s success. But Boulton often follows as many exploit Watt’s appalling business sense.

In 1776 Watt marries again and the couple have two children. Watt will outlive them both. But, the new Mrs Watt will grow old and happy and rich with her new husband, in Birmingham.

And despite being the business brains in the operation, it’s Boulton who in 1781 proposes to Watt the potential for other applications. He suggests his engines could grind or weave and more. With the up and down piston movement converted to rotary movement, soon paper, flour, cotton and iron mills are all powered by Watt’s engines.

Industrial espionage

Boulton & Watt, become the go-to engineering company in the country. Such is their success that Germany and France attempt industrial espionage to try to secure their Watt’s plans for his next generation of steam engines.

Boulton & Watt employ one Edward Bull to construct engines for them. It will be a costly salary. Bull goes off to make his own versions but he was not the first to betray Watt. One of Boulton’s workmen, Hatley, had already sold off Watt’s blueprints. Another, Cartwright (later hanged) stole another of his ideas and sold it on.

Some companies stop their payments to Watt believing his patent unenforceable. Others argue Watt has created an illegal monopoly. Watt will sue Bull and he’ll win. But Bull is just one of many that Watt has to pursue and though ultimately profitable, it will be a long and costly process. Just one solicitor’s bill, in today’s money, was for nearly £500,000.

Despite this, Boutlon & Watt set up one of the first benefit societies for their workmen. It was said that not one member ever had to rely on begging or charity, ‘except a few irreclaimable drunkards’. In 1784 Watt makes further improvements to the steam engine and patents a steam locomotive.

By 1786, Boulton & Watt are worldwide celebrities. They’re so feted that Watt describes being ‘drunk from morning to night with Burgundy and undeserved praise.’

By 1790, both Boulton & Watt are wealthy men.

Running out of steam

In 1800, they retire and hand their business over to their sons. Tragically, Watt’s son Gregory dies just four years later. Watt’s remaining years are devoted to research. In 1816, he pays one last visit to the place of his birth, Greenock. Then, aged 83, he dies on 19 August 1819 in Heathfield, England. He is buried alongside his business partner in life, Matthew Boulton.

In 1882, the watt, a unit of measurement of electrical and mechanical power, is named in his honour. Today his name lights up on nearly every light bulb in the world.