James Watt and the University of Glasgow

JW and timeline

James Watt (Extracted from: The University of Glasgow Story http://universitystory.gla.ac.uk/)

James Watt (1736-1819) is a famous engineer who worked from 1756 to 1764 as mathematical instrument maker to the University. Two Engineering chairs, a building and a prize are currently 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. He continued to be a technological innovator throughout the remainder of his working life.


University of Glasgow James Watt School of Engineering

The name of James Watt is recognised worldwide as one of the most influential figures in the industrial revolution. Put simply he made the steam engine both useful and powerful for a whole range of industrial applications and, in so doing, ignited the spark of industrialisation. His name has immense recognition worldwide, particularly in cultures where Engineering is recognised as a prestigious profession, such as in Asia and the Far East. He is also recognized today for the adoption of the name “Watt” for the SI unit of power.

The University has always taken seriously its association with Watt and has worked hard to keep his spirit alive on campus through, for example, the naming of a building and the role of the James Watt Chairs. Previous holders of that role include Professor John Lamb, who pioneered optoelectronics and integrated optics research which helped underpin modern electrical and electronics engineering and today underpins much of quantum technology, Professor Chris Wilkinson, who pioneered nanotechnology fabrication and bioelectronics at the University and Professor Robert Silver, who invented the Multistage Flash (MSF) Distillation System to desalinate seawater.

The Enlightenment’s celebration of human progress, reason and scientific knowledge developed in countries that held people in slavery, and in the mid-eighteenth century very few people in Scotland challenged slavery and there was not yet an organized abolition movement. James Watt and his family were no different, and they made much of their money through trade in goods produced by enslaved people (such as sugar, rum and cotton from Antigua and other Caribbean islands), and in sending manufactured goods from Britain to plantation and slave owners. In 1762 James Watt himself was involved in the trafficking of an enslaved boy named Frederick from the Caribbean to his new Scottish master. However, between then and the end of the eighteenth century many Enlightenment figures began to question and then condemn the Atlantic slave trade and slavery itself, and Watt appears to have been one of them. By 1791 he was refusing to deal with at least some Caribbean slave owners, writing “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.

The School of Engineering has, throughout its history, aligned itself to the innovative spirit of Watt through its research, its teaching and its professional leadership such as being the first School of Engineering in the UK, offering the first degree in Engineering in the UK and hosting the first Chair of Engineering in the UK.