Watt | James | 1736-1819 | engineer

Biographical Information

Occupation, Sphere of Activity

James Watt was born in Greenock in 1736. In his late teens Watt went to London to learn to be a mathematical and philosophical instrument maker, and upon his return to Glasgow he got a job making instruments with the University of Glasgow, who gave him accommodation and a workshop. In 1763 John Anderson (1726-1796) asked him to repair an early steam engine he had acquired. This early model, known as a Newcomen engine, was very inefficient, wasting a lot of time and fuel. Two years later, he discovered the reason for the waste of power and hit upon the idea of condensing the steam in a separate vessel. This removed the need for heating and cooling, making the engine faster, safer, and more fuel-efficient. In 1769 he patented his steam engine.

Between 1775-1800 Watt was in partnership with Matthew Boulton (1728-1809), a Birmingham engineer, producing engines based on Watt's new model, at Soho Engineering Works in Birmingham. Engineers from all the industrialised countries flocked to see their factories. Watt's engines were initially used for pumping water from Cornish tin and copper mines. Later, the new cotton mills, which had been built near fast-flowing rivers to take advantage of water power, almost all switched to steam. Gradually, mills began to move toward the centres of population. At first, steam power was used mainly for spinning, but eventually weaving was also powered by steam engine. By 1819, the year of Watt's death, there were 18 steam weaving factories in Glasgow, with 2800 looms.

Apart from his steam research, which he originally carried out in the grounds of Kinneil House near Linlithgow, Watt was involved in many other projects. He solved the problem of how to convert the up-and-down piston movement to rotary movement (so that engines could power looms, bellows, and other mechanical devices), he created the term "horsepower", and also invented the rev. counter, a machine for copying sculpture, and a letter copying press (a very early photocopier!) In 1882, 63 years after Watt's death, the British Association gave his name to the unit of electrical power - and today James Watt's name is to be found written on almost every light bulb in the world.


James Watt became a close colleague of both Joseph Black (1728-1799) and John Robison (1739-1805). He corresponded very frequently with scientific men in France, and Antoine Laurent Lavoisier and Comte Claude Louis Berthollet (1748-1822) were among his closest acquaintances.

Other Significant Information


Honours, Qualifications and Appointments

1784: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of Edinburgh

1785: Elected Fellow, Royal Society of London

1806: Elected Honorary Doctor of Law, University of Glasgow

1808: Elected Member, Institute of France

1814: Elected Foreign Associé, Académie des Sciences


List of sources for the biographical information:

Oxford University Press, The Concise Dictionary of National Biography, (New York, Oxford University Press, 1992)

Sidney Lee, The Concise Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.XX, (London, Smith, Elder & Co, 1909)

Encyclopaedia Britannica, Volume 12, ( London, William Benton, 1964)