Watt’s Workshop, 1924 © SSPL / Science Museum

Full Steam Ahead

1st April 2011

James Watt was the first great name of the Industrial Revolution. As Britain seeks to rediscover its manufacturing roots in the service-orientated 21st century, a new exhibition at the Science Museum examines the man’s inventive genius…

Jack Watkins went along to admire and investigate.

James Watt, the first engineer to be honoured with a statue in Westminster Abbey was, to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, a new kind of hero. He wasn’t a Drake, or a Shakespeare or a Cromwell, inspiring with word or deed, but a man who created revolutions in a dusty workshop. Today we are used to technological innovation. So used to it, in fact, that the James Watts of our day, the designers working for the likes of Microsoft and Apple are scarcely even mentioned, as if it were all a matter of marketing. For the Georgians, though, the transformative impact of steam was surely even more of a ‘game-changer’ than the micro-chip has been for us. No wonder near-deification followed.

Back in our schooldays, James Watt was one of those names you would see in lists of great inventors or great Britons, without investigating a great deal further. Steam power, after all, has long since become all but obsolete. Now, however, with the Science Museum opening his tiny workshop to the public (for the first time), the pistons of curiosity are pumping.

James Watt by Sir Thomas Lawrence (c1812)

In reality, Watt, born in Greenock in1756 as the son of a shipwright, was not cut in the heroic mould, and avoided the spotlight as avowedly as any Apple technician. He had been a delicate child, and was a lifelong headache-sufferer, who walked with a pronounced stoop and whose hair went white at an early age. He needed ten hours sleep a night, was wracked by self-doubt and inclined to depression. He fell ill during a short spell in London in 1755, when he was trying to establish a career as a maker of mathematical instruments, and developed a racking cough, gnawing pain in the back and ‘weariness all over the body’. Poor health would dog him for the rest of his life.

Neither was he much of a businessman, even if it would be totally wrong to cast him as a stereotypical permanently baffled boffin. He once said that talking to strangers gave him a headache. ‘Nothing,’ he wrote, ‘is more contrary to my disposition than hustling and bargaining with mankind, yet that is the life I now constantly lead’. In that sense, he was no different from many of the other ‘inventors’ of his time, for science in the 18th century was still an exclusive affair, discussed in gentleman’s societies. Goods were largely hand made, in small workshops or at home, and money was still in land, not machinery.

Luckily, in his business partner Matthew Boulton, he had a man who supplied the business – and more crucially the PR – acumen that he lacked. Boulton was a smart engineer in his own right, quite capable of suggesting modifications to Watt’s designs, but his greatest ability, it was said, lay ‘in rendering any new invention… useful to the public… as well as promoting the sale by his own exertions.’ His Soho Manufactory, when it opened in Birmingham in 1762, was one of the first factories to bring all aspects of design and production under one roof, achieving economies of scale that, one hundred years later, would be taken for granted. The Soho Foundry later opened there was the first built that was entirely dedicated to the making of machines.

You can see some of the engines created during Boulton and Watt’s partnership in the Energy Hall of the Science Museum, where a whole section, alongside the little workshop, is now dedicated to explaining the Watt phenomenon. Wandering up to look at Old Bess, the wooden and iron monster built in 1777 near the dawn of steam power, is akin to encountering one of the dinosaurs in the nearby Natural History Museum, almost frightening in the crudity of its design, and its looming proportions.

Steam engines had been built before this, with Thomas Newcomen’s earlier engines already widely in use by this time, but Watt realised that they were inefficient because most of the steam went in heating the cylinder. It was Watt’s innovation of the separate condenser that enabled steam engines to become more fuel efficient. One mine, replacing the Newcomens with five Boulton and Watt engines, found they required two-thirds less coal as a result. But it wasn’t all steady as she goes. Old Bess, in her early years, was a somewhat unpredictable beast, prone to ‘violent motions’, and was dubbed ‘Beelzebub’. Only after later modifications was the more affectionate monicker of Old Bess applied.

The critical thing about Watt’s engines, however, was that, because they made the water wheel unnecessary they could be used in any location, at any time. No longer needing to be next to the rivers, they soon spread beyond use purely in mines to the potteries and iron foundries of Shropshire and Staffordshire, and to London for brewing, engineering and flour milling. They spurred on the development of the huge industrial cities of the Midlands, Yorkshire and Lancashire.

That, of course, had consequences that were less than wonderful, but writers of the day sought, as they do now, to create heroes and, among the more extravagant claims made for Watt’s steam power was that it fed millions, and helped civilise the world. When Watt died in 1819, the attic workshop he had created at his home near Birmingham was reverentially locked up and its contents left undisturbed as an ‘industrial shrine’. Then, in 1925, the complete workshop – including its door, window, skylight, floorboards and over 6,000 objects used or created by the inventor – were carefully removed and transported to the Science Museum.

Although the workshop has been previously displayed, visitors have never been able to step inside until today, and most of the contents, once hidden away in drawers, are now on display. They range from chemical jars and chisels, to the world’s oldest circular saw, and the roller press that Watt developed to copy letters – a forerunner of the photocopier. One of the most important objects is Watt’s original 1765 model for the first separate condenser – the single device that so transformed the efficiency of the steam engine. It is nothing much to look at – a mere brass cylinder that, ironically, lurked unrecognised under Watt’s workbench for years, until finally identified at the Science Museum in the 1960s.

For some time, historians have questioned the real economic impact of Watt’s machines. He remained wedded to the idea of low pressure engines, believing high pressure machines – ‘strong steam’ as he termed it – were dangerous. Some, therefore, argue that he actually held back progress. No-one, though, questions that he was a genius – and a fine human being as well. It’s still possible to derive inspiration from a look inside that little workshop, imagining a lean, white-haired man stooped over his bench hard at work trying to find ways of making things work a little better. What nobler undertaking has there ever been than that?

The James Watt and Our World exhibition, including his workshop, is now on permanent display in the Energy Hall of the Science Museum.

Find Your Local