1726 Birth of James Watt
James Watt (1736-1819) was a native of the small seaport of Greenock, on the Firth of Clyde. His grandfather was a teacher of mathematics. His father was a builder and contractor—also a merchant,—a man of superior sagacity, if not ability, prudent and benevolent. The mother of Watt was noted as a woman of fine aspect, and excellent judgment and conduct. When boatswains of ships came to the father’s shop for stores, he was in the habit of throwing in an extra quantity of sail-needles and twine, with the remark, ‘See, take that too; I once lost a ship for want of such articles on board.’ The young mechanician received a good elementary education at the schools of his native town. It was by the overpowering bent of his own mind that he entered life as a mathematical-instrumentmaker.
When he attempted to set up in that business at Glasgow, he met with an obstruction from the corporation of Hammermen, who looked upon him as an intruder upon their privileged ground. The world might have lost Watt and his inventions through this unworthy cause, if he had not had friends among the professors of the University,—Muirhead, a relation of his mother, and Anderson, the brother of one of his dearest school-friends,—by whose influence he was furnished with a workshop within the walls of the college, and invested with the title of its instrument-maker. Anderson, a man of an advanced and liberal mind, was Professor of Natural Philosophy, and had, amongst his class apparatus, a model of Newcomen’s steam-engine. He required to have it repaired, and put it into Watt’s hands for the purpose. Through this trivial accident it was that the young mechanician was led to ‘make that improvement of the steam-engine which gave a new power to civilized man, and has revolutionised the world. The model of Newcomen has very fortunately been preserved, and is now in the Hunterian Museum at Glasgow College.
Watt’s career as a mechanician, in connection with Mr. Boulton, at the Soho Works, near Birmingham, was a brilliant one, and ended in raising him and his family to fortune. Yet it cannot be heard without pain, that a sixth or seventh part of his time was diverted from his proper pursuits, and devoted to mere ligitation, rendered unavoidable by the incessant invasions of his patents.
He was often consulted about supposed inventions and discoveries, and his invariable rule was to recommend that a model should be formed and tried. This he considered as the only true test of the value of any novelty in mechanics.