James Watt

Biography of James Watt

James Watt
James Watt

The University's Engineering Building is named for James Watt (1736-1819), the famous engineer who worked from 1756 to 1764 as mathematical instrument maker to the University. Two Engineering chairs and a prize are also 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. Their improved steam engines revolutionised the mining, iron, transport and manufacturing industries and Watt is considered to be one of the key figures of the Industrial Revolution. In 1806 the University conferred on him a Doctorate of Laws.

A statue of James Watt can be found on the SW corner of George Square in Glasgow City centre. More information about the statue can be found here.


James Watt
Engineer and Inventor

Born 19 January 1736.
Died 25 August 1819.
University Link: Honorary Graduate
GU Degree: LLD, 1806;
Occupation categories: engineers; instrument makers
NNAF Reference: GB/NNAF/P29937
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Record last updated: 2nd Oct 2013

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