More about ... at


Explore the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter



Two portraits of James Watt

A sectional model of James Watt's steam engine. The cylinder is on the right and the piston can be seen at the top of it. The separate condenser is at the bottom, immediately to the left of the brickwork supporting the cylinder

The house at Harper's Hill in the Jewellery Quarter, where James Watt lived for about 15 years from 1777

James Watt's house Heathfield in Handsworth, where he moved from his Harper's Hill home, and where he remained for the rest of his life







James Watt was born in Greenock on the Clyde in 1736, the son of a ship's chandler. A delicate child, he was taught for some years by his mother, but later learnt Latin, Greek and maths at grammar school. His father set him up in his workshop with his own bench and tools, and there the young James made models and became familiar with ships' instruments.  

Deciding he wanted to be a maker of scientific instruments, in 1755 he took up an apprenticeship in London. Within a year ill-health forced him to return to Glasgow, but already he had learnt enough to get a job making instruments at Glasgow University. He didn't confine himself to scientific instruments either, making violas, guitars, fiddles, flutes and organs as well. He appears to have been a very good maker of instruments, both scientific and musical. 

In 1763 he was asked by one John Anderson to repair a steam engine. This engine was of an early type known as a Newcomen engine and it struck James Watt that it was very inefficient. At each cycle of the engine steam was admitted to the cylinder. The pressure of the steam pushed the piston along the cylinder. Then, to allow the piston to return, the cylinder was cooled by admitting water, thus causing the steam to condense. A vast amount of heat was consequently wasted in repeatedly heating and then cooling the cylinder at each cycle, and Watt realised that the efficiency of the machine could be greatly improved by having a separate, but linked, condenser. That way the cylinder could stay hot, whilst the condenser would remain cool. This invention of Watt's saved between two-thirds and three-quarters of the coal consumed by the older type of engine.

It was at this point that James Watt's connections with Birmingham began. He had met with Dr John Roebuck, a friend of Matthew Boulton and a Birmingham doctor, who had founded the Carron Ironworks near Stirling. Roebuck also owned a coalmine at Bo'ness which needed dewatering. James Watt needed finance to develop his invention. Roebuck needed Watt's engine to pump water from his mine, and agreed to provide the finance. 

It was while working on the development of his engine that James Watt first visited Matthew Boulton's Soho Manufactory, in March 1767. Boulton being away, Watt was shown round by William Small. He first met Matthew Boulton on his second visit to Soho in 1768, when he called in on the way back from London, where he had sworn his famous patent, which was for 14 years,  on 9th August. The two men took an immediate liking for one another, Boulton recognising that Watt's diffidence concealed a keen intelligence in need of encouragement, whilst Watt marvelled at the organisation, skill and ingenuity displayed at Soho and the beautiful work done there. In the end he stayed a fortnight, meeting several people besides Matthew Boulton who were destined to become lifelong friends. Fully realising the significance of Watt's invention, Boulton expressed a wish to be involved in manufacturing it, but since he had a two-thirds share in the patent Roebuck had to be consulted, and when he offered Matthew Boulton a licence covering only the Midland counties it was firmly declined, on the grounds that the investment needed to establish proper manufacturing facilities with the equipment needed to produce engines accurately and efficiently, could not be recouped from so small a market.

This was to prove a severe setback to James Watt, who learnt the hard way that it was one thing to make a brilliant invention, and an altogether different thing to make a practical reality of it. He had no engineering expertise himself, and Roebuck's men lacked the skills needed to produce a steam-tight, efficient engine. One by one, his fourteen precious years slipped away and he became increasingly disillusioned and frustrated. He was forced to take work as a canal surveyor in order to support his family. Then, in 1773, James Watt suffered a double blow. His wife died in childbirth and Roebuck went bankrupt. These reverses brought him to his lowest ebb (see right-hand panel).

At this point Matthew Boulton was able to use his position as a major creditor of Roebuck's to secure for himself Roebuck's share of Watt's  patent. As we have seen, Boulton and Watt had been friends for some time and, seeing no future for himself in his native land, on 17th May 1774, aged 38, James Watt left Scotland for Birmingham, where he would spend the remaining 45 years of his life. The most famous partnership of the Industrial Revolution, that of Boulton & Watt, was about to begin. It is a testament to the strength of the mutual trust that existed between the two men that they seem never to have bothered to execute a deed of partnership, finding it adequate - and rightly so, as things turned out - to run this large and historic business purely on the basis of a gentleman's agreement.

He may have left Scotland a disheartened man, but what a difference three weeks can make! His engine had been dismantled and sent on before him, and when he arrived in Birmingham he found that Matthew Boulton and his men, having achieved more in weeks than had been done in years in Scotland, had solved the problems that had dogged him for so long, and already had the machine working very successfully. By 1776 the first two of the new engines were sold and at work, and very importantly, with Matthew Boulton's advice Watt had obtained a private Act of Parliament extending his patent to the end of the century. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say Matthew Boulton made James Watt, since without his help Watt would have been simply another engineer who had a bright idea that never worked.

The next years were a time of prolific invention and research. At Matthew Boulton's urging, in 1781 he patented five methods of converting the reciprocating motion of a steam engine's piston into continuous rotary motion, which was ideal for powering all manner of industrial processes. The most widely applied of these methods was the so-called sun and planet gear. In 1782 he patented the double-acting steam engine, in which steam is admitted alternately at either end of the cylinder. In 1784 he patented the parallel motion, an arrangement of connected rods which he described as 'one of the most ingenious, simple pieces of mechanism I have contrived'. Then, in 1788, again at Matthew Boulton's urging, he designed the centrifugal governor for controlling the speed of an engine. Putting his expertise in instrument making  to good use, he also invented a gauge for measuring steam pressure and a rev counter. 

But the steam engine did not absorb all his energies by any means. As a member of the Lunar Society his skills were invaluable to his fellow members. He helped Joseph Priestley with his investigations into gases; he experimented on the strength of materials, a subject of acute interest to his manufacturer friends. He further developed accurate means of measuring dimensions, furnace temperatures and the like, again vital to the advancement of manufacturing processes. In 1780 he had patented what was probably the earliest form of copier, a press-copier which he marketed through his own company, James Watt & Co. The process involved writing with ink mixed with gum arabic. When a sheet of damp tissue paper was pressed against the manuscript, some of the ink stuck to it, creating a mirror image of the original on the tissue paper. By turning the copy over it could then be read through the tissue paper.

James Watt's garret workshop at Heathfield, which had been left untouched since his death, as photographed in 1901 prior to the contents being removed to the Science Museum in London. Busts on which he had been working with his sculpture copying machine can be seen on the right

Upon the expiry of his steam engine patent in 1800, Watt retired from the Boulton & Watt business, by then a wealthy man. He had remarried in 1776 and settled into a life of tranquil  domesticity. He bought a second home at Doldowlod in Radnorshire, and got Samuel Wyatt, who had rebuilt Matthew Boulton's Soho House, to build him a 'handsome mansion' called Heathfield in Handsworth, Birmingham, to which he moved from his home at Harper's Hill in the Jewellery Quarter.  At Heathfield he installed a workshop in a garret and added a forge where he continued to research and invent. In his 80th year he embarked on what was to be his last invention, a machine for making copies of sculptures. He was still working on this machine in his garret at the time of his death in 1819, aged 83.  Scandalously, Heathfield was knocked down in 1927 (how could they have allowed that to happen?).

In 1785 James Watt was elected Fellow of the Royal Society. He was also honoured by Glasgow University and the French Academy of Sciences, but declined a baronetcy which was offered to him. He is buried alongside his associates, Matthew Boulton and William Murdock, in St Mary's Church, Handsworth, Birmingham. 




The walk

More about ...

Sources of information

Get in touch

Other sites: James Watt (1), (2), (3), (4)(5)

The Watt engine



In November 1773, when he was planning to leave Scotland: 'I am heartsick of this country; I am indolent to excess and, what alarms me most, I grow the longer the stupider.'

To his father on arriving in Birmingham on 1st June 1774: 'The business I am here about has turned out rather successful. That is to say, the fire engine I have invented is now going, and answers much better than any other that has yet been made & I expect will be very beneficial to me.'

On the help Matthew Boulton gave him in securing an Act to extend his patent, which he knew he on his own would not have secured: 'Mr B's active & sanguine disposition served to counterballance the despondency and diffidence which were natural to me ... Mr B's amiable and friendly character, together with his reputation as an ingenious & active manufacturer, procured me many & very active friends in both houses of parliament.'

On Matthew Boulton's contribution to the development of the steam engine: 'To his generous patronage, the active part he took in the management of the business, to his judicious advice & to his assistance in contriving & arranging many of the applications to various machines, the publick is indebted  for great part of the benefits they now derive from that machine; without him ... the invention could never have been carried by me to the length it has been.' 


At the time John Roebuck went bankrupt, there was a general collapse of credit in the country, and Matthew Boulton himself was in some difficulty. But he managed to persuade his fellow Lunatick Thomas Day to lend him 3000,  which kept him afloat and enabled him to take over the development of Watt's engine. 


Despite their firm friendship, Boulton and Watt were very different characters. Where Matthew Boulton was sanguine, unafraid to take risks, sociable and generous, James Watt was of a cautious, pessimistic disposition and very reserved, hating meetings with strangers, which gave him violent headaches. He was also much more careful with his money than Boulton. It was not for nothing that James Watt junior approached the kindly, indulgent Boulton when he was short of cash, rather than his own, stricter, father. And despite Matthew Boulton's frequent generosity towards him,  as soon as the first profits from the steam engine business came through in 1783 Watt immediately remitted all the money to Scotland, and later refused to lend his partner so much as a penny. Yet, for all his faults, James Watt was undoubtedly a likeable man, who remained a firm friend of his fellow-Lunaticks over many decades.


Throughout his life James Watt complained of ill health. Mary Anne Galton, who frequently visited the Watts, wrote in of his life in 1790: 'The mental fatigue of Mr Watt at this period was often so great that I have heard he required from nine to eleven hours' sleep to recruit his powers, and his evenings were uniformly spent in some light amusing reading.'  James Watt himself complained, 'I am plagued with the blues ... my head is too much confused to do any brain work.'

Yet Watt was only 54 at the time and was to enjoy a further 29 years of active, inventive life. Did the perceptive doctor Erasmus Darwin have a point when he wrote to Watt, 'Now my dear new friend, I first hope you are well, and less hypochondriac' (my italics)? 

Matthew Boulton, whose sanguine propensity to borrow colossal sums of money caused James Watt many sleepless nights, repeatedly tried to cheer up his depressive partner, suggesting on one occasion that he pray 'like other Scotsmen' (James Watt being not much inclined to religious observation) and look forward to totting up his royalties.


In the early 1780s William Murdock experimented with a high pressure steam engine, potentially much better and smaller than Watt's engines, and built a model steam carriage powered by this engine. James Watt discouraged Murdock from patenting this invention and even dissuaded him from doing further research. It is not entirely clear why. Watt was in the habit of dismissing any ideas other than his own, regardless of who suggested them, as being notions he had had already entertained and had discarded, and Murdock may simply have fallen victim to this trait. (Indeed, in 1781 James Watt had already poured cold water on a clever idea of Matthew Boulton's for a boiler that could be used in 'portable steam engines'.) There is also the fact that James Watt was opposed to the use of high pressure steam on safety grounds. Matthew Boulton backed James Watt in dissuading Murdock,  perhaps because he did not want to fall out with his partner, or perhaps because he agreed with Watt. Whatever the reason, it would seem that William Murdock, who was a very able and ambitious man who could undoubtedly have found work elsewhere, was persuaded by Boulton and Watt's arguments, because he remained with the firm for the rest of his life.

It is widely believed that William Murdock was the inventor of the sun and planet gear, which James Watt patented in his own name in 1781.

2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006 Bob Miles