James Watt

James Watt by Sir W. Beechey Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham

James Watt by Sir W. Beechey
Reproduced with the permission of the Library of Birmingham

As a scientist, inventor and engineer, James Watt (1736-1819) contributed to steam-engine development, the creation of the world’s first commercial copying machine and understanding of energy, gases and electricity. He is crucial to both the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment and is an iconic figure for the history and heritage of Scotland where he was born and educated, and England, where he lived for most of his life. He was part of the Lunar Society network in Birmingham and the West Midlands, where he worked with inventors and industrialists including Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood.

Watt, however, was a multi-faceted figure and his significance, relevance and legacy deserve to be revisited.  His personality and political and social beliefs merit further investigation, as does his relationships with other individuals, including thinkers and workers. Watt’s family is fascinating and his two sons, James Watt Junior (1769-1848) and Gregory (1777-1804) were players in the intellectual, cultural and industrial life of their times. We know little about his two wives and daughters. In the nineteenth century, Watt became a hero of modernity and was celebrated after his death in memorials, images and print. We can deepen our picture of Watt by appreciating him in his time and place as well as his importance for the present and future. The 200th anniversaries of his death in 2019 provides an opportunity for researchers in universities, archives, libraries, museums and elsewhere to identify resources, chart recent research and share this knowledge with individuals and communities in the wider world. 

‘Promoting Public Understanding of James Watt and the Enlightenment’, is a project developed by the Centre for West Midlands History at the University of Birmingham and heritage professionals, publishers and independent scholars across the United Kingdom to explore the rich history and heritage of James Watt, move beyond the purely celebratory approach, ask new questions and communicate what we find in many different ways.

This website is a portal for information about Watt, resources, sites, events and the work of individual researchers and heritage organisations.  All readers of the site are invited to let us know of any James Watt related activity or research that you are planning or pursuing.

We are working with partners to support and develop projects relating to James Watt, these include:

History West Midlands Ltd: Developing public events, films and publications.

Birmingham Museums:  Supporting the work of curators at Aston Hall, Soho House and ThinkTank to contextualise displays relating to James Watt, James Watt Jnr., the Lunar Society and steam technology

Birmingham Manufactures Project (managed by Birmingham Museums Trust): Helping to research and contextualise objects relating to industry in the Museum’s collections to improve accessibility for researchers of all kinds.

The Wolfson Centre for Archival Research, Library of Birmingham: Supporting the creation of an exhibition on James Watt for 2019 and to hold workshops to improve knowledge of primary sources

Watt’s the Story? Celebrating James Watt: Working with heritage organisations and researchers in Scotland to develop Watt-related events and projects.  

The Newcomen Society for the Study of the History of Engineering and Technology: 2019 marks the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Newcomen Society as well as the 200th anniversary of Watt’s death. We are supporting the Society’s activities and working with them to develop a major international conference at the University of Birmingham in August 2017. 

For further details contact Dr Malcolm Dick: m.m.dick@bham.ac.uk or Dr Kate Croft: k.croft@bham.ac.uk  


Updates


Resources

This information has been made available to provide a starting point for research on James Watt, his life, work, interests and wider significance. It is not intended to be a comprehensive list of research resources and repositories. They will be updated in the future as appropriate.

Please contact the individual repositories for clarification regarding the items they hold, availability and access requirements or restrictions.