The Lunar Society’s Welcome to a Scottish Inventor
James Watt was born in 1736 at Greenock in Scotland where his father was a ship’s chandler. The business included dealing in and mending navigation instruments, where he learned about the devices by helping to fix some of the mechanisms which were sent for repair. At seventeen he moved to Glasgow as his father’s agent but he also sought training as an instrument maker. His abilities became known to Dr Robert Dick, professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University who suggested he learn the trade in London. There he secured with some difficulty nine months’ training with an instrument maker. On his return to Glasgow he was appointed instrument maker to the University and associated with Dr Joseph Black, professor of the practice of medicine and John Robison, who succeeded Black as lecturer on chemistry.
In the winter of 1763–4 Watt was asked to repair the model of a Newcomen engine which belonged to the natural philosophy class at the University. He managed to make it work but identified problems such as the wastage of steam. He realised the need to separate the hot steam from the colder condensed steam in the engine and create an effective vacuum and the result was the steam engine using a separate condenser. While he could produce accurate models to demonstrate his invention, the local machining of full-size steam engines, including the making of effectively engineered cylinders was deficient. He did, however, get his invention covered by a patent, which meant several journeys to London, making contacts as he travelled. Visits to Birmingham brought him into contact with Matthew Boulton, Erasmus Darwin, William Small and members of the Lunar Society.
In Scotland he continued trying to solve the machining problem but a run on the banks and a serious recession stopped the funding of the work and also removed much of Watt’s other income from surveying. Then in 1773, his wife Margaret died leaving him with two young children. Boulton and Small suggested Birmingham would offer a better location for the engine development. Boulton offered a salary, somewhere to live and a partnership in the steam-engine business when it was established. He arrived in Birmingham in 1774 where the partners petitioned Parliament for an extension to the patent, to give time to recover the development costs, and Boulton’s friend John Wilkinson developed high-quality boring machinery to manufacture the cylinder. A test engine returned the expected results and orders began to be placed. The Scottish environment provided initial encouragement for Watt’s ideas and skills; Birmingham and the West Midlands where Watt’s engineering reputation was made, not only provided additional intellectual support, but technical expertise, business acumen and financial security.