Portrait of James Watt by Beechley - courtesy of Heriot-Watt University.
Portrait of James Watt by Beechley – courtesy of Heriot-Watt University.

James Watt’s innovations in energy and engineering have inspired students since the origin the Edinburgh School of Arts, the world’s first mechanics institute, in 1821.

The School is now known as Heriot-Watt University.

In 1851, the people of Edinburgh gave the School vital funds as a lasting tribute to Watt’s memory. This enabled the School to secure its future.

In gratitude, the Directors of the School changed its name in 1852 to the Watt Institution and School of Arts.

In 1854, staff and students held a party to unveil a new statue of Watt and formed the Watt Club in his honour. This is now the University’s Alumni Association, with over 100,000 members worldwide.

This year, 2016, marks 50 years since Heriot-Watt attained University status by Royal Charter.

The University’s longstanding connections with James Watt have a special place in its museum and archive collections. Highlights include:

  • Portrait in oils of James Watt by Sir William Beechey, 1801
    Watt’s favourite portrait is on display in the University Museum and Archive, Mary Burton Centre, Acquired by the University in 2002, with funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Watt Club.
  • Watt’s Patent Roller copying press. Maker: James Watt and Company, 1780s. This was the world’s first successful letter copying machine, which he patented in 1780. It enabled him to keep copies of his outgoing letters without having to rewrite each one.
  • A model showing Watt’s improvements to Newcomen’s steam engine, made by one of the first students of Edinburgh School of Arts, James Nasmyth, inventor of the steam hammer.
  •  A sandstone statue of James Watt by Peter Slater, teacher of ornamental modelling at the Watt Institution and School of Arts, unveiled on 12 May 1854. Students celebrated the event by forming the Watt Club. Today the Watt Club is the oldest UK HEI alumni association and fosters lifelong links with alumni throughout the world. The statue sits at the entrance to the University’s James Watt Centre at the Edinburgh campus.
  • Chantrey’s Watt Statue. Peter Slater’s statue is a copy of one of the iconic memorial sculptures of Watt by Sir Frances Chantrey. In 1996, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral gave Heriot-Watt University a fine Carrara marble statue of Watt by Chantrey. Commissioned as a national monument to Watt, the statue originally sat in Westminster Abbey. It is currently on loan to National Museums Scotland for display in the Grand Gallery.
  • A chair belonging to Watt, used in his Soho Foundry. Donated by the daughter of James Watt Junior’s accountant in 1924.
  • A portrait of James Watt by W Bright Morris after the original by Charles F Von Breda, displayed in the James Watt Centre
  • A portrait of James Watt in oils by Robert Harvey. Once owned by descendants of Watt’s mother, Agnes Muirhead.
  • Framed proposal for James Watt memorial (Greenock)



  • Watt subscription fund, 1824-1854
  • Edinburgh School of Arts, 1821-1852
  • Watt Institution and School of Arts 1852-1885
  • Heriot-Watt College 1885-1966
  • Heriot-Watt University, 1966 to the present
  • Watt Club 1854 to the present
  • Original and copy letters written by Watt and his associates including the engineer, James Brown 1817-1863

Textile Collection

Scotland’s textile heritage owes much to Watt’s innovations in steam power. The University Textile Collection at Heriot-Watt’s Scottish Borders Campus is a unique resource for Scottish textile heritage from 1700 to the present day.

With particular emphasis on the Scottish Borders woollen industry, from the shepherd’s plaid to couture tweeds by Bernat Klein. The Collection also includes furnishing fabrics, tartan and highland dress, costume and Paisley shawls. Fabrics from around the world reflect and celebrate our international community of learning.

The Heriot-Watt University Museum and Archive is open on Mondays – Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The Heriot-Watt University Textile Collection is open by appointment. Access is free of charge.

Find out more from: Heritage and Information Governance, Governance and Legal Services, Museum and Archive, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh EH14 4AS; tel: 0131 451 3218; e-mail: heritage@hw.ac.uk; website: http://www.hw.ac.uk/heritage-information-governance/

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