James Watt from a Victorian bookEvents mark 250th anniversary of his patent – and 200th anniversary of inventor’s death

He was one of the pioneers of the Industrial Revolution. He became so famous his name was used to denote a unit of energy.

Now – in 2019 – heritage chiefs are going “full steam ahead” with efforts to honour him.

January 5 marks the 250th anniversary of the patent of James Watt’s “separate condenser” – the invention which radically improved steam engines and changed the world. August 2019 will also be the 200th anniversary of Watt’s death.

In his native Scotland and across the UK, museums, galleries and professional bodies are marking the year with special events and celebrations.

A new website – http://www.jameswatt.scot – has also been launched to promote forthcoming events and highlight Watt’s ongoing significance.

Miles Oglethorpe, Head of Industrial Heritage at Historic Environment Scotland (HES), said: “It looks like 2019 is going to be a great year.

“Partners are working on lots of activities to celebrate Watt and his achievements. As dates are confirmed, we’ll publicise these on our new website and through the media. We’ve also been highlighting places with Watt connections for people to visit. Hopefully, our efforts will make people more aware of this great Scot and his amazing contributions that changed the world.”

Events for 2019 will include:

• a focus on Watt at the Glasgow Science Festival and at the University of Glasgow (where Watt worked) through a range of events including a symposium and exhibition;
• exhibitions at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, the Engine Shed centre in Stirling and the Riverside Museum in Glasgow;
• celebratory events at Kinneil House, Bo’ness (home to a Watt workshop) and Kennetpans, Clackmannanshire, once home to Scotland’s first Boulton and Watt engine;
• the re-opening of the McLean Museum and the Watt Library – in a complex to be named The Watt Institution – in Watt’s hometown of Greenock, following a major refurbishment programme; and
• a James Watt Supper, run by the Friends of Kinneil charity in Bo’ness.

There will also be a programme of activities around Birmingham, where Watt spent much of his later life.

(See a list of 2019 events on this website at www.jameswatt.scot/events )

Watt was born on January 19, 1736. He became one of Scotland’s most prominent inventors and engineers. During his long career, his work ranged from relatively small-scale instrument making to the building of major civil engineering schemes such as Glasgow’s water supply and the Monkland and Caledonian Canals.

But his improvement of Newcomen’s steam engine gained him his greatest fame.

In later life, Watt moved to Birmingham and teamed up with industrialist Matthew Boulton. The pair currently grace the Bank of England’s £50 note. (More details below.)

Professor Colin McInnes, James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science at the University of Glasgow, said: “James Watt’s contribution to engineering cannot be understated, key to which was the step-change in efficiency he delivered through the separate steam condenser. His initial is stamped on every light bulb, measuring the electrical power it delivers, but also reminding us of the sheer intellectual light he brought to the world.

“Watt’s life is an inspiration and will be celebrated during this year’s Glasgow Science Festival and through a range of events at the University of Glasgow.”

Historic Environment Scotland has been leading a group of museums and industrial heritage professionals to develop activities for 2019.

Dr Oglethorpe said: “Key partners in the group have included Glasgow and Heriot Watt Universities, Falkirk Community Trust, Glasgow Life, Inverclyde Council, Dundee Heritage Trust, the National Galleries of Scotland, the National Museums of Scotland, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland.”

He added: “One of our most active partners has been the charity The Friends of Kinneil in Bo’ness. Watt tested his prototype new engine at a workshop, the remains of which can still be found next to the magnificent Kinneil House. The Friends group have been keen to raise the profile of Watt and his links with Kinneil and won a Scottish Heritage Angel award in 2016 for their ongoing work.

“Our group also has active members from England, including Birmingham University and the Science Museum.

“We’d also like to hear from schools and other community groups doing their own activities to mark Watt’s achievements. You can get in touch through the new website www.jameswatt.scot – or by tweeting to us @watt2019.

“Our aim is to ensure that, as 2019 unfolds, Watt events across the UK and beyond can be shared with as wide an audience as possible.”

The new James Watt website
The new James Watt website.



James Watt was born on 19th January 1736. He began his career in 1755 in London where he made mathematical instruments, returning to Scotland a year later and finding work at Glasgow University. In 1763, he was invited by the University to repair one of its Newcomen Steam engines, and two years later whilst walking across Glasgow Green, he conceived the idea of the ‘separate condenser’.

Watt struggled to put his idea into practice, and took on other jobs, working as a civil engineer and surveyor on the navigation of the River Clyde, the Monkland Canal and the Caledonian Canal. However, his breakthrough came when he was introduced to industrialist John Roebuck, co-founder of the Carron Ironworks by Falkirk.

The Watt workshop which still stands at Kinneil, Bo'ness.
The Watt workshop which still stands at Kinneil, Bo’ness.

Roebuck provided facilities at Kinneil House in Bo’ness and, working secretly there and in Glasgow, Watt was able to perfect the separate condenser sufficiently to win the patent on 5th January 1769.

Watt’s supporter, John Roebuck, went bankrupt in 1773, before the benefits of the invention could be realised. Roebuck was therefore forced to pass on his interests in the steam engine patent to one of his associates, industrialist Matthew Boulton of Birmingham.

At the age of 38, Watt moved to Birmingham the following year, forming the famous Boulton & Watt partnership, based in the Soho area.

Boulton’s precision engineering expertise was instrumental in realising Watt’s improved steam engine, and the company prospered.

Demand grew rapidly, initially from mine owners. By the 1780s, Boulton & Watt engines were being installed in a wide range of other industries, including textile mills, flour mills, iron works and even whisky distilleries. Among other things, he also invented one of the earliest machines for copying letters, which he patented in 1780. He was a skilled chemist as well as engineer, and with Boulton and others a leading member of Birmingham’s ‘Lunar’ Society.

In 1800, Boulton and Watt passed the business on to their sons, but Watt continued to invent new devices, examples of which include machines for copying sculptures and medallions.

Watt died on August 25, 1819, at his home in Handsworth, now part of Birmingham. He was 83.

He was buried alongside his business partner, Matthew Boulton, at St Mary’s Church, Handsworth.

In 1882, 63 years after his death, the unit measuring electrical and mechanical power was proposed to be named a “Watt” in his honour.

In 2011 Watt was one of the first inductees into the Scottish Engineering Hall of Fame by the Institution of Engineers and Shipbuilders in Scotland (IESIS).

The McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock - undergoing a revamp. It is being renamed The Watt Institution.
The McLean Museum and Art Gallery in Greenock – undergoing a revamp. It is part of a series of buildings which will be named “The Watt Institution”. Picture: Adrian Mahoney


You can download the logo for the new website at https://jameswatt.scot/brand/

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch statue in Birmingham

Gilded statue of Boulton, Watt and Murdoch – pictured in central Birmingham in 2006 by Oosoom at English Wikipedia. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.