History fans are being invited to a free event to celebrate the life and legacy of inventor James Watt.

The evening – on Tuesday, January 21, 2020 – will feature talks and films about the great man. It will be hosted in the historic Hippodrome Cinema in Bo’ness: just a few miles from Watt’s cottage workshop in the town.

The event will also reflect on the past year: 2019 was the 200th anniversary of Watt’s death and the 250th anniversary of his patent to improve the efficiency of the steam engine. Events to celebrate Greenock-born Watt took place across the UK.

Dr Miles Oglethorpe of Historic Environment Scotland – which is helping to host the Hippodrome evening – said: “During the anniversary year there were some great talks about James Watt and his legacy.

“We’re reprising some of them at this event on January 21 and also showcasing films to raise awareness of Watt and his story.

“The event is open to everyone and we’d encourage people to book a free ticket through Eventbrite or the James Watt website – www.jameswatt.scot/wattfinale .”

The Hippodrome event on January 21 is due to start at 7 p.m. and run until 9 p.m. (Doors will open at 6.30 p.m.). Speakers will include:

  • Professor Gordon Masterton from the University of Edinburgh;
  • Ian Shearer, chair of The Friends of Kinneil; and
  • Dr Nina Baker, an engineering historian.

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.

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.”

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


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.

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).