Category Archives: James Watt

What was Watt up to in the vegetable patch?

How many uses can you think of for red cabbage? Not as many as James Watt I’ll bet…

His friend William Nicholson wrote a Dictionary of Chemistry in 1795. The entry for red cabbage reads:

BRASSICA RUBRA – Mr Watt finds that red cabbage affords a very excellent test, both for acids and alkalis; in which it is superior to litmus, being naturally blue, turning green with alkalis, and red with acids.


Red cabbage used in chemistry [Science Museum / Science & Society

The description of how he prepared the cabbage leaves includes boiling them for several hours. No wonder Mrs Watt banished his workshop activities to the top of the house.


Mrs Annie Watt, James's second wife [Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s home at Heathfield near Birmingham was surrounded by gardens and parkland, so there was plenty of space for him to try out his ideas without disturbing the neighbours.

He made the most of the flower gardens, as Nicholson also remarks that he then checked out violets, scarlet roses and pink coloured lychnis for similar reasons.

He wasn’t the only one. Robert Boyle had investigated the use of similar colour changes for acid-alkali reactions in the 17th century. Watt’s chemical interests were both philosophical, and intensely practical – he tried a number of ways of turning science into money, including bleaching, dyeing, and making ink.

James Watt’s family life

To me the most touching item in James Watt’s workshop is his son’s trunk.

Gregory Watt's trunk

Gregory Watt's trunk (Science Museum)

Gregory died of consumption at only 27 years old. The trunk is full of his schoolwork; beautiful paintings, drawings, diagrams and page upon page of his lessons and notes, in immaculate copperplate writing.

It is a poignant reminder that the genius engineer was as human as the rest of us.

Quite apart from his own bad health, his first wife died in childbirth and only one of his 7 children (James) outlived him.

Yet despite such tragedies, plus the ups and downs of his business life, James Watt lived to the ripe old age of 83 – a ‘good innings’ even by today’s standards.

So perhaps it’s true – an active mind really is the secret to a long life!

An Artist in Search of Colour

Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg (1740-1812) was born in Germany and studied in Strasburg and Paris. He became artistic adviser at the Drury Lane Theatre from 1771-81.

As an innovative set designer and scene painter, he helped to lay the foundations of pictorial illusion in stagecraft. After abandoning theatre in the 1780s, he became an important figure in British landscape painting.

The Science Museum holds one of his most famous works, ‘Coalbrookdale by Night’, 1801. This epitomises the romantic view of the growth of industry in its formerly pastoral setting.

The development of coke smelting in Shropshire in the 18th century revolutionised the production of iron and helped fuel the Industrial Revolution.

Coalbrookdale by Night © Science Museum / Science & Society

In the Science Museum Archives there is a letter from De Loutherbourg to Matthew Boulton, James Watt’s business partner.

He was desperate to find an ingredient for one of his colours, yellow copperas. The letter says:

“I am a little at leasure at present, and wanting it very much, even for the Small Pictures, wich you was so kind as to ask me to do for you”.

And what a difference the colour makes.

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale, 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

Ironworks, Coalbrookdale 1805 © Science Museum / Science & Society

Why did James Watt own a saw with no teeth?

Preparing the contents of an 18th century workshop for display is a complicated and fascinating thing to do. And when it belongs to the engineering icon, James Watt, it’s even more challenging.

Watt was a Scottish engineer, born in 1736. His fame stems from a stupendously clever improvement to the steam engine, the separate condenser. He and his other contemporaries kick-started what we now sometimes call the Industrial Revolution.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1815 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

We’ve got the garret workshop from his retirement home at Heathfield near Birmingham. It contains over 2400 items – tools, machines, instruments, bits and pieces he worked on, pots containing chemicals and all sorts of wonderful stuff from various times in his life.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819.

James Watt's garret workshop, 1790-1819. Science Museum / Science & Society

One of the chests of drawers contained a saw that looked a bit odd.

A saw with no teeth

A saw with no teeth! Found in James Watt’s workshop. (Science Museum)

No teeth! Now, this was in fact the standard bit of kit for cutting stone – you chiselled a groove where you wanted to cut, poured emery dust or some other abrasive material into the crack, and then used the saw to make the final cut.

As one of James Watt’s final inventions was a method of copying sculpture, which involved cutting the copies out of blanks, the saw must have been used for producing the little ingots to go in his copying machines.

So the saw makes sense of some other mysteries - like the presence of lots of powdered emery and those rather impressive busts.

Location, Location, Location

Can you imagine taking a jigsaw of over 6000 pieces apart just to move it to another location and put it back together?

That’s just the task we’ve been set for one of the Science Museum’s most complex exhibits - James Watt’s Workshop, which is due to open in spring 2011.

We acquired his complete workshop in 1924. It includes the doors, window, furniture, stove - pretty much everything but the kitchen sink.

General view of Watt's Workshop, in original Heathfield location.

It was painstakingly moved in the 1920’s from its Birmingham location to London, and a room was built to exact specifications to recreate the look and atmosphere of the original space.

Watt's Workshop before it's moved into a new location and open to public.

Now the challenge is to take it from that room to a public gallery.

As conservation staff it’s not only important to conserve objects from deterioration but to also help conserve the interpretation.

This can include cleaning and repairing an item so it appears as it would when in use, but also - most importantly - to make sure that an item is not altered in such a way that it is no longer possible to identify what it was or how it was used.

The workshop is pushing this principle to the extreme as we want to retain how Watt worked in the room, giving us some insight into his thought processes and working practices.

We can achieve this by carefully locating, recording and photographing every item in the workshop prior to moving it to the new gallery. Not all of the objects we record would normally be seen as museum-worthy – scraps of paper and bits of discarded thread and sawdust - but they all add to the overall interpretation of the room.

And, who knows, that scrap of paper may have held the doodle of his latest invention…

“The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls”

From November 1782, James Watt and his friends were excited by the Montgolfier brothers’ experiments with hot air balloons.

Watt wrote to Dr Joseph Black in 1783 that “The Whole World is Full of these Flying Balls at present”.

In August 1783 the Frenchman J A C Charles and two brothers called Robert substituted hydrogen, or“inflammable air”, for hot air. Alarmed locals pitchforked their balloon where it landed.

Pitchforking the alien © Science Museum / Science & Society

In December Charles and one Robert brother set off on their first manned flight, using hydrogen made by passing steam over hot iron.

Launch site of hydrogen balloon December 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

They went up

The balloon rising Dec 1783 Science Museum / Science & Society

And up

The balloon rose further Science Museum / Science & Society

And up even more.

The balloon rose even further Science Museum / Science & Society

Before touching ground again on the property of an interested landowner who was intrigued by his sudden visitors arriving in such a novel manner.

First touch down Science Museum / Science & Society

Robert  hopped out to explain what they were up to, whereupon the balloon took off again with Charles still aboard. This time he was taken so high he had an almost religious experience (probably along the lines of “I swear if I get down from up here in one piece, I’ll never do it again”).  

The balloon and its pilot were loaded on to a wagon and returned to Paris, closing a dramatic chapter in the early history of aeronautics.

Triumphant return to Paris © Science Museum / Science & Society

Watt’s partner Matthew Boulton experimented with thin copper, along the way managing to make one of his test balloons explode in mid air. 

It wasn’t really their thing, and Watt wrote to another friend in October 1794

“Mr Boulton did idle a great deal of his time in playing with some small balloons some time ago but I hope he is now cured of the balloonomania” .

James Watt, RIP

James Watt died 191 years ago today. He was considered one of the most important engineers in the country, and after his death he was turned into a national hero. The result was a slew of statues, memorials and paintings – some of which will go on show in a new exhibition opening in spring 2011. More details to follow…

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792.

James Watt, Scottish engineer, 1792 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

When Watt was 59, his friend and partner Matthew Boulton introduced him to Carl von Breda, who painted the earliest portrait that that Watt was known to sit for. At the time, 1792, he was fighting to save their steam engine business from legal challenges, but was wealthy enough to have built his house Heathfield near Birmingham to suit his growing family.

James Watt from painting by Lawrence, 1813 (Science Museum / Science & Society)

By 1815, he was more relaxed, and more prepared to have his portrait painted. This one, by Thomas Lawrence, was much liked by the artist, who thought it was the finest he had ever painted, but the family – James Watt, and his eldest son James Watt Jnr – didn’t really care for it.

James Watt, Scottish engineer (Science Museum / Science & Society)

Another highly regarded artist, Sir Francis Chantrey, produced a marble bust for the Royal Academy exhibition in 1815. Watt was swathed in a toga-like cloak as a 19th century conceit to show he was a true philosopher.

The bust was much copied, and even Watt had a go, using the bust to test his sculpture-copying machines. He wrote to a friend “I do not think myself of importance enough to fill up so much of my friends’ houses as the original bust does”.

James Watt, British engineer, as a young man, c 1769 painted 1860. Science Museum / Science & Society

This was painted after Watt’s death, but he is shown as a young man studying a mal-functioning model of a Newcomen steam engine. The challenge of trying to get it to work put Watt on the road to perfecting full-size engines.

Bizarrely there was even a Japanese woodcut, prepared in the 1880s for primary school children, showing him testing the steam from a boiling kettle in his aunt’s house.