Tag Archives: num:sciencemuseum=1790-1819

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.

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…