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By Jane Insley on

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.

2 comments on “Why Did James Watt Own A Saw With No Teeth?

  1. I am slightly disappointed to learn of the real reason for not having teeth on his saw: I was hoping that perhaps he might also have owned a ‘cello bow!

  2. Well, as it happens, he did make musical instruments to sell in his shop during the 1750s to 1760s. Barrel organs, violins and flutes mostly, though…..
    The saw is a bit on the stiff side for what you have in mind!

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