James Watt and the steam engine

Taking Tea with Mackintosh

James Watt,
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world than that of any soldier or statesman, well deserves attentive study.

James Watt was born at Greenock on the 19th January, 1736. His grandfather, Thomas Watt, was a teacher of navigation and mathematics in Cartsdyke, Greenock. He died at the ripe age of 92, and was buried in the old West churchyard, where his tombstone is still to be seen near to that of Burns’ Highland Mary. His father, James Watt, was a prosperous shipwright and builder. He also supplied ships with stores, and engaged in foreign mercantile adventures. He was promoted by his townsmen to be a bailie and chief magistrate of Greenock. His mother was Agnes Muirhead, who was distinguished for her grace of person, as well as of mind and heart. “A braw, braw woman,’ it was said: “none now could be seen like her.” Watt was a very delicate child, and received his early education at home. His mother taught him reading, and his father writing and arithmetic. He soon showed that he had inherited the mathematical power of his grandfather, as well as the practical faculty of his father. He could not only handle tools with dexterity, but made rapid advancement in several branches of study. One day when he was bending over the hearthstone with a piece of chalk in his hand, a friend of his father said, “You ought to send that boy to school, and not allow him to trifle away his time at home.” “Look how the child is occupied,” was the reply, “before you condemn him.” The boy, at this early age, was said to have been trying to solve a problem in geometry. There is also the story told of him making early experiments with the steam issuing from the tea-kettle, but this is told of all the great inventors. Probably most boys do the same. It cannot be taken as an indication that he was even then meditating the great discovery by which he became famous.

He afterwards went to school, and was regarded at first as a dull boy. But before he left; at fifteen years of age, he had established himself as leader of the class. He had twice gone through the elements of natural philosophy, he had performed many chemical experiments, and had succeeded in making an electrical machine. He had also studied botany, astronomy, mineralogy, and a little of anatomy. He also became a great story-teller, and by his singular power kept his relatives from sleep. At the age of eighteen, Watt came to Glasgow on horseback in order to learn the trade of a mathematical instrument maker. It was found that there was no such tradesman in Glasgow. He was placed for a short time with a tradesman who styled himself an “optician.” He was really a sort of Jack-of-all-trades, who could turn his hand to the mending of fiddles and fishing tackle as well as of spectacles. To him the young apprentice was most useful, but he could learn little of mathematical instrument making. He therefore acted on the advice of Professor Dick, and went to London in 1755 — on horseback again — while his chest was sent by sea. Here also he had difficulty in finding a suitable master. “I have not yet got a master,” he wrote to his father about a fortnight after his arrival. “We have tried several, but they all made some objection or other. I find that, if any agree with me at all, it will not be for less than a year; and even I or that time they will be expecting some money.” At length he was received into the shop of Mr. John Morgan, a respectable mathematical instrument maker in Cornhill, on the terms of receiving a year‘s instruction for the proceeds of his labour during that time. He soon proved himself a skilful workman, making compasses, quadrants, theodolites, and other kinds of delicate instruments. Watt lived in a very frugal style. His living cost him only eight


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