Along Great Western Road -- An Illustrated History of Glasgow's West End

Watt's Perfect Engine

James Watt,
page 3 of 12

shillings a week. To relieve his father as much as possible of even this expense, he sought for some remunerative work on his own account, and did it at night.

This, however, soon told upon his health, and he was obliged to return to Greenock. In fact, his delicate health followed him all through life. His studies were pursued often in the midst of splitting headaches that would have overcome others.

He had only been about a year in London, but he had made good use of his time, and was now prepared to start business on his own account. With the consent and help of his father he again came to Glasgow, in his twentieth year, with this in view. Although there were no mathematical instrument makers in Glasgow, and it must have been a public advantage to have one settled in the place, Watt was opposed by the Corporation of Hammermen, on the ground that he was neither the son of a burgess nor had served an apprenticeship within the burgh. His old friend, Professor Dick, again came to his rescue. He had already repaired some of the instruments of the University, and the professors, having jurisdiction over the area occupied by the College buildings, granted him a little room, 20 feet square, under the Natural Philosophy class-room, for a workshop, and also a shop fronting the High Street. Over this Watt put up his sign as “Mathematical Instrument Maker to the University.” At first work came in slowly. His fame, however, soon spread, and business improved. He was asked, among other things, to build an organ for the Masons’ Lodge. Although he had no ear for music, he mastered so thoroughly the theory and the principles of construction that the qualities of the organ when finished are said to have elicited the surprise and admiration of musicians.

The College Library was near, and he spent much of his leisure time in reading. The most solid books and the interesting novels were alike welcomed. His shop became the favourite resort of the professors and the students. They were attracted not only by the ingenious instruments and models which it contained, but more by the intelligence and original conversation of the skilful mechanic who presided within it, and the pleasure which he took in communicating his knowledge. Among his most frequent visitors, in addition to Dr. Dick, were Dr. Black, the famous chemist, who became his life-long friend; Professor Simson, the reviver of mathematical learning in Scotland; Dr. Moor, the eminent classical author, and Dr. Adam Smith, the author of the “Wealth of Nations.” Of the students who visited him, none was more eager for knowledge, no one more Interesting or more intimately associated with him in after life than John Robison, who became professor of moral philosophy at Edinburgh. One day, after feasting his eyes on the beautifully finished instruments in his shop, Robison entered into conversation with him. Expecting to find only a workman, he was surprised to discover a philosopher. “I had the vanity,” he says, “to think myself a pretty good proficient in my favourite study (mathematical and mechanical philosophy), and was rather mortified at finding Mr. Watt so much my superior. But his own high relish for these things made him pleased with the chat of any person who had the same tastes with himself . . . . When ever any puzzle came in the way of any of us, we went to Mr. Watt. He needed only to be prompted: everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study, and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificancy, or had made something of it. On one occasion, the solution of a problem


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