William Flew James Watt

March 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

The chaotic attic workshop of James Watt, the Scottish inventor who made the Industrial Revolution possible, has been painstakingly restored, reassembled and opened to the public on the ground floor of the Science Museum in London.

It reveals the extraordinary breadth of interests of an extraordinary man.

Watt, although his face will appear on the £50 note this year, is not now as revered as he was by the Victorians, to whom he was a national hero like Shakespeare, Newton and Nelson.

Ben Russell, the museum’s curator of mechanical engineering, said yesterday that he was “a potter, a sculptor and a chemist but most importantly, he was a scientific entrepreneur. He becomes really good at taking a scientific idea and saying — hey, we can do something with that.”

His most important insight was to realise the potential of the Newcomen pump, an inefficient primitive steam engine, that was designed in 1712. Watt spent ten years wrestling with how to improve it and his eventual solution, which involved adding a separate cylinder to condense the steam produced, transformed his and Britain’s economic fortunes between 1774 — when the first new Watt engine was built — and his death in 1819.

With his new engines, steam could be used everywhere to boost output in mines, breweries, potteries and textile mills. Within a single generation the engines built by Watt and his backer Matthew Boulton reshaped the country, clustering around the Midlands, Lancashire and the North East in areas that today are often defined by their industrial heritage. When Watt died, the garret of his Birmingham house, where he conducted experiments amid a welter of significant objects accrued over a lifetime, was locked and its contents preserved as an “industrial shrine.”

In 1924, the entire workshop, including its door, window, skylight, floorboards and 8,434 objects used or created by Watt, was transported to the Science Museum. There it became one of the least illuminating displays in any of our national museums, with visitors peering through a window into the dim and confusing interior at a lot of wood, black steel, cogs, balances, chains and dusty boxes.

The revamped display has opened one side up so that visitors can walk in and see the contents properly for the first time.

They include the world’s oldest circular saw, parts for flutes and violins, two crates of fossils, a forerunner of the photocopier, moulds for copying statues, the first device used to mint and standardise the size of coins, navigational instruments, pigments, experimental glazes and the oldest surviving pieces of sandpaper.

However, perhaps the most significant items are unremarkable to look at and out of sight in a box beneath a pile of 200-year-old papers that look like discarded rags: a collection of valves and engine parts from Watt’s earliest experiments with the steam engine.

Andrew Nahum, the principal curator of technology and engineering at the museum, said yesterday that Watt ushered in changes “as profound as the changes that we have experienced with IT in our lifetimes”.

Mr Russell added that Watt’s defining contribution to the world was to make man independent of nature for the first time.

“Before steam comes along we can only use wind, water or muscle power. The steam engine helps people move outside the constraints of muscle power so that rather than saying ‘There’s no wind, we can’t do anything’ we can say ‘To hell with it. Fire up the boilers and away we go.’ ”

 

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