New exhibition highlights Watt’s work

ian-lowresWRITER and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis meets Ian Shearer, a trustee of the Bo’ness charity The Friends of Kinneil, at the launch of a new exhibition on Scots inventor James Watt.

Watt did some of his early work to develop the steam engine in a small workshop next to Kinneil House in Bo’ness, working with local industrialist Dr. John Roebuck.

Mr Hart-Davis was at the Science Museum in London to help launch “James Watt and Our World” – a new display allowing visitors to see a recreated workshop used by Watt plus a wealth of objects linked to the engineer’s life.

Ian, who lives in Muirhouses, said it was great to be able to attend the launch of the new exhibition.

“It would appeal to anyone with an interest in James Watt, and has a special significance to people in our area, given Watt’s local links,” said Ian.

“Adam Hart-Davis is well known for his TV series such as ‘What The Romans Did for Us’ and ‘Local Heroes’, for which he visited Kinneil Estate. We talked about Kinneil and Watt’s work there.

“I also spoke to Ben Russell, the curator of mechanical engineering at the Science Museum. He mentioned Watt’s first model for a separate condenser. One of the key items on display in the new exhibition. It’s considered one of the most significant objects in engineering history.

“It’s an unassuming brass cylinder, discovered at the Museum in the 1960s, among Watt’s workshop items. Ben explained a story that John Roebuck had overheard Watt demonstrating the model to somebody else, and it was this which prompted him to persuade Watt to come to Kinneil.
“A selection of Watt’s tools and other instruments are also on display – some of which dated from the 1760s and which he must have used in the very building which now stands ruined next to Kinneil House.
“However, the real star of the exhibition is a recreated workshop. Although it’s from Watt’s time in Birmingham, not Scotland, it does give a fascinating insight into this amazing inventor.”

This year marks the 275th anniversary of the birth of James Watt. The Friends of Kinneil group has already had a James Watt Supper in his honour. The charity is also planning further initiatives to stimulate interest in the inventor’s local links.

James Watt was seen by contemporaries as the founder of the Industrial Revolution. His improved engine meant that steam could be used everywhere, not just in coal mines, boosting output in breweries, potteries and textile mills. It drove Britain’s factories, pumped its mines and helped start a long surge in prosperity.

Andrew Nahum, principal curator of technology and engineering at the Science Museum, said “The extraordinary thing about Watt’s story is that it represents the crucial moment at which industry took off and transformed our lives. In the 19th century, Watt’s improvements to the steam engine and the industry it drove was claimed as a powerful contribution to British strength and to Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon. Watt became a new kind of ‘industrial hero’. Today, Britain’s commerce no longer runs so visibly on steam and Watt is perhaps less well known so we are pleased to be celebrating his engineering genius once more.”

James Watt and the Steam Engine

When Watt died in 1819, his workshop at his home near Birmingham, was locked and its contents left undisturbed as an ‘industrial shrine’.

Then, in 1924, the complete workshop, including its door, window, skylight, floorboards and 8,434 objects used or created by Watt, were carefully removed and transported to the Science Museum. Although the workshop has previously been displayed at the Museum, visitors have never been invited inside until now. The vast majority of its contents, once hidden within drawers, on shelves and under piles of tools and papers are now revealed. The new display sets Watt’s life and work alongside his iconic early steam engines which line the Museum’s Energy Hall.

“James Watt and Our World” opened at the Science Museum on March 23. The exhibition is supported by The DCMS/Wolfson Museums & Galleries Improvement Fund, with additional support from The Pilgrim Trust and the Helen and Geoffrey de Freitas Charitable Trust. The Science Museum is in Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and admission is free. (www.sciencemuseum.org.uk / 0870 870 4868)

** If you don’t want to travel south, you can also find more about James Watt and his local connections in the permanent display at Kinneil Museum in Kinneil Estate, Bo’ness. It’s open from Monday to Saturday from 12.30 p.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is also free.




*Painting courtesy of The Science Museum.