Friends, History, James Watt Supper

Speaker praises Watt at annual supper

The Friends of Kinneil welcomed Dr Nina Baker as guest speaker at the charity’s annual James Watt Supper on Friday, January 18.

She gave an entertaining and educational speech on James Watt – who did early work to improve the steam engine at Kinneil Estate.

Dr Baker is a former Councillor/Baillie of Glasgow City Council. She has had had a varied career as a Merchant Navy deck officer, engineer, academic and politician.

Ian Shearer, the chair of the Friends, thanked Dr Baker for her contribution to the event, held in St Mary’s Church in Bo’ness.

He said: “Nina is a noted enthusiast for Glasgow, James Watt, for science and engineering, for their history and for promoting the role of women in those disciplines.”

We’ve republished Nina’s full speech below. 

Happy two hundred and eighty third birthday, James Watt

Thank you so much for honouring me by this invitation to speak to all you lovely Friends of Kinneil -at your annual dinner. As it is a birthday celebration I thought I would focus on those two essentials of a birthday party: friendships and music.

Let us imagine the young James Watt – only 18, not yet considered an adult in those days – arriving in Glasgow, from Greenock, knowing only his relation, George Muirhead. He apparently quickly made himself so friendly with Robert Dick, ayoung professor of natural philosophy, or physics as we would term it, that the academic gave him advice on his career plans, thereby sending our young man off to London.

When he came back to Glasgow, now just about an adult but still without the contacts in the city that a traditional apprenticeship and journeymanship might have provided, James managed to fall on his feet again. I think we have to compare what he must have been like as a person with what we know of the famously reclusive Isaac Newton of a generation previously. James Watt was friendly and sociable and we hear of him attending some of the men’s dining clubs which abounded in the city in those times. People clearly took to him quickly and remained firm friends thereafter.

James was soon on friendly terms with the city’s most significant academics, gaining their confidence in his abilities. Bearing in mind that he had little formal schooling and never attended any university lectures, this is a testament to how quick on the uptake James Watt must have been in talking with men of such standing. They found him work, gave him advice, taught him all their latest theories and remained his close friends until death. Professor Joseph Black, a dozen years older, was probably his best friend – in every sense – from this period.

Black’s theories of latent and specific heat were the key to James Watt’s greatest invention. I am not going to go on about steam at this point but the friendship of James and Joseph was a benefit to us all. This was just one of many social contacts which James Watt enjoyed in Glasgow – he also joined a local Freemasons’ lodge, and despite the scurrilous comments sometimes repeated – he was a member of the Incorporation of Hammermen. And yes, I would say that wouldn’t I, what with being one of the Masters of the Hammermen.

Next time you are in the Science Museum’s Watt Gallery, I suggest you might take a look at the chart of the network of friends and colleagues with whom James Watt maintained lifelong links. It seems that once met, never forgotten. Even at the end of his life, contacts back in Glasgow got in touch to ask him if he could help out by designing a flexible water main to go under the river at Dalmarnock where the river bed is very uneven.

James responded with a design of overlapping sections, similar to a lobster tail or suit of armour.  An example to us all of the benefits of social and professional networking and generally keeping in touch. Of course, people wrote a lot of letters then and the horse-drawn mail system seems to have beennearly as quick as email.

Life for James in Glasgow was not as easy financially as it was socially and he did a whole lot of things to try to make his way in the world.  His twenties were a time of a number of commercial efforts – making and selling trinkets, mathematical, navigational and musical instruments from a succession of workshops and shopfronts in what we now think of as the Merchant City. After James’ work for the university ended he had shops in the Saltmarket, Trongate, and King Street, with workshops in a variety of places.

And of course also at the Delftfield Pottery in what is now James Watt Street, where he was a partner and had another workshop.

He would really have liked to have made a living making and selling the sort of mathematical and navigational instruments he learned to make in London. But Glasgow in the 1760s was small. It was not a seaport and to sell what he made he generally had to rely on contacts to sell them for him elsewhere such as Bristol.

So, his wee shop in the town also sold all sorts of other items, some known as toys – in those days toys were not necessarily children’s playthings but could be all sorts of items. The word originally meant device, trick or ornament, by coincidence for his later life, pretty much what his future partner Matthew Boulton’s company made.

We know that James Watt in this period also made and sold musical instruments and their components. Again, the Watt Gallery in the London Science Museum has a display of various bits and bobs – bits of flutes and special tools  for making them – which he packed up and took to Birmingham when he moved there.

However we also know, largely from letters and accounts books, that he was making a wide range of stringed and wind instruments, such as flutes, guitars, violins and viol da gambas which are similar to a cello.

An interesting spur to this direction of his work was that various friends and acquaintances asked him to make instruments, which is testament to his practical skills since Watt himself was the first to admit to having no ear for music and did not  enjoy listening to it. It was even said that he found it physically painful to listen to music.

Which brings me to an odd bit of Watt’s history. In keeping with our birthday party theme, this story has strong resemblences to the game we played as kids, known as Chinese Whispers, where a phrase is repeated until its sense has changed utterly. In Glasgow’s museums store is a small wooden chamber organ, clearly labelled and indeed catalogued as the James Watt Organ, on the understanding that it was made by the great man himself.

I have spent several entertaining days chasing down dusty documents in the Mitchell Library and of course online too to try to get the evidence for this. Although a recent renovation and inspection by a local organ builder concluded that it was of the correct period and included metal components unusual at the time, I have been forced to conclude that it is not possible to be certain that it was built by James Watt.

The labelling and attribution seem to have come about by a combination of hero-worship, hagiography, wishful thinking and ordinary muddles. Even during his lifetime the level of hero-worship of the James Watt ‘brand’ was endemic. All sorts of memorabilia were produced for the public – medallions, busts, images and so on. So it is not surprising that there was the strong desire to own something he was said to have made. Of course fact-checking is much easier in this internet age than in the days when only rich men had libraries to consult. Once the organ starts to be mentioned in print it is as though the ‘fact’ of James Watt having made it himself is set forever,  like a fossil, with each writer merely repeating or elaborating on the previous publication.

The only organs he is absolutely known to have made for which we have descriptions, bear absolutely no resemblance to ours. At best we might hope that ours is some sort of experimental ‘test bed’ instrument for him to try out some innovative ideas which it contains. No proof however. Ah well.

Here at Kinneil however, provenance is no problem at all! You know you have the Watt Cottage where you know he did his experimental development of the separate steam condenser. You know the role of his friend and patron, Dr John Roebuck, himself a significant inventor, in supporting Watt at that time, ultimately to his own disadvantage.

When we compare the various structures associated with our national Bard, Rabbie Burns, a contemporary of Watt’s, it is noticeable that they are in far better repair and fame than this cottage at Kinneil. If the idea for the separate steam condenser was conceived on Glasgow Green,  the cottage here could arguably be said to be the very cradle of the steam age in which Watt’s device began its development. Surely in the bicentenary of Watt’s death and the 250th anniversary of the condenser’s patent, it is shaming to a nation which is justifiably proud of its massive industrial heritage that so little has been done to enhance the story the cottage could convey if in better repair.

There is admittedly little left of the physicality of many of the UK’s great engineering centres, but 2019 is also the centenary year of two engineering organisations: The Newcomen Society founded during a dinner in 1919 to commemorate the centenary of James Watt’s death, in order that the history of British Engineering should have its own learned society. And the other was the Women’s Engineering Society also founded in 1919, to support those women who had become engineers during the first world war but whom the law required to be sacked when peace came. The Society continues to work to encourage engineering careers for women and  the centenary will be bringing to light the stories of Scotswomen in engineering as well as others across the UK.

The young people whom we all hope will take up engineering careers in greater numbers, can learn a lot from James Watt and the two societies I just mentioned. Watt showed us the benefits of a clear grasp of first principles and also the benefits of professional and social networks in advancing knowledge as much as careers. Also we need to help the general public appreciate the wealth generated by manufacturing and innovation and how our proud history of these is the foundation from which to go forward.

I would like to conclude with a toast and a new year’s resolution: “To engineering and to friendship”.