George Square Glasgow
Leverhulme Research Trips

Watt is an Engineer

Affected by lockdown, my research trip to Glasgow saw the archives I wanted to visit closed. However I was lucky enough to meet academic friends to discuss ideas with. I’m grateful to Gerry Carruthers, John Coyle, Richard Cronin, Dorothy McMillan and Matt Sangster for discussions we had during this visit. They helped make the trip worthwhile. The visit also allowed me to write up a chapter on Mechanics’ Institutes. Apart from this I cycled around Glasgow looking at sites and memorials. I found the site of the first Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute, which is now occupied by buildings belonging to the university of Strathclyde. I also looked at statues. Statues are controversial and so is the engineer James Watt.

There are memorials to Watt all over the UK and there are two main statues of Watt in Glasgow. Both show different people. One shows a theorist; the other a ‘mechanic’. What is the difference and which was Watt?

What is an Engineer?

Define an engineer? Civil engineer Samuel C. Floorman has it that ‘”real” engineers as I would define the term, that is, [are] professional engineers with college degrees’. The rest according to Floorman are technicians or mechanics. Floorman takes a top down approach, defining engineering as ‘the art or science of making practical application of the knowledge of pure sciences’. This way of looking at engineering has theory directing practice. Thinking of the Romantic period this seems upside down to me. Who drove invention and innovation in the period–the theorists or those that got their hands dirty? It is an important question as by:

‘1775 the machine tools at the disposal of industry had scarcely advanced beyond those available in the Middle Ages: by 1850 the majority of modern machine-tools had been invented.’



Singer, Holmyard, Hall and Williams, A History of Technology, Vol IV, Oxford: OUP, 1958), p. 417.

Workshop Innovation

Many argue that during the romantic period innovation emerged from workshops. As Frank Weinhold (2008), writes, before the discovery of the steam engine ‘no proper scientific foundation existed for understanding how a steam engine works’. In Weinhold’s analysis creative practice comes before theory.

Weinhold notes that as ‘aptly remarked by science historian L. J. Henderson in 1917, “Science owes more to the steam engine than the steam engine owes to science.”‘ Malcolm Longair concurs on ‘the truth behind this perceptive statement’ in his influential Theoretical Concepts in Physics (2003). Neither James Watt, Joseph Whitworth, Matthew Bolton, Richard Roberts, or Henry Maudsley, had a ‘college degree’. All completed craft apprenticeships. Watt served his in Glasgow with the instrument maker John Morgan. Nonetheless they also studied scientific theories of the time that related to their work. So, what is an engineer? Nevil Shute, himself an aircraft engineer as well as a novelist, wrote that anyone ‘who can do for five bob what any bloody fool can do for a quid’ was an engineer.  Economy is the watchword, and it was making an engine more economical that made Watt’s fame.

Statues of Watt the Engineer

James Watt Stature, George Square
George Square, August 2020
James Watt statue George Square
Watt at George Square

Statues of Watt display the dichotomy between the ‘mechanic’ and the ‘engineer’. The statue of Watt by Sir Francis Chantry, which is now at the National Museum of Scotland, was controversial. The sculpture was in Westminster Abbey until 1960, however it is so massive that it wrecked the floor of the abbey exposing ancient tombs below. The statue shows Watt leaning over a paper with a set of compasses. Here Watt is a desk engineer drawing up plans. That sculpture is very similar to another Chantry made of Watt that is at George Square in Glasgow, where again he leans over some papers. Statues of Watt in Leeds and Birmingham also show show a refined gentlemanly Watt. However the statue of Watt at Glasgow Green, by the People’s Palace, is very different.


Statue at the Green

The legend of Watt partly belongs at Glasgow Green where he is supposed to have come up with his idea for a separate condenser in 1765. Watt’s statue, which is near the famous Templeton Carpet Factory, is by Charles Grassby and it used to be displayed at the gateway of Anderson Mills, until that factory was demolished in 1936.

James Watt Statue by the People's Palace, Glasgow Green
Watt leaning on an upturned cylinder
Steam Cylinder
Cylinder from The Comet (1811), Riverside Museum, Glasgow

Some accounts state that Watt is standing next to a condenser, but to my eyes it also looks as though Watt could be leaning on a small steam cylinder like the one from The Comet steam boat shown here. The cylinder Watt leans on shows an empty gland where the piston-rod should be and a gap where the steam chest and valve gear would direct steam to the piston. Real versions of that steam cylinder, versions of which are still being made today, would later in the nineteenth century be lagged with asbestos to retain heat. The empty stuffing box would also be packed with asbestos to prevent the leakage of steam as the piston rod moved along its stroke.

James Watt Statue Glasgow Green
Watt at the Green

What is Watt?

So, one statue shows a desk engineer, the other a practical engineer. Watt came to fame for improving an Newcommen engine. In the Newcomen engine steam fills the cylinder. Water is then sprayed into the cylinder to condense the steam. A vacuum then occurs and atmospheric pressure provides the power by pushing the piston down. After this the steam valve opened and a linkage returned the piston to the top of its stroke. Watt increased the power and economy of the machine by fitting a separate condenser. Using this system exhausted steam cools away from the cylinder. This saves energy and improves the efficiency of the engine. That is the genius of Watt and engineering: getting the maximum amount of work done for the least cost. As Shute said someone ‘who can do for five bob what any bloody fool can do for a quid’ is an engineer.

Watt is a preeminent engineer by any standards, college degree or not.

Horse and Human Power

Watt used the terminology of horsepower to sell his machines to people whose main power source were horses. A horse can actually achieve more than one horsepower output, as can humans, briefly. However for sustained work this measurement is an average that Watt came up with. Watt estimated that a horse could lift 33 000 foot pounds per minute and determined this as one horse power. It is only an approximation.

The average person can manage around 0.1 of this output over the course of a working day. Although they can do much more for short periods, there are roughly between six and ten people to 1hp of output. This means that a 20hp Bolton and Watt engine was equivalent to the power of around two hundred 200 fit workers.  The implications of all of this power were boundless. These machines now punching their way through the workshops of Britain could not only do the work of huge numbers of people, but they could do impossible work like draining deep mines. The Bolton and Watt company sold something remarkable and universally desirable said Matthew Bolton to Samuel Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell:

‘I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, –POWER.’

Matthew Bolton, from James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791), ii, p. 32.

Engineers at Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute

Anderson's Mechanics' Class Library

The Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute, which formed after students broke away from the Mechanics’ class at Anderson’s University in 1824, revered Watt. Like Watt they concerned themselves with questions that would increase economy and lower costs. For example they asked their students to make a clock, based on inexpensive German clocks which were then popular, but for less money. Furthermore the students were asked to design a coal gas plant that produced ‘less effluvia’ to the environment.

The questions asked at the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute show that they wanted mechanics to think as engineers, determined to make machines more efficient, and less polluting. Demands for less pollution did not come from the top. Instead they came from people living in industrial areas, suffering from the effects of industry. The Institute asked mechanics to become engineers who were concerned with making goods more cheaply; to design plants that gave out less pollution; and to increase their own personal power as well as that of their city.

The Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute Minute books show a group of people, men and women, breaking away from a well-meaning, but paternalistic approach to their education, towards one where they decided what was important to them. Watt is an engineer and a mechanic, of course. But those mechanics at the Glasgow Mechanics’ Institute were also engineers. They not only strived for economy and lower costs, but also to improve the lives of people living in their communities by lowering industrial pollution.

This work is supported by the Leverhulme Trust

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