Chapter 11: Watt, The Man

OF Watt, the genius, possessed of abilities far beyond those of other men, a scientist and philosopher, a mechanician and a craftsman, one who gravitated without effort to the top of every society, and who, even when a young workman, made his workshop the meeting-place of the leaders of Glasgow University for the interchange of views upon the highest and most abstruse subjects-with all this we have already dealt, but it is only part, and not the nobler part. He excelled all his fellows in knowledge, but there is much beyond mere knowledge in man. Strip Watt of all those commanding talents that brought him primacy without effort, for no man ever avoided precedence more persistently than he, and the question still remains: what manner of man was he, as man? Surely our readers would esteem the task but half done that revealed only what was unusual in Watt's head. What of his heart? is naturally asked. We hasten to record that in the domain of the personal graces and virtues, we have evidence of his excellence as copious and assured as for his pre-eminence in invention and discovery.

We cite the testimony of those who knew him best. It is seldom that a great man is so fortunate in his eulogists. The picture drawn of him by his friend, Lord Jeffrey, must rank as one of the finest ever produced, as portrait and tribute combined. That it is a discriminating statement, altho so eulogistic, may well be accepted, since numerous contributory proofs are given by others of Watt's personal characteristics. Says Lord Jeffrey:

Independently of his great attainments in mechanics, Mr. Watt was an extraordinary, and in many respects a wonderful man. Perhaps no individual in his age possessed so much and such varied and exact information-had read so much, or remembered what he had read so accurately and well. He had infinite quickness of apprehension, a prodigious memory, and a certain rectifying and methodising power of understanding, which extracted something precious out of all that was presented to it. His stores of miscellaneous knowledge were immense, and yet less astonishing than the command he had at all times over them. It seemed as if every subject that was casually started in conversation with him, had been that which he had been last occupied in studying and exhausting; such was the copiousness, the precision, and the admirable clearness of the information which he poured out upon it without effort or hesitation. Nor was this promptitude and compass of knowledge confined in any degree to the studies connected with his ordinary pursuits. That he should have been minutely and extensively skilled in chemistry and the arts, and in most of the branches of physical science, might perhaps have been conjectured; but it could not have been inferred from his usual occupations, and probably is not generally known, that he was curiously learned in many branches of antiquity, metaphysics, medicine, and etymology, and perfectly at home in all the details of architecture, music and law. He was well acquainted, too, with most of the modern languages, and familiar with their most recent literature. Nor was it at all extraordinary to hear the great mechanician and engineer detailing and expounding, for hours together, the metaphysical theories of the German logicians, or criticising the measures or the matter of the German poetry.

His astonishing memory was aided, no doubt, in a great measure, by a still higher and rarer faculty-by his power of digesting and arranging in its proper place all the information he received, and of casting aside and rejecting, as it were instinctively, whatever was worthless or immaterial. Every conception that was suggested to his mind seemed instantly to take its place among its other rich furniture, and to be condensed into the smallest and most convenient form. He never appeared, therefore, to be at all encumbered or perplexed with the verbiage of the dull books he perused, or the idle talk to which he listened; but to have at once extracted, by a Lind of intellectual alchemy, all that was worthy of attention, and to have reduced it, for his own use, to its true value and to its simplest form. And thus it often happened that a great deal more was learned from his brief and vigorous account of the theories and arguments of tedious writers, than an ordinary student could ever have derived from the most painful study of the originals, and that errors and absurdities became manifest from the mere clearness and plainness of his statement of them, which might have deluded and perplexed most of his hearers without that invaluable assistance.

It is needless to say, that, with those vast resources, his conversation was at all times rich and instructive in no ordinary degree; but it was, if possible, still more pleasing than wise, and had all the charms of familiarity, with all the substantial treasures of knowledge. No man could be more social in his spirit, less assuming or fastidious in his manners, or more kind and indulgent toward all who approached him. He rather liked to talk, at least in his latter years, but though he took a considerable share of the conversation, he rarely suggested the topics on which it was to turn, but readily and quietly took up whatever was presented by those around him, and astonished the idle and barren propounders of an ordinary theme, by the treasures which he drew from the mine they had inconsciously opened. He generally seemed, indeed, to have no choice or predilection for one subject of discourse rather than another; but allowed his mind, like a great cyclopaedia, to be opened at any letter his associates might choose to turn up, and only endeavour to select, from his inexhaustible stores, what might be best adapted to the taste of his present hearers. As to their capacity he gave himself no trouble; and, indeed, such was his singular talent for making all things plain, clear, and intelligible, that scarcely any one could be aware of such a deficiency in his presence. His talk, too, though overflowing with information, had no resemblance to lecturing or solemn discoursing, but, on the contrary, was full of colloquial spirit and pleasantry. He had a certain quiet and grave humour, which ran through most of his conversation, and a vein of temperate jocularity, which gave infinite zest and effect to the condensed and inexhaustible information which formed its main staple and characteristic. There was a little air of affected testiness, and a tone of pretended rebuke and contradiction, with which he used to address his younger friends, that was always felt by them as an endearing mark of his kindness and familiarity, and prized accordingly, far beyond all the solemn compliments that ever proceeded from the lips of authority. His voice was deep and powerful, although he commonly spoke in a low and somewhat monotonous tone, which harmonised admirably with the weight and brevity of his observations, and set off to the greatest advantage the pleasant anecdotes, which he delivered with the same grave brow, and the same calm smile playing soberly on his lips. There was nothing of effort indeed, or impatience, any more than pride or levity, in his demeanour; and there was a finer expression of reposing strength, and mild self-possession in his manner, than we ever recollect to have met with in any other person. He had in his character the utmost abhorrence for all sorts of forwardness, parade and pretensions; and, indeed, never failed to put an such impostures out of countenance, by the manly plainness and honest intrepidity of his language and deportment.

In his temper and dispositions he was not only kind and affectionate, but generous, and considerate of the feelings of all around him; and gave the most liberal assistance and encouragement to all young persons who showed any indications of talent, or applied to him for patronage or advice. His health, which was delicate from his youth upwards, seemed to become firmer as he advanced in years; and he preserved, up almost to the last moment of his existence, not only the full command of his extraordinary intellect, but all the alacrity of spirit, and the social gaiety, which had illumined his happiest days. His friends in this part of the country never saw him more full of intellectual vigour and colloquial animation, never more delightful or more instructive, than in his last visit to Scotland in the autumn of 1817. Indeed, it was after that time that he applied himself, with all the ardour of early life, to the invention of a machine for mechanically copying all sorts of sculpture and statuary; and distributed among his friends some of its earliest performances, as the productions of a young artist just entering on his eighty-third year.

All men of learning and science were his cordial friends; and such was the influence of his mild character and perfect fairness and liberality, even upon the pretenders to these accomplishments, that he lived to disarm even envy itself, and died, we verily believe, without a single enemy.

Professor Robison, the most intimate friend of his youth, records that:

When to the superiority of knowledge in his own line, which every man confessed, there was joined the naive simplicity and candour of his character, it is no wonder that the attachment of his acquaintances was so strong. I have seen something of the world and I am obliged to say that I never saw such another instance of general and cordial attachment to a person whom all acknowledged to be their superior. But this superiority was concealed under the most amiable candour, and liberal allowance of merit to every man. Mr. Watt was the first to ascribe to the ingenuity of a friend things which were very often nothing but his own surmises followed out and embodied by another. I am well entitled to say this, and have often experienced it in my own case.

This potent commander of the elements, this abridger of time and space, this magician, whose cloudy machinery has produced a change in the world, the effects of which, extraordinary as they are, are perhaps only now beginning to be felt-was not only the most profound man of science, the most successful combiner of powers, and combiner of numbers, as adapted to practical purposes- was not only one of the most generally well-informed, but one of the best and kindest of human beings. There he stood, surrounded by the little band of northern literati, men not less tenacious, generally speaking, of their own opinions, than the national regiments are supposed to be jealous of the high character they have won upon service. Methinks I yet see and hear what I shall never see or hear again. The alert, kind, benevolent old man had his attention alive to every one's question, his information at every one's command. His talents and fancy overfiowed on every subject. One gentleman was a deep philologist, he talked with him on the origin of the alphabet as if he had been coeval with Cadmus; another, a celebrated critic, you would have said the old man had studied political economy and belles lettres all his life; of science it is unnecessary to speak, it was his own distinguished walk.

Lord Brougham says:

We have been considering this eminent person as yet only in his public capacity, as a benefactor of mankind by his fertile genius and indomitable perseverance; and the best portraiture of his intellectual character was to be found in the description of his attainments. It is, however, proper to survey him also in private life. He was unexceptionable in all its relations; and as his activity was unmeasured, and his taste anything rather than fastidious, he both was master of every variety of knowledge, and was tolerant of discussion on subjects of very subordinate importance compared with those on which he most excelled. Not only all the sciences from the mathematics and astronomy, down to botany, received his diligent attention, but he was tolerably read in the lighter kinds of literature, delighting in poetry and other works of fiction, full of the stores of ancient literature, and readily giving himself up to the critical disquisitions of commentators, and to discussion on the fancies of etymology. His manners were most attractive from} their perfect nature and simplicity. His conversation was rich in the measure which such stores and such easy taste might lead us to expect, and it astonished all listeners with its admirable precision, with the extraordinary memory it displayed, with the distinctness it seemed to have, as if his mind had separate niches for keeping each particular, and with its complete rejection of all worthless and superfluous matter, as if the same mind had some fine machine for acting like a fan, casting off the chaff and the husk. But it had besides a peculiar charm from the pleasure he took in conveying information where he was peculiarly able to give it, and in joining with entire candor whatever discussion happened to arise. Even upon matters on which he was entitled to pronounce with absolute authority, he never laid down the law, but spoke like any other partaker of the conversation. I had the happiness of knowing Mr. Watt for many years, in the intercourse of private life; and I will take upon me to bear a testimony, in which all who had that gratification I am sure will join, that they who only knew his public merit, prodigious as that was, knew but half his worth. Those who were admitted to his society will readily allow that anything more pure, more candid, more simple, more scrupulously loving of justice, than the whole habits of his life and conversation proved him to be, was never known in society.

The descriptions given by Lords Brougham, Jeffrey, the genial Sir Walter, and others, of Watt's universality of knowledge and his charm in discourse recall Canterbury's exordium:

Hear him but reason in divinity

And, all-admiring, with an inward wish consumed, You would desire the king were made a prelate;

Hear him debate of commonwealth affairs,

You would say-it hath been all in all his study:

List his discourse of war, and you shall hear

A fearful battle rendered you in music.

Turn him to any cause of policy,

The Gordian knot of it he will unloose

Familiar as his garter; that, when he speaks,

The air, a chartered libertine, is still,

And the mute wonder lurketh in men's ears

To steal his sweet and honeyed sentences. If Watt fell somewhat short of this, so no doubt did the king so greatly extolled, and much more so, probably, than the versatile Watt. Dr. Black, the discoverer of latent heat, upon his death-bed, hears that the Watt patent has been sustained, and is for the time restored again to interest in life. He whispers that he " could not help rejoicing at anything that benefited Jamie Watt."

The Earl of Liverpool, prime minister, stated that Watt was remarkable for the simplicity of his character, the modesty of his nature, the absence of anything like presumption and ostentation, the unwillingness to obtrude himself, not only upon the great and powerful, but even on those of the scientific world to which he belonged. A more excellent and amiable man in all the relations of life I believe never existed.

There can be no question that we have for our example, in the man Watt, a nature cast in the finest mold, seemingly composed of every creature's best. Transcendent as were his abilities as inventor and discoverer, we are persuaded that our readers will feel that his qualities as a man in all the relations of life were not less so, nor less worthy of record. His supreme abilities we can neither acquire nor emulate. These are individual and ended with him. But his virtues and charms as our fellow man still shine steadily upon our paths and will shine upon those of our successors for ages to come, we trust not without leading us and them to tread some part of the way-toward the acquisition of such qualities as enabled the friend of James Watt to declare his belief that " a more " excellent and amiable man in all the relations of life " never existed." A nobler tribute was never paid by man to man, yet was it not undeserved.

So passes Jamie Watt, the man, from view-a man who attracted, delighted, impressed, instructed and made lifelong friends of his fellows, to a degree unsurpassed, perhaps unequalled.

" His life was gentle, and the elements

"So minced in him that Nature might stand up

"And say to all the world, 'This was a man."'

| James Watt |