Childhood and Education

' Because of a certain singing teakettle we now have the puffing engine. Young Isaac Watts heard the song. He figured that what made it sing would make something go, if only it could be hitched up right."Advt. in American Magazine (quoted in Punch, July 3Oth, 1924)


ON the southern bank of the River Clyde,not far from the point where it turns south into the Firth and about twenty-five miles west of Glasgow, lies the port of Greenock. In the far back days when men laid down their lives for the Covenant, the eastern part of the present town was a separate village known by the name of Cartsdyke, or Crawfordsdyke. It was a prosperous little fishing port and considered itself superior to its neighbour, for Cartsdyke had a pier and Greenock had none. Here, somewhere in the middle of the century, settled Thomas Watt, the grandfather of the engineer. He came, an orphan and a fugitive, from Aberdeen, where his father had been killed, it is thought, defending his home against the invading forces of Montrose. He was by profession a teacher of mathematics. It seems odd that in so small a town it should have been possible for any one to confine himself to such a trade and live. It is clear that Thomas Watt not only lived, but throve, on his earnings, for he bought house property in the district and filled offices of trust in the town for which, even in seventeenth century Scotland, substance was probably as important a qualification as virtue. A great part of his work, and one that must have demanded almost superhuman patience, consisted in teaching the elements of astronomy and navigation to the local seamen. When he died in I734 at the ripe age of ninety-two, thus setting an example of longevity that was followed by his descendants, it was as " Professor of the Mathematicks " that he was commemorated on his tombstone.

Thomas Watt had two sons, John and James. John was educated as a mathematician and went off to Glasgow to be a surveyor. One example of his work survives. It is a survey of the Clyde which he made in I734~ and which was afterwards revised by his nephew James, the engineer, and published in I760. This map shows that Greenock had by then definitely gone ahead of Cartsdyke, for while the latter was merely a jetty, the former had now completed the excellent little harbour which had been begun some thirty years before. It is quite likely that John's reputation as a surveyor helped his nephew to get work of the same kind when he was a young man with his name still to make.

John's brother James, seeing the drift of business, wisely moved to Greenock and set up as a builder, contractor and general merchant. He was prepared to do pretty well anything that came his way. He stocked and sold every variety of store that a ship could want; he manufactured every species of naval gear; he would put in repair any of the instruments used in navigation. When his father died and left him part of his fortune, he bought a house and some land backing on the harbour and there installed his workshop. The trade of the Clyde was growing fast. Tobacco ships from Virginia called at Greenock harbour, and the sugar of the West Indies went up the river to the refineries at Glasgow. James Watt the elder prospered in his business, grew bolder in his mercantile speculations and took shares in ships engaged in trade to distant parts. As he prospered, so he rose in the estimation of his fellow-citizens and, like his father before him, he was elected to hold public office as Town Councillor, Treasurer, and finally " Bailie," or chief magistrate. He had a wide circle of highly respectable acquaintances, including the family of Mr. Shaw, the local minister. Mr. Shaw had a daughter, Margaret, who was one of the earliest and most constant friends of James Watt the younger. Like so many who figure in this history, she lived to be very old, but exactly how old it is impossible to say, for " Miss Margaret, with maidenly coyness, managed to her last hour to keep her age a profound secret." However, shortly before her death it was commonly whispered that the dear lady would never see ninety again. James was also very well connected through his wife. He had married Agnes Muirhead, " a fine-looking woman, with pleasing, graceful manners, a cultivated mind, an excellent understanding, and an equal, cheerful temper." Her family well remembered settling in Clydesdale somewhere in the latter years of the eleventh century, and had " never acknowledged any superior." But the most glorious episode in its history occurred when the Laird of Muirhead came to the defence of his King at the battle of Flodden Field, and


" Twa hundred mair, of his ain name, Frae Torwood and the Clyde, Sware they wad never gang to hame, But a' die by his side."


But the existence of the virtuous Agnes two hundred years later must be taken as evidence that the clan was not entirely wiped out on that fatal day.

James and Agnes had five children. The three eldest died in infancy, the youngest was drowned on a voyage to America at the age of twenty-four. The fourth son, James, the subject of this memoir, was born on the 19th of January 1736. He was from the first a sickly boy, and showed signs even then of the chronic illhealth that was going to torment him through the greater part of his life. His mother was devoted to him, and, rather than send him to a school where he might not be properly looked after, she kept him for a time under her own care at home and gave him his first lessons herself. It was probably fortunate for him that this was so. Had he gone very early to school his sensitive nature might have been bruised, and his tastes forced into the narrow channel of things accepted by schoolboy public opinion. As it was, by the time he was let out of the family circle into a wider world, his individuality and originality were already well developed, and he never showed any tendency to adapt himself to the type that was most admired by his schoolfellows. He went his own way and took the consequences. And they must have been severe. This poor, weakly child, fresh from his mother's knee, with his comic air of thoughtful gravity, was a gift from heaven to the other boys. He was ob viously made to be ragged. If he had beaten them all at their work they might have respected him and forgiven him for being a " mother's darling." But he did not. He was slow and awkward, and fell below the ordinary standard demanded by the common routine of school lessons. But, when he had got used to his new surroundings and found work that was congenial to him, his genius peeped through the veil of his childishness. " He was thought rather dull at his lessons. His abilities began to appear when he was about thirteen or fourteen years oldput into a mathematical class, where he made rapid progress." This seems to be the most reliable of the pictures handed down to us of Watt's schooldays.

Of course there are sensational stories of Watt's infantile precocity. This is an attention that no genius can escape. The chief source in this case is Watt's cousin, Mrs. Marion Campbell, who dictated her reminiscences in I798~~ some fifty years after the events with which we are concerned. On the whole the document seems to be a faithful one, but memory plays strange tricks. The first story runs as follows. When young James was six years old a visitor noticed him scribbling on the hearth with a piece of chalk. " Mr. Watt," said he, " you ought to send that boy to a public school, and not allow him to trifle away his time at home." " Look how my child is occupied before you condemn him," replied the father. The boy was, in fact, drawing geometrical figures and marking down the results of his calculations. The visitor questioned him and found his answers quick and intelligent. " Forgive me," he said, this boy's education has not been neglected: he is no common child." Of the two biographers who give most attention to Watt's childhood, one accepts this story, the other rejects it. What are we to say ? Where evidence is lacking, it is wisest to play for safety. It is certain that Watt was an ingenious child with a natural taste for mathematics, and if we add a year or two to the age quoted, make allowances for a father's pride and a visitor's politeness, and suppose that the boy had already begun his lessons with his mother, we can pass the story without an excessive strain on the historical conscience.

Then comes the inevitable kettle that haunts all youthful engineers. " James Watt," said his stern aunt, Mrs. Muirhead, one evening, " I never saw such an idle boy; for the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam, watching how it rises from the spout, and catching and connecting the drops it falls into. Are you not ashamed of spending your time in this way! "Now this tale is very attractive; but it is also very suspicious. Apart from the improbability of any stern aunt upbraiding her nephew for finding something to keep him quiet in the drawing-room after tea, the words she claims to have used are unnaturally appropriate. She noticed, apparently, that young Watt was experimenting on the condensation of steam, and we know, as Mrs. Muirhead did not, that his great invention was to be related, not to the force of steamits most obvious propertybut precisely to this fact of condensation. If it is mere coincidence that this particular event should have been recorded in a form so telling and recorded, be it remembered, through the remark of a woman who could not have understood its significanceHeaven must indeed be on the side of the historians. Suppose she had merely said, as she well might, " James, you idle boy, leave that kettle alone at once ! " How tantalising that would have been for all future biographers!

But the truth or falsehood of this story is a trivial matter. Even if it were true it could have no real importance, and to attribute some deep significance to it, to imagine that the kettle might have inspired Watt's great invention, is a serious blunder. In the first place Watt's . . . . . inquiries Into the nature of steam, which led to his work on the engine, did not begin until at least ten years after the date given to this incident. We have a full narrative of those inquiries when they did begin, and the parentage of his great idea is satisfactorily accounted for without the aid of the kettle. In the second place the main principles governing the use of steam for power were already well known, and were not awaiting discovery by the genius of a child still in the nursery. Steam-engines of a kind had long been a familiar feature of the industrial world. Watt's improvements were based on accurate measurement and ingenuity in mechanical detail, and no kettle could help him there. Inventions are not the children of chance. They are more often the result of hard work and clear thinking than of a dazzling inspiration.

Watt lived at home till he was eighteen, occasionally paying visits to his mother's relations in Glasgow. The atmosphere was favourable to the development of his scientific instincts. In his father's workshop he could find a complete outfit of carpenter's tools, and could watch the manufacture of the mechanical parts of ship's tackle or examine and play with the collection of nautical instruments. He amused himself by copying what he saw, and became highly skilled at making models. By good fortune examples of his work were found and described by a workman who was apprenticed in his father's shop. They included models of pulleys, pumps, capstans, a barrel-organ and a crane, probably copied from the first crane ever seen in Greenock, which had been made by his father to unload the Virginia tobacco ships. Watt seemed to be attracted by every science in turn. Geometry and mechanics were his first loves, but he passed on to geology, botany and astronomy. At one time anatomy fascinated him, and he was caught coming home carrying under his coat the head of a child that had died of some unusual disease. He wanted to dissect it. Often he would go down on to the quay that jutted out into the harbour at the foot of the garden to fish; often he would wander off in the evening to a great clump of elms and beeches south of the town, and there he lay on his back with a telescope borrowed from his father's store and watched the slow procession of the stars through the network of branches above him. Whenever his health was bad or his headaches worse than usual, and he knew that he was getting sullen and ill-tempered, he slunk away into the solitude of the moors and walked for hours by himself until the breath of the hillside had purged his bitter mood. He was a nervous boy and full of fancies. He read voraciously whatever came his way, and stocked his mind with vivid images that came pouring out when he talked. A friend of his mother, with whom he was staying when a boy of about fourteen, said to her, " You must take your boy, James, home; I cannot stand the state of excitement he keeps me in; I am worn out with want of sleep. Every evening before ten o'clock, our usual hour of retiring to rest, he contrives to engage me in conversation, then begins some striking tale, and, whether humorous or pathetic, the interest is so overpowering, that all the family listen to him with breathless attention; hour after hour strikes unheeded. In vain his brother John scolds and pulls him by the arm; ' Come to bed, James. You are inventing story after story to keep us with you till after midnight, because you love company, and your severe fits of toothache prevent your sleeping at an earlier hour."' It is an excellent picture of the boy, highlystrung and imaginative, with a mind so restlessly active that he himself feared it and sought refuge from it in company.

When he had finished his schooling Watt worked for a time about his father's shop. In I753 his mother died. He was then seventeen. It was probably his mother's devotion to him that had kept him so long at home when other boys of his age were away earning their living. Her death broke up the family life at Greenock. In June of the following year he was sent to Glasgow to learn the craft of a mathematical instrument maker. It was a natural choice. It was a profession closely allied to those of his father and his grandfather, and it gave more scope to his mechanical dexterity than he would have got by following either of their trades Its prospects, too, were good. It was described at this date as " a very ingenious and profitable Business," and was by no means overstocked with labour. But when he got to Glasgow he found there was no one who could teach him. He spent a year there, working under a nondescript mechanic who called himself an " optician," until he attracted the attention of Dr. Dick, Professor of Natural Philosophy in the University. Dick realised that here was first-class talent running to waste, and strongly advised him to go to London and get the best training that was to be had. Watt asked his father's permission to go, and it was given. It was a momentous decision. This must have been the first time in its history that any member of the Watt family had proposed to cross the border, and London seems a long way from Glasgow if you have to get there on horseback. There was also the expense to be considered. Apparently Watt's father had either overreached himself in his speculations or had suffered losses at sea; for, although he had once been quite wellto-do, he was now obliged to leave his son to make his own way in the world, giving him only the most meagre of allowances while he was getting his training. In spite of all difficulties the adventure was accepted, and on 7th June, I755 Watt mounted his horse to ride to London, with a letter of introduction from Dr. Dick in his pocket.

Contents      Chapter 3