James Watt, Mathematical Instrument Maker

" Item, it is ordained, that no Freeman of the said Company using the said Trade, Art, or Mystery, do keep in his service . . . any foreigners, alien or English, not being free of the said Company of Clockmakers, or bound as an apprentice thereunto."-ordinances OF THE CLOCKMAKERS COMPANY OF LONDON. 1632.


IT took Watt twelve days to reach London, and at once his difficulties began. The city was still clinging to its ancient customs and privileges, chief among which was the right to keep all its trade in the hands of the native- born townsmen, and to forbid any " foreigner " from another town to settle down within its walls to earn his living. The time was long past when any town could preserve this monopoly intact, or indeed wanted to, but the right remained in theory, and could be used discreetly to get rid of undesirables. The vagrant, who seemed likely to become a pauper, and the skilled craftsman, who might prove a dangerous competitor for the custom of the townspeople, were refused admission; the wealthy merchant and the honest, unenterprising labourer were unmolested.

The initiative in these matters came generally from the Gilds and Companies which controlled the various trades carried on in the City. They were always afraid of competition, and anxious to keep down the number of tradesmen among whom the available custom had to be divided. The chief principles which the Gilds had inherited from the Middle Ages were the following. All regulations affecting the trade were made by the Masters who ruled the Gild. No person might set up in business on his own unless he was a Master and had been admitted as such into the Gild, and the normal way of becoming a Master was by serving an apprenticeship of seven years under a Gildsman, and then paying the fees for admission to the rank and privileges of Mastership. In this way the trade was protected against an influx of inferior and irresponsible labour which might lower the standard of work, and, by competing for employment in the restricted market of the town, drag down the level of the earnings of the craftsman.

Now society in the reign of George II was anything but medieval. Little was left of the elaborate system of industry based on the Gild. At the top of the industrial scale was a class of wealthy men, merchants or employers of labour, who had no patience with rules of this kind. They ran their businesses as they thought best, advanced boldly into any field that looked profitable, respecting nobody's preserves, and had no intention of teaching the secrets of their trade to any one except their own sons. At the other end of the scale were the labourers in common trades where the degree of skill required was small. Such men were not likely to go through a long period of apprenticeship when they could learn their job well enough without it, and nothing awaited them at the end of it but a fight for existence in an overstocked labour market in which they had no special advantage. But between these two classes came the highly skilled handicrafts, and there conditions were often different. As a long training was essential, apprenticeship had some meaning, and when it was over the craftsman was ready to start business on his own. The Masters in a trade of this kind were in a commanding position. They had no employers over them with power to dictate terms; they had nothing to fear from the competition of upstart unqualified workmen; and they had a monopoly in training recruits to the craft. Whenever there were enough of them in a town to have an organisation of their own they made strict rules for the training of novices and their admission to the status of Master, and no one who had not qualified according to these rules was permitted to open shop within the town.

The Clockmakers of London were a trade of this kind. The Company was not medieval in origin; it had been founded in I63I. But it was by nature suited to the medieval type of organisation. The mathematical instrument makers were a branch of the Company of Clockmakers and had the same rules. Watt, apparently, had not thought of this difficulty. His case was exactly that for which apprenticeship rules were designed. He wanted to get trained in order to become a Master and start business on his own. His only proper course was to bind himself by a legal contract as apprentice to a member of the trade. But he was in no position to conform to the ordinary regulations. In the first place he was too old; in the second place he was a " foreigner " and had no right to work in the City at all; in the third place he could not possibly afford to undertake to serve the full term of seven years. He must find a Master who was prepared to break the rules. The fact that he was a " foreigner " who had no intention of setting up shop in London was a point in his favour, for London was not afraid of possible rivals in Glasgow. To teach such a man the mysteries of the craft was a breach of the letter of the law only, not of the spirit.

Even so it was nearly three weeks before Watt found the man he was looking for. Then he discovered Mr. John Morgan of Cornhill. Morgan was willing to take him for a year and teach him all he wanted to learn. During that time he was to give his labour free, and as the engagement was quite irregular, he had to pay the large fee of twenty guineas to compensate his master for the violence he was doing to conscience.

Watt settled down to do seven years' work in a year. On five days in the week he put in ten hours a day. But it was difficult to avoid wasting time. Each workman in the shop was a specialist on some particular instrument; Watt wanted to learn to make them all, and so worked with each in turn. But if the man he wanted happened to be busy or away for a time, he got interrupted in his course of progress. In six weeks he had outstripped a fellow-apprentice who had been in the shop for two years; in nine months he was as skilful as a fully trained and experienced workman, and could cover a wider field. All this time he hardly ever went out. When he got off in the evening he was much too tired to think of amusements, and anyhow he could not afford them. But he had another reason for staying indoors. England was enjoying a short interval of peace, recovering from the strain of fighting with Austria against Prussia, before she embarked on a new war with Prussia against Austria. She had tasted the sweets of Empire and was persuading herself that God made the sea for the English. Some fifteen years before, to the strains of the popular new song, " Rule Britannia ! " the British fleet had sailed out to defend our precious monopoly in the slave trade. Now, while the people of London were still proclaiming that " Britons never, never, never will be slaves," the officers of the Press-gang were lurking round the corner ready to pounce on any young Englishman who had so touching a faith in the freedom of his country as to walk about the streets of the capital after dark. This was a serious danger to Watt, for, as he was a stranger with no rights in the City, he could not claim the protection of the civil authorities. In the spring of I756 the Press became very active. A fleet had to be manned in a hurry for Admiral Byng to take out, to disgrace itself at Minorca. A thousand men were taken in one night. " They now press anybody they can get," wrote Watt to his father, " landsmen as well as seamen, except it be in the Liberties of the City, where they are obliged to carry them before my Lord Mayor first; and unless one be either a Prentice or a creditable tradesman, there is scarce any getting off again. And if I was carried before my Lord Mayor, I durst not avow that I wrought in the City, it being against their laws for any unfreeman to work, even as a journeyman, within the Liberties." Fortunately he escaped.

All this time Watt was working much too hard and not getting enough to eat. He cut his expenditure on food down to eight shillings a week, and could get it no lower without " pinching his belly." The strain was too much for his fragile constitution. When his year was up his health gave way, and he suffered from violent attacks of rheumatism. He longed to get back to the fresh air of the Scotch countryside. In August he screwed up his courage to face the weary journey into the north, and, mounting his horse, he turned his back on London. After a short stay at Greenock that restored his spirits and his health, he went on to Glasgow, with the outfit of tools that he had bought in London, to offer his newly-won skill to the world.

Glasgow at the beginning of the eighteenth century was a small seaport lying on the north bank of the Clyde only, with from ten to fifteen thousand inhabitants. When Defoe visited it about I724 he found it a " city of business," and the only town in Scotland that was developing both its foreign and domestic trade. Its growing prosperity was based on the commerce with the colonies in the New World. From the time that the first Glasgow ship crossed the Atlantic in I7I67 an ever-increasing proportion of the sugar of the West Indies and the tobacco of Virginia found its way up the Clyde, to the great indignation of the old-established English ports, which accused the Glasgow merchants of defrauding the Customs. Perhaps they did; but the charge could not be proved, and Glasgow grew rapidly richer. When the American Colonies revolted in I775 this trade was annihilated, but by that time the prosperity of the city was built on wider and firmer foundations and it quickly recovered.

In the last quarter of the century the face of the town was changed. An upstart race of vigorous, pushing manufacturers began to lick the old place into shape. The merchant, as he watched his ship sail out of the harbour, knew that before she returned with her cargo from the West some new hive of industry would rear itself within sight of his warehouse, and every hour that he waited patiently for the wind to do his work, behind its walls men and machines were ceaselessly toiling under the eye of a master who was building with their labour the edifice of his unchallengeable power. One by one the signs of the new age appeared. First the stone bridge across the Clyde founded in I 768; then the Forth and Clyde Canal, linking Glasgow with the Eastern seas; then, gauntly prominent among the mellowed houses of the old town, new buildings in the clean, square style of the period sprang up like temples offered by the city for the worship of its own greatness, while the rambling villages on the south bank of the river were replaced by neat suburbs " upon a regular plan, and laid out into a number of right-lined streets "; there followed the Trades Hall, the Royal Infirmary, the Assembly Rooms, the Grammar School, the Bridewell, the Theatre, the Courts of Justice with pillared hall and Doric frieze, and, to crown the work, a magnificent domed Lunatic Asylum to house one hundred and twenty patients, erected " by public contribution to restore the use of reason."

When Watt arrived this transformation had hardly begun. The city, proud of its accumulated wealth, was preparing to throw itself into the task of winning the respect and admiration of the modern world by success in those pursuits which the modern world then most valued. But in the eyes of many the renown it was already enjoying, when seized by restless ambition for something greater, was more worth than any it has since achieved. The University was at the height of its fame. The impulse given to the study of Science by the Royal Society had worked itself out, and a new inspiration was needed. It came from a group of men in Glasgow who, while laboriously creating a school of Science for their own students, dazzled Europe by the brilliance of their discoveries. The greatest of these, Joseph Black, was now lecturing in the University and, as if that were not lustre enough Adam Smith was Professor of Moral Philosophy.

Watt met with much the same difficulties in Glasgow as he had in London. Here, too, he was a " foreigner," and a dangerous " foreigner," because he did not wish humbly to study the craft in the shop of a Master, but had every intention of setting up shop for himself. His trade came under the jurisdiction of the Incorporation of Hammermen, and this precious collection of industrial autocrats, worthy men, no doubt, but intellectually hammers indeed as compared with Watt's gimlet, refused him permission to work within the town in any capacity whatever, in spite of the fact that there was not one of them who pretended to understand the rudiments of his particular craft. Watt was saved by one of those odd coincidences that crop up from time to time in the pages of history. Within a month of his arrival in Glasgow, the University received a present of a case of astronomical instruments from a rich and eccentric merchant in Jamaica, of the name of Alexander Macfarlane. Classes in physical astronomy had recently been started, and the gift was most opportune, but the sea voyage had thrown these delicate instruments out of gear, and they needed overhauling by an expert. Dr. Dick, in whose charge they were placed, remembered his young friend and asked him to undertake the work. Watt was delighted to have this chance of proving his skill, and had soon put the whole collection into perfect order, for which service the University voted him the sum of five pounds. When, shortly afterwards, it was heard that he had been refused leave to have a workshop in the town, the University took him under its protection and gave him a room within the walls of the College, where the writ of the Hammermen did not run.

This was the turning-point in his life. Watt was already a brilliant mechanic, but he would never have won fame as an engineer if he had not also become a brilliant scientist. That side of his genius had hitherto been starved. In the University he found himself for the first time in the society of men who were his equals in intellect and his superiors in scientific experience. And these men, being pioneers in an unconquered territory, had none of the pride that makes the professional refuse to associate with the amateur, nor did they, like some jealous guardians of accumulated knowledge, feel proprietary about their science and resentful against trespassers.

It was as " Mathematical instrument maker to the University " that Watt gained admission to the precincts of the College in the summer of I757> but as soon as his remarkable gifts were recognised, he was treated by both Professors and students as a friend and colleague rather than as an employee. The initial steps were made easy for him by the fact that he was already known personally to some of the University staff. Professor Muirhead, a relative of his mother, who had first introduced him to Dr. Dick was still there; and when Dick died, early in I7577 his successor as Professor of Natural Philosophy was Anderson, the brother of one of Watt's school friends. Anderson was a young man, not more than eight years senior to Watt, and provided an excellent channel of approach to the keener scientists both of the older and the younger generation. Watt's workshop was in the inner court of the College and communicated with the premises occupied by the Natural Philosophy department. Teachers and students would look in as they were coming away from their work, to consult him about some piece of apparatus or to give him an instrument to repair. His friends dropped in to chat with him and brought their friends. Before long they were discussing with him not only the intricacies of apparatus but the scientific problems on which they were engaged in research. His shop became the regular meeting-place for those who were doing original work and who liked to put up for criticism the tentative theories suggested to them by the results of their experiments. More than once a Professor got a valuable hint from some swift thought hatched in the brain of the young craftsman and flung over his shoulder as he worked at his bench.

Of all the friends he made at this time the two who most deeply influenced his future were Joseph Black and John Robison. Black was a scientific genius of the first order. He had that rare gift of imaginative insight that is not afraid to leap into a new world of speculation, finding, as it were by inspiration, a fresh significance in facts that have long been known to all. But he was not a wild guesser. " No man," said Adam Smith, who knew him well, " has less nonsense in his head than Dr. Black," and he combined this freedom of vision with an unrivalled lucidity of exposition and accuracy of experiment. Lord Brougham had heard him lecture and wrote of him, " I have heard the greatest understandings of the age giving forth their efforts in its most eloquent tongues, but I should, without hesitation, prefer, for mere intellectual gratification, to be once more allowed the privilege which I in those days enjoyed of being present while the first philosopher of his age was the historian of his own discoveries."

Black had come across Watt when he was at work on Macfarlane's instruments. He would come and stand in the shop toying with a quadrant and whistling softly to himself. But it was not till later, when he got him to make some apparatus for his experiments, that he became aware of Watt's genius. " I found him," he says, " to be a young man possessing most uncommon talents for mechanical knowledge and practice, with an originality, readiness and copiousness of invention which often surprised and delighted me in our frequent conversations together." The two men became close friends, and Black's affection for Watt lasted to the end of his life. When he was an old man a friend brought him news of Watt's triumph at law over an infringer of his patent. The old scientist, weakened by years of illness, wept with joy; and then apologised. " It is very foolish, but I can't help it, when I hear of anything good to Jamie Watt." Watt profited immeasurably from his contact with this inspiring mind, and was also kept in touch with the most advanced scientific thought of the day. He realised his debt to Black. " To him I owe," he said, " in great measure my being what I am; he taught me to reason and experiment in natural philosophy, and was always at true friend and adviser."

Robison was a younger man, who had just graduated when Watt arrived in the University. Though an able scientist, good enough to be elected Professor both in Glasgow and Edinburgh, he was not the same calibre as Black. But he had great vitality and enthusiasm, qualities which made him an ideal companion for Watt when his bouts of ill-health made him talk of giving up work altogether Robison quickly recognised that Watt was his superior, and always generously admitted it. He has described his first conversation with Watt in his workshop in the College: " I saw a workman, and expected no more; but was surprised to find a philosopher, as young as myself, and always ready to instruct me. I had the vanity to think myself a pretty good proficient in my favourite study, and was rather mortified at finding Mr. Watt so much my superior." They became friends, but Robison's adventurous tastes carried him away to sea very soon afterwards. He was attached to Admiral Knowles and was one of those who heard Wolfe recite Gray's " Elegy " as he went his rounds on the eve of the attack on the heights of Abraham. Four years later he returned, and renewed his friendship. He found that, thanks to his more systematic training, he could help Watt by testing and analysing " the random suggestions of his inquisitive and inventive mind." But Watt was the leader, and "was continually striking into untrodden paths, where I was always obliged to be a follower." Watt had by this time a wide reputation. The young enthusiasts clustered round him. " Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of us, we went to Mr. Watt. He needed only to be prompted; everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study; everything became science in his hands."

Meanwhile Watt's business was growing. The University, when granting him quarters, had not stipulated that he should work only for them. On the contrary, he was provided with a room fronting the street, where he could offer for sale to the public the instruments he made in his workshop. In order to develop this side of the business he went into partnership, in I759 with a man named Craig, who undertook to provide most of the capital needed for expansion, and to do all the commercial transactions, which Watt, then as ever afterwards, detested. They started with a stock and cash worth 200, and about five years later were making gross sales up to 600 a year, and kept a staff of sixteen men at work. It was Watt's reputation as a universal mechanical expert that brought so much custom to his shop. When anything had to be done and there was no one in Glasgow who knew how to do it which was oftenit was taken round to Watt. He was always ready to try. If the instrument to be repaired was one that he had never seen before, he set to work to master its principles with what help he could get from the library, and was not satisfied until he had put it to rights. And what he learned he never forgot. In this way he repaired and afterwards made, fiddles, guitars and flutes, although he could not tell one note of music from another. When a Masonic Lodge in Glasgow wanted an organ, the officers went to Watt. " We imagined that Mr. Watt could do anything; he was asked if he could build this organ. He said 'Yes."' He sat down to study the theory of music, thoroughly examined the mechanism of the best organ he could find, and devised an exact method by which he could tune the pipes by observing "the beats of imperfect consonances." By the time the work was completed Watt had made substantial contributions, not only to the mechanics of organ design, but also to the theory of sound. Soon after he formed his - partnership with Craig, Watt had opened a shop in the town, though still living in the College. In I763 he became engaged to be married to his cousin, Margaret Miller, and so took a house, into which he moved in the following year. In I765 he was married, and in the same year his partner died. But before this he had begun his experiments on the steam-engine, and in order that their nature and value may be made clear, we must pause in the narrative to consider the point the steam-engine had reached in its evolution when Watt turned his attention to it.

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