James Watt's workshop is a treasure of the Science Museum Group. Containing over 7,000 objects, it is a complete physical record of the renowned Scottish engineer's life, projects and interests.
The workshop of James Watt (1924) by J Willoughby HarrisonScience Museum
The workshop contents go way beyond the steam engines for which Watt is best known, encompassing sculpture, chemistry, pottery, instrument-making and more. It is a truly unique industrial shrine.
Who was Watt?
James Watt (1736–1819) was born in Greenock, Scotland. He worked as a merchant and instrument-maker, before starting his own business in Glasgow. There, he built a reputation as a natural philosopher and practical artisan. Watt's claim to fame though was for turning the steam engine from a clumsy, wasteful machine into one that was highly efficient and built with precision, and in the process making it one of, if not the most, iconic symbols of the Industrial Revolution.
Watt and Matthew Boulton
In 1766, James Watt began corresponding with Birmingham businessman Matthew Boulton (who would later become known as a pioneer in the minting of modern coins). Later, in 1772, Boulton, as payment for an outstanding debt he was owed, became the holder of two-thirds of an early steam engine patent of Watt's, and after some coercion, Boulton encouraged Watt to move to the Midlands and enter into a partnership to build steam engines.
The perfect engine
Over 25 years starting in 1775, Watt and Boulton built more than 400 engines across Britain. These engines pumped water from metal mines, drove workshops, factories, breweries and cotton mills; they were essentially the beating heart of the Industrial Revolution in Britain. The Victorians regarded the engines as central to the country's prosperity and economic strength, so much so that when Watt died, a monument was erected in his honour in Westminster Abbey, making him the first engineer to receive such an accolade.
Chronological pictures of English History, designed and drawn by John Gilbert, 1842–43
For the first time, Watt the engineer appeared alongside traditional heroes like soldiers or statesmen.
Panoramic view of the Watt Workshop room (2015) by Science MuseumScience Museum
When Watt died in 1819, the workshop was locked up and remained largely untouched for 105 years. It was finally acquired in its entirety by the Science Museum in 1924, when even preservation of the dust covering the whole interior was seriously considered.
Here is the workshop preserved in the Science Museum, 2010.
Why collect a whole workshop?
In the 19th century, Watt's workshop acquired mythical status. Initially, only VIPs were allowed inside. One such VIP, Watt's biographer JP Muirhead, wrote in 1853 how 'no profane hand' had been 'permitted to violate the sanctities of that magical retreat'. Here was hallowed ground, the workshop of a man who had helped 19th century Britain become the world's industrial powerhouse. When the workshop was moved to the Science Museum in 1924, even the view from the window was carefully photographed for reference.
Exploring the workshop’s contents
The amazing thing about Watt's workshop is that only six or seven objects out of the thousands within relate to the steam engine. The bulk of the contents illustrate Watt's polymath-like work as a chemist, potter, maker of scientific and musical instruments, family man and sculptor. This rich range of objects demonstrates the very broad training and interests that Watt and many of his contemporaries had.
Watt's workshop contains this metal stamp, spelling out 'T LOT'. Lot was a notable French flute-maker, and Watt as a young man made flutes for sale. The presence of this stamp suggests that he may have passed some of his own products off as Lot's.
Watt's workshop contains a unique collection of complex plaster moulds. This one was digitally scanned and used to produce a 3D-printed bust of Watt, never seen before.
As a young instrument-maker, Watt made and sold barometers. Rather than hand engrave each one with the likely weather, he made a plate to print them instead, making production quicker and cheaper.
These circular saws were used by Watt to make a special design of violin fingerboard, and are the oldest known examples anywhere.
A drawerful of test firings of ceramics, illustrating Watt's work with the Delftfield Pottery in Glasgow.
James Watt: young artist
Most visible in the workshop today are two large machines, built by Watt in his retirement. These are for making copies of sculptures, both equal sized and smaller than an original, using rotating cutters on soft materials like plaster. Watt purchased and reproduced many figures inspired by antiquity, portrait medallions of his friends, and even images of himself, describing them all as 'the productions of a young artist just entering his 83rd year'. They vividly illustrate the enduring relationship between science and art.
Proportional sculpture machine described as sculpturing or reducing machineScience Museum
Watt's machine for making reduced size copies of sculpture.
Plaster casts of Joseph BlackScience Museum
Three medallion portraits of Joseph Black, Watt's close friend and mentor.
Plaster mould, Boulton death maskScience Museum
A plaster mould of the death mask of Matthew Boulton, Watt's business partner and friend, who died in 1809.
James Watt in the Science Museum Group
In addition to his entire workshop, the Science Museum Group has a wide selection of James Watt's other personal effects and related objects.
All images are © Science Museum Group except where stated.
Videos made by History West Midlands.
You can discover more objects related to James Watt in our online collection.
The Science Museum is part of the Science Museum Group