Watt’s workshop: a window into the polymath’s world

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.

James Watt and the Steam Engine (1860) by James Scott and James Eckford LanderScience Museum

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.

Portrait of Matthew Boulton (1802-02-07) by W. Evans, A. Cardn, and Sir William Beechey R.A.Science Museum

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. 

Rotative steam engine by Boulton and Watt (1788) by James Watt and Matthew BoultonScience Museum

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.

Lithograph, Chronological pictures of English History (1847) by John GilbertScience Museum

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.

Heathfield Hall, HandsworthScience Museum

The house that Watt built

In 1790, Watt commissioned a house to be built for himself, at Handsworth, Birmingham, which he named 'Heathfield'. Even following his retirement in 1800, he actively pursued new projects, taking over an attic room and turning it into his workshop.

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.

Plate showing Watt's Garret at Heathfield illustration (1865) by Samuel Smiles and Percival SkletionScience Museum

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.

The workshop of James Watt (1924) by J Willoughby HarrisonScience Museum

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.

Flute maker's stamp by James WattScience Museum

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.

Portrait bust of James Watt, reconstructed from plaster mould found in Watt's Workshop (1807)Science Museum

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.

Barometer copper plate by James WattScience Museum

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.

Circular saws for violin manufactureScience Museum

These circular saws were used by Watt to make a special design of violin fingerboard, and are the oldest known examples anywhere.

Items related to test firingsScience Museum

A drawerful of test firings of ceramics, illustrating Watt's work with the Delftfield Pottery in Glasgow. 

Equal sculpture machine described as the eidograph or copying machineScience Museum

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.

Portrait of James Watt, F.R.S. (1860-05) by Engraved by John Le Conte after John McDonaldScience Museum

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.

Credits: Story

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

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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