James Scott, after a painting by Robert William Buss, 1849
James Watt Bicentenary
Other Scottish Country Dances for this Day
Today's Musings, History & Folklore
"Jamie Watt, I never saw such an idle boy. Take a book or employ yourself usefully. For the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken the lid off 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 counting the drops of hot water it falls into."
~ letter of Marion Campbell, describing her cousin James Watt being scolded by his aunt
Scolding aunties notwithstanding, one of the rare historical myths that has a basis in fact has to do with Scottish inventor, mechanical engineer, and chemist James Watt (1736-1819). He did indeed mark this childhood incident as contributing to his ideas for his later improvements to the efficiency of the existing Newcomen steam engine, a substantial contribution to the Industrial Revolution. According to stories passed down since his lifetime, James Watt got the idea for a steam engine while still a boy, watching steam lift the lid from a teakettle. Dismissed for many years as fanciful biographical embellishment, the original first-hand account of the kettle incident in 1751 is among a £750,000 archive which surfaced in 2002 in the form of letters and other family correspondence! 🚂
Mrs Watt's Teakettle
As a scientist, inventor and engineer, the brilliant James Watt contributed to steam-engine development, invented the world’s first commercial copying machine and added to the understanding of energy, gases and electricity.
In 1774 James Watt moved from his native Scotland to Birmingham to enter into partnership with Matthew Boulton to produce steam engines. He retired in 1800 but continued researching and inventing in his attic workshop at Heathfield House in Handsworth until his death August 25th 1819.
The Watt steam engine, an improvement of the Newcomen steam engine, was fundamental to the changes brought by the Industrial Revolution in both his native Great Britain and the rest of the world.
The famous historic account of the young Watt's kettle experiment comes from his cousin, Marion Campbell, who describes how the "sickly, delicate" but brilliant boy would sit for hours making mathematical calculations on a marble hearth or dismantling and reassembling his toys.
The original first-hand account of the kettle incident in 1751 is among a £750,000 archive relating to the Scottish inventor which has surfaced in 2002 in the form of letters and other family correspondence.
One day, Mrs Campbell and her mother, Jane Muirhead, sat at the table of their Greenock home watching young James apparently wasting his time staring at a kettle.
Mrs Campbell recalled how her mother said: "Jamie Watt, I never saw such an idle boy, take a book or employ yourself usefully. For the last hour you have not spoken one word, but taken the lid off 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 counting the drops of hot water it falls into."
For an interesting historical analysis of the evolution of famous steam kettle incident as it entered into the historical biographies and science lore over time, click here for David Philip Millers's "True Myths: James Watt's Kettle, His Condenser, and His Chemistry."
And to visit a special website for information about this year's bicentenary celebration of his life and works, click the other famous illustration of the same incident, James Watt (1736-1819). Scottish Engineer And Inventor. Performing His First Experiment With Steam While Still A Boy: Engraving, 19the century, after the painting by Marcus Stone.