James Watt and our World wings workshop of Industrial Revolution hero to Science Museum

By Ben Miller | 22 March 2011 | Updated: 23 March 2011
A photo of a series of fragments and white busts of the head of a man
© SSPL
Exhibition: James Watt and our World, Science Museum, London, opens March 23 2011

Of all the cerebral giants who played their part in the Industrial Revolution, James Watt might just have sparked it.

His steam condenser, a relatively mundane-looking metal cylinder dreamed up by the man himself on a stroll around a green in his native Glasgow following months of soul searching, was such a dramatic enhancement to the engine that it allowed steam to be used everywhere. It went on to drive factories, cotton spinning and weaving and pumping mines into a new age of prosperity.

Of course, steam is hardly used outside of nostalgic re-enactment now, but back then Watt was lauded as loudly as Newton and Shakespeare and honoured with a statue in Westminster Abbey, which isn’t bad for a sickly child who later became a hypochondriac.

Watt was also an inventor with a sharp business brain, making his fortune in a long and productive pairing with friend Matthew Boulton, who you can see him starring with if you can get your hands on one of the Bank of England’s forthcoming runs of £50 bank notes.

When Watt died in 1819, his attic workshop in Birmingham was locked and left to stand as a tribute to a man held up as an inspirational example of hard work and relentless innovation.

It’s been on display at the Science Museum a few times before – it was shifted lock, stock and screwdrivers to the venue in 1924. But the darkened cavern here, piled high with rusty circular saws, cogs, tools, parts for flutes, pistons and pigeonholes and crammed with junk he attempted to hide from his wife, is a place where the spirit of the man hangs in the air, engulfed in shadows and dust.

“To Victorians, the workshop was a mystical retreat,” says Ben Russell, the Science Museum’s Curator of Mechanical Engineering. “We are hoping that visitors will be similarly enthralled and inspired today.”

The mystique this inner sanctum of a genius mind remains tied up in leaves Russell little to worry about on that count, with researchers still trying to draw more conclusions about each relic and darkened corner.

“It’s fascinating that we still don’t know the exact purpose of every item in the workshop,” he admits.

“We will continue to research this. It was both a functioning workshop and a personal museum of things from his entire life which he had kept – perhaps out of sentiment, but also in case they might come in handy.”

More than 8,000 items are inside it, and that’s before you step outside to find a whirl of model factories, roller presses, sculptures and structures Watt turned his hand to.

Centuries after his final days at his desk, Watt’s legacy owes everything to a frenetic lifetime of creativity.

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