Watt 2019: February

2019 marks the bicentenary of the death of James Watt, improver of the steam engine and partner of Matthew Boulton in the engine businesses at Soho, Handsworth. There will be many events commemorating this during the year, in Birmingham and Scotland, and information about these can be found on the James Watt 2019 website.

To help celebrate the richness of the archive of the James Watt and Family Papers [MS 3219], held in Archives and Collections, Library of Birmingham, there will be a monthly blog on a Watt related subject.

Electricity and the portable kitchen….

James Watt had already made friends with a number of men with enquiring minds when working in Glasgow, some years before he came to Birmingham and met up with the ingenious ideas of the Lunar Society.

Dr James Lind (1736-1812), physician (MD Edinburgh 1768) was one of those early Scottish friends and there are a number of letters between them. These illustrate Lind’s inventiveness, technical expertise at devising equipment, and his bonhomie.

He made a voyage to Iceland with Sir Joseph Banks in 1772, was created a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777 and settled at Windsor when appointed physician in the royal household. He had his own private printing press. He knew Shelley at Eton and appears as ‘the old hermit’ in Shelley’s ‘Laon and Cynthia’.

This letter to Watt is dated on the docket 1765, when Watt had established, with John Craig, a shop in Glasgow selling mathematical and musical instruments.

Lind had brought a ‘perspective machine’ from India in the early 1760s, but it was made from brass which rendered it too heavy to be useful for surveying work. Watt developed a lighter model which would fold up into a walking stick, and a box, which could be put in a greatcoat pocket. He also developed a means of batch production. The machines were being sold by late 1764.

Lind’s ‘Electrical machine’ [Ref. MS 3219/4/56/1]
Lind’s letter addresses sales of the perspective machine and his development of an ‘Electrical machine’. It reads as follows:

Siri Siri Ram

Dear Watt

I have perfected my great Electrical machine as also a small one which as it pleases much I have sent you a sketch of it as big as the life. I made five of them and they were all taken from me so I believe they will be very saleable – they may be made for 6 or 7 shills. And are worth a guinea in my opinion * – Discription [sic]

A the Ball,  B a brass cape,  C a flat one, D an iron axes, E a shoulder for the brass cap B to rest against, F an Iron nut to screw the ball fast the part of the axes G being screwed, H a pillar with a brass head for the one end of the spindle to run in, I another with the brass head notched for the other end to run in, K a pin to keep it in, L a thorel’ to give it its motion with a Drill bow, M the cushion which rises and falls with a screw –N. N the piece of Mahogany into which all is fixed – NB the pillars and cushion screw out at pleasure, O, O, two holdfasts for fixing it to any table without spoiling it. They are noble instruments for the use intended and for a thousand other uses yea.

They are more usefull than Putty, P is the table. I have bottle filled with Dutch leaf and coated on the outside with tin leafe and that coating coverd with Gold paper. There is also a little scarlet bag for this bottle to keep it in and one for the Ball. When I want a conducter I set a book having a pin in one corner to take the electric Aether. On this book I dance men charge Ellectric bottles etc etc [hole in paper] is thus filled it is very gentile and compleat apparatus – and fit for the pocket of ye Curious.

I set out for London in a few weeks. I shall carry two or three of the Drawing Instruments to India with me for part of my venture. I should also be glad to have a dozen of alarms from you which please send soon for my flight may be……[hole in paper] I shall give the money a home. Write me your present life and opinions – and I shall remain ever Mr Watt’s Humble servant

James Lind

Intend one of ye little electrical machines for a present to Dr Franklin.

Please procure for me one of Dr Wilson’s thermometers for boiling water if possible. Madrass and China is my destination. Perhaps I might sell some machines (perspective) for you at London – perhaps some may wish to carry some to Bengall.

  • This they may stand you – one about ½ a Guinea

[ref. MS 3219/4/56/1]

Another letter from Lind also deals with an ingenious invention:

James Lind (Edinburgh) to James Watt (Glasgow). 29 October 1768

….my last works are a model of a cylindric Chinese bellows with a forge, and a pocket Kittchen containing a pan, brandy flask & cup, butter dish, salt, pepper, soy, mustard, and a furnace, it is capable in a few minutes to shrew a dish of stakes, make a hash or dress a fowl and the whole is only 7 inches long, 5 broad and 2½ thick. It carries above an Eng. Pint of spirits, ¼lb of butter the ….near the size of….which is the furnace…….. [letter torn and part missing]

[ref. MS 3219/4/56/6]

I think these well illustrate how Watt had already found friends interested in scientific investigation and experiment who might stimulate his own thoughts on various inventions.

Fiona Tait

Upcoming Watt 2019 events:

Women of excellent understanding: The wives and daughters of the eighteenth century Lunar Society

  • Soho House (map)

This talk will look at the wives and daughters of some of the Lunar Society men, including Peggy and Anne Watt.

Women of excellent understanding: The wives and daughters of the eighteenth century Lunar Society

  • Soho House (map)

This talk will look at the wives and daughters of some of the Lunar Society men, including Peggy and Anne Watt.

In the footsteps of James Watt Jnr: a journey to Kennetpans distillery in Scotland.

  • Quinborne Community Centre (map)

In 1798 James Watt Jnr visited Kennetpans distillery to inspect engines and chase payments. This talk uses his drawings and letters as sources.

The Boulton & Watt Bloomfield engine

  • Glebefields Librar(map)

This talk and display will look at one of Boulton & Watt’s very early steam engines (1776).

An introduction to the Papers of James Watt and family

  • Library of Birmingham (map)

Go behind the scenes at Birmingham Archives and view original documents from the James Watt Archive Collection.

Unveiling of James Watt plaque

  • Angle Ring Company Ltd (map)

Unveiling of commemorative plaque on the site of James Watt’s first commercial engine.

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