Jasbir Authi visits the painstakingly restored workshop of one of the Midlands – and the world's – finest minds.
He was the original Dragons’ Den inventor.
The entrepreneur with ideas, spirit and, crucially, the ability to turn paper thoughts into cash, improving the lives of millions.
When he teamed up with Matthew Boulton, the other hero of the industrial revolution, the two transformed the country from a mere cottage industry into global brand Britain PLC.
Watt’s vastly improved engine designs which meant that steam could be used to boost output in factories in cities, not just out in coal mines, would ultimately usher in the West’s obsession with consumption.
When he died in 1819, he was the first engineer to be honoured by a statue in Westminster Abbey and was ranked alongside geniuses such as Shakespeare and Newton.
Portraits of him as a boy sitting at the supper table engrossed with the steam rising from a kettle, his Eureka or apple moment, were distributed as far as Japan, perpetuating his myth.
Countless honours have been bestowed upon him and more than 190 years after his death, Bank of England governor Mervyn King has announced that the Watt and Boulton duo will feature on the new £50 notes.
After his death, his attic workshop at his home near Staffordshire, was locked up and left largely undisturbed until it was moved to the Science Museum in London in 1924.
The contents of this time capsule featuring more than 8,434 items, have been reassembled and are now on display.
A cursory look through the fascinating exhibits, reveal that Watt was a craftsman, intellectual, inventor, chemist, potter, surveyor, philosopher and a magpie. He collected, hoarded, stored and never threw anything away.
The general exhibition in the Energy Hall sets Watt’s place in the story of the Industrial Revolution.
We learn that in 1700, Thomas Newcomen steam engine meant coal could be mined and was replacing wood as the main fuel. But many objects were made at home or in small shops and science was still a specialist subject discussed only by gentlemen.
Boulton moaned, as is very much the case today, about the lack of trained engineers.
But it was tragedy, not fortune, which enticed Watt from his native Scotland to join Boulton at his famous Soho factory in 1774.
A year before, his wife Peggy had died in childbirth, Scotland was in the midst of a banking crisis and his financial backer John Roebuck, went bust.
Declaring he was ‘‘heartsick of this accursed country’’, Watt left for Birmingham, ‘‘the city of a thousand trades’’ to get the money and environment he needed to achieve his vision.
Boulton and Watt tested out their inventions in the coal mines of Cornwall and. by 1795, had built some 300 engines.
Watt worked alone on projects such as road vehicles and gas lighting or with the other great Scottish engineer who made Birmingham his home, William Murdock on other ventures. The Soho factory was a magnet for visitors from around the world who came to marvel at the magnificent machines.
Away from the factory, under the glare of the workshop lamp, Watt loved to experiment and literally let off steam.
Behind display cabinets are pots containing chemicals used for dyeing and chemicals used in bleaching alongside tiny packages wrapped up in old string and paper, labelled in old fashioned handwriting.
One fascinating exhibit is a Boulton and Watt parts list from 1790, when they still supplied engine designs and not the finished model.
The blackened and battered carefully typed, spaced out, half-rolled out scroll lists a request for items such as valves, screws, boilers and steam pipe.
His battered brown workbench has been placed before the entrance into the actual workshop.
Three busts and an array of items including screws, crates, tools and hinges are strewn across the table, which has been hammered to within a splinter of its life.
Interestingly, in a side cabinet is a gleaming white smaller bust of the entrepreneur. It was recreated from a mould which may have been cast by Lucius Gahagan.
It was found inside the workshop around 1807, and has been recreated using laser and rapid prototyping techniques.
At the head of the exhibition is the workshop, with original floors, doors, skylights and fireplace, not to mention thousands of objects preserved behind darkened glass.
Originally found lying under Watt’s bench and now getting the attention it deserves, is his original 1765 model for the first separate condenser, hailed as the greatest improvement to the steam engine ever. There are rows of horns, parts for instruments, bundles, a packet of 22 sheets of sand-paper, brass hinge, clock key, brass tubing, steel chisels, a file, a dutch oven, saws ... the list goes on.
One of the first known photocopiers, a roller press developed by Watt to copy letters, seemed to draw the most comments from visitors as they figured out how it would have functioned. It’s obvious, every item would have been used time and time again over decades, gripped in elation or thrown down in frustration when an ideas never quite worked out.
After he retired in 1800, wealthy and famous, he retreated further into his workshop.
He spent his days trying his hand at sculpting and other pursuits, with his meals left on a shelf as instructed.
Many of the items, according to Ben Russell, curator of mechanical engineering, at the museum, were kept as they might be used again in the future.
He said: “To Victorians, the workshop was a mystical retreat. It’s fascinating that we still don’t know the exact purpose of every item in the workshop and 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.”
Perhaps Watt’s cornucopia of treasures might just inspire a new generation of inventors.
* James Watt and our World, is a free to view permanent exhibition on at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD. Open daily 10am to 6pm www.sciencemuseum.org.uk