19th January 1736

Steam pioneer James Watt is born in Greenock

If it wasn’t for Greenock-born James Watt, the Industrial Revolution might have followed an entirely different path. His innovation was to split the mechanics of then prevalent steam engines into two, such that one part of the machine would deal specifically with motion, while the other was focused on managing the heat and cooling process required to drive the pistons.

The resulting engine saved so much fuel that, rather than selling his engines outright, Watt leased them to customers, with charges based on the cost savings they delivered through the lighter consumption of coal.

We may associate steam engines with transport today, but most of Watt’s earliest machines were used to pump water out of mines.

Watt’s name in daily use

Although the specifics of his life’s work may be unknown to many outside of academia today, he has become a household name in his own right. The Watt, which is commonly used as a rating in lightbulbs and electricity, was named in his honour following a proposal by Dr CW Siemens at the 1882 conference of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Southampton.

As reported by the Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser of 24 August 1882, Siemens pointed out to the delegates that several scientific measures were already named after their originators, including the Ampere and Farad. “The other unit I should suggest adding to the list is that of power. The power conveyed by a current of the Ampere through the difference of a potential Volt is the unit consistent with the practical system. It might be appropriately called a Watt, in honour of the master mind of mathematical science, James Watt. He it is who had the first clear physical conception of power and gave a rational method of measuring it.”

Early life

Watt had been born in Greenock and after some time spent employed in his father’s workshop, and travelling to London, he set up a mathematical instrument-making business in Glasgow. He formed several partnerships while developing and marketing his innovations and died in Staffordshire in 1819. His date of birth is sometimes given as 30 January, rather than 19 January as Britain switched from the Julian to Gregorian calendar during his lifetime.



Other events that occured in January

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