Biography of James Watt

Portrait of James Watt

James Watt is an eighteenth century engineer chiefly remembered for  pioneering work on steam power.

When and Where was he Born?

19th January 1736. Greenock, Strathclyde, Scotland.

Family Background:

James Watt was the son of the Treasurer and Magistrate of Greenock, who was also a successful ship and house builder.


By his mother then local grammar school. Glasgow University.

Timeline of James Watt:

1753: Watt goes to Glasgow to become a maker of mathematical instruments.

1755: He moves to London to try and become an apprentice to an instrument maker.

Statue of James Watt
Statue of James Watt formerly outside the old
Birmingham Central Library (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1757: Watt returns to Glasgow where he works as an instrument maker at the University.

1759: Watt opens a shop in Saltmarket, Glasgow selling instruments and toys.

1764: He marries his cousin Margaret Miller. He repairs a non-working model of the Newcomen steam engine which developed his interest in steam.

1765: He fits the Newcomen Engine with a separate condenser unit to increase its power.

1767: Watt is employed as a surveyor for the Forth and Clyde Canal.

1768: He builds a prototype of his new improved stream engine with his partner John Roebuck.

1769: Watt patents “A New Invented Method of Lessening the Consumption of Steam and Fuel in Fire Engines.

1772: He forms a partnership with Roebuck.

1773: Death of his first wife.

1774: Watt leaves Scotland for Birmingham.

1775: He enters into a new partnership this time with Matthew Boulton of Birmingham whom he had already been introduced to by William Small.

1776: Boulton and Watt build two new steam engines. He marries Ann MacGregor.

1781: Watt invents a rotary motion device to be fitted to his engine.

1782: He takes out a patent on a double acting engine where the piston both pushes and pulls.

1783: The unit of Horse Power is experimentally calculated by Watt and his name was later to be used as a unit of power.

1784: Although he described steam locomotion in one of his patents he dissuaded William Murdock from investigating this further.

1785: Both Boulton and Watt are elected as Fellows of the Royal Society of London.

Statue of James Watt
Statue of James Watt in 
Piccadilly Gardens, Manchester (copyright Anthony Blagg)

1786: Watt invents the centrifugal governor which automated the speed of an engine for the first time.

1790: Watt invents a reliable pressure gauge for his engines.

1796: Richard Trevithick visits the Soho Foundry.

1800: Watt retires from the Boulton and Watt company but pursues other interests.

When and Where did he Die?

25th August 1819. Heathfield House, Handsworth, Birmingham, England of tuberculosis.

Age at Death:



  1. 1764: To his cousin Margaret Miller (died 1773).
  2. 1776: To Ann MacGregor.

Site of Grave:

St. Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Birmingham, England. Often referred to as the Cathedral of the Industrial Revolution.

Statue of James Watt in St Mary’s Church, Handsworth, Birmingham
(copyright Nicholas Caulkin – by kind permission of Rev Dr Bob Stephen)

Places of Interest:


Soho House, Handsworth.
Library of Birmingham Archives.
Statue of Watt outside old Central Library (now removed due to building works).

Statue of Boulton,Murdoch and Watt
Statue of Matthew Boulton, James Watt and William Murdoch in Broad Street, Birmingham (copyright Anthony Blagg)


Science Museum.

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