Thursday 10 August 2023

James Watt - a year in London

In June of 1755 James Watt (1736-1819) and John Marr (the son of his former teacher) travelled to London by horseback.  The journey, via Coldstream, Newcastle, Durham, York, Doncaster, Newark and Biggleswade, took 12 days.  Watt in a letter home to his father, written at York states - “I like the country very well, but think the people are very sharp”.

James Watt was in London to find a place with a mathematical instrument maker.  Nautical instruments were something that the young James Watt, with his skill in mathematics and astronomy, was very familiar with.  His father, also James Watt (1698-1782) was in business in Greenock as a shipwright and merchant supplying ships.  James helped with the business.  However, his father had suffered some financial difficulties and Watt’s mother, Agnes Muirhead (1703-1755) had recently died.  Watt had spent the previous year in Glasgow living with his mother’s relatives.  Here he met Dr Robert Dick, a professor of natural philosophy at Glasgow University who encouraged him to go to London to further his skill in making mathematical instruments.  He gave him that essential in those days, a letter of introduction to James Short, a Scottish astronautical instrument maker in London with a view to finding someone who would take Watt on and teach him the trade.

However, that proved more difficult than anticipated.  Watt wrote to his father soon after arrival – “I have not yet got a master; we have tried several; they all make some objection or other.  I find that if any of them agree with me at all, it will not be for less than a year and even at that time they will be expecting some money”.  Watt was anxious not to expect his father to pay out too much on his behalf. 

John Marr wrote to Watt’s father “your son began to divert himself in cutting letters and figures etc in the ship of Mr Neale, watchmaker, from whom I had the small patent globes.  Mr Neale is the frankest tradesman of any of the fraternity I have seen … In the meantime, I shall endeavour to see him employed at Mr Neale’s who inclines to have some of his work to show”.  That did not work out, but Watt soon found employment elsewhere.

Watt worked on the brass parts of Hadley’s quadrants for John Morgan, mathematical instrument maker in Finch Lane, Cornhill. Watt wrote of him as being “of as good a character, both for accuracy in his business and good morals, as any in his way in London … he can teach me most branches of the business, such as rules, scales, quadrants etc”.  Marr writes – “he could not have found a man better recommended for good nature and ingenuity than Morgan”.  With his father’s approval, it was decided that James would receive a year’s instruction from Morgan at a cost to Watt's father of twenty guineas. 

A hard worker, by August he was outperforming Morgan’s other apprentices.  In November he was working on azimuth compasses.  By the end of the year, he wrote to his father “I think I shall be able to get my bread anywhere, as I am now able to work as well as most journeymen, though I am not so quick as many".  Unfortunately, his health suffered as he strove to do his best for his master, his father and most importantly, himself.

Living in London, Watt paid eight shilling a week for food.  He writes home about the long hours and insufficient food, but was very aware that his father could not afford to pay out any more money.  He did not take much time out to explore the sights of London.  The French and Indian War was getting underway in America and there was a lot of rumours and unease around the country, especially in the city.  For Watt, an ever present danger was the threat from the press gangs who roamed the streets of London looking for men.  As Watt was a pupil, not an apprentice, he was particularly vulnerable.  He wrote to his father in the spring of 1756 – “I avoid a very hot press just now by seldom going out … they now press anybody they can get, landsmen as well as seamen, except it be in the Liberties of the City, where they are obliged to carry them before my Lord Mayor first; and unless one be either a ‘prentice or a creditable tradesman, there is scarce any getting off again.  And if I was carried before my Lord Mayor, I durst not avow that I wrought in the City, it being against their laws for any unfreeman to work, even as a journeyman, within the Liberties”.

At the end of his time with Morgan, Watt was looking forward to returning to Greenock.  His health had suffered, he described at various times “violent rheumatism” “a gnawing pain in his back” and “weariness all over his body.”  Before leaving London, he bought some tools and materials that would be useful in his career, along with two books “Bion’s Construction and Use of Mathematical Instruments” translated by Edmund Stone, a self-taught Scottish mathematician.


At the end of August in 1756 he set off for Greenock.  On his return, he worked for Dr Robert Dick at the University of Glasgow and eventually set up on his own as a mathematical instrument maker and repairer.

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