Saturday 25 May 2024

Gregory Watt - the other son

Gregory Watt (1777-1804) was the younger son of Greenock born engineer, inventor and all round genius, James Watt (1736-1819) by his second wife Anne Macgregor (died 1832).  Gregory graduated from the University of Glasgow in 1795 and was cited for “Exemplary Diligence, and Propriety of Conduct, during the Session”.  During his time at the University, he also won prizes in mathematics, Greek, composition and for his essays.  He was said to have “all the genius of his father, with a great deal of animation and ardour which is all his own”.  

Thomas Campbell, Poet (source)

At Glasgow University he met the poet Thomas Campbell (1777-1844), and they remained friends.  Campbell described him as “a splendid stripling – literally the most beautiful youth I ever saw”.

After he left University, in 1797 he was made a partner in his father’s business, but he suffered from ill health, consumption.  He was sent to Penzance for his health by local physician Dr William Withering (1741-1799).  His father thought that while in Penzance, he could try to learn about the family business.  He travelled to Cornwall with William Murdock (1754-1839), an Ayrshire man who worked for Boulton and Watt at the Soho Works, Birmingham.  Murdock was an engineer and inventor of, among other things, coal gas lighting. He was in Cornwall on business as Boulton and Watt supplied engines for many of the Cornish tin mines. 

Sir Humphry Davy

At Penzance Gregory Watt lodged with Mrs Davy the mother of Humphry Davy (1778-1829).  The young men shared an interest in scientific subjects and conducted various experiments.  Watt was also interested in geology and minerology.  At Penzance he also met up with Josiah Wedgwood (1730-1795) and his family who were also there “for the air” especially for their son, Thomas Wedgewood (1771-1805).  Wedgwood was a friend of James Watt.

His health having somewhat improved, Gregory returned to Birmingham but did not work with his father and brother.  His interests were in experiments with gasses and air.  He then travelled for his health.  During the winter of 1801/1802 Gregory travelled to Europe.  In Paris he met the Scottish-American geologist William Maclure (1763-1840).  Born in Ayrshire, William Maclure travelled on business between Britain and the United States.  He was in Europe collecting geological specimens to send back to America.  On his return to the United States after his European tour, he produced “Map and Observations on the Geology of the United States”.  He is known as “the father of American geology”.   The pair travelled to Italy.  They reached Naples and, despite Gregory’s bad health, ascended Vesuvius.  This increased Gregory’s interest in geology and he conducted many experiments on basalt.  He also made a geological map of Italy.  In May 1802 in Naples he met William Thomson (1760-1806), a mineralogist.

William Maclure, geologist

Gregory returned home and in 1803 he wrote articles on geology and minerology for the Edinburgh Review.  Unfortunately, Gregory’s health deteriorated.  However, he continued his experiments especially in melting basalt and cooling it.  He took trips to Clifton and Bath with his father and mother in the hope of improving his health.  Dr Thomas Beddoes (1760-1808) attended him.  Beddoes was the leading physician of that time in treating tuberculosis and had attended Gregory’s younger sister, Jessie who had died of the same disease a few years earlier.  Later the Watt family travelled to Exeter.  Watt was very concerned for his son and wrote to his business partner, Boulton – “Ever since we left Bath ours has been a state of anxiety very distressing to us”.  Gregory Watt died at Exeter aged just 27 and was buried in Exeter Cathedral.

Thomas Beddoes

James Watt and his wife were devastated at the death of their son.  The contents of James Watt's workshop from the family home at Heathfield, Birmingham were transfer to the Science Museum in London.  Among the tools, papers and various other odds and ends was a travelling trunk.  It contained the schoolbooks of his beloved son, Gregory Watt.  He had been unable to throw them away.

James Watt's workshop

Gregory Watt's paper on basalt was published in the Philosophical Transactions Royal Society and read before the Royal Society of London in May 1804, just a few months before his death.

Gregory Watt - death notice

The Pneumatic Institute was set up by Thomas Beddoes in Bristol in 1799 for medical research.  Humphrey Davey was Superintendent and had been recommended by Gregory Watt.  James Watt made some of the equipment for the institute which experimented with gasses and their effect on health.

Sir Humphry Davy was related to the Shaw Stewart family and often visited their estate at Ardgowan.

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