James Watt exhibition, science and revolution

This video is called James Watt and Our World at the Science Museum: Adam Hart-Davis.

By William Whitlow in England:

James Watt and Our World, an exhibition at the Science Museum, London

23 June 2011

Anyone with an hour or two to spare in London over the next year will be rewarded by a visit to the James Watt exhibition at the Science Museum. As befits an exhibition relating to this genius whose inventions were at the core of the Industrial Revolution, there are several steam engines on display, including the massive “Old Bess,” the second steam engine built by James Watt and his partner Matthew Boulton in their Birmingham “Manufactory,” in 1777.

Pride of place in the exhibition however is Watt’s workshop, reassembled exactly as he had left it in his Birmingham house when he died in 1819. Containing 8,430 objects, which are shown in turn in a slideshow projected on screens next to the workshop itself, it gives a fascinating vision of the vast range of investigations, inventions, and interests that made up Watt’s life.

It includes pieces of flutes and violins—Watt was at one time a maker of musical instruments as well as scientific instruments. There is a roller press, a machine invented by Watt for copying letters, forerunner of our photocopier. Also on display are circular saws designed by Watt. There is a machine that mills miniature copies of sculptures in three dimensions, some of which are on display. Mixed in with a vast variety of tools, including a lathe, is a device to record the pressure of boilers graphically, and a counting machine to work out customers’ bills. A collection of pottery jars was left, presumably undergoing tests that Watt was known to carry out. Here was a man whose interests were clearly not limited to steam engines but encompassed the entire range of technology of the day and extended to the arts and sciences.

Only a brief reference is made in the exhibition to the fact that Watt belonged to what was known as the Lunar Society, the small group of natural philosophers, scientists, industrialists and intellectuals that met regularly for informal discussion and dinner in Birmingham during the second half of the eighteenth century. It was one of the main expressions of the Enlightenment in Britain and included, besides Boulton and Watt, the medical doctor and poet Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles Darwin; the manufacturer of pottery Josiah Wedgwood; and the dissenting clergyman, materialist and chemist Joseph Priestley. They were passionately interested in all branches of science but also the latest in technology and aesthetics, history, the arts and politics. They have rightly been seen as the fathers of the Industrial Revolution.

The Lunar Society men had a variety of backgrounds. Boulton had left school at 14, Darwin was highly educated at Cambridge and Edinburgh universities. Many of them were connected to the dissenting academies that had recently been set up and became centres of the new learning.

Politically, they campaigned for the abolition of slavery and for a variety of reforms, including the repeal of the Test Acts, the law that prevented religious dissenters—which many of them were—from entering university of holding public office. All of them supported the French Revolution. They were the leaders of the most radical and far-sighted sections of the bourgeoisie in that period, and Watt can only be understood in that context.

Born in 1736, Watt worked as a young man as a brilliant instrument maker producing and repairing astronomical and other scientific equipment at the University of Glasgow. He had no formal qualifications or apprenticeship. At the university, he became interested in steam engines, which at that time meant the Newcomen engines used for pumping water out of coal, tin, copper and lead mines.

Capitalism in the days of Watt and Boulton, and now: here.

2 thoughts on “James Watt exhibition, science and revolution

  1. Pingback: Industrial revolution in Britain | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: British Conservatives, elections and racism | Dear Kitty. Some blog

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