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Image: The workshop of James Watt (1736-1819), December 1924. One of four photographs taken at Heathfield by J Willoughby Harr © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library Image: The workshop of James Watt (1736-1819), December 1924. One of four photographs taken at Heathfield by J Willoughby Harr © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library

The Philosophical Engineer

Andrew Prescott

The Scottish scientist, engineer and inventor James Watt (1736-1819) is remembered chiefly as a pioneer of steam power, who improved the efficiency of steam engines by inventing a separate condenser, devised revolutionary steam-powered mechanical drives, and introduced the concept that steam power could be measured by reference to the power of horses. Watt’s achievements as ‘The Great Steamer’ were fundamental to the Industrial Revolution.

Watt had a restless curiosity that led him into all types of experiments and inventions. He invented a machine to make it easier to produce perspective drawings. At the time of his death, he was working on machines to copy sculptures that seem like an analogue form of 3D printing. Watt developed and marketed the first apparatus to produce duplicate copies of handwritten documents using chemically impregnated paper. He made musical instruments and invented new types of clocks. A pioneering chemist, Watt experimented with processes to produce alkali from sea-salt, and claimed to have been among the first to realise that water was a chemical compound.

Watt trained as a mathematical instrument maker. The hands-on process of making and the trial and error of experimenting with different materials was a constant source of fascination and inspiration to him. His friend at the University of Glasgow, the scientist John Robison (1739-1805) remembered how Watt could not resist playing with anything that came into his hands to see how it worked:

Every new thing that came into his hands became a subject of serious and systematical study, and terminated in some branch of Science … A Mason Lodge in Glasgow wanted an Organ … We imagined Mr Watt could do anything, and tho’ we all knew that he did not know one musical note from another, he was asked if he could build this organ. He had repaired one and it had amused him. He said Yes - but he began by building a very small one for his friend Dr Black … In doing this a thousand things occurred to him which no Organ builder ever dreamed of - nice indicators of the strength of the blast regulators of it, etc etc. He began to build the great one. He then began to study the philosophical theory of Music … Before Mr Watt had half finished this Organ, he and I were completely masters of that most refined and beautiful Theory of the Beats of imperfect Consonances - He found that by these Beats it would be possible for him, totally ignorant of Music, to tune this Organ according to any System of temperament - and he did so, to the delight and astonishment of our best performers (E. Robinson and A. E. Musson, James Watt and the Steam Revolution, London, 1969, p.38)

Watt appreciated how every act of making is also a theoretical statement, and building and making machines was for him a stepping off point for deeper intellectual exploration and investigation. His advances in steam power were partly inspired by his friendship with chemists at Glasgow University and their theoretical advances in areas like latent heat. In the words of Ben Russell of the Science Museum, Watt’s steam engines combined in a tangible product ‘an astonishing concept, a feat of experimental science and precision engineering’. As Ben emphasizes, it is only through considering Watt’s diverse achievements as acts of making that we can draw together Watt as engineer, craftsman, chemist and philosopher.

Glasgow University (where I work) celebrates its connections with James Watt, naming its engineering school, two professorship and a prize after him. However, Watt was employed by Glasgow University not as a professor, but as a mathematical instrument maker, initially to repair some astronomical instruments left to the university that had been damaged in a sea voyage. Glasgow University in the eighteenth century placed a great emphasis on practical knowledge, also employing a university type founder (who afterwards became Professor of ‘Practical Astronomy’), while the Professor of Natural Philosophy, John Anderson, threw open his physics lectures to artisans and others who were not members of the university. Watt’s workshop at Glasgow became an intellectual hub of the University, as John Robison recalled:

All the young Lads of our little place that were in any way remarkable for scientific predilection were Acquaintances of Mr Watt, and his parlour was a rendezvous for all of this description - Whenever any puzzle came in the way of any of of us, we went to Mr Watt. He needed only to be prompted - everything became to him the beginning of a new and serious study, and we knew that he would not quit it till he had either discovered its insignificancy or made something of it … Every thing became Science in his hands, and I took every opportunity of offering my feeble Aid by prosecuting systematically, and with the help of Mathematical discussion, thoughts which he was contented with having suggested or directed (Robinson and Musson, pp. 24-5).

Watt’s work on steam engines was prompted by John Anderson asking him to make improvements on a model of the type of steam engine invented by Thomas Newcomen in the seventeenth century. The liminal space of Watt’s workshop was the home of a stream of innovations.

The story of Watt’s life has been retold in many different ways to justify different social, cultural and political ends. But although Watt worked in a very different environment to the modern digital world, his story still seems to have many current resonances. Many of the greatest achievements of the Industrial Revolution were incremental improvements which took technologies to new levels, like the separate condenser. Progress in the digital world is often more incremental and less disruptive and transformational than we might think - it has been pointed out how Steve Jobs was a ‘tinkerer’ rather than an inventor of completely new concepts, and there are many parallels between the career of Jobs and those of industrial pioneers like Watt.

The nature of spaces of innovation is also significant. Innovation often takes place in liminal spaces outside the mainstream, in places like James Watts’ workshop, where people with different types of background, interests and enthusiasms can meet together, talk and play and enjoy what Robison called ‘an inexhaustible fund of instruction and Entertainment’. After he settled in Birmingham, the meetings of the Lunar Society, so called because it met on nights with a full moon, provided Watt with a similar space for a mixture of scientific, philosophical and practical discussion. At the heart of this wide-ranging and often philosophical conversation was a constant concern with making - to quote Ben Russell again, ‘Britain depended for its movers and shakers on its doers and makers, and Watt stands for all of them, regardless of their specific trade or profession’.

Watt was also creating a new type of profession - part scientist, part craftsman, part businessman. At the end of the eighteenth century, the word ‘engineer’ was most frequently applied to military engineers (it was for this reason that the term ‘civil engineer’ later emerged). The assumption was that those who erected and operated machinery like the Newcomen steam pumps were just mechanical operatives. However, high-end mathematical instrument makers required a considerable amount of scientific knowledge. John Morgan, who Watt worked with in London, described himself as a ‘philosophical instrument maker’.

James Watt proudly appropriated the word engineer to capture the distinctive mix of art, craft, science, making, serious play and philosophy that characterized his work. Watt described himself as ‘James Watt, engineer’ in his publications for the Royal Society at a time when the Royal Society was promoting the idea of the gentleman scientist. Watt sought to make the case for the philosophical engineer.

It is our feeling that one of the transformative and exciting aspects of digital technologies is its ability to support new types of interaction between artists, engineers scientists, historians, writers and makers in a way that recaptures that idea of the philosophical engineer. In the activities of the 2016 Digital Design Weekend, you will see projects supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the major funder of arts and humanities research in the United Kingdom, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the British Council, Mozilla Foundation and other bodies which explore the way in which these intersections are revivifying our engagement with the philosophical engineer.

Image caption and credit: James Watts’s workshop in his house at Heathfield in Birmingham, showing busts used in his experiments for a sculpture copying machine. Science Museum.