Science Museum Presents James Watt’s Attic Workshop

Complete workshop of the first hero of the Industrial Revolution to be reassembled and opened to visitors

The attic workshop of the first hero of the British Industrial Revolution, the engineer James Watt, will be opened up to visitors as part of a new permanent Science Museum exhibition, James Watt and our world: opening on 23 March 2011. Accompanied by a new gallery of previously unseen objects and innovative multimedia, the exhibition will present a vivid portrait of the working life, ingenuity and character of the first mechanical engineer to be propelled to international fame and spoken of in the same breath as national heroes like Isaac Newton and William Shakespeare.

When Watt died in 1819, his workshop at his home near Birmingham, was locked and its contents left undisturbed as an ‘industrial shrine’. Then, in 1924, the complete workshop, including its door, window, skylight, floorboards and 6,500 objects used or created by Watt, were carefully removed and transported to the Science Museum. Although the workshop has previously been displayed at the Museum, visitors have never been invited inside until now. The vast majority of its contents, once hidden within drawers, on shelves and under piles of tools and papers are now revealed. The new display sets Watt’s life and work alongside his iconic early steam engines which line the Museum’s Energy Hall.

James Watt was seen by contemporaries as the founder of the Industrial Revolution. His improved engine meant that steam could be used everywhere, not just in coal mines, boosting output in breweries, otteries and textile mills. It drove Britain’s factories, pumped its mines and helped start a long surge in prosperity.

Watt was the first engineer to be honoured by a statue in Westminster Abbey and was even called ’the greatest benefactor of the human race’. On his death, the workshop became a place of pilgrimage for historians. His biographer J.P. Muirhead, wrote, the ‘garret and all its mysterious contents…seemed still to breathe of the spirit that once gave them life and energy’.

This exhibition puts Watt in the context of Britain’s emergence as the first industrial nation. Watt played a pivotal role in these events which opened the road to the consumer society of today… He was perhaps the first ‘scientific entrepreneur’, adept at ‘turning science into money’ and using his skills to generate wealth in a longstanding partnership with entrepreneur Matthew Boulton.

Watt’s workshop is packed with a bewildering array of objects including the world’s oldest circular saw, parts for flutes and violins he was making and even the oldest surviving pieces of sandpaper. The exhibition will also include a roller press developed by Watt to copy letters, a forerunner of the photocopier, and a device used to mint and standardise the size of coins for the first time, developed for the Royal Mint.

One of the key objects of the exhibition is Watt’s original 1765 model for the first separate condenser – in effect the greatest single improvement to the steam engine ever made. This unassuming brass cylinder, thought to be one of the most significant objects in engineering history, was only discovered at the Science Museum in the 1960’s – lying under Watt’s workbench. The object remained unrecognised until research by the Museum revealed its identity.

Ben Russell, Curator of Mechanical Engineering, at the Science Museum, said “I am delighted to see Watt’s Workshop given a prominent place again at the Science Museum. To Victorians, the workshop was a mystical retreat and we are hoping that visitors will be similarly enthralled and inspired today. It’s fascinating that we still don’t know the exact purpose of every item in the workshop and we will continue to research this. It was both a functioning workshop and a personal museum of things from his entire life which he had kept, perhaps out of sentiment, but also in case they might come in handy.”

Andrew Nahum, Principal Curator of Technology & Engineering at the Science Museum, said “The extraordinary thing about Watt’s story is that it represents the crucial moment at which industry took off and transformed our lives. In the 19th century, Watt’s improvements to the steam engine and the industry it drove was claimed as a powerful contribution to British strength and to Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon. Watt became a new kind of ‘industrial hero’. Today, Britain’s commerce no longer runs on steam and Watt is perhaps less well known so we are pleased to be celebrating his engineering genius once more.”

As a mark of their contribution, James Watt and his business partner Matthew Boulton will be portrayed on the Bank of England’s forthcoming new £50 banknotes. In 1797 Boulton manufactured all Britain’s coins for the Bank with his new steam-powered machinery.

As Bank of England Governor, Mervyn King, commented when he announced their planned inclusion on the note, “So many of the advantages society now enjoys are due to the vital role of engineering and the brilliance of people such as Boulton and Watt, whose development and refinement of steam engines gave an incredible boost to the efficiency of industry.”

Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD
Open daily 10.00 to 18.00, except 24-26 December
www.sciencemuseum.org.uk / 0870 870 4868

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