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The History of Glasgow
Volume 3 - Chapter XXXI - James Watt: Canals and the Steam Engine


WHEN the great tobacco trade with Virginia and the sugar trade with the West Indies were at the apex of their fortunes one of the most serious difficulties which the merchants of Glasgow had to contend with lay in the inadequate means of communication and transport. General Wade had shewn the way towards improvement by the making of his military roads throughout the country in the middle of the century. It was the making of one of these, the road along Loch Lomond side, which General Wolfe superintended from the Garrison at Inversnaid, between the time when he commanded the garrison in Glasgow, and the expedition for the conquest of Canada in which he fell. We have seen how, shortly afterwards, a sort of fever of road-making and bridge-building seized the Town Council, which plunged heavily into debt over the enterprise. A dozen years later came Golborne's practicable scheme for the deepening of the Clyde, and it was followed immediately by proposals for other waterways connected with the city. In the projecting of these enterprises the genius of the celebrated James Watt played a part which seems in danger of being forgotten. Watt's early and important work as a civil engineer has been overshadowed by his later achievements in the improvement and development of the steam engine.

The inventor's family came originally from Aberdeenshire. His great-great-grandfather, a small laird farming his own land, was killed fighting on the Covenanting side against the Marquess of Montrose. His grandfather, Thomas Watt, migrating south, became a teacher of mathematics, surveying, and navigation at Crawfordsdyke, now part of Greenock; and his uncle, John Watt, a successful engineer and land-surveyor at Ayr, was extensively employed, as we have seen, by the Town Council of Glasgow in making plans and surveys of the city and district. Watt's father was a ship's block-maker and general merchant at Greenock, where for some time he held the office of magistrate. His business, however, offered small prospects, and in 1754 he sent his son, then aged eighteen, to London, to learn the craft of mathematical instrument making.

Forced by ill-health to return to Scotland, James Watt proposed to set up business in Glasgow. Against this intention, however, stood the obstacle that he was not a freeman of any Craft. In this difficulty the young mechanic found a friend in Professor John Anderson, occupant of the Chair of Natural Philosophy in Glasgow University. Anderson's father had been minister of Rosneath, and his younger brother had been one of Watt's school companions at Greenock. [Coutts, Hist. Univ. Glasg. p. 264.] George Muirhead, also, Professor of Latin in the University, was a relation of Watt's mother. At the psychological moment a fortunate chance occurred. In January, 1756, Alexander Macfarlane, a merchant in Jamaica, and brother of the Chief of the clan, bequeathed to Glasgow University the instruments of an astronomical observatory which he had fitted up in that far-off island. On being brought home these instruments were found to have suffered from tropical heat and damp. Watt, who was in Glasgow at the time, was asked to clean them and put them in order. For his trouble he was paid £5. [Memorials of James Watt. George Williamson, in these Memorials, originates a statement that Watt was prevented from setting up business in the city by the Incorporation of Hammermen. The growth and groundlessness of this idea were dealt with in a scholarly article in The Glasgow Herald of 26th Dec. 1811, included in the History of the Hammermen, by Lumsden and Aitken, p. 394.] But more important still, the young mechanic was appointed instrument-maker to the University, and had a workshop fitted up for him in the college, which was outside the jurisdiction of the Trades House and the Town Council. Thus sheltered, for six years, from 1757 till 1763, he struggled to make a scanty living.

.Meanwhile Anderson's house and library, his conversation and scientific apparatus, played their part in ripening Watt's mechanical genius. As early as 1759 he had speculated with a college friend, Robison, afterwards of the Chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh, on steam as a motive power, and two years later he had experimented with a Papin's Digester, but the flash of inspiration came in the winter of 1763, when Anderson sent him for repair the model of the Newcomen engine used in the Natural Philosophy class. That engine was chiefly used for pumping water from mines. [Newcomen's engine, an invention of the year 1710, immensely helped to develop the industry of coal-mining, as it enabled water to be pumped from much greater depths.—Mackinnon, Soc. and Indus. Hist. p. 79. One of these engines was installed at the coal pits in Gorbals in 1762. Burgh Records, 10th June, 1762.] In it steam was merely used to inflate a cylinder and drive up a piston attached to a beam from the other end of which hung the plunger of a pump. The steam in the cylinder was cooled by a jet of water, and, as it condensed, the piston sank and dragged down its end of the beam, thus drawing up the plunger of the pump at the other end. Watt's first improvement was the provision of a separate chamber for condensing the steam, thus saving the waste entailed in cooling the main cylinder against the next injection of steam. He afterwards, however, proceeded to use steam for pushing the piston both up and down, and may thus justly be said to be the inventor of the real steam engine.

A partnership with Dr. Roebuck, founder of the Carron Ironworks, came to nothing, and it was not till 1773 that, in partnership with Matthew Boulton of Soho near Birmingham, Watt was able to build engines for practical purposes, and proceed with the invention of further improvements.

But, though the steam engine was afterwards to play a vital part in developing the industries and fortunes of Glasgow, Watt's other services to the city were of more immediate advantage. In 1763, possibly because he had married the daughter of a burgess, he was allowed to leave the College precincts, and set up a workshop in the town. Even there for a time he had to eke out a livelihood by various devices. Though without any ear whatever for music, he both made and mended fiddles ; and he actually constructed several organs, one of which, after a somewhat chequered history, is now preserved in the city's Art Galleries at Kelvingrove. [The full history of James Watt's organ is detailed in J. O. Mitchell's Old Glasgow Essays, p. 50.] It was not till 1767 that his abilities found a new and larger field in the service of the community.

As early as the reign of Charles II. the suggestion had been made of a canal to afford transport across the narrow neck of Scotland, between the Forth and the Clyde. Defoe, again, in his Tour to Scotland, wrote "If this city could have a communication with the firth of Forth, so as to send their tobacco and sugar by water to Alloway, below Stirling, as they might from thence again to London, Holland, Hamburg, and the Baltic, they would very probably, in a few years, double their trade." The suggestion had been revived in 1723 and in 1761, and the Board of Trustees for Fisheries and Manufactures had the route for a canal surveyed by John Smeaton in 1763 without result. The advantages, nevertheless, were so obvious that in 1766 the merchants of Glasgow determined to proceed with the enterprise. In two days the sum of 30,00o was subscribed for the purpose, and James Watt was employed to make surveys and prepare an estimate of the cost of the undertaking. The Town Council subscribed £1000, and the original idea was that the canal should enter the Clyde near the Broomielaw. [Burgh Records, 15th Jan., 1st April, 1767.]

Having in view, no doubt, the limited-sum at the disposal of the promoters, Watt planned a waterway only four feet deep and twenty-four feet broad. The plan was opposed by land owners and others on the eastern side of the country, led by Sir Lawrence Dundas, M.P., who, perhaps, did not wish to see the waterway controlled entirely by Glasgow merchants; and Parliament threw out the bill on the plea that the capital subscribed and the scheme proposed were inadequate. In the following year, Sir Lawrence Dundas secured an Act of Parliament for the forming of a company with a capital of £150,000 and liberty to borrow £50,000. This project in turn was heartily supported by Glasgow Town Council, which transferred to it its subscription of £1000, and sent the Lord Provost, George Murdoch, to London to support the proposal in Parliament. [Ibid. 3oth Nov., 1767; 23rd Jan., 1768. Marwick, The River Clyde, p. 179.] The Act of Parliament was secured, the engineer Smeaton was engaged to superintend the work, and the first sod was cut by Sir Lawrence himself in July 1768. [Sir Lawrence, preceding Richard Oswald of Auchencruive, had made an immense fortune as provider of stores for the fighting forces of the time; he had purchased the rich estate of Kerse, which included the village of Grangemouth, and the Forth and Clyde Canal formed part of his plan for developing his estate. The plan took two generations to arrive at fruition, but out of it grew the thriving town of Grangemouth, and no small part of the fortunes of the family whose head is now Marquess of Zetland.] The canal was opened as far west as Stockingfield in 1775, and the branch to Hamilton Hill and Port Dundas, half a mile north of Glasgow, shortly afterwards; but it was not completed to Bowling till July 1790.

Meanwhile Watt had found employment on another similar enterprise. With the increase of population, Glasgow had begun to find the sources of its coal supply somewhat inadequate. It was suggested in 1769 that the rich coalfields of Monkland, which had been mined by the monks of Tranent as long ago as the thirteenth century, might be made available by means of a waterway. The Town Council subscribed £goo to the undertaking on condition that the owners of coal along the line of the canal should become bound to put out 30,000 tons of coal per annum for thirty years, a stipulation afterwards modified to the demand that the coal-owners should subscribe £5000 sterling to the work. [Burgh Records, 8th Nov., 1769; 2nd Jan., 18th Jan., 1770; 2nd March, 1770.] James Watt was employed to make a survey, an Act of Parliament was secured, and the excavation was begun. But when ten miles of channel had been constructed the whole subscribed capital of £10,000 had been spent, with as much again of borrowed money. On the shareholders refusing to subscribe more, the Town Council resolved to sell its share, [Ibid. 7th June, 28th June, 1780.] and the whole undertaking was disposed of to Messrs. William Stirling & Sons, the great firm of Turkey Red dyers and bleachers. The new owners are understood to have expended £100,000 in completing the work, and, with the proprietors of the Forth and Clyde Canal, they made a connection with that waterway at Port Dundas. [Stirling Road in the Townhead of Glasgow, is not the road to Stirling, but the road made by William Stirling & Sons, to give access to the basin of their canal in Castle Street. Similarly, when, in 1812, a new road northward from Queen Street was formed to give access to the basin of the Forth and Clyde Canal at Port Dundas, the Town Council named it Dundas Street.—Burgh Records, 8th Jan. 1812.] Besides its mineral traffic, the canal carried large numbers of passengers. It began to pay a dividend in 1807, and after 1825, when the great ironworks at Calder, Gartsherrie, Dundyvan, and Langloan were established along its route, it proved highly remunerative, and greatly helped the development of Glasgow's industry. About the time when the Monkland Canal was projected—in 1769—Watt was asked by the Town Council, on Golborne's suggestion, to supplement that engineer's report, made in the previous year, on the condition of the channel of the Clyde, and it was after his supplementary survey and report that Glasgow procured its second Act of Parliament on the subject, and proceeded to carry out Golborne's plans for the clearing and deepening of the river. [George III. c. 109.. Marwick, The River Clyde, p. 180.]

An engineering work of a similar kind was the graving dock at Port-Glasgow, constructed under Watt's direction in 1761. It is said to have been the first graving dock in Scotland. It could contain at one time two vessels of 500 tons burden each, and was kept dry by means of a pump worked by a horse. [Marwick, The River Clyde, pp. 108, 178. Brown's History of Glasgow, II., 348. Burgh Records, 27th April, 29th Sept., 1758; 5th Oct., 1761; 30th Sept., 1768.] Ten years later Watt was employed to make a report on the needs of the harbour at Port-Glasgow, and his plans for cleaning, improving, and enlarging it, as well as repairing, and improving the dry dock, were duly carried out by the Town Council. [Burgh Records, 10th Aug., 1771.]

Further afield, in 1773, he was asked to prepare plans for a canal through the Great Glen of Scotland, to connect Inverness with the western ocean at Loch Linnhe, but his estimate of the cost—~165,000—so alarmed the promoters that the project was dropped for thirty years. [For his services and expenses in surveying this canal through the Great Glen of Scotland Watt's fee was £1 17s. per day.—Strang, Glasgow and its Clubs, p. 106 note.] When the Caledonian Canal was at last constructed, under Telford's direction, the estimate was £474,531, and the actual cost ran to £1,311,270.

Among his other works Watt was asked to report on the comparative advantages of Tarbert and Crinan for the cutting of a canal to connect the Firth of Clyde with the Atlantic, [Burgh Records, 1st March, 1771. Twenty-one years later, on a subscription paper issued by the Duke of Argyll, the Town Council agreed to take four shares of £50 each in the Crinan Canal enterprise.—Ibid. 22nd Nov. 1792.] and he made surveys for the improvement of the harbours of Ayr and Greenock.

All of these enterprises were not immediately connected with the development of Glasgow, but remarkably enough, in the course of time, most of them, even the far-off Caledonian Canal, came to be contributory to the fortunes of this "dark, sea-born city." Among the inventor's later services to the city were the introduction, in 1786, of the French chemist Berthollet's recent discovery of chlorine gas for bleaching purposes, and the invention of a cable pipe on the ball and socket principle, by which the Glasgow Water Company brought a supply across the bed of the river from a valuable well on the south side.

James Watt retired from active partnership in his engine-making business at Soho in the year 1800, received the degree of LL.D. from the University of Glasgow six years later, and died at Heathfield in Staffordshire in 1819. [ Williamson, Memorials of James Watt. Muirhead, Life of Watt. Smiles, Lives of Boulton and Watt.] His statue by Chantrey, a seated figure in marble, is one of the interesting possessions of Glasgow University, while a reproduction of it, in bronze, sits in George Square. [Glasgow has at least five Watt statues. The first, by Greenshields, was executed in freestone for the Mechanics' Institute, and is now in the Technical College, which also has a smaller replica of it. There is also a small statue by William Scoular in the Art Galleries at Kelvingrove.]


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