WATT gracefully glided into old age. This is the great
test of success in life. To every stage a laurel, but to happy old age the
crown. It was different with his friend Boulton, who continued to frequent
the works and busy himself in affairs much as before, altho approaching his
eightieth year. Watt could still occupy himself in his garret, where his
"mind to him a Kingdom was," upon the scientific pursuits which charmed him.
He revisited Paris in 1802 and renewed acquaintances with his old friends,
with whom he spent five weeks. He frequently treated himself to tours
throughout England, Scotland and Wales. In the latter country, he purchased
a property which attracted him by its beauties, and which he greatly
improved. It became at a later date, under his son, quite an extensive
estate, much diversified, and not lacking altogether the stern grandeur of
his native Scotland. He planted trees and took intense delight in his
garden, being very fond of flowers. The farmhouse gave him a comfortable
home upon his visits. The fine woods which now richly clothe the valley and
agreeably diversify the river and mountain scenery were chiefly planted
under his superintendence, many by his own hand. In short, the blood in his
veins, the lessons of his childhood that made him a "child of the mist,"
happy in roaming among the hills, reasserted their power in old age as the
Celtic element powerfully does. He turned more and more to nature.
That never yet betrayed the heart that loved her—"
We see him strolling through his woods, and imagine him
crooning to himself from that marvellous memory that forgot no gem:
For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad
music of humanity,
Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power
chasten and subdue. And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all
objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things. Therefore am I
A lover of the meadows and the woods,
And mountains; and of
all that we behold
From this green earth.
Twice Watt was requested to undertake the honor of the
shrievalty; in 1803 that of Staffordshire, and in 1816 that of Radnorshire,
both of which were positively declined.
He finally found it necessary to declare that he was
not a member of the Church of England, but of the Presbyterian church of
Scotland, a reason which in that day was conclusive.
In 1816, he was in his eighty-first year, and no
difficulty seems then to have been found for excusing him, for it seems the
assumption of the duties was compulsory. It was "the voice of age resistless
in its feebleness."
The day had come when Watt awakened to one of the
saddest of all truths, that his friends were one by one rapidly passing
away, the circle ever narrowing, the few whose places never could be filled
becoming fewer, he in the centre left more and more alone. Nothing grieved
Watt so much as this. In 1794 his partner, Roebuck, fell; in 1799, his
inseparable friend, and supporter in his hour of need, Dr. Black, and also
Withering of the Lunar Society; and in 1802 Darwin of the song," one of his
earliest English friends. In 1804, his brilliant son Gregory died, a
terrible shock. In 1805, his first Glasgow College intimate, Robison; Dr.
Beddoes in 1808; Boulton, his partner, in 1809; Dr. Wilson in 1811; De Luc
in 1817. Many other friends of less distinction fell in these years who were
not less dear to him. He says, "by one friend's withdrawing "after another,"
he felt himself "in danger of standing alone among strangers, the son of
He writes to Boulton on November 23, 1802:
We cannot help feeling, with deep regret, the circle of
our old friends gradually diminishing, while our ability to increase it by
new ones is equally diminished; but perhaps it is a wise dispensation of
Providence so to diminish our enjoyments in this world, that when our turn
comes we may leave it without regret.
He writes to another correspondent, July 12, 1810:
I, in particular, have reason to thank God that he has
preserved me so well as I am, to so late a period, while the greater part of
my contemporaries, healthier and younger men, have passed "the "bourne from
which no traveller returns." It is, however, a painful contemplation to see
so many who were dear to us pass away before us; and our consolation should
be, that as Providence has been pleased to prolong our life, we should
render ourselves as useful to society as we can while we live.
And again, when seventy-six years of age, January,
1812, he writes:
On these subjects I can offer no other consolations
than what are derived from religion: they have only gone before us a little
while, in that path we all must tread, and we should be thankful they were
spared so long to their friends and the world.
Sir Walter Scott declares:
That is the worst part of life when its earlier path is
trod. If my limbs get stiff, my walks are made shorter, and my rides slower;
if my eyes fail me, I can use glasses and a large print: if I get a little
deaf, I comfort myself that except in a few instances I shall be no great
loser by missing one full half of what is spoken: but I feel the loneliness
of age when my companions and friends are taken from me.
All his life until retiring from business, Watt's care
was to obtain sufficient for the support of himself and family upon the most
modest scale. He had no surplus to devote to ends beyond self, but as soon
as he retired with a small competence it was different, and we accordingly
find him promptly beginning to apply some portion of his still small revenue
to philanthropical ends. Naturally, his thoughts reverted first to his
native town and the university to which he owed so much.
In 1808 he founded the Watt Prize in Glasgow
Entertaining a due sense of the many favours conferred
upon me by the University of Glasgow, I wish to leave them some memorial of
my gratitude, and, at the same time, to excite a spirit of inquiry and
exertion among the students of Natural Philosophy and Chemistry attending
the College; which appears to me the more useful, as the very existence of
Britain, as a nation, seems to me, in great measure, to depend upon her
exertions in science and in the arts.
The University conferred the degree of LL.D. upon him
in 1774, and its great engineering laboratory bears his name.
In 1816, he made a donation to the town of Greenock for
scientific books, stating it to be his intention to form the beginning of a
scientific library for the instruction of the youth of Greenock, in the hope
of prompting others to add to it, and of rendering his townsmen as eminent
for their knowledge as they are for the spirit of enterprise.
This has grown to be a library containing 15,000
volumes, and is a valuable adjunct of the Watt Institution, founded by his
son in memory of his father, which is to-day the educational centre of
Greenock. Its entrance is adorned by a remarkably fine statue of Watt, funds
for which were raised by public subscription.
Many societies honored the great inventor. He was a
fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, the Royal Society of London,
Member of the Batavian Society, correspondent of the French Academy of
Sciences, and was one of the eight Foreign Associates of the French Academy
Watt's almost morbid dislike for publicity leaves many
well-known acts of kindness and charity hidden from all save the recipients.
Muirhead assures us that such gifts as we can well believe were not wanting.
Watt's character as a kindly neighbor always stood high. He was one of those
"who will not receive a reward for that for which God accounts Himself a
debtor—persons that dare trust God with their charity, and without a
In the autumn of 1819 an illness of no great apparent
severity caused some little anxiety to Watt's family, and was soon
recognised by himself as the messenger sent to apprise him of his end. This
summons he met with the calm and tranquil mind, that, looking backward,
could have found little of serious nature to repent, and looking forward,
found nothing to fear. "He often expressed his "gratitude to the Giver of
All Good who had so signally "prospered the work of his hands and blessed
him with "length of days and riches and honour." On August 19, 1819, aged
83, in his own home at Heathfield, he tranquily breathed his last, deeply
mourned by all who were privileged to know him. In the parish churchyard,
alongside of Boulton, he was most appropriately laid to rest. Thus the two
strong men, life-long friends and partners, who had never had a serious
difference, "lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their death were not
It may be doubted whether there be on record so
charming a business connection as that of Boulton and Watt; in their own
increasingly close union for twenty-five years, and, at its expiration, in
the renewal of that union in their sons under the same title; in their Sons'
close union as friends without friction as in the first generation; in the
wonderful progress of the world resulting from their works; in their lying
down side by side in death upon the bosom of Mother Earth in the quiet
churchyard, as they had stood side by side in the battle of life; and in the
faithful servant Murdoch joining them at the last, as he had joined them in
his prime. In the sweet and precious influences which emanate from all this,
may we not gratefully make acknowledgment that in contemplation thereof we
are lifted into a higher atmosphere, refreshed, encouraged, and bettered by
the true story of men like ourselves, whom if we can never hope to equal, we
may at least try in part to imitate.
A meeting was called in London to take steps for a
monument to Watt to be placed in Westminster Abbey. The prime minister
presided and announced a subscription of five hundred pounds sterling from
His Majesty. It may truly be said that
A meeting more distinguished by rank, station and
talent, was never before assembled to do honour to genius, and to modest and
retiring worth; and a more spontaneous, noble, and discriminating testimony
was never borne to the virtues, talents, and public services of any
individual, in any age or country.
The result was the colossal statue by Chantrey which
bears the following inscription, pronounced to be beyond comparison "the
finest lapidary inscription "in the English language." It is from the pen of