50 Facts About James Watt — The Inventor of The Watt Steam Engine

Last updated on July 21st, 2023

39. The Chantrey Sculpture

Leading portrait sculptor Sir Francis Leggatt Chantrey made a colossal statue of James Watt, initially displayed in Westminster Abbey and transferred to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The inscription described Watt as someone who increased the power of man and was a real benefactor of the world.

40. Bicentenary

In 2019, the Library of Birmingham launched a major exhibition called Watt in the World: The Life and Legacy of James Watt. It marks the bicentenary of his death and offers more perspectives about the man behind the inventor.


41. Patent Infringement

Others eventually began copying his work betting Watt could not enforce his patents. Mine owners also withheld the annual payments on their existing engines. Watt went to court and won most cases. The rest ended in favorable settlements.

42. Technical Drawings

James Watt was an excellent draughtsman. He made detailed technical drawings for his creations. He preferred using his patents to communicate ideas and present his results rather than publishing them in scientific journals.

43. Lunar Society of Birmingham

Watt was a member of an exclusive British dinner club composed of prominent intellectuals, industrialists, and natural philosophers. Other members were his business partner Matthew Boulton, the physician Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), the chemist Joseph Priestly (discoverer of oxygen), and many more.

Boulton, Watt and Murdoch statue, Birmingham.
Boulton, Watt and Murdoch statue, Birmingham. Facts about James Watt. Photo © Arenaphotouk

44. The Golden Boys

In 1956, the artist William Bloye unveiled a gilded bronze statue of Watt, Boulton, and Murdoch. The men are discussing the plans for a steam engine. The sculpture is at Centenary Square in Birmingham.

45. An Anxious Businessman

Watt was a natural engineer, but he was a poor businessman. He hated negotiations. Although he constantly worried about his finances, he retired as a rich man and passed the business to his sons.

46. Copying Sculptures

Watt did not stop inventing things during retirement, including the machine that copied sculptures. Among his first creations was a head replica of his economist friend Adam Smith. He did not seek a patent.

47. Stand on Slavery

His father traded slaves, but James Watt was personally opposed to it. He once cancelled an order from a French company that wanted his steam engine because it operated in Haiti. At the time, Haitian slaves were fighting for freedom.

48. A Trusted Partner

William Murdoch was a vital contributor to the success of Watt and Boulton. He helped develop the steam locomotive and the use of sun-and-planet gear for steam engines. Some say he invented these, but he never disputed the Watt patents. Murdoch came in as an employee in 1777 but became a partner in 1810.

49. James Watt College

Andrew Carnegie, another illustrious Scot, donated funds to build an engineering school in memory of James Watt. It opened in 1908, featuring a statue of the inventor at the corner tower.

50. First Applications

The textile industry was one of the first to embrace the steam engine, with mechanized cotton spinning multiplying worker output by 500. Iron makers also used it to increase production and reduce costs.

James Watt – quick facts

Born19 January 1736, Greenock, United Kingdom
Died25 August 1819, Heathfield Hall
NationalityBritish, Scottish
Age at the time of death83 years
Field of WorkInventor, scientist, engineer, chemist
Known forInventions of separate condenser, double-acting engine, sun-and-planet gear, Watt steam engine
EducationUniversity of Glasgow
ParentsAgnes Muirhead, James Watt
SiblingJohn Watt
SpousesAnn MacGregor (m. 1777–1819), Margaret Miller (m. 1764–1772)
Children1. James Watt Junior
2. Margaret Watt
3. Gregory Watt
4. Janet Watt