Records, publications and artefacts relating to James Watt

Scope and Content

Records, publications, photographs and artefacts relating to James Watt:

  • Business Records
  • Private Records
  • Published Biographies
  • Printed records of events and exhibitions celebrating the achievements of James Watt
  • Correspondence files regarding portraits of James Watt
  • Works of Art relating to James Watt
  • Photographs, prints and other illustrations

Administrative / Biographical History

James Watt, born at Greenock in 1736, was the son of a carpenter. He trained as an instrument maker in London and began to practise this trade in Glasgow. Watt soon developed a reputation as a high quality engineer and was employed on the Forth & Clyde Canal and the Caledonian Canal. He was also engaged in the improvement of harbours and in the deepening of the Forth, Clyde and other rivers in Scotland.

In 1763 he repaired the model of Newcomen's steam engine belonging to Glasgow University, and began experiments on properties of steam. The Newcomen engine was simple in design: it acted as a pump and a jet of cold water was used to condense the steam. Watt improved on this design by adding a separate condenser and a system of valves to make the piston return to the top of the cylinder after descending. He took out a patent for the separate condenser in 1769. He later adapted the engine to rotary motion, making it suitable for a variety of industrial purposes, and invented the flywheel and the governor.

In 1774 he went into partnership with Matthew Boulton to make steam engines at their works at Soho, Birmingham. The first engines were used in collieries and iron works and were the driving force behind the transformation of cotton spinning from a cottage to factory industry. Watt's inventive talents led him to patent a variety of machines and devices including a letter-copier and a smoke-consuming furnace.

James Watt died at Hatfield in 1819 and was buried in Handsworth Church. He had been elected Fellow by the Royal Society, Edinburgh, and London, in 1795, and awarded the degree of Honorary Doctor of Laws by Glasgow University.


Records are arranged chronologically according to provenance.

Access Information

By appointment. Access to records in a fragile condition may be restricted.

Other Finding Aids

Catalogue available in the Searchroom.

Conditions Governing Use

Photocopies and photographic copies canbe supplied for educational use and private study purposesonly, depending on the condition of the documents. Permission to publish material from the Archive must be sought in advance from the University Archivist.

Custodial History

The Collection consists of records and artefacts collected by and gifted to the University and its predecessor institutions, in particular by the Watt Club.



Related Material

Business Records of James Brown, partner, Boulton, Watt & Co. (GB 582 HWUA JB)

Birmingham City Archives: Letter books, ledgers, cash books, journals, order, pattern, casting, engine, fitting and wages books, inventories etc., 1762-1895 (Reference: Boulton & Watt Collection)

Birmingham City Archives: Correspondence, ledgers, letter books and cash books and mint books, 1783-1849 (Reference: Matthew Boulton Papers)

Birmingham City Archives: Correspondence with Boulton family, 1768-1821 (Reference: Matthew Boulton Papers)

Birmingham City Archives: Watt family papers, business corresp, legal papers etc, 18th cent-19th cent (Reference: James Watt Papers)

Birmingham City Archives: Notebooks of Samuel Vale and JS Vale relating to their employment with Boulton and Watt, 19th cent (Reference : MS 2088)

Birmingham City Archives: Correspondence with Count von Bulow (photocopies), 1822-27 (Reference: MS 1619)

Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry: Drawings, blueprints and tracings, 1780-1803 (Reference: NRA 9185 Birmingham Museum)

British Library, Manuscript Collections: Misc. letters and papers of him and his son, James, 1791-1832, nd (see Index of MSS, X, 1986)

Cornwall Record Office: Correspondence mainly with Cornish agent, Thomas Wilson, 1780-1803 (Reference: DDX 208, 318)

Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections: Misc. accounts and contracts (9 items), 1787-1798 (Reference: MSS La Add 2, 5-7)

Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections: Letters to Joseph Black, 1772-88 (Reference: Gen 873-75)

Hergest Trust Archives: letters from him, his wife and his son to Mr and Mrs James Crummer, James Davies and Richard Banks, 1811- 48 (see Transactions of Radnorshire Society 1992, pp51-65)

Institution of Mechanical Engineers Library: Engine costs and drawings, 1795, 1800-02, nd (Reference: NRA 9515 Mechanical Engineers)

National Library of Wales, Department of Manuscripts and Records: letters (74) to William and Robert Mylne, 1830-47 (Reference: NLW MSS 6998E, 21805C)

Sandwell Community History and Archives Service: Correspondence and drawings, 1779-1882 (Reference: Accs 2460-2511, 3887)

Victoria & Albert Museum, Department of Designs, Prints and Drawings: Pattern book for silver and Sheffield plate, ca.1785 (Reference: E 2060-1952)

Watt Library: letters (31), 1805-34 (NRA 14668 James Watt Library)

Location of Originals

The collection comprises copies and published works and a few original documents. For location of originals see below.


  • H.W. Dickinson & R. JenkinsJames Watt & the Steam EngineOxford, 1981.

This, together with other secondary texts on James Watt, is available for consultation in the Archive.

Corporate Names