Glasgow to London--Return to Glasgow

Glasgow to London--Return to Glasgow

Through Professor Muirhead, a kinsman of Watt's mother, he was introduced to many others of the faculty of the university, and, as usual, attracted their attention, especially that of Dr. Dick, Professor of natural philosophy, who strongly advised him to proceed to London, where he could receive better instruction than it was possible to obtain in Scotland at that time. The kind Professor, diviner of latent genius, went so far as to give him a personal introduction, which proved efficient. How true it is that the worthy, aspiring youth rarely goes unrecognized or unaided. Men with kind hearts, wise heads, and influence strong to aid, stand ready at every turn to take modest merit by the hand and give it the only aid needed, opportunity to speak, through results, for itself. So London was determined upon. Fortunately, a distant relative of the Watt family, a sea-captain, was about to set forth upon that then long and toilsome journey. They started from Glasgow June 7, 1755, on horseback, the journey taking twelve days.

The writer's parents often referred to the fact that when the leading linen manufacturer of Dunfermline was about to take the journey to London--the only man in the town then who ever did--special prayers were always said in church for his safety.

The member of Parliament in Watt's day from the extreme north of Scotland would have consumed nearly twice twelve days to reach Westminster. To-day if the capital of the English-speaking race were in America, which Lord Roseberry says he is willing it should be, if thereby the union of our English-speaking race were secured, the members of the Great Council from Britain could reach Washington in seven days, the members from British Columbia and California, upon the Pacific, in five days, both land and sea routes soon to be much quickened.

Those sanguine prophets who predict the reunion of our race on both sides of the Atlantic can at least aver that in view of the union of Scotland and England, the element of time required to traverse distances to and from the capital is no obstacle, since the most distant points of the new empire, Britain in the east and British Columbia and California in the west, would be reached in less than one-third the time required to travel from the north of Scotland to London at the time of the union. Besides, the telegraph to-day binds the parts together, keeping all citizens informed, and stirring their hearts simultaneously thousands of miles apart--Glasgow to London, 1755, twelve days; 1905, eight hours. Thus under the genius Steam, tamed and harnessed by Watt, the world shrinks into a neighborhood, giving some countenance to the dreamers who may perchance be proclaiming a coming reality. We may continue, therefore, to indulge the hope of the coming "parliament of man, the federation of the world," or even the older and wider prophecy of Burns, that, "It's coming yet for a' that, when man to man the world o'er, shall brithers be for a' that."

There comes to mind that jewel we owe to Plato, which surely ranks as one of the most precious of all our treasures: "We should lure ourselves as with enchantments, for the hope is great and the reward is noble." So with this enchanting dream, better than most realities, even if it be all a dream. Let the dreamers therefore dream on. The world, minus enchanting dreams, would be commonplace indeed, and let us remember this dream is only dream able because Watt's steam engine is a reality.

After his twelve days on horseback, Watt arrived in London, a stranger in a strange land, unknowing and unknown. But the fates had been kind for, burdened with neither wealth nor rank, this poor would-be skilled mechanic was to have a fair chance by beginning at the bottom among his fellows, the sternest yet finest of all schools to call forth and strengthen inherent qualities, and impel a poor young man to put forth his utmost effort when launched upon the sea of life, where he must either sink or swim, no bladders being in reserve for him.

Our young hero rose to the occasion and soon proved that, Caesar-like, he could "stem the waves with heart of controversy." Thus the rude school of experience calls forth and strengthens the latent qualities of youth, implants others, and forms the indomitable man, fit to endure and overcome. Here, for the first time, alone in swarming London, not one relative, not one friend, not even an acquaintance, except the kind sea-captain, challenged by the cold world around to do or die, fate called to Watt as it calls to every man who has his own way to make:

"This is Collingtogle ford, And thou must keep thee with thy sword."

When the revelation first rushes upon a youth, hitherto directed by his parents, that, boy no more, he must act for himself, presto! change! he is a man, he has at last found himself. The supreme test, which proves the man, can come in all its winnowing force only to those born to earn their own support by training themselves to be able to render to society services which command return. This training compels the development of powers which otherwise would probably lie dormant. Scotch boy as Watt was to the core, with the lowland broad, soft accent, and ignorant of foreign literature, it is very certain that he then found support in the lessons instilled at his mother's knee. He had been fed on Wallace and Bruce, and when things looked darkest, even in very early years, his national hero, Wallace, came to mind, and his struggles against fearful odds, not for selfish ends, but for his country's independence. Did Wallace give up the fight, or ever think of giving up? Never! It was death or victory. Bruce and the spider! Did Bruce falter? Never! Neither would he. "Scots wa hae," "Let us do or die," implanted before his teens, has pulled many a Scottish boy through the crises of life when all was dark, as it will pull others yet to come. Although Burns and Scott had yet to appear, to crystallize Scotland's characteristics and plant the talismanic words into the hearts of young Scots, Watt had a copious supply of the national sentiment, to give him the "stout heart for the stye brae," when manhood arrived. His mother had planted deep in him, and nurtured, precious seed from her Celtic garden, which was sure to grow and bear good fruit.

We are often met with the question, "What is the best possible safeguard for a young man, who goes forth from a pure home, to meet the temptations that beset his path?" Various answers are given, but, speaking that as a Scot, reared as Watt was, the writer believes all the suggested safeguards combined scarcely weigh as much as preventives against disgracing himself as the thought that it would not be only himself he would disgrace, but that he would also bring disgrace upon his family, and would cause father, mother, sister and brother to hang their heads among their neighbors in secluded village, on far-away moor or in lonely glen. The Scotch have strong traces of the Chinese and Japanese religious devotion to "the family," and the filial instinct is intensely strong. The fall of one member is the disgrace of all. Even although Watt's mother had passed, there remained the venerated father in Greenock, and the letters regularly written to him, some of which have fortunately been preserved, abundantly prove that, though far from home, yet in home and family ties and family duties the young man had his strong tower of defense, keeping him from "all sense of sin or shame." Watt never gave his father reason for one anxious thought that he would in any respect discredit the good name of his forbears.

Many London shops were visited, but the rules of the trade, requiring apprentices to serve for seven years, or, being journeymen, to have served that time, proved an insuperable obstacle to Watt's being employed. His plan was to fit himself by a year's steady work for return to Glasgow, there to begin on his own account. He had not seven years to spend learning what he could learn in one. He would be his own master. Wise young man in this he was. There is not much outcome in the youth who does not already see himself captain in his dreams, and steers his barque accordingly, true to the course already laid down, not to be departed from, under any stress of weather. We see the kind of stuff this young Scotch lad was made of in the tenacity with which he held to his plan. At last some specimens of his work having seemed very remarkable to Mr. John Morgan, mathematical instrument maker, Finch Lane, Cornhill, he agreed to give the conquering young man the desired year's instructions for his services and a premium of twenty pounds, whereupon the plucky fellow who had kept to his course and made port, wrote to his father of his success, praising his master "as being of as good character, both for accuracy in his business, and good morals, as any of his way in London." The order in which this aspiring young man of the world records the virtues will not be overlooked. He then adds, "If it had not been for Mr. Short, I could not have got a man in London that would have undertaken to teach me, as I now find there are not above five or six who could have taught me all I wanted."

Mr. Short was the gentleman to whom Professor Dick's letter of introduction was addressed, who, no more than the Professor himself, nor Mr. Morgan, could withstand the extraordinary youth, whom he could not refuse taking into his service--glad to get him no doubt, and delighted that he was privileged to instruct one so likely to redound to his credit in after years. Thus Watt made his start in London, the twenty pounds premium being duly remitted from home.

Up to this time, Watt had been a charge on his father, but it was very small, for he lived in the most frugal style at a cost of only two dollars per week. In one of his letters to his father he regrets being unable to reduce it below that, knowing that his father's affairs were not prosperous. He, however, was able to obtain some remunerative work

on his own account, which he did after his day's task was over, and soon made his position secure as a workman. Specialization he met with for the first time, and he expresses surprise that "very few here know any more than how to make a rule, others a pair of dividers, and suchlike." Here we see that even at that early day division of labor had won its way in London, though yet unknown in the country. The jack-of-all-trades, the handyman, who can do everything, gives place to the specialist who confines himself to one thing in which practice makes him perfect. Watt's mission saved him from this, for to succeed he had to be master, not of one process, but of all. Hence we find him first making brass scales, parallel-rulers and quadrants. By the end of one month in this department he was able to finish a Hadley quadrant. From this he proceeded to azimuth compasses, brass sectors, theodolites, and other delicate instruments. Before his year was finished he wrote his father that he had made "a brass sector with a French joint, which is reckoned as nice a piece of framing-work as is in the trade," and expressed the hope that he would soon now be able to support himself and be no longer a charge upon him.

It is highly probable that this first tool finished by his own hands brought to Watt more unalloyed pleasure than any of his greater triumphs of later years, just as the first week's wages of youth, money earned by service rendered, proclaiming coming manhood, brings with it a thrill and glow of proud satisfaction, compared with which all the millions of later years are as dross.

Writers upon labor, who have never labored, generally make the profound mistake of considering labor as one solid mass, when the truth is that it contains orders and degrees as distinct as those in aristocracy. The workman skilled beyond his fellows, who is called upon by his superintendent to undertake the difficult job in emergencies, ranks high, and probably enjoys an honorable title, a pet name conferred by his shop mates. Men measure each other as correctly in the workshop as in the professions, and each has his deserved rank. When the right man is promoted, they rally round and enable him to perform wonders. Where favoritism or poor judgment is shown, the reverse occurs, and there is apathy and dissatisfaction, leading to poor results and serious trouble. The manual worker is as proud of his work, and rightly so, as men are in other vocations. His life and thought centre in the shop as those of members of Congress or Parliament centre in the House; and triumph for him in the shop, his world, means exactly the same to him, and appears not less important to his family and friends than what leadership is to the public man, or in any of the professions. He has all their pride of profession, and less vanity than most.

How far this "pride of profession" extends is well illustrated by the Pittsburgh story of the street scrapers at their noon repast. MacCarthy, recently deceased, was the subject of eulogy, one going so far as to assert that he was "the best man that ever scraped a hoe on Liberty Street." To this, one who had aspirations "allowed Mac was a good enough man on plain work, but around the gas-posts he wasn't worth a cent."

A public character, stopping over night with a friend in the country, the maid-of-all-work tells her mistress, after the guest departs, "I have read so much about him, never expecting to see him; little did I think I should have the honor of brushing his boots this morning." Happy girl in her work, knowing that all service is honorable. Even shoe-blacking, we see, has its rewards.

A Highland laird and lady, visiting some of their crofters on the moors, are met and escorted by a delighted wife to her cot. The children and the husband are duly presented. At an opportune moment the proud wife cannot refrain from informing her visitors that "it was Donald himself' the laird had to send for to thatch the pretty golf-house at the Castle. Donald did all that himself'," with an admiring glance cast at the embarrassed great man. Donald "sent for by the laird at the Castle" ranks in Donald's circle and in Donald's own heart with the honor of being sent for by His Majesty to govern the empire in Mr. Balfour's circle and in Mr. Balfour's own heart. Ten to one the proud Highland crofter and his circle reap more genuine, unalloyed satisfaction from the message than the lowland statesman and his circle could reap from his. But it made Balfour famous, you say. So was Donald made famous, his circle not quite so wide as that of his colleague--that is all. Donald is as much "uplifted" as the Prime Minister; probably more so. Thus is human nature ever the same down to the roots. Many distinctions, few differences in life. We are all kin, members of the one family, playing with different toys.

So deep down into the ranks of labor goes the salt of pride of profession, preventing rot and keeping all fresh in the main, because on the humblest of the workers there shines the bright ray of hope of recognition and advancement, progress and success. As long as this vista is seen stretching before all is well with labor. There will be friction, of course, between capital and labor, but it will be healthy friction, needed by, and good for, both. There is the haggling of the market in all business. As long as this valuable quality of honest pride in one's work exists, and finds deserved recognition, society has nothing to fear from the ranks of labor. Those who have had most experience with it, and know its qualities and its failing’s best, have no fear; on the contrary, they know that at heart labor is sound, and only needs considerate treatment. The kindly personal attention of the employer will be found far more appreciated than even a rise in wages.

Enforced confinement and unremitting labor soon told upon Watt's delicate constitution, yet he persevered with the self-imposed extra work, which brought in a little honest money and reduced the remittances from home. He caught a severe cold during the winter and was afflicted by a racking cough and severe rheumatic pains. With his father's sanction, he decided to return home to recuperate, taking good care however, forehanded as he always proved himself, to secure some new and valuable tools and a stock of materials to make many others, which "he knew he must make himself." A few valuable books were not forgotten, among them Bion's work on the "Construction and Use of Mathematical Instruments"--nothing pertaining to his craft but he would know. King he would be in that, so everything was made to revolve around it. That was the foundation upon which he had to build.

To the old home in Scotland our hero's face was now turned in the autumn of 1756, his twentieth year. His native air, best medicine of all for the invalid exile, soon restored his health, and to Glasgow he then went, in pursuance of his plan of life early laid down, to begin business on his own account. He thus became master before he was man. There was not in all Scotland a mathematical instrument maker, and here was one of the very best begging permission to establish himself in Glasgow. As in London so in Glasgow, however, the rules of the Guild of Hammer men, to which it was decided a mathematical instrument maker would belong, if one of such high calling made his appearance, prevented Watt from entrance if he had not consumed seven years in learning the trade. He had mastered it in one, and was ready to demonstrate his ability to

excel by any kind of test proposed. Watt had entered in properly by the door of knowledge and experience of the craft, the only door through which entrance was possible, but he had traveled too quickly; besides he was "neither the son of a burgess, nor had he served an apprenticeship in the borough," and this was conclusive. How the world has traveled onward since those days! and yet our day is likely to be in as great contrast a hundred and fifty years hence. Protective tariffs between nations, and probably wars, may then seem as strangely absurd as the hammer men’s rules. Even in 1905 we have still a far road to travel.

Failing in his efforts to establish himself in business, he asked the guild to permit him to rent and use a small workshop to make experiments, but even this was refused. We are disposed to wonder at this, but it was in strict accordance with the spirit of the times.

When the sky was darkest, the clouds broke and revealed the university as his guardian angel. Dr. Dick, Professor of natural philosophy, knowing of Watt's skill from his first start in Glasgow, had already employed him to repair some mathematical instruments bequeathed to the university by a Scotch gentleman in the West Indies, and the work had been well done, at a cost of five pounds--the first contract money ever earned by Watt in Glasgow. Good work always tells. Ability cannot be kept down forever; if crushed to earth, it rises again. So Watt's "good work" brought the Professors to his aid, several of whom he had met and impressed most favorably during its progress. The university charter, gift of the Pope in 1451, gave absolute authority within the area of its buildings, and the Professors resolved to give our hero shelter there--the best day's work they ever did. May they ever be remembered for this with feelings of deepest gratitude. What men these were! The venerable Anderson has already been spoken of; Adam Smith, who did for the science of economics what Watt did for steam, was one of Watt's dearest friends; Black, discoverer of latent heat; Robinson, Dick of whom we have spoken, and others. Such were the world's benefactors, who resolved to take Watt under their protection, and thus enabled him to do his appointed work. Glorious university, this of Glasgow, protector and nurse of Watt, probably of all its decisions this has been of the greatest service to man!

There are universities and universities. Glasgow's peculiar claim to regard lies in the perfect equality of the various schools, the humanities not neglected, the sciences appreciated, neither accorded precedence. Its scientific Professor, Thompson, now Lord Kelvin, was recently elevated to the Lord Chancellorship, the highest honor in its power to bestow.

Every important university develops special qualities of its own, for which it is noted. That of Glasgow is renowned for devotion to the scientific field. What a record is hers! Protector of Watt, going to extreme measures necessary, not alone to shelter him, but to enable him to labor within its walls and support himself; first university to establish an engineering school and professorship of engineering; first to establish a chemical teaching laboratory for students; first to have a physical laboratory for the exercise and instruction of students in experimental work; nursery from which came the steam engine of Watt, the discovery of latent heat by its Professor Black, and the successful operation of telegraph cables by its Professor and present Lord Chancellor (Lord Kelvin). May the future of Glasgow University copy fair her glorious past! Her "atmosphere" favors and stimulates steady, fruitful work. At all Scottish, as at all American universities, we may rejoice that there is always found a large number of the most distinguished students, who, figuratively speaking, cultivate knowledge upon a little oatmeal, earning money between terms to pay their way. It is highly probable that a greater proportion of these will be heard from in later years than of any other class.

American universities have, fortunately, followed the Glasgow model, and are giving more attention to the hitherto much neglected needs of science, and the practical departments of education, making themselves real universities, "where any man can study everything worth studying."

A room was assigned to Watt, only about twenty feet square, but it served him as it has done others since for great work. When the well-known author, Dr. Smiles, visited the room, he found in it the galvanic apparatus employed by Professor Thompson (Lord Kelvin) for perfecting his delicate invention which rendered ocean cables effective.

The kind and wise Professors did not stop here. They went pretty far, one cannot but think, when they took the next step in Watt's behalf, giving him a small room, which could be made accessible to the public, and this he was at liberty to open as a shop for the sale of his instruments, for Watt had to make a living by his handiwork. Strange work this for a university, especially in those days; but our readers, we are sure, will heartily approve the last, as they have no doubt approved the first action of the faculty in favor of struggling genius. Business was not prosperous at first with Watt, his instruments proving slow of sale. Of quadrants he could make three per week with the help of a lad, at a profit of forty shillings, but as sea-going ships could not then reach Glasgow, few could be sold. A supply was sent to Greenock, then the port of Glasgow, and sold by his father. He was reduced, as the greatest artists have often been, to the necessity of making what are known as "pot-boilers." Following the example of his first master in Glasgow he made spectacles, fiddles, flutes, guitars, and, of course, flies and fishing-tackle, and, as the record tells, "many dislocated violins, fractured guitars, fiddles also, if intreated, did he mend with good approbation." Such were his "pot-boilers" that met the situation.

His friend, Professor Black, who, like Professor Dick, had known of Watt's talent, one day asked him if he couldn't make an organ for him. By this time, Watt's reputation had begun to spread, and it finally carried him to the height of passing among his associates as "one who knew most things and could make anything." Watt knew nothing about organs, but he immediately undertook the work (1762), and the result was an indisputable success that led to his constructing, for a mason's lodge in Glasgow, a larger "finger organ," "which elicited the surprise and admiration of musicians." This extraordinary man improved everything he touched. For his second organ he devised a number of novelties, a sustained monochord, indicators and regulators of the blast, means for tuning to any system, contrivances for improving the stops, etc.

Lest we are led into a sad mistake here, let us stop a moment to consider how Watt so easily accomplished wonders, as if by inspiration. In all history it may be doubted whether success can be traced more clearly to long and careful preparation than in Watt's case. When we investigate, for instance, this seeming sleight-of-hand triumph with the organs, we find that upon agreeing to make the first, Watt immediately devoted himself to a study of the laws of harmony, making science supplement his lack of the musical ear. As usual, the study was exhaustive. Of course he found and took for guide the highest authority, a profound, but obscure book by Professor Smith of Cambridge University, and, mark this, he first made a model of the forthcoming organ. It is safe to say that there was not then a man in Britain who knew more of the science of music and was more thoroughly prepared to excel in the art of making organs than the new organ-builder.

When he attacked the problem of steam, as we shall soon see, the same course was followed, although it involved the mastering of three languages, that he should miss nothing.

We note that the taking of infinite pains, this fore-arming of himself, this knowing of everything that was to be known, the note of thorough preparation in Watt's career, is ever conspicuous. The best proof that he was a man of true genius is that he first made himself master of all knowledge bearing upon his tasks.

Watt could not have been more happily situated. His surroundings were ideal, the resources of the university were at his disposal, and, being conveniently situated, his workshop soon became the rendezvous of the faculty. He thus enjoyed the constant intimate companionship of one of the most distinguished bodies of educated men of science in the world. Glasgow was favored in her faculty those days as now. Two at least of Watt's closest friends, the discoverer of latent heat, and the author of the "Wealth of Nations," won enduring fame. Others were eminent. He did not fail to realize his advantages, and has left several acknowledgments of his debt to "those who were all much my superiors, I never having attended a college and being then but a mechanic." His so-called superiors did not quite see it in this light, as they have abundantly testified, but the modesty of Watt was ever conspicuous all through his life.

Watt led a busy life, the time not spent upon the indispensable "pot-boilers" being fully occupied in severe studies; chemistry, mathematics and mechanics all received attention. What he was finally to become no one could so far predict, but his associates expected something great from one who had so deeply impressed them.

Robison (afterwards Professor of natural history in Edinburgh University), being nearer Watt's age than the others, became his most intimate friend. His introduction to Watt, in 1758, has been described by himself. After feasting his eyes on the beautifully finished instruments in his shop, Robison entered into conversation with him. Expecting to find only a workman, he was surprised to find a philosopher. Says Robison:

I had the vanity to think myself a pretty good proficient in my favorite study (mathematical and mechanical philosophy), and was rather mortified at finding Mr. Watt so much my superior. But his own high relish for those things made him pleased with the chat of any person who had the same tastes with himself; or his innate complaisance made him indulge my curiosity, and even encourage my endeavors to form a more intimate acquaintance with him. I lounged much about him, and, I doubt not, was frequently teasing him. Thus our acquaintance began.


Chapter 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11

Contents Copyright James Watt 2009