Watt in old age
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 marvelous memory that forgot no gem:
For I have learned To look on nature, not as in the hour Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity, Nor harsh, nor grating, though of ample power To chasten and subdue. And I have felt A presence that disturbs me with the joy Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime Of something far more deeply interfused, Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns, And the round ocean and the living air, And the blue sky, and in the mind of man: A motion and a spirit, that impels All thinking things, all objects of all thought, And rolls through all things. Therefore am I still 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 silver 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; DeLuc 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 later times."
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 traveler 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 University, saying:
Entertaining a due sense of the many favors 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 of Sciences.
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 witness."
In the autumn of 1819 an illness of no great apparent severity caused some little anxiety to Watt's family, and was soon recognized 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 honor." On August 19, 1819, aged 83, in his own home at Heathfield, he tranquilly 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, lifelong friends and partners, who had never had a serious difference, "lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their death were not divided."
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 honor 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 Lord Brougham:
NOT TO PERPETUATE A NAME WHICH MUST ENDURE WHILE THE PEACEFUL ARTS FLOURISH BUT TO SHEW THAT MANKIND HAVE LEARNT TO HONOUR THOSE WHO BEST DESERVE THEIR GRATITUDE THE KING HIS MINISTERS, AND MANY OF THE NOBLES AND COMMONERS OF THE REALM RAISED THIS MONUMENT TO JAMES WATT WHO DIRECTING THE FORCE OF AN ORIGINAL GENIUS EARLY EXERCISED IN PHILOSOPHIC RESEARCH TO THE IMPROVEMENT OF THE STEAM-ENGINE ENLARGED THE RESOURCES OF HIS COUNTRY INCREASED THE POWER OF MAN AND ROSE TO AN EMINENT PLACE AMONG THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS FOLLOWERS OF SCIENCE AND THE REAL BENEFACTORS OF THE WORLD BORN AT GREENOCK MDCCXXXVI DIED AT HEATHFIELD IN STAFFORDSHIRE MDCCCXIX
Contents Copyright James Watt 2009