Watt, who was born in Greenock on January 19, 1736, played a vital role in kickstarting the industrial revolution with his development of an improved steam engine, work which he undertook during his time as mathematical instrument maker at the University of Glasgow.

While repairing the university’s model Newcomen steam engine in 1763, he realised that he could cut down on the engine’s inefficiency by adding a separate steam condenser to avoid loss of heat and conserve fuel.

Those improvements were widely adopted by the mining and manufacturing industries and incorporated into new types of ships and trains.

2019 marks both the 250th anniversary of Watt’s patent for the separate condenser and the 200th anniversary of his death.

The University of Glasgow is planning a wide range of activity to commemorate Watt’s contribution to the creation of the modern world, including:

  • A multimedia public exhibition about Watt’s time at the University and the contributions of the University’s James Watt Chairs in Engineering
  • A series of public education and engagement events at the Glasgow Science Festival between 6 and 16 June
  • A Watt-themed e-competition for school students as part of the Glasgow Science Festival named ‘Creating Engineers Challenge 2019’
  • An international symposium for engineering researchers, supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society of Edinburgh
  • Hosting the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Royal Society of Edinburgh Annual Joint Lecture
  • A gala dinner

In 1921, the University established two James Watt Chairs to continue Watt’s legacy of innovation and entrepreneurship in engineering.

Professor Asen Asenov is the university’s current James Watt Chair in Electrical Engineering. Prof Asenov said: “We’re pleased and proud to be celebrating the University of Glasgow’s links with James Watt in a year which marks important anniversaries in his life story.

“The university has always taken seriously its association with Watt and worked hard to keep his spirit alive on campus, particularly through the role of the James Watt Chairs.

“Previous holders of that role include Professor John Lamb, who pioneered semiconductor research which helped underpin modern electrical and electronics engineering, and Professor Chris Wilkinson, who pioneered nanotechnology fabrication at the university.

“Today, the spirit of Watt is very much alive at the university, and it’s a privilege to be working here during a very exciting time for science and engineering, which some are calling the fourth industrial revolution.”

Professor Colin McInnes is the university’s James Watt Chair, Professor of Engineering Science. Prof McInnes said: “James Watt’s legacy is clearly visible across the University of Glasgow, not least at our James Watt Nanofabrication Centre, where we help develop the technologies of the future through the creation of electronic devices at the very limits of physics.

“While Watt is best-known for his improvements to the steam engine, he was a restless inventor who developed new devices including a portable document duplicator and a mechanical three-dimensional sculpture copier.

“Today, our School of Engineering is similarly adventurous, with research underway on projects from down at the quantum level all the way to space exploration. I’m proud to be a James Watt Chair and I’m thrilled that 2019 will be a celebration of Watt’s contributions to the world.”

In addition to the University’s plans for James Watt celebrations this year, there are also further events planned across the UK by organisations including Heriot-Watt University, the University of Birmingham and Historic Environment Scotland.



University of Glasgow