Engineering a revolution

The cottage in the Kinneil estate that James Watt used as a workshop.
The cottage in the Kinneil estate that James Watt used as a workshop.

In a week’s time when the country is tucking into haggis and remembering the national bard, the Friends of Kinneil will celebrate the birthday of another of Scotland’s great men.

The engineer James Watt, whose genius almost single-handedly created the industrial revolution, had strong connections with the Falkirk area and it was at Kinneil that he did much of his pioneering work.

Watt was born in Greenock on January 19, 1736 and after school served an apprenticeship as a maker of scientific instruments in London.

In 1757 he began work in Glasgow University where he had the task of making and repairing models used by the science and engineering professors.

One of these was of a Newcomen steam engine, a cumbersome, inefficient machine which was in widespread use in collieries, including one installed at Airth as early as 1720.

By careful study of the actions of steam Watt developed a new concept – an added condensing chamber – which would make a huge improvement to the efficiency of the engine.

By 1765 he had the theory worked out and was ready to attempt a large scale experiment if he could find a financial backer.

Meantime down at Kinneil House, Dr John Roebuck, the founder of Carron Iron Works, was facing great difficulties with his collieries which often flooded, making mining the coal almost impossible.

A more powerful and efficient pumping engine was required and his attention was drawn to Watt’s work in Glasgow. He invited the young engineer to come to Kinneil and put up enough money to construct a prototype engine.

He also built a small workshop behind Kinneil House and offered the services of the Carron boilermakers and blacksmiths.

Using Watt’s drawings the Carron moulders cast a cylinder which bears the date 1766 and today is fixed to the wall of the surviving clock tower at Carron.

The resulting engine was not successful because the works did not possess the necessary skills and equipment. Another attempt, though not full-scale, worked well enough to convince both Watt and Roebuck that they were on the right lines and several machines were installed in the local area, including one nicknamed ‘Beelzebub’ at the Burn Pit.

However production difficulties at Carron remained and Dr Roebuck was close to bankruptcy.

In 1775 he sold his share in the invention to Matthew Bolton whose works in Birmingham had the necessary skills to complete the job.

Watt left Kinneil and Scotland and not long after the company of Boulton and Watt launched the working engine.

Productivity increased dramatically and, freed from dependence on water power, industrial towns and cities began to appear throughout the land.

The revolution was underway. Unlike his contemporary Robert Burns, Watt went on to enjoy a long life and reap the financial benefits of his genius. He died a famous and very wealthy man in 1819.

The workshop in which much of the experimental work was done still stands though today it is roofless and a bit forlorn. But the memory of the man and his contribution to the advance of science and engineering is not forgotten, especially by those for whom Kinneil is one of Scotland’s most historic and important places.

So bring on the steamed pudding and the hot toddy kettle and salute the immortal memory of James Watt, the man who changed the world.

l The James Watt Supper will be held in Bo’ness on Friday, January 18. Further information is available from Maria Ford on (01506) 510629.

Ask Ian

Trish Barrowman asks about the five entryways into the town in the medieval period and whether any remain.

These gates or ‘ports’ built in the 1500s were stone with battlements and slots for pointing weapons. They stood at the east and west ends of the High Street, on the Cow Wynd and Vicar Street and near the entrance to the Howgate Centre. They were probably joined together by a low wall running round the back of properties and were controlled entrances to discourage unwanted visitors like folk with the plague! There are no remains or archaeology as far as I know.

I intend to write about this topic in a future article.