James Watt’s experiments at Kinneil House harnessed steam age

Henry Bell's Comet pictured in 1812
Henry Bell's Comet pictured in 1812

On Friday last I spent a very enjoyable evening with the Friends of Kinneil at their annual James Watt Supper – the engineering genius who worked at Kinneil in the 1760s was honoured in great style, especially via the menu of ‘salmagundie’, a marvellous selection of cut meats and fish which Maria Ford assures me was quite likely to have graced the Watt family dinner table!

The efficient harnessing of steam power was, of course, one of the key moments in the early days of the industrial revolution and James Watt was the man who made it happen. Before his experiments the cumbersome and inefficient Newcomen steam engines were used mainly to pump water from coal pits – there was one in use in the Airth colliery as early as 1720.

Working in the little workshop behind Kinneil House, Watt perfected the ‘separate condenser’ which unlocked the mighty power of steam allowing the construction of engines capable of powering machinery of all kinds. The country and the world would never be the same again.

The little roofless workshop which helped usher in this revolution remains as a local link to the world of steam but it is not the only connection. In 1801 another great Scottish engineer William Symington mounted a steam engine on a canal boat built in Alexander Hart’s Grangemouth yard and, as its paddle wheel powered through the waters of the canal, the Charlotte Dundas steamed into history as the world’s first practical steam boat.

Today another enthusiastic group, the Friends of Charlotte Dundas, is campaigning to have this achievement properly recognised as there is only a wall plaque near the boatyard at the moment.

Another steam link takes us just a few miles away to the ruins of Torphichen Mill, the birthplace of Henry Bell, yet another pioneer of steam navigation. Henry attended school in Falkirk before serving an apprenticeship at a boatyard in Bo’ness. He had an early interest in steam navigation and wrote to James Watt, then at the height of his success in Birmingham.

Unfortunately the great man poured cold water on his ideas but, undaunted, he exchanged more positive letters with Lord Nelson not long before Trafalgar. Marriage took him to Helensburgh and it was across the Clyde at Port Glasgow that the famous Comet was built and launched in 1812.

It was a great success and, despite the powerful claims from American engineer Robert Fulton, over here we will maintain that the Comet was indeed the world’s first practical sea-going ship. A few years after its launch Comet crossed Scotland via the canal to the Bo’ness yard where Bell had started work.

The final piece in the local steam jigsaw is the famous Scottish Railway Preservation Society which operates both the Bo’ness and Kinneil Railway and the Scottish Railway Museum. The SRPS has made a huge contribution to Scotland’s industrial heritage over the last 50 years.

Suffice to say that the 25 steam locomotives in the SRPS collection are another part of the long story of steam that began nearly 250 years ago with James Watt in his workshop in Kinneil.