For one month in 1768, Bo’ness was the Silicon Valley of its time, the centre of the universe.
Industrial espionage was also to the fore, as spies tried to discover the secrets James Watt was working on in a cottage in the grounds of Kinneil House.
Their ploys were foiled, however, and history would go on to record James Watt as being the man who powered the industrial revolution – thanks to the work he did right here on our doorstep.
For it was in the cottage built for him by Dr John Roebuck, the Carron Ironworks founder, that in the space of one industrious month in 1768 Watt perfected improvements to the 1712 Newcomen steam engine.
The patent was secured 250 years ago, in Januay 1769 – sadly, too late to save Roebuck from bankruptcy.
Indeed, James Watt also had to take on additional work here in Scotland, as he initially failed to commercialise his invention.
In 1771, that saw him doing surveyance work on the doomed Bo’ness Canal.
This wee gem, and many others, will be recounted at Bo’ness Library tomorrow (Friday, August 23), when a special film will be screened.
James Watt and the Falkirk Area has been a labour of love for Geoff Bailey, Falkirk Communnity Trust’s heritage engagement officer and Naomi Kenny, the Trust’s equalities and facilities librarian.
They started filming the video in June at four locations vital to the local James Watt story.
Last Friday, Andrew Carnegie’s biography of Watt – borrowed from Falkirk Library – was being used to add the finishing touches to the film at Callendar House.
Geoff said: “It will be 200 years since Watt’s death on August 25 but people still come to the cottage at Kinneil to see where he perfected the patent for his steam engine improvements.
“It is also 100 years since Andrew Carnegie died so we wanted to mark that by including his biography within the film.”
Watt’s story still intrigues; little wonder as he developed the concept of horsepower and the SI unit of power, the Watt, was named after him. So even 200 years after his death, he can still be deemed a household name!
But it is his story here in the Falkirk district which Geoff and Naomi have turned the lens on for their latest movie production.
It saw them filming at the cottage Watt used as his workshop on Kinneil Estate, John Roebuck’s grave in Carriden Parsish Churchyard, Carron Ironworks and the bridge over the River Avon on Bo’ness Road, Grangemouth.
Geoff said: “The film is used to show the local connections to Watt and how, for a few weeks in 1768, Bo’ness was the centre of the universe; our very own Silicon Valley.
“There were people here trying to spy on James Watt but they came away with the wrong idea so, when they tried to patent it, it proved to be a dead end.
“The film focuses on the cottage where Watt worked.
“He lived in the big hoose but the cottage is where he did all his work and the two windows within it caught the morning sun. Poetically, it later became a washhouse.
“We also travel to the ironworks where one of his early cylinders was forged.
“And we look at the bridge over the River Avon which was built as an aqueduct for the Bo’ness Canal.
“That was supposed to extend the Forth and Clyde Canal to Bo’ness, via Bo’ness Road, which Watt surveyed in 1771 in order to earn money to feed his family.
“The construction firm went bankrupt, though, so it never came to fruition.
“We also spend a bit of time at Roebuck’s grave as he helped Watt in so many different ways.
“Watt was known to get despondent quite quickly but Roebuck discussed problems with him and encouraged him to succeed.
“Roebuck also pushed him to apply for the patent, even though it was more a concept than a design.
“It was so woolly people couldn’t find a way round the patent – and that’s what made Watt a fortune later on.”
For Watt paired up with Matthew Boulton in 1775 and their new firm, Boulton and Watt, perfected the design.
Geoff added: “Had it been perfected at Kinneil, it would have been a different story.”
James Watt and the Falkirk Area will be shown alongside two archive films from the National Library of Scotland, James Watt and Land of Invention, in Bo’ness Library tomorrow (Friday) at 7pm. Admission free.
It’s a particularly fitting venue as Watt may have frequented it in its former guise, the West Pier Tavern!
Watt A Day! to celebrate inventor
Bo’ness Library is hosting a free exhibition on James Watt.
The displays tell of his early life and his partnership with Dr John Roebuck.
But they also explore his move to Birmingham, how he teamed up with industrialist Matthew Boulton and his family life.
Consultant Adrian Mahoney, who helped bring the exhibition to Bo’ness, said: “The panels were originally created for use around the Birmingham area as part of the wider project to mark 200 years since Watt’s death.
“Many local people know about James Watt’s time at Kinneil but are less clear about his later life in England. Hopefully, this exhibition answers some of their questions.
“I’d like to thank Chris Rice of the James Watt 2019 project, who developed the exhibition, and designer Dave Walsh for allowing us to display the panels, as well as Falkirk Community Trust for providing space in Bo’ness Library.
“We’ve also added a panel about Watt’s time in Bo’ness – using text written by historian Geoff Bailey – which highlights buildings that would have been around during Watt’s time, including the library itself.”
The exhibition will be on show until mid-September during normal library opening hours.
Scotland’s industrial museums will celerbrate Watt on the 200th anniversary of his death.
Watt A Day! will also be staged at Kinneil Estate from 1pm to 4pm on Sunday, August 25.
Join a guided tour of the house, meet Watt in his workshop, explore the scavenger trail and take part in family-friendly games and activities.
The event will complement free tours of Kinneil House, running all day. Tours must be booked in advance at www.historicenvironment.scot.
For more on events across Scotland, visit jameswatt.scot/events.