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James Watt Maret 18, 2012

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James Watt was born on 19 January 1736 in Greenock, Renfrewshire, a seaport on the Firth of Clyde.[3] His father was a shipwright, ship owner and contractor, and served as the town’s chief baillie,[4] while his mother, Agnes Muirhead, came from a distinguished family and was well educated. Both were Presbyterians and strong Covenanters.[5] Watt’s grandfather, Thomas Watt, was a mathematics teacher and baillie to the Baron of Cartsburn.[6] Watt did not attend school regularly; initially he was mostly schooled at home by his mother but later he attended Greenock grammar school.[7] He exhibited great manual dexterity and an aptitude for mathematics, although Latin and Greek failed to interest him.

   When he was 18, his mother died and his father’s health began to fail. Watt travelled to London to study instrument-making for a year, then returned to Scotland, settling in the major commercial city of Glasgow intent on setting up his own instrument-making business. However, because he had not served at least seven years as an apprentice, the Glasgow Guild of Hammermen (which had jurisdiction over any artisans using hammers) blocked his application,[8] despite there being no other mathematical instrument makers in Scotland.[9]

   Watt was saved from this impasse by the arrival of astronomical instruments to the University of Glasgow that required expert attention.[10] Watt restored them to working order and was remunerated. These instruments were eventually installed in the Macfarlane Observatory. Subsequently three professors offered him the opportunity to set up a small workshop within the university. It was established in 1758 and one of the professors, the physicist and chemist Joseph Black, became Watt’s friend.

   In 1764, Watt married his cousin Margaret Miller, with whom he had five children, two of whom lived to adulthood: James Jr. (1769–1848) and Margaret (1767–1796). His wife died in childbirth in 1772. In 1777 he married again, to Ann MacGregor, daughter of a Glasgow dye-maker, with whom he had two children: Gregory (1777–1803) and Janet (1779–1794). Ann died in 1832. Between 1777 and 1790 he lived in Regent Place, Birmingham.

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