Published On: Sun, Aug 25th, 2019

James Watt: Glasgow University | UK | News

The institution will commemorate the Greenockian, whose work on the steam engine kickstarted the industrial revolution, exactly 200 years from his death on August 25, 1819. The new James Watt School of Engineering has been welcomed by Debbie Beales, of the university’s health, safety and wellbeing unit, who recently discovered her family tree goes back six generations to Watt. She said: “I had no idea of my family’s connection to James Watt until a cousin recently decided to research the Beales family tree and uncovered this link.

“While dad passed away a couple of years ago, my gran, Jean, is still alive and I know she is as proud as I am of the family’s link to a pioneering figure like Watt, and pleased to know that the School of Engineering is marking the 200th anniversary of his death with this renaming.

“It came as quite a shock but the more we thought about it, the more we realised that there were odd connections between generations – my dad worked as a shipwright, as Watt’s own father did, and, although my dad was camera-shy, he bore a resemblance to Watt.

“I’ve worked at the university for 15 years, and in a previous role I regularly visited the print unit in the James Watt South building, never realising I had a deeper connection to the man it was named after.”

Watt’s son, also called James, had a son named John in 1832. John’s son Alexander was born in 1851 and his son, also called Alexander, was born in 1890.

Alexander Watt had a daughter, Jean, who married Michael Beales and the couple had a son named Robert, Debbie’s father.

The tribute is the latest in a year-long celebration of the life and work of Watt, who was working as an instrument maker at the university when, in 1765, he made improvements to a Newcomen steam engine, adding a separate condenser to make it vastly more efficient. Professor David Cumming, head of the James Watt School of Engineering, said: “The importance of Watt’s contribution to the field of engineering can’t really be overstated, and we’re very proud to be associated with the improvements he made to the Newcomen steam engine.

“The world has come a long way in 200 years, and much of that distance was covered using technology derived from the principles he established. 

“While we’ve long had a building and two chairs in electrical and mechanical engineering named after Watt, it seemed fitting to mark the start of the third century of a post-Watt world with the renaming of the school, not least because we’ll eventually be moving to a state-of-the-art new facility on the site of the old Western Infirmary as part of the university’s billion-pound campus improvement programme.

“We were also delighted to discover that a living descendent of James Watt has been working alongside us for years, and we’re very happy that Debbie is as proud as we are of the university’s connection to Watt.”

Watt, who was born in Greenock in January 1736, had his moment of inspiration about how to improve the steam engine while taking a Sunday stroll across Glasgow Green in May 1765.

Within a few decades of his breakthrough, networks of factories and mines, linked by railways, were spreading across the country and the industrial age had begun.

Watt, who became a wealthy man thanks to his invention, died in Birmingham aged 83.

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