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GENTLEMEN,-After perusing the long list of battles, assassinations, plagues, famines, and direful calamities of all sorts, which the annals of some country presented, a philosopher exclaimed, “Happy the country whose history is uninteresting!" To this apophthegm another may, with great propriety, be added, at least in a literary point of view, namely, "Hard the task of the man who is called to recount the history of a happy people!" If the exclamation of the philosopher lose nothing of its force when applied to individuals, its counterpart frequently, with equal truth, characterizes the labour of the biographer. Such has been the nature of my reflections while studying the life of James Watt, and while collecting the kind communications of the relatives, the acquaintances, and the friends of the illustrious mechanist. That life, devoted to labour, to study, and to meditation, furnishes none of those striking events whose recital, thrown with a little ad
dress among the details of science, tempers their dulness. I shall, however, relate it, were it for no other reason than to shew in how humble a sphere were elaborated those mighty projects which were destined to elevate the British nation to an unheard of height of power; and I shall endeavour more particularly to characterize with minute accuracy those splendid inventions which will for ever associate the name of Watt with the steam-engine. I am well aware of the disadvantages which attend this plan, and am prepared for the criticism: "We expected an historical eloge, and have heard only a dry and barren lecture." If my discourse, however, be comprehended, I shall willingly submit to the reproach. I shall do my best not to fatigue your attention, remembering that clearness constitutes politeness in a public speaker.
Childhood and youth of JAMES WATT; his appointment as Instrument-maker to the University of Glasgow.
JAMES WATT, one of the eight Foreign Associates of the Academy of Sciences, was born at Greenock in Scotland on the 19th day of January in the year 1736. Our neighbours on the other side of the Channel, have the good taste to think, that the genealogy of a respectable and industrious family is as worthy of preservation, as the musty parchments of some titled houses which have become celebrated only by the enormity of their vices or their crimes. Hence it is that I can state with certainty that the great-grandfather of James Watt was a farmer settled in the county of Aberdeen; that he fell in one of Montrose's battles; that the conquering party, as was then the custom (and I was going to add as is still
the practice in civil broils), did not consider death as sufficient expiation for those opinions on account of which the poor farmer had bled; that they, moreover, punished him in the person of his son, by confiscating his small property; that this unfortunate child, whose name was Thomas Watt, was taken care of by some distant relations; that, in the very isolated situation to which he was thus reduced, he devoted himself to serious and assiduous study; that, in more tranquil times, he established himself in Greenock, where he taught mathematics and the elements of navigation; that he resided in the Burgh of Barony of Crawford's-dyke, of which, for several years, he held the office of baron-bailie, or, in other words, was chief magistrate; and that, finally, he died in the year 1734, at the age of ninety-two years.
Thomas Watt had two sons. The elder, John, followed, in the city of Glasgow, the occupation of his father. He died in the year 1737, at the age of fifty, having executed a chart of the course of the river Clyde, which was subsequently published under the direction of his brother James. This last named individual, the father of the celebrated engineer, was, during the quarter of a century, councillor, treasurer, and bailie of Greenock, having declined the office of chief magistrate, and was celebrated for the ardent zeal, and the enlightened spirit of improvement, with which he discharged his duties. He was a pluralist (and let no one be alarmed at these three syllables, which have now in France become the object of general anathema; they injure not the memory of James Watt), -he combined three different kinds of occupation; he furnished the several kinds of apparatus, utensils, and instru
* On his gravestone he is designated "Professor of Mathematics."-EDIT.
ments which are necessary for navigation; he was also a builder and a merchant; notwithstanding which, towards the close of life, he unfortunately suffered severely from some commercial enterprizes which deprived him of a portion of that honourable fortune he had previously acquired. He died at the age of eighty-four, in the year 1782.
James Watt, the subject of this Memoir, was in infancy an exceedingly delicate child. His mother, whose family name was Muirhead, was his first instructor in reading, whilst his father taught him writing and arithmetic. He also attended the elementary public school at Greenock; so that the humble grammar schools of Scotland may boast of having educated the celebrated engineer, in the same way that the Collège de la Flèche was wont to enumerate Des Cartes; and Cambridge to the present day prides itself on Newton. To be minutely accurate, however, I ought to add, that habitual indisposition interfered with young Watt's regular attendance at the public school of Greenock; and that, for a great part of the year, he was confined to his chamber, where he devoted himself to study, without any extrinsic aid. As often happens, his superior intellectual faculties, destined to produce such valuable results, began to develope themselves in retirement and meditation.
Watt was so delicate that his parents did not venture to impose any thing in the shape of severe tasks upon him; they left him very much at liberty in the choice of his occupations, and it will be seen he did not abuse the indulgence. A gentleman one day calling upon Mr Watt, observed the child bending over a marble hearth, with a piece of coloured chalk in his hand; "Mr Watt," said he," you ought to send that boy to
a public school, and not allow him to trifle away his time at home." "Look how my child is employed, before you condemn him," replied the father. The gentleman then observed that the child had drawn mathematical lines and circles on the hearth. He put various questions to the boy, and was astonished and gratified with the mixture of intelligence, quickness, and simplicity displayed in his answers He was then trying to solve a problem of geometry. Influenced by his parental solicitude, Mr James Watt very early put a num.. ber of tools at the disposal of the young scholar, who very soon used them with the greatest possible address. He would take to pieces and again put together the various toys that came within his reach, and he was very active in making new ones. Somewhat later he undertook the construction of a small electrical machine, whose brilliant sparks became a lively source of amusement and surprise to his young companions.
Watt, with an excellent memory, might, nevertheless, not have peculiarly distinguished himself among the youthful prodigies of ordinary schools. He never could have learned his lessons like a parrot, for he experienced a necessity of carefully elaborating the intellectual elements presented to his attention, and nature had peculiarly endowed him with the faculty of meditation. Upon the whole, Mr James Watt augured most favourably of the nascent powers of his child. Some other of his more distant relatives, less discerning, did not share in these hopes. His aunt Mrs Muirhead, sitting with him one evening at the tea-table, said, "James, I never saw such an idle boy! Take a book or employ yourself usefully. For the last half hour you have not spoken a word, but taken off the lid of that kettle and put it on again, holding now a cup and now a silver spoon over the steam; watching how it rises from